© August 3, 2013
When Bill was born, Grover Cleveland was president of the United States. Horses walked the streets of New York City and Chicago. Victoria was on Britain’s throne and seven million Jews lived across Europe, my family among them.
The Spanish-American War was two years away. World War One? Eighteen years in the future. About 65 million people lived in America. Civil War veterans, tens of thousands of them, marched in military memorial parades. Penicillin was decades away and women couldn’t vote until 1920, nor Native Americans until 1924. Great Britain was the most powerful nation on earth, or at least they thought so.
Truman was my first president, April 30, 1950. Hitler was dead five years exactly. My horses were only in the movies. No Interstate Highways yet–but soon, after Eisenhower was elected. Israel was a new country, and Europe was emptied of Jews. But all four of my grandparents were living in the USA. My relatives who couldn’t get here in time, evaporated with the rest of them. Great Britain? Now, an insignificant and irrelevant island, a little larger than the State of Illinois, sitting quietly about twenty miles off the coast of France.
Grover Cleveland was pretty much forgotten, except he’s still on the thousand dollar bill. Women built war planes, tanks, bombs and bandaged the wounded in World War Two. But by five years later, in 1950, they were back in America’s kitchens, pregnant if not barefoot as most men seemed to want them to be. But even there they were sensational: Seventy-eight million more Americans came from them. Some to become soldiers who would fight and die in Viet Nam. Time passes, but the wars endure.
Bill and I met in August, 1965. He was 69, I was 15. What could he possibly teach me?
This bald old man, this cranky relic from the past who’d been run over by a speeding freight train in 1912 and was missing an arm and a leg? Bill, seemingly frozen in time was a mentor-in-waiting. He taught me all there was to know–knowledge nearly extinct, obscure know-how no one wanted to know–about building and running wooden newspaper stands.
Bill had almost given up any hope of finding a willing apprentice. Whatever scrappy street urchin he’d imagined finding one day, it never occurred to him it would be a frightened, naïve and fiercely independent Jewish runaway from the South Side of Chicago.
We were not a match in any way a person could imagine, but over the next three years, we became one. If nothing else, we needed each other. I was going nowhere and he was running out of time. I was unknowingly entering the University of Bill, where everything—everything—was hands on.
I learned: how to build a solid wooden newsstand with scavenged scrap lumber, how to waterproof it and how to keep warm inside of it with kerosene burning in a tar can half-filled with sand.
Once, slipping during a blizzard my open hand landed on the glowing molten side of the tar can. I screamed in pain. Bill saw it, yelled at me:
“Stick your hand in the snow!”
I stared at him, crazy with burning pain, confused. He repeated, angrily,
“Ya dumb bastard, put your damn hand into the snow! And leave it there.”
Within an hour my hand, near blue, numb and icy, felt nothing.
Bill showed me how to keep my feet warm in frozen Chicago winters by stuffing newspaper in my boots, and by standing on wooden planks. He brought me an ancient Barn Lantern, a gift to light up my night. Taught me how to fill it, and how to trim the wick to keep it from smoking. It let the cops know I was open from blocks away, deep into the night.
When angry with a man, he called him a “Satchel-Assed Bastard”. When annoyed with me and my endless questions he’d snort: “Fuck that noise!” so I’d know to shut up.
He told me to buy a tall black kerosene stove and showed me how to fill it without spilling gas. It warmed half of me, whatever side faced the flame. Through the winters, I smelled like kerosene constantly.
Bill showed me how to cook little hot dogs on top of the stove, poisonous food, but really good. He made me an expert in caring for: My lamp, my stove, my tools. Trying to create a solid man from the moldable boy before him. Someone worthy of all he knew.
He taught me to count by threes when the heavy tightly wired bundles of newspapers were thrown from speeding delivery trucks every few hours, the better to catch the drivers from stealing our papers. The weathered bastards wondered how the punk kid knew that old trick, and him so young, too?
