Up on the Avondale Tracks

This photo is an iconic image from our childhoods

Following is a guest post by Ray Gehring, who grew up in the Avondale area in the ’50s and ’60s. This is a revision of an article previously published on April 15. 2013.

This photo of the Dad’s Root Beer plant along the Avondale stretch of the Chicago & Northwestern railroad tracks is an iconic image from our childhood. The sign on the left was one of two large neon signs that shouted “home!” to us whenever we returned from vacation, or just a weekend out of town. The other sign was even bigger, a giant “rolling” neon Budweiser sign located a half mile farther down the tracks. Both logos are gone now, but in their day they lit the Chicago night sky.

Visible to all who drove the Kennedy Expressway at night – one a factory, the other a warehouse – these big, bold, authoritative logos represented our narrow world to the wider one. Seeing them at a distance was both thrilling and reassuring, as it meant that the world we knew was still there. That tomorrow, as our parents went off to factories not unlike the one displayed above, we’d be hanging out with our friends, playing endless games of Pinners, Fast-Pitch, Cork-Ball, Line-Ball and Murder Dodge at the schoolyard. Or looking for turtles down by the dirty banks of the Chicago River. Or hunting snakes up on the railroad tracks. Maybe climbing up onto the freight cars lined forty-deep in the heart of the freight yard between Kedzie & Kimball. Or just hanging out on some corner, laughing and joking, living for today. Whatever we’d be doing, seeing the Dad’s and Budweiser signs gradually come into view meant that we were home, back in the best city and the best neighborhood a kid could ask for.

The Avondale tracks played such a major role in our lives. As in any neighborhood with a freight yard running through it, there were concealed slits cut into the fencing at key junctures along the fence route. But we were kids, rather than walk to a hidden opening we simply scaled the 8 foot fence, barbed wire and all. The small fence that you see in the photo above is not the type of fence that I’m referring to. The fences that we scaled were high and topped with barbed wire. The fence in the photo is low and has no barbed wire because it’s running along (what is today) The Kennedy Expressway, where pedestrians aren’t allowed.

One place where we went over the fence was in the alley that ran between Albany Avenue & Troy Street, just north of Roscoe. Another good spot was the old coal-yard fence at Cornelia & Sacramento. Both access points are gone now, gentrification having turned coal yards and railroad trestles into condos, strip malls and office complexes. And while it’s fashionable to suggest that on nights when you have only the alley cats and the stately Elston Avenue moon as your guides you might still catch a glimpse of the old places, what’s fashionable ain’t what’s true. There are no ghosts out of times long gone in Avondale, no vestiges of decades past; redevelopment leaves nothing in its wake.

Once up on the Avondale tracks you could walk southeast all the way to downtown, or northwest all the way to Wisconsin. If you went southeast the neighborhoods quickly got worse; soon you were in the type of white ethnic inner-city slum that mid-century novelists and sociologists carved out careers from.

Today we chose northwest, not for reasons of safety, for reasons of snakes. We were hunting snakes today and there were more and bigger snakes northwest of us.

Along the way we took a few minutes at the old iron Elston Avenue bridge to check out the downtown skyline. Chicago’s downtown was ever-changing, always growing taller and more dense. At the Kedzie trestle we stomped our feet as hard as possible, working up a solid vibration that – mixed with the rumblings from the big American cars racing past down below – made the bridge vibrate. Past Kedzie now, for a brief moment factories & warehouses on both sides, but soon the walls fell away and the whole world opened up.

We had entered the Avondale Freight Yard, a massive expanse of city railroad easement filled with trains from all across the country. You could hang in the yard for hours, branching out and exploring wherever the tracks took you. Oftentimes, especially in summer, that’s exactly what we did. We played in the freight yard after breakfast until lunch, after lunch until the bells of St. Veronica told us it was dinner time.

Inside the yard were trains from everywhere. Many were “staged” for a period of time, a night or two, perhaps a week. As kids we’d heard rumors about what was on these trains. All sorts of stuff, it was said. Food, clothes, toys, pinball machines, furniture, building materials, auto parts, sports equipment, even musical instruments. But of paramount importance: liquid refreshment from The Anheuser-Busch Company, of St. Louis, Missouri. During the teen years, when we were greasers – juvenile delinquents in baggy grey work pants, black Army-issue combat boots and black or grey Cabretta leather jackets – we confirmed these rumors many times over. And if what Mark Twain said about stolen watermelon was true, well, it goes double for beer. But for now we were just kids, aged 9-12, and the tracks were still our special place for cutting school, catching snakes, smoking cigarettes, paging through stolen Playboy magazines, playing poker, crossing paths with hobos & Boxcar Willies, and watching teenage rumbles from afar.

We continued northwest through the freight yard, crossed the Kimball Avenue Bridge and walked down into a small swatch of Illinois prairie behind the Arvey paper factory. This little patch of littered ancestral grass and the occasional shade tree was filled with very large, very mean garter snakes.

