In 1979 I was in my early twenties, living in a mildly cockroach infested apartment in the Palmer Square neighborhood of Chicago.
I was broke, living paycheck to paycheck, but I was living the dream. Out on my own, away from home and my parents – in the big city. I was beginning my life and it was so exciting. As a teenager, I dreamily watched Mary Tyler Moore throw her hat up in the air, week after week on TV. Her theme song playing in my head each night before I went to bed. “You’re gonna make it after all”. Yah, I was.
I had no car then, and relied on public transportation to get into the city for work. This routinely involved one bus – east up Fullerton Ave, and one el train – south into the loop. I felt so cosmopolitan, reading books and the newspaper, or peering out the window taking in the gritty neighborhoods from the backside of the city.
During this time I was exploring the world of health clubs and thinking about a career as a personal trainer or a manager. Starting at the bottom, I worked as a group fitness instructor at the Postl Athletic Club on the 18th floor at Randolph and Wells. Each morning, I donned my ‘not so fashionable’ leotard and led groups of women through heart pounding, aerobic calisthenic classes ala Jane Fonda. We rhythmically sweated for thirty minutes in a room covered with brown shag carpet, mirrors and floor to ceiling windows which permitted an incredible view of the concrete walls of the office building next door. I was in heaven…until the winter came.
Did I mention it was 1979? Does anyone out there remember what noteworthy event happened in Chicago in January during that year? Why yes, the original Snowpocalypse aka “the blizzard of ’79”.
Let me begin by saying – it was the January from hell. The first blizzard came in the first week of the month, dumping about 7 inches of snow. Even though the “polar vortex” hadn’t been invented yet, the temperatures took a nosedive; between the 2nd and the 12th of January, the city tied a 1912 record of 10 straight days of low temperatures at zero or below. It was my first experience at a real job, and I was going to prove my dedication by showing up to work no matter what, even if it meant walking on ice or through three feet of un-shoveled snow to get to a bus or el stop. Little did I know public transportation was not as dedicated to picking me up. It took me hours to get to work, much of it time spent waiting for a bus or train to show up, in the bitter cold weather. Waiting on the el platform under a lightbulb for warmth, I bounced up and down to keep from shivering, as the wind blew through every layer of clothing I wore, right down to the ridiculous leotard. Was I was burning any extra calories?
Once I arrived at work, proud and overjoyed because getting there had seemed like climbing Denali, I would find out I was the only one who made it, except for the manager (I think she spent the night there). What was my reward you ask? Yes, the manager insisted that I lead the classes of the instructors who didn’t show up – in addition to my own, while she spent most of the day manning the phone (which I later found out was code for ‘talking to her friends’). I was a stiff and exhausted person when I finally trudged back into my apartment that night and flopped down on my couch. I was learning about life in the city.
The next weekend 20 more inches of snow fell, and the city was buried. Monday morning the news media was going nuts on behalf of the citizens – “Where were the plows?” “What happened to the busses?” It took days for the broken Chicago machine to dig out of the snow, only to barely hum along. Once the plows did come out, no one knew where to put all of the excess snow, and the media was having a field day again. This time, I stayed home – for two days.
In the days following the first blizzard, I noticed not one of the employees had been fired, docked or even reprimanded for not showing up. I didn’t think twice about going through a polar expedition to get to work this time – I wasn’t going to do it. When I finally did get back to work, everyone was overjoyed upon my return. They feared I had quit.
Nope, not me. I’m dedicated. And through my head I heard the familiar song lyrics “Who can take a nothing day, and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?”
“Well, it’s me girl and I should know it.”
Unfortunately, Mayor Michael Bilandic did not have the same luck. Ahhh, but, that’s another story.
Belden Avenue just west of Halsted on January 16, 1979
Credit: Sun-Times Media file photo