Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Chicago Municipal Tyranny Explained: My Newsstand in 1965…by Robert M. Katzman

Chicago Municipal Tyranny Explained: My Newsstand in 1965 

by Robert M. Katzman ©  August 1, 2017

There was a situation I first encountered when I opened my wooden newsstand August 21,1965 in Hyde Park, 52 years ago: Permission to issue permits to open a newsstand were delegated by the City to the four major newspapers in order to receive a newsstand permit for a particular corner in Chicago. Period.  But the main two asses to kiss were the conservative Chicago Tribune and the Liberal Chicago Sun-Times.

However, there were really only two City newspaper corporations, because the Tribune owned the Chicago American and the Sun-Times owned the Chicago Daily News. Both had to approve of you. Whatever running around by me was necessary, I needed four recognizable signatures on a yellow postcard-sized piece of stiff paper if my teenaged dreams of self-employment were to be realized.

Each newspaper assigned a certain medieval person called a “Division Boss” to decide whether a person was sufficiently worthy to receive their blessings for whatever area was under their control.  Direct contact with the newspapers’ business administration office was impossible.

These men, and only men, not Harvard MBA graduates, were somewhat open to, um, “negotiations” in which they could be persuaded that a permit should be issued. But! and a big one is that if these powerful men, for some reason, had what was locally known as a “hard on” for a guy they already knew, or who thought he had a permit for another existing newsstand, they could kill their chances immediately, and there was no appeal. All sanctioned by Chicago Permits Department.

Chicago Newspapers ruled!

If a fortunate person finally, at some cost, did receive a permit, they immediately were enrolled in the giant Chicago Machine as little tiny screws and were transferred from the newspapers to the City as far as control was concerned.

That means all payoffs to allow their newsstand to continue to exist were given to locally powerful guys like street inspectors, the vice squad, Democratic Party fund raising people–and no question–these people did extract funds from tiny corner newsstands, and an iron rule that ONLY posters showing Democratic Party candidates for political office were allowed to be plastered on the backsides of newsstands. in fact, newsstands were compelled to let these posters be put on their walls.

On the other hand, if a socially maladjusted local neighborhood newspaper truck driver from any of the four Chicago newspapers had a, yes! “hard on” for a particular guy on a particular corner, his supply of newspapers could be delivered too late for rush hour sales, or not enough delivered, or no increase in supply when that was requested and the very real threat of violence if the victim complained. Except there was no one in Chicago to complain to. The Division Bosses supported their truck drivers.

But if the Newspapers complained to the City about a guy they didn’t like on some corner, that person’s permit was pulled and they were evicted. Instant unemployment, no appeal. So, in short, aside from miscellaneous petty payoffs to assorted local City inspectors, the real local Power was the Division Boss. If he liked you, all went well and no one bothered you, even the inspectors.

If he didn’t like you, or his Christmas gift was what he felt was not worthy of his esteemed place in society, your chances of success or continued existence were, zip. A yellow case of Cutty Sark was my standard unit of payoff to whomever I was required to please.

My friendly local liquor store owner, John, sold dozens of these cases of liquor to me when I was a fresh-faced teenager, because I made sure that he knew me and also that the little wooden newsstand 200 feet away from his door was mine, and so after that, the strict enforcement of that annoying Chicago law about selling alcohol to under-age people was instantly relaxed if the intent of all those bottles as necessary payoffs was known, which included the cops. I kept a list of names who were due bottles at Christmas time with me in the back pocket of my jeans at all times, and that list sometimes changed if a guy died or was fired or some new face appeared that had power over me.

Generally, year to year, the damn list grew longer.

In a way, the cops cleared the way for me to transfer the liquor cases from John’s store to my van to my newsstand. My local 21st District police guys received free newspapers every single day. I felt it offered me cheap protection, but boy, there sure were a lot of cops seeking my free newspapers. On the other hand, not a single hold-up in 20 years.

The only way out of any of this modern day serfdom was to find a local Machine “Rabbi’ as that person was called at the time without regard to his ethnicity of religion–a black Baptist alderman could serve as a person’s Rabbi–who would put up a wall around you and say:

Keep off!

This guy is under my protection. 

Which meant, in other words, that all payoffs, though likely less in total dollars, would then be funneled only to the serf’s protector who might gradually introduce his vassal to more powerful people in the Chicago Machine hierarchy. From that point, depending on a person’s willingness to be corrupted financially, morally and any other possible way…anything was possible.

For a more detailed story about my particular “Rabbi” click on this link and meet a remarkable, Chicago politician Marshall Korshak. He broke the mold, however:

www.differentslants.com/?p=2116

(you might have to copy and paste this)

Such was my life when I was 15 to 35.

Free Enterprise was never “free”.

Of course, I’m sure everything is much better now and that all politicians are saints, today.

I could teach a class about all of this.

Robert M. Katzman

Poet & Storyteller for hire for organizations, schools or private events
No fiction/Gritty Urban Perspective
www.DifferentSlants.com to view recent and older examples of my work
847.274.1474

5 Comments »

Comment by Joel R

August 4, 2017 @ 1:00 pm

Great column, Bob. This is why Chicago is often described as a city that has the best cops and judges (and aldermen, and….) money can buy. Brings back so many memories. I remember when, as a kid, my Dad would drive us out to O’Hare, he’d park at the curb, shake hands (not empty) with the beat cop, who would mark the rear outside tire with yellow crayon, and let us go on our way. Never a ticket besmirched that windshield. Peace.

Comment by SV

August 4, 2017 @ 6:59 pm

How very true! I worked at the Tribune 1966-1973, and when I picked up Katherine Graham, publisher of Washington Post and Newsweek, I loved detailing the details of this story that I knew. Later, hired to boost circulation at Chicago Guide, which became Chicago Magazine, our Publisher, Ray Nordstrand, gleefully introduced me to you at lunch. Soon after I met Joyce. You were an integral part of our distribution scheme. You are a survivor in an atmosphere that was stacked against you.

Comment by Charlie Newman

August 4, 2017 @ 7:59 pm

I think you and I discussed this some time ago.
Biz as usual.
Well done, Bob.

Comment by Brad Dechter

August 5, 2017 @ 7:27 am

Bob, look at the bright side – it wasn’t a case of Johnny Walker Blue Label or some other single malt scotch!
I never saw this side of Chicago because all my activities until I left it were illegal anyway. (Wink.)

Comment by Bill Skeens

August 7, 2017 @ 8:27 am

Bob:

Your stories always amaze me. And to think that as a 16-18 year old year old you had to encounter this and that it did not turn you completely away from business. You got your MBA in “Street Education” at a very early age.

Thanks for sharing.

Bill Skeens

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