by Byron Spooner, January 12, 2017
As soon as my wife Judy and I decided to go to Chicago for our vacation I started talking about going to Hammond. Judy understands all too well that some obsessions last a lifetime and had no problem with my addition to our itinerary. You could immediately tell those who were from the Midwest from those who weren’t by the way they wrinkled their noses and said “Hammond? Why the hell would you want to go to Hammond?” Despite the skepticism we took a day, after a long weekend of rubbernecking at Chicago’s skyscrapers, and headed southeast until we crossed into Indiana.
Flat and skyscraper-less Hammond, Indiana, is the childhood home of Jean Shepherd, one of the great humorists of last half of the Twentieth Century. Radio raconteur, writer, occasional TV personality, he was right up there with Benchley, Perelman, Thurber and all those guys. His particular hero was fellow Hoosier humorist George Ade, whose only book-length collection Shep, as his fans called him, edited and introduced. From the 50’s well into the 70’s and beyond, covering the Northeast from Philadelphia to Boston, out of WOR studios in Manhattan, Shepherd delivered a nightly, unscripted monolog that combined humor, satire and social commentary, improvised music—nose flute, Jew’s harp, head knuckling—army stories and childhood reminisces into a fantastical midnight stew of improvisation that would swirl in a boy’s sleep-deprived mind all the next day despite his teacher’s pleadings to pay attention.
As did many a child at that time, I used to lie in bed with my transistor turned way down listening to his broadcasts—performances more closely related to jazz than any known form of comedy—and picture Shep’s neighborhood and the characters that inhabited it as he described them every night. They were as real to me as the people in my own neighborhood and twice as lively. I pictured his drunken Polish neighbor, climbing the porch steps and getting nearly to the top before tumbling to the bottom and starting up again, his wife quietly calling encouragement from inside; a small-scale American myth of Sisyphus. This guy was a lot like my Old Man’s friend Foster who had fifths of vodka delivered to his front door, back when liquor stores still delivered, while his wife was at church ‘fingering her beads’ and praying for his salvation. He’d lie in bed and drink, smoking his Parliament 100s and setting his mattress afire every two weeks or so. When I got into my teens I’d bum the Parliaments from him to the eternal annoyance of the Old Man. I pictured Shep’s perennial pals, Flick, Schwartz and Bruner and the alley out back where they found all kinds of wondrous flotsam, including the discarded Ovaltine can that, in one of his best-loved stories, turned out to be Shep’s gateway to the Little Orphan Annie Secret Society and an important life lesson. As Shep would describe it, I’d picture his father—his ‘Old Man’—roaring up and driveway in a ten year old Oldsmobile or a Dodge in need of a ring job, reading the sports page at the chipped enamel kitchen table, white-knuckled with rage that the White Sox had once again traded away “the only true ball player” on the team. Similarly, my Old Man would roar up our driveway in his Chevy Handyman that someone had painted with a brush and beige house paint, heaving like a Sherman tank attacking a Kraut pillbox as he hit the hump at the foot of the driveway. You could almost see Nazis scattering in all directions. Shep blended minor tragedy into the humor. He is best known for writing and narrating the movie, “A Christmas Story,” that telescoped highlights from many of his oft-repeated stories into one narrative: the time ‘4293 blueticked Bumpus hounds roared through the screen door in a great, roiling mob’ and stole the Easter ham right off that same kitchen table; the net-stockinged Nehi lamp in the shape of a woman’s leg, the ‘major prize’ immortalized in perched in the front window and later carelessly smashed when Shep’s mother, dressed in her perpetual “rump-sprung Chinese red chenille robe,” dusted a little too close to it; and the Red Ryder BB gun he received for Christmas.
* * *
“Let’s head downtown,” the Old Man said, “I have a feeling something might be up in the Village,” and I knew he had something special up his sleeve. My mother needed the Handyman so we grabbed a Red-and-Tan Bus across the George Washington Bridge and descended into the depths of the subway at the Port Authority Bus Station.
