This is the song of a city, sung by a woman. This is a lady’s libretto, played by the “L”-evated metro. Chicago and Claire. Claire and Chicago; a love song sung with a smile.
She was single, buxom, full of street smarts and sass, but an innocent idealist beneath. She had panache, was inquisitive—a real cool cookie. She was comely and threw Sweet Home over her like a vintage fox fur. Her heart, her spirit, and her body were big—like Mae West. Her hip bounce and snap pulled the blues players to her side. In elevator rides, she’d corner fellows on the journey high and pull out newspaper clips and wallet photographs. She was my soul family, and her heart-home was Chi-city.
The city opened up to me through my auntie. She taught me its tune.
She befriended Chicago’s best: “Joe,” the survivor of lye in his face—scarred by his family. Her best friend, Patti O’Malley. She knew Chicago’s champion of flowers, Mayor Daley—or at least she sat with him at her friend’s wedding party.
She was a nurse and sang robbers out of taking her purse, in the 1970s and 1980s Cabrini Green projects. She wasn’t mean, she was a doll and suggested the characters eat a balanced breakfast when they threatened with “We’re gonna beat you up, Claire” all the time, on the phone line. She advised “talk as though you have strength. Look them in the eye.”
At the Convention of ’68 Claire was in the trenches treating the victims of police street violence in her semi-impromptu Conrad Hilton medic circumstance. Chicago’s own personal Florence. The photographers caught a moment of Claire showing sympathy, held close to the anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy. The caption misinformed that “he comforted a girl.” They even falsified their whim—“she was crying hysterically until she saw him.” But Claire was not for hysterics. “I organized the headquaters. [sic] I was not crying—however concerned,” she wrote on the wood-backed memento. He ran for President six times; didn’t win though.
The city sang through the lips of this broad. The Windy City blew out the shy of what went before and made Claire a choice character. Mama Chi-Town gave Claire her Bella Voce.
She uncovered the corners, the cracks, and the ghettos. She filled them with care and was aware that underprivileged people also liked “a nice place to live, job security and honest politicians.” She was a skirt in the lair of the sports locker rooms, a gentle bully for a quote. Men of all ages loved her, she had proposals aplenty, but she liked to be free. I was her protégé, but shy, ready to fly—and meant-to-be more.
She was Claire BrightStar. It was clear that she shone. She learned to be light in the Heart of America, where her heart spread. Freed from small-town eyes at last, free to put behind her past, where she wore glasses and was only Howdy Doody’s partner, Clarabell the Clown.
But in Chicago she made Harry Caray say “Holy Cow!” and “take me out, Claire, to the ballgame,” where professional fan Ronnie Wickers says “Cubs Woo-Woo” for you. Even at her wake Ronnie pumped a double elbow rotation—in uniform—and gave celebratory remarks.
Sir Studs Terkel spoke at her coffin. He spun her stories, her ballad. The bard, who listened hard, and recounted Claire’s poem, brought it home clear.
That she sang her soul loud and she sang it real.
She wasn’t a model or a typical “marry-me” gal. Claire wore red hats, always had a PRESS PASS, and did bona-fide pro-bono marketing shifts for Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe—of the Negro League. She took him to Washington to meet Chief Clinton, shook hands and everything. She met Pavarotti and out-sang HIM, before he was banned in ’89 from the Lyric Opera gig. He never showed up.
But Claire did.
She showed up in spades. She was the lover of the slower, the fat man on the bus; she was guileless, a psycho-pomp comfortable on all planes. She traveled the River Styx, showed me magic tricks and was the progenitor of my first successful mental manipulation (a subtle one involving a wand, a diaper, and a string).
She liked men with a growl, a burr. Found in smoky corners of the bar.
