Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Chicago is Littered With the Corpses of My Retail Life…by Robert M. Katzman

by Robert M. Katzman © April 10, 2016

 

Like discarded trash from today’s opened toys

I see the ghostly echo of my career

Sprinkled across the Chicago like tarnished glitter

Tho’ they used to sparkle for me

Perhaps many people witness

The fast-forwarding of their lives

While still living them

Time relentlessly unfolding

Blank pages written by an unseen hand

 

Caldwell Grammar School, South Side of Chicago

1962-1964

When I was 12, I sold firecrackers

Purchased from a non-judgmental

And very silent source in

Chicago’s mysterious Chinatown

Ladyfingers to Cherry bombs

Roman Candles to Sky Rockets

To my less enterprising classmates

Then, a profitable year later

Warned by an observant, stern but

Unexpectedly forgiving cop to

“Cut that crap out before you blow your damn hand off!”

I immediately switched to selling

Coins, coin value rating books,

Blue folders to put the coins in

 

Requiring the new collectors to spend

Hours and hours and hours

Squinting, sorting, and hunting

For the good ones out of uncountable thousands of

Lincoln and Indian pennies

Buffalo and Jefferson nickles

Thin silver Mercury and Roosevelt dimes

Washington quarters and heavy Walking Liberty silver dollars

 

Until to their stunned amazement,

My scrawny customers/classmates in 6th and 7th grade

Became slaves to their raging hormones

And

“Oh, my God, guys, just look at her!!”

Discovered…girls!

Mesmerized,

They wanted fast cash to please their sweeties

Turning to their slim playground asset manager

All of them sold me their considerable collections

Wholesale, and in a panic

It was a buyer’s market

At 13, I knew that

 

But, always a ‘but’ somewhere in a story

I was slower to begin to understand girls

Too complex and unsortable for me

Proud of their newly curvy figures

Trading in their dolls to buying make-up

I was clueless about what to say

What they wanted

How to kiss them

 

But my own coin collection became enormous

Coins?

Yeah, I understood coins

Twenty-two years later

Married, broke and unemployable at thirty-five

I sold that long hidden adolescent coin collection

Damn copper pennies and silver dimes

Kept my family going for another year

 

Bob’s Newsstand: Hyde Park, Chicago 51st & Lake Park

1965-1985

Learning how to use a hammer at six took my life in strange directions

From building an insignificant 4 by 4-foot wooden shack to sell my newspapers

To a 112 by 20 foot-foot brick building spanning two decades

After escaping away from a

Terrifying and dangerous home–

Beaten with leather belts, fists

Rubber hoses and metal belt buckles

Running and running and running

In the middle of the night

On June 8, 1964, at fourteen

Freezing in the cold rain falling endlessly

from a hopeless black and starless sky

In my drenched T-shirt and jeans

To learning a decade later from an east Coast visitor

To my once wood/now brick building

International periodical newsstand

That United Airline’s inflight magazine

Declared my store was a “must-see!” in Chicago

Has been a very strange trip for a battered

Jewish boy from the South Side of Chicago

 

What are the odds that my first life-mentor to appear

Would be a one-armed, one-legged 69-year old man born in July 1896

My predecessor by 50 years

Hawking newspapers for a penny on that exact same corner

Who spent 3 hard years recreating me in his (former) image

Arming callow me with hard knowledge to face the world after he left me

Foisting rough street ethics on a naïve city kid

Learning defensive carpentry to survive the unforgiving Chicago winters

How to talk to customers, to girls my age, how to be gentle, how to be tough

How to handle thieves, how to talk to cops, how to deserve his friendship

Teaching me hobo vocabulary that mystified my high school English teachers

 

From this childless man I learned about heart: Both soft and stone

About being stoic, at fifteen, and learn that building something good takes time

He invested his life’s knowledge in me, the blank page he’d been hoping for

As if in a thousand days he’d somehow give himself a second chance

To this time get it right, to protect his just-in-time “grandson”,

And at last find peace within himself

From anonymity to unemployment over twenty years

I learned that nothing—nothing!—lasts forever

But what an amazing ride in between, people

Once located near a lively shopping center, recently demolished

Now to be a Whole Earth Foods

Read my unexpected tale

Of what happens when you say “yes” to opportunity

When a defiant willingness to chance failure is no deterrent

Even when, looking back at my many paths “less seldom taken”

