West Side Stories | Essay | Chicago Reader

West Side Stories 

Sears was a few blocks away, at Homan and Arthington. In 1930 half the neighborhood worked there. The girls called it the finishing school, and the boys called it the big house.

The first time I applied what I did was I changed my birth certificate. The woman said, "Did you bring your birth certificate?" I gave it to her, and she held it up to the light and said, "I'm sorry, this birth certificate has been tampered with. I can't accept it." So she gave it back to me, and I went home.

My older sister Marge worked downtown, so I decided since she didn't work at Sears I could take her birth certificate. So I went back the very next day, probably wearing the same dress because I didn't have many, and the same woman said, "Did you bring your birth certificate?"

I gave her the birth certificate, and she held it up to the light and said, "OK, here's the application."

So that's how I went to Sears. I had just turned 16, and I was scared out of my mind, because I knew that everybody from Providence High School worked there.

The day I started the first person I ran into was Catherine Conway, and I said, "Catherine, can I meet you for lunch?"

She said, "Sure."

I said, "Don't call me anything. Don't tell anyone I'm here until I meet you for lunch."

We had macaroni and cheese, which was the best macaroni and cheese I'd ever tasted. I told her my story. "My name is not Jo. I'm Margaret Mary. I didn't know how else to get the job."

She said, "Don't feel so bad. My mother went over to the priest, and he changed my birth certificate for me."

But that's a terrible burden for a kid, to know you're working under an assumed name and there are people who know you from way back. And when is the story going to get around?

From the employment office they sent me to the collection department, and that's the only place I ever worked at Sears. I never left the collection department.

I started as a messenger girl. There were 200 people at desks, one huge office. You would walk around, and each desk had in and out boxes. You'd drop the stuff that went in and pick up the stuff that was going out.

I was at Sears about three days and there was another Margaret, another messenger girl. The timekeeper called us out because of the confusion. I said, "Everyone calls me Mary."

She said, "Well, we can call you M. Mary."

But this other Margaret, she said I looked very familiar. She came back after the weekend and said, "I just discovered where I met you. You were at Genevieve's house for a birthday party. And I was talking to Genevieve last night, and she said you must be Jo working as Marge."

I said, "No, I am Marge working as Marge, and you can tell her that." She never said anything else to me about it.

My mother knew that I would be bringing friends from work home, and she immediately started calling me Mary. Rosemarie did too. But my father and Ed and Marge refused totally. My father said, "She's still Jo to me."

One day a group of us from Sears went to lunch at the Aherns', and all through lunch Mrs. Ahern is calling me Jo. On the way back to work one of the girls asked me about it. I said, "Well, that's what my father always called me. I guess he wanted a boy." See, you have to always be ready when you're a fraud.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

More by Jack Clark

Popular Stories