Stuart Dybek’s characters are undoubtedly Chicagoans, often South Siders, loitering in parks and coin laundries, and humping down 26th Street in search of blood soup, the Palatski Man, funerals. His work depicts a city wearing social issues on its sleeve–from the banality of teenage boredom to the severity of racial tension and territorialism–that have remained relevant to contemporary Chicago. The son of a Polish immigrant, Dybek grew up in Pilsen and Little Village in the fifties, attending St. Rita of Cascia High School when it was located on 63rd and Western. He migrated north to study at Loyola University, Chicago, and as a young man returned to the South Side to work as a caseworker in Bronzeville.
I first got to know the work of Stuart Dybek in Iowa, where I was attending what could only be called “writing camp.” The image of PET Milk swirling in coffee–the introductory moment of a story that perspires with the heat of a Chicago summer–stayed with me for years after reading his 1984 short story “Pet Milk,” published first in the New Yorker and later in the 1990 story collection “Coast of Chicago.” When I moved to Chicago, his book “Childhood and Other Neighborhoods” introduced me to others who were coming into their own on the South Side and gave dimension to the places I was encountering for the first time. Dybek is the author of several other collections of poems and short stories, and has won numerous awards for his work, including MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships. These days, he’s a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Northwestern University, maintaining an adjunct professorship at Western Michigan University, where he taught for more than thirty years.
I went to meet with him in his apartment–carpeted, sparsely furnished, a guitar sitting in the corner–in Evanston on a gray day in late February, making the trek north from Hyde Park on the Red and Purple Lines. As he let me in, he was practically bursting with excitement about a young man in his class at Northwestern who had returned to class after being injured in a bicycle accident. “I get a kick out of that,” he said, smiling, “when a good story comes.” He’s got an easygoing demeanor that’s as contagious as his smile, and as we sat at the circular living room table–hastily cleared of papers–he led a two-hour conversation about writing the South Side.
How long have you identified yourself as a writer?
I have a little essay–actually it’s now a chapter of a book I’m working on–called “Ralston,” and it tells the story of me in fourth grade when I had my first glimpse of writing being something that was not English. Yet again, another accident: sitting at the breakfast table on a morning my mother was sick and having no one to make [me] breakfast, my father having left me a disgusting bowl of cereal called Ralston [from a company] that made dog food. And you could tell from smelling the cereal they did indeed. So I pitched it and the only thing left to do was the homework–which I did not–[I] wrote a little essay, an assignment on a loose-leaf piece of paper about Africa (which of course I knew everything). And in trying to describe the trees–the tallest things I’d ever seen was the skyscrapers downtown–[I] hatched the phrase, “the tree-scraped skies,” and a bolt shot through me. I had invented metaphor! I didn’t know there was metaphor to invent.
The experience was amplified because by that point I was a bad boy in class. I was going to parochial school and the nun was so amazed to see any homework, let alone a piece that came in with the “tree-scraped skies” in it, that she read it to the class. And though I wouldn’t have admitted it to myself the fact that there was confirmation to this feeling I had felt was pretty important to me. Now, did I immediately think “Ah, I think I’ll be a writer?” I didn’t even know there were writers. But something had sorted itself out about what language could do and it had nothing to do with spelling tests, diagramming sentences, or anything else.
I had that experience a few more times as I went through school, and the art form that I loved the most, that I was obsessed with, was music. [That] became clear to me at some point after working at sixteen in the premier jazz record shop maybe in the United States, a place called Seymour’s Jazz Records. It had thousands and thousands and thousands of albums…mostly 78s for collectors, that went all the way back to the early rolls. Over a summer I catalogued almost all of them, and it was maybe the primary act of education I’d ever had in my life. I was a different person after this summer. The difference was, I really began to suspect that I did not have enough musical talent to play the way I wanted to play, and when I finally admitted that to myself, writing kind of took its place and in doing so became my friend the way music had always been. I had walked around for years with music constantly in my mind, and there’d be a tune in my head, a lot of times self-composed, that I was sure I was going to play on my saxophone–and then I would pick it up and couldn’t play it the way I heard it. Hideously frustrating, and not only that but I was meeting people who could. That was the hard part. I hadn’t been given that gift and yet everything I knew and thought came through music. My thoughts about civil rights, my thoughts about love, my thoughts about America, my thoughts about foreign countries. It all started with something about music.
