November 23, 1949
For late November, for Chicago, it was a nice day. Radiating a bit of warmth, the sun shone in a brilliantly blue sky, and there was no wind.
Norman Parminter, Big Rosalind Feigenbaum, Joey Solomon, Crazy Ronald (Mushuggi’witz) Muskowitz and Mitchell Lipensky, for some unknown reason, had decided to walk home together.
On the corners of Cermack Road and Marshall Boulevard, three minutes after beginning their walk, the four almost had a parting of the way when they bumped into each other because Norman, Joey and Mitchell turned to the west as Rosalind and Ronald continued walking to the north.
“We go this way, on Cermack,” Mitchell said.
“Guys,” Rosalind said, “why walk on a dirty street when you can cut through the park?”
“’Cause it’s shorter,” Norman said.
“But it’s prettier in the park,” Rosalind said.
“But it’s faster this way,” Joey said.
“Bullshit!” Ronald said.
“’Cause we stop at the Polack deli and buy pickles.”
Looking at Mitchell, “Pickles?” Ronald said.
“Yeah! Ain’t you never gone to the Polack deli? It’s about the halfway between here and Kedzie.”
“Yeah, Ron. They got just about the best kosher dill you ever tasted.”
Looking from boy to boy, “Let me get this straight,” Ronald said. “Everyday you guys walk home on this dirty, noisy street rather’n cutting through the park so’s you can eat pickles? Jesus!” Speaking to Rosalind, “and they call me crazy!”
“Hey, for a nickel you get one about this big.” Mitchell said, holding his hands about seven inches apart.
“Yeah?” said Rosalind, “I’d love to see one that big!”
Turning to her, “He’s talking about a pickle, you dumb shit. And even if you had one this big,” holding his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart, “you wouldn’t know what to do with it.”
“You mean one about the size of yours, Mushiggi-witz? The hell I wouldn’t!”
“The hell you would, Big Rosalind!”
“So,” Ronald asked, “you guys coming with us or not?”
“How’s come you an’ Rosalind like to walk through the park so much?” Joey asked.
Pretending to whisper in Joey’s ear, but speaking loud enough for all to hear, “’Cause she lets me feel her up.” Ronald said.
“I heard that, Mushuggi-witz! You wish! You just wish I’d let you feel me up.”
“Hey, Big Rosalind, you just wish I wanted to feel you up, but if I did, I wouldn’t know where your fat ends and your tits begin.”
Laughing hysterically at this friendly tirade, making the decision for the other two boys, “Okay,” Norman said, “we’ll go home your way.”
No sooner did they round the first bend and Cermack Road was out of sight, when, reaching beneath his jacket into his shirt pocket, taking out an unopened package of Chesterfields, stopping, “It’s such a nice day.” sitting on a park bench, “You guys do smoke, don’t you?” Ronald asked
“Yeah,” Rosalind sat next to Ronald, “let’s rest a minute.”
“Uh, no,” Joey said, jerking his thumb towards Mitchell and Norman, “we don’t smoke.”
Tapping the unopened package of Chesterfields on the back of his hand, pulling the red tab off, Ronald let the cellophane top flutter to the sidewalk. Tearing the tinfoil open, pushing up from the bottom, he propelled five cigarettes upward. Using his front teeth, pulling a cigarette out, Ronald then offered the package to Rosalind, who, taking one without hesitation, stuck it in her mouth, reached into her pocket, removed a book of matches, struck one, held the flame to Ronald’s cigarette, then hers.
Inhaling deeply, “Ahhh!” Sounding as though smoking a cigarette was the greatest enjoyment in the world, Rosalind and Ronald exhaled.
Ronald offered the package to Joey.
Joey looked at the cigarettes, then at Ronald, who wiggled the package in a go-ahead gesture. “Well…” hesitating, “okay,” he took one.
The pack of cigarettes was pointed towards Norman.
“No, I’d better not; my mom’ll kill me if she finds out.”
