West Side Stories | Essay | Chicago Reader

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My father, Jack Ryan, had worked since he was very young. He only went to third grade. Then his mother died, and he stayed home to take care of his younger sisters. Eventually he followed his father into the marble business.

Around the turn of the century he left Chicago and went to the west coast. He spent ten years out west. He worked on the state capitols in Sacramento, California, and Boise, Idaho. He also worked on something in Spokane, Washington. He talked about hearing the coyotes at night.

While he was in California he found a short-order restaurant that was for sale alongside the railroad in Colton, and he wanted to buy it. So he wrote to his father and two sisters and asked them to come out to the west coast and help him run it. They wrote back and told him he was out of his cotton-picking mind. He never got over that. He always used that as an example of lack of family cooperation.

In 1959 my husband and I took a trip to California. We went to Colton, and we found a little restaurant alongside the railroad tracks. It was the only place around that looked like a short-order restaurant, and we went in and had a cup of coffee and a piece of pie. Of course the town had changed a lot in all those years.

In 1909 my father came back to the midwest to work on the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, and he met my mother, Maude Hennesey, on a visit to Chicago in 1909. She was a girlfriend of his sister Anna. He went back to Madison, and they corresponded.

Anyway, he married my mother in 1910, and that was the end of his traveling.

He worked on the old First National Bank building, which was torn down. Union Station. He dropped his glasses. He was on a scaffold putting the ceiling in at Union Station, and his glasses fell all the way to the floor. They didn't break. He never got over that.

The last big marble job he worked in Chicago was the Stevens Hotel, now the Hilton. This went up in 1926, '27, '28, and when it opened it was the largest hotel in the world. But when he was finished there was no more work to do. The marble business folded up during the Depression. The last marble job he had, he went to work in Lincoln Park in the conservatory repairing marble work. He worked there for quite a while. What I recall about it mostly is that I worked at Sears, and one of the girls said to me, "Is your father working?"

I said, "Yes, why do you ask?" By that time people weren't asking anymore.

"I noticed you're wearing a brand-new blouse," she said.

This was when the Depression started lifting, 1933, '34--it got a little better then.

I always felt terrible though when I thought about what happened to him, that when he was age 50 there wasn't any work anymore. Except these little odd jobs he got. At age 50, it must have been very terrible to think that he had these kids and he couldn't work.

He was never well-off. Even before the Depression there were always the strikes. He was a very loyal union guy until he was old. Every now and then my father would ask my mother how much money we had in the bank. She'd tell him, and he'd say, "I thought we had more than that."

She'd say, "Well, what do you think we lived on the last time you were on strike?"

He always talked about the unions. He and Marge would argue about them at dinner. Mom would call it the dessert. "I didn't know we were going to have the dessert so early," she'd say.

In his old age my father said he wished he'd been a fireman, because then he'd have a pension.

Pa made about $40 a week as a marble worker. If he worked overtime, maybe $50 or $60.

During the Depression what he finally got was a job at the railroad as a watchman--$19 a week. He would walk around this railroad yard somewhere on the southeast side, and he had to pull these boxes at certain times. He had to get up from the spot where he started, and then he would walk around, pull his boxes, and then go back and sit down until it was time to do it again. My poor mother was so afraid that he would fall asleep and lose the job that she'd set her alarm clock--or sometimes she'd sit up all night--and call to make sure he was up.

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