“At least seven or eight years.”
That’s how long my uncle Danny says that my mom lived in the Calumet section of East Chicago, near the lead smelting plant.
I came upon this knowledge by accident. I was on my way to the Carpenters union open house in Hobart, and for some reason I couldn’t find it. So I called my uncle Danny. He worked for the union for 35 years or so. He’s retired now and serves as the part-time building inspector for the town of Merrillville.
“It’s at the corner of Union Street and Ridge Road. Turn around. You drove right past it,” he said on the phone.
I hadn’t talked to my uncle Danny in a while. He was in Phoenix for three weeks. I could tell because his wife, aunt Debbie, posted a bunch of pictures on Facebook of she and Danny hiking and shopping.
“We even drove up to Sedona. It’s beautiful. Red rocks everywhere.”
We talked about family this and family that, and eventually the lead and arsenic crisis in the Calumet section of East Chicago came up.
“Such a shame,” Danny said. “That’s where your mom lived for a while, you know.”
“Let me see. I know that she and Joanie (twin sister) and Charlie lived there for a long time. And they may have all lived there even when Dennis was born…. It’s hard to tell.”
“But for how long?”
My grandma Matson lived in the Calumet section of East Chicago in the 1940s and 50s. I won’t go into why she was living in Calumet section as a single mother. It’s a pretty painful story. If life had continued on unhindered, my grandmother and her three kids would have been living a mile or so away in the Frogsville section of Hammond. That’s where all of their other Pollack relatives lived.
For some reason, and I won’t go into the murmurs of the Big Secret, my grandma wound up living in the Calumet section of East Chicago near the US Lead smelting plant and, as my mom once told me, “amongst the blacks.”
This would be a good time to point out to the three or four of you how my views on race were shaped by this happenstance. When I was 15, I started working as a union laborer on the weekends and during breaks from my freshman year in high school. I know what you’re thinking – “you can’t get a union permit until you’re 18.” I get it, but my dad and my uncle owned the company. We didn’t operate jackhammers or climb on scaffolding. It was more like cleaning up job sites after they were finished and reorganizing the construction yard.
It was my first exposure to the construction site, and a rough lot they were. I don’t remember the names of the geezers that drove me around Gary, East Chicago, Hammond, even south Chicago, but they were mostly white… and they were mostly really white.
The “N-word” got thrown around a lot. And I wanted to be a tough guy just like all of the other tough guys I ever had known in construction, so one day I was standing in the kitchen at home telling a story.
“We were throwing all these tire irons out behind the warehouse, and all the sudden we heard some rustling in the weeds. It was couple of them N----ers hiding in the weeds. What they were hiding from, I have no-“
I didn’t get to finish my story. My mom – I don’t know where she came from – bobbed and weaved and was right in front of me, and she hauled off and slapped me across the face. I was 15. She hadn’t done that in years.
“Why’d you do that?” I said, holding my cheek. She was my mom. I was the oldest son. We had a bond.
“Don’t you ever say that word again?”
“You know what word. People are people. We all want the same things and we all deserve respect.”
“Well you didn’t have to hit me.”
“Don’t you ever let me hear you use that word again.”
And I’m pretty sure that I haven’t. And that was hard. In construction in the 1970s and 80s, as a white guy, you could hear the “N-word” a dozen or more times a day, every day.
So that’s the jist of my story. I’ve shared with the three or four of you that I am not the person to cover the story of the lead and arsenic crisis in the Calumet section of East Chicago. There is history here. My mom died painfully, with five kids and a husband standing around her bedside, at the University of Chicago Hospital. A doctor there told me his theory –
“She must have been exposed to something as a child.”
There’s a lot more to this story, especially why my mom and her twin sister and little brother wound up the children of a single mother – a single white mother – living “among the blacks.” My uncle Danny and I didn’t discuss this part. No one ever has.
… In other My Radio Life stuff, I did the morning show yesterday with Verlie Suggs (black woman) and the same group of Verlie haters (white guys) are calling for another boycott of the show on Tuesdays. Oh well.
