Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

When Pope John-Paul Came to Chicago While I was Running the Newsstand at Randolph and Michigan…by Robert M. Katzman

About the Randolph and Michigan Newsstand:

Quote from the historic Downtown Chicago newsstand’s last owner, Rick Graff, in a May 25 1987 Chicago Tribune story by Jack Houston : “Graff said he bought the stand three years ago from Robert Katzman, known among street vendors as the ”King of Newsstands.”

After buying it from the second owner after Al Paccelli, I arrived on a Saturday night with a truck filled with pre-cut wood, a lot of tools, and cans of brown paint. Using a sledge hammer, I destroyed the stainless steel newsstand by pounding on the places where it was welded together. Made a tremendous amount of noise, but at no time did any cop come, by or drive by, and ask me what the hell was I doing with the 100-year old landmark?

No one asked me anything. In 1977 no one lived Downtown and the streets were essentially empty.

After separating the four steel parts, I stopped strangers (to me) on the street and asked them for help pushing the four parts down the street to Garland Court. I looked for men who seemed strong enough to do that. No guy said no.

Then, working alone, I unloaded the wood and spent the next 36 hours building a 24-foot wide structure that was eight feet high and 8-feet deep with a wooden floor and two folding doors that met in the middle to lock it up at night. The power to use a drill came from an electric outlet on top of the entrance to the IC Station. That was where all the eight-foot flourescent bulbs I installed got the power to work.

The original stand was 20-feet wide, which was not wide enough to hold the 3 eight-foot-wide magazine racks I installed to change the prior display of perhaps 100 different magazines to hundreds. Why? Because I was a in a magazine war with the city’s only distributor, the near century old Chas. Levy Circulating Co. and the newspaper sales alone wouldn’t support the debt I acquired.

Levy wasn’t aware the stand was for sale so my buying from a person who supported my competition made this move in the distribution war a real coup for Gulliver’s Periodicals.

I supported the two heavy folding doors were supported by heavy barn hinges. After the wooden structure was completed, I called in some employees–using a corner pay phone because there were no cell phones in 1977–and three people came Downtown from the Hyde Park Bob’s Newsstand to help me paint the entire structure of exterior grade plywood a very dark brown, twice.

It was built higher with a projecting eight-foot roof to protect workers and the inventory from the rain. It was deeper than the prior steel newsstand because of the depth of the magazine racks and the need for employees working there to have a wooden floor to stand on, to protect their feet during Chicago’s bitter cold winters. Heat came from kerosene heaters, which never really made that much of a difference.

I reasoned that changing the bright shiny steel newsstand to a larger dark wooden one would make the completely different structure less noticeable to its decades of regular customers, and the gamble paid off. Not one person ever asked about the change.

About a year later, the Chicago Daily News closed down, and the loss of the revenue from selling thousands of these a week. Running stand was very difficult, as was keeping employees to work there during the worst of the weather. I had to run down there on the IC train from Hyde Park, or someone else did from Hyde Park, so the workers could use the bathroom.

The structure had always been illegal for its entire life where it was snuggled up close to the original Chicago Public Library. There was no rent, and the electricity was obviously stolen from the IC, and had been for decades before me. Everyone knew and no one cared.

Lastly, I was there working alone–not the original plan–the day Pope John-Paul came Downtown on a Saturday afternoon in 1979 to hold a Mass in Grant Park. It was a truly cosmic and life-changing experience for me, probably the only Jew within miles of Grant Park amid one hundred thousand people coming in school buses from the surrounding states.

The Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune dropped off thousands of thick Sunday newspapers, six-foot high piles and piles of them tightly bound in wire. So many newspapers that closing would have been impossible if I didn’t sell all of them.

While I originally had one long-time employee with me to deal with endlessly flowing east sea of humanity, he evidently rediscovered his religion and disappeared early that day, forever in fact. This left me alone in an impossible situation.

It was also frigidly cold, the very dry air hurting my throat when I spoke to customers. I knew my voice would eventually go, and by evening, it did.

