Tales From the South Side: The Rows of the Rowes
Chicago's iconic Michigan Avenue, 1966.
Image credited to Brenda McKenna
Rory McClanahan was a big kid for his age.
He grew up in a neighborhood on the southside of Chicago that was at one time known as The Jewel of the South Side. The area was a working-class neighborhood and a great place to grow up in. It was very diverse as it was populated by every known type of white ethnicity, Hispanics and African Americans. There were plenty of stores, the biggest one being Gately's People Store on Michigan Avenue, or as the rose lenders called it, The Ave. There was theaters; The State, The Roseland and the normal. Lots and lots of restaurants, bowling alleys and public swimming pools that were of course, free. Public schools, private schools and many groups of interesting and unique people. Rory and his family were very close to four other families on their block; the Bedells, the Rowes, the Fundukians and the Blankenships.
They were all unique in their own way; they all knew each other well and they were all totally different. The fathers in our neighborhood rarely spoke; this was true of the patriarchs in all of these families. You were lucky if they even rubbed your head. And when they did, it was the highest praise. When Rory's dad did it, the kid knew that a nickel was sure to follow.
Papa McClanahan was born in the Irish section of Roseland, the neighborhood called the Irish Village which was located around the Holy Rosary Irish Church. The best way to describe him would be to suggest that you take a look at an old episode of The Honeymooners. He was Jackie Gleason all over, except for the fact that he wasn't fat. He was tall, lean, and he cussed while he drank whiskey. He worked for the railroad. He hit his kids when they did wrong or when they made him mad. And man could he fight.
Mr. Rowe, was altogether different. Twenty years younger than Mr. McClanahan and unlike most of the other dads in the neighbourhood, he didn't serve in World War II or the Korean War. Once, Mr. McClanahan got rolling drunk and was going to enlist in the U.S. Navy again, just so he could participate in the Korean War, but in her wisdom, Ma McClanahan shoved him around and told him he wasn't going anywhere. He had already done his duty and she didn't want to hear any more nonsense about Korea.
Mr. Rowe was the youngest dad in the neighborhood. He could fight too. When he was in his early forties he had a midlife crisis. He dyed his hair blonde and bought a powder blue '56 Cadillac convertible and a speedboat. His usual dress was white Levis, blue slip on deck shoes and a black sleeveless t-shirt. He would cruise up and down Lake Michigan in his speedboat trying to lure young girls in bikinis to take a ride with him in his boat. I don't know how much pussy he got because he looked like a fat cousin to the Beach Boys. But for all his weird ways he was actually pretty cool. Even though he rarely spoke, he did do a lot of cool things. He was shady though; he had a lot of different jobs and had eight kids that lived in a two-bedroom house.
All of Mr. Rowe's kids had the initials DR. Dennis Jr., Debbie, Dougie, Dawnie, Davey, Danny, Donnie and Dory, the little girl who the whole family and the neighbours fawned over. The bedroom upstairs had a rope down the middle and blankets dividing the boys room and the girls room. Despite his midlife crisis, they were still very poor. Mrs. McClanahan always said, "Denny Rowe lost his mind when his wife made him move from Orland Park into the city."
In the 1960's, Orland Park was a cow town. It was all farms. It was what us Chicagoans called the boonies. Mr. Rowe's wife Nancy desperately wanted to live in the city though, despite his contempt for the hustle bustle. When he had his midlife crisis he already had all of his kids.
Mr. Rowe once got a job as a truck driver. One day, he pulled in front of the house with a white truck pulling a flatbed. On the flatbed were stacks of railroad ties. He got all of the kids and his sons that were hanging around and told them he wanted them to unload the railroad ties. He said to his oldest sons, "C'mere, I'll show you what I want." He told them he wanted the railroad ties placed end by end along the fence all around the yard. When Dennis Jr., or Denna, as everybody called him asked him why we were doing this, Mr. Rowe just glared at him intensely. Just like all the other dads in our neighbourhood, you gotta do what he says.
As the summer wore on, all the kids forgot about the railroad ties.
Richard Speck was the talk of the town. Mothers used to get their kids to come home on time by telling them not to get caught in the dark as there might be another Richard Speck out there. His picture was all over the front pages of every newspaper in the city and was on all the news broadcasts. Rory's Mom and Dad knew a guy named Joe Matusic, the father of one of the nurses that Speck tortured and murdered. Rory couldn't know how much his and Speck's life would intertwine in the years to come. This was Chicago 1966.
Kids will be kids, Summer will be Summer, and life will go on. There was baseball, softball, touch football, garbage picking... you'd be surprised what people throw away. Baby buggies were a treasure. We would use the wheels to build go-karts and take them down to Michigan Avenue which was on the top of a ridge and ride them down the hill. Glass bottles were the big thing though; we'd collect them and turn them in for money to buy pop, hamburgers and candy.
The kids would usually take them to Wally's Tavern. You'd knock on the back door and Wally would always answer. Everyone was so afraid of Wally because he rarely talked and only had one eye. The other eye was a piece of dead meat with a scar from his forehead to his cheek. Rory was the one who was always elected to take the bottles up to the door because his brother tended bar for Wally, so there was a familiarity.
