Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Living in Chicago

© 2018 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

In August 1979, after leaving Australia and traveling five weeks in Asia and Europe, and then spending a week in the Washington DC area, I arrived in Chicago. Then, after a week in temporary housing, my wife and I moved into a 30-story apartment building. It was the first time I'd ever lived in an apartment, the first time I'd lived off the ground, and the first time as an adult I'd not had a car! It was our first place living in the US, and I was to start my first job there. It was also the first autumn after the big winter storm of Christmas 1978.

Prior to leaving Australia, I'd told my visa sponsor, Harvey, that I'd be interested in working on either of the east or west coasts of the US, but definitely not in the Midwest! However, after not working for a couple of months, and eager to get started on something challenging, when I arrived in DC, he informed me that the best fit he had for my skill set was a project in Chicago. Despite my earlier lack of interest in that area, I accepted the position. After all, what was the worst thing that could happen there, right?

Staying at the Y

We rode the overnight train from Washington DC to Chicago. On arrival, the only place we could afford to stay was the YMCA, right downtown. Were we broke? No, but we weren't too far from it, at least in terms of readily available cash! After our initial plan to travel from Australia to the US in two weeks went sour at the last minute, we'd replaced it with an open ticket that eventually took five weeks to complete. And while we saw and did a lot more in numerous countries, we foolishly had not made adequate financial-support provisions. While all the money from the sale of our house was Down Under in a bank account, we had no way to get at it. [Of course, this was well before the internet, on-line banking, and cash machines.]

As we needed more money to get started with our new life, Harvey gave me an advance against my first month's salary, and sent it in the form of a check in the first-class post. And that should have taken no more than two days to get there. While we were waiting, we went in search of a place to live, and we found a nice apartment that was suitable for a man whose name means King in Latin. The rental agent was very pleasant and understanding as we explained our temporary financial situation.

Well, don't you know, each day we went to the front desk for the check, and each day we were told, "Sorry; not yet!" Of course, we were getting quite desperate. Finally, we got the check; it had been delivered days earlier, but had fallen behind a desk in the office, so was mislaid for days, but it didn't know that. Don't you just hate it when that happens!

We finally had money, but only for a very short while. After paying the first month's rent plus one-and-a-half month's security deposit, we were back to having very little. On the one hand, we couldn't afford to stay at the Y any longer, but we almost couldn't afford to move into the apartment either! In hindsight, it was a ridiculous situation, but, hey, we were 25 and invincible!

[I can say with great certainty, that our week at the Y was nothing at all like the 1978 hit record Y.M.C.A. by the American disco group Village People.]

North Pine Grove Avenue

The location of our new home was half a mile inland from the western shore of Lake Michigan, near the intersection of Lake Shore Drive and Irving Park, at 4000 North. [In US cities, each block has up to 100 address numbers, so 4000 means 40 blocks. But of course, some blocks can be longer than others, although in many grids they are about the same length.] We were on the northern edge of a "nicer part of town". The building had 30-odd floors with about 1,000 residents. Clearly, that was more than the population of many towns!

The front entrance was manned day and night by one of several uniformed doormen. The doorman's job was to welcome people, help them with their luggage or shopping bags, and to hail a taxi with his whistle. I well remember Henry, the main guy on the day shift; he was very personable and was always positive.

Inside the expansive lobby sat one or more receptionists behind a counter, and they helped residents with issues, dealt with guests, and handled various administrative tasks. At the back of the lobby was a wall of mailboxes, of which there were more than 600. Packages that were too large to fit in the box were retrieved from reception. When I learned that the job of the mailman who served our building was to serve only our building, I was shocked. But when you think about it, sorting and delivering mail to 1,000 people at 600 addresses, six days a week (yes, mail was delivered on Saturdays back then, and still is today), certainly sounds like it could keep a person busy all day.

When I say that the building was self-contained, I mean, it was self-contained! There was a large indoor gym, table tennis rooms, meeting/function rooms, an outdoor pool, and several tennis courts. At ground-level, there was a White Hen Pantry convenience store, alongside a dry-cleaning shop. Underground were resident and guest parking garages and a gasoline pump. One could come home from work Friday night and not have to go outside again until the following Monday. And we did just that on a few very-cold-and-snowy weekends!

Home Sweet Home

Our apartment was on the 19th floor. Of course, we had elevators (AU: lifts), and I don't recall having to ever use the stairs up or down.