I must say that among all the masses of people were many Irish-Catholic cops, who knew me and I knew them. It was obvious to them that something was out of whack with my being alone in front of the twenty-four foot wide wooden newsstand.

They sized up my circumstances, knew I was stuck there and couldn’t close if not enough papers were sold, came buy periodically to see how I was doing and kept an eye on me the entire day. No one stole anything in all that time.

Forty years later–I was 29 then and will be 69 this month–recalling this seemingly unbelievable gesture of concern by them towards me today, I find to be a very emotional collective act of kindness. Tears still fall.

In a sense of solidarity, they knew I worked outside on the street every day and was in that way, just like them. Part of collective of thousands of virtually invisible people who made Chicago work. It was a different world then, when one person cared more for another.

What happened? Because none of the crowds walking by me bought any of my newspapers with the Pope’s color photo on the front page on their way to Grant Park that cold, cold day. If ever I felt like a schmuck, it was right then, that day, with mountains of unsold newspapers surrounding me.

Nope. No one bought a thing.

When did they want their souvenir?

On their way home, right away, all at the same time, swarming around me like the Indians around Custer. It was an insane situation and by then my voice was gone. I had been selling newspapers in Hyde Park seven-days-a-week at what eventually became Bob’s Newsstand since 1965 when I was 15. I was really fucking fast at folding newspaper, sliding it under a customer’s arm and making change while thanking them. I was used to rush hour crowds of a dozen people or so at a time.

But selling unfoldable heavy Sunday newspapers which cost one paper dollar to uncountable mobs of people and being unable to speak to them–while, so imagine this–trying to clip all those zillion steel wires holding the bundles and where the hell was I supposed to put the those damned sharp-edges things?

And the money? Thousands of dollars, flying at me like zooming green bats from all sides. See if you can imagine it, as all those people were racing toward their school buses. My pant’s pockets, shirt pockets, coat pockets were bursting with paper. How did I not get robbed?

I never moved as fast or sold as much merchandise in my entire career as I did that single day in 1979 at my Randolph and Michigan newsstand.

It did end.

All–ALL–of those newspapers sold, I closed up at about 8 PM when the streets were completely empty and with all that paper money shoved everywhere on me except up my ass, I waddled over to where my car was parked, most likely looking just like the chubby Michelin Man cartoon if anyone was watching, but no one was.

You want Chicago History? This is Chicago history unrecorded anywhere because it was the Pope who was the historic moment in time that long ago day and not some obscure schlep attempting to sell newspapers out of a wooden newsstand which no longer exists. Not even a brass plaque on the ground or in the wall to say:

“Once upon a time, a great newspaper stand stood here serving rushing Chicago commuters for a century.”

Forgotten.

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.

4 Comments »

Comment by Joel Raven

April 12, 2019 @ 7:36 am

How many people of our generation, Bob, recall that the first thing they saw after exiting the Randolph Street IC station, and the last thing they saw before descending its stairs, was your newsstand and its predecessors? It was a Chicago institution in its own way, as was the Burney Brothers bakery across Randolph street, which fed many of us physically while the newspapers sold at your stand nourished us intellectually. You were, and are, part of Chicago’s history, Bob.

Comment by brad dechter

April 12, 2019 @ 9:11 am

I left Chicago in 69, so I missed the historic event. But you gave me a glimmer of insight into what it was like from someone viewing and participating in his own way. Thanks for sharing!
Your books do chronicle Chicago’s history in their own way and your insights are appreciated
You go, Bob!

Comment by Sue Ellen

April 12, 2019 @ 12:54 pm

Well it isn’t forgotten now. I always feel like I am right there standing invisibly watching the whole situation. Real Chicago history.

Comment by Don Larson

April 13, 2019 @ 11:12 am

Hi Bob,

A great powerful story again.

I enjoyed the comment above by JOEL RAVEN. I remember that newsstand from the mid-1950’s and onward.

Your story is one of persistence. Then there are the many thousands of people who had their own dream of running a business and never did. You put in the work and made a valuable contribution to the work ethic.

I will put a link to this story on my Facebook Wall today and on Twitter.

Warmest regards,

Don

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