Of the latter occasion Professor Earl S. Johnson enjoyed telling -- although there is not much to it -- his preferred moment being an encounter with a relative of the Babe, not a rare event inasmuch as these types frequented the University of Chicago over the years.
The last exercise of the Professor's zesty recollection marked a reception honoring himself. There he stood, complete with his large-toothed mustachioed laugh but with a nonagenarian's blindness obscuring his once twinkling eyes. And then caught hold of young Chris O'Connor de Grazia and spun the yarn. I relate it here profusely, for I know all the details.
Almost a half century earlier, the Babe, by then called "Al" for "Alfred," was told, with others of the Freshman Class of 1935, "If you have a problem, take it to your Adviser." Hence he betook himself, with the look of alert determination that served to offset his pretty face and wavy hair, to consult his Adviser about an opportunity afforded him by what he otherwise regarded as a lingering disability, his embarrassingly youthful age of fifteen years.
His adviser was cordial. The Babe felt encouraged to explain what was after all far from a great intellectual problem: he could not afford to take up a room on campus. He commuted from Eddy Street and Southport Avenue on the North Side by elevated train and trolley car, leaving home at 6:05 A.M. to arrive at his first class by 8:00. After two weeks of this, he had discovered that the city authorities entitled school-children under sixteen to pay a special fare of only three pennies. But a school official had to attest to one's age.
The instructor laughed when he heard of a "schoolchild" attending the University, all the more because the Babe showed discomfiture, all the more perhaps, now that I think of it, because the Adviser was himself the opposite, only an Instructor, though he was the age of and looked like Melvyn Douglas at the height of his career, actually still working on a doctorate, realizing that writing within a company of raging writers can be the cruelest of exercises.
Although the Babe could not help but love this affable Big Brother, to leak his secret threatened the pretension that a superior status had been conferred upon him, that of a University Student, which sounded to him like a preliminary Degree. Already vox publica had let it be known that at This University, unlike all others, full maturity was expected of all present, and was universally practiced.
Nonetheless he was resigned to bear in the pocket of his shiny pants this stigmatic coupon book. The occasional alternative to the full fare or the child fare was repugnant: get someone in the family up at dawn to go with him, then flash his Father's weekly pass before the eyes of the cashier, then toss out the card from behind the bars of the passageway to the waiting hands.
The new pass, which conditioned honesty upon absurdity, let him save a quarter of a dollar a day, with which he could buy a warm meal, an old book, or streetcar rides from 63rd Street across the Midway to 59th Street on some bitter winter days. He had to scheme carefully if he was to capture the redoubts of Higher Education without money.
There was, of course, no problem with the Adviser: he countersigned the petition with a flourish. Whether he could preserve the underlying secret was another matter. It sometimes happened to the Babe that people went around praising him for actions and qualities he would have concealed. Not that he was secretive or had much to hide. But he imagined himself developing a certain kind of character, rather hard, uncompromising, fully competent, and yet was always exposed, it seemed, as much by friend as by foe, in the act of achieving a nature quite different: flexible, affable. He felt that he was truly remarkable: so did they, in a way; but their reasons were different.
Was he remarkable who was born one among three million souls that had been engorged by the monstrous city?
What is so great about Chicago, itself a flyspeck of history?
We go back now to his beginnings: it is the end of 1919. It is the time of the "Black Sox Scandal," when adored baseball heroes took bribes to lose games, the worst collective trauma that Chicagoans had suffered since the Great Fire of 1871. The First World War is over, yet the Russian Reds are fighting the Whites and the Allies. The League of Nations is organizing itself for a try at running the world.
Thousands of infants are being born in Chicago. The County Clerk registers them if the midwife or doctor remembers to report their arrival. Dr. Hogan actually misspells the Babe's name, who thus gets lost in the records.
The babes are tiny increments that contribute to the exploding demography. They bawl, suck, ride athwart arms, begin to crawl, walk, and run about. How do they come to possess a character, a sense of themselves, a demand for freedom, a future? Why do they think themselves to be important? Have they the force of sprouting, cement cracking seeds?
Absurdly high odds belie the significance of every personal and collective event. Minnows enter life from millions of eggs, now closely estimated, floating in the "unfathomable boundless main," whose fathoms and bounds are now largely known. The more we know, the more depressing the inference. The last barrier to utter despair is the myth of Humanity.
The human species alone poses the question, if not the answer, and hails itself for achieving the question. And proceeds to develop a stronger seed in vegetables, animals, and its own kind.
The Babe begins his life by accident, like most of us: "I married your Father," his Mother told him when he was in long pants, "because he travelled all the time and I wanted to see the world, and I thought that he knew all about how not to have babies, because wasn't he staying in those days with his friend Dr. Quaglia, over the Pharmacy? But right away I had Bussie and then you." She laughed ruefully; it had been from her that he learned irony.
But the larger story of his insignificant origins is much more gloomy. Like the rest of us, he was one among 300,000,000 rivals from a single ejaculation, a practically random sperm, which encountered, in its vigorous dog-paddling upstream, an attractive egg, only the latest among many, yet still a most beautiful sun looming up in the microscopic cosmos.
This, too, backed up against other huge improbabilities of the Universe and its history. Out of an infinity of improbabilities he came, but thereupon, disregarding, if ever it were pointed out to him, the immensity of his insignificance, he quickly became the human, the self-conscious personification of negative entropy, theotropist and proud of it. No greater victory can be won against the universe than to become oneself. He and all the rest of the plopping-out mob.
