Midnight Flight: Chapter 7 — Bowen High School
One family’s experience of White Flight and the racial transformation of Chicago’s South Side (an online novel)
By Ray Hanania
Midnight Flight, (C) 1990-2018 Ray Hanania, All Rights Reserved
“Give me a head with Hair, long beautiful Hair,
“Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen,
“Give me down to there, Hair!
“Shoulder length or longer, Hair!
“Here baby, there momma, everywhere, daddy, daddy, Hair
“Grow it. Show it. Long as I can grow it, my Hair.”
— Hair, The Cowsills, 1969
Even if race had not already started to become an issue where we lived, the transformation from elementary to high school was a true culture shock.
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Suddenly, ethnicity and race had become more important.
Grammar school had a little diversity.
Very little.Former Henry Hart Jewish Community Center, JCC, frontage along 91st Street, just east of Jeffery Avenue. Entrance
But Bowen High school was as diverse as it could get, for the times.
Grammar school was divided socially between “Greasers” and “non-Greasers.” That was really the “higher social division” that existed, even above race and religion. In fact, there were even one or two Jews who were considered greasers, and at least one Jewish student I knew who graduated from elementary school and then shocked us all when he announced he was going to attend CVS.
(In the parochial schools and in suburban schools, the non-Greasers were called “doopers.” It wasn’t a term that was used in the public schools, yet.)
I went from a nearly all White grammar school that had only four Black kids in 8th grade and a handful of Hispanics, to a High school zoo that looked like a cease-fire war zone.
At High school, students seemed to break up into groups based on race and ethnicity and religion. It was strange to see that happen.
My seat mate in homeroom was a Hispanic kid named Chico who happened to be the head of the Spanish Kings street gang. He wore a red patterned bandanna on his head. His hair was long, he sported a goatee and a tightly trimmed mustache. He wore baggy work pants with the bottoms rolled up a few times showing his ankles and white socks, and black gym shoes. He had a heavy, gold cross around his neck that screamed “I Believe in Christ!” at anyone who got close enough to look at it.
“I’ve killed people.” Chico didn’t look at me when he talked. He spoke and assumed that I would listen.
“Uh, wow!” I muttered somewhat amazed. The concept of death was not unfamiliar. I had seen it a million times on the TV.
But real killing? That was different. I was afraid to ask who the victim was. Despite the stereotype Chico fit, he was not stupid and was rather good at math. And while he had the talent to complete his own school work, he made me do it all.
Knowing I would ask the question about who he killed, he just added, matter-of-factly, “He was a member of another gang.”
Chico wouldn’t repeat the names of other gangs, and he spent a lot of time spray painting his gang’s special gang signs over the signs of other gangs to signify that they were “To die!”
The teachers were too smart to bother Chico as he talked in class. He carried a six inch stiletto and he waved it around boldly.
The atmosphere at Bowen High school was a zoo.
Kids didn’t walk around in “groups.” They walked around in gangs. And the girls had gangs, too. The first fight we witnessed as new freshmen was between two girls who punched and kicked each other so hard, as boys, we were startled.
There were a few Black students, in those initial years, but most of the Black high school students enrolled at CVS, which was across 87th Street and which some kids started calling, jokingly, the “Mason-Dixon” line. As time went on, the most noticeable division between Blacks and Whites seemed to occur along 87th Street.
People sat outside of Bowen High school and openly smoked pot. Our hair started to grow. Freaks. Druggies. Pot-heads.
Suddenly, a new class of students was created. Hippies. Long hairs. Dope freaks. Pot heads. Their music sang of rebellion and resistance to the “authority.” It also preached tolerance. But the more the rock songs sang about tolerance and “living together,” the more some White families became conscious of the underlying social statement. That just created more resistance.
It was the late 60s, and Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and the Doors were some of the rock bands we started to identify with. They all smoked pot and we wanted to smoke pot too. Some people even did some LSD.
Hollis Levin, who was a year older than me, used to let me hang around with her. She was always so nice. I was kind of like a “pet rock.” Her boyfriend played baseball for Bowen’s varsity team. He was a big guy. She also was Bowen’s most beautiful looking girl. At least I thought so. Hollis would take me to Mel Markon’s restaurant and we’d order Chocolate Phosphates and sip them together and I’d listen in awe as she talked about everything.