Sometimes they brought me roses, and sometimes, Dragons

 

My Deli Dali Delicatessen: Hyde Park

1969-1975

Across the parking lot from my first newsstand

Paid for with $8,501 saved up newsstand pennies

How many pennies? 850,100, that’s how many

Made slowly, in the rain, in the snow, in the heat

(about $50,000 in 2017 money)

A sudden local sensation I abandoned to my father after a year

Because chopped liver and newsprint were not a good mix

No matter how much money lox and salami could generate

Gave my dad half, sold half to an uncle, was repaid my investment

Surprising my Jewish relatives who thought i was finally becoming “normal”

I recycled the money and bought another newsstand

(see below)

Hired the old Polish man, Joe, who owned it

We became good friends and he worked with me for years

It too is now buried under broken concrete

 

Bob’s first branch, 53rd & Lake Park

1970-1984

Now a tall green glass building

A coffee shop looks out at

What used to be the long aqua-painted aluminum back of it

A landmark newsstand there for a century

Hyde Park consumes its past

As that damned University grabs more and more land for itself

 

Bob’s second branch, 55th & Lake Park

1973-1983

Nothing

Not a shell

Not a faded shadow

 

Gulliver’s Literary Bookstore: 53rd & Kimbark

1973-1975

Five steps down from the street, half a block from noticing

Once a jazz band performed there to a chattering crowd

Nothing tells you what you don’t know

As much as a silent store

Silent and empty for decades

But thirteen years later

I knew exactly what not to do

 

Gulliver’s Periodicals Distribution Company

1975-1980

and

Chicago’s (most famous) Randolph & Michigan Newsstand

1977-1984

Front-Page news for the counter culture Chicago Reader

A Davidian six-year fight to attempt to compete in Chicago

But among the TV Guides, Newsweeks and Good Housekeepings

I was the first American distributor of gay periodicals in straight stores

A dozen titles collected together for the first time, and treated as equals

Because LGBT people deserve a free voice like anyone else in America

 

In the third year of that war, a dramatic symbol was acquired

Owned originally by Italians, then Polish brothers and finally by Jews

Who today can comprehend the importance of that iconic steel newsstand?

The Queen, no—the Emperor of Chicago’s outside newsstands

Famed Downtown attraction for a century atop the Illinois Central Station steps

Proudly illegal: No lease, no permit, no heat, no electricity

In the shadow of the north side of the Chicago Public Library

Nine months of heaven, three months of frozen hell

A captured prize in the midst of the Magazine Wars

Sold to me for a fraction of what my wealthy foe would pay

Why?

 

Because the owner who knew the whole story of my rebellion

Hated my opponent and wanted to strike a blow for me

People can do amazing things when another person inspires them

Kenny L valued principles over money, made a difference in the fight

 

My supporters: the People, the Press, the Cops

and…well…

For reasons too weird even today to explain

Having nothing to do with dirty money

And everything to do with naked power

Came the Sicilian Chicago Syndicate

 To help a single outnumbered Jew

 

Their supporters: Lawyers, Lawyers, Lawyers, Lawyers

Three trucks against dozens—impossible odds

There was never a hint of victory against them, not a whisper

Grit kept me going because, I discovered, that some things were worth fighting for

Not some glorious recollection by a greying grandfather today

It was real, it was fierce and it was treacherous competition

Passions forgotten today but inflamed then

At 28, it was the peak moment of my life

Nothing else would ever be as important as that ultimately lost battle

 

Sometimes I stand across the street from where that symbol of my resistance once stood

Watching oblivious young people walking past, east and west

Walking over obliterated Chicago history

Where once thousands of newspapers a day were sold

And today, just 24 feet of silent grey concrete sidewalk remain

 

There was a time to stand and a time to quit

Many independent magazine publishers dangerously supplied me

Risking the wrath of the Establishment

If I went down and bankrupt, they would loose a fortune

And a fevered insurrection evaporated with a signature

 

Bob’s in Newtown: Clark & Diversey

1980-1984

Acquired as settlement of the Magazine Wars

But unknowingly, a Pandora’s Box waiting to be opened

The first hint of too many employees

 

Bob’s in Near North: Clark & Division

1982-84

Minutes from both bright lights and robbery

An illusion of opportunity

In a sea of alcohol and single people

 

Bob’s in Rogers Park: Devon & Broadway

1980-1984

Two thousand empty square feet of possibilities

Until the windows were successively shot out

Followed by a disintegrating ceiling

 

(first) Magazine Memories: LaSalle & Kinzie

October-November 1985 (seven weeks)

Resolutely starting again in Downtown Chicago

Until a Sunday morning fire consumed

Ten thousand ancient periodicals

 

Unemployment

1985-1987

Eccentric people like me

In sleek corporate offices

With incomprehensible resumes

Offering my career up to

Crisp, remote and disdainful Personnel Managers:

“Excuse me, but…you say you ran…newsstands?”

