Sunday, June 19, 2011

Remembering Dad and the Zoo of Liberty

Washington Park (Bughouse Square) across
from the Newberry Library
(Author's Note: I've allowed the following article to also be posted at The Pragmatic Progressive Forum 6/19/11).

Bughouse Square in Chicago
circa 1950's

Earlier this week my husband and I enjoyed an absolutely fantastic visit with our dear friends Nicole and Bob Daines from San Diego. Nicole and Bob are authors, inspirational speakers, and lifelong activists for human dignity and civil rights. In the course of our many hours of stimulating conversations covering the range of our many life’s experiences, both shared and uniquely individual, Bob looked at me and asked “Maureen, why do you think you became such a liberal?”

I’m seldom at a loss for words. At this mellowed more matured stage of my life (is this where a person can rightly say they’re fully “kreusened”?), I think I’ve finally arrived at a point of personal understanding that is both liberating and empowering. I’m comfortable discussing my many sorrows and joys, my tragedies and triumphs, and even my sins and graces. In short, I pretty much know how I got to where I am today but honestly Bob’s question sort of stumped me.

After stumbling over some generic homage to the benefits of being raised on the Northside of Chicago, attending excellent schools, and growing up in a large extended family of adults who were all very engaged in the world around them and who were, almost to a person, FDR Democrats, I was at a loss to offer up any particular epiphany that I could definitively point to and say with confidence “this event or that person” was responsible for my left-leaning philosophy about life.

I summarized it by saying “I think it’s just me. I’ve just always been this way.”

Boy did I blow that!

I've been thinking about Bob's question ever since and don't know how I could have forgotten to tell him that it was definitely my father who planted and then nurtured the seeds of my liberalism. So, Bob, (and the rest of you), here’s how it began:
I was six or seven years old when my father, a child of the Depression, a WWII veteran, and a practicing attorney, took me to sit with him in the middle of Bughouse Square in Chicago. This would have been in the late 1950s, a period of Eisenhower conservatism in a country still damaged by the paranoia and hate of McCarthyism. It was a time when being a liberal and a “pinkie Commie” were synonymous and a young Senator from Massachusetts had not yet made liberalism fashionable, let alone respectable.

I remember it was a beautiful sunny day in spring or possibly summer. My father 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 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 father 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 that the people in the restaurant held my father in high esteem (years later I learned that he represented their interests in a dispute with the city and won; apparently his fee was not enough to satisfy their sense of gratitude and so it was decided a feast in his honor was in order). I came away with the novel idea that my father 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 that’s been nailed to your head?

It wasn't long after our trip to Chinatown 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 the Chinese might have snatched me out from under my father’s oblivious nose when he was doing something really stupid -- like she was certain all men did when they were supposed to be caring for children. No doubt she believed it was only through the intervention of her continual novenas that I wasn't lost to the family forever, quite possibly learning 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."

No kidding.

So on this wonderful day when my father 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.

I quickly deduced, however, that Bughouse Square had neither bugs nor fortune cookies (I was a fairly clever child). Apparently, it also didn’t hold any fascinating dark secrets about white slavers either.

Dad found a park bench in the sunshine and we sat.

Just sat.

And sat some more.

After a fairly long time (at least to a kid my age), I asked what we were doing, sitting on that park bench.

My father explained I should relax and "watch and listen."


"At what? Where? 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 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 and certainly no one paid any attention to us.

I was very disappointed; it was incredibly boring and I was eager to get on with the trip to the zoo. No bugs, no cookies, no white slavers and no interesting animals to speak of; bummer.

And I said so.

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

Honest to God, he said that; that’s how my father talked to a seven year old girl. As my friends often said, the man was weird. Sometimes he embarrassed the living hell out of me.

I vaguely remember we eventually found our way to Lincoln Park Zoo but honestly I don’t remember much about the zoo that day. I loved the zoo -- but something had changed in my life forever, although it would take a lifetime for me to realize it. Suddenly the most important public space in the world was not where living things were forced to live in cages – which of course can be a metaphor for life. I was introduced to the fascinating and radical idea that the most important public spaces were where everyone had a voice and there were no cages. I had been introduced to Bughouse Square and the Zoo of Liberty.

My father didn’t think the people in the Square that day were crazy, or if he did he didn’t say so. No, that wasn’t the message he wanted to convey.

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 falsely cry “fire!” in a crowded theatre. He explained crying fire in a crowded theatre would cause a panic that could cause enormous harm and maybe even death. However, in the case of a real fire, then the necessity of crying a warning alarm could mitigate the possible harm caused by doing so; in fact, it would be a moral requirement.

This is a lesson in responsible speech; a weighing of rights and obligations; the beginning of the critical thinking required to understand that the risk of creating unfortunate situations could be justified in order to prevent even greater catastrophes. It is the beginning of understanding that our words have consequences and we must take responsibility for them.

He also taught me that my right to wave my arm ends where another person's nose begins but that sometimes a powerful blow to the “old kisser” is absolutely necessary.

My soldier-liberator father had seen a horrible place called Dachau and he was no pie-in-the-sky pacifist. He understood as well as anyone that sometimes a powerful blow to the old kisser was absolutely mandatory. “Some things,” he also told me, “really are worth dying for….”

I realize 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.

I don’t remember learning much in the sandbox but I sure do remember Bughouse Square. It was the beginning of many other private, precious moments with my father in his all too short life. He was dead at the age of fifty-seven and so I only knew him for twenty-seven years, most of which, to be honest, I never appreciated him very much.

Funny how that’s changed…

Thanks, Dad.

Note 1:

Bughouse Square (from “bughouse,” slang for mental health facility) is the popular name of Chicago's Washington Square Park, where orators (“soapboxers”) held forth on warm-weather evenings from the 1910s through the mid-1960s. Located across Walton Street from the Newberry Library, Bughouse Square was the most celebrated outdoor free-speech center in the nation and a popular Chicago tourist attraction.

In its heyday during the 1920s and 1930s, poets, religionists, and cranks addressed the crowds, but the mainstays were soapboxers from the revolutionary left, especially from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Proletarian Party, Revolutionary Workers' League, and more ephemeral groups. Many speakers became legendary, including anarchist Lucy Parsons, “clap doctor” Ben Reitman, labor-wars veteran John Loughman, socialist Frank Midney, feminist-Marxist Martha Biegler, Frederick Wilkesbarr (“The Sirfessor”), Herbert Shaw (the “Cosmic Kid”), the Sheridan twins (Jack and Jimmy), and one-armed “Cholly” Wendorf.

A Bughouse Square Committee, headquartered at Newberry Library, has continued to organize free-speech gatherings there each July in conjunction with the library's annual book sale.


Note 2:

For more information about Nicole and Bob Daines please read my Nicole’s interview at my blog, “The Windy City Author” @  There’s also a link to their website in my blog post.

Thank you.

Maurice L. McDermott, January 19, 1921 – February 12, 1978

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