Monday, February 18, 2008

Cicero - There's Something in the Water

Travis Erwin posted the idea that each of us oddly assorted bloggers should take Mondays to post about our hometowns... I don’t think he knew exactly what he was asking for, but here goes....

I grew up in Cicero, Illinois and I’m oddly proud of that fact.... the best way to describe my hometown is rough around the edges. We are an odd combination of hardworking salt of the earth and hardnosed cretins. I learned the fundamentals of baseball on the corner, using the curbs as bases and a perfectly placed sewer as second... the corner house wound up with a lot of broken windows and the ragtag assortment of neighborhood kids wound up with permanent scars from sliding on concrete – being afraid to slide would have earned you more scars. Louisville sluggers are still better than aluminum, in case you’re ever wondering...

My town is best known for racism and Al Capone.... there’s an interesting combination to live down, so the attitude becomes an ever present chip on your shoulder because you know, from the jump, most people have a judgment before you open your mouth... opening your mouth is another problem – for those of you not from Chicago, the accent is fairly atrocious in certain areas... Cicero has about the worst of the bunch... if you’ve ever heard a Cicero accent, you will recognize it anywhere – people from other places sometimes confuse it with Brooklyn, but I think ours is actually worse... and no, everyone in Chicago does not have this weird bit of language skewing, just a few neighborhoods. If you’re wondering, my Cicero-eeze is pretty bad... so bad in fact that I’ve passed it down to my children... My daughter was giving my son a little spelling quiz one day, my son was about six at the time... the conversation went like this:

Daughter: Spell tree.
Son: T-H-R-E-E
Daughter: No, I said TREE
Son: That’s what I said, T-H-R-E-E
Daughter: No, not tree, like one two tree, Tree, like where a bird builds a nest!

For all of its foibles, and there were many, Cicero was a great place to grow up. The title to this post will tell you a lot of what you need to know, every single person from Cicero is a character, with a story and an odd sense of humor... each one is unique. If you've ever read Stephanie Plum novels, I swear to you Trenton and Cicero are twin towns.

When I run into people now who were from Cicero or Berwyn, it always comes down to which Parish they were from... which streets they hung out on, and we almost always know people in common... ate at the same places, loved the ices at Freddie’s. We were all the same, then, kids with dirt under our nails and a sarcastic sense of humor. Every kid I grew up with had heart – they all did, every one of them. For every classmate and kid down the street I remember, there’s at least one instance where they put their friends first, where they put their own wants or needs to the side and did something noble, even if it was just something small... like standing up to a bigger kid – usually one with a bat or knife, or in later years, worse. Every one of them was the same as me, just as important, just as valid, with just as much to give to the people who loved them and the ones they loved.

I often think about my neighborhood when I watch the movie Angels with Dirty Faces For those of you who have never seen it, it’s an old Cagney movie with the Bowery Boys in it. Cagney plays a gangster who just came out of jail and his best friend is now a priest who tries to keep the Bowery Boys on the straight and narrow... Cagney’s character did his first stint in juvenile for something he did with the priest... and there’s a scene toward the end where the priest says something along the lines of, ‘there but for the grace of God goes I...’ and ‘spare a prayer for the kid who couldn’t run as fast as I could...’

Sad to say, there are a lot of great kids that I grew up with who didn’t make it into adulthood, and more that didn’t see thirty. Back then, I thought it was a great neighborhood, and there really are a lot of great people who came out of there – but it wasn’t the safest or best place to grow up... there were shootings and stabbings, a lot of people got into drugs and generally fell down a slippery slope... I know more than my share of people who died too young or wound up in jail, sometimes they just didn’t have a shot and sometimes it takes more than heart to make it through the obstacles life throws at you... sometimes it’s just dumb luck, or maybe it’s providence.