The Old Man had a way of saying ‘the Village’ that made it sound as though it was Shangri-La, Oz and Sodom all rolled into one. In those days, fifty years or more ago, the Village hung suspended in an atmosphere of quivering anticipation. Unlike the brass-band clang and bang of midtown, it exuded a soft-shoed excitement that wafted sleepily out the doors of the cafes and bars, out of the alleys and side streets, a nervy, slightly smug, feeling of being on the cutting edge; a muted trumpet, a snare caressed by brushes. The Village was a very different neighborhood from Madison Avenue where the Seagram’s Building, the skyscraper the Old Man worked in, would glower over us like an annoyed mother. Instead of scary, towering buildings forming glittering canyons, the Village was built on a scale even a kid could handle—low buildings, all no more than five or six stories high, narrow streets. Trees shaded the sidewalks and people seemed friendlier than in midtown. A few of the streets were still cobblestoned and there were vendors who still sold produce from horse-drawn wagons. There weren’t all kinds of horns blowing or people hollering at each other.
We got off the A Train at West 4th Street and came up the stairs and emerged onto a wide avenue.
“They renamed this ‘Avenue of the Americas’ a couple of years ago but real New Yorkers just call it ‘Sixth Avenue,’” the Old Man said, “probably always will.”
We wandered over to McDougal Street, taking our time, walking past cafes and bars, mostly shuttered or, if open, largely empty at midday. The Old Man told me these were the hangouts of Jean Shepherd’s people, the people who tuned in every night, his beloved Night People.
“These joints don’t really come alive until after dark,” he said, “We’ll be home by then. Wouldn’t want to be late for dinner, now would we?” And I could tell he wanted nothing more than to be late for dinner.
We strolled through Sunday-quiet Washington Square Park to hear the bongo players and the beatniks playing their guitars and spouting weird poetry. The Old Man pointed out the guys playing chess in the shade.
“The Village always reminds me of Europe,” he said. He’d ‘marched across Europe’ during the war which didn’t sound like a particularly good way to see a whole continent, but he referred to the experience constantly, figuring it was probably the only time he’d ever get there.
We found Shep right where he’d said he’d be, holding forth from the stoop of a brownstone right off the park. He would announce impromptu appearances like these on his show the night before. On this day he worked without a microphone. No props. No Jew’s harp, no kazoo, no head thumping. We listened and watched as he worked the crowd—no more than fifty mobbed around him on the sidewalk—exchanging badinage with guys who looked like they’d just come from auditioning to be in Peter, Paul and Mary; goatees, tall and skinny with ties and sports jackets.
All the while we worked ourselves slowly, subtly forward. I was in the lead; the Old Man guiding me with his fingers planted firmly in the small of my back, into narrow, nearly invisible, fissures in the crowd which I would step into and widen ever so slightly, just enough to for him to insinuate himself into and widen the space a little more. We repeated the process over and over until we’d worked our way into the front row. No one seemed to notice. Right away Shep spotted me in the front row, stepped down from his perch and picked me up by my armpits, swinging me high over the heads of the adults.
“Your biggest fan,” the Old Man said his grin never wider.
“And my youngest,” Shep said back with a big grin of his own as he planted my butt on the wide concrete railing at the top of the steps. I gazed up at him from the best seat in the house. He wore dark slacks and an open corduroy sport coat, a worn white shirt, no tie. It was like running into Jesus at the diner out on Route 46, or bumping into President Johnson down by the tracks scrounging for discarded porno magazines, bottles with a swallow left in the bottom and cigarette packs with one left.
“Listen, gang,” Shep said, resuming his monologue which was sprinkled with references to Chet Baker and Jackson Pollack, Thelonious Monk and Norman Mailer. I had only the vaguest idea who these guys were but I figured they had to be hip or Shep wouldn’t have referred to them. He called girls ‘chicks,’ and lampooned the phonies, the non-New Yorkers, who carried around copies of the Village Voice and Playboy under their arms to enhance their hip image. He waved his arms around as he talked and paced back and forth on the top step, never holding still. He talked about ‘slobs,’ the people who stood in the middle of Columbus Circle and took pictures of the statues while wearing Bermuda shorts and banlon shirts, their mouths hanging open. People who thought Mount Rushmore or The Sound of Music were great art and believed what advertising told them.
“Out there, in the darkness...across the Hackensack River…beyond the last Howard Johnson…” he said. We lived a couple of blocks from the Hackensack! We’d been to Howard Johnsons! I just looked at him with a huge grin across my face. There was no other response available to me; I didn’t know how to act cool like everyone else, to look detached and jaded. All I wanted from that moment on was to be as hip, as funny, as cool as Jean Shepherd and though I hadn’t the vaguest idea of how to go about that, this seemed like a good place to start. I wanted to live in the Village and hang out in cafes and listen to jazz and bullshit with Norman Mailer. The last thing I wanted to do was to end up being one of the guys with the Playboy under his arm; being as cool as Jean Shepherd seemed an impossible ambition.
