Title: Chicago Medium Rare:When we Were Both Younger by Robert J. Casey
Location: Internet Archive Date: 1949
So begins Robert J. Casey’s (1890-1962) recounting of life in Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century. Usually I would provide some biographical material on the author here, but have decided to post that information on The Journal next week. The reader might also note that the illustrations were provided by Ann and John Groth. More on Groth to be posted on The Journal also. In the meantime – enjoy the following story by newspaper man, author, adventurer, Bob Casey! This book is a treat I just had to share.
THEY were plowing up the last celery patch in Lake View to make room for Weiblinger’s saloon when Bad-News Tillie moved into Ashland Avenue near Cornelia Street. Her advent was considerably more spectacular than the unloading of Gentry Brothers’ Circus half a block down the street, and was reviewed with unmasked interest by all the kids of the neighborhood and most of the adults.
Tillie didn’t bring any moving van filled with the customary oddments of furniture generally revealed on such occasions. She was more practical. She appeared on the scene seated by the side of the driver of a steam roller behind which, on four stonemason’s trucks, was hitched a long, narrow, two-story house. Tillie’s possessions, whatever they were, remained where they had always been inside the house. And nobody got a look at them until long years afterward.
A moving crew got the house onto its waiting foundations before the day was out. In this work they were greatly encouraged by Tillie, who cursed at them with a spectacular vocabulary in English, Polish and German. When they had finished she chased away the observing children and retired through her somewhat accessible front door via a stepladder. The spectators then moved on to the circus which, after Tillie’s show, seemed to be lacking in savor.
Next day it became obvious that Tillie had come to stay. By the time the mannerly little children had gathered around she had a nondescript washing hung on a line in what was to be her backyard, and bricklayers were filling up holes in the underpinning of her house. Moreover, as determined by test, the ladder had been attached to the house with wooden cleats. Public interest waned rapidly.
The house, when it was permanently emplaced, looked like what it was a large square box, badly in need of the coat of paint it was never going to get. But Tillie had some eye for improvement. Maybe she found it inconvenient to get in and out of the place on a ladder. Anyway, at the end of the week a brewery truck arrived at her address carrying a spiral staircase of rusted iron.
Afterward came workmen who argued for a long time with Tillie about what they were going to do with the staircase. It was too long to serve the front door, the foreman mentioned in two languages. It couldn’t be cut off with a hacksaw because it was the wrong curve. It was going to look pretty ghastly no matter what was done with it. And he suggested that maybe she might throw the thing away and get somebody to make her some stairs and a porch out of wood.
Tillie solved the problem with the directness that the neighborhood was presently to recognize as her most charming characteristic.
“Run it up to the second floor and make a door out of the upstairs front window on the east,” she directed in German. “Then you can nail up the front door downstairs. I won’t be needing it.”
The foreman translated this order to his workmen and thereby let the neighborhood know what to expect. “She’s certainly going to have a fine-looking place,” he mentioned to give the message a personal touch. And he was right about that.
The result was something that people came from miles around to see. The little children would linger for hours just to observe Tillie making her exits and entrances. Unfortunately they were never around when she emerged at night swinging a lantern in front of her 200 pounds of bulk. John Spetti and Mike Mullen, conductors on the Ashland Avenue car line, who were frequent witnesses to this odd procedure, christened her place “The Ashland Avenue Lighthouse.” And the name stuck.
In time, from one source or another, we learned the name of our new neighbor. She was Mrs. Herman Gratzburg. She had come from Bowmanville. And she had a wispy little husband whose apparent object in life was to keep out of her way.
“He’s fine man,” Tillie told Mrs. Volk in the grocery store across the street. “He’s good to me. Never sticks around the house. Never bothers me. Just fine man.”
That was her last observation on the subject, but a few of the neighbors began to draw conclusions from what they could see for themselves.
Mr. Gratzburg sometimes got up enough initiative to get drunk at Schulze’s saloon no great distance away. But he never was sufficiently ingenious to enlarge on the program. He would come home, find himself unable to negotiate the winding stairs and sit all night on the bottom step. Next morning he would appear on the street with a black eye or a bandaged head. He worked somewhere as a freight-elevator operator, but nobody ever found out much about that.
Before coming to Ashland Avenue the Gratzburgs had lived near some carbarns in Clark Street and, whether because of this proximity or not, Tillie had developed a definite allergy toward streetcars.
There was a story that some conductor had once given her a misdated transfer or maybe had refused to accept a misdated transfer from her. There was a further report that in retaliation she had assaulted the motorman and broken some windows. These allegations were never proved. But it is true that she had been known to the trade in the old neighborhood as “Bad-News Tillie” for a considerable time.
She was some fifteen years in the Ashland Avenue Lighthouse and had an eventful life. Every now and then the police came from Town Hall station to arrest her for throwing rocks at passing streetcars or for one thing or another. But nothing came of it.
Tillie acquired a dog that seemed to have been trained to detest blue uniforms. But inasmuch as few trolley-car crewmen ever went by her house except in streetcars, the dog had a lonesome time of it. After a year or so in a mistaken moment he bit a policeman and died. The hazard of riding through the 3500 block in Ashland Avenue decreased from that day forward.
So, with little change in routine, the years went by until one night Herman Gratzburg made friends with a streetcar conductor named William Gavin in Schulze’s bar. When Herman decided it was time to go home Gavin escorted him not only to the foot of the iron stairs but all the way up to the second-floor door. A bucket of water barely missed him on his way down.
The next day, July 15, 1905, was to be memorable in the neighborhood. Tillie appeared in Volk’s grocery store and bought a bar of soap.
“He’s no good,” she told Mr. Fred Volk, the proprietor.
“Who?” inquired Volk.
“Herman, my old man,” explained Tillie patiently. “All the time with streetcar conductors he runs around. So now I guess I kill him.”
“So?” inquired Volk “And how are you going to do it?”
“With this,” said Tillie. And she held up the cake of soap.
Volk repeated the conversation with considerable amusement to everybody he saw that day, including the policeman on the beat.
But the next day he would have had difficulty reconstructing a smile. Toward evening of that day Mrs. Gratzburg was back in the store, looking fairly happy.
“Well, I do it,” she said. “The old man. Now he’s dead. No more streetcar conductors for him.”
Volk took a second look at her and called Town Hall station.
The police came. They found Herman in a bathtub with the back of his head caved in. It seemed likely that he had slipped on a cake of soap which they found underwater at the bottom of the
tub. A detective asked Tillie about it.
“Sure,” she said in German. “I guess maybe he slips on that. I try hard to fix him up again. But he don’t pay no attention to me. He just lies there.”
“And when was this?” inquired the detective.
“Three days ago,” said Tillie.
“Well,” snapped the policeman, “where’s that cake of soap you bought day before yesterday from Volk?”
“Oh, that,” said Tillie. “That’s right here.” And she produced the cake of soap from the kitchen sink.
So they buried Gratzburg. Then they took Tillie in for mental tests. And they turned her loose again.
At last reports she was living on a little truck farm near Bensenville.
“I like it here,” she reported to one of her old German friends. “It’s a nice place. No policemen, no streetcars, no streetcar conductors. And there’s no way you can get drowned in the bathtub
because there isn’t any bathtub. There’s just some water that squirts in from a thing up near the ceiling. And I wonder what those policemen wanted with me when Herman died.”
“I don’t know,” said the friend. And, for that matter, neither does anybody else.