“Who’s gonna tell her?” Ronald asked. “Do they smoke?”
“Not her, but my dad does.”
“So, if your father smokes, why shouldn’t you?”
“Don’t know. Guess I never really wanted to.”
“Norm, all the cool kids in high school smoke! Come on, stop acting like a baby!” Taking a deep drag, Ronald held the smoke in his lungs a moment, then with an enjoyable, “Ahhh!” exhaled through his nostrils. “Come on!” he coaxed. “You don’t want to be kid all your life! It’s real adult to smoke!”
Convinced—somewhat convinced—Norman haltingly reached to the package, changed his mind, moved his hand away, then quickly, before changing his mind again, pulled a cigarette out of the package and jammed it into his mouth.
“Hey, just hold it between your lips. Don’t nigger-lip it!” Offering the package of Chesterfields to the third boy, “Mitch?”
Walter smoked Chesterfields, too, and Mitchell had always admired the nonchalant way his father held the cigarette between his index and forefinger because it looked so masculine. Now, glad to have the opportunity, he reached to the pack, took a cigarette, rolled it lightly between his fingers, then, holding it just as his father did, put it between his lips, just as his father did.
“Great! No chickens here!” Flicking the flywheel of his Zippo, Ronald passed the orange-tipped flame from boy to boy.
Each taking a light, tentative puff, Joey and Norman held the smoke in their mouths a moment, then blew it out.
Showing off, Mitchell inhaled deeply. The smoke went into his mouth and he tasted the bitterness of it. The smoke went down his throat and he felt the burning of it. The smoke entered his clean, pink lungs and his lungs rebelled and he began to cough and the stinging, burning smoke came up through his lungs, throat, mouth and nostrils. He coughed harder and his face turned red. He coughed harder still and the veins in his neck became pronounced. He coughed even harder and his eyes began to tear and, gasping, he bent at the waist trying to draw air into his lungs, trying to breathe. Norman pounded on his back but still he continued to cough… Till, finally, at last able to draw air downward, the harsh coughing changed to even harsher gagging and his stomach seemed to be reaching upward, into his throat… “Gaacchh!” Drool dribbling from his mouth, Norman, Joey, Ronald and Rosalind moved out of splattering range as Mitchell vomited lunch, breakfast, and last night’s dinner… Gasping, gasping, till, finally able to draw a full complement of air into his lungs Mitchell was able to catch his breath. His eyes were red and his face, now that the redness had left it, was deathly white. Saliva hung from his mouth, mucus from his nose, and there was a wide, red smear of vomit on his chin.
“Hey, Mitch,” Ronald said, holding the package of Chesterfields forward, “that was really neat! Here, have another; your old one’s kind’a soggy.”
The cigarette he’d dropped barely distinguishable under the plop of steaming vomit, “No thanks, not just now.”
“Normie, you want to go for a sus-mum-O-kuk?”
Dinner almost over, he’d answered the phone himself. “Yeah.”
Meeting in front of Mitchell’s building, they walked one block south on Homan Avenue, to the candy stand in the El station, and for twenty cents each, Norman bought a package of Lucky Strikes and Mitchell a package of Chesterfields—the brands of choice of their fathers.
When Norman returned home forty minutes later, feeling her son’s head, “You’re so pale!” Ida said. “You don’t feel so good?”
“No, Ma, my stomach’s kind’a upset. I think I’ll lay down for a while.”
Looking at Mitchell as he walked into the living room and flopped down on the sofa, “You look sick,” Myra said. “You okay?”
“Yeah, sure, Mom.” Closing his eyes, he fought the nausea.
On their way to school the next day they lit up, and spent the best part of the morning trying to control their stomachs.
They lit up again on their way home that afternoon, and this time their stomachs behaved… more or less.
The next morning their mouths felt like sewers.
Within a month their fingers and teeth began to stain and they found themselves doing more and more coughing in the morning…
But it’s real cool to smoke, and Mitchell Lipensky and Norman Parminter felt like adults.