Naked Ghosts, Stewardesses & Sandburg Village at Night

In the fall of 1969 my older sister Lorraine moved into her first apartment on the twenty-fifth floor of a brand new, gleaming, glass walled high-rise. It was part of the Sandburg Village housing development named after the writer who called Chicago the “hog butcher for the world.” Funded with government and private money, it was supposed to serve a mix of low-income and middle-class tenants, but the only people who could afford to live there were young college graduates and singles with good jobs. My sister’s building was one of the first in a collection of skyscrapers, low rises, four-plus-ones and townhouses that slowly replaced the SRO’s and vacant lots covering acres of land between LaSalle and Clark, running from North Avenue to Division Street.

I was eleven that year, and felt like I’d outgrown Halloween until Lorraine turned my head by inviting me and my friend Babette over for dinner and an evening of trick-or-treating. Instead of going house-to-house shivering in the cold,  the prospect of hitting thirty floors, multiple apartments on each – without a wrinkle in our costumes – proved to be irresistible  — even to this worldly fifth grader.

So it was with great expectations that Babette and I arrived at my sister’s that night. And we weren’t disappointed. A cardboard skeleton greeted us at the door. Inside, orange crepe paper streamers criss-crossed the ceiling.  A tablecloth with black cats arching their backs and witches flying on brooms covered Lorraine’s desk. Black paper plates, napkins, matching plastic utensils, and a platter of sugar cookies rested on top.

The floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows displayed a spectacle one could only appreciate in Chicago:  a panoramic vista of three flats as far as the eye could see, their roofs reflecting the shimmering, golden autumn sunset.

When we finished our supper my sister lit a pair of black tapered candles while we mapped our strategy. It was simple:  Babette and I would start on the top floor and work our way down the building, using the hallway stairs. We’d empty our bags “as needed” in Lorraine’s apartment, a short elevator ride away.

Thoughts of candy mountains danced through my head as we grabbed our supplies and marched toward the stairwell door.  But just as I reached for the aluminum doorknob, the lights went out, plunging the hallway into darkness. We returned to my sister’s apartment.  Only the telephone worked, and a call to the doorman revealed that a  Com Ed transformer had exploded and it was anyone’s guess when the electricity would be restored.

While I was working through my disappointment about the aborted trick-or-treating mission,  Babette started to cry because she was frightened of the dark. It made me wish I’d never invited her because the fun could be salvaged if we viewed this development as an adventure. That’s what flashlights were for. I mentioned this to Lorraine, who offered an emphatic “no” to my suggestion.

Moments later we heard voices in the hallway.  Lorraine opened her door to reveal…the neighbors! Introductions were made, and the next thing I knew, we were in the midst of a party at a bona-fide “bachelor pad.”

The host, an airline pilot (in uniform — not a costume) who smelled like whiskey, offered to get me and my crying friend a beer, which made my friend cry even harder. We settled for Cokes.  Several pretty women in stewardess uniforms hovered around Babette, trying to comfort her while someone in the bathroom was smoking a disgustingly smelly cigarette which made me cough. Babette finally calmed down a bit, sniffled and quietly eyed our surroundings while she slurped her Coke through a straw. I was bored and hoped the lights would come on soon so we could squeeze in a few floors of trick-or-treating before my parents came to get us.

Then the ghosts arrived – in the form of six intoxicated adults wearing sandals and bed sheets. It turned out they were cast members from the musical Hair that was playing at the Schubert Theater in the Loop.  They were heading out to a party when the electricity went off.  From the way they looked, the festivities had started many hours earlier. Their leader, clearly male judging from his deep voice and hairy legs, was bumping around the cramped apartment before he flopped down on the carpet next to me.

“I don’t have any eye holes” he said. It was true…his Marimekko bed sheet was completely intact, making him a sightless, daisy sprinkled, ghost. “I need help. Will you design my costume?”

“Sure!” I said.

Someone handed me a pair of scissors.  I expected Ghost Man to take off his sheet so I could get to work, but he insisted I make the costume while he was still wearing it. Although I managed to oblige his wishes, it was not my best effort, and the eye holes ended up ragged and off-center. Nonetheless, Ghost Man seemed satisfied with the result. Anyway, I had a good excuse for poor workmanship. And he had a very good reason for not removing the sheet. He was completely naked underneath.

My sister who had been nowhere in sight, suddenly appeared, holding a flashlight.

“It’s time for you and Babette to go. Mom and dad are supposed to pick you up at ten-thirty.”

Babette wiped her nose on her sleeve and got up. We said goodbye to our host who was mixing drinks in the small kitchen. Tears started to roll down Babette’s cheeks when she realized we would be walking down 25 flights of stairs in the dark, so my sister led us in a rousing chorus of  “One-hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall” all the way to the first floor. Actually it was more like “Two-hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall” because we were pretty slow.

As we pushed through the revolving door into the cold October night, I could see the shadowy outline of my parents inside their car in the blackness. Babette and I scooted into the back seat while my sister recounted the events of the evening in the most generic of terms because, as both she and I knew, the folks would not be thrilled to hear what their eleven-year-old and her over-sheltered friend had been exposed to.

Suddenly, the lights burst on and the glass building, illuminated the entire street like the Palmolive beacon! Gradually the lobby filled with people heading out for the remainder of the night, and Lorraina left Babette and I in the custody of our parents.

My father turned the key in the ignition and was about to pull away from the curb, when a gaggle of spirits drifted in front of our car. The headlights passed right through Ghost Man’s designed-by-me sheet, revealing his silhouette and more.

“Look at those disreputable people!” my mother exclaimed as Ghost Man and his ghost friends wandered off to their party.

*Image courtesy of Chicago History Museum, ICHi-37474, Photographer – Calvin Hutchinson Photography.
*names changed.
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