Chicago's Virgin Mary Image.
Dancing Under the Expressway
The apostles came up and said to the Master,” Give us more faith”
But the Master said “You don’t need more faith. There is no ‘More” or “less” in faith. If you have a bare kernel of faith, say the size of a poppy seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, “Go jump in the lake” and it would do it.
From Luke 17. “The Message” translation.
It happened not far from the spot where Chicago’s Kennedy Expressway paved over the apartment at 1523 West Wabansia Avenue.
Just a bit north of that long buried apartment where Nelson Algren and Simone deBeauvoir would wander home late at night from the neighborhood tap; an mage of the Virgin Mary appeared on the concrete wall beneath where the Kennedy crosses Fullerton Parkway
Obdulia Delgado, the first known person to see the image, was on her way home from work at the hospital. And as she drove down Fullerton Parkway beneath the Kennedy, traffic thundering above on the concrete artery connecting O’Hare Airport with the towers of downtown Chicago; she looked at the wall and immediately pulled on over. If you put the image, drawn in salt stained runoff from the highway above, if you put it next to an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe you’d have a pretty close match.
Viewed through the lens of a camera the image becomes even sharper, the lines distinct and close to clear. Obdulia Delgado fell to her knees and began to pray.
And then---because this is Chicago, forever and always a cross roads; while Obdulia knelt and prayed and the traffic zoomed by and roared overhead--- at a train station just a little bit south near the loop, a tall, serene and radiant black man carrying a battered saxophone case stepped down off the train and through the railroad steps of smoke and time. Finally having found that one perfect sound he had sought during all his time on earth; John Coltrane found his way to that underpass, knelt down next to Obdulia to lift his gleaming golden horn from its case, stood up tall, closed his eyes and began with the two perfect bell shaped notes of a piece he called: Dear Lord.
John Coltrane’s “Dear Lord” echoes out from that underpass, along with the news of what Obdulia found on the wall, that perfect sound heading off towards Division Street. Nelson Algren hears Coltranes howl and he wanders up to Fullerton to have himself a look.
A slight bespectacled man, a counterpoint to the massive presence of Coltrane, Algren stands off to the side to watch the fun begin. Knowing now that when he shows up: others will follow; Algren listens and he watches and remembers a letter he tossed off once to a man, a Korean War vet who wrote to ask about what it was like to write “Man with a Golden Arm.” Algren replied to the man:
“But there were never days when I felt I wouldn't complete it. I knew that, unless the army got me again or a Buick bumped me, I'd get a story put together, because I had the parts to put together. My self-doubts weren't concerned with whether it would be completed, but only whether it would say anything, and say it well, as nobody else could ever have said it, when it was done. All those things came true, to a limited degree, so I feel it was a lucky book, and a lucky time now past, and I was lucky to write it.”
Algren smiles ruefully to himself, standing underneath that bridge---knowing now that it was not about the luck. And when Algren chuckles, Coltrane stops for just an instant and joins in the laugh---seeing Coltrane smile, much less laugh—like some sort of miracle or something!
In that instant of the pause and the chuckle: two new Chicago wanderers: this time from the South Side join in underneath that bridge. Appearing first with a scowl, till somebody from the crowd that is beginning to build around that image of the Virgin shouts out, “Yo Studs Lonnigan, you kissin the old dump goodbye?”
When he hears those words, James T. Farrell breaks out in a crooked Irish grin, and as soon as Farrell smiles a new piece of music, dredged up as if the land itself, the dirt and the sweat and the layers of time could come bursting through the cement in a four bar blues, massive guitar and voice of all the earth---McKinley Morganfield--Muddy Waters growls,
“C’mon baby don’t you want to go?
C’mon baby don’t you want to go?
Back to that same old place.
Sweet home Chicago
As Muddy Waters just roars, the crowd grows even bigger.
A weary wandering con man, over there in the corner by himself, 57 year old Harry stumbles in from the deserted bleachers of a cold September Cubs game, his last name L-U-M tattooed in purple on the back of his hand.
And just as Harry looks down again at his hand, another Chicagoan steps out of Millers Pub underneath the El Tracks on Wabash, and joins the pack underneath the expressway. His belly full of beer and more gut level smarts about what mattered to people than the next six generations of baseball executives would ever even dream of, Bill Veeck hobbled over to join in the crowd.
