Guest blogger Alan Ganz is a retired lawyer and memoirist. He’s a member of the Memoir Writing Class at the Center for Life and Learning at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago. His colorful stories tell us about growing up in East Gary Indiana.
In our grade school years, we had a Zenith radio in our home. Dad, Gary and I listened to one commercial that was frightening. In a deep male voice, the announcer discussed B.O. From his talk, it could almost rise to the level of leprosy. Friends would fall away and people would avoid you. What was it? Body odor. To prevent it, all one had to bathe with Lifebuoy soap.
Dad said we were going to take a bath every Saturday to fight B.O., easier said than done. The problem was hot water. Our furnace was the worst possible. It did not connect to any radiator having hot water or steam. The system was to heat air in the furnace which would supposedly rise and fill heating ducts of our house. The system heated our house as much as an small outdoor campfire. Further, the furnace did not make hot water. Pa finally put a small kerosene heater in the kitchen. Gary and I would put our behinds on the grill to get warm before breakfast.
The solution to the hot water problem was to buy a small furnace 24” x 24” x 24”. It was my job to fire it. I enthusiastically stoked it up with coal until the entire furnace was cherry-red. Before getting into the bathtub, I turned on the hot water faucet from which steam came out of for a minute. Wow could I generate hot water! We did not use Lifebuoy soap because it was slippery and sunk to the bottom of the bath tub. Instead, we used Ivory soap which floated. After our baths, Baba gave us our weekly ration of clean clothes: socks, underwear, jeans and shirts which was our clothing throughout our grammar school days.
However, we paid no attention to our hair length. It reached such proportions that it could compete with the hair of the violin player at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. At that point, Dad would give an order: “Alan, you and Gary need haircuts. Do it!” We had to obey or get the belt. Dad gave me money for our trolley fare and haircuts. Since East Gary had no barber, we had we had to go downtown to the city, i.e., Gary (population of East Gary was 6500, Gary was 100,000).
Gary and I went to the nearest streetcar stop. It ran to Gary, Indiana, on rails with overhead electric wires powering it. Gary consisted of a large number of square miles which had the streets laid out on the grid system. It was named after Judge Gary, legal counsel to U.S. Steel. The main street was Broadway which ran in a north-south direction until the city limits were reached. The furthest north was the entrance to the U.S. Steel plant. Broadway held the premier stores of Gary: Sears, Goldblatt’s, J.C. Penney and Tom McCann for boys shoes. To ensure a good fit, you put your feet in their X-ray machine! Yes – I still have my toes.
Our objective was to get haircuts at Goldblatt’s. We took the elevator to the fifth floor which was entirely devoted to boys haircuts. A quick glance revealed the Goldblatt’s employees – a cashier and six barbers. We paid the cashier and got a receipt. Instantly, our noses were filled with the foul smell of sweating and an almost unbearable B.O. of the boys.
Our eyes saw 80 to 100 boys of grade school age waiting for haircuts in an orgy of sound and movement. The sound was the boys shouting, screaming, talking, cursing, whistling, singing, belching and farting. Gary and I were well-mannered; we only farted outdoors. The movement consisted of shoving, running, hitting, fighting, scuffling, racing, wrestling and jumping on and off the chairs and couches. It was on par with a serious adult riot. WHY such SOUNDS and MOVEMENT? Answer: No supervising adults to control the raw energy of grade school boys.
Above the voices of the rioting boys were heard the adult voices of the barbers. With the strength and loudness of an Army drill sergeant, they shouted a number. For example, “85!” You would look at our receipt which had a number on it. If your number was called, you quickly went to the barber and sat down in his chair. The barber asked you what kind of haircut you wanted: a Baldy (where the barber took off all your hair) or an Inchy (where the barber set his electric shears to cut hair 1 inch above the skull). Either haircut could be done in 45 seconds. Combs and scissors were not used. I think the barbers worked on commission and became millionaires.
There was also a tragedy on the fifth floor. “26!” bellowed the barber. A boy with the 26 on his receipt hurried to the barber’s chair. The barber, who towered over the sitting boy, looked at his head of hair and yelled, “You have cooties [head lice]! Go home and get rid of them!”
26 was crying with a cascade of tears running down his cheeks. Having been embarrassed, there was only so much a human being can bear. He quickly got out of the chair and ran to the fifth floor elevator, and disappeared.
When the barber shouted “Cooties!”, the riot immediately stopped. The only sound was that of the barbers’ electric shears.
Each boy thought, “Do I have cooties?” Our teacher said you could determine whether or not you had them by running a fine-toothed comb in your hair and then examining the comb. Your eyes would be able to determine if you had cooties. But, I didn’t have my fine-toothed comb with me! To get a haircut or not to get a haircut, that was the question Hell, let’s get the haircut! The riot started again with renewed intensity.
Gary and I finally got our Inchy haircuts, and went home.
The haircuts were on Saturday, so we could play on Sunday. On Monday, Gary and I went to our grade school classes with heads held high. We had no B.O., we had clean clothes, and we had spiffy haircuts. We were the cutting edge of boys’ grade school fashion.