And so what happened was I began to write, and [in] the way I always had that music in my mind I had notebooks and I had stories and snippets of poems and lines and images and a line of dialogue and I think anybody who writes and keeps a notebook knows that feeling–it’s you, but it’s a different part of you that you communicate. And I’m not just talking about the diary experience. It’s not “Dear diary, Oh woe is me,” it’s something different about observation, and what you don’t realize as you’re doing it that you’re training yourself to observe, and creating a stronger relationship between observation and language. It isn’t that it isn’t there, but, you know, in other words, you’re turning memory into language.
You know, one day you’ll be riding on the El, and you’ll decide, “You know, I just remember some funny little story about my dad–I’ll just write that down.” It isn’t that people don’t do it without that practice, but creating the kind of habits in which you’re turning an experience into language that recreates the visual sense, the oral sense, it’s that transformative act that I think largely contributes to somebody becoming a writer and starting to think of themselves [in] that way. Because we use language for everything, in a way we don’t use painting. We use it for legal cases, we use it to put children to sleep, to wake them up, to write down our grocery lists–we do everything with it, in a way we don’t with dance, with music, or with painting.
And so when you begin that sorting-out process, one of the things that you’re doing to yourself is that you’re changing your relationship to all the things that language does, your relationship to language as an artistic medium, meaning that all the things that you need to know now are not necessarily things that you need language to do in your daily life–create dialogue, create scenic construction, create metaphor. You can live your daily life without that stuff, you can write your laundry lists and grocery lists and everything without scenic construction, but you can’t write stories without scenic construction. And that’s the really deceptive thing about writing. For such a long time, when you pick up an instrument, you just know that this is something out of your ordinary existence, and that you’re going to take lessons and that you’re going to listen to guitar players and you’re going to practice…you’re going to do all those things that are going to make you a guitar player. It’s not quite that clear with language as your medium, because you’ve been using it all along anyway.
I think one of the hardest things about writing is that there’s no established trajectory or fixed way to do it. It’s so subjective.
What are you working on right now?
Well, I’m writing a book about [St. Rita of Cascia High School on the Southwest Side]. It’s called “St. Stuart.” Yet again, I didn’t start out wanting to write a bildungsroman, but that’s what it turned into, and for me it’s impossible to write a bildungsroman without talking about St. Rita, which is where I went to high school. But I started out wanting to write something funny. But that located it at St. Rita’s as well…so, you know, the important thing to keep in mind is that I’m writing about something long gone. It’s not the same school by any stretch of the imagination, I’m sure it’s changed, but when I got there it was a real throwback to–I don’t even know what it was a throwback to. But first and foremost for me, when I left it I felt I had an awful lot of funny stories, or at least stories [that] you would be a lot better off in your life if you could laugh at them. I’ve never forgotten those stories.
I haven’t really worked it out yet but it it’ll be certainly novelistic in the sense that it will be about one character (me) and his family (mine) and his friends (mine), and it will be the same people chapter by chapter developing. It might be episodic, but it won’t be a collection of stories and it will move along a linear line of time. It’s not just about St. Rita; it’s a part of growing up in that South Side neighborhood and it’s really kind of a comic homage to that certain Chicago South Side mindset that is–at least, I hope people find it–funny.
What is the South Side mindset?
