Robert Rudd and Sammy Cooper are standing in the lobby of the Embassy Apartments. Behind them is a large art-deco mirror with a relief of a woman in a flowing white dress that stretches to form the bottom and sides of the mirror. In front of them is a small office with a switchboard. The rest of the lobby is filled with pink sofas, chairs, and pink-and-white walls.
“The place has changed,” Rudd says, looking out toward a small vestibule that houses a phone and a directory of names.
“The whole neighborhood has changed,” Cooper responds.
Cooper and Rudd should know. Rudd has lived in the Embassy Apartments, at 2756 N. Pine Grove, since 1933. Cooper moved into the Lincoln Park Arms, 2738 N. Pine Grove, in 1932, and in 1989 he moved across the street, to the Commonwealth Apartments.
“Back when I moved in, the lake stretched all the way to Sheridan,” Rudd says as the two men walk up Pine Grove. They’re on their way to lunch at the Harbor View Cafe, on the 11th floor of Columbus Hospital. Lunch at the Harbor View is almost a daily routine for Rudd and Cooper.
“There was a big beach where Diversey Harbor is now, and it had an island with a big diving tower that people used to swim out to,” Cooper adds.
“Then the WPA filled the whole thing in,” Rudd says.
As they talk the two men develop a staccato, almost Bob-and-Ray-like rhythm, with the stockier, gravelly voiced Rudd frequently finishing the sentences of the shorter Cooper, whose tone is more high-pitched. Both of them talk in Guys and Dolls lingo–short, crisp phrases and snappy, one-line replies.
“When I first moved into the Embassy the place had a bellboy, an elevator operator, maid service two times a day, all for $100 a month,” Rudd says. “It was quite a place. Danny Thomas was our upstairs neighbor. He used to call my mother and tell her to stop playing the piano in the afternoon.”
“Joe E. Lewis used to live there,” Cooper shouts out.
“That’s right, Joe E. Lewis, he started his career here,” says Rudd. “A lot of entertainers and nightclub performers lived here because it was a 24-hour area, and they were able to eat at Rickett’s or Bensinger’s at 2 or 3 AM after the shows.”
“Remember Honey Melons? What a voice,” Cooper says.
“Yeah, Honey Melons,” Rudd says slyly, “what a beautiful voice.”
As they walk past the restaurant on the ground floor of the Embassy, Rudd stops and waves at someone inside. Cooper says hello to the “newsie” in a wooden newspaper shed across the street.
“The neighborhood was full of action,” Rudd says. “A lot of the Cubs, like Billy Herman, Guy Bush, Bob Rush, and Dizzy and Daffy Dean, lived in the Embassy because it was close to the ballpark. Al Farber, who was Al Capone’s chauffeur, he was the most notorious person who lived in the building. Because of the action, and the athletes and entertainers, there were always a lot of the boys around, like Frankie Patrick–”
“Lenny Patrick,” Cooper interjects loudly. “He’s on the northwest side now.”
“There was Buck Russo,” Rudd adds. “Milwaukee Phil.”
Suddenly, Cooper becomes silent. “I don’t know if we should be talking so much about these guys,” he says in a hushed tone.
“What do you mean?” Rudd asks. “Milwaukee Phil has been dead for 20 years.”
“Yeah,” Cooper blurts out in a shaky voice, “but he still got friends.” He pauses. “Remember Zsa Zsa? He was a booster. He used to sit in the bleachers at Wrigley Field, yelling out bets. He’d sit there and smoke 20 cigars a day, until the ushers caught wise and banned him.”
“He would yell bets out the window too,” Rudd says. They’ve rounded the corner of the building now, and Rudd stops for a minute to admire the Embassy’s elegant white stone facade and its string of stone knights that look out over Diversey Parkway. “On Sunday mornings people would throw hot water at him because he would wake everybody up.”
“Hot water, and eggs too,” Cooper chimes in.
A blast of heat bursts from the rear of two nearby buses. The heat drifts across the sidewalk in a cloudy haze that seems to dance in the middle of the parkway and bend across the asphalt.
“Not quite so long ago, there was this crazy guy who used to ride around on the buses holding a chicken on top of his head,” Cooper says as the bus thunders away.
“They used to call him the ‘chicken man,'” Rudd adds. “He was known all over town.”
The two men laugh and shake their heads, and moments later they reach their destination. They walk through the cafeteria line, selecting the same meal–baked cod, diced carrots, and peas.
“On hot days during the summer, most of the people and families that lived in the hotel would just walk down to the park and beach, take off their shoes and socks, and sleep there,” Cooper says.
“We used to have weenie roasts too. Nobody would bother anybody. Everybody was on the square,” Rudd adds.
Cooper takes a bite out of his cod, then eyes the ice cream he has bought for dessert.
“That was a neighborhood back then,” Cooper says. “I wonder if it will ever come back.”
“I don’t think it ever will, Sammy,” Rudd answers.
“I’ll wait,” Cooper says slowly. “I’ll wait.”