Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Silent James, a Proud Black Man who Defined “Good Christian” to me in 1983…by Robert M. Katzman

I published a true, inspirational story on this blog on July 4, 2008:

Depression, Despair and the Human Voice, https://www.differentslants.com/?p=72                   

(If link doesn’t light up in blue, try cutting and pasting it)   

It has become one of the most visited stories on Rick’s and my blog, to date.  Many, many people must know someone who suffers from the tyranny of depression, and that frank, unfiltered stories can help explain what it actually feels like, from the inside out.

Here is one more incident that I left out of this story.   I am adding it at Christmas time, 2008, because it serves as a reminder of how good strangers can be.   Sometimes, we all need that.                                                                                

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

There was a small fresh fruit and vegetable store in Hyde Park, in 1978.  It was under the Illinois Central Railroad tracks and did a good business with the commuters rushing to their jobs in Downtown Chicago.  There was a bright, colorful public mural of grapes, apples, pears, carrots and so on painted on the brick exterior wall of the shop that faced my newsstand, just west of it, across Lake Park Avenue.

The owner was a short, stocky, black and muscular man.  He worked hard, all the time.  We didn’t talk, but we nodded to each other when we caught each other’s eye.  I knew his name was James. He was kind of reserved.  I assumed he was wrapped up in his own world of business and other problems and not in any way aware of what I was involved with in the hostile world outside of intimate Hyde Park.  He had a formality about him, a kind of dignity.  But we weren’t friends.

The only indication James might have had that I was doing something besides selling newspapers on that corner was when my enormous black and white  Gulliver’s Periodicals truck was parked outside of the store loading or unloading bundles of  thousands of current magazines.  The brick newsstand also served as Gulliver’s base of operations, initially.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Years later, in late December 1983, when James was shutting down his produce store and moving on, when business was falling off in many places, he motioned me with his hand to come over to his side of the street.  It was the first time this had happened, and very curious, I went over to see what he wanted.  This was about three years after that seemingly endless and often irrationally savage “Chicago Magazine War” had ended, in 1980.  That old mural, once so pretty, was now faded and the paint was peeling off the brick wall.

James invited me into the tight little space behind his side of that brick wall.  All the shelves were now empty and there were old wooden fruit boxes scattered around our feet–bits and pieces of something that used to be good.  We shook hands.  His hand was very harshly calloused and his grip was a strong one.  A workingman’s hand.  He invited me to sit on a couple of stacked up metal milk crates while he did the same.  He looked at me in the gloom of his dead business, like he was deciding what to say.  I waited.

James began,

“Bob, I know you and I never really got to know each other over these last years.  But I have lived around Hyde Park for decades and I saw how you built up your wooden stand out of nothing.  Even when it burned down, I saw you salvaging the good pieces of wood and starting right back up the very next day putting up new walls, hammering away into the night.

People…black people…might not have known you much, neighborhood people like myself, but we saw you pick yourself up and we knew you weren’t a quitter when your luck turned bad.   There were quite a few brothers who saw you as more like us than most white men we’ve dealt with.  Just ’cause a man don’t talk doesn’t mean he can’t see.  I never heard one bad thing about you from all those kids that worked for you.”
James smiled to himself, remembering.  I understood his unspoken words. I said nothing.

“The reason I’m telling you all this, just before I go, is I felt you would want to know something that I’ve been carrying around inside of me, for years.

It’s time for me to let it go.

In ’78 some men came to see me when you were in that long fight with that big distributing company, years ago.  They were from that same company.  A bunch of white guys in suits, you know?  Maybe they were afraid to send just one to see me.

They wanted to sublet this space from me for quite a lot of money, much more than the rent I was paying.  They told me they were going to knock out the wall facing you and fill this place with magazines.  I think they said more than I was supposed to know.  I sure could’ve used that pile of money right then, like now, too.  You understand what I’m saying, Bob?”

I nodded.  He continued.

“Well, they said they wanted to knock you out of business where you lived, and put an end to you as a competitor of their company.  They were going to sell all the most popular new magazines at half price, advertise all over the place and drive you out.  They laughed and said you’d never know what hit you, that this was a war and you were out of your league.”

James straightened himself up, squared his shoulders and continued his story.  I was speechless, not that he’d notice the difference.