 

(and I thought to myself in white hot anger and hopelessness)

“Yeah, go fuck yourself you

Condescending son-of-a-bitch

You soft-handed, soft-muscled

Sweet-suited College Boy

Five newsstands with fifty-five employees 

That generated two million dollars in 1983 money

 

Failed to charm, well…anyone

Three quick jobs for a person never before “employed”

My astonished discovery of capricious cruelty

By dictating pontificating Caesarian creatures

Who treated employees as tissues

I had no idea how cruel it could be to be hired

 

Grand Tour World-Travel Bookstore: Clark & Belmont

1988-1994

A wonderland of maps/guides/languages/immigrants and flags

Creativity unleashed, sales blossomed

Doubled! Tripled!!!

Until the Book Behemoths advanced upon Lakeview

Like print dinosaurs crushing all the little bookstores

Extinguishing independent bookstores by the thousands

Across the United States

 

(second) Magazine Memories: Devon & Central

1989-1990

My brave Polish immigrant grandmother advised me:

“Try again, Bob. What can you lose?”

And she was right. Always right.

A row of vacant storefronts in a busy shopping district

A strange eccentric landlord nobody liked who refused to rent them

I approached him as he repaired his rusty cars in the alley behind them

He asked me to ride around the area,

Loudly talking every single second

For two hours, I said nothing

 

He returned to the empty storefronts, parking in front of them

Told me I was a “good Jew”

(I never mentioned it)

Said he liked me and he would rent me a store

I think no one had ever bothered to listen to him

Perhaps to him, silence was respect

He helped me start over, then a year later, helped me move out

 When it was clear I needed more than 600 square feet

I do not think Vern was of this world

Unexpected kindness can be devastating

No one could ever understand why

He rented that long-empty store to me

Me?

Never breathed a word to his antagonists

 

 (third) Magazine Memories: Morton Grove

1990-2009

Success (!) I retreated here from the bookstore

No employees, a zillion magazines, 5,000 square feet

The crushing 2008 Recession rolling in like a tsunami

And quietly shut my doors after twenty years

 

(fourth) The Old Magazine Store: Skokie

2010-April 10, 2016

A boutique collectible paper store

150,000 periodicals back to 1576

Too small to notice/Too essential to abandon

Mortality reminding me about my 1950 body’s limitations

But it was Joy’s crumbling body that told me

It was time to fold up my tent and quit

 

Joyce Esther Bishop (Katzman)

April, 1975- present day

Sometimes people appear, like an oasis in a desert

She grasped the entirety of me in a moment

Ignoring my cluelessness, decided I was her man

She remains a mystery forty years on

Despite my aspirations and disasters, sunrises and eclipses

If finding love is success, she is my one enduring victory

Ignoring my twisting trail of wreckage

She alone has stood by me

 

Fighting Words Publishing Company

2004-now

Joyce said: “Tell your story, write a book.”

Incredulous, I said who would care?

She said,

“Many are like you, falling down and then getting back up.”

 

Doubtful, uncertain, I began to type

Book 1: Some people bought it, surprising me

Then people asked me what else happened, inspiring

Book 2, Book 3, Book 4, Book 5…

Though ethereal, the desire to be something might be indestructible

Words on paper may possibly endure

Where brick and mortar buildings proved

Solidity was illusionary

So many stories still to tell:

Book 6 completed in 2017?

My length of time left to publish?

After such a life as mine

Does it matter?

 

April 2016 Epilogue:

(Increasingly revised as my ancient retail persona disintegrates and my story becomes relentlessly more honest)

Joy read the above story the day I published it and told me it seemed so sad to her.

