My first job in Chicago was for an outfit run by the mob. My first date in Chicago was with a wannabe mobster. And the first time I was fired was for being on drugs. Maybe it should all have been a sign of some kind. But it wasn’t. I had no idea of what I was doing.
The job itself was very respectable. It was for an outfit that washed, dried and ironed professional uniforms used by the City of Chicago and several other industries. I found out later that most of those facilities were owned and operated by the mob. Which one, I didn’t know. I didn’t wash, dry or iron anything, however. I was the switchboard operator.
This room gave access to an open hallway that ran the length of the building, on the other side of which was the business side of the business. And along which came the occasional visitor. One such who showed up at least once a week was a guy with the kind of face I liked, kinda foxy, kinda wise guy, kinda cute. I think he was a salesman of some kind – maybe selling detergent for the washing machines? But maybe he was a bagman? I really have no idea. I just have my imagination. But he always stuck his head into the punch card room to tease the women and to flirt with me. In those days, I enjoyed a good flirt.
Unfortunately, I may have also led him on a bit and bragged too much about my ability to hold my liquor. The consequence of which was that he asked me out on a date. He came across as a big city guy and I was a little girl in a big city. I said yes. We made a date to have dinner together. He picked me up in a little red sports car. Can’t tell you what kind it was. That remained a sore point for a couple of other guys I dated with little red sports cars in the 60’s. They totally expected me to say, “Oh! You drive a (fill in the blank). Fancy sports cars were wasted on me.
Anyway, back to the fateful night.
He drove me into downtown Chicago, on the way pointing out an unremarkable building in an unfamiliar neighborhood and identifying it as the depository for goods confiscated in police raids.
“I got a cousin in there,” he said. “He can get me all kinds of deals on stuff like furs, jewelry.” He glanced over at me to see if it registered. It registered, all right. I had no interest in furs or jewelry. Hell, I didn’t even know what kind of car I was riding in. I don’t remember what I said. Probably something on the order of, “Hmmm.” But somewhere an alarm bell was trying to ring.
It was a busy downtown Chicago night, warm and humid, the sort of nighttime summer weather that leaves a soft sheen of dew on one’s skin. Lots of traffic. Lots of people. Nearly all white, I think. It was 1963. Somehow, somewhere we parked, and he (wish I remembered his name) led me into a building where we took an elevator up to a Chinese restaurant. I had never known there were restaurants that were not on ground floors inviting passers by in to have a drink, a meal, a good time. But here we were, sharing a table for two near a railing. Or not. It’s all rather vague.
He ordered for us. My first martini. He may have asked me what I liked, but I would not have been able to say. My parents were tee totalers. Back in Decatur, I had never even been in a country club. Did not know the litany of civilized alcoholic drinks. My entire experience with hard liquor had been straight out of the bottle in the back seats of cars. Where I would use the excuse of wanting another drink to extricate myself from further groping. A drink which consisted of a small sip, immediately followed by lighting another cigarette. A girl had her defenses.
The plan had been to have dinner, but I do remember that, as the night went on, we were thoroughly enjoying our drinks and the barbecued ribs that he had ordered as hors d'Oeuvres and we never got around to dinner. Chinese barbecued ribs. Another first for me. My family had never gone out for Chinese, either. They were delicious. Martinis and Chinese barbecued ribs. And not in moderation.
I don’t remember a word of the conversation. My guess is that either he talked a blue streak and I was duly fascinated with whatever he said or that he let me ramble on and on about my philosophy of life which very likely told him I was ripe for the picking.
Luckily fate, if you want to call it fate, intervened.
The first signs that you’ve had too much alcohol come on quickly. No time to take a deep breath and ease off. Nope. By the time you realize that you can no longer form a witty sentence – or any sentence at all – the room is wavering at the edges and you suddenly wish you were home in bed. Alone.
I don’t know when my date realized he wasn’t on a date with a pretty girl any longer. He was going to have to get this drunken pretender to the high life home, but to give him credit he did get it together to leave in a hurry. I have no memory of getting down in the elevator, of waiting for the car, even of getting in and being driven down State Street.
But I do remember stopping at a red light. I looked up and saw a street sign reading Lake Street. There was a bus stopped next to us, with people in the windows admiring the red sports car (whatever it was). Then I stuck my head over the edge of the window and vomited down the side of the door.
The only words I can remember him saying were, “I thought you said you could drink.”
I thought I could. I didn’t say that, but that was clearly what I had meant by my boasting about taking quick sips of liquor from the bottle in the back seats of cars. I probably thought I had emptied one in the process.
One thing was certain though. I would never have to worry about gifts of fur coats or jewelry that I didn’t know how to turn down. That future had been crossed out.
Oh, right. Fired for being on drugs. So, you see, I used to get very painful periods, and I had discovered a wonder drug called Midol. So it happened that one day I went home for lunch – I lived only a few short blocks from work – with excruciating pains, and my usual two tablets did not take it away. I didn’t know how I was going to go back to work in that much pain, so of course I took a couple more.
They did the job. Boy did they do the job. Even before I went back to work, I was buzzing like a hive of bees and wondering what the hell was in them that made me so jazzed. I read the ingredients, and I could swear I saw something like “benezedrine” there, although a recent search does not confirm that. It does confirm an ingredient called cinnamedrine, which I may have conflated with Benzedrine. I had heard of “bennies,” so that made some weird sense to me.
At any rate, when I got back to work I was still buzzing and working like a house on fire. I was assigned a job filing punchcards, and I whipped through them like a blackjack dealer. Talking all the time. Goddess knows what about, but I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Everybody noticed it. Somebody must have alerted the boss, for I was sent for and asked if I was ill. So, you have to understand that a 20-year-old in 1963 did not admit to males of any station that she was on the rag, so to speak, so instead of admitting the truth, I blurted out that I was fine. I had just taken a couple of bennies.
So that’s how I was fired for being on drugs. You could say I wasn’t quite ready for the big city. But Industrial Garment and Uniform, or whatever you were called, I owe you for my first valuable lessons in surviving the big city. And in spite of it all, I didn’t move out. I moved further in.