“I decided that these white bastards were a little too smart, a little too sure of themselves and that this was not their part a town.  They must have thought I was some dumb black guy who’d grab the money and run.  But I’m a Christian.  What they planned to do was to stab you in the back, but first they had to get rid of me.  My place was the only store there was for a block going north or south of here.  They must have decided that getting rid of me was the easy part.

Well, I know you’re a Jew–I read that long story in the Reader about you and those other guys years ago–but I decided, after listening to this nasty shit these guys were planning to pull on you, that you were fighting the good fight and that I was not going to be the Judas who let them kill you.  I decided…that even though you didn’t know me…that I was with you.

If you were “out of their league”, then I wanted to be in that same league, and be with you.”

James smiled at the memory.  I wanted to kiss him.  This was a story out of the movies.

The Secret Hero.  Man!

But James had more to say:

“By then, I was getting angry…angry about what they wanted to do to you, and angry with myself for being tempted by all that money.  Angry that they thought they had me pegged, you understand?   Like I’m the desperate black guy who’ll do anything for money.  No principles, no hesitation…no nothing.

I would have been selling myself out, too, not just you.

I faced those bastards and told them that I was not for sale and if their white asses were not out of my place in five seconds I’d call some of the brothers to run over here and mess them up.”

But really Bob, I had no one to call.  As you know by now, I pretty much keep to myself.  But those guys were so white and so out of their world I decided to shake ’em up!

You know, “The Big Scary Black Men Gonna Get You!” thing.  I knew they had that racial madness inside of them, so I used it against them.

Man, those bastards banged into each other piling out of my little joint!  They flew outa here and I never saw any of them ever again.  I have never been sorry about that moment.”

James was at the end of his story now, and he was a natural story-teller.  I didn’t want him to stop.  But then, that’s the mark of a good story-teller.  They know when to go.

Thoughtful for a moment, James added,

“Sometimes…God tests you, and that may have been my time.

So, I got to go now, but I wanted you to know that I was with you, even if you never knew it.”

Finished, he stood up, looking at me like he had gotten rid of something heavy.  I was simply stunned.  I had no words to equal his.  What could I possibly say?

But then, inspired, I looked at him and said,

“James, men like you, good men, kept me going all those years, even if I never knew you.  Thanking you isn’t enough, but Jesus Christ, James!!  Thank you so much for making the right choice.  I had no idea anyone would stoop so low as to do what you describe.  That’s not competition, that’s slaughter.

I don’t think you ever have to worry about being a Good Christian James, because, man, you sure are.”

He smiled, a warm smile I’d never seen before.  We shook hands, workingmen’s hands, hard, worn and strong.  I put my sincerity into my grip.  I was grateful he chose to tell me something I could never have known any other way and now, his story was mine.  A Christmas gift to me from Silent James.

Twenty-five years later, I am giving his secret tale of character, courage and solidarity to you.  A real Chicago story of a good man, a man who knew who he was.

A man who knew he wasn’t for sale.

I never saw James again.  That happens so often in my life, amazing people coming in and out of my heart.

I leave little candles burning in my memories, hoping that…someday… they might return to me.

But, they don’t.

I write this story to honor James, and to thank him, one last time.

A Good Christian?

Damn right!!!

**

**

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: https://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

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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.

Speaking of Our Words – June 30th, 2017 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. robertmkatzman@gmail.com Poet & Storyteller for hire for organizations, schools or private events   www.DifferentSlants.com to view recent and older examples of my work

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Preview YouTube video Speaking of Our Words – June 30th, 2017

Speaking of Our Words – June 30th, 2017

13 Comments »

Comment by Don Larson

December 24, 2008 @ 10:20 am

Hi Bob,

Another wonderful story about life and how it really is behind the scenes.

Don

Comment by koppel

December 24, 2008 @ 4:27 pm

I believe there are more good people than bad ones. James made the world better than he found it. As they say,what goes around comes around.

Comment by Bob

December 25, 2008 @ 7:30 am

Bob Katzman

Don, Bob.

Imagine how it felt for me to remember this story, after all these years?

I was visiting the place in Hyde Park where Bob’s newsstand used to be, when I looked east of it and suddenly, like a herd of wild horses, that whole incident came charging back into my memory. I knew I had to write it down, and Christmas seemed to be the right time.