There were garter snakes all along these tracks of course, and inside the freight yard too, but the ones behind the paper factory, with its dyes, glues and chemicals were true Midwestern monsters. They lived under leaking barrels of toxic waste and feasted on deformed baby rodents. In wintertime, any waste that had seeped into the ground close to the barrels would freeze into a yellow-green sludge. Sometimes, like a toxic caulking agent, the sludge would freeze over a snake hole, forming a nice yellow-green cap over the hole. Come Spring, we’d break the sludge into chunks with our pocket knives, often finding a sleepy snake still hibernating underneath. These beasts were huge: 3 feet long, fat and aggressive, with wide snapping mouths that held multiple rows of small but very sharp teeth. Inverted teeth, made that way by Mother Nature in order to “hang onto” their prey. The snakes that we caught behind the paper factory were exactly like the one in this video.

We’d catch them with bare hands, laughing at the bites. But when a big one bit you a price was paid. It started as a mild sting & bleed, lasting only a few hours. But soon the real torture: THE ITCH. A full week of non-stop, bacteria-infected snake-itch that no amount of Bactine or rubbing alcohol could alleviate; you had to beat it mentally.

The first time I heard about gangs was on these tracks. We were west of Kimball, in the prairie behind the Arvey paper plant, in the land where the big snakes roamed. It was just me and Larry O., hot on the trail of a large Midwestern garter that was heading for cover in the deep brush when four older kids emerged, Vietcong style, from an underground fort. Before we could turn and run they were on us.

Ugh… Frankie and his psycho pals. I knew Frankie, did not care to know his goons. They’d taken advantage of a natural gully to dig an underground fort and into a hill that sloped up towards the tracks. They’d covered their work with plywood and branches, making it indistinguishable from the natural brush. Frankie & Co. ushered us down into their lair of evil intent and we had us, as they say in New Jersey, a sit-down.

Their bastion was crowded and smelled of fresh earth. The side walls were fortified with large slabs of cardboard and the floor was also of cardboard. “Nice!” I thought, but kept the compliment to myself. They had flashlights for card and dice games and Pepsi bottles – some full, some empty – lined one wall. I knew stolen pop when I saw it, and I wanted one badly, my mouth dry as dust.

Frankie’s droogs helped us empty our pockets, so nice they were! Before leaving home I’d swiped two Kool Filter Kings from my folks, wrapped them in folded notebook paper and Scotch tape, carried in the back pocket so they’d bend but not break. Larry, who didn’t smoke, had brought me one of his old man’s Pall Malls.

Frankie wasn’t his real name. His real name doesn’t matter. What matters is that he was a legend in our neighborhood. Two years older and kicked out of every school in his own community, Frankie’s family found amnesty in ours. But so did his assortment of older brothers and all of their psycho pals from the old neighborhood. Seemed like every time you walked past Frankie’s house there was a gaggle of goons hanging out front. Some were family, others had walked up from the old neighborhood, where life was lived a lot closer to the bone. Me and Larry O. liked to think of ourselves as worldly and maybe a little tough. But compared to these guys we were Pillsbury Doughboys.

The droogs rifled through our stuff while Frankie dryly explained their need for money and smokes. “We’re fresh out. Had to give to my brother. You guys gonna bail us out, here?” Of course we agreed to help. After all, he was hurting and it was the right thing to do.

We didn’t have much money, a few pennies to place on the tracks when a train flew past. So they took our combs and cigarettes along with what little change we had. The money we expected to lose, and the comb tax was what it was, but the cigarette action was totally unacceptable. When I protested Frankie threw me a reptilian “whatta-YOU-gonna-do-about-it,” sneer. But then, just a few seconds later, he grew suddenly cooperative, almost gracious, agreeing to return one smoke each. It was as if he were rationing, looking to hurt but not injure. Frankie didn’t want to scare us off the tracks forever. He wanted to have a little good will stored up, so that the next time they jumped us we’d know it was just the inevitable cost of freedom. Larry later gave his smoke to me, so I had me a sweet two smoke afternoon.

But now Frankie put it to us, “Hey! Whadda youz two doin’ here anyway? Whaddaya, stoopid? Youz guys gotta get outta here now, Simon City is coming.”

“Simon City?” we repeated, having no idea what that meant.

“Yeah, they’re coming up from Nort’ Av’noo to rumble the Bellaires.”

“Koz Park is comin’ too Frankie,” one of the droogs added.

Koz stood for Kościuszko, a park named after the Polish general and located one mile southwest of the dirt hole we were sitting in. I knew Koz Park well. My oldest brother played for a softball team there and I often rode my bike to his games. I could clearly picture a group of a dozen or more young men marching across the softball diamonds and onto Diversey. They’d be marching east and would cross Diversey heading north at Lawndale. They’d then cut northeast through the big St. Hyacinth parking lot. Staying east on Wolfram they’d now head north onto Central Park. Cross Milwaukee Avenue and take a northeast dogleg through the Elbridge Avenue Fire Station parking lot. Now north up the alley to Belmont, cross Belmont at Drake and head straight east down Melrose. A quick left at Kimball and they’re here. Walking fast, boppin’ to the beat of the street, pounding fists into palms and occasionally breaking into a trot, they could cover the mile in ten minutes. I realized that we had a very good chance of seeing this rumble.

