Friday, January 21, 2011

Bughouse Square

When I was a child my dad, a WWII veteran and practicing attorney, took me to sit with him in the middle of Bughouse Square. This must have been sometime in the late 1950's; I remember it was a beautiful sunny day in spring or possibly summer. My dad promised me a day at Lincoln Park Zoo but first he wanted to take me to a strange sounding place he said was called "Bughouse Square."

Bughouse Square?

I didn't much like bugs but I was nonetheless interested in this unexpected excursion because I suspected it was going to be exactly the kind of place my mother would never have thought to take me. Even more enticing, it was probably going to be the kind of place my grandmother would certainly dislike if, for no other reason, than she wouldn't be with us to keep her keen eagle eye firmly on me. I was well aware that my maternal grandmother never quite approved of my jaunts around the city with my father and this made all opportunities to go with him all the more wonderful.

Nanny, as we called my grandmother, was a worrier, clearly tending toward some weird ideas and even paranoia about any person or place she wasn't familiar with; her normal distrust of life was made worse by the obvious fact that she didn't trust the male species to have a clue about how to care for children. She lived in mortal fear that they would lose us (not just me, of course, but any of my cousins as well). She as much said so, warning me very darkly on several occasions that "when you're with your father or Poppy, or God forbid your Uncle Ed, you be sure to keep your eyes on them; they could lose the hats on their heads if they were nailed to their skulls." 

Only a few months earlier there'd been a minor furore in the family after my grandmother learned my father had taken me to Chinatown. For some reason my mother stayed home with my much younger brother and I went with my dad by myself. We had a wonderful time at a very exotic restaurant (exotic to me anyway).  I remember it was all red and gold and there were black lanterns hanging everywhere. It was very clear to me that the people in the restaurant held my father in high esteem and I came away with the novel thought that my dad was an important man despite the fact that my grandmother clearly regarded him as something of an idiot.

I mean how stupid do you have to be to lose a hat nailed to your head?

It wasn't long after our trip to Chinatown that I overheard my grandmother upbraiding my mother. It was the first time I heard the expression "white slavers" and it was quite clear my grandmother was convinced they could have snatched me when my father was doing something really stupid, like she was sure men were wont to do when caring for children. No doubt it was only through the intervention of her continual novenas that I wasn't lost to the family forever, quite possibly learning some evil arts in a far off opium den. My mother, of course, held her own. When I asked her what it all meant and why Nanny was so angry she shrugged it off and said, "don't worry about it, Nanny can sometimes be ridiculous."

So on this wonderful day when my dad decided to visit a place called Bughouse Square I fervently hoped I might finally learn the truth about "white slavers."  At a minimum, I'd probably have been happy with a fortune cookie.

But I quickly deduced Bughouse Square had no bugs and no fortune cookies. I also suspected it held no dark secrets about white slavers either. Dad found a park bench in the sunshine and we sat. Just sat. After a fairly long time (or long to a kid of about eight anyway), I asked what we were doing, sitting on that park bench.

My father explained I should "watch and listen."

"At what? Who?"

He pointed to a man who looked like a bum, armful of leaflets, preaching or ranting or rambling on and on to a small group of curious onlookers. Then he pointed to a very well dressed man who was holding court elsewhere in the park, no less agitated than the other guy, but mesmerizing a slightly larger crowd. The park was busy with cyclists, dog walkers, and probably lovers holding hands. Most paid absolutely no attention to the two very different orators. Certainly, no one paid attention to us.

I was very disappointed; it all seemed incredibly boring and I was eager to get on with the trip to the zoo.

And I said so.

My dad replied, "But we're at the zoo; this is the Zoo of Liberty. It's where people come to speak and be heard and even be a little crazy."

We eventually did get over to the zoo that day but I don't remember much of what I usually enjoyed at the zoo; suddenly my favorite exhibits were nowhere near as fascinating as the radical new idea that there was such a thing known as the Zoo of Liberty.

That I could, as could others, say anything I wanted in the public square.

That first introduction to the fascinating world of non-conformist discourse led to many other discussions with my father over the years. He had opened a window for me to crawl through and I did -- and I never looked back.

At some other point, however, and I'm sorry but I can't identify it at any particular time or place, he also introduced me to the necessary twin of free speech: responsibility.

It was my father who first explained to me that there is no constitutional right that allows anyone to cry fire in a crowded theatre. He also taught me that my right to wave my arm ends where someone's nose begins.

Eventually it was my soldier-liberator father who first told me about a horrible place called Dachau. He had seen it with his own eyes.

I suspect that the seeds for how I think about both freedoms and duties, as well as how our speech and writings are pregnant with consequences, were first planted in my mind by that fine man on a warm day in Chicago at the Zoo of Liberty -- more commonly known as Chicago's Bughouse Square.
For more information about Bughouse Square please see the tab marked "Bughouse Square" on the homepage of this blog. Thank you.


  1. "zoo of liberty." a wonderful concept.

  2. Maureen, that was beautiful. How much we learn from time spent with a Dad who shows us secrets more precious than white slavers or fortune cookies.
    In my own life my Mom made me a girl, my dad made me a person.

  3. Your story of your Dad is WONDERFUL!
    I want to go to Zoo of Liberty!!


  4. I had no clue there was an American equivalent anywhere of Speakers' Corner, Hyde Park, London! That is so cool!