The most recent of Cicero’s citizens to make the news was Catalina Garcia She was a 20 year old student who died in the shootings at NIU this past Valentine’s day... She was a graduate of Morton East High School whose parents still live in Cicero – I don’t know Catalina, you won’t find much about her in the news because the media is too busy discussing the shooter – but I do know this is a girl who beat the odds getting to NIU, this is a girl whose parents worked damn hard to make sure she had a head on her shoulders in a neighborhood that often didn’t... this is a girl who deserves to be remembered because she earned it in honest work and determination...

These shootings leave me cold – now the media is focusing on gun control... it’s not the issue, it’s a political rally cry and a way to divert people’s attention from the fact that there are some things in this world we just can’t control... if you want my opinion, I think the media should be more responsible in their coverage of these events... I’m sure the shooter has a story, but he doesn’t need twenty headlines... Why don’t you memorialize the people who deserved better instead of building up role models for nut jobs of the future? As far as gun control, Illinois is already ridiculous with its gun laws – it won’t stop anyone, there are other ways to kill people. And even if you do put more laws on the books, those only stop law abiding citizens... criminals really don’t care how illegal it is.


Travis Erwin said...

You really captured a sense of place here, but I hate to break it to you. from this Texan's perspective, everyone from Chicago talks funny.

Thanks for joining in.

Mary Witzl said...

This is beautifully written, Merry, and you've done your town proud here. Reading this I felt ashamed of myself: I don't think I would be able to describe my own hometown with as much passion and genuine affection, and that strikes me as rather sad.

I love the Stephanie Plum books and I'm also a fan of Sara Paretsky's V I Warshawski books. Your hometown reminds me a little of those -- especially the people.

Ten years ago, I met a man from Chicago who had what I would have sworn was a Brooklyn accent. He claimed that his accent was so subtly different even some people from Brooklyn were fooled. I wasn't sure I could believe him at the time, but now I have proof.

The fact that one of the recent victims was from Cicero and worked so hard to get in just breaks my heart.

WordVixen said...

Wow, it sounds like an amazing place. Maybe I shouldn't be thinking of it this way, but it just seems like the kind of life experience that's perfect for a writer. There's so much to draw from!

Xris (Flatbush Gardener) said...

"if you’ve ever heard a Cicero accent, you will recognize it anywhere – people from other places sometimes confuse it with Brooklyn, but I think ours is actually worse."

Well, not for nothing, but a Brooklyn accent is not a "bad" thing! Ciceronians, speak proudly!

Merry Monteleone said...

Hey Travis,

That's okay, I don't mind talking funny... adds to the flavor.

Hi Mary,

Thanks for stopping in - I haven't read Sara Paretsky's books, I'll have to check those out... love Evanovich - it's a snack read but a damn fun one.

He might have been bridgeport, too - their accent is about the same as mine... My brother and husband were at a restaurant in Bonita Springs Florida and the waiter actually said, "Hey, you guys are from Cicero, aren't you?" which completely floored them. It turned out the waiter's Grandmother lived in Cicero and he used to spend summers there - like I said, if you know the accent, you'll never mistake it.

Hi Wordvixen,

It's all true but I think it probably sounds darker than it has to be... yes, there were gangs and some stuff I wouldn't want my own kids exposed to - then again, I hate the fact that they're growing up without alleys, seems like I'm depriving them of some of the fun. Still, there was nothing better than homemade italian ice running down your hand from the paper cup while you and your friends ambled home in the middle of the street... ninety degree days were perfect for playing in fire hydrants and half the houses on the block had makeshift snow fortresses in the winter, perfect for snowball fights.

My kids won't know what it is to run in the streetlights while their parents sit out on the front porch having a few drinks and laughing. There are no porches here - the neighbors talk over the fences and wave hello, but it's not completely the same... though most of the neighbors on my block are originally from Cicero, so it's about as good as I'm going to get.

I don't know if it's the perfect background for a writer... I think we come from every background... so long as you can capture your story and bring the reader into the emotion, there are plenty of view points that are fantastic to experience... the darker ones just get more play sometimes.