One entered the apartment through an entrance hall that had a large coat and storage closet. There was one large bedroom with built-in closets; a decent kitchen, complete with all appliances (including a refrigerator, which apartments in Australia often did not provide); a dining room connected to a large lounge room; and a bathroom with a shower over the tub, a vanity unity, some cabinets, and a toilet bowl. (Now that we were living in America, we could see firsthand why "going to the bathroom" usually meant "going to the toilet"; after all, the toilet was in the bathroom!) The place was tastefully carpeted. There were laundry facilities every few floors.

One thing I noticed very early on was that there was a phone jack in almost every room. In Australia, houses came with only one. What we'd heard was true after all, those Americans truly were decadent!

Back in South Australia, people paid (and still pay) rent by the week, so when we were confronted with having to pay by the month, in advance, we were shocked. $400 was a lot of money all at once! [We'd signed a 1-year lease that had a penalty for early termination.]

One lounge room wall was all glass, and it faced west. So, how was the view from the 19th floor? Ours was by far the tallest residential building in the neighborhood, so we looked down on everyone. The only trees we could see were at a cemetery way off in the distance. We were beyond the end of the landing path for one of the many runways at O'Hare International Airport (ORD), so at night we could see up to seven or eight planes on approach stacked up with their landing lights on.

[Ironically, that airport was significant to us before we knew we'd be living in Chicago. On 1979-05-25, American Airlines Flight 191 crashed moments after takeoff from ORD, killing all passengers and crew. What made this significant for us was that the plane was a McDonnell Douglas DC-10, the type we'd initially planned to fly across the Pacific with Air New Zealand. As a result, all DC-10s around the world were grounded, indefinitely. It took us some time to realize the impact on us, and by the time we did, the alternate flights across the Pacific were taken, so we went via Asia and Europe instead.]

Although I worked long/odd hours, not once in the whole year I lived there did I ever meet anyone on my floor! And I only ever met one neighbor, and she phoned before coming to our door to be sure to not inconvenience us. What I learned was that one could live among 1,000 people, yet still be alone, unless one made it a point to engage those around one. In fact, one story told was of a tenant dying in their apartment, but it wasn't until some days went by, and an unpleasant odor wafted out into the corridor, that they were discovered. Is that sad, or what?

Starting from Scratch

Some four months earlier, back in Australia, we'd been living in our own house that was filled with furniture, and driving two cars and a motorcycle. And here we were literally starting all over again. All we'd brought with us to the US was a large suitcase of stuff and two pieces of hand luggage. [A year later, we had another mid-sized case of supposedly important stuff airfreighted over, and some five years later, we filled a container with stuff we had in storage, which came by ship. This included a 1,000-book library.]

In the first week after we moved into the apartment, we had a couple of cheap aluminum folding beds, pillows, blankets, a few kitchen things, and some bathroom stuff.

So, how to get some furniture. At that time, Australia had its own credit card, Bankcard; Visa and Mastercard were not supported. Knowing that card would not be accepted abroad, weeks before we departed, we got an American Express card, and that's what helped us establish credit in the US. We went to Wiebolts Department store, and they sold us a queen-size bed with base, provided we paid cash-on-delivery. And as we didn't have any new cash for a month, we had to wait until then to take delivery of the bed. Once that happened, the store was happy to give us our own charge account, and we used that to buy a sofa-bed, a TV, a stereo, a dining table and four chairs, linens and towels, and several large indoor plants. Despite that, we kept the place rather Spartan; for example, the bed never did get a base, and the stereo and TV sat on a pile of house bricks we'd scavenged from somewhere.

We also needed to set up a bank account, but there were no banks in our neighborhood. As I'd be in the city each business day, I decided to find one near my workplace. Well, don't you know, one of the biggest banks in the US, Continental Illinois, was just around the corner, so I went there. [That bank went out of business in 1984!] I walked into this cavernous room with rows of tellers around several sides, each separated from their neighbor by a glass partition, and on top of each partition sat a brown plastic doe kangaroo, complete with joey in her pouch. Of course, it was a money box into which one could put one's spare change. And as a new customer I got one. [Thirty-nine years later, I still have it.] So why would a huge American bank have a kangaroo as one of its symbols? While on the one hand the bank served big business, on the other it served the little people as well, so it was a "a little bank within a big bank!" Surprise enough? Well, you might think so, but wait, there's more! When I asked about branches and where else I could make deposits or withdrawals, or do other business, they told me I could come to this head office, or to either of the other two branches the bank had. Say what? This huge bank had only three branches? Yes, and according to bank regulations at that time, while a bank could have branches, they had to be no more than 1,000 yards from the head office. Really! [In the US, banking in each state is controlled by that state's laws, and back then to stop big banks moving into small towns and markets, putting small and famers-and-merchants' local banks out of business, there were severe restrictions. I don't imagine that is still the case today.]

