Officers Eat Last


Head slumped down hidden inside the scraggly beige down coat that is her only real home. She shuffles past our house walking north every morning.

No one sees her face.

Like a burned out barren asteroid with the last vestiges of a trail being unfathomable sadness; she blends with the grey winter sunrise. I have no idea where she goes everyday. But that rolling trail of sorrow reverberates out from somewhere inside the coat like a cry of stomach twisting pain that no one ever hears.

She deserves a story. At least a name. So call her Cassie. And remember that it wasn’t always like this for her. Crossing Grace and trudging silently up Hermitage, she passes the first 5 little houses, once home to factory workers, crammed full of kids. The Irish on the south side of Grace. The German to the north. The men listened for the whistles at the old Abbott Drug Plant or the Choir Robe Plant or any one of the other dozens of manufacturers that lined the train tracks of the Ravenswood corridor. The women swept the sidewalks out front where Cassie now walks.

Now these factory houses start at half a million. Still standing, some filled with frost free refrigerators unimaginable to those women who swept the sidewalks, who took a pack lunch with the kids to Wrigley Field on Sunday afternoons after church when the men could rest. Downstairs in the basements of those little factory homes; the hardwood beams from the northern Wisconsin forests still supporting these little homes, now with few or no kids.

Of the first 5 houses Cassie trudges by, 3 of the 5 men are out of work. Hard work, education, experience—especially experience—not being enough. The Abbott Plant a yoga studio. The Choir Robe factory being condos. And even cutting the grass being work that is unavailable to the people who live in these houses where the Wisconsin hardwoods anchor the passing of good times become hard times.

Cassie would know the hardwood trees where those beams started life. The forests of Northwest Wisconsin. The cherry farm off Sturgeon Bay. The winters. Sometimes when the wind blows fierce and as Cassie walks she smells the moraines left millions of years ago when the glaciers came through and sculpted the Great Lakes, the Door Peninsula shining brilliant promise in the light of bare trees, a white church on a hill overlooking a bay in a town called Ephraim.

The curve of the shoreline made splendid by the sun. Their tiny little farm, before he left for green jungles of rice paddy water and snakes on the other side of the world. The letters about the men. The way the shooting pains started in her legs, then the sharper pains, but she still kept waiting because the letters kept her going. “You’d eat what?” She’d write back. Twisted inside with the worry that he wasn’t taking care of himself. He just thought about the men.

Writing back about the men, and telling her, that no matter where they all were in that jungle, what really mattered was that “officers eat last.”

Officers eat last.

Those were the last words of his she ever read before she got the telegram.

And the farm. The little farm. No room for little cherry farms. Not anymore.

So she came to Chicago. To find work.

Like people have always come to Chicago since the time when, as the poet said, the first white visitors “slept till noon and then scolded the Indians for being lazy.”

Now in Chicago, no one with an ounce of sense would ever mistake Cassie for lazy. As the times get worse and the clouds of blame drift and wrap their smoky haze around those least able to take care of themselves, and those who have search desperately to find a way to blame those who have the least; Cassie’s daily walk is 8 miles. With leather like paper on the soles of her shoes.

At days end, Cassie’s walk back down south takes her along Hoyne Avenue. Like Hermitage, the kind of quiet street where her heavy heart can feel a trace of calm.

Passing by a cross street in the shadow of the steeple, she doesn’t know it’s the block where the man who was almost governor of Illinois lives. But something in her makes her burrow even deeper inside that down coat that she has no money to clean.

She looks left and sees the neighbors on this street talking on the sidewalks. She sees portable basketball nets left out on the sidewalks even when she walks home in the dark. Kids shoes and wagons and bicycles littering the block. Once she passed by and saw yellow crime scene tape blocking entry to the block and heard the music of the giant F. Scott Fitzgerald party bubbling out. Had she stopped to talk she would have found that were people who lived on that shining city block of money who would be kind to her. There were even people on that block who’d make it possible for her to get a meal on a Wednesday night. A good meal. Warm. There would be a piano playing hymns, same ones she remembered from back up in Wisconsin in the cherry grove church. And after she went back out into the cold city night to keep walking, there would be people from the block sweeping the floor of the meal room. Not a lot of people. The number getting smaller every day.

Cassie knew numbers. You don’t grow up on a farm, run a farm, figure seed costs, crop yields and market prices without knowing numbers.

Numbers like this: the people who live on that block in the shadow of the steeple are within the top 10% in wealth. And the unemployment rate of that group? 3%.

And the people in the lowest 10% in wealth? What percentage of them are unemployed? 35%.

On her morning trail of dry tears up north—the people she passed were somewhere in the middle. Between the 3% and the 35%.

Course nobody talked to Cassie about numbers.

Usually no one even saw her. And no one really knew her story.

So Cassie walked.

Back down south as the winter light faded on another day of hard times.

Cassie walked.

7 Responses to “Officers Eat Last”

  1. Dale Says:

    Lyrical. Or is it elegaic? Either way, beautiful and soulful.

  2. Ted Schneider Says:

    Roger,

    Your writing is very descriptive and this article captures how things have changed in our country. I like how you focus on the plight of the ordinary and the “invisible people” today.

  3. Anne Says:

    Beautifully written. Numbers tell such a small part of the tale of a life.

  4. Gwen Says:

    Wow. This is stunning. Chicago Guy, you’re writing style is simply superb. I’m reading this before coffee so it’s hard for me to articulate how amazing this story is. Thank you so much.

  5. Tom Wozniak Says:

    There are probably 50,000 Cassies “out there” in one form or another…and Abbotts and Choir Robe buildings all over the midwest.

    We owe them a huge debt….

    Thanks, CG.

    TW

  6. gunnarpeace Says:

    Man I have missed your writing. Absolutely wonderful story. Painful and real.

  7. Hattie Wilcox Says:

    Roger

    Adore the title “Officers Eat Last.” It’s as heavy as a sledgehammer. So is the last sentence. When I went to Hawaii, my friend reminded me of the woman and her daughter living in their van at the street flanking her condo low rise. She had told me about them living there 3 years ago. Now, the daughter is not around. My friend said the mother and daughter started arguing and fighting last year and she could hear the yelling all the way up on the 7th floor. Last week, she told me the daughter is 17 and no longer comes “home” to the van.

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