Chapter One: A Good Life Ruined
Roseland, Chicago: 1972 is the story of Steve Bertolucci, a 10-year-old Roselander in 1972, and what becomes of him. For a longer overview with some great pictures, see the About page. For cool daily items like THIS CRAZY DAY IN 1972, follow us on Twitter at @RoselandChi1972. Otherwise, let’s get started.
Unnecessary but highly motivating opening quote
Powers and dominions, deities of heaven,
For since no deep within her gulf can hold
Immortal vigour, though oppressed and fallen,
I give not heaven for lost.
—--Satan’s kick-ass pep talk to the fallen angels cast into hell after failing to overturn God’s totalitarian regime, Paradise Lost; John Milton, 1667
If the devil can keep trying, while literally living in Hell, why can’t you?
A perfectly good life can be ruined by something as inconsequential as an old grey wad of chewed-up gum—or something that looks like an old wad of chewed-up gum. In Steve’s case, that something started his road to ruin. The Cubs finished it.
If you’re a White Sox fan, that makes perfect sense. You can stop reading right now.
Steve Bertolucci’s life was irrevocably shattered by this thing that may or may not have been a wad of chewed-up gum, and later the Cubs, in 1972. He was ten years old. Just a little ten-year-old kid with wavy black hair, dreamy dark brown eyes that were always a bit too big for his face, and a nose that had recently achieved the same distinction. A little kid growing up in Roseland, on the South Side of Chicago. This is his story. Everyone else is a bit player, except Roseland.
Steve’s 1972 debacle lay dormant for just over 30 years, then erupted again in 2003 like a locust swarm of biblical proportions. Picture the Charlton Heston version of The Ten Commandments, because that’s what Steve would do.
Picture a locust plague overrunning your entire life; chomping on your most precious memories; chewing up your One True Love; and spitting the mangled crumbs of your soul out on the ground for the next wave of locusts to trample with their dirty little feet.
We will see how Steve’s life burned to the ground in 1972, and how the sparks of a future inferno lay festering in the ashes ready to rekindle and explode in 2003. Later, we’ll watch Steve fight the fresh fire engulfing him as an adult, threatening the life he managed to build in another South Side neighborhood, Hyde Park.
When you fight a fire, even if you finally lick it, have you won more than you have lost? How do you even assess the damage? Maybe the few walls left standing are worth more than the collapsed roof. Or maybe the roof was the best part, and nothing left underneath its rubble is worth spitting on. You will be the judge.
Before you meet Steve, let’s get some housekeeping out of the way.
Steve’s story takes place in years already yellowing in people’s minds right along with old newspapers piled up in somebody’s basement. Pop culture and language mutate and evolve ever more rapidly. Pretty soon a simple story like Steve’s will need the scholarly analysis you expect from an annotated edition of Paradise Lost, and within a few months of publication. How long before even the vernacular English of Steve’s childhood neighborhood is so far removed from future languages that it can be used as an unbreakable code, like Choctaw in World War I or Navajo in World War II?
That’s why I’ll add Notes in a separate post to most chapters, and eventually a few Optional History Chapters on key topics from Steve’s world. Ignore them with impunity. I didn’t even number the Notes in the story, so you won’t be tempted to stop reading and check them. The Optional History Chapters are also strictly extra credit. Frankly, there are even some chapters on whale biology in Moby-Dick we could maybe do without.
These chapters are lavishly illustrated with crucial artifacts from Steve’s world. If you don’t know what a pack of cigarettes or a transistor radio looks like, you won’t understand how a pack of cigarettes might turn out to be a transistor radio. And the artifacts are worth seeing. The tools, jewelry, buildings and ephemera of Steve’s story are part of a vanishing world, as fascinating as any Greek urn, and only a blip in time away from the Lascaux cave paintings.
Example: I’ll assume you still know what a pack of cigarettes looks like. But I bet you’ve never seen a transistor radio that looks like a pack of cigarettes, even if you’re old enough to know what a transistor radio is. (A transistor radio also figures heavily in Chapter 6: Sister Miller.) Here is the transistor radio that incited one of the most painful disasters of Steve’s childhood, covered in Chapter Four: The Gately’s Doughnut.
Isn’t that cool?
Please note that the local/city/national/global facts and dates referenced are correct. If I tell you the worst hurricane and tidal wave of the 20th century hit East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) on November 13, 1970 and killed half a million people, or that the April 1972 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine featuring a nude centerfold of Burt Reynolds hit Chicago newsstands on March 23 and sold out in hours, that’s what happened. Oddly enough, both events were quite important in Steve’s life.
And yet, both the most ordinary and cataclysmic events in our lives are often colored by perception in ways distinctly at odds with reality. Our mental crayons stray outside the lines, some times by a smidge and others a yard. Or we pick the completely wrong crayons to begin with, turning the sky green and the grass blue. People’s memories can be flat out crazy, is what I mean. Steve and his family and friends are no exception. In some instances where I discovered discrepancies in different accounts of Steve’s life and world, I refrained from correcting memories in order to tell the story as people saw it at the time. To atone, these few points will be listed in a brief Corrections section at the end.
For the personal events in Steve’s life, I have painstakingly attempted to accurately report incidents, dates and conversations. Reasonable people may disagree on specifics. Unreasonable people might get downright nasty about it. It is surely fortunate that Steve’s Nonna passed away years ago and can’t come after me with a wooden kitchen spoon.
I should mention that no sensitivity reader has pored over this chapter, or those to come. Enter at your own risk. If you believe no one should ever read about words, ideas or events that are ugly and disturbing, then 1972 is no place for you. Neither is 2003, or any other year with which I am familiar. Sorry. In the immortal words of Outkast, I’m just being honest.
Bottomline, you can’t learn anything about the past, including Steve’s, without hearing some pretty unpleasant stuff. As philosopher George Santayana so famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Shirley Bassey and the Propeller Heads put it another way: “And I’ve seen it before/And I’ll see it again/Yes I’ve seen it before/Just little bits of history repeating”. Wouldn’t it be nice if humanity finally learned the past, learned from it, and just stopped all our bad habits and vile ways? Well, we can dream. This story may not improve the future, but it will absolutely not hide the past. Encasing ourselves in mental bubblewrap won’t protect us from anything. It will only make us incapable of handling the smallest bumps in life. If you doubt it, read Mark Twain’s “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg.” I made it easy for you, there’s the link right in the title. Even if you don’t doubt it, the story is well worth the read. There are so many Rev. Burgesses and Mr. Richardses in the world today, which is like one big Hadleyburg.
So. You can’t change the past, but I can and may change anything in these virtual pages. I’ll definitely correct typos.
A last trigger warning: Steve is the grandson of poor Italian immigrants, who would find it hilarious that in the early 21st century, Steve is defined by society as “white,” or if generously granted more modifiers, “white cisgender heterosexual man.” While people of other backgrounds figure into Steve’s story, Steve is by definition our main concern. If that doesn’t float your boat, there are any number of different stories elsewhere, most likely right here on Substack.
All the gorgeous roses herein are generously provided by Susan and Frank. Thanks!
Now let’s meet Steve, starting with a glimpse of him in 2003 via Chapter Two: The Conference Room Windows. We are not tethered to a linear experience of time here. Besides, Steve himself will take us back to 1972 quite soon.
If you’re not immediately repelled, why not subscribe? You will receive a new chapter at least every month, and find out why I am spending so much time on the story of this one guy. Due to email constraints, most chapters will be split into several posts/emails.
And why not SHARE?
Maybe you know someone else who would enjoy reading about a ten-year-old Italian-American kid on the South Side of Chicago in 1972. Didn’t your parents teach you to share?