Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Failing to Bribe a Chicago Judge: The Machine Fails Me!…by Robert M. Katzman

Filed under: Cops,Gritty Katzman Chicago Stories,Humor,Jewish Themes,My Own Personal Hell,Politics — Bob at 6:37 am on Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Failing to Bribe a Chicago Judge: The Machine Fails Me!! 

By Robert M. Katzman

Copyright © January 2, 2014


In the spring of 1965, in Hyde Park, an area seven miles south of Chicago’s central Downtown area and home of the University of Chicago and jazz, my father, Irving, felt it was time to explain corruption in the Chicago Machine and teach me the basics.

I was fifteen, and if you can imagine the setting, we’re in our small apartment sitting on either side of the scarred kitchen table. I was listening and playing with the salt and pepper shakers at the same time. He may as well have been explaining etiquette customs on Mars to me. I had no clue about what he was going to say.

He was born on the West Side of Chicago in 1912, son of immigrant Belorussian and Lithuanian parents and was part of a Jewish gang during the Great Depression, just like every other immigrant group–Irish, Polish—living in the same tenements had also organized gangs to protect themselves. What they did to each other was one story. How all of them dealt with the cops was another.

Back then, the city was becoming firmly organized into an invincible political force within the Democratic Party, each of the very diverse major ethnic neighborhoods having been assigned one of them to be the local party Boss who then reported to the Mayor. Their number one job was getting out the vote to keep the Mayor in power. That was also number two, three and four.

If the Boss of the Czechs, Greeks, Italians, Jews, Polish, Irish, Black, Lithuanian (Catholic, not Jewish), Serbian, Croatian, German neighborhoods and so on made a little money under the table to allow a store to open, trash be collected, keep a brothel safe from raids, get someone’s kid out of the slammer, or turn a blind eye to a floating crap game, well, that was none of the Mayor’s concern. The Mayor was very focused on his own objectives.

All the Bosses supported him, and he made sure the Bosses held their positions and the cash rolled in. At the time of my father’s tutoring of me, this was thirty years later and the city worked perfectly, that is– if you played ball within the rules. My father knew no other way.

I can picture him, a World War Two vet, then fifty-three years old, trying to decide what to say to his odd son who collected insects, wrote poetry, hated sports, read about Greek and Roman history but knew nothing about the local situation where I actually lived. How would he be able to connect with me, he must have wondered. His own life experiences were so different than mine. It took him a long time.

I just didn’t believe him.

He was trying to tell me that everything—Everything!—in Chicago was possible if you knew who was who and how much to pay them. Store licenses, liquor licenses, building permits, driver’s licenses, buying property, fixing tickets of all kinds, getting a city job even if you weren’t Irish, gun permits and he stopped there assuming I got the drift of his intent.

I did not.

How could there be all these laws written down, police to enforce them and then also have this whole other system that overlooked all those existing laws if a person paid enough money to someone? Who established how much? Did all the local Bosses check with each other to make sure all the bribes were exactly the same whether you were German or Greek? At what point did a person become a criminal themselves, after paying many, many bribes to get what they wanted? How could everybody remember who paid who for what if nothing was ever written down, since my Dad smiled when I asked him if people received receipts to prove they made a payoff (a new word for me) in the event the person who received the money forgot or died?

I’m sure my Dad was thinking someone switched babies on him when I was born because I was so naïve and uncomprehending that the bribery system was very organized and worked. Worked like a charm. It wasn’t that I was stupid. I was someone who asked many, many questions until the person who was trying so hard to teach me something felt that their eyes were crossing in frustration. He was well aware of my tendency to do that from endless and fruitless Parent/Teacher meetings. Sometime Parent/Principal meetings.

But within the year, in August, 1965, I opened a newsstand with a friend to try and make ourselves a little pocket money and I then received a crash course in what happens when a guy doesn’t pay off when asked to do so. A Chicago newsstand needed a permit. Permits were virtually impossible to get. All the good corners were already taken. What was I thinking?

At line in Chicago’s City Hall Licensing Department:

“Sorry, son. Wish we could help you, but our hands are tied. Maybe you can get yourself a job as a dishwasher? Next!”

My father was teaching me political theory the previous spring. This was reality. Suddenly it all jelled. Play the game or keep your nose pressed to the window, on the outside looking in.


I see now.

Uh, say, mister, how do I join the Democratic Party?

Dear Reader, all this is prologue. What follows is something that actually happened when the system suddenly went haywire. I do hope it makes the potholes and intricacies of corruption a bit more clear for you, as it instantly became for me.

In 1970 I was twenty and a veteran at cooperating with the existing regime. I had a local political protector. Also called a Rabbi by many different nationalities with no connection to Judaism. I had stopped asking so many questions. Many things had become clear to me. Like: Not asking so many questions. I knew who the two aldermen were in my area. I knew and supported, if you want to put it that way, the state senator, too. I knew firemen and fire chiefs. Policemen and police chiefs and also the 21st District Vice Squad–which is another story completely. In five years I felt I had graduated payoff school with honors, but of course since nothing was ever written down, I had no degree to hang on my wall.

If I broke some little law, whatever, no problem. Everything was cool, or would be. I was a good citizen and a member in good standing of the Democratic Machine, Hyde Park Division. Then I received a speeding ticket.

