Over the weekend I was reading a forthcoming collection of short stories set in Chicago. It’s not bad, but it’s also clearly attempting to evoke Stuart Dybek’s classic collection, The Coast of Chicago, and it inevitably looks worse for the comparison. It’s been a few years since I read Dybek, but “Blight” in particular reminded me pretty quickly what Dybek was best at—arraying small details of everyday city life (well away from the city centers) that seem to speak for whole communities. “Blight” is set just after the Korean War and follows a group of South Side buddies who learn that their neighborhood has been declared blighted by the mayor. “Blight” is an unfamiliar word to them, and it’s not good news, but it becomes a deeper part of their identity than they’d expect; one man works on a novel called “Blight,” and the narrator is in a band called the Blighters. Dybek’s South Siders aren’t much for existential discussions, but they still find a way to voice their slightly despairing worry that outside forces are telling them who they are. The passage below is about how this kind of naming plays into local softball teams, and in the process Dybek reveals much about a community’s social strata. (This is two paragraphs, I know; this feature’s a work in progress.)
We had liked being the No Names at first, but had started to seem like an advertisement for an identity crisis. The No Names sounded too much like one of the tavern-sponsored softball teams the guys back from Korea had formed. Those guys had been our heroes when we were little kids. They had seemed like legends to us as they gunned around the block on Indians and Harleys while we walked home from grade school. Now they hung out at corner taverns, working on beer bellies, and played softball a couple of night a week on teams that lacked both uniforms and names. Some of their teams had jerseys with the name of the bar that sponsored them across the back, but the bars themselves were mainly named after beers—the Fox Head 400 on Twenty-fifth Street, or the Edelweiss Tap on Twenthy-sixth, or down from that the Carta Blanca….
There seemed to be some unspoken relationship between being nameless and being a loser. Watching the guys from Korea after their ball games as they hung around under the buzzing neon signs of their taverns, guzzling beers and flipping the softball, I got the strange feeling that they had actually chosen anonymity and the loserhood that went with it. It was something they looked for in one another, that held them together. It was as if Korea had confirmed the choice in them, but it had been there before they’d been drafted. I could still remember how they once organized a motorcycle club. They called it the Motorcycle Club. Actually, nobody even called it that. It was the only nameless motorcycle gang I’d heard of.