With Veeck now present and accounted for, it was most certainly a party. And because in Chicago the music can be endless along with being timeless---Muddy Waters yielded the stage in this street shrine to an elf of a man who reached just about as high as John Coltrane’s waist. Steve Goodman walks up to Coltrane, grins and says, “Hey, how’s the weather up there.?” And once again a miracle. Coltrane laughs! Then Goodman strums:
“The streetlights are on in Chicago tonight
And lovers are gazin at stars
The stores are all closing and Daley is dozing
And the fat man is counting his cars!”
And when the crowd gets to the chorus of “Lincoln Park Pirates” Hey, hey blow um away! The Lincoln Park Pirates are we! A new line forms underneath that bridge with the Virgin on the wall: and a parade begins to form!
Deep beneath the Kennedy Expressway above: every single St Patrick’s Day Parade---all the politicians, all the floats. All the marching bands. It’s a parade!
And on the reviewing stand—there he stands---The Mayor.
Richard J Daley! Look him straight in the eye and all the political power is no where to be found. Look him straight in the eye and what do you see? You see a kid. A great big kid who gets to watch a parade!
Now the place is overflowing.
The parade marches thru then back then around every square inch of that underpass with the Virgin on the wall. A slight pause to catch a breath and then just when you think it is about to wind down---still another voice.
This one lifts up the corn fields of Iowa, the woods of Wisconsin, the rich farmland of southern Illinois, the pure crystal tones and unlimited range of Bonnie Koloc joining those who come before with those here now. She sings
“I’ve got to believe
In all my love songs”
And as that voice soars up and out encompassing everything and everyone who even thought about what was going on underneath the expressway next to the image of the Virgin Mary---Bonnie Koloc gives way to a voice whose origin is now off with Coltrane. From the very deepest part of the faith, from the very kernel of the faith, a gospel sound of Mahalia Jackson:
“We are travelin in the footsteps
Of those who come before
And we’ll all be re-united.”
Then Mahalia is surrounded by Pops Staples, Mavis Staples and her sisters all there too
Oh when the saints
Go marchin in
Oh when the saints go marchin in!
And as they all parade together, swirling in and around the expressway underpass, dancing Chicago spirits all, it is the same song, the same “When the Saints Go Marchin In” segued over to the Weavers, a crazy haired Woody Guthrie marching along right next to Pete Seeger, Fred Hellerman, Lee Hays, and Ronnie Gilbert and look, there’s Win Strache up there, his deep full tones leading everyone who ever even thought about picking up a guitar at the Old Town School of Folk Music. . . .
Some say this world of trouble
Is the only world we’ll know. .
But we’ll all be re-united. .
All hands clapping now the music and the words just resounding! That white haired crazy man in the fedora---Saul Bellow right in the middle of it all still writing, drawing out some grand idea he'd scribble down later at his desk in Hyde Park later while the flocks of blindingly yellow canaries blanketed the trees outside his window.
And over there. There’s Royko holding a softball, pushing out the door of the Billy Goat on to the darkness of lower Wacker that melts into this same darkness underneath the bridge with the Virgin on the wall. Royko delivering the words every single day for years and years, he stands now with the others holding a tossing a softball up and down and looking for a game. The music comes up again and---
Pete Seeger leads the crowd!
Oh when the saints!
Go marchin in!
Pete and Woody having slept the previous night on kitchen floor of the grey haired, stooped over man in the red checkered shirt and of course his lovely wife Ida, the one man who comes along at the end of this parade. . .the last man in the line. . .
Studs Terkel walks over to where Obdulia is praying, cocks his head and smiles, then he shuffles to the east, a strange, old man shuffle that is somehow, someway strangely young and sprightly at the very same time. Studs moves out from underneath where the Kennedy Expressway crosses over Fullerton Parkway, Studs Terkel walks into the light of the sun coming up over the lake to the east---waves his arm motioning us all inside underneath that bridge and in that grizzled old voice of time and what’s best about Chicago, Studs Terkel, says:
Come inside! All of you. Listen to this music. There is a God still speaking here. Come inside and join us!
About the Author
Roger Wright can be found on the blog Church Food Chicago.http://blogs.salon.com/0004257/
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