Naked Ghosts, Stewardesses & Sandburg Village at Night

In the fall of 1969 my older sister moved into her first apartment on the twenty-fifth floor of a brand new, gleaming, glass walled highrise. It was part of the Sandburg Village housing development named after the writer who called Chicago the “hog butcher for the world.” Funded with a mix of government and private money, it was intended to serve a mix of low income and middle class tenants, but the only people who could afford to live there were young college graduates and singles with good jobs. My sister’s building was one of the first in a collection of skyscrapers, low rises, four-plus-ones and townhouses that slowly replaced the SRO’s and vacant lots covering acres of land between LaSalle and Clark, running from North Avenue to Division Street.

I was eleven that year, and the whole Halloween experience seemed babyish until my sister turned my head by inviting me and my friend Linda over for dinner and an evening of trick-or-treating. Instead of going house-to-house, shivering in the cold,  the prospect of hitting thirty floors, multiple apartments on each – without a wrinkle in our costumes – was positively cushy! We’d need a truck to bring home all of the sweet candy goodness!

So it was with great expectations that Linda and I arrived at my sister’s door that night. And I wasn’t disappointed. She’d decorated her apartment with the traditional Halloween-themed accoutrements: orange crepe paper streamers, a table cloth with black cats and witches on brooms, orange and black paper plates, napkins and matching plastic utensils. All of this enhanced by a backdrop courtesy of floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows which displayed  a spectacle one could only appreciate in Chicago:  a panoramic vista of three flats as far as the eye could see, their roofs reflecting the shimmering, golden autumn sunset. Cupcakes, pizza, orange soda…I was amazed and delighted. My friend was, too.

When we finished our supper my sister lit a pair of black tapered candles as we mapped out strategy. It was simple:  Linda and I would start at the 29th floor and work our way down the building, using the hallway stairs. We’d empty our bags “as needed” in my sister’s apartment, a short elevator ride away.

Thoughts of candy mountains danced through my head as we grabbed our supplies and marched toward the stairwell. But we didn’t get very far because the lights went out, plunging the hallway into darkness. We returned to my sister’s apartment.  Only the telephone worked, and a call to the doorman revealed that a  Com Ed transformer had exploded and it was anyone’s guess when the electricity would be restored.

While I was royally pissed about the aborted trick-or-treating mission, my friend trembled and cried because she was frightened of the dark. Her embarrassing  behavior made me wish I’d never invited her. Eventhough she was a wimp, I knew the fun could be salvaged if we viewed this as an adventure! We could  still go trick-or-treating with flashlights! Yes!!

My sister offered an emphatic “no” to my suggestion.

Moments later we heard voices in the hallway. My sister opened her door to reveal…her new neighbors! Introductions were made, and the next thing I knew, we were in the midst of a party at a bona fide “bachelor pad.”

The host, an airline pilot (in uniform — not a costume) who smelled like whiskey, offered to get me and my crying friend a beer, which made my friend cry even harder. We settled for Cokes.  Several pretty women in stewardess uniforms hovered around my friend, trying to comfort her while someone in the bathroom was smoking a disgustingly smelly cigarette which made me cough. My friend, who had calmed down a bit, was now hiccupping and sniffling and sipping her drink through a straw. I was bored and hoped the lights would come on soon so we could squeeze in a few floors of trick-or-treating before my parents came to get us.

Then the ghosts arrived – in the form of six intoxicated adults wearing sandals and bed sheets. It turned out they were cast members from the musical Hair that was playing at the Schubert Theater in the Loop.  They were heading out to a party when the electricity went off.  From the way they looked, it was obvious the festivities had started many hours earlier. Their leader, clearly male judging from his deep voice and hairy legs, was bumping around the cramped apartment before he flopped down on the carpet next to me.

“I don’t have any eye holes” he said. It was true…his floral bed sheet was completely intact, making him a sightless, daisy sprinkled, ghost. “I need help. Will you design my costume?”

“Sure!” I said. 

Someone handed me a pair of scissors.  I expected Ghost Man to take off his sheet so I could get to work, but that was not to be. Instead he insisted I make the costume while he was still wearing it. Although I managed to oblige his wishes, it was not my best effort, and the eye holes ended up raggedy and off center. Nonetheless, Ghost Man seemed satisfied with the result. Anyway, I had a good excuse for poor workmanship. And he had a very good reason for not removing the sheet. He was completely naked underneath.

My sister who had been nowhere in sight, suddenly appeared, holding a flashlight.

“It’s time for you and Linda to go. Mom and dad are supposed to pick you up at ten-thirty.”

Linda sniffled a bit and got up. We said goodbye to our host who was mixing drinks in the small kitchen. Then Linda started to cry again when she realized we would be walking down 25 flights of stairs in the dark, so my sister got us involved in singing “One-hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall” all the way to the first floor. Actually it was more like “Two-hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall” because we were pretty slow.

We pushed through the revolving doors into the cold October night, and walked over to my parents who were sitting in their car. My sister recounted the events of the evening in the most generic of terms because, as both she and I knew, they would not be thrilled to hear what their eleven-year-old and her over-sheltered friend had been exposed to.

Suddenly, the lights burst on and the glass building, like a huge beacon, illuminated the entire street.  Gradually the lobby filled with people heading out for the remainder of the night, and my sister left us to catch the elevator now that the electrical service had been restored.

My father turned the key in the ignition and was about to pull away from the curb, when my mother exclaimed, “Look at those disreputable people!”

The headlights of our car passed right through Ghost Man’s designed-by-me sheet, revealing his silhouette and more, as he and his ghost friends wandered off to their party.

*Image courtesy of Chicago History Museum, ICHi-37474, Photographer – Calvin Hutchinson Photography.

About jacullman

Excellent parallel parker & recovering optimist.
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