On Being a Suspicious Character

Had an interesting encounter this evening in the West Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago. I was waiting outside Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church — an African American Lutheran church — to rehearse some music with Minister of Music Sam Widemon. (We’re playing at Resurrection Lutheran’s Worship in the Street next Sunday, and I have asked him to join me at Lion & Lamb Festival.) Sam is an amazing musician, and it turns out, is deeply in love with my music.

But Sam was late. (He called me, told me I was tied up in traffic.) So, I sat in my van, waiting, at the corner of West End and Keeler. Now, West Garfield Park is a rough neighborhood. It was once a very German immigrant neighborhood, from sometime in the late 19th century until probably the early 1950s, when the children and grandchildren of White European migrants — Swedes, Germans, Norwegians, Danes — left for the suburbs. And were replaced, initially, on the south and west sides of Chicago by African Americans.

There’s still the bits and pieces of the old German infrastructure around. Churches with foundation stones and stained glass in German. A few old synagogues now doing duty as Missionary Baptist Churches. While never well loved by the powers that be, West Garfield Park has fallen into decay and disrepair. Abandoned homes. Boarded up apartment buildings that were probably once quite lovely for a working-class neighborhood. The neighborhood lost 25 percent of its residents in the 1990s as folks who could leave did. Leaving behind those who, for whatever reason, cannot leave.

Anyway, there I was, alone in my van. Sitting with my backpack and my guitar (in a gig bag) next to me. I’ve been waiting a half hour when a couple of young men approach the van, and ask me to roll down the window.

“How can I help you, sir?” I ask.

“You go here?” asks one young man, pointing to the church.

“Yes sir, I do. I’m waiting for Sam Widemon, the minister of music.”

He seems to relax a bit. “We know Sam. Okay. But we just needed to check. Trying to keep suspicious characters out of the neighborhood, you know.”

And as they turn away, I notice the second young man has two screwdrivers, which he had been holding behind him. One in each hand.

They hung around the car, at a distance, for about 15 minutes. A younger boy asks me for money, which I say I don’t have. And the other two appear to dress him down for it.

And then they leave.

Over the course of the next 10 minutes, three police SUVs drove by. No one in them even slowed down to give me a second look.

It was an interesting encounter. I was a little bit nervous, uncertain what exactly was going to happen when I was asked to roll the window down. Exactly where things would go from there.

But I also had to appreciate this — I was a lone white man, sitting alone in a non-descript silver van, with something that might have looked like a weapon (my guitar in the gig bag). I was a suspicious character. (I have seen a few white people in the neighborhood, usually folks very down on their luck. The only white people in cars I’ve seen there were either police or there to buy drugs. I have been asked twice if I was there to buy drugs.) I think the young man who spoke to me was sincere, on some level, about what his intentions were. Had robbery been the point, I doubt that my being at Bethel Church would have saved me.

I have to appreciate that I’ve lived a very different experience of race in American than many white people. Largely because I was Muslim for many years, which made me the minority. (I still remember the afternoon, after prayer, when a young boy whose parents were Libyans looked up at me, grasped the side of my head with his small hands, and exclaimed: “Your eyes! They’re blue!”) Among African American Muslims, that made me one of them. I’ve been asked for my slave name (my Muslim name was Omar), lived and worked and prayed in places people who look like me would be too afraid to even think about going into.

Once, I even worked for a member of the Nation of Islam. Which is a fun story that I will tell someday. But not today.

But, I also know that none of this experience is apparent. That no one can look at me and know those things about me. I know that I am no longer Muslim, I no longer dress as a Muslim, and so I cannot be identified as a Muslim in a neighborhood like West Garfield Park. Instead, I am something much less interesting and much more problematic: a white man. And I carry the baggage of all that means in a place like Chicago.

(This ability to easily slip between worlds, to know that the rules of American race don’t really apply to me anymore because I have joined a community of people who have generally seceded from them, is one of the things I miss terribly about not being Muslim.)

I don’t focus so much on my safety (though I never try to do anything too careless of stupid), but rather what my presence — and who I appear to be — means for those around me. I do not want to be an attractive nuisance in a neighborhood like West Garfield Park, do not want to be the reason someone else gets themselves into trouble. That way of thinking about one’s own personal safety then makes it a way of thinking about others. I find it helpful. But then I have a very unique set of experiences on this. A very unique perspective.