Playing Tourist Around Town

As I worked very long working hours, I didn't do a lot most weekends but rest. I did, however, visit the following: Opening Day of the baseball season at Wrigley Field to see the Chicago Cubs, a ride up into the clouds at the top of the (then) Sears Tower, Lincoln Park Zoo in winter to see how the kangaroos were handling the snow, the Chicago River dyed green for Saint Patrick's Day, Water Tower Place, the Chicago Art Institute, and Michigan AvenueThe Golden Mile, lit up for Christmas with trees wrapped in lights.

Going Out of Town

We managed to take a few personal trips out of town: snow skiing in Traverse City, Michigan; canoeing and camping on the Au Sable River, Michigan; and a visit to Washington DC then driving back from Detroit, where we visited the Henry Ford Museum. I also travelled a bit on business: to Indianapolis, Indiana; Columbus, Ohio, Lansing, Michigan; Salt Lake City, Utah; and San Diego, California.

Race in America

Although Australia was a large and growing melting pot of immigrants when we left, for the most part, people of different ethnic backgrounds got along quite well. Certainly, there were people from many eastern and western European, and Asian countries. Chicago was also a melting pot, with large groups of Polish, Irish, and African Americans, with a sizeable Jewish community. And the Federal Government (for which I consulted) hired a lot of minorities.

Two race-related situations come to mind: Derek, an African-American colleague planned to paint his apartment one weekend, and I said I'd go there and give him a hand. As I got closer to his neighborhood, I noticed that I was the only white person on the bus and then in the whole neighborhood, and the locals were eyeing me suspiciously. Well, I got there and back safely, but other colleagues told me afterwards they'd never even drive through that area for fear of breaking down and getting mugged!

The second event also involved Derek. We rented a car and I drove us to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where we stayed two nights with an uncle of his. The uncle was a very nice guy, and he took us to the neighborhood bar for a drink and some food. Of course, I'm the only white guy in the place, and after a while, I noticed how people at other tables were staring at me: "What's Whitey doing in our place?" Interestingly, all those people who actually came over to our table and met and talked with me became very relaxed and friendly, once they found out I was not a white American! Then, on the drive home, in suburban Chicago, the Police stopped us. We didn't ask them why, but we figured there were two likely reasons: We were driving a rental car, which happened to have out-of-state plates, and we were a black guy and a white guy traveling together, so we were probably up to no-good!

The Job

The US Federal Department of Labor had requested bids on a computer-related job, and, as often happens, the lowest bidder won. Never mind that the client had no expertise with the winning hardware, operating system, or software! A large company had a contract to supply IT staff, and I worked through them. The client had been waiting for some months to find qualified people, and was happy to have me, even if I did speak a little funny!

Five-to-six days a week, I rode the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) bus to and from work downtown at the Federal building at Kluczynski Plaza. [BTW, the original name of the popular rock band Chicago, was Chicago Transit Authority.]

My first project was to design and program an application to track apprenticeships in a 4-state region of the Midwest: Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois. I also wrote a user guide, and traveled to each state to train users who connected using a video terminal via a phone line and modem. The system I delivered was very well accepted, and became the model for a national system, replacing an antiquated and unfriendly one. I worked very long days, and often rode home after midnight on the CTA along with some very interesting passengers, some of whom were arguing with themselves!

My second project was for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), for a lab in Cincinnati, Ohio. It calibrated and repaired various kinds of instruments for Federal and State governments, as well as for private companies. They needed a system to track arrivals of equipment, the stages of the repair process, and the return shipping. They also dialed in over phone lines to use the central computer. That project also went very well.

For any old-time, computer nerds out there, here are the technical details of my computing environment: We had a Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) PDP 11-34 with 256 KB of memory, various small-capacity cartridge disk drives, a console terminal, VT100 screens, a line printer, a 9-track magnetic tape drive, and some 300-baud dial-in phone lines to which remote terminals connected via acoustic couplers. The operating system was RSTS/E V6, and the programming languages we used were BASIC-PLUS, DIBOL, and COBOL. [Although I'd used RSTS as a student, five years earlier, it was only as a novice user/programmer. Now I was The Man, the person who installed and maintained the O/S!]

Accents and Aussie vs. American English

For the whole year I was on the job, each week, we'd have a staff meeting, during which the head guy would ask for status reports. And each week when I spoke, he whispered to my boss, "What did he say?" I found this amusing given that many of the people working in the group were from the south side of the city, and spoke out the side of their mouths. I often had trouble understanding them! It seemed to me that they just assumed that as I was a native-English speaker that they should be able to understand me without having to pay close attention. They made allowances for others whose first language was not English, but not for me.