I don’t think she actually understands. So, patient readers, this part is for Joy:

I received radiation poisoning in 1951 at Michael Reese hospital like thousands and thousands of other babies. A new “miracle cure” for swollen thyroid glands and other childhood illnesses.This travesty scattered land mines within my cells, eventually leading to 37 operations between then and now.

Brain surgery twice, cancer (at 18, in 1968), a collapsed lung, shoulder surgery, an incurable brain tumor, ankle surgery, cataracts, endless facial reconstruction using interchangeable body parts to recreate a missing jaw to avoid rejection (a hip, two ribs, and more and more), two operations already this year and another one needed right now. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were two more famous victims of this curse.

By now, I have learned that 90% of that exclusive “Club of the Damned” are dead.

During my last twelve-hour transplant operation, long ago, a weary surgeon with a shaky hand slit my throat in exactly the wrong way, severing the seventh nerve, taking away my smile forever. Nine months later, that same indifferent and unrepentant surgeon casually mentioned during a post-operative examination that the paralysis of the left side of my face was permanent, like he was commenting on the weather. With a few exceptions, for me doctors are not god-like creatures standing above mere mortals.

This surgical incident doomed me to decades of photographers telling me to “smile” or “Hey, lighten up!” at weddings or many other events. Joy, you would sometimes say to me,

“Bob! Why are you looking at me that way?”

and I would reply, in my uending frustration and exasperation,

“I’m not looking at you ‘that’ way.”

People have told me I’m way too grim or serious without comprehending what my life is like every single day when both friends and strangers make assumptions about what I’m thinking or expressing by my limited facial expression alone. Frequently I am smiling, but only on the inside. Maybe that’s why I decided to write. Because words can only be judged by what they say, and not necessarily by the way they look.

Having cancer as a teenager made me fear nothing that came after that. Every day was a gift and no one could tell me what I couldn’t do. My unexpected life is a triumph over adversity. Because so many people have told me this,  I know it has inspired many others to never give up.  My adventures were never about making money. They were about getting 100% out of every day.  I plunged into all of the complicated careers above knowing more cancer or a fatal surgery could kill me at any time.

My life has been richer than any ten other people mostly because I really knew how lucky I was to keep going and going and going.

In 1975, when I finally found a woman who told me she loved me regardless of my Hiroshima-like past and doubtful future, my only response was that my love for her became chiseled in concrete.

Joy, we have four children, 20 to 42, five grandchildren. Isn’t that amazing?

Joy, you are my treasure, my diamonds and rubies, my gold and silver.

Without you, none of that would mean anything.

With you, I don’t need any of it.

Live, Joy.

Live forever and stay with me.

 

(As of April 5, 2017, Joyce is in hospice because of her rampant cancer. She is at home with me. We kiss every day, and holds hands at night as we fall asleep. I don’t know what will happen next or when. She does, however, give me dating tips about how to present myself to her successor so I will be nicely dressed when I meet someone for the first time. Where does a remarkable person like Joyce come from? With all her pain and unresolvable health problems, she still worries about me being alone.

That’s the real problem with Joy. She’s not duplicatable.

This story remains unfinished…………………………………………………)

 

(So hard to type this, but Joyce died on Mother’s Day, May 14, 2017, one week short of her 67th birthday. We were all with her. Reason eludes me that she wouldn’t die until her last breathless child arrived to say goodbye.)

 

**This is a strange thing, but I just realized an odd coincidence, although rabbis tell me there are no coincidences. My wife Joy died on May 14th 2017 which I had only thought of as Mother’s Day.

But she converted to Judaism beginning in 1977 and the day she died was the 69th anniversary of the founding of Israel. After 42 years together, I think she was more Jewish than I am. It’s the oddest thing.

Whatever anyone may or may not think of this, it sure looks like someone really approved of her, besides me. Damn.

The New York Times: May 14, 1948 |
Israel Declares Independence

My hour-long story reading at WGTD 91.1 NPR Kenosha, Wis is now a podcast. The interview and story can be heard here:
With special guest star and featured writer Bob Katzman. Bob reads his memoir, “Audrey, Pink Bunny Slippers, Her Cat and the God’s Eye” and talks about his w…
Your comments are welcome, below, and please tell others I can be found here as a writer. I can also be hired as a speaker for organizations, etc, both here and in Europe. Seeking an agent.
Poet & Storyteller for hire for organizations, schools or private events
www.DifferentSlants.com to view recent and older examples of my work
Attachments area
Preview YouTube video Speaking of Our Words – June 30th, 2017

 

15 Comments »

Comment by S Veenker

April 10, 2016 @ 7:11 pm

Bob, one of my proudest achievements of 50 years’ work is that Ray and I supported your Gulliver efforts. It did not please the wealthy competitors. We did not care. You were, and are, our hero. Then, now, and forever.