Summer turned into fall. Thanksgiving came and went. Christmas came. Back in those days, Winter in Chicago was rough. Cold, cold, cold. But we finally found out what the railroad ties were for. Right around Christmas, after three or four days of steady below zero weather, old man Rowe dragged his garden hose to the center of his yard to turn the water on and let it flood. It made the best ice skating rink that you could imagine! It was even better than the city's purpose built rink. Then one day, while we were out skating, Mr. Rowe called us all into the house and had his oldest son Denna take our measurements while Dougie wrote all the details down. An hour later, he came back with hockey sticks that fit us perfectly! "Go play hockey boys."
Even though Mr. Rowe weirded out due to his midlife crisis, he still did some pretty cool things. Like the time he beat the living shit out of old man Dolan. To their faces, the kids of the neighborhood called their parents Mr. and Mrs. or Ma and Pa. But amongst ourselves it was old man this and old lady that, Or my old man or my old lady.
So old man Dolan was a drunk. So was his wife. The kids always called him Mr. Drewry because he drank Drewry's beer by the case. He rarely bathed or shaved and half of his teeth were missing. He didn't have a job and most of the time he yelled at his kids and would cuss them out.
Rory McClanahan had a really bad crush on old man Dolan's daughter Mary-Ann. He dreamed of kissing her and holding her tight. But he was afraid she'd just laugh at him. One day, old man Dolan was outside cussing at his wife and his two boys, Eddie and Davey. Fuck this fuck that goddamnit cocksucker. At this time, Mr. Rowe was outside polishing his Cadillac. His youngest daughter Dory was with him.
Dory was just as cute as a bug in a rug. She looked like Shirley Temple. Like I said, the entire Rowe family fawned over her, as did everybody else who were friends with the Rowes. Sick of all the yelling, Mr. Rowe shouted at old man Dolan to knock it off with the cussing. "How many times have I got to tell you to quit swearing in front of my daughter Dolan?"
"Fuck you!" was old man Dolan's reply. So old man Rowe flipped the fence and beat the living crap out of him while Dolan's two sons stood there and watched.
He actually beat him really bad. Once he did, he dragged him by his feet, face down behind their garage in the alley and beat him some more. Rory McClanahan saw the whole thing. "Wow!", he thought. Mr. Rowe is almost as tough as my Dad. He really did beat him to a pulp. Dolan's wife and kids helped the old man back into the house, face all fucked up, nose bleeding, ears bleeding... I mean, he really really fucked him up.
So the Dolans called the cops. Two Chicago cops came. First, they went to the Dolan's house to talk to Mr. and Mrs. Dolan, and then they came over to talk to Mr. Rowe. Remember that this is Chicago 1966; there wasn't all the bullshit in federal that there is today. "Did you beat that guy up like that?" asked one of the cops. "I sure did" replied Mr. Rowe. "I told him not to use the F-word in front of my daughter. I told him several times as he was using all kinds of foul language. So I told him to stop. He said "fuck you", so I kicked his ass."
The cop hollered over to Dolan who was waiting close by. "Were you using foul language in front of this guy's little girl? Well, you really do need your ass beat then." The cops left. Different world, different time.
Then there was the time Mr. Rowe beat the shit out of his brother-in-law Arnold Coffee. Arnold Coffee had kicked his wife and kids out of his house; he was married to Mrs. Rowe's sister. After they were kicked out, they came to live with the Rowes. Now, you got eight kids sleeping in one bedroom, with sheets and blankets on a dividing line across the room. Girls on one side, boys on the other. Now top it off with three more kids.
So Arnold Coffee shows up one day wanting to talk to his wife. The Rowes let him in the kitchen door, with Danny, Rory and I sitting outside. Suddenly, the boys heard crying and screaming. Arnold Coffee was slapping the shit out of his wife and Mrs Rowe. At the same time, old man Rowe was pulling up in to the house in his Cadillac. His boy, Danny, yelled at him, "Dad, Dad, Uncle Arnold is in there and he's pushing Mom around. Mr. Rowe ran into the house and all you could hear was a fist fight.
Coffee then runs out of the house, jumps in his car and peels out. Ten to fifteen seconds later, Danny runs out of the house. He had a snub-nose .38 revolver in his hand. He ran out into the middle of 103rd Place and cracked six rounds at Arnold's speeding car. He didn't say a word to me or Rory, he simply walked back into the house as calm as anyone could be. No one knew if he hit his car or Arnold himself, but that was the last anybody ever saw of Arnold Coffee at the Rowe's homestead.
The Rowe's were really good people. And Rory McClanahan, an old man now, misses them to this day. They moved out of 103rd Place over to 110th Street. Rory went over to see them and to say hi to his old buddy Danny. In those days kids didn't knock on doors, you stood in front of the house and hollered your buddies name. "YO DANIEEEEE", until somebody answered usually by sticking their head out of the window. This time, Dougie Rowe came out of the house. "Danny's gone, Rory." Rory replied "Oh yeah, where'd he go?"
"My little brother's dead Rory. He hung himself and nobody knows why.
Dougie had tears in his eyes and Rory cried all the way home.