One weekend, we were with American friends in our apartment building and the topic of Rhyming Slang came up as an Australian thing. For example, bag of fruit means suit, trouble and strife means wife, and china plate means mate. [The challenge is that often the rhyming words get shortened, so china plate is reduced to china, which had no obvious rhyme-association with mate.] One person asked, "Do you have any terms like that about Americans?" To which we smiled and replied, "Yes, Septic Tank, Yank, which is shorted to septic!" They didn't think that was at all funny. [Aussies think that's hilarious. Besides, the more an Aussie likes you, the more he insults you! So, if an Aussie is insulting you, he either really likes you, or he really dislikes you; you decide.]

Chicago Politics and Government

Perhaps the most famous politician in Chicago was the long-serving Mayor, Richard J. Daley. He famously said, "Chicago is a city that works!" The winter before we arrived, his successor, Michael Bilandic, was golfing in Florida when the superstorm referred to earlier, hit. It's unlikely he could have done more than was done to manage the crisis, but he was ousted at the next election by a feisty woman, Jane Byrne, who served during our stay. Her promise was to move the snow if/when it came! And she did, although it was a very mild winter.

I recall that one time, the Chicago Tribune newspaper provided detailed coverage of all the murders that had occurred in the past month. During our year there, the school system, which was run by the city, went broke. A crime ring was caught that had been stealing radio equipment from police cars and selling it back to the Police Department! Although I wasn't out in the community all that much, over the year, I only saw police in action once, from a window in a high-rise building nearby, going down an outside subway entrance to deal with an incident. I recall that many police were quite obese, and some rode on three-wheel motorcycle trikes. [At the time, there was a popular comedy sketch showing a police officer shooting a suspect and then yelling, "Freeze!"]

Some Miscellaneous Stuff

Several unrelated things come to mind:

  • In Australia, FM/stereo radio existed, but there were almost no commercial stations allowed to use it. In Chicago, we had a wide range of such stations, with many specializing in a particular style of music. That suited us just fine! [BTW, Australia had, and still has, Federal-Government-run national radio and TV networks.]
  • Unlike in Australia where the phone company was Federal-Government controlled (and formerly joined with the Post Office), in the US, phone companies were private although there were near-monopolies. The year or so after we arrived, deregulation of that industry went ahead full steam. We had also been used to state-controlled electricity, water, and natural gas supplies.
  • Concrete beaches! Yes, large concrete slabs ran along the waterfront of Lake Michigan back up to where people sat "at the beach!"

Moving to the DC Area

As the end of our year was approaching, I made it clear to Harvey that I was ready to move on, and he found a great fit for me with an international IT company based in the planned city of Reston in Northern Virginia, 45 minutes from Washington DC.

Although we had arrived in Chicago with one case and two carry-on bags, we now had a 1-bedroom apartment full of furniture, household things, and numerous personal things. So, we rented a small moving truck and took three days to drive to the Washington DC area. However, the departure was not without incident. On moving day, I took the expansion leaf out of the dining table, and carried that table all the way to the freight elevator on our floor, where I left it to go back and get more things to fill up the elevator for the ride down to the truck. But when I came back, the table was gone. Unbeknown to us, it was common practice in the building to leave stuff one didn't want any more near the freight elevator, so neighbors who wanted it, could take it. After some hours of panic and investigation, we found the guy who'd taken it and he gave it back to us once we explained the situation. Thirty-eight years later, I still have that dining table, complete with expansion leaf, although the chairs have long since been replaced. The queen-size bed is now my guestroom bed, and I think I still have some bath towels, cutlery, and cookware from that time.

Looking Back

After we moved, a replacement for me wasn't yet in place, so I agreed to go back to Chicago for a month, during which time I stayed in a very nice hotel downtown near the waterfront, and walked to/from work each day.

I can't say that I ever missed the city, but then I was so busy with work that I wasn't really connected to the place. In any event, I'm always looking forward to the next adventure, rarely looking backwards. However, from 1989 to 1996, I did return to the area on a regular basis for a week at a time. In each of those visits, I taught a computer-programming language seminar at the nuclear accelerator facility FermiLab in nearby Batavia, but only once did I stop over to re-visit downtown Chicago.

Although I try to use direct flights as much as possible, from time to time I've been routed through Chicago's O'Hare Airport. It is the home of my main airline, United, whose gates occupy two enormous terminals, with an underground moving sidewalk with an art/color/light/sound show between them. If you are passing through those terminals, it's worth taking a look.