by Chad Hunter
Weekdays as a Harbor Rat (a title we held with distinction) usually meant being in-doors and doing homework. Growing up in the 80’s we saw the spreading fears of kidnapping children shadow over playing until the streetlights snapped on. Of course, growing up across from a park made a lot of afternoons fun and on many occasions gave my mouth a taste of playground sand. Sand crystals crunched between baby teeth.
Columbus Drive, Indianapolis Boulevard and Chicago Avenue were the big streets. Every other road begged to reach their regal status but never did. None of us spoke with reverence about Alder or Cardinal, Huish or Evergreen. They were kiddie streets yearning to stand next to their older and bigger siblings.
Columbus Drive was a good street to learn how to drive and a better street to learn how to cross. It was the joining link between the Harbor and East Chicago. It was the link between us and the cops’ kids and the politicians’ alleged homes. Growing up, we rarely saw the politicians living in our neighborhoods.
Columbus had the Walgreens for us Rats and the ever-changing video store that became a check-cashing place and a tax joint. The drive’s main jewel was the Zel’s on the corner of Euclid. Amazing roast beef sandwiches made any East Chicogoan’s mouth water.
Chicago Avenue was a strange strip. You never really walked down its short sidewalks near the water tower or the numerous auto spots. It wasn’t a street where you really grew up on or lived.
It was a local business throat and we saw it when our parents drove for new tires or headed for other towns. The avenue was the smallest of the three and the least appreciated.
Indianapolis Boulevard was the big brother street. It didn’t run from point A to point B like most avenues. It lie (or lay) on my city with a immense regality that dared any to cross it, master it or deny what it was: the main valve to my town.
The street actually ran from Chicago, through East Chicago, Hammond, Munster, Highland, Schererville and so on. It was a spine, miles of cement, street stripes and stop lights. I had friends that lived on the behemoth rather than in neighborhoods. Businesses perched themselves on its edges; Garibaldi’s served comida all day and all night. Our only KFC successfully battled any little food shop that popped up next to it and the bigger McDonald’s shined golden arches at the outskirts of town.
Then there was Cline Avenue. It was the mother of all roads. For those of us who called Northwest Indiana home, Cline was the big league driving. The high-speed street allowed us to say we had driven the expressway while still quaking in the presence of 80/94 and Chicago’s monstrous arteries.
The avenue even had its own phantom, the Lady of Cline. Chicago had its Resurrection Mary and every city with bathroom mirrors had Bloody Mary.
But the Lady was ours.
Every one of us knew the story but the details always changed. She was a woman in white, a ghostly traveler, who appeared every Halloween. At night, she would wait for a lover that never came. Instead she settled for some wayward traveler heading into the Harbor’s embrace. There was even talk that she would simply appear in your backseat, staring into the rearview mirror with dead eyes and an accompanying wolf or white dog.
In the junior high school next to Cline’s ramp, there were stories by the older kids of a teacher who died after her first day. Rumors ran that she shook chains and danced in apparition’s sheets in her old class, a room that supposedly was locked and never used.
That was my city, full of ghosts and Rats.
Franklin Elementary was a cocoon where we grew in hurried rushes, elongating class periods and seemingly nonexistent recesses. The school was an aging castle of red bricks, my older siblings had all three held court there in their youth. The only school for us Harbor Rats was Franklin unless you were a deep Harbor Rat. If you ran evening games near Elm Street and tried to chase the moon on Main Street, your school was most likely Field.
Kindergarten was the beginning of my bookish years. Depending on who you ask, I either never had those years or I never outgrew them. Mrs. Brown was an aged white woman who seemed to get older right before our eyes. Her class was never enjoyable and it was even worse on snow days. When white flakes fell from the sky, my mom placed me in a snow suit that required her, several NASA engineers and sixteen power tools to get into.
Somehow always a bit late, I would run from the car to the building in my all-purpose-environmental-Hazmat-snowsuit. However, with my brother’s scarf usually adorning my neck, I would find that even my Down-feathered-hobbling would allow the scarf to snag a Franklin El doorknob. I almost hung myself several times each winter with my horizontal bungee jump.
Next to Franklin was the little library with its brown-brick rectangle of a body and white roof top trim. Its parking lot was either always full or desert empty. It was there in the East Chicago Public Library where we would walk from our grade school and sit for our annual Halloween reading. They told us tales of spooks, specters and those haunting from the other world. They filled the Harbor with ghosts. The librarians would even dress up and wait for us. As we walked through the darkened aisles of books, some witch or warlock, mummy or monster would leap out and reach for us. At some peak of a story’s tale, some librarian in costume would jump out of nowhere. They screamed and so did we in response.
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