Growing up on the south side of Chicago was a wonderful experience for me. I spent over thirty years there and, later, over thirty years living on Cape Cod. If I were given the choice of growing up again in Chicago or on Cape Cod, I would definitely choose my old neighborhood in Chicago! I still email at least ten guys I grew up with. But, this story isn’t about me; at least I don’t think it is. My wife, who was my childhood sweetheart, is convinced that I was Charlie, but I told her I couldn’t be him. Charlie is Polish and I’m Irish.
The fiction novel is a sensitive, hard-hitting, sometimes tragic, sometimes funny accounting of the trials and tribulations of growing up in Chicago. The story follows Charlie Wykowski from graduating eight grade through six months after finishing high school. The story reveals his first encounter with sex (a few days before graduating grammar school), gang problems, coping with personal tragedy and trying to survive the day-to-day traumas of big city life.
Charlie lives in a blue collar, predominantly Polish neighborhood that was tagged the ‘Back of the Yards’ because it is just south of Chicago’s stockyards. The neighborhood is a mixture of Polish, Slovak and Lithuanian emigrants. Some of the residents are second generation. None are third generation. When the winds shift from the north, the over-powering, pungent odors from the stockyards permeate Charlie’s neighborhood like sharp fingernails dragging across a blackboard. From the west, the vinegar works dominate the air with equally nose stinging aromas. The railroad viaduct, about a third of a block from his house, added to the daily clamor of his neighborhood.
The grammar school and high school that Charlie attended were Catholic where Polish is taught as a second language. Its strict Catholic teachings, taboos, and overbearing nuns dominate his young life. He dreads Confession each week, especially with Father Paul who seems to thrive on prying into his private life and giving hefty penances.
In addition, he is faced with situations forced on him by his parent’s harsh immigrant expectations in their new world. Their European demands of strict parenting, added to the daily temptations of friends, sex, and power, and the underlying nuances of debilitating ethnic and religious taboos, plague his day-to-day reasoning, scruples, and decision-making processes. He is torn between wanting to please his friends, parents, and the good nuns and dominant priests of Saint Stanislaus, and to be socially accepted within his paltry blue-collar, gang infested community on Chicago’s south side.
Prior to starting high school, the neighborhood kids tolerated Charlie. He’s a straight ‘A’ student, a benchwarmer for the neighborhood softball team, and the prettiest girl at St. Stanislaus grammar school, Felicia, is in love with him. The only Irishman in the neighborhood, Kevin O'Brien was his only friend until a major event propelled Charlie into a notorious glare of publicity in his neighborhood. All the major Chicago newspapers, including the local ‘Back Of The Yards Journal’, reported the story that involved a few Mexican-American kids that lived outside of the neighborhood, a homemade bomb, and the police. After the Mexican bombing incident, Charlie was elected president of a local club called the Blue Moon, which coincidently is located in his basement.
Charlie, with the not always good advice and assistance of his best friend Kevin, is thrown into volatile dilemmas and challenges that help create a firm inner self, develop tough core values, and mold confident personal qualities that sometimes clash with the norms of his neighborhood. Somewhat naïve, yet highly intelligent, Charlie realizes there are no cut and dried rules that will merge his challenging, stressful and demanding adolescent life into his struggle for power and emotional stability. The story is of a young man’s deep personal loves, enduring passions, his struggle for power, and overcoming heartbreak and misfortune.
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