The short bundled man in snow-spattered galoshes briskly shovels the snow beneath the marquee of the Chicago Theatre while arriving crowds wrapped in furs and overcoats stream past. Noisy groups gather and eddy beneath the merry glow of the tiny bulbs, and when they enter the theater. Johnny, seized with a sudden idea, enters, too.
He presses his nose against the inner door, holding his encrusted shovel, searching the crowd milling on the plush red carpet beneath the majestic chandelier and smooth marbled pillars, while a sleepy-looking doorman frowns at him suspiciously.
“Nope,” Johnny shakes his head, “he isn’t there,” and he goes back outside, followed by the doorman’s distrustful gaze. He goes back to shoveling the pavement around the box office.
“I know a guy who works inside,” Johnny explains. “Me and my wife, we go to all the shows–Julie Andrews, Tom Jones, and whatsisname, Humperdinker. Oh, sure, I take her to all of ’em. This place is a great show.”
Johnny moves down the block. White billowing clouds of snow twist around him and settle on the street even as he shovels it. He’s one of the State Street Mall crew, out shoveling tonight while most of the city sits bolted in their homes. Only a few shadows haunt the corners.
“I’ve been on the job six years,” Johnny says. “I’m 62 years old, I’ll tell you, but I work hard. They’re smart to hire an old guy like me. An older guy’ll do a better job than a young guy, ’cause he’s more conscientious. A young guy’ll cause trouble, what does he care? But someone like me, he’s grateful for the work. He needs it too much. I got a wife and two daughters to support. I’m glad to be doing this.”
Joe and Ron are working the corner across from Marshall Field’s.
“When you been on the garbage trucks 20 years, this is like being put out to pasture,” Joe says. “This is much easier than the trucks.”
Ron agrees, “You take a pounding on the G-trucks, I’m telling you. Listen to what this man says.”
A short, round, elfish-looking man with a shy smile joins them.
“This isn’t a bad job if your legs hold out,” he says, smiling. “But me,” he shrugs, “I’m 59 years old. I’m too old for this. I put in my time on the trucks, and now I want a desk job, That’s what I want now.” He glances almost coyly around him and trundles off across the street.
A blue pickup stops at the curb and Joe goes over and says a few words to the driver. The pickup pulls away and Joe comes back.
“We got good bosses,” he says, jerking his thumb at the departing truck. “They treat you with respect. The guys on mall want to work hard for ’em. A lot of bosses treat labor like dirt–and maybe we are–but we don’t like being treated that way. And Gene and Leo treat us well.”
Three figures are hanging around the corner, watching the crew.
“That’s why we go in pairs,” Joe says, with a glance at the corner. “It’s usually not a problem, though. If someone gives me a hard time, I just put my head down and keep pushing the shovel–or the broom. I only know of one time, when one of the guys was going back to the office alone, and got his head split open by a broomstick. But that’s not usual. You just got to be careful.”
Down the street John Flanagan is clearing the snow from around the wheels of a popcorn cart.
“This is tough sometimes in the winter,” he admits. “Like a few days ago when it was 50 below. You got to duck inside every few minutes, to keep warm. And it can be tough in the summer with the crowds around you and it’s a hundred degrees.
Flanagan grew up in Ireland on a farm in Roscommon. At 16 he left for London, where he worked as a fireman for eight years. “Oh, I had a good time in London!” He laughs. “I drank some good beer and I met some nice girls!”
He married in London and came to the States with his wife 30 years ago. Now they live in the suburbs with their daughter.
“Why did I come here?” He laughs again. “Well, I’m from the farm, you know. And on the farm, with the cows and the pigs, there’s an awful smell.” He leans on the shovel reflectively. “Well, I was only 12 years old, and I had an aunt who had been to New York and got married there. And when she came back to visit us she brought with her a trunk. And when she opened it, it was full of blouses and dresses and such; the loveliest perfume came out–so different from the cows and the pigs! And I took a deep breath and right then I said to myself, ‘America! That’s the place for me!'”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.