In a way the answer to it is what I’m trying to write in this book. I think places have their own humor–so Mississippi humor is different from Lower East Side of New York humor. It’s kind of hard to define them, but you know them when you hear them. You know one good example, it’s not the kind I’m mining, but you know the old Saturday Night Live “Da Bears” skits [where] they were eating this horrific fatty food and kept having heart attacks? That’s South Side humor. The ethnicity of the South Side, in which different neighborhoods are identified [as] different neighborhoods, that’s an element. [And there’s] something I think of as “loserhood”–I’ve written about it before in a story called “Blight,” where there’s a certain kind of a badge of honor of how much can you take, and it’s certainly not just germane to Chicago. I think it’s an ethnic quality.
Do you think that kind of toughness has to do with immigration?
Yes. Absolutely. The other thing is that…if you compare American literature–it’s not that American literature is disinterested in class, but the extent to which it is is I think arguably less so than say, British literature, or a lot of European literature–Americans are sometimes very uncomfortable with that notion, you know, we’re supposed to be a democratic country, you know, it might entertain us about the royals in England but we wouldn’t want them here. Whereas the English have deep affection for them and are obsessed by them. But I found class to be a huge feature in growing up and a determining one both culturally and politically, and so I’m interested in writing about it.
[But] when you write about a neighborhood like Pilsen and Little Village, if you just write about the way things are you will automatically be writing about the great themes. You don’t have to put that in there. In fact if you try to overlay it you’re making a big mistake, because the beauty of the subject matter is that naturally arising from it rather than imposed upon it are the themes of assimilation, immigration, class, ethnicity, race, minority culture, religion, you know all those things…they’re as natural as breathing the polluted air–and it was polluted.
You’ve referred to yourself before as an urban writer.
Well, it’s just really a matter of what you’ve written about the most. Writers don’t write in a vacuum. You’ve got Bellow staking out Hyde Park and James Farrell staking out the Irish South Side at one time years ago, and Algren staking out the Polish section along Milwaukee Avenue. And if you’re writing fabulism you’ve got Borges in Buenos Aires and Kafka in Prague. I teach in Prague in the summers and one of the first things everybody who goes there suddenly says [is], “Oh! I thought he made it all up!”–And there it all is, the castle and the twisty labyrinthine streets and he didn’t make any of it up! I mean, he might have made that bug, I don’t know. So a lot of the writers who influenced me in some ways were “urban writers,” but I’m also a writer of place.
I’m wondering if you could tell me a bit more about your neighborhood and your own personal geography. One of my favorite stories from “Childhood and Other Neighborhoods” is “The Long Thoughts,” where you have the two guys wandering through the street at night, and when they part ways one has a longer walk than the other. It’s as if walking through a space, or enjoying a neighborhood, or even just getting home relates directly to their consciousness of their own experience.
No it does, absolutely. That relationship one has with place in a city expresses itself in a sense of the streets. The funny thing about growing up in an American city as opposed to, say, a European city, is when you go to Rome, that city is always in some form or another in excavation…the sense of long history is so palpable and that’s really far, far less true in an American city. Instead of excavations we just tear stuff down and build on top of it. What happens when you grow up in a neighborhood is that you do your overlays on top of it. And Bergson talks about [this idea] that human beings are clocks and we have all these different levels of time within us. One of the things that happens in some of those stories–I think “The Long Thoughts” might be one of them–[is] you get these overlays of memory and narrative, so when you’re walking down 26th Street, it’s not just one walk, it’s all the walks you’ve taken down 26th Street. There’s a story in a later book–called “Hot Ice,” in a book called “Coast of Chicago”–that I think has a big sense of that built in, and how much of a city is composed of the memory of its inhabitants, that it’s almost as much of a substance as brick and concrete. When I go back to visit my neighborhood it’s very much that for me, you know I see what’s there now, which I like and which I’m comfortable in, but I can’t walk those streets without also walking through time. And it’s not like I go there to ponder memory or to meditate or anything–that’s just the way memory is. I always think of that as an intrinsic part of writing.