“Who’s that? Your date?” I remember one of the older Jewish kids would chide. (I wish, I thought.)
“Just a friend of mine,” Hollis would respond shaking her head, somewhat critical of him, it seemed.
I didn’t care. I was in love with her. I’d be sucking on the straw, eyes wide open always trying to catch a peak at her chest. She paid the tab, too, and took me to all the rock concerts. We listened to Janis Joplin records over and over again in her basement. None of her friends liked Joplin. I was hoping to someday get lucky. Nothing ever went beyond friendship, and she was a good friend. But just hanging around with her made up for years of not going steady in elementary school. We also went to the Kinetic Playground and the Aragon Ballroom on Chicago’s north side together to watch the bands perform. The music was so loud my eardrums would pop and ring for a week. Steve Miller. Crazy Elephant. So many more live bands. The ballroom smelled of marijuana. You could get high for free, just watching the bands perform.
Hollis was the school’s beauty. She kept magazine clippings of Janis Joplin that she would show me. It was very cool.
While Steve Miller performed, kids sing and danced strange gyrations wearing tie-dyed shirts, bandannas and pants. They swayed back and forth in hypnotic-like stupors on the ballroom dance floor under strobe lights and colored images of amoebae-like and paisley shapes that flashed on the walls. The air was choking with pot and you just got high standing in the crowd listening to the music.
The problem was, though, that we couldn’t get any pot in elementary school. But we couldn’t get rid of it when we got to Bowen. There were plenty of people selling pot, LSD and Speed at the school, but you had to have enough cash to buy it.
One of my friends, seeing how cool the other kids looked smoking real pot, started to unbraid his Levi jeans, stuffing the white cotton into a small pipe and puffing away with a smile on his face. He never did get stoned, but it certainly fed into his image as one of the first in our group of friends to convert to being a hippie. He’d sit on the ground and sing The Beatles’ “Revolution” over and over again. Ironically, it must have all been about rebellion against the authoritarian powers that be. His father was a judge. They lived in Pill Hill.
South Shore Valley was considered an upper to middle class Jewish community, with other ethnic groups, all White, sprinkled in between.
The Jewish kids had their own “gangs,” although they weren’t really gangs at all. They were fraternities. They had the AZA for Jewish boys at Bowen. They were more like gang wannabes, but more like pre-college fraternities. Achates was one of the Jewish fraternities at Bowen and you had to be Jewish to join. (There were many fraternities and many of the fraternities that had Jewish members also had non-Jewish members, too.)
All of my friends became members of the Jewish Frats in Freshman year. I was black-balled each and every time they tried to bring my name up for membership.
It didn’t bother me, though. We all remained friends and we all stayed together.
The Jewish girls joined the BBG (B’nai B’rith Girls) sororities. There were two. And when even your best friends couldn’t get you into a Jewish sorority, the Christian girls started to form their own sororities through the YMCA.
Everyone started to fight for their own identify in their own ways. Gangs for the Hispanics. Fraternities and Sororities for the Jews. The YMCA clubs for the Christians. And when the Blacks started to arrive in larger numbers, they started to congregate together and form their own clubs. I don’t know if the motivation was to get together, or to keep others out. In the end, it just seemed to divide all of us even more.
For me, the transition from the close knit comfort of grammar school to the wild and strange environment of high school, with its new social structures and “dividing lines” made the break from South Shore Valley that much easier for me to accept. There were Arab families in South Shore Valley, but we didn’t have the social structure to bring us together, outside of our small churches, the way the Jewish community came together. In a way, it all was very intimidating for us. Most in the Arab community struggled to assimilate, not stand out.
I remember some students asking me “What are you?” and me replying, “Well, I’m American.” They persisted, “No. What’s your nationality?”
I thought and remembered my dad’s words. “Don’t tell anyone you are Palestinian. Tell them you are Syrian.” I thought he had said “cereal” and I offered that to the kids, a half-hearted reply that ended the ethnic inquisition.
I was just starting my second year at Bowen when my father came home and broke the news. “We are moving.”
Moving? Moving where, I wondered?