Dan Nita, the GM of Horseshoe Casino and several other Caesars casinos, came on the show with me as part of “JED in the Money.” Horseshoe, with its 2,000 employees, has been rated as the second best place to work in Indiana.
“It’s the culture we create. We care about our customers.”
There’s that “customer service” element again. The woman from Level Rite Concrete preached the same mantra in an interview last week. It reminds me that we should do better customer service.
“And humility. Once a month, the management team goes out on the floor and the parking garages and we clean everything up, fix things, get dirty. Each person in the organization should be willing to do every job in the organization.
“And we don’t place an emphasis on hierarchy. I have 2,000 employees. Each one is an idea factory on how we can do things better. They should feel comfortable coming up to me in the employee lunchroom.
“Everyone is valued.”
I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the jist of Dan, an Orlando native who went to Clemson. In his own way, he’s politicking for the Bears to use their first-round draft pick (third overall) to take DeShaun Watson, the Clemson quarterback.
“He comes from humble beginnings and gives back to his community. The Bears would do well to select DeShaun Watson.”
Let’s see if it happens. After the show, I slipped down the street to “The Wheel” and sat at the counter.
“20 years,” the waitress I’ve known for a long time said.
“Excuse me,” I said, looking up from reading my Sports section.
“This is my 20 year anniversary working here.”
And I looked in her eyes… growing sadness. I know some of her story, the disabled child at home, the years living in California working as a waitress in Huntington Beach, California.
“Didn’t you waitress in California also?”
“12 years. All tolled, I’ve been working as a waitress for 47 years straight. Can you imagine how many miles I’ve walked?”
I can’t. Can the three or four of you? She smile, but I somehow got the feeling that she was about to burst out into tears.
At noon, I did a podcast/Facebook Live video with Pastor Ray Dix from the Bethel Church in downtown Gary. Ray’s got this fantastical idea that we can learn to treat each other with respect between the races. I’ve told him from the beginning that I have doubt. More than when I did talk shows on WJOB in the mid-1980s, more than when we bought WJOB in 2004, people freaking hate each other.
We all need a big slap across the face – “People are just people. They don’t deserve to be treated like that.”
At 2pm, I did a Facebook Live video from the Carpenters open house in Portage. There were busses all over the place. They brought 413 high school students to see what union carpenters do. There’s this movement going on to educate young people that college isn’t for everyone, that you can make a lot of money at a union trade job AND go to school.
I talked to one kid, Juan, who won the drill competition that you can see on the video. He goes to Portage High School. He’ll make a good union carpenter. You can tell by the way he handles a drill.
At 3pm, Lane Paradis, the plumber, and I recorded our podcast, “This is Dead Air.” It’s when we play portions of live Grateful Dead shows and talk about it. Last week, Lane told the story about buying a bong at S & J Records in the 1970s. This week, he held his tongue.
“I learned not to just let it roll out of me, not with the microphone on,” Lane said.
“I said I’d take it out,” I told him.
“No, leave it in. It’s real.”
And then Lane said something that I wrote down. Life is like that sometimes. You hear someone say something and you gotta write it down.
“I’m not ashamed of my past. I just don’t want to talk about it.”
At 5:30pm, I was sitting with a bunch of lawyers at True Restaurant and BBQ in Munster, Indiana. My wife, Alexis, put it together to celebrate the birthday of fellow lawyer Dave Gladish.
Gladish, like me, is a hairy individual. Or at least used to be. Now he’s got a new girlfriend in Kelly Ann, and, get this – she shaves his back. And trims his arms and his legs.
“I can’t get any sun,” Gladish said, almost in a whine. “Look at you, Dedelow, when was the last time your legs saw the sun – when you were 12?”
Gladish has a point, but I have some material. Ralphie Flores was there also, and his wife, Tina, let it slip that he “Nairs” his back. This gives me more material for the morning show. That’s what it’s all about – material for the morning show. It’s 4:33 on Wednesday morning. I better go watch the news, eat some eggs, take a shower and start talking. Another Thousand Words. See ya.