My visit to the Harold Washington Library last night to see Bill Bradley speak got me thinking about the first time I heard Harold Washington’s name when I was nine years old. It was the last day the mayor was alive.
I left school early that day for a dentist appointment. My Dad was driving me home in our Houston Oiler baby blue Pontiac station wagon (our first new car, I think. It had the cool fold out seats in the hatch that faced backward, which my younger sister and I always sat in when all eight of us piled in). The day was suffocated by a heavy gray sky, with the type of persistent rain that even a young boy senses is going to fall all day, leaving no hope of the sun breaking through so you can squeeze in a little time playing football or climbing trees.
My Dad always - always - listened to public radio, either the classical station or Wisconsin Public Radio. To this day I turn to those stations and the deliberate cadence of their personalities to relieve stress on a long drive. On this day I wasn’t paying much attention, just jabbering a bit about my teeth and fiddling with the cheap toothbrush the dentist gave me as my Dad filled the ashtray. Then he turned up the radio.
They were breaking in to report that Chicago Mayor Harold Washington had died.
I had no idea who he was, but my Dad was listening intently. He had left Chicago with my mother nearly 20 years earlier, but we were still attached. My grandmother still got the Tribune delivered to her Egg Harbor home every day. My older sisters all planned to go to college there. All of my relatives on my Mom’s side lived there. I loved the Bulls, and even then I felt I was destined to end up in Chicago, as though it was part of a larger plan beyond my control.
I waited for small breaks in the newscast to ask my Dad questions about who this guy was and why the men and women on the radio were making such a big deal about him. My Dad has never been the type to give a “Son, let me tell you a story,” talk, but somehow he still got certain messages across. Though we lived in a small, rural Wisconsin town sandwiched amongst farmers about 20 years behind the social times, it was clear that we would not use their racist language. We leaned to the left, but it was never spoken, and I don’t recall my parents ever preaching in favor of Democrats or slamming Republicans.
Something in the way he spoke, in the way he looked, and in the way we sat in the car listening for a few minutes after we pulled into the driveway, made it clear to me that this was an important moment without him telling me much more than that this was Chicago’s first black mayor.
Twenty-four years later those few minutes looking out at our muddied, dead November lawn from our no-frills station wagon, remain etched in my memory. So many other moments are long forgotten.