Editor’s Note: Joe Russo is a “Nortsider”, a teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear a couple of times each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside”.
A friend I was having lunch with a short time ago made it a point to compliment St. Joseph’s Hospital for their assistance with building some new housing on Townsend Street. At the same time, he noticed a small version of the farmer’s market set up near the nursing school. Was it a coincidence or part of a plan? As I thought about it, it seemed to fit into the idea of what a community should have. We often talk about community as a way of life and sometimes as a solution to certain problems. As I began to reflect on my own personal sense of community I remembered my grandmother, Carmella Emmi.
We lived on Mary Street, on the top of the hill directly across from North High School. My grandmother lived near Schiller Park on Grumbach Avenue and often walked along Park Street to the farmer’s market and then to our house for a visit. One day, familiar voices from the kitchen drew me to that warm, friendly part of the house. While mom and grandma were engaged in conversation at the kitchen table I noticed something moving in a cloth bag. I interrupted their conversation, “Mom what’s that?” Both my mother and grandmother erupted with laughter. I had never seen a live chicken. I don’t remember how old I was but it left a lasting impression. “Where did it come from?” I implored.
Suddenly, a journey to the farmer’s market seemed like an adventure. My grandmother became my tour guide to the Northside community at large. Walking the neighborhood, meeting people, visiting the bakeries, the fish market and various retail stores became part of that adventure. The experience was embellished by meeting friends of my grandmother on the way to the market. Sometimes we stopped at a store or one of the bakeries. In this small business environment the business owner was always on site. They made sure the quality and the service were just right. My grandmother was not an easy person to please. Haggling over the price and quality was a family tradition. Whenever we walked away after she got her price and closed the deal she would always whisper to me, “Don’t tell anyone”, as she pressed her index finger to her lips. She didn’t want anyone to steal her technique. It’s nice to see the farmer’s market return to the Northside every Wednesday this summer at St. Joseph’s hospital. It is very small step in the right direction.
I did learn how to buy a live chicken. Whenever we went to the market to select a chicken, Carmella would stick her hands into the cage and grab chicken after chicken. The commotion always caused an uproar. The chickens were squawking, the feathers were flying, and the farmers were arguing with my grandmother. Finally, she would select a chicken, and then she would haggle over the price. I asked her why she went through this ritual each time. “I have to grab the chicken with both hands to look into its eyes. The eyes must be clear and the feathers must be white and fluffy. Then I squeeze its breast, a skinny chicken breast is no good,” she replied. The lesson stuck with me. When I go to the supermarket today I eye the chickens suspiciously. I think to myself what did this chicken’s eyes look like, were his feathers white and fluffy? And when no one is looking I squeeze the chicken breast.