Do you go back to Pilsen often?
Oh, I even keep my menu right on hand [indicates Nuevo Leon menu].
Yeah, I love the food. I just love going over there, it’s great to go for breakfast. I miss the faces. I mean, really great faces…I used to be starved for it at one point, living in Michigan. No matter how long I’ve lived anywhere else, I never really quite had that deep sense of being home as I do in Chicago.
What were some of your favorite places in the neighborhood?
I loved industrial landscapes. The odd thing was, I was living in an urban area and I constantly looked for non-urban places. And that notion has continued to fascinate me all through life, these little hidden purlieus of nature, that no matter how much steel and concrete you pour, somehow nature finds its little hiding nooks.
I was an amateur entomologist and a butterfly collector, which wasn’t the kind of thing you wanted to air about in an inner city neighborhood. You didn’t want to be seen running around with a butterfly net, so I would hide my butterfly net. But the neighborhood was hugely industrial–laced with railroad tracks, still is; the Sanitary Canal runs through it–so there [was] the river, and bridges, and then there were a lot of factories that had considerable amounts of acreage surrounding them, mostly fenced off, and several of them bankrupt and shut down, and the land had gone back to seed and those were indeed my favorite places.
Somehow, there was something so subversive about going there–one is that you weren’t supposed to be there, they had all kinds of urban legends about scary people who lived there and railroad dicks who wanted to shoot you with things called pepper guns, shot guns filled with salt pellets. And then the trains rambled through endlessly and one of the things we did all the time is learned how to ride them, we’d hitch the trains and treat them like they were amusement park rides. It’s very easy to get on, and it’s much harder to get off.
And the bridges were in some cases like gigantic jungle gyms. [Henry Miller has] got this line: no matter what you do later in life, you can get on a boat and like the character in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” sail to the heart of darkness. Adventure will never be as adventurous as being a kid in the Bronx or Brooklyn. And when I read that it was really one of those shocker recognition paragraphs because I really, enormously enjoyed that sense of running wild in the streets. It was a far more permissive area. You never were asked about the crazy things that you were doing. Some of the best swimming I ever did was on a bridge over the Sanitary Canal. That probably was one of the most polluted bodies of water that you could find on the planet.
Now that’s the point of view of somebody who had the parental support to get an education and make it out of that neighborhood, because there’s a whole different point of view. I mean it’s the same neighborhood, just rife with gangs–it can be a real dead end as well, so I don’t want to give the impression that it was necessarily this hugely benevolent place.
How did you rise above any social pressure to join gangs or get involved in that kind of activity?
Fear. I knew I was not a tough guy, number one. Number two is that the place was nowhere near–it didn’t even begin approaching–how ganged up things were. Heavy drugs were considered pot. The big problem on the street in those days was alcoholism. Every corner had clutches of men who all they did was drink. I don’t know how they supported themselves. Died young. So the heavy drugs that would later come in and result in an industry that makes prohibition look small-time were really not there yet, and the guns to defend all that money that is available to be made.
You know when I grew up, it was an era of zip guns, or somebody might have had a .22. The only kid I ever saw shot was shot with a .22. He lived. You know there were knives and stuff. So in that sense I was in an area that I could see heading in that direction but I was out of there before it had crossed that border. There were already at that time areas of the city where that was going on, but Pilsen was in fact not one of them. The Blackstone Rangers were on the South Side. Later on I was a caseworker there. I could see a lot of what was going, what is still going on today. It just seems like it keeps getting worse and worse though.
Can you tell me a little bit about being a caseworker?