No two of them are quite alike, we must admit. Here we have one of them, weighing in at ten pounds -- gravid wives were stuffed like geese, or did the proud Father inflate the announcement? -- born to Catherine and Alfred Joseph de Grazia at 365 Hill Street on the Near North Side, amidst cries of agony and grunts of encouragement, with the help of Dr. Hogan, who then joins the Father in his music studio to drink whiskey from shot glasses, never mind the Prohibition, "It can't last," and Baby and Mother are doing well.
Three stories below, snow is on the ground. Christmas is past and the holiday season is poised for the New Year. Friends have been preparing for a peek at Kate's new baby. They come by car, cab, trolley car, elevated railroad, and on foot, shapeless in woolens and overshoes, tracking snow to the door sill and scraping it from their galoshes in gobs and slices. While the baby is snuffling and crying and dozing, the Mother prettied herself for the compliments to come.
I will say that people of this kind are the best of show when the myth of birthing has to be played once more. That the baby is handsome, to be adored, and has been expected and desired all along. The lucky baby conceived, born and bred in "the bosom of the family," as the evocative cliche puts it.
What is this -- people making the best of their bad luck, the social nuisance and economic drag of the new-born? If so, it is wonderful that this society finds unimaginable the horror of cultures that have killed their infants, have eaten them, or, just as bad, aborted them. Better for the pregnant girl to clamp on her ankle irons and be called a "Mother."
We must confess, however, that birthing does give the life-bearer an investment in living flesh and feelings, a spin-off of identity that lends vitality to social myth. This Being is part of her, and no one can steal from her the clamorous affirmation of Power and Production she exhibits in bearing forth the little purple critter. If the world wants babies, she alone can turn them out; if it does not, then she can spit in the eye of the world: there it is, now what will you do about it? Every baby born enters a maelstrom of manic demands and expectations. No wolf-suckled Romulus he, the Babe is immediately hailed by the well-tuned chorus as a pure and spontaneous Act of God.
Some folk are born themselves more than others are, and it was apparent from birth onwards that his absurd improbabilities impressed this one not at all. He took off from the womb. Unless I am mistaken in my researches, he could be called the infantile-rage-type, like Louis Sullivan and Bertrand Russell. Before many days had passed, his imperious noise-making had won him the sobriquet of "the cuckoo."
"Do you know that they called you `Cuckoo' when you were a baby?" she said when he was old enough to reply disgustedly, "I know," and if, rarely, one of those ladies chimed in to agree, he would have put on a wry polite smile.
He was more interested to learn that he could walk at the age of eight months and could talk when one year old. Now that was something! Nor had he been sickly as a baby, despite all his noises, whereas his brother Sebastian, who was two years and a half older and who was quieter, had been a victim of un-diagnosable fevers, but Sebastian did not like to hear his infancy discussed either.
Why? I think it is because babies do not like to be babies or children, and because people (as children will continually tell you) say the dumbest things about children, and rarely talk about what the child wants to know about himself.
Anyhow it was true that he hollered. Everyone who had anything to do with the Babe as an infant, including Dr. Hogan, said that he cried loud and often. Love was showered upon him, but that did not stop him. Nor could food, balm, and warmth assuage his screaming and stretching for the externalization of his egocentricity. There was something he wanted, or resented, even in his scruffy, blue-skinned primeval moments, that love alone could not deal with. If he had been born in Bombay, he would have been dosed with a spoonful of opium-water. That would have pacified him. But then he wouldn't have been "himself" (whatever improbability oneself consists of).
He was one of those reaching-out babies: come close, and before you knew it, he'd be in your arms. This would seem to reveal an affectionate nature, but it could also have been a lust for conquest, or, as some great demagogues of history have demonstrated, the reaching out could have been both affection and conquest. Or might one say that so many loves are just that, a melange of conquering affections?
Maybe it was heredity that drove him to his early excesses, but then again it may not have been, for the Mom had lost her own mother the year before and had gone into a severe and prolonged depression from the shock and sorrow of the sudden loss -- on the Easter morning well, dead in the afternoon. Perhaps the very intensity of desire to create within herself and bring forth the new life that might replace the lost life would have caused unusually liberal secretions of adrenalin.
The Babe was baptized at St. Joseph's Church, on the corner of Hill and Orleans Streets, whose priest had said to the Dad, you were married in the holy rites of the Church at St. Philip's "Italian" Church on Oak Street, whereas this is a "German" Catholic Church, to which the Dad had responded that all were part of the Universal Roman Catholic Church, that he held nothing against Italians, being one himself, that St. Joseph's was a stone's throw from home, that the Babe was to be named in part at least after St. Joseph, and that he the Dad did not get along well with Father Louis of St. Philip's, a would-be dictator, whom, a propos, the "German" priest disliked but feared, besides which, although such the Dad would not say, he had no intention of belonging to this, that, or any other church and was an atheist. Whereupon the Babe came to be presented, with his Uncle Charley and Rose, the one nattily, the other gorgeously, attired to honor their godchild to be; he was duly sprinkled and blessed and named Alfred Joseph de Grazia, Jr.; and the Dad gave a gift, large as was his custom, to the priest. The priest, like the doctor, wrote down the Babe's name wrong and it stands misspelled in the Parish Registry.