“The darkness” was how he referred to any place that was not New York City. Manhattan, especially the Village, was, by Shep’s lights, the ne plus ultra, the only place any sane person would want to live. On the way over, the Old Man had showed me Patchin Place, the alley in the very heart of the Village where Shep lived.
Shep went on, describing what it had been like to see New York for the first time, an experience he’d had during his hitch in the Army. He felt sorry for Easterners who were inured to the city, had never been awe-struck by its epic scale and titanic beauty. He told more stories and did a five-minute satirical encounter between Mayor Wagner and Representative Lindsay that I didn’t understand though the crowd was roaring by the time he was done. He told another Army story and another short one about Flick, Schwartz and Bruner and you could tell he was winding up.
“Excelsior, you fathead!” he roared and the crowd roared it back.
“Keep your knees loose,” he said with a big wave and trotted off. I figured he had to meet Jack Kerouac for lunch or something.
* * *
Our guide book talks about the revitalization of Hammond led by the city fathers, featuring giant pieces of art by Dali and Chihuly plopped into the middle of the civic center, close against a ‘historic’ downtown street inhabited by new galleries, cafes and shoppes. I picture consultants in two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar shoes advising the local pols—probably a barber with a populist streak and junior high vice-principal who watches Fox News, maybe a city contractor looking for a fresh hustle—on just what kind of middle-brow art to spend thousands of taxpayer dollars on in order to elevate the cultural life of Hammond and maybe attract a tourist or two. The guide book makes no mention of Jean Shepherd.
Despite these resuscitative efforts, once you get a block or two away from the art works the town is heavily boarded up and what’s still open is shabby and crappy, falling apart. The industry is mostly gone. Some of the steel mills out around Gary are still operating but not at the same level they once did. Shep described them as enormous things, industrial behemoths that blackened the sky with smoke, belching (a favorite word of his) fire and heat twenty-four hours a day. Today you can spot the occasional active smokestack on the horizon but most appear dormant. The guide book says Hammond was named for a guy who moved there in the 1870’s and opened a meat-packing plant. Jean Shepherd tells it better:
Ours was not genteel neighborhood, by any stretch of the imagination. Nestled picturesquely between the looming steel mills and the verminously aromatic oil refineries and encircled by a colorful conglomerate of city dumps and fetid rivers, our Indiana town was and is the very essence of the Midwestern industrial heartland of the nation… According to legend, it bore the name of a hapless early settler who had arrived on the scene when the land was just prairie and Indian trails. Surveying the sparkling blue waters of Lake Michigan, he decided that Chicago, then a tiny trading post where land was free for the asking, had no future. Struggling through the quagmires farther south, for some demented reason now lost to history, he set up camp and invested heavily in land that was destined to become one of the ugliest pieces of real estate this side of the craters of the moon. Indeed, it bore some resemblance to the moon, in that the natives were alternately seared by stifling heat in the summer and reduced to clanking hulks when fierce gales blew off the lake. Our founding father set the pattern of futility for future generations.
Judy and I stop for lunch at “Harold’s,” a sleepy place just up the road from the Dalis and Chihulys. Shep would’ve loved it; the kind of joint where you’re not sure if the “Since 1975” stenciled in the corner of the window refers to the year they opened or last time they changed the oil in the deep fryer. Our burgers, brought to us by a high school girl and cooked by a fifty-ish-looking guy in white T-shirt, go down easy.
Before we can start looking for Shep’s ancestral home we have to wait a full ten minutes, under the eyeless gaze of the ‘THINK HAMMOND’ water tower, while an indolent freight train crosses our path, hundreds of tank cars full of God-knows-what concoctions—acids, solvents, syrups and poisons—and empty boxcars with their doors hanging open. I watch it go by with the same feeling I’d had watching the wildebeest migration in the Serengeti; we are witnessing something that has been going on long before we got here and will continue on long after we’ve gone.