I’m still not sure what today was about, what my meeting with the ad hoc neighborhood watch committee on Keeler meant. I find myself wondering what would have had to happen for the whole encounter to have gone badly. I do not know who the young men were, what their interest was. For a moment I was a suspicious character. I do not wish to speculate.

But for a moment, I was a suspicious character.

Insane Pride

No morally upright critique of vice, sin, iniquity an corruption would be complete without a condemnation of homosexuality. And boy, does L. O. Curon let the condemnation flow freely in Chicago, Satan’s Sanctum. He does everything except actually use the word “homosexual.” Which I’m guessing no one did in polite company in 1899.

(One interesting side light. When Curon wants to get graphic about sexual practices he considers immoral, he retreats into ancient history and ancient Greek literature for his examples. It’s an interesting use for a classical education. Some of that is at work here in this passage.)

Anyway, back to Curon. And some of his purplest prose yet (starts on p. 145)!

The dens of the sexual pervert of the male sex, found in the basements of buildings in the most crowded, but least respectable parts of certain streets, with immoral theaters, cheap museums, opium joints and vile concert saloons surrounding them, are the blackest holes of iniquity that ever existed in any country since the dawn of history. A phrase was recently coined in New York which conveys—in the absence of the possibility of describing them in decent language—the meaning of the brute practices indulged in these damnable resorts, and the terrible consequences to humanity as a result of unnatural habits—“Paresis Halls.” 

No form of this indulgence described by writers on the history of morals, no species of sodomy the debased minds of these devils can devise, is missing from the programme of their diabolical orgies. In divine history we read of the abominations of the strange women of Israel, with their male companions, in their worship of Moloch, Belphegor and Baal, and of the death penalties pronounced by Moses against the participants in them. To suppress the brutish immorality, and prevent the spread of disease arising from it, the Jewish law giver put to death all his Midianite female captives except the virgins. Profane history tells of the infamies of the Babylonian banquets, of the incestuous and “promiscuous combats of sensuality” of the Lydians and the Persians; of the Athenian Auletrides, or female flute players, who danced and furnished music at the banquets of the nobility and wallowed in the filth of every sensual indecency, and of the polluted condition of Roman life, prior to, and as the Christian era dawned, but in all the untranslatable literature of eroticism no description of the debaucheries of the ancients, if freely interpreted into English from the dead languages in which they are preserved, could depict the nastiness these yahoos are reported as having introduced into our midst, and rendered more hateful and disgusting by the squalor of their underground abodes. The young are lured by them, ruined in health and seared in conscience. The very slang of the streets is surcharged with expressions, derived from, and directly traceable to, the names of these unmentionable acts of lechery. 

Not content with the private and crafty pursuit of their calling, they must flaunt it in the faces of the public and under the very eyes of the police, in a series of annual balls held by the “fruits” and the “cabmen,” advertised by placards extensively all over the city. At these disreputable gatherings the pervert of the male persuasion displays his habits by aping everything feminine. In speech, walk, dress and adornment they are to all appearances women. The modern mysteries of the toilet, used to build up and round out the female figure, are applied in the make-up of the male pervert. Viewed from the galleries, it is impossible to distinguish them from the sex they are imitating. Theirs is no maid-marian costume; it is strictly in the line of the prevailing styles among fashionable women, from female hair to pinched feet. The convenient bar supplies the liquid excitement, and when the women arrivals from the bagnios swarm into the hall, led in many instances by the landlady, white or black, and the streets and saloons have contributed their quotas, the dance begins and holds on until the morning hours approach. The acts are those mainly suggestive of indecency. Nothing, except the gross language and easy familiarity in deportment, coupled with the assumed falsetto voice and effeminate manners of the pervert, would reveal to the uninformed observer what a seething mass of human corruption he is witnessing. As the “encyclopedia of the art of making up” puts it, “the exposed parts of the human anatomy” usually displayed in fashionable society are counterfeited so perfectly, the wigs are selected and arranged with such nicety, the eyebrows and lashes so dexterously treated, and the features so artistically touched with cosmetics, as to make it very difficult, at first glance, to distinguish between the impostor and the real woman. The big hands and tawdry dresses, the large though pinched feet and the burly ankle, betray the sex of the imitating pervert. 

No reason, except that the police are paid for non-interference with these vice pitted revels, can be given for their toleration. The city’s officials are either in collusion with their projectors, they are incompetent, or are the willing tools of these stinking body scavengers. These beasts look with disdain upon the votaries of natural pleasures, and have an insane pride in their hopeless degradation.