The [sexy] Irishman who was a [policeman, fireman, teamster] and wore good jeans, a bad boy persona and sweater had [sass, flirtation, downright sexism] at the [St. Patty’s Day, holiday, baptism] and moved on Claire when she was holding the coffeepot. She [ignored him, pretended, accidentally] POURED IN that joe, right into his crotch! And what did he do, though it hadn’t been THAT hot—or maybe it was—because he pursued her and took her to see Mother Mary on their first outing. And Claire couldn’t get in the Jeep doors because of her cheap knees. But he loved her say-so.
I inherently ‘herited that which the sun alchemized through the bloodlink. I pull that cord through to this next iteration. I call the Wild Onion to unlayer my kinswoman. She snaps her fingers in my ear and jogs her hip, let’s me see—that’s the fire, the matches, the hats and the dreams.
Chicago’s Claire of the Canto: “I just love people. I don’t get all mushy. I like to make myself useful.”
In ’74 she let them have it on the Gold Coast for phony preachment. A breachment of let the rich rule. On N. Cleveland she worked at the free adult health clinic. She believed in “feeding the hungry, clothe the naked, tend and visit the sick.”
Claire entrusted me with her crescent bronze necklace piece. I will wear it soon, so soon, so I can feel Claire through the moon. Claire Hellstern, I’m calling you up, on my kinship, blood string, and your city. Speak through me.
Claire’s charm is burning a spot in my hand—or it feels all atwitter. It’s hard to reveal what the feel is and my neck gives a quiver. Claire’s eyes show me life in the pics with Sears Tower. I feel the power! I put it down—it’s too much! The electricity’s strong; I can’t hold it too long.
But I hear it, the song!
I knew in Chicago she got that chthonic, but not which region of psyche—I mean sidewalk. Nor which horology—I mean town clock. Where she measured time based on how big she could live.
Claire picked out the shows that we volunteered for: Blue Man Group, Latin Dance Extravagance. Claire tore the tickets but she didn’t compare; the ragged edges didn’t amount to much matter. She saw you for you and loved humanity. Never cared much for what “they” thought, though.
Claire saw me first, she who saw the moon in the day. I explored the city and my sexuality, under her gaze. Her last phrase before she died: “I was a pistol, wasn’t I?”
She married her city. It gave her its all, its capacity. It never quit giving even while taking. Some bags were nabbed, lifted or stolen, but those were for free and she never complained only wondered, more cautious with packages. Conversationally gifted, she lifted the spirits of people in the neighborhood. She was dear fun! She made people gather round for her sun. 1969 Spring Fever Queen at Northwestern.
She was colorful, too much for some, that’s for sure. She believed in responsibility, comfortability, and being here. “Remember who you are, without looking in the mirror.”
And the city sang the blues sometimes with a laugh. And the people she met in the population near the Lake were great. All corners added to the chorus.
“Claire was an outspoken woman deeply committed to her family and community.” Thank you Chicago, for connecting her call, her employ as a native child of Illinois.
Chicago’s song for me is a Claire beat.
A lemon-yellow jalopy driving the street.
A hip bounce,
and a bob of bottle blond.
Author’s Note: Claire Hellstern, my Aunt Claire, has been featured in a number of books by Chicago writers Studs Terkel and Mike LaVelle as an example of a fearless individual devoted to helping the poor and oppressed in the community. She was a reporter and a nurse, and was my role-model as a writer and a woman. She died 10 years before I wrote this essay, after living in and giving to Chicago her whole adult life. To me, cities are personified by the people that inhabit them, and so this is a song for both Chicago and Claire.
Elizabeth Hellstern is a writer and artist. She is a graduate from the MFA in Creative Writing program at Northern Arizona University. Her multi-genre work is accepted and published in literary journals such as Hotel Amerika, North Dakota Quarterly, The Cortland Review, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Blotterature Literary Magazine, and New World Writing. Her essay “This Weather Report Brought to You by Autism” was published in The Narrow Chimney Reader: Volume 1. Ms. Hellstern is the creator of the art installation the Telepoem Booth, where members of the public can dial-a-poem on a rotary phone in a 1970s style phonebooth.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 3 • January 2017
Photograph of Claire Hellstern courtesy of the author.