Comment by Rick

April 11, 2016 @ 1:33 am

I think you missed a bookstore. It was on 53rd or 55th. Slightly below street level. Early 1970s.

Comment by bruce

April 11, 2016 @ 3:01 am

my comment is now, as always, you rock bobby!

Comment by Angel B

April 11, 2016 @ 4:12 am

I am blown away. I don’t really know you except from Facebook. And I never lived in Chicago nor visited very often. BUT, I sat and read your entire post. You are eloquent in speech. You have a gift. If you can write about living in Chicago and having a mom and pop business, I know a lot of folks that would read it. Both my parents grew up there and have wonderful memories. Take care of your honey but keep writing. Don’t let your gift go to waste.

Comment by Garland Cole

April 11, 2016 @ 9:34 pm

Bob, “The City is Littered …” is powerful, and a very moving piece of writing. The work transported me like a sling shot around the moon. Accelerating a life history, that was not my own, but is now a part of my own, … so exhilarating a move. It makes me want to visit each of those sidewalk observation spots, and visit all the memories as if they were actually my own. Is that even possible???

Comment by Cynthia Hahn

April 11, 2016 @ 10:21 pm

Wow, Bob.
It’s very moving to read your story and tributes.
Full of strength and grace.
The power of living in the present, while not forgetting the past.
Wishing you peace and continued creative insights,
Cynthia

Comment by Dave Gourdoux

April 12, 2016 @ 6:34 am

There’s a thread of defiance in this wonderful story about one man’s fight and perseverance against the relentless advance of time. You tell this story so well, you paint such vivid pictures that the times and places you describe are, for a moment at least, resuscitated and brought back to life. It’s as if you’re flipping a middle finger at Time. Keep on fighting …

Comment by Helene

April 12, 2016 @ 6:33 pm

That last part. Yeah.

Comment by Denise

April 14, 2016 @ 8:55 am

WOW is Right!!!! What a moving story about your life Bob. I feel like I know you a little better in every story you write. What a Powerful past you had & won’t forget. A GREAT tribute to your wife, Joyce.
Just absolutely BEAUTIFUL.

Denise

Comment by Brad Dechter

April 14, 2016 @ 10:15 am

Love you Bob! Thanks for putting tears in my eyes.

Comment by David Griesemer

April 17, 2016 @ 9:27 pm

The fact that Bob is writing at all answers a gnawing question. I wondered, how would these latest trials effect him? Would he be shell-shocked, listless? Would he lose his drive? Or like Johnny Cash, sensing that time is limited, would he double-down? Answer: “as my persona disintegrates, my story becomes relentlessly more honest.” How honest? Bob calls himself lucky, his life “richer than any ten other people.” Lucky? Really? Yes. Jack Dawson, as he’s freezing to death, says boarding the Titanic was the best thing that ever happened to him, because it brought him to Rose. Bob has his Joy, his treasure, his gem, his fortune, something others chase their whole lives and never find. A love “chiseled in concrete” that will outlive all of us.

Comment by Brian

May 10, 2016 @ 4:33 pm

Homerun.

Comment by anna kong

April 6, 2017 @ 4:24 am

Your stories make me cry, smile, and stay hopeful. You inspire me with your resiliency. Life has not been easy but you endured with your desire to forge on no matter what obstacles stood in the way. However, you were fortunate to have found your sole mate early in life and a wonderful family.

Comment by NewMan from NewArk

April 6, 2017 @ 6:25 am

As always, my Friend, beautifully said.
Prayers rise like smoke, Pal.

Comment by Brad Dechter

April 6, 2017 @ 6:51 am

Bob,
I echo the sentiments of those updated comments above. I have never met Joy, but you are both in my heart and a part of me.
Thanks for sharing and never giving up (“NGU”). My wife said she wanted to put “NGU” on my tombstone someday- you deserve it if you want it.
My thoughts are with you guys – nothing else I can say will make a difference.
Thank you for sharing, enlightening and being a friend and part of my life.
Love you Bro!
Brad

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>