His citing of biblical commands — “the Jewish law giver put to death all his Midianite female captives except the virgins” — suggests Curon would happily take the first stone (and second, and third) and throw them. Hard. But he doesn’t say that. He doesn’t say anything except condemn these saloons full of drag queens and people with ruined bodies and seared consciences. I’m guessing he doesn’t really care what the police, when they aren’t being paid to let these places do business, would do to their inmates.

More than anything, he wants to prevent people from living like this. From falling to this. The fact of such people in a society are a sign not just of its decadence, but it’s weakness. Which is why society needed to be regimented, tightly controlled, scripted and organized, young people given strict guidance and things to belong to — sports clubs, Boy Scouts, classrooms, armies. (The hymn that most reflects this awful worldview is “Earth and All Stars.”) A weak society cannot engage in uplift, cannot defend itself from barbarians (Filipino cockfighters and Chinese opium dealers!), cannot redeem the world.

And this is the face of the Liberal Christianity of the late 19th and early 20th century that we inherit — a faith that saw itself as acting to redeem the world, a world that human beings would have to redeem if it were to be redeemed at all. If Curon is a churchman (I and believe he is; he devotes a whole introductory chapter to quotes from other churchmen on the evils of Chicago and the need for better or more moral government), the faith he subscribes to puts the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ far to the side. Jesus doesn’t really save us, and he is almost peripheral to our actual salvation. Rather, Jesus empowers us to save ourselves using all the scientific tools that mass industrial democratic civilization give us.

This is the legacy of Liberal Christianity that I oppose. Because we still struggle with that, in the ethics of Niebuhr, the social activism of Martin Luther King, in all the revolutionary nonsense (pseudo and real) of liberation theology, which in the end, makes human beings the agents of their own salvation. Indeed, necessary agents of their own salvation, as it won’t otherwise happen if human beings don’t act.

In this, the cross and empty tomb become quaint stories, things to sing sanctimonious and sentimental hymns about, but which don’t really matter. Because the saving of the world is man’s work.

Have Scissors, Will Commit Felony

Another wonderful tidbit from L.O. Curon’s 1899 volume of moral agitprop, Chicago, Satan’s Sanctum. The pool room in question is not for billiards. Rather, it is an illegal gambling establishment where people bet on “pools” of things — racing results, baseball games, the Yale-Harvard crewing regatta, Filipino cockfights, whatever. Curon has not so far explained how it works.

The want of an energetic police is the cause of the prevalence of such abominable offenses as hair clipping, or the severing from the heads of young girls upon the public streets their braids of hair. One of these perverts was arrested and excused himself upon the ground that it was a mania with him, and that the temptation to cut off the braids of hair from every young girl he met, was almost irresistible. If detectives, instead of lounging around their daily haunts for drinking purposes, loafing in cigar stores, and playing the pool rooms, were mingling with the crowds upon the streets, offenses of this character would be nearly impossible, although this particular weakness seems to lead its impulsive perpetrators to less crowded thoroughfares, and selects the hours of going to and returning from school, as the most favorable parts of the day for its gratification. It may be prompted by a morbid desire, but it is none the less a serious offense, which, as yet, the criminal law has not defined, and has therefore not provided a proper penalty for its punishment. No evidence, so far as it is known, has yet been adduced to show that the braids of hair are ever sold to dealers in that article, such as wig manufacturers, etc. If such evidence should be forthcoming, the ingenuity of the average criminal for the discovery of new methods of despoliation will receive additional confirmation.

The quality of our perverts has sadly declined in the last century. Maybe it’s because so many girls don’t wear their hair in braids anymore.

When You Visit Chicago, Always Bring Your Guns With You

Another post from Chicago, Satan’s Sanctum, by L. O. Curon. From chapter four (I think it starts at the bottom of p. 117) which outlines the various different kinds of gambling, robbery and theft that went on in Chicago 100 years ago. For obvious reasons, I’m not gonna comment on this. Because, to be honest, there’s just not a lot to add to this account. I make no apologies for Curon’s language. He is, after all, writing in 1899:

