By Rick Kogan
6:19 PM EST, November 16, 2012
The authors of "The Guys in the Gang: And Other Stories" have the same name as a very famous author, and on the back flap of this book's jacket, there they are in 1999 in Dublin, posing with a statue of the very well known writer James Joyce — who, as far as I know, never partook of the various pleasures available growing up near the corner of 79th Street and Racine Avenue in St. Sabina Parish.
"Everybody thinks that their own neighborhood is unique," says James T. Joyce. "But I know ours was unique. That ambience, that culture that we knew will never be experienced again."
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The James T. Joyce talking was raised on Carpenter Street and will heretofore be referred to as "Carpenter" James. The other James T. Joyce will be "Ada" James, for the street on which he lived.
Okay? Let's proceed.
"Carpenter" James and "Ada" James have written a charming and altogether evocative book about growing up Catholic, getting into trouble and making lifelong friendships on the South Side of Chicago.
This is a playful passage from the preface: "The book contains offensive figures of speech and bad words. So we ask our offspring not to read it until they've reached the real age of reason, about forty-five."
The two men have been friends for nearly 60 years, through St. Sabina School and Leo High School.
"Ada" James says, "The Army got me out of Chicago, and I never really lived here again. But I have never lost touch with the friends of my childhood, and (I) come back here all the time." Living mostly in the South, he would become a psychoanalyst, businessman, newspaper columnist and author of two books.
"Carpenter" James says, "My grandfather and father were both firemen, but I thought I might end up as a teacher because there were also a lot of teachers in my family too. But I got married, took the fire exam and, well, the rest just happened." He would spend 39 years in the Chicago Fire Department, the last four as its commissioner, retiring in 2004.
The seed of their book was planted decades ago. "I remember reading a column by (former Tribune columnist) Bob Greene then that said people should write about themselves for posterity," says "Ada" James. "Something for new generations to read and maybe help understand where you came from, even if the observations were as simple as what it was like when you woke up and looked out the window."
And so, the two men were sitting in a saloon one night, and the following conversation took place.
"I am going to write a book about what it was like to grow up the way we grew up," said "Ada" James. "Will you help me?"
"No," said "Carpenter" James.
That exchange was repeated a number of times until — "and a few whiskeys may have had something to do with it," says "Ada" James — the collaboration was hatched.
They would exchange stories but quickly learned that their memories were not always to be trusted. "Memory is a tricky thing," says "Carpenter" James. "When we didn't agree on the details of a story, we would consult the other guys in the gang."
They were ever available.
"We will get together pretty frequently, every two or three weeks," says "Carpenter" James. "Every once in a while we'll go on a kind of field trip. One of the last ones was when I took the guys on a tour of Chicago's boulevards … even those on the North Side."
Much of the book centers on youthful antics (some of the names have been changed to protect the guilty), but there are some very lengthy sections on religion and the changing racial makeup of their neighborhood, including the use of words now considered demeaning. But the authors' honesty is understandable.
"Many of our stories might seem to be pushing the envelope of legalities and civility, but that is only to the untrained ear," writes "Carpenter" James, whose chapters are clearly noted in a book in which most of the writing was done by "Ada" James.
The two have been pleasantly surprised by the reception the book has received and were "stunned" by the more than 300 people who showed up for a book party a couple of months ago at Armanetti Town liquors, 10000 S. Western Ave. in the Beverly neighborhood.
"The book really strikes a chord," says "Carpenter" James. "Of course we have heard from a lot of old St. Sabina and Leo people. But it is spurring a lot of memories in others too."
Ditto in "Ada" James' new hometown of Waynesville, N.C. "The locals are loving it," he says. "It's about a particular place in a big city, but all kids did crazy things. One guy told me, 'Just change Irish to German, and that's my story.'"
The two old friends posed for the accompanying photo at Dugan's, a pleasantly cozy saloon in the heart of Greek Town. They were asked, "What about another book?"
"No," says "Carpenter" James (right), just as firmly as he had many time before in another tavern.
"Ada" James just smiles and orders another round.
Rick Kogan is a Tribune senior writer and columnist.
"The Guys in the Gang"
By James T. Joyce and James T. Joyce, iUniverse, 264 pages, $30.95
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