By Francine Marie Tolf
First a bell clanged, then a siren screamed, then fifty-year-old steel moaned as guard rails lowered and Jefferson Street Bridge split open. People in cars that were backed up on either side of the canal watched their half of the bridge loom perpendicular to sky as a barge slid past underneath.
How this terrified me as a child! I was sure our station wagon would one day be trapped on the bridge when the bell began its urgent clanging. My mother promised me this could not happen. “That’s the gatekeeper’s job, Honey. He makes sure no one’s on the bridge before he presses the switch that divides it.” Her assurances didn’t prevent nightmares in which I clutched a railing that rose higher and higher above black water.
That water never froze in the winter and always stank. Long ago, it had been clean. But in 1871, the flow of the Chicago River – by then an open sewer for over 180,000 Chicagoans – was reversed in order to keep it from contaminating Lake Michigan. City engineers backed the sewage-laden water into the Illinois and Michigan Canal (originally the Des Plaines River). A good length of the ninety-six mile waterway turned dark over night. Residents of canal towns like Joliet muttered that the Great Chicago Fire, which occurred in October of that year, was Chicago’s just punishment.
My older sisters used to tell me there was one rotten plank on the bridge. If you stepped on it, you fell right into the polluted water. They enjoyed reminding me of this on Saturday afternoons as we walked across Jefferson Street Bridge to go downtown. Only the lure of a strawberry ice cream soda purchased in the basement cafeteria of the Boston Store kept me putting one gingerly foot in front of the other.
The gate keeper my mother mentioned spent his day in a cement turret attached to the side of the bridge. I never glimpsed anyone gazing out of the turret’s narrow windows. Was my mother mistaken? By the 1960s, were bridges in Joliet operated remotely? No matter. The gate keeper exists in my imagination, a bony fellow in overalls, more cheerful than you’d expect a man with such a solitary occupation to be, kidding easily with waitresses at the Peter Pan Restaurant on Clinton Street where he treated himself to an open faced turkey and mashed potato sandwich every Friday.
A bridge is built to join, but in my hometown, it divided. Blacks lived on the East Side of the canal. Whites lived west of it. The night of Martin Luther King’s death, there were riots on the East Side of Joliet. White families feared a mob of blacks would march across Jefferson Street Bridge to burn and loot. Mayor Berlinsky raised it to prevent this from happening. I was nine years old. I remember my parents sitting in the kitchen listening to WJOL, the local radio station, as rumors flew via phone calls from house to house. I heard that the Honiotos brothers, who owned a grocery store on West Jefferson Street, had mounted machine guns on their store’s roof to protect against looting. I felt some fear and a lot of excitement. It didn’t bother me that I lived in a town where a polluted canal separated black neighborhoods from white neighborhoods. That’s just the way it was.
I didn’t know that only ten years before, black children were forbidden to swim in Nowell Pool, Joliet’s largest community pool, except from 9:00 a.m. to noon on Mondays. Employees then drained and cleaned the pool before whites used it for the remainder of the week. How did frightened parents on the West Side feel about that? Had any one of them protested?
For years after I moved away from my hometown, I dreamt about Jefferson Street Bridge. Sometimes I sped in a car as it split apart and I flew over the edge. Sometimes my shoes stuck in grid work as black water rose. The bridge was my personal symbol for terror, part of an industrial landscape that literally and figuratively hovered at the edges of my childhood. Yet again and again, I gathered the courage to cross it so I could enter downtown, that tawdry but attractive kingdom that held the Bamboo Pet Shop and the Rialto Theater, where in velvet darkness I watched The Castaways or Five Weeks in a Balloon.
It wasn’t until the movie was over and I stepped into the dull heat of an overcast summer afternoon that the real world came back, filling me with something stranger and more indefinable than sadness. Candy wrappers littered the curb. One block away the Princess Theater was showing B movies the nuns from St. Patrick’s Grade School said it was a sin to watch. The day’s magic was gone. I would have to cross Jefferson Street Bridge all over again to get home.
Francine Marie Tolf is the author of Rain, Lilies, Luck, her first full-length collection of poetry, and Joliet Girl, a memoir, both from North Star Press of St. Cloud (2010). Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Water-Stone, Rattle, Spoon River, Poetry East, Under the Sun, and Southern Humanities Review. Prodigal, her second full length collection of poems, was published by Pinyon Publishing in 2012 and she has a prose chapbook forthcoming from Greenfuse Press in 2013.