Well it was in part through naÃ¯vetÃ©. I was hugely–like that whole generation–was hugely attracted to civil rights, and for me it really started with music. When I began reading books about my heroes, all the stuff I picked up on the street about race went out the window. It became so clear to me exactly what somebody like Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington–what it meant to be African American. So when the Civil Rights Movement came along I was already all primed, and at the same time there was Vietnam. And one of the things about St. Rita was that, especially after I had worked at the record shop, I came back for my senior year and as I said there had been a transformational experience, I had learned so much, and I had read incessantly during that time, like you can only read when you’re young, and I already came to be hugely suspicious of that school but I was such a screw-up myself, but it was in senior year I…realized that one way to get an education was to define myself against, because what I was being taught I didn’t believe. And that habit of defining yourself against, that is, listening to what you’re being taught and then making a conscious effort to go find out what the cons to what the pro might be, became hugely important in the America of that time.
I was looking for some kind of socially relevant job and my naÃ¯vetÃ© was such that I thought that somehow being a caseworker was going to be it, and I had no idea until I did the job that all I was doing was becoming a kind of enforcer for the status quo of welfare nation. And I just plain out was not politically sophisticated enough to understand that…we had–we being Cook Country public aid, and federal tax dollars, and state tax dollars–set up a system by which people could just barely survive on welfare, and if they knew how to do it they could hustle the system a little bit. And in some respects it was helping, but in other respects it was establishing generation after generation of people who were now habituated to live this way, and there were never enough programs, money, for any but the luckiest and most ambitious few to get off this. So did I know that when I took the job? I didn’t.
That said, I’ll add that on a personal level, one of the things that appealed to me was that you were outside on the streets, you weren’t sitting in an office behind a desk. I knew I didn’t want to be a cop, so it had that “on the streets” aspect to it, and that part of the job I actually have to say–I don’t know if “enjoy” is the right word, but I found it engaging. You met a lot of different kinds of people. You saw things firsthand with your own eyes, you weren’t just reading it through the lens of books. You know it was interesting to me because I had grown up in a light neighborhood, but not one with social problems, quote “social problems,” to the extent [of] Bronzeville, where I was the worker at. Race clearly was figuring into it, as hard as that time was on the Hispanic community, and less so on the white Slavic community, but it wasn’t anything next to what was going on in the African-American community, where the family had really been destroyed.
I was reading a lot, it was like an education you were giving yourself. Not all that different from the education I had given myself in the record store. I got to know music and the history of American music so inside out, and this was the same kind of thing. I kept careful notes, I kept my case records, I kept my eyes open, I read a lot of books on the subject because I was out there by myself. I had the opportunity to make assumptions on my own, they weren’t all right, but I also began to feel kind of guilty about some of the things I was being asked to do, which was basically to keep reports on these people and not be empowered in any real way to really help them much besides buying them a new bed. I’m glad I did it…I felt that the stories were valuable, that is, that they told real things that people should know. As close as I had grown up to poverty, it was redefined for me by what I saw.
The thing that depressed me the most was the level of abuse. It was just beyond anything I had imagined. I suddenly became really obsessed with Charles Dickens because I could see, granted maybe a little sentimentalized, but I could see in Dickens’ London something I was [seeing]: the abuse of children. Dickens is a great friend of children. And I think, by the way, that really deeply influenced that first book, “Childhood and Other Neighborhoods.”
I’ve always felt that one of my failures as a writer was not to have written more about it because I have so much more that I’ve written more about and I don’t even have the slightest urge at this point to start analyzing, crying over spilled milk, or however one wants to look at it. But really, my intention in writing was to have written more than I did, it was a real life changing experience.
I’m partial to “Blood Soup,” in “Childhood in Other Neighborhoods.” There’s that confrontation in the park between the little boys and the group of African-American kids playing basketball–and the boys going after the ducks in the park with the old guy, and the park is this forum, almost, where these two groups come together and try to scope each other out.
Yeah, that’s Douglas Park, actually. That was based on a real experience.