Boys in their teens, men and women, both black and white, the latter of the strong armed class, comprise this coterie of criminals. The strong armed women, generally negresses, have the developed muscles of the pugilist and the daring of the pirate. They entice the stranger into dark passage ways, that innocent stranger, so unfamiliar, but so willing to be made familiar with the wickedness of a great city, who seeks out its most disreputable quarters and scours its darkest byways, to report to his mates, on his return to his country home, the salacious things that he has heard of, and a few of which he witnessed. In these dark and dangerous ways the strong armed women garrote and rob their victims, or they entice the innocent, but lustful, stranger to their rooms, and there, through the panel game, or by sheer strength or drugged potations, appropriate the innocent stranger’s valuables. Mortified and humiliated, the stranger usually has nothing to say to the police of the affair. Then the emboldened strong armed women go upon the street in couples, and rob in the most approved methods of the highwayman. Alone, one of these notorious characters is said to have pilfered to the extent of $60,000. She was, and is, a terror to the police force. Released from the penitentiary not long ago, she is now undergoing trial for a fresh offense. Approaching a commercial traveler from behind, she is charged with having nearly strangled him, and then robbed him of his money and jewelry. 

“Only one man ever got the best of E. F.,” said detective Sergeant C. R. W., of Harrison street station, who had arrested E. F. frequently. 

“Once she held up a cowboy and took $150 from him. He came up to the station hotfoot to report the robbery. We were busy and a little slow in sending out after E., whereupon the cowboy allowed he’d start out after her on his own hook. He met her down by the Polk street depot, and the moment he spotted her he walked right up close to her and covered her with two six-shooters. 

“You’ve got $150 of my money, now shell out nigger,” he said. 

“Go and get a warrant and have me arrested then,” replied the big colored woman, who wanted time to plant the coin. 

“These are good enough warrants for me,” returned the cowboy significantly, as he poked the revolvers a trifle closer to her face. “Now, I’m going to count twenty, and if I don’t see my money coming back before I reach twenty, I’ll go with both guns.” 

“When he reached eighteen, E. weakened. She drew out a wad and held it out toward him. But the cowboy was wise and would not touch the roll till she had walked to the nearest lamplight under the escort of his two guns and counted out the $150. Then he let her go and came back to the station and treated.”

Progressives, Behold Your Forebears!

Gosh, but it’s been too long since I’ve posted here.

I have been downloading and reading books from Project Gutenberg. It’s a wonderful site, and you should explore what they have. Mostly old books, and some of them are gems (I’m currently reading Samuel Johnson’s rendering of The Illiad.). It’s how we’re keeping Jennifer in reading material right now. I download books and then put them on her Kindle for her. And she reads 40 or so in the span of about three weeks.

Me? I don’t read so fast. Today, however, I found this little book from 1899, Chicago, Satan’s Sanctum, by one L. O. Curon. The book doesn’t say who he is, but if I have to guess, I’d say he’s a Methodist or Presbyterian minister. And he spends the book railing against all sorts of things. Mostly, he is convinced that the City of Chicago is one giant den of iniquity, vice and corruption. I’ve not gotten to Curon’s conclusion, but if I had to guess, I would think he is in favor of the civil service act, good government, women’s suffrage, regular church attendance, prohibition, social and moral uplift, honesty, decency and good Christian living. I think he’s in favor of those things. So far, he’s more against than for.

Because it’s clear what he’s against: drunkenness, prostitution, bars open after midnight, houses of ill repute, gambling, dishonest policing (he spends a whole chapter, and a not so interesting one, on the corruption of the Chicago Police Department), dancing, street life, lesbianism, cockfighting (described as “the national pastime of the Filipinos”), and that constant threat to proper Christian life in America, negro music:

Strolling bands of negro musicians, scraping the violin and strumming the guitar and mandolin, or the home orchestra, composed of these dusky minstrels, add their alleged harmonies to the occasion, and, with nasal expression, roll of coon songs in the popular rag time, with their intimations of free love, warmth of passion and disregard of moral teachings. At times, with assumed pathos and mock dignity they warble a sentimental song with some allusion to “Mother,” “Home,” or “Just Tell Them That You Saw Me.” The spree goes on, with fresh additions from the bagnios. Women with the most repulsive signs of prolonged dissipation, of advanced disease, with the upper parts of the body exposed, not perhaps more than is customary at a fashionable charity ball, join in with salacious abandon.

(Perhaps Curon would have felt differently about “alleged harmonies” had they been singing “Nearer My God to Thee” accompanied by a harmonium in a church somewhere…)

My guess is Curon is probably opposed to race mixing, too. And if he’s the late-19th/early 20th century pastor I full expect him to be, he’s probably a progressive, in the way Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were progressives, believers in clean government, social uplift, labor laws, imperialism, and eugenics. Yes, liberals and progressives, these are your forebears. You may not have a problem with the “scraping of the violin and the strumming of the guitar and mandolin” by “strolling bands of negro musicians,” but this kind of prissy nonsense — that sought the eradication of anything remotely interesting in city life, and instead its replacement with “alleged” small town virtue (later combined with scientific management concocted at leading universities) — is part and parcel of the striving for a state-centered society in America.

