For freedom to express political opinions publicly, no place in Chicago was better known in the 1940s than Bug House Square (officially, Washington Square). Any political opinion, no matter how intellectually outrageous or bitterly derisive of the government, could be expressed without fear of recriminations.
During the day, the Square was as quiet – although not as respectable – as most city parks. At night, on the other hand, it was as boisterous as a wrestling match. This was especially true Saturday nights, when the Square’s reputation for free speech drew a large and diverse crowd. Attendees were winos, the homeless, working men and women and naive college kids. All mingled freely and moved from one “soap box” to another, where any person, who desired to express his or her views, could be heard, espousing a position either in a carefully crafted argument or in a series of impromptu remarks. Choosing a speaker who appealed, portions of the moving mass stopped to encounter some of the most intelligent or radical ideas imaginable.
The first time I went to Bug House Square, I knew virtually none of this. But stopping here and there to listen, I was soon impressed by the erudition, eloquence and persuasive power of some of the speakers. And judging by the reaction of those around me, who listened with rapt attention, I got the feeling they thought highly of some of the speakers too. In other words, if a speaker criticized our government, chastised our politicians, or condemned our economic system, there were sufficient heads nodding in agreement. Shriller denunciations usually followed.
One of these speakers was Nicholas Latimer, an ardent communist. Not only did he subscribe to Marx’s theory on the inevitable rise of the proletariat and the eventual demise of Capitalism, he seemed firmly convinced the Soviet Union was basically a peace loving nation. This was in the summer of 1948 when Americans were worried about the breakout of Russian tanks into Western Europe!
As I listened to Latimer castigate the United States, I gradually went from annoyance to anger. Yet, inexperience in gatherings of this kind and fear of public speaking suppressed my discomfort, and I timidly kept quiet. My silence, however, did not prevent my jaw from tightening and my muscles from contracting. In my opinion at the time, Latimer was more than a radical. He was close to being a blatant anarchist.
Warren Reinhardt, a college classmate of mine, had taken me to the Square to introduce me to the wide world of political ideas. He told me I was too provincial in my thinking: an assessment that initially irked me but one I later came to see was true. When I reviewed the many things I disliked or knew little about, I had to admit I was narrow minded and a bit of a bigot. I had been brought up in an intellectually restricted environment and was taught that those who differed from me were simply wrong – some out of ignorance, others from a refusal to accept the truth. A year at the University of Chicago had moved me quite a distance from that position. And I was shifting further with each passing day.
Pursuing his attempt to broaden my outlook, the following week after my introduction to the Square, Warren took me to a small basement apartment located nearby. Among the people already present was Latimer. I smiled as I was introduced around the room until I came to him. Then I bristled. He didn’t seem to notice my reaction when he cordially extended his hand. Surprisingly, it was firm, and his facial expression was friendly. In the conversation that followed, Latimer never once mentioned communism or the Soviet Union.
Instead, the group discussed Steinbeck, Hemingway, Michener and Salinger. When everyone praised Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, I made a mental note to get the book and read it. Someone mentioned Windsor’s Forever Amber, producing a storm of laughter. Not having read it, I didn’t know why. Warren said D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a better book if one wanted to read erotic fiction.
When a newcomer, named Julia, arrived, the conversation switched to classical music. As it continued, my ability to participate ended when it got beyond Tchaikovsky, Mozart and the three B’s. Latimer, however, was quite knowledgeable. He exhibited familiarity not only with the music of contemporary giants like Stravinsky and Prokofiev, but with Hindemith, Bloch, Schoenberg, and even Varèse. Again, I made mental note.
The explanation for the conversational shift became apparent when the group insisted Julia play something on the piano. A serviceable upright stood in a corner and she played several short pieces by Bartok. Julia said they were from his “Mikrokosmos.” I was thrilled. The music was exciting, the playing excellent. And I made a third mental note. For an evening that had opened inauspiciously, it ended a resounding success.
As fate would have it, I ran into Latimer a month later when I was eating lunch at the Roma, an Italian restaurant at the corner of Webster and Sheffield. I was sitting in a booth eating, when I looked up and saw Latimer enter. Since he saw me and smiled, I could hardly pretend I didn’t see or know him. He greeted me warmly by name and remembered I attended the U. of C. He said he had lived in the Sheffield neighborhood all his life. I was surprised by his friendliness and was flattered when he asked me about the courses I was taking, the major I had chosen, and if I found college difficult. His questions weren’t in the least intrusive or perfunctory, but reflected a genuine interest. I asked him if he was in the Roma for lunch. When he said yes, I told him I would be pleased if he’d let me pay. I could see he was hesitant, but when I gently insisted, he reluctantly said yes.
We were together for over two hours, talking like we’d been friends for years. I learned where he lived on Seminary, and that he had gone to Waller High School.
Nick said family finances had caused him to drop out of college in his second year. He said it was probably just as well, as he doubted if he had the required perseverance. Now he had a wife and two young daughters. With natural paternal pride he said they were every bit as cute as their mother. When I asked him what kind of work he did, he said he was the janitor of St. Vincent’s church across the street.
After we had talked for quite awhile, I found the courage to ask him about his highly charged rhetoric at Bug House Square. “I mean, it was strong stuff,” I said. “And one could say it was rather heavily anti-American…at least I thought it was.”
“Oh that,” Nick said laughing. “It’s my one weekly entertainment. I say things I hope will excite people…wake them up…get them thinking. I wish, once in awhile, someone would tell me I’m all wet and why. But no one ever does. They’re either too frightened or too complacent.”
“In other words, everything you say on the ‘soap box’ is for fun,” I said, laughing.
“Not everything…but mostly,” Nick replied, grinning back.