Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.
New York Live Arts presents
We took two field trips in grade school. The first was a tour of the Bridewell House of Corrections and the Cook County Jail. The prison complex was on 26th and California, only blocks away from St. Roman’s school, so, herded by nuns into an orderly column with the girls in front and boys bringing up the rear, our fifth grade class walked there. The nuns must have thought it a perfect choice for a field trip as not only was there a suitable cautionary lesson, but it saved on bus fare, too.
Filing from school at midmorning felt like a jailbreak. Paired up with pals, we traipsed down California gaping like tourists at the familiar street coming to life—delivery trucks double parking before greasy spoons, open doors revealing the dark interiors of bars still exhaling boozy breath from the night before. Some of the kids like Bad Brad Norky—already twice convicted of stealing the class milk money—were hoping to see various relatives who were doing time at County. Others, like my best friend Rafael Mendoza, were hoping to catch a glimpse of a mob boss, or a mass murderer, or the infamous psychopath, Edward Gein, a farmer from the wilds of Illinois who supposedly cannibalized his victims and tanned their skins to make lampshades and clothes. Gein fascinated us. Some years later when I was in high school, I bought a pair of hand-stitched moccasin-top gray suede shoes that, when soaked with rain, turned a cadaverous shade, and my buddies took to calling them my Gein Shoes. That, in turn, developed into a neighborhood expression of appreciation for any article of clothing that looked sharp in an unconventional way: muy Gein, man, or Gein cool! At the same time, the term could also be used as an insult: “Your mama’s a Gein.”
Even more than the murderers and celebrity psychos, the main draw at County, at least for the boys, was getting a look at the electric chair. We’d heard it was kept in the basement. Local legend had it that a sudden burst of static on the radio or a blink in TV reception, say, during the Howdy Doody Show, meant that the power had surged because they’d just fried someone at County. We thought maybe we’d get to shake the hand of the warden or whoever flipped the switch at executions. But, if there was an electric-chair there at all, we never got to see it.
Surprisingly, the most memorable part of the trip occurred not at County where the men, penned in what the tour guide informed us were 60 square foot cells, mostly ignored us, but rather at Bridewell when they took us through the women’s wing. The inmates there, prostitutes mainly, saw the nuns and had some comments about being Brides of Christ that were truly educational:
“Yo Sisters, what kinda meat do the Pope eat on Friday? Nun.”
“Hey, Sister Mary Hymen, when I dress up like that I get an extra fifty!”
The nuns didn’t respond, but their faces assumed the same impassive, inwardly suffering expressions that the statues of martyrs wore, and they began to hurry us through the rest of the tour.
A hefty female guard rapped the bars with her stick and shouted, “Pipe down, Taffy, there’s kids for godssake.”
And Taffy laughed, “Shee-it, Bull Moose! When I was their age I was doing my daddy.”
And from another cell someone called, “Amen, girl!”
The next year the nuns avoided the jail and instead took us to the stockyards, a trip that required a bus. A rented yellow school bus was already waiting when we got to school that morning, and we filed on, boys sitting on the left side of the aisle, girls on the right. I sat next to a new kid, Joseph Bonnamo. Usually, new kids were quiet and withdrawn, but Bonnamo, who’d only been at St. Roman’s for a couple weeks, was already the most popular boy in the class. Everyone called him Joey B. His father had been a Marine lifer and Joey B. was used to moving around, he said. He’d moved around so much that he was a grade behind, a year older than everyone else, but he didn’t seem ashamed by it. He was a good athlete and the girls all had crushes on him. That included Sylvie Perez, who over the summer had suddenly, to use my mother’s word, “developed.” Exploded into bloom was closer to the truth. Along with the rest of the boys, I pretended as best I could not to notice—it was too intimidating to those of us who’d been her classmates for years. But not to Joey B.
“Like my old man says, ‘Tits that size have a mind of their own,’” he confided to me on the way to the Yards, “and hers are thinking ‘feel me up, Joey B.’”
“How do you know?”
His hand dropped down and he clutched his crotch. “Telepathy.”
“Class,” Sister Bull Moose asked, “do you know our tradition when riding a bus on a field trip?”
“A round pound?” Joey B. whispered to me.
No one raised a hand. We didn’t know we had a tradition—as far as we knew we were the first class from St. Roman’s ever to take a bus on a field trip.
Sister Bull Moose’s real name was Sister Amabilia, but she had a heft to her that meant business, and wielded the baton she used to conduct choir practice not unlike the guard we’d seen wielding a nightstick at Bridewell a year before, so my friend Rafael had come up with the nickname. From within her habit, a garment that looked as if it had infinite storage capacity, she produced the pitch pipe also used in choir practice and sustained a note. “Girls start and boys come in on ‘Merrily merrily merrily …’”
Joey B. sang in my ear, “Row row row your boner …”
At the Yards there was a regular tour. First stop was the Armour packing plant where the meat was processed into bacon and sausage. I think the entire class was relieved that the smell wasn’t as bad as we worried it might be. We knew we had traveled to the source of what in the neighborhood was called “the brown wind” or “the glue pee-ew factory,” a stench that settled over the south side of Chicago at least once a week. My father said it was the smell of boiling hooves, hair, and bone rendered down to make soap. I’d once dissected a bar of Ivory on which I’d noticed what appeared to be animal hair to see if there were also fragments of bone and if beneath the soap smell I could detect the reek of the Yards.
