Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

My grandparents in a Steven Seagal movie

The final lasting image of my grandparents together is a Steven Seagal movie. No, my grandparents were not sixth-degree black belts, and neither of them had the 80s hip-guy ponytail. But Seagal’s first movie, Above the Law was shot in their Chicago neighborhood. So whenever the flick’s on cable TV over the weekend, I usually tune in for a few minutes to catch a look at the old neighborhood where I spent all of my Thanksgivings and Christmases, plus other holidays we loaded up the station wagon and drove two hours west to the big city.

I don’t know Chicago geography well, but the one now-gone landmark that was the nucleus of their old neighborhood was the Ludwig Drum factory. Go to the intersection of Damen and North, and then go up a couple of blocks to St. Paul Ave. That’s where my grandparents’ three-story brownstone sat, the place they bought back in 1940 for about the current cost of a new compact car. Across the street was an old brick warehouse where Ludwig made their drum kits, the kind almost every rock band used back then, or the big marching band bass drums used at football games. My mom told me when she was little, the Beatles came to the drum factory to see where Ringo’s skins were put together, and it turned into a full-scale riot. (Of course, in my mom’s stories, pretty much everything turned into a full-scale riot, so who knows.)

The big plot point in Seagal’s movie was this old church, and that was shot at Saint Mary of the Angels church. (Here it is on google maps.) I used to go to this church all the time with my grandma. She was really serious about the church, and was a Polish Catholic, which was like an order of magnitude more strict than just being a regular Catholic, although I didn’t really know how. Our church back home didn’t use any Latin, though, and this place had all kinds of songs and sayings I didn’t understand. The church got shut down because of structural problems right after the film came out. When my grandma died in 1989, the funeral was at another church; the city had slated Saint Mary for demolition. Some people got together the cash at the eleventh hour, and they rebuilt the place. So both Catholics and martial arts fans can rejoice that the landmark was saved.

The Ludwig plant fell apart, and they moved the drum production to Texas or Japan or something. Another company used the factory for a while, but in the 80s, it was used as a studio space for a few TV and film productions. The Color of Money was shot there, and allegedly, my grandfather ran into Tom Cruise, and said he was a nice guy. (I don’t know if this was before or after he turned to Scientology.) Above the Law shot a lot of indoor scenes in the old factory. Like there’s a scene where they’re going to a police evidence locker to check on some C4 explosives – that’s totally the inside of the Ludwig plant. I’ve never been in there, and I only know the place from sitting across the street and looking inside the mesh gate over the loading dock, watching the forklifts move around. But I could tell at a glance that the scene was shot there.

A lot of Above the Law reminds me of the general feel of the mid-to-late eighties Chicago, a place I just barely knew. All of the cars had those blue and white license plates, and in the background of the chase scenes, you could see the Jewel stores and gritty-looking car repair places, with red brick walls that were turned black from years of soot and pollution. The L-Train ran overhead, making that distinctive sound and looking like nothing we’d ever see back in Elkhart. All of the backgrounds in that movie of the neighborhood remind me so much of what I saw in the back of the station wagon, looking out at this giant city, where every square block housed more people than my entire high school. Watching five minutes of that film reminds me so much of that brief moment in time that it always amazes me.

The one big regret that I have about my grandparents’ old neighborhood was that I never really tried to explore outside of the close domain of their place. My mom was 100% convinced that there were rapists with full-auto machine guns every hundred feet, and if we left the fenced confines of their back yard, we’d be on the back of a milk carton or worse. Now, I don’t think as a four-year-old I should have wandered far, but when I was 14, maybe I could have walked around the block, or down to Wicker Park, or to Osco’s to get a Coke or something. In retrospect, the place was probably as safe as the streets I walk today in New York. I really would like to have more memories of the area around there. I don’t want to live there, and a vacation in Chigago is not high on my list of things to do with limited time and money. But it’s something that interests me in some weird way.

That area is now called Bucktown, and it’s a trendy little place to be, if you’ve got the goatee and the money. The Ludwig factory got broken up into single-serve condos, and the mom-and-pop bodegas and corner bars are probably all cloned Starbucks storefronts. The neighborhood’s probably all filled with hipster doofuses, listening to Coldplay on their iPods and reading J.T. Leroy books. After my grandpa died in 1995, they sold off his building for some obscene amount of money. Looking at the place on Google Maps, I see that they’ve torn out the garden and swingset next to the building and made it into parking spots, which really pisses me off. I’ve always wanted to go back and see the place again, but I’m guessing all of the wood pocket doors and elaborate cabinetwork got kicked to the curb and replaced with Pottery Barn.

I still haven’t watched Above the Law all the way through. But one time my mom rented it, and we found a part in the church where my grandparents were extras. (They probably went because there was a free lunch or something; my grandfather could not pass up anything like that.) You can see them for a split-second on-screen, which is awesome. How many of you can say your grandparents were in a Steven Seagall flick?

Bonus: Coincidentally, Larry Falli now lives about 20 blocks south and four blocks west of where they used to live.