Hi Xris,

Thanks for stopping by - I didn't mean anything bad by that comment, believe me... I actually rather like my accent. I think I'd probably like Brooklyn, too, all of the people I've met from there seem like home to me, I'd bet it's pretty similiar.... besides, it's the only place I've been told has pizza as good as ours :-)

Patti said...

this was so rich in detail...and the whole parish thing has always confused me. it's prob because i'm from texas...

Josephine Damian said...

Chicagoan's talk weird? Guess I can't hear their accent over my own NY-Bronx tone. lol

It's the long lost Merry! Glad to see your blogging again. Hope the writing is going well and that you're ready to query.

Jerseygirl89 said...

Oh, that was such a vivid description of your hometown. I really got such a sense of place. Though I always thought all Chicagoans had an accent and were racist. :) Kidding. And I loved how you wrapped it up with the NIU shooting and the girl from Cicero. Wonderful post.

I'm tempted to try the hometown, but I don't think I could show the heart that you did.

Sun Singer said...

Nice profile, Merry. In fact, the whole posting about one's hometown is a nice idea. On CompuServe's Books and Writers forum, people take turns writing Letters from Home. These often follow the format of your profile of Cicero; or, they may be about somebody's vacation or something going on in their county or state.

As for Cicero, I'm not sure I ever got there. I lived in Waukegan and worked in Northbrook and then in Evanston. Nice to finally here what the place is like. Nicely done!


Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Patti,

Nice to meet you - the Parish thing isn't Chicago exclusively from what I understand, it's any area where there are a lot of Catholics - we reference our neighborhood by what Parish (church) we're from... so, I'm from St. Frances of Rome, which tells people I lived near Austin and Roosevelt... then I have friends from Our Lady of Mount, which is south of 22nd street - basically, just saying the Parish gives the person an idea of who you hung out with, what nationality you are (you could tell by my nose and the vowel at the end of my name anyway... but whatever)

I've only been to Texas once, for a week with one of my friends who had family there - some of the nicest people ever, but you guys need some real pizza down there... then again, your barbeque is pretty good.

Hi Josie,

Yeah, you know, I never feel remotely odd about my accent around New Yorkers, you guys even use some of the same phrases as we do...

But then, when I'm around waspy people from the suburbs, who speak a little less gutteral.. I tend to rev up the cicero-eeze just to be an ass... fun for me, uncomfortable for them - win, win...

I'm not query ready yet, but I'm getting there. Honestly, I miss the blogging, which is why I jumped on this one, but I'm getting more done on the wip without stopping into to blogland multiple times a day... I will definitely post when I'm submission ready...

Oh, and you met my real world crit partner - Paula, she participated in your Magnificent 7... that's helping a ton, just to have another person working on middle grade to bounce stuff back and forth with.

Hi Jersey,

I want to hear about Jersey!!!! That would be awesome. Come on, I need to find out if your friends are as screwed up as mine!!!

Besides, I've read your posts, jerseygirl, I guarantee you can show some heart.

Hi Malcolm,

How goes it with you? You'd know you were in Cicero if you'd been there... the drivers suddenly get ten time worse but the food is way better than the suburbs. You might have driven through on your way to the city or something though.

How about you? Will you be posting about Georgia?

SUV MAMA said...

Merry, I love this. I'm sharing it with my bestest Chi-town diva friend who lives in Highland Park. I loved reading "Devil in the White City" and reading your post reminded me of that for some reason.

And Travis, y'all talk funny in Texas too. :)

The Anti-Wife said...

Been to Cicero several times when I lived in Chicago. What a wonderful description. Great job, Merry!

Paula said...

I loved this post! I never imagined I'd be filled with admiration and warmth for Cicero (I didn't know much about it, other than the name having a certain "feel" to it if you grew up around Chicago), but you almost make me wish I'd grown up there (although all you tough kids would have squashed me like a bug). I have a borrowed nostalgia for your childhood and hometown, which is quite a feat. Applause to you--I loved this post enough to read it twice.

