The Night People


by Jean Shepherd

The Village Voice - October 31, 1956

For a long time now I've threatened to put this damn-fool story down on paper. Actually the only threatening I've done has been to myself, since I've been a little afraid that the story is one of those things that is better in the telling than in the reading. But I figure that it should be put down somewhere, if only as a sort of small contribution to the volume of stuff that future historians will sift through in the battle of trying to know just how it was back in the twentieth century. One of the great problems of historians, by the way, is that there is always plenty of documentary material pertaining to the events of any time, but damn little about the people who lived on the periphery of those events. Who knows what the guy who sold the score cards outside the Acropolis thought about the barbarians? If anything at all. Did the bird who repaired Aristotle's sandals have a secret desire to attend the Academy, or did he really think his customer was a know-it-all? Who knows? Anyway, for what it's worth, here is my small straw in the wind.

Where All Uncles Lived

I had this Uncle named Carl. He was a Swede who lived on the North Side of Chicago, where all Swedish uncles lived in Chicago. I also had at least 10 cousins who lived in the same neighborhood. All of them, including me, thought Uncle Carl was the greatest guy we knew. He played the banjo and could sing. He played a pretty good third base and was a Cubs fan. He loved to go on picnics out at the Forest Preserve on the West Side. He made beer in the basement, and was always smiling a kind of blond toothy smile. He also was the only uncle who had a car, although he was always broke, since he didn't work much. We thought he was great, but we didn't know just how great he really was. This was during the Depression, when all cars were old. In fact, I must have been 10 years old before I saw a new one, and when I did, it struck me as a kind of cosmic discovery, like seeing a new mountain or a new lake.

Uncle Carl's car was an Essex Super Six. It was a terrible car, I know that now, but then it was wonderful, because Carl took us to the beach in it and once we went to Milwaukee. He really enjoyed the car when he could afford the gas to make the thing go. I can't remember a time when he wasn't On Relief, as they called it in Chicago. Every week when the relief truck delivered the week's groceries to his place, Carl would throw a party and invite all the relatives in to eat up the whole week's supply in one happy binge. The rest of the week Carl and his wife and kids would eat at everybody else's house. This was OK on all sides, because everyone enjoyed having Carl around, and they really got a boot out of his parties, too. Most all the other families were ON relief, too, so it didn't really matter much whose food they ate, since it all came from the same truck.

I'm putting this all down to give you an idea as to how things were. Incidentally, it wasn't as grim as it sounds, since everybody seemed to be always having a good time, one way or another. At least I had a happy time as a kid then, so I guess other people around me were enjoying it, too.

ONE DAY, though, a big thing happened. The family still talks about it. It was in the winter, and winter in Chicago is tough. It gets cold, but that isn't what really makes it bad. Everything is always grey, with dirty patches of old snow around the curbs. The sun never shines, and it gets on a man's nerves after what seems like 10 years of dark skies.

On this dark winter's day Uncle Carl went out to the back yard of his tenement where he used to park the Essex. He got in and tried to start it. It wouldn't make a sound. He sat in the front seat for about five minutes wihout doing a thing. All of a sudden he got out and went into the basement. He came back out carrying a huge axe. He started to chop up the Essex. It made a terrific racket. Within five minutes every window for a block around had a head in it, watching Carl kill the Essex. He chopped on that car for about an hour, until there wasn't much left. Everyone was afraid to come out of the houses, so they just watched from inside. Carl was a kind of Ahab who had found his whale. When he finished he just came in the house and never said a word about the whole thing. No one ever mentioned it to him either. Like I said, we didn't really realize how great Carl was at the time; we just liked his parties and the beer he made. He was a great guy.

© 1956, The Village Voice, Inc.

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