We park across the street, approximately, I imagine, where a drunken Ludlow Kissel had famously, in a story Shep told just about every Fourth of July, set off ‘the dago bomb that struck back’ on a hot Independence Day back during the depths of the Depression. I am surprised and not surprised at how accurate my childhood imagination proves to have been, how close the neighborhood looks to the way I’d imagined it; and how much it resembles the one I’d grown up in. Then again, how many variations are there on the one-family working class house? Still I’m amazed at how accurately Shep got the landscape of the neighborhood and of the dark times of his youth across over the radio.
We’re struck also by the ordinariness of the area. There are no Dago bombs going off, at least not while we’re there, no drunks struggling with the porch steps, no marauding hounds; just quiet people going about their business. Shepherd loved those quiet people and their quiet struggles. He exaggerated their absurdities, foibles and follies for the sake of laughs but never lost sight of their typicality, the ordinariness that made them quintessentially American. Perhaps one becomes a humorist, at least partly, to relieve the boredom of the quotidian, to escape the ordinariness of it all.
The revitalization of Hammond would’ve amused Jean Shepherd no end. He often observed that everything reverts to the mean, which is the truth, the mathematical inevitability, at the center of all satire—the efforts of humans are vain and doomed to fail, the bigger the ambition the more inevitable the failure. In the end we all revert back to being humans. The eighty-foot-high Dali reproductions and Chihuly glass objets decorate a wind-lashed and mostly deserted civic plain that closely resembles Dealy Plaza. There are no hordes of tourists in evidence, just us.
The neighborhood has changed some since Shep’s time, but not much, and not necessarily for the better or the worse, certainly in ways he never would have imagined. There are thousands of places like this all over the country, vast swaths of cheaply developed real estate that have fed, watered, nurtured and then slowly crushed generations of working-class aspirations. Some folks keep up a good appearance, mowing and trimming, others have let their places go to pot, but all the houses looked worn, as if weary of the homeowners’ feeble efforts to prop them up. There are a few defiant lawn signs, “Pence Must Go! (Your Jobs & Rights Could Be Next)” on one, “Proud Union Home” in front of the house that, according to the Jean Shepherd web site, once belonged to the Bruners. It was two weeks before the election but you got the feeling the signs had been there a good long time and would remain after, whatever the outcome. There are some African-American faces in the windows of the houses now—Shepherd’s world had been exclusively white. The cars parked out front are Toyotas and Subarus now instead of the Hupmobiles and Dodges of the ‘Thirties but they are all still rusted at the rocker panels and still ten years old. I suspect the basic stories haven’t changed much either; The American Dream, all dreams, deferred by the struggle to stay afloat.
Judy suggests we explore the area a little more and it pays off. Down the street we locate the Warren G. Harding Elementary School where Shep had “studied the principal exports of Peru” under the watchful, kind eye of Miss Shields. The city replaced the original school somewhere along the way, tore it down and supplanted it with a sixties-modern building that probably looks more anachronistic now than the one they replaced. The equally anachronistic appellation, named for the most corrupt President between Grant and Nixon, they chose, strangely, to retain.
Shepherd is often labelled, dismissed, and even reviled, as a conservative—the Old Man, a staunch Goldwater man, certainly thought of him that way—partly because he traded in a form of humor closely related to nostalgia. The myth of the American Golden Age, the longing after a rosy past that never existed, was a key element of Reagan-ism and the whole subsequent ‘aw-shucks’ shuck that followed, but Shep never had an overt political agenda; he was too much the dyed-in-the-wool iconoclast, too reliably sacrilegious, too instinctively the satirist for that. He came from an era when liberals and conservatives were still able to hear each other out, disagree with each other and still somehow manage to maintain a civil society, sharing the same city without having to shout each other down or crowd each other out. It was an era when ‘conservative’ wasn’t necessarily synonymous with bigotry and hatred. In that way Jean Shepherd inhabited an actual American Golden Age.
His old neighborhood, in what is still one of the most conservative states in the union, now looks riper than ever for some talented young smartass, some younger version of Jean Shepherd, to come along and start anew, spinning stories about the neighborhood and the latest, persistent Depression, making a new generation laugh through the dark times. Working people are working people and funny is funny, those things never change. If they decided tomorrow to re-name Harding School for Donald Trump or The Backstreet Boys and replaced the Dalis and Chihulys with Rube Goldbergs and Thomas Kincaids, Hammond would persist, stubborn and unchanged. All the grand-scale ambitions in the world is not going to make Hammond what it never was, but it still serves a good purpose nonetheless; I’ll bet that’s where the next generation, the next Jean Shepherds, will come from.