Life on the West Side

I liked Agnes,too. She taught me how to build card houses, using an ordinary deck of Bicycle playing cards. She had a very steady hand. One afternoon she successfully built a tower three stories high. The best I could ever do until years later was a two story structure that collapsed when I tried to widen the second floor.

Agnes had a loud, marvelous laugh. Her belly used to go up and down. It fascinated me.


I can remember February 14, 1929. That was the day AL Capone’s hit men walked calmly into a dingy South Chicago garage and machine-gunned seven rival mobsters from the George “Bugs” Moran gang. It was part of an ongoing gangland war for control of the illegal booze business. With big, black headlines, the newspapers called it the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

In an era when violent crime was not an exploited staple of the nightly news, as it is today, this vicious gangland killing captured the shuddering attention of the nation. We didn’t talk about it at school during class. But you can bet it was the hot subject of conversation the following day on our school playground, during recess.


I can remember February 14, 1929 for another reason, too. My mother’s divorce became final on that date—six months after the judge’s original decree, she said.

Neff decided to take her out on the town to celebrate. He announced they were going to Battisti’s speakeasy, which featured thick grilled steaks and French fries, freshly-made booze, a dime-size dance floor,Chicago-style jazz and Agnes Peterson as hostess—all for a price.

When they returned late that night, Gladys and I soon knew the evening had not gone well. Coming into the apartment, somebody loudly slammed the front door shut as if they were trying to knock it off its hinges. We jumped out of our beds with a start. The sitter hurriedly left. Loud arguing erupted.

My mother and Neff went at it, face to face. And it was ugly. Yet from what little I could understand that night, it all started over a spilled drink … or was it a thrown drink? I don’t remember. There must have been more to it than that.

This was the first of several quarrels between Neff and my mother that we were to overhear in the months to come. As Iremember it now, most of those hot sarcastic arguments seemed to center on the subject of money, or lack of.

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