I wasn’t out there looking for blood soup. We were just out there messing with the ducks, is basically what it was, and I had no intention of killing or hurting ducks. It had been a lagoon, [where] my father as a boy caught what he called mudbugs, little crawfish, and they actually ate them as kids. And so as the neighborhood changed I would keep going to that lagoon, associating it all the way back to my father. At some point it really [became] the territory of a place called Lawndale, and if you were from some other neighborhood, black or white, or Mexican, it was now far more territorial. And I suspect it was always territorial, but I didn’t know it because it was my territory–even though I never thought of it as my territory…One of the things that has always struck me about neighborhoods like Pilsen that have an honest-to-God history, a shrimpy one compared to Europe, but by American standards a real history, is that nobody living there knows it. I didn’t.
A story I’ve told more than once is that we used to love to ride under the viaducts with our bikes, especially when there was rain because they would flood, and you’d gather up a head of steam and see if you could make your way all the way splashing and everything, through the viaduct where the water could sometimes be up over the spokes of your wheels. And there was this one viaduct close to Halsted that we always screamed when we went through because we could feel haints, though we didn’t call them haints. When I heard the word in the South I realized that’s what they were talking about. But not a one of us had ever realized that this had been the site of the Battle of the Viaduct, where these armed Pinkerton guards and cavalry that had actually fought in the Indian Wars, Custer’s Last Stand, had been conscripted to break up a union group and had fired on unarmed women and children. The loss of life is still being debated, nobody will ever know for sure how many were killed there, but it was a sizeable number. We had made up all kinds of myths, urban myths about why it was so spooky there. A wino had died, or a wino had hung himself, or somebody was raped, you know I mean just kind of ghoulish things that boys love to talk about and you know here it had this really interesting history. I think today I’d be surprised if many of the people really have the slightest idea why the hell it’s called Pilsen, rather than Guadalajara…so that lack of historicity extended to things like Douglas Park, you had the sense that how you saw things in the present was how they always were, and there was no intellectual curiosity whatsoever to find out otherwise.
Did both your parents grow up in Pilsen?
In the area. And my father was an immigrant, but he came here young. That was their map of where they grew up. Or where they lived their lives. So, you know, it had, as Royko called it, a “little village” aspect to it. By little village I don’t mean the name for the neighborhood, it just seemed like little villages. And as Royko said, you treated them as your little village and talked about how nice it was to live there and moved out as soon as you could. I don’t know if you ever read that book “Boss.”
It’s worth reading. Really, really, quite a wonderful book.
Did you live in Pilsen when you were a caseworker?
No, I didn’t. I lived in Rogers Park, which was a Yiddish neighborhood then. Beautiful Yiddish neighborhood. In the little tailor shops and in some of the groceries you still saw people with the tattoos from the camps. It was my favorite of all Chicago neighborhoods. It almost felt kind of European, living there. Stores had foreign foods and little stars of David in the window, little neon stars of David. It was a very beautiful place to live. And the population density, you know it was before the waves of high rises were built.
I heard in high school you composed a short story about the Sanitary Canal.
My God! [My son] just called me up the other day to find out if that was true. How does this get out? I mean, he called me up just three or four days ago, he said, “You know, I had lunch with your brothers in New York, Dave and Tom…and they said that one of your first pieces you ever wrote was about being a turd floating down the Sanitary Canal. Could that possibly be?” I said, “Well, ’fraid so.”
Do you still have it?
Not here. I probably have it somewhere…you know, the stuff sits in suitcases all over the place now. I wrote it in high school after I got impressed by the beatniks, so it was a beatnik piece, and I wrote it to try to entertain my high school buddies and I hoped, you know it was toilet humor, it was potty humor, it was potty humor crossed with being a beatnik, and I hoped that they would laugh about it. And I do remember the first line, which is, “Waste and juice and I am born!” [Laughs] and you know, what’s behind a trip down the canal is something like Scuffy the Tugboat, but I had changed Scuffy the Tugboat into a turd, a talking turd.
No chance the Chicago Weekly could publish a Stuart Dybek original?
Well, you gotta draw the line somewhere. If I was up for tenure, maybe.