I hope people who read it really believe it, and then sent on it to others. I think it’s an amazing moment in my life, and truly inspirational.

See you guys,

Bob

Comment by Don Larson

December 25, 2008 @ 10:10 am

Hi Bob,

I’m going to link this story on my home page for Friday the 26th. That will spread the exposure pretty well.

Don

Comment by Bob Katzman

December 26, 2008 @ 12:35 am

Don,thanks.
I rewrote it four times to try to capture the moment and language precisely. I wanted James voice to be his and not mine. that took some time and remembering. I think this story is more than nostalgia. I am grateful for any efforts extended on my behalf that tell the world that I exist as a writer. it is a lonely quest, Don.

Merry Christmas to all you guys out there on the left coast.

Shivering Bob in Chicago

Comment by Bill Skeens

December 26, 2008 @ 9:05 am

Bob:

Great story about Silent James. It’s nice to know there are people that had your back even when you didn’t know it. You are right about interesting characters coming in and out of your life for very short snippets. It happens… they leave their finger print and are gone with no trace. Yet they make up the a very vital piece of your overall puzzle that is you.

Have a great Holiday. Keep writing.
Warmest wishes to you and your family.

Newsboy #1 (and proud of it)
Bill Skeens

Comment by Jyll

December 27, 2008 @ 11:20 am

What a wonderful story of a man who stood behind his convictions. If more men were as true to themselvs and their beliefs as James was, and more with the determination and perserverance of you, Bob, maybe this world would be a better place. I see the moral of the story as this: Money is everything. Brotherly love, faith, and perserverance win every time. Hope you had a wonderful holiday season, Bob. Thanks for sharing another great story.

Comment by Jyll

December 27, 2008 @ 11:22 am

I made a typo on my comment which ruined the entire moral of the story. Money IS NOT everything! (is the ADHD thing again. And maybe two pair of glasses)

Comment by Bob

December 27, 2008 @ 12:28 pm

Bob Katzman

Oh, Jyll!

Don’t focus (no pun intended!) on your unfixable disabilities. To me, you remain wonderful and a fellow wordsmith.

I am very moved by this story and the power of it. Not my writing, but the man himself. I believe there have been squads of “James” in my life.

Maybe unsung, but there, always there, looking out for me because I so clearly need people on my side in my suicidal efforts to attack deserving bastards in unwinnable wars. But to me, it is as important to engage the evil people, as it is to win.

Maybe I can never win, but I can try. At least, I can try.

And that determination tells me I’m still alive.

Keep kicking, Jyll.

Your Chicago pal,

Bob Katzman

Comment by dudie

January 3, 2009 @ 5:33 pm

dear bob,
nice talking 2 u today. thank u 4 your time. i look 4ward 2 cing u b 4 your trip. there is a great deal of theatical potentionial in your words, & i am very interested in working with u on an interesting project. lets talk soon. u have my #, any time; day or night.

dudie.

Comment by Marjorie

June 11, 2010 @ 8:57 am

Bob,
I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to read “Silent James”. James was like many people that you’ve encountered in your life. He put his religious beliefs and moral values before financial gain. I can tell you from personal experience that there are a lot of us that have traveled this same road and made the same decision (to our material detriment). There is a reason that the Bible says that it’s hard for a rich man to make it into heaven. James was quite a man. One that I would have loved to meet.

Peace always,
Marjorie a/k/a Marilyn :>)

Comment by Gargi

December 7, 2011 @ 3:41 pm

Bob, this story…a precious nugget of light for our ‘dim times’….so, had to come back after reading it some time ago and say some things:

James certainly did step up to the plate and answered Cain’s age-old retort– with a moral, manly– and what’s more, truly human– response.

As well, your silent friend James certainly embodied the ‘code of the good Samaratin’– to posit another biblical parable. I guess he did the rare thing and read his bible stories well. What’s more, he did the even rarer thing and embodied the essential good of such morality tales.

Bob, you were lucky to have James havin’ your back, back when….thanks for letting us meet an exemplary man.

Comment by Cassie Platt

December 21, 2015 @ 8:55 pm

Truth has no color nor gender but it shines

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