Learning to observe in Chicago.
I am reading Jean Peneff's account of the observational experiences of his generation in a small town in Southwestern France after WWII. He describes how the kids could watch the tradesmen at work in the street, because most workshops were not big enough to hold all the things the artisans did; how these workers would have the kids help them ("Hold this, kid!") or send them on errands ("Go get me this or that tool" or "Go get me a beer from the tavern"). He talks about watching the dealings, honest and not so honest, of the farmers as they bought and sold cattle and horses, and of watching and seeing how some of them put the money from their sale in their wallet and went home while others went off to the tavern and drank it up. He talks about how the kids knew all about the adulterous affairs which were not so uncommon in the town. He says that experiences like these gave the kids the taste for observation and some real experience with, and skill in, observing. A good skill for a would-be sociologist.
When I was a kid in Chicago, I had some similar experiences. Of course, we didn't have a lot of people working at their trades in the street where they were easy for us kids to observe. But we had some other things.
The El. When I was perhaps ten, my boy friends and I would take advantage of the structure of the Chicago elevated train system (the El, everyone called it that) to pay one fare and ride all day long. Our mothers would pack us a sandwich and we would walk a few blocks to Lake Street, where the Lake Street El line ran from our neighborhood on the far West Side of the city to the Loop, the downtown center (so-called because it was ringed by the elevated lines, all of which converged from every part of the city on this center, went around it, and back to where they had come from). Once you got on a train, you could find places where the lines crossed—especially in the Loop—and change to another train that went to another part of the city. Six or seven major lines ran to the three main parts of the city and, Chicago being a very large city, they went a long way.
So, for example, we could ride the Lake Street El from our neighborhood, nearly at the end of that line, to downtown, transfer to the Jackson Park line, which went to the South Side, and ride 6 or 7 miles to the end of that line at Stony Island Avenue, walk across the platform and take the same train back to the center, where we could transfer to a North Side Rogers Park train and ride that to Howard Street. And do that all day long, covering the entire city, before we went home, tired and happy.
What did we see? We saw the buildings and how they varied from place to place: the poor deteriorating wooden apartment buildings in the city's poorer neighborhoods; the multi-story brick buildings in neighborhoods that were more well to do; the one family houses of some ethnic neighborhoods; and so on. We learned the characteristic ethnic patterns of the city by reading the signs on the businesses we went by and learned that the Poles lived on Milwaukee Avenue, the Italians on the Near West Side, the Swedes farther North, the Blacks on the South Side, and so on. We saw people of different racial and ethnic groups as they got on and off the train, and learned who lived where (we were very good at reading ethnicity from small clues, including listening to the languages spoken, styles of clothing, even the smell of the food people carried).
We saw the industrial parts of the city: the factories and the buildings that housed them, the lines of trucks that served them. We saw the railroad yards that served the city; Chicago was the major railroad hub of the country. We saw the thriving neighborhood shopping centers and the kinds of stores that were there.
We saw things close up as well as from a distance. As all these people got on and off the cars we rode in, we knew we were different from many of them—racially different, different in class, different in ethnicity.We knew that we were Jewish and lots of these people weren't; we weren't always sure what to make of that but we thought it was probably just as well if the others didn't know it.
In many of the places the trains went through, the buildings were very close to the tracks, maybe no more than five feet away, and the windows in the buildings looked out directly on to the tracks. So we could look into people's apartments and watch them going about the ordinary routines of apartment living: making and eating meals, cleaning, doing laundry, sitting around listening to the radio and drinking coffee, women doing each other's hair, kids playing. We seldom saw anything private—people having sex—but we sometimes saw women who weren't fully dressed and that excited us, it wasn't something a ten or eleven year old boy saw very often. This gave us a lot of material on differing ways of life to think about.
As we rode we observed, looking closely at everything that went by our little window on the city, commenting to each other about what we saw, seeing the differences and taking them home with us to think about. By the time I was, say, twelve, I had a good understanding of the physical and social structure of the city, at least from a geographic point of view.
Downtown. When I wasn't much older, I started to go downtown by myself, mostly on Saturdays. My parents always wanted to know what I did when I went downtown and I could never really tell them, because I wasn't sure myself what I was doing there. Mostly just wandering around, looking in store windows. This was my chance to observe the city not from the distance between the window of the El train and the buildings we went by, but close up.
