The South Side of Chicago
When I was a little girl, we lived for a while in Wheaton, Illinois. We'd packed all the family belongings into a little utility trailer and travelled over the Rockies in the dead of winter from Idaho to Illinois so my dad could go back to school at Wheaton College.
We moved into a grey bungalow on Union Avenue, and started driving into the south side of Chicago on Sunday to attend church at a little Brethren in Christ mission run by Carl Carlson and his wife Avas, who were related to my father in some way I never quite understood. The mission was in a storefront building on a street that was mostly deserted on Sunday mornings, except for the other storefront church--what we called the "colored" church--down the block.
We'd leave early for the long drive. The Dan Ryan Freeway opened sometime during those three years, but before that, it was a stop and go ride past reeking stock yards to get to church. Every Sunday I arrived at the mission carsick from the odor and the lurching.
Then we'd sit for what seemed to a child to be an unending service. We may have had Sunday School, but if we did, I remember nothing of it. I do remember the church services: Organ accompanied dragging hymns sung feebly by the few, and then a sermon. Sometimes my dad preached. He wasn't Mennonite in his theology, but Carl Carlson told him that as long as he stuck to preaching the scripture, that shouldn't matter.
After the service, we always stayed for lunch. Upstairs, above the church, was the apartment where the Carlsons and a couple of single women mission workers lived. As a middle of the block storefront building, the only windows in the whole apartment were at the very front in a small sitting room and at the very back in the kitchen. In between were the bedrooms and a dark dining room with a huge table that filled the room and seated twenty or so. Maybe that's an exaggeration--I was just a little girl, remember--but it at least seated the Carlsons, the ladies, my family and a few other families.
The Sunday spread was what made the long drive, the long service, and the long wait in the sitting room paging through old Reader's Digests while the women prepared the food worth it for me. That's where I learned to love cooked cauliflower--cauliflower with cream sauce, to be precise. My parents say that once I more or less ate a whole bowl prepared for twenty all by myself, to the amusement of the adults, who kept sending the bowl of creamed cauliflower back round past me to see if I'd eat more.
Once we'd finished eating and the dishes were done, we left for home. On one Sunday afternoon, we went outside to our black Chevy parked on the street in front of the mission to find that my father had locked the keys in the car.
As my dad struggled with a wire coat hanger to unlock the door, a very large, neatly dressed, but tough looking man strolled by. "Here," he said, "I can help you with that." And from his side he pulled up a chain with a round metal key holder the size of a saucer, chock full of car keys. He rummaged through them for only a second to find the right one, unlocked the door for us, and we were off. We were very thankful for the help, but we've always wondered what he really used all those keys for.
Whenever I hear the Jim Croce song, the man with the big key chain is who I picture. For me, that is Leroy Brown.