Oh, and SUV Mama--I live in Highland Park!

Ello said...

This was an excellent post. Really gave me a sense of what Cicero is about. I can so relate. I grew up in not the best part of Brooklyn, although a tree did grow there. ;o) I know high school mates who never made it out of their 20s and I've lost touch with the rest of the crowd. Life was working class hard and for me it was all about getting out of the area. But for all the difficulties, I'm proud to tell people I'm from Brooklyn. I was even crazy enough to think of naming my kid Brooklyn. Thought it would have been pretty. Thanks for sharing a part of you.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi SUV Mama,

I actually love the book Devil in the White City I couldn't tell you why this reminded you of it, other than the chicago land setting, but it was an excellent read... so I'll take that as a compliment.

Hi Anti-wife,

I'm not even going to ask you why you were there... not strip clubs though, right?

Nice to see you - I've been enjoying your posts on your writing class, too, great info there.

Hi Paula,

We weren't actually that scary, but we tried to look it! Thanks for stopping in... when are we going to get you on the blog wagon?

Hi Ello!!!

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of my all time favorites... well, I have a lot of favorites, but I loved Francie Nolan and I can still see her on her fire escape... and her aunt, I loved her aunt...

I bet our accents are pretty similiar, too... every once in a while I do think about all of those friends from gradeschool and high school, who should be doing great things right now. It's an odd thing - my dad grew up in the depression and was in the World War II stationed at Attu when he was 18 - most of his best friends made it to old age together... I only ever heard of one that died young, and he was shot down over Germany during the war - you'd think he would've had more friends lost young... but then, maybe he just didn't talk about it much. said...

Hi –

I have just come across your site. I'm Scott from - we are an online interactive forum for fathers based in New Zealand.

I was wondering whether you might be interested in a link exchange, or linking each other to their blogrolls, or having us posting a monthly summary of father related issues from our blog.

Thanks Scott

SUV MAMA said...

I just reread this to see why exactly I had that association.

I think it's the characters- just the dynamics of how "Chicago" it feels. Devil in the White City had some shady, colorful characters.

And yes, I thought it was a fantastic read, and YES, it's a compliment!

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Scott,

Thanks for stopping in and while I'm flattered that you'd want to link in, I have to stop over at your blog and look around a bit first - generally, my blogroll is consistent of the bloggers I visit on a regular basis, I use it as a handy way to find my blogs fast, giving them a link is an added bonus I'm happy to provide...

My blog though, isn't really about raising kids, it's mostly about writing topics with some parenting and silliness interspersed...


Thanks for that - I needed the boost today.

Colleen_Katana said...

Ahhhahahaha! "Spell tree" "t-h-r-e-e"
Oh my gosh, I nearly peed my pants it was so funny. I had a bad day and really needed that! Thank you Merry!

Anonymous said...

Al Capone was from Brooklyn. That would explain the accent perhaps.

Unknown said...

We didn't all get our accent from Al... though I'm guessing a lot of people would like that explanation...

It's likely the heavy population of first and second generation... Cicero got a pretty heavy influx of first and second generation Italian and Sicilian to a town that was primarily first and second generation Polish, Lithuanian, Czech and German... what winds up happening is you get a bit of the local accent interlocked with the second language accent... it becomes the standard pronunciation for everyone growing up there, regardless of nationality.

My Irish friends have the same accent my Italian friends have. However, a lot of my Mexican friends have a different accent - they're current first and second generationers, so they've picked up the neighborhood accent but added their own twist.

Anonymous said...

My grandparents and father are from Cicero and I just laughed out loud so hard when you wrote "Tree" because whenever my friends talk about my grandpa they refer to him as "One, Two, Tree". He instilled so many Cicero morals into my life that I will be forever grateful for. Loved reading this. Made me feel like home.

Merry said...

Hi Anon,

So glad you liked it. I stopped writing on this blog quite a while ago but I'm glad the content is still out there for people to catch and get something out of.

Thanks so much for the comment.