Even when very young I drove like a little old lady, not willing to get my $300 1962 Buick Electra 225 smashed up for any reason. For me, speeding meant I was going 42 on a 40 miles per hour road. But more importantly, was if I was outside of Hyde Park and the cop pulling me over didn’t know me. As instructed, if my gently offering to buy the cop a “ten dollar breakfast” if only he would accept my sincere apology and my promise to not speed anymore didn’t feel like it would be well received, I was to smile, accept the ticket, be extremely polite, thank the nice policemen and go on my way. Help would be available to me further on down the line.

A month later, on the day the ticket required me to appear in the Traffic Court Building on LaSalle Street in the event I didn’t want to pay the ticket in advance of that date, I went into the lobby of that building. If I walked straight ahead, there was usually a very large policeman sitting on a tall stool eating powdered donuts and drinking coffee from a paper cup directly in front of me. All of the courtrooms were behind him, each with their own number on the door. Nothing got past him. He would ask each person to hand him their ticket and tell them what courtroom to go to. The courtroom and the number on the ticket did not always match up. I wondered how the large policeman decided which courtroom to send which person, not that I was a frequent guest of him or that building.

The man was always friendly, big smile “Can I help you” on his lips and the line quickly melted away. Sometimes the ticket had a folded ten dollar bill inserted in it, the distinctive green color deliberately showing a little bit. The policeman’s friendly expression never changed one iota. He told me which courtroom to go to. I followed his instructions. No extra chit chat. I opened the door, walked over to the line waiting to be presented to the Judge after checking in with the clerk, usually an older woman who was also very neighborly.

Everything was proceeding as before, when the person ahead of me, a trucker according to what I overheard in the brief conversation between the man and the Judge. I also noticed the man had a thick southern accent and he might not be familiar with local customs. He evidently hadn’t slipped a ten inside of his ticket, and much worse than that snarled at the Judge when the large fine was handed down to him. The Judge went nuclear, yelling at the man, cursing his behavior and not acting very judge-like at all. The cowed trucker quickly retreated, muttering to himself and he went out of the courtroom.

My turn. I quietly stood before the Judge, meekly waiting for his usual admonishment for my sins and then be told not to do that anymore. I would thank the Judge for his kindness, receive my driver’s license from the clerk and quickly leave the courtroom.

But the Judge was still very angry at the disrespectful attitude of the man who preceded me. He was talking to himself, which was not a good sign. He looked for my name on his list, looked at me and barked:

“Fifty dollars young man, and I don’t want to see your face in my courtroom again!”

I stared at him. My mouth may have even hung open a bit. Fifty dollars? Jesus, that was a lot of money in 1970. I stood there a moment really confused. Hadn’t he received the ten dollars I thoughtfully enclosed in my ticket? For him? What was I to do now with the angry judge sitting before me?


I thanked the Judge as custom required. Even if he didn’t play his part, I sure played mine. I was stunned.

Fifty Dollars! Oh my god!!

I paid the fine, took my license and returned to my newsstand. There was no appeal. It was what it was.

It may be over four decades since that miscarriage of a payoff happened to me, but I will never forget the day the Chicago Machine let me down, one of their own, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

(Note: $50 in 1970 is equal to over $300 in 2014, when this story was originally written.)


Publishing News! 

Bob Katzman’s two new true Chicago books are now for sale, from him!
Vol. One: A Savage Heart  and Vol. Two: Fighting Words

Gritty, violent, friendship, classic American entrepreneurship love, death, heartbreak and the real dirt about surviving in a completely corrupt major city under the Chicago Machine. More history and about one man’s life than a person may imagine.

Please visit my new website: http://www.dontgoquietlypress.com
If a person doesn’t want to use PayPaI, I also have a PO Box & I ship anywhere in America.

Send me a money order with your return and contact info.
I will get your books to you within ten days.
Here’s complete information on how to buy my books:

Vol 1: A Savage Heart and Vol. 2: Fighting Words
My books weigh almost 2 pounds each, with about 525 pages each and there are a total together of 79 stories and story/poems.

Robert M. Katzman
Don’t Go Quietly Press
PO Box 44287
Racine, Wis. 53404-9998                                                                                                                    (262)752-3333, 8AM–7PM

Books cost $29.95 each, plus shipping

For: (1)$3.95; (2)$5.95; (3)$7.95; (4)$8.95 (5)$9.95;(6) $10.95

(7) $11.95; (8) $12.95; (9)$13.95 (10)$15.95 (15)$19.95

I am also for hire if anyone wants me to read my work and answer questions in the Chicago/Milwaukee area. Schools should call me for quantity discounts for 30 or more books. Also: businesses, bookstores, private organizations or churches and so on.

My Fighting Words Publishing Co. four original books, published between 2004 and 2007 are now out-of-print. I still have some left and will periodically offer them for sale on my new website.


1 Comment »

Comment by Joel Raven

June 14, 2016 @ 10:06 am

During my childhood, my father would often drive us to O’Hare to drop off or pick up a family member. Even then, parking was not allowed curbside, though not for today’s reasons. Back then, there was a “beat cop” who would casually saunter by when someone pulled up, or to whom a driver casually sauntered, and shook hands with. The kindly police officer would casually mark the left rear tire with a bright yellow crayon. I think that crayon mark cost a driver five dollars in those days, buried in the handshake. It conveyed the right to simply leave one’s car at the curb, without being ticketed, while one disappeared into O’Hare until one’s family member’s flight arrived or departed. Those were the days.

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