Once upon a time, in a place known as Humboldt Park, a little Princess lived with her father, mother and brother in a tiny flat above their grocery store. Irv’s Finer Foods was no fairy-tale kingdom, but for Irv Shapiro, owning his own business on Division Street in the 1940s was a shot at the American dream.
My friend Elaine Soloway was that little Princess. In her wonderful memoir, The Division Street Princess, she tells the story of her childhood, a story that never stops repeating itself, especially on Division Street. Elaine’s parents left Russia as children. As adults, they raised their two children in a neighborhood that had more than a little in common with a Russian shtetl.
Sure, they were Americanized. Elaine recalls her family listening to a Cubs game when Andy Pafko and his teammates beat the Phillies. But as they listened to the game her family was speaking half in English and half in Yiddish, and their store was filled with the smell of pickles, corned beef, and rye bread.
Life’s not so different today in Humboldt Park; instead of Yiddish, you hear Spanish on the streets. Instead of delicatessen foods, the storefront groceries stock Puerto Rican, Columbian and Cuban foods. And that’s why Elaine’s Facebook campaign to get her memoir selected for the Chicago Public Library’s One Book One Chicago Program makes so much sense. Her vivid, detailed account of the hardships as well as the joys of growing up in an urban ethnic neighborhood is the story of the lives of most Chicagoans, past and present.
Here is an excerpt from Elaine Soloway’s book, The Division Street Princess, which was selected as a Chicago Tribune Best Book in 2006.
“As we waited on the corner of Division and Campbell for a streetcar that would take us downtown to see the Big Man in His Field, an endocrinologist, I asked my mother, ‘Can I sit by the window?’
“‘Sure, who needs to see outside anyway?’ she answered, and we stepped aboard the red Pullman that stopped on tracks a few steps from the sidewalk. We were both wearing lightweight fall coats that day, ‘like Toni Twins,’ my mother had said when we fastened our buttons in front of the hall mirror. Her coat had padded shoulders and a hemline that swung gracefully at three-quarter length. My coat, the same navy blue color, stopped at my knees — a length preferable to its original hem that had tickled my ankles.
Once on board the streetcar, Mother took a quarter from her purse and handed it to the conductor who made change for the ten cent fare with the coin holder he wore on his belt. Then, with the car in motion, we lurched through the aisle until we found two empty spaces. After we landed on the cane-backed seats, I tugged at Mother’s coat sleeve and said, ‘Look, there’s Mrs. Schwartz, she’s going into the A&P.’
Mother turned to stare past me out the streetcar window towards the supermarket that had recently opened across from our grocery store. ‘Eggs, forty-nine cents a dozen,’ she read from a sign posted on the A&P’s giant windows. ‘Chickens, forty-two cents a pound,’ she continued, slowly shaking her head from side to side. Her padded shoulders sagged and she looked on the verge of tears as she turned her eyes from the window and focused on the coins the conductor had given her. I watched her open her pocketbook, fish out a small purse and drop the coins in. After clicking it closed, she pulled the handbag toward her chest, lowered her head, and said — in a voice I could barely hear — ‘We can’t even buy eggs for forty-nine cents. How can we fight them?’
“‘Why was Mrs. Schwartz going to the A&P?’ I asked. ‘I thought she was our customer.’
“‘When she has to charge, she’s our customer,’ Mother said, her voice as serious as the announcer on Helen Trent. I didn’t pursue the subject further, for I knew the store’s traffic was a sore point, so we sat silently as the A&P shrunk, then disappeared from view.”
If you’d like to support Elaine’s campaign to get her book selected for the Chicago Public Library’s One Book One Chicago program, join her Facebook page and let’s make our voices heard.
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