The Bicycle-Eating Potholes of Chicago

Of all the dangers a bicyclist faces in Chicago, potholes are probably the greatest. No part of this city is immune, and there are even streets in way upscale Hyde Park that look like they’ve been hit by cluster bombs and artillery submunitions. They can make motoring unpleasant. They can make cycling lethal — try steering around some of these in heavy traffic…

Here are a few of the nastiest potholes I’ve come across. Most of these are on the West Side.


Fill this one with water and you could fish from it. I want to say this is on Lake Street, but I don’t remember exactly where it is. It could possibly be visible from space.

This is on Lake Street, about five blocks or so west of Larramie. This has since been covered up with a steel plate which sits at a funny angle and is not quite flat, thus making a nice “clang!” every time someone drives over it. This one was a couple of feet deep, and I think the weed was actually growing in there. (There’s a larger pothole on Lake in Oak Park that has swallowed a city trash can…)

I don’t quite remember where this was either.


This yonical pothole was maybe a meter deep — it might have its own mineral rights or lead to the kind of lost world Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote about. This was somewhere just west of the West Loop area.

That Old Folk Religion

Okay, so I’m sitting in a Starbucks in Chicago’s “Little Arabia” neighborhood (very little) and I’m perusing the India Bulletin, looking at the pictures of the Bollywood starlets and the articles on the Nano and how Obama wants “results” and “accountability” from Pakistan when I come across this nifty advert from the Hindu Temple of Georgia — the one Sherman marched through, not the other one just south of Russia.

The advert features Sri Sri Selvam “Siddhar” who also goes, it appears, by the name of “Dr. Commander Selvam.” Now THAT’S the most awesome title I’ve ever seen — Dr. Commander. It beats reverend doctor to a pulp, and only other title I’ve seen that came close was Doctor Chief Warrant Officer 4, though I think I remember the head of Air India in Dubai in 1995 went by the title Captain Engineer. I want to be a Dr. Commander, and as soon as I’ve finished this post, I’m going to find a mail-order outfit that will make me a Dr. Commander for $29.95 (or its equivalent in rupees). Or I will start one, and style myself a Dr. Commander, print up business cards, register a domain name and put up a website.

Anyway, Dr. Commander Sri Sri Selvam “Siddhar” (nickname? title?) owns his own ashram and was, according to the copy in his advert, “[t]he first Indian American in USA, who donated $14 million as a single donation to build the only Shiva Temple in the world with 108 Shiv in Georgia.” (Yeah, there are all kinds of grammar problems with that sentence. And if that’s what you have to do to become a Dr. Commander, then I am clearly out of the running, not having $14 million and not interested in building a Shiva Temple with 108 of anything. Still, I want that title…) And he also says that he is available to help with (quoted as is from advert):

Spiritual healings for problems Relates to Marriage, Family Business, Job, Immigration, Court cases, Relationship, Children, Black Magic, Jadoo [this, I think] and any kind of Human and Evil problems.

I remembering walking around a botanica in Rialto, California, seeing novena candles that dealt with the very same problems, with my personal favorites being “positive encounter with the police” and “victorious court case.” (There’s just such a botanica on Kedzie street not far from this Starbucks.) I’m not here to knock the Dr. Commander’s command of English ($14 million is nothing to sneeze at, Shiva temple or no Shiva temple, and I’m assuming he acquired it honestly; I don’t have 14 million of anything , honest or otherwise, save maybe intestinal parasites) but this is folk religion at its finest. I wonder what the Dr. Commander does to help with such things? Ritual, prayer and incense? If he (or his various subcommanders) burns candles while praying, is that not a novena? And how different does that make Sri Sri Selvam’s devotion to Lord Shiva from santeria, aside from the name of deity invoked and the language prayed in? Fascinating, this use of prayer against spells and black magic, to manipulate the material world, and I’d love to spend some more time studying and contemplating this, the similarities and the differences.

Again, I’m not knocking the Dr. Commander — he looks kind and thoughtful enough, the kind of guy you’d like to sit and drink tea and yogurt and eat vegetable biryani garnished with marigolds with. And maybe get him to invoke one of the 108 avatars (or forms, or flavors, or whatever) of Shiva to help you with your problems.