"Downtown" was a big place, perhaps six blocks by seven blocks, anywhere from forty to fifty square blocks depending on how much of the fringe you included. People from every part of the city came there to shop at the major department stores and the smaller stores, to transact business at City Hall or the County Building or in one of the big banks on LaSalle Street, to go into one of the many buildings that housed who knew what kinds of businesses on their many floors. There were "medical" buildings, mostly filled with the offices of doctors and dentists. Most buildings had a mixture of businesses: little watch repair stores that couldn't afford storefronts on the street; jewelry wholesalers; insurance offices; booking agents for theatrical performers; private detectives. Everything you could find in the Yellow Pages of the phone directory was there and you could walk into a building, get into an elevator, get off at any floor, and wander up and down the halls looking at the lettering on the translucent glass doors. You couldn't go inside without a legitimate reason, of course, and we had no watches to repair or people we needed to have a private detective investigate, and no money to pay for anything anyway.
I went into City Hall or the County Building and watched the well-dressed men who came and went, not having much idea who they were, although I knew that there was a mayor and a city council and all kinds of city offices that did things like keep records and collect taxes. I could walk up and down the halls and see all those offices listed, look inside them and see the typical city office open to the public—a counter the public walked up to and behind which city employees could come up and serve them, when they got ready to (I had the city kid's easy skepticism about bureaucracy and government, I knew about them from school!). There were courtrooms in the building too, but I didn't go in them. No one had to tell me I didn't belong there. I saw lots of policemen who I knew, as more of what any well-socialized city kid knew, it was better to be invisible to.
We walked by the many theaters in the downtown district. Some theaters alternated movies and a stage show. The stage show often featured one of the big bands of the era or some popular entertainer, and a few years later, when I became a budding jazz player, I would often spend all day in such a place, sitting through the movie several times in order to hear these bands live. Other theaters had plays and they were open only in the evening, but I could walk by and look at the marquee and the pictures of the stars and the quotes from theater critics on the walls.
I saw all the restaurants: the cheap ones that served inexpensive meals to stenographers and sales people and people who worked in all those offices; the more expensive ones you could sort of see into from the street, so I looked and saw what I could; the fancy ones you couldn't see into at all (maybe the restaurant itself was up a flight of stairs). And I saw the bars and the people who hung out in them (people I'd become a lot more familiar with a few years later when I started playing piano in places like that).
And I went into the stores, although I now have a vague of feeling of not being at ease in the big department stores. I think that they suspected a kid alone did not have the money to buy anything and therefore might well be there to steal, so they kept an eye on you. But I went up and down in them and looked at the clothes or the toys. But not much, because I didn't know my way around in them and was afraid of finding myself among the brassieres or some other place I would be totally out of place.
I went into bookstores, of course, the big ones like Brentano's where you could lose yourself for hours looking at what they had for sale. (It was in Brentano's that I committed my one and only theft, but that was much later, when I was a graduate student, and stole a copy of the Mills-Gerth translations from Max Weber. It scared me so much I never did it again.)
And you saw things on the street. People. All kinds of people. Every age, every size, every ethnic group, beggars, businessmen, smartly dressed women out shopping, pretty girls, not so pretty girls, tough guys. You could watch them, observe the details of their dress and behavior, how they carried their bodies, where people like that came from and went. You could wonder about them—where they lived in the city, what they were here to do, what it might be like to talk to them. I never talked to anyone, just watched and listened.
I quickly learned to keep my eyes where they belonged: to obey the rules of civil inattention Erving Goffman formalized for all of us years later. I learned how to cross a major intersection—downtown was all major intersections—with hundreds of other people without bumping into anyone.
In other words, I became a well-socialized urban kid.
High School. Going to high school took me out of my immediate neighborhood, even though the school was close by. The school drew its students from a larger geographic area and thus went beyond the ethnic mixture of my neighborhood, which I had observed since childhood and grammar school: Jewish and Irish, with a sprinkling of Italians and Greeks. Where we Jewish and Irish kids had played together in the streets and visited in each other's houses, we now met Swedes from another, more distant part of the area, who we knew only from a distance, attracted by the dazzlingly blonde Swedish girls but sure we would be rebuffed by them. We also, in high school, met different kinds of kids from those groups: not just the quiet Italian kids of my grammar school, but the large tough Italian guys who played on the school's football team.
A word about the neighborhood kids. We did visit each other's houses and saw ways of life that were not our own. My best friend on the street was Jimmy Sullivan, whose father delivered butter and eggs to a list of clients from his truck. Jimmy's father was a quiet man, who endured the presence of his wife's brother, Paddy, who could never find a job and just hung around the house all day. Another neighbor, an Irishman, was an assistant fire chief and we played with his daughter, who I think now (looking back), may have been slightly retarded. She went to the Catholic school nearby. A third neighbor was a Jewish undertaker, whose two daughters were part of the gang. We were in and out of each other's houses, even though the houses of the non-Jews had for me a slight air of the "different," if not the "forbidden." The Catholic kids had crucifixes and holy pictures on the wall, which seemed very exotic to me. All of these things were things I observed carefully and thought about.