My thoughts were interrupted by Frankie’s concern for our safety “Yeah, Nort’ Av’noo and Koz Park are both comin’ and you guys are goin’. Ya got five minutes to scram. If those guys find you here they’ll stomp your faces into the ground,” Frankie let us know.

Well, I did not want my face stomped, into the ground or anywhere else. And I’m pretty sure that Larry O. didn’t want his face stomped either. But we did want to see Simon City. Simon City, what a name! Hollywood could not invent a name like that, it was far too cool. We wanted a glimpse of these bad-mofos. Hell, we’d have settled for a glimpse of the Bellaires, whoever they were.

Larry and I were released and told to go home. Of course, we didn’t. We hung around, just far enough out of sight to be forgotten. Hung around and around and around. Fifteen, twenty, thirty five minutes. Finally, we had to admit, there was nothing worth hanging around for.

We started back east towards our neighborhood, crossed Kimball at street level and climbed back up into the freight yard, with its hobos and trains full of beer. We walked slowly, aimlessly, with eyes trained steady on the south. We wanted a glimpse of these warriors from Koz Park and Nort’ Av’noo and we weren’t going down easy.

We came to a long line of cars and monkeyed our way to the top of a caboose, stood tall, peering south down Kimball all the way past Belmont to Barry. Nothing. No Simon City, no Bellaires. Just the hot sun’s rays, shimmering back up and into the atmosphere, like somebody had spread a fresh coat of shellac onto the streets below.

We sat on the roof of the car while I enjoyed the Pall Mall, saving the Kool Filter King for next. The sun was high and the roof was hot, but we were city kids and city kids never wore shorts; our legs did not burn. Finally after stubbing out the Kool on the roof of the car we came down.

There was now a new destination in mind. The hot sun had driven the snakes down in their dens until sunset, we had no coins to flatten under the barreling wheels of a passing train, seemed like the smartest thing to do was pick up our pace and get to where we could soak our heads under a hose, then see who was out at the schoolyard. I found a loose railroad spike in the weeds. They said that a Don Drysdale fastball clocked-in at one hundred miles per hour. I wound up slowly, deliberately, drew my arm back like a sling and delivered. CLANK! The spike made a satisfactory ring off the side of an empty car.

Ho hum. We never did see either gang that day. But over the years we saw plenty of action up on the Avondale tracks. Not gang fights, that was never our thing, other types of action. Most of it could and perhaps should have earned us stomped faces. Yet somehow, and I’m not really sure how, we always managed to emerge unscathed.

The Avondale tracks and their surrounding factories & warehouses were our wilderness, our playground, our clubhouse, our retreat from the world, our place to brag boldly and dream big. Today’s kids are kept indoors or shuffled from activity to activity by adoring parents. They’ll never know the freedoms that we knew. Nor will they know the feelings of optimism & security that comes from living in a country with factories and warehouses alongside its railroad tracks; a country that builds things.

Back then, within walking distance of these railroad tracks The Hammond Organ Company was pumping out the B3’s and C3’s, plus the L and M 100’s that gave geniuses like George Gershwin and Jimmy Smith (from Blue Note Records) their signature sounds. Indeed, every serious organist from Felix Cavaliere to Stevie Winwood used a Hammond. And if you were a drummer, both Ludwig and Slingerland were just two beats down the street from Hammond. Florsheim was stamping out shoes known for their quality, as was their competitor, Stacy Adams. Mars Candies was busy cooking up Snickers & Milky Way Bars, and Schwinn Bicycles were rolling off the assembly lines faster than Americans could ride them away…

Good jobs and two political parties in Washington that worked together for the common good. How’s that for a country? People who settled their differences civilly. Sure, you might get dragged down into a dank hideout that smells like a grave. And those who did the dragging might even recite a laundry list of all the bad things bound to happen, if you don’t bail ‘em out. They might rifle through your pockets. But they always left you with something. You walked away with a few smokes, a little hope. These Sharpies nowadays… they ain’t leavin’ you with nothin’. They want it all and they’re taking it. The only thing you’re gettin’ is the bill. The bill and that gnawing, worm-like, uniquely American sense of dread.

Today, the lone remnant from the old Dad’s Root Beer plant that once employed hundreds is the turret, which serves as historical centerpiece for a swanky new condo complex. I don’t know what became of the Anheuser Busch warehouse, or its massive, rolling neon Budweiser sign.

And nobody knows where the jobs went…

-Ray Gehring (ray.gehring AT gmail DOT com)

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