We left the processing plant for the slaughterhouse and from a metal catwalk looked upon the scene below where workmen wearing yellow hard hats and white coats smeared with gore heaved sledge hammers down on the skulls of the steers that, urged by electric prods, filed obediently through wooden chutes.
Every time the hammer connected, my friend, Rafael would go, “Ka-boom!”
The steer would drop folding at the knees as if it was his front legs that had suddenly been broken.
“That has to smart,” Joey B. said.
For the finale they took us to where the hogs were slaughtered. A man with hairy, thick, spattered forearms, wearing rubber boots and a black rubber apron shiny with blood stood holding a butcher knife before a vat of water. An assembly line of huge, squealing hogs, suspended by their hind legs, swung past him, and as each hog went by the line would pause long enough for the man to slit the hog’s throat. He did it with a practiced, effortless motion and I wondered how long he’d had the job, what it had been like on his first day, and if it was a job I could ever be desperate enough to do. Up to then, my idea of the worst job one could have was bus driver. I didn’t think I could drive through rush hour traffic down the same street over and over while making change as bus drivers had to in those days. But watching the man kill hogs, I began to think that driving a bus might not be so bad.
With each hog there was the same terrified squeal, but louder than a squeal, more like a shriek that became a grunting gurgle of blood. A Niagara of blood splashed to the tile and into a flowing gutter of water where it rushed frothing away. The man would plunge the knife into the vat of water before him and the water clouded pink, then he’d withdraw the shining blade just as the next squealing hog arrived. Meanwhile, the hogs who’d just cranked by, still alive, their mouths, nostrils, and slit throats pumping dark red gouts were swung into a bundle of hanging bodies to bleed. Each new carcass slammed into the others causing a few weak squeals and a fresh gush of blood.
The tour guide apologized that we couldn’t see the sheep slaughtered. He said that some people thought the sheep sounded human, like children, and that bothered some people, so they didn’t include it on the tour.
It made me wonder who killed the sheep. We’d seen the men with sledgehammers and the man with a knife. How were the sheep slaughtered? Was it a promotion to work with the sheep—some place they sent only the most expert slaughterers—or was it the job that nobody at the Yards wanted?
“Just like the goddamn electric chair,” Rafael complained.
“How’s that?” Joey B. asked.
“They wouldn’t let us see the chair when we went to the jail last year.”
At the end of the tour on our way out of the processing plant they gave each of us a souvenir hot dog. Not a hot dog Chicago style: poppy seed bun, mustard—never catsup—onion, relish, tomato, pickle, peppers, celery salt. This was a cold hot dog wrapped in a napkin. We hadn’t had lunch and everyone was starving. We rode back on the bus eating our hot dogs, while singing “Frère Jacques.”
I was sitting by the window, Joey B. beside me and right across the aisle from him—no accident, probably—was Sylvie Perez. I realized it was a great opportunity, but I could never think of anything to say to girls in a situation like that.
“Sylvie,” Joey said, “you liking that hot dog?”
“It’s okay,” Sylvie said.
“You look good eating it,” he told her.
It sounded like the stupidest thing I’d ever heard, but all she did was blush, smile at him, and take another demure nibble.
I knew it was against the rules, but I cracked opened the window of the bus and tried to flick my balled up hot dog napkin into a passing convertible. Sister Bull Moose saw me do it.
“Why does there always have to be one who’s not mature enough to take on trips?” she asked, rhetorically. For punishment I had to give up my seat and stand in the aisle which I did to an indifference on the part of Sylvie Perez that was the worst kind of scorn.
“Since you obviously need special attention, Stuart, you can sing us a round,” Sister said. Once, during our weekly music hour, looking in my direction, she’d inquired, “Who is singing like an off-key foghorn?” When I’d shut up, still moving my mouth, but only pretending to sing, she’d said, “that’s better.”
“I don’t know the words,” I said.
“Oh, I think you do. Dor-mez-vous, dor-mez-vous, Bim Bam Boon. They’re easy.”
Joey B. patted the now empty seat beside him as if to say to Sylvie, “Now you can sit here.”
Sylvie rolled her pretty eyes toward Sister Bull Moose and smiled, and Joey B. nodded he understood and smiled back, and they rode like that in silence, communicating telepathically while I sang.
—Stuart Dybek is the author of a book of poems, Brass Knuckles, and two collections of fiction, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods and The Coast of Chicago. His fiction, nonfiction and poetry appear regularly in magazines and anthologies. “Field Trips” is a chapter from St. Stuart, a sequence of personal essays.
Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.