He taught me to flip a Final Markets Edition Chicago Daily News solidly under a man’s arm in a single fluid motion with one hand. How to stack up my nickels, dimes & quarters on the newsstands windowsill to be instantly ready for any combination of change required when rush hour arrived and people poured out of the train station across the street from us. He taught me to build solid windbreaks to protect the papers, and my skin, and how to correctly patch a leaking roof by overlapping the shingles so gravity pulled the rain straight down.
In what I considered “after regular class and for “extra-credit” toward my Street Smarts degree, Bill told me how to treat the area’s many cops, why giving them seemingly “free” newspapers actually bought me both protection and recognition in the 21st District, thereby eventually making me an accepted member of the
UndergroundVillage, the invisible worker-bees who in reality made the city hum, even while the Educated thought they were in control.
One night, Bill was deep in reminiscing with an old cop he knew, the cop’s face a mass of wrinkles. They had an air of familiarity that suggested they really knew the score, where the bodies were buried and the best place to water their horses when work was done. I heard Bill say, quietly, while looking south down the street from where our newsstand was sitting that he remembered when,
”…there were brothels lining Lake Park Avenue during the Depression. Man, you could get anything you wanted for two bucks!”
The cop nodded in smiling agreement, seeing vividly what no longer existed, though it clearly did for both of them. I broke in through their reveries:
“Bill, what’s a brothel?”
Bill looked at the old cop and smiled. They both did, the cop letting Bill decide how to respond. My Dad might have said he’d talk to me about it later, meaning never. Bill, however, turned toward me, looked me in the eye and said,
“A brothel was a place where when a guy needed a girl really bad, but didn’t have a girl, he could find one there. All ya needed was the dough.”
I nodded in understanding, but I hadn‘t a clue what he was talking about. Bill may have known that, but didn’t want to embarrass me in front of the cop. Friends didn’t do that sort of thing to each other. Another lesson.
Then I looked at the cop, more closely, as he was gazing at me. Something awfully familiar about him. What was it? Had I met him before, some other place? Then my face dropped down to his brass name plate: Cohen.
I was stunned! A Jewish cop? I didn’t know there were Jewish cops. I’d never met one. Never heard of one.
The old cop followed my eyes. He also saw the Star of David around my neck. We were having an unspoken conversation. Then he said,
“Yep, I’m a Yid cop, kid. Not many of us left, not now anyways. In the Thirties there wasn’t any work and a job with the City of Chicago put food on the table. I hadda wife, kids, and no other choices. I knew some Irish guys in the fire department, and they had brothers, uncles and sons in the police department. One of ‘em, a captain who knew my family told me he’d put in a good word for me, see what he could do.
“Those days, the Irish and the Jews, we looked out for each other. And pretty soon, I had a spot at the academy and a safe job for thirty years with a pension. We’re not all cut out to be doctors, lawyers and professors, kid. Look at you. A Jewish kid selling newspapers at midnight, in the winter. I don’t see Harvard in your future. Do you, kid?”
And then he smiled at me, pretending to punch me in the stomach. He told me to wait a minute and turned around, went to his car and opened his trunk. He pulled something out of it. Couldn’t see it in the dark.
He came back into the swaying yellow light of the lantern. He was holding a long wooden nightstick. He handed it to me. It was heavy. One end was carved so a cop could hold it without it slipping out of his hand. I stared at it. Then I looked up at the cop, silently.
“Hey, it’s yours, kid. Maybe you’ll need it one of these cold nights when one of us patrol boys ain’t around. A lot better than having your hands full a nothin’ an’ someone ugly lookin’ at you. Know what I mean?”
That was the winter of ’65. Now it’s 2013, forty-eight years later. I still have it. Don’t want to have my hands full a nothin’ an’ someone ugly lookin’ at me. Know what I mean?
The Irish-Jewish connection? Still true when I was a child. Sometimes the good things do endure.