San Francisco. Many years later, when I was grown, I lived in San Francisco, in a very urban part of the city, North Beach. By now, I was a professional observer, a sociologist who did that kind of research.
My daughter Alison was ten years old when we moved there and went to school in the neighborhood for three years, until we moved to Chicago. I'll just mention a few of the things I knew or that she later told me about her urban adventures.
1) She and her friends, when they were eight or nine or ten, used to hide in the shrubbery below the parking lot on top of Telegraph Hill, which attracts large numbers of tourists. They would, from their hiding place, start calling "Mommie, mommie, I'm lost!" hoping to panic the parents.
2) She and her friends used to walk downtown and especially through Chinatown, observing the Chinese residents, the Chinese merchants, the very different forms of retail stores, and the tourists. When they were downtown they would go into the big department stores, to the cosmetic counters, and let the salesgirls do a "makeover" on them.
3) On a Sunday morning, when everyone was still home and no one was on the streets, these girls would walk all over the neighborhood, up all the little alleys and small streets.
4) They walked up and down the Embarcadero, the area of wharves where the big freighters and passenger ships came in, just looking, walking out on the piers that were open (not all were).
The Music Business.
My opportunities for observation increased a lot when I was a little older and became a professional musician, which happened before I had ever heard of sociology and well before I entered graduate school in sociology.
I was fourteen or fifteen when I began to play with other people in public or semi-public places and get paid for it, which is my informal definition of what it meant to be a "professional" musician. Though I still lived with my parents, I was no longer there very much, my time being spent either in school or in the places where I played. All the places I played in were sites of observation, though I didn't think of them that way, and didn't think that I was doing anything as important or grand as "observing." I was just "living."
My first jobs, when I could barely play, were with a small group of equally imcompetent kids, playing for dances at schools whose students could not afford to hire bands who played better than we did. I soon joined a somewhat better band (twelve or thirteen players) which played for older high school kids. We played all over the South Side of Chicago, mostly for dances in the public high schools (remember that all the neighborhoods we played in were ethnically distinct, so playing at Taft High School meant watching a bunch of kids quite different in ethnicity and class from the ones I had grown up with).
When I graduated from this low level of playing, I found work in bars and taverns and strip clubs. One of my first jobs was at McGovern's Liberty Inn, one of a number of strip clubs in a small stretch of North Clark Street. We sat just behind the small stage the girls danced on and looked beyond them to where the customers sat. I watched night after night as men who had come to Chicago for, perhaps, a business convention bought drinks for the dancers and spent thousands of dollars without even getting any sex for it. We occasionally saw someone well known sitting in the back of the club masturbating while the girls took their clothes off. And the club was near a lot of other places that let me see other styles of enterainment, most notably a club that featured hillbilly music across the street (where one of the saxophone players I worked with got a tooth knocked out one night by a drunk who disliked the way he looked).
I played at many bars in many parts of the city. In all of them, I sat on a bandstand with two or three other players that let us look down on the bar and the tables beyond it, and watch people drink, get drunk, dance, and gamble. We watched people flirt with each other, we watched fights between two people turn into major brawls, occasionally involving the club owner and the bartender as well as the customers, we watched the owner of the club bribing policemen.
And the bars were located all over the city, at every "major" intersection. Chicago's map is very regular: every half-mile in either direction is a "main" street with public transportation (usually, in those days, a street car) and where two "main" streets cross there is a small shopping center, which usually included several bars. Playing in such places eventually took me to almost every part of the city to spend several hours a night watching local life. Which often included unusual sights: one club was located beneath the meeting room of a group of people who were deaf and dumb, and they used to come into the bar to drink, converse in sign language, and often enough get drunk and fight. (It was quite bizarre to see all this happen in total silence.)
I also worked for a year with a racially mixed band, which played only black dances, clubs, and parties. We played for teenagers, we played in the major ballrooms of the Black South Side, and once or twice we played for people I might never have known existed: the upper levels of Black "society," people who gaveballs of great elegance, where the men wore tails and the women evening gowns. These people belonged to the upper classes described in Black Metropolis and had gone to the respected all-Negro colleges of the period.
Most all of this observation from the bandstand took place before I started graduate school. It wasn't undertaken because I was a sociologist and had a reason to be there observing. I was observing because I was there in pursuit of my musical ambitions.