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Love & Ice Cream: Tales from Lawrence Ave.

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07/01/2013

Love & Ice Cream: Tales from Lawrence Ave. photo

I remember stopping at my dad’s parents’ house once before I left for summer camp in high school to say goodbye. Naively expecting a quick hug and kiss, I ended up sitting in their den, listening to stories for a few hours. What to some might have seemed like a longer goodbye than necessary ended up propelling me to become more consciously thankful for the memories that they take the time to share with me.

My all-time favorite story is how my grandparents met. Actually, how both sets of my grandparents met: in the same ice cream parlor in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood in 1947.

Interestingly, I spent a sufficient amount of time in high school tutoring students through a community service program in that area. I was actually a bit shocked when my mom told me that both of my grandmothers grew up near Lawrence Avenue, which was now lined with linen shops, markets, dollar stores, wholesale vendors, and a few stores that looked as if they were about to close instantaneously rather than the cute, picturesque locations from all of my grandparents’ stories.

My grandparents each lived in apartments, like most of the Jewish families, and spent their time at the neighborhood hangouts such as the drugstore “Glicks,” the local deli, and the movie theater where they spent many of their weekend evenings called “The Terminal.” Both of my grandmothers reminisce on how they would walk everywhere, so much so that they would notice if there was even one difference in the display windows.

After the war, the dynamic of the neighborhood immediately began to change. The girls would stand outside synagogue, dressed up, waiting for the men to walk out. The area got much busier and people were always hanging out outside and mingling with “soon to be” friends.

“Times are different now,” my nana tells me, “It’s nostalgia.”

The place that undoubtedly holds the most nostalgia for all of my grandparents was Rudich’s, the infamous ice cream parlor that brought them together.

“None of us were fat. We didn’t care about calories; no one did in those days,” my grandma tells me.

Described as fun place, the ultimate neighborhood hangout, and more, this was “their place.”

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Mae and Irwin

My grandma Mae leaned back in her bright turquoise booth in the center of the shop as she scooped a large bite of her cheesecake with chocolate ice cream with a silver spoon. Large windows that extended from about two feet above the ground lined the perimeter of the Central Park side of the shop, exposing the bright July sunlight that reflected against the parlor. As she indulged in this daily dessert, her friend Adele nudged her from across the table. Milt and his friend Irwin, whom Mae had never met before, had just strolled into the store. They lingered by the ice cream counter filled with taps of soda water and other carbonated concoctions as employees carefully scooped handmade ice cream from neatly stored cartons behind the counter into large cones and shiny metal cups. Young men and women home for college or still in high school sat on the stools of the soda counter eating hot fudge sundaes or drinking malts and floats.

The boys gazed into the sit-down area of the restaurant where one row of booths lined each wall and two rows or booths resided in the center, separated by a wooden barrier. Irwin and Milt sauntered across the brightly dyed tile floor towards the booth of girls. Mae crossed her fingers, hoping that Irwin rather than Milt would sit down beside her in the booth fit for four. Milt seemed to take a stronger liking to Mae than she did to him and the last thing she wanted was to hurt his feelings. To her disappointment, Milt slid into the seat as Irwin placed himself diagonal from her.

The foursome chatted until their server came over to take the boys order: one banana split each. Mae never ordered banana splits, only her cheesecake with one scoop of chocolate ice cream, unless it was nighttime, in which case she would stick to sodas and sundaes. The group sat and talked about their day as they ate their dessert. Mae mentioned that she would be attending University of Illinois-Champaign and learned that Irwin currently studied at the same university.

“Could I please drive you both home?” Irwin asked, once it got late. He had borrowed his father’s Kaiser. The girls agreed and followed the men into the back seat of the automobile.

Almost instantaneously, Irwin started driving and pulled up to Mae’s apartment. She asked how he knew she lived there and Irwin ignored the question. My grandmother always believed that he must have “noticed her” around the neighborhood. It wasn’t until they married two years later in 1950 that my grandpa, Irwin, confessed that he looked at my grandmother’s wallet that was sitting on the table. Joking that he is a nosy person, my grandma explained that he had asked to see some of the pictures in her wallet and while doing so, he saw her identification card and the rest is history.

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Nannette and Conrad

One summer day, my nana saw a handsome gentleman standing with a friend of his across the shop. She asked who he was and was taken aback when she heard his name.

“Conrad Sterling, that’s a name like in the movies,” she said. “I don’t think we were talking, but he also noticed me. She learned that he was the ROTC Colonel of the City, an extremely high honor. She immediately asked to be fixed up with Conrad and they began to date soon after.

“The neighborhood had a lot of sentimental value,” she said, thinking back to the day that she first saw Conrad. Beyond Rudich’s, where she can still recall the countless flavors and toppings offered and the shop, the streets were filled with record shops. She remembers going with Conrad and hearing Dorris Day’s “It’s Magic,” a record that he later bought her.

The streets were different than in the suburbs; there were always people walking around. My papa, Conrad, worked at a men’s shop on Lawrence Avenue called A.J. Hahn, where the men would all sport the clothing sold at the store, just like models. After work, the couple would pick up ice cream, go to the theater, or take the elevated line, otherwise known as the El, downtown to their favorite Chinese restaurant that served rolls, or to watch a famous blind pianist perform.

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The two couples met one another in the 1980s, when my parents were dating. Sometime soon after, they realized the connection of their interwoven pasts.

Times changed, the couples moved, and the neighborhood began to change. None of them were nearby when Rudich’s closed. When they would visit Albany Park, it was difficult to see the neighborhood’s intense changes.

“I think the most disturbing thing was the first time we drove through the West Side and saw that all the temples had changed into churches. That was very hard to see,” my nana told me.

My grandparents tell me now that they believe that the neighborhood became “not as nice” as crime began and new factions of people began to move in. Although my grandfather knows some Christian families who have lived there since the early 1900s, this seems to be a rare instance.

About every 10 years since they moved away, my dad’s parents take a drive through their old neighborhood. My grandma, Mae, is still upset when she thinks about the first time they went back and drove down Lawrence Avenue screaming, “where’s The Terminal?” after noticing it’s absence. She says it looks very different from the genteel neighborhood that she grew up in, which bothers her, although she realizes it is progress. What was once was a country-like neighborhood with vacant lots has gradually been built up since the end of the Korean War.

“Things are entitled to change,” she admitted, “but it doesn’t look like the neighborhood I grew up in. Still, Rudich’s was a fun place. It was a fun place after school. It was a fun place on a summer evening to go eat and then walk down Lawrence Avenue,” Mae said. “It was an ideal place to live and I wish that kind of nice place for my grandchildren.

To that I say, don’t we all, Grandma? In the meantime, I am searching for my version of Rudich’s… 

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