Bill taught me how to treat girls. How to talk pleasingly to them. How to be gentle with them. I watched as his lone muscled arm floated through the air as he tried to demonstrate how he expected me to touch girls when the opportunity presented itself to me…some day. He viewed girls, women, as a breed apart and to be treated with great respect. That stayed with me. It was also the only soft moment between us in our hard, rough existence at that newsstand in the years we worked together.
Continuing, regarding girls, Bill instructed me to “pull out their chairs, open doors for them, help them with their coats and always walk on the street side by the curb to protect their pretty dresses from puddles splashing because of careless speeding cars passing by.
Even though he was fifteen in 1911, bill insisted that this was the way a man should act around women.
I eventually learned that girls were surprised, always surprised by those ancient courtesies from me, the ramshackle teenaged corner paper guy. But they liked it. The girls in the Sixties sure liked it. Even their mother’s liked that I did that, when they witnessed it. Got me kissed, too, by their daughters
Later, and sometimes better, kissed by some mothers, too.
Bill was mine to listen to for three years. A thousand days. Century-old wisdom: How to live my life; how to protect myself; how to be a good man–delivered to me daily, just like a newspaper.
He married for the first time in June, 1968. I was his best man, the ring-bearer. A slam-bang wedding, whiskey and singing and wonderful food. Happy old men and happy old women, who knew so well how fast their time flew by.
But soon after, my time was up. My teacher was moving on with his senior-citizen wife.
He stood back a bit, looking at me, at last sizing me up. He told me he was proud of me, and shook my hand like he meant it. And he meant it. Then he told me, at the very end, that the corner we had shared for the last three years had originally been his, back in 1912.
After the freight train he was trying to jump, and his sweaty hands slipped and he fell and went under the speeding steel wheels, cutting off his arm and leg, a sympathetic older friend connected him with the city government, got him a permit and a corner to sell Chicago newspapers so he could support himself.
Bill was sixteen, eerily close to my own age when he and I first met. He not only sold newspapers, he also learned to book horses and eventually became pretty good at it until the vice squad caught on and he lost the stand after a dozen years on that corner.
He ended up drifting around America, living in hobo camps, all through the Great Depression and learned the essentials of surviving on his own as the decades passed. Then oddly, Bill said that he never felt sorry for his disability. He felt that had he still been complete and healthy with all his arms and legs, he might have been shipped overseas to France along with hundreds of thousands of American farm boys turned soldiers under General Pershing and ended up either blind or dead because of World War One. He said, to my incredulous ears, that he considered himself pretty lucky, under those circumstances. What kind of man could feel that way?
Stunned, I stared at him, speechless, wondering…mystified…just how long it was he had waited for me, or someone like me, who could be trusted to keep all Bill knew. Someone he could drag back through time and show him how things used to be, and how things still should be, even if he wasn’t around to help keep it that way.
By then, as it happened in 1968, I knew where the new Chicago brothels were, how corruption worked, who sold guns or drugs–a world of knowledge a guy can learn on the streets, if he keeps his eyes and ears open, and his mouth shut. I had an education money couldn’t buy. Not even at Harvard.
On September 1, 1967 when I was seventeen, a 28-year-old French-Jewish woman must have decided I still needed some work in the “how to treat girls” department. Though she spoke no English, not everything needed to be spelled out and we made slow love inside my wooden newsstand on a hot summer night. Bill said to be gentle, and I was gentle, offering that beautiful woman no resistance, as she changed me from whatever I was before her, into a man. She was stunning.
So, no. No college degree. But after three years with Bill and the seventeen years following that, I gotta god-damned PHD in grit. Not exactly the kind of thing you can frame and hang on a wall, though. Maybe you’ll just have to take my word for it. In the UndergroundVillage, a man’s word still means something.
Bill told me not to forget what he wanted me to remember. Bill, wherever you are, rest easy. I haven’t.
Bill had no kids, or so he said during our time together.
But I think both of us knew better. He actually did have just one:
I welcome your comments and hope you’ll pass on to others the existance of this site by a still obscure Chicago writer
My other life: