Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Chicago Bob Gets His Gun…by Robert M. Katzman

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bob at 8:13 pm on Saturday, July 24, 2021

Chicago Bob Gets His Gun by Robert M. Katzman © July 24, 2021

In 1967, when I was 17 and working at my wooden newspaper shack in Hyde Park seven days a week and late into the night, a number of cops I’d befriended over the first two years I was there expressed concern for me.

My relationship with the police developed in a gradual way. First when I arrived at the corner and was 15, they were amused that a kid who appeared reasonably well educated would ever consider doing such miserable work, because of the terrible weather conditions in Chicago, seasonally. Also because of extreme amount of crime in Hyde Park that happened after sunset, like ferocious wolves coming out to prowl, that even the University of Chicago’s private police force and Chicago’s 21stDistrict Police Department could just barely keep under control. 

Hyde Park was like a big juicy rich Castle, with all its Victorian homes, the University with its (sometimes) rich students, and so many new and imported automobiles just sitting on the streets, waiting to be snatched. The stores catered to middle, upper-middle and upper-class clientele, which meant the stores regularly had significant amounts of cash before the eventual rise of the credit card as the king of transactions. Their customers might be wearing Rolexes or other such watches when walking back to their cars. Pretty girls walking home from school. Pretty mothers carrying groceries, both easy targets for a range of bad things. And on, and on.

But the “Castle” had no walls. Until finally, 18 years later when I closed up Bob’s Newsstand and walked away from it on July 29, 1985 when I was 35, the police had collectively been overwhelmed, stores were burdened by adding the cost of security to their budgets, plus steel security gates pulled over their storefront windows to prevent snatch-and-grab robberies. Going for a walk at night alone, with a few friends, with a girl, with a child were considered to be idiotic for those unsophisticated about the real Hyde Park, as compared to what the University advertised it as a mecca of free-thinking, near the lake, fantastic architecture, theater, movies, and whatever else their imaginative PR people could dream up to lure both top professors and brilliant students from faraway places, portraying the area like an intellectual Camelot.

More like Rome after being sacked by the Goths and the Vandals.

Back to 1967, because without knowing the nitty-gritty reality of my world for 20 years, this story would make no sense. I view story-telling as people entering my Paper Theater and I need to “set the stage” for them.

My Father had suggested giving away free Chicago newspapers to the cops as a way of drawing them to me at ten cents apiece at unpredictable times; a cheap way to protect myself from danger. He was right, but when the word got out that I was doing that, it was like inviting ants to a picnic. My Father had to prevail on the Captain of the 21st District to ask outside cops not to prey on the kid on the corner, because their “protection” soon would kill their “News-Print Goose”. He passed the word, the flow of outsider cops diminished and order was restored after the police were policed.

The dozen or so regular guys who would park their squad cars and come to talk to me changed their attitude about how dumb could I be to want a job working at a newsstand under the circumstances earlier described, after they learned I owned the newsstand, employed the man who worked it during the week when I was in high school, and the high school was The University of Chicago Laboratory High School. All the kids there hated the pretentious name and called the place Lab School or U-High. 

I explained to the cops that if my efforts were successful, the business would grow and I would never have to ask for a raise like all my contemporary teen-aged employees had to do to get one. My work would generate its own reward. This new information caused them to view me differently because I wanted to become a success.

In addition to the benefit to me of having the dozen or so cops from different shifts hanging around when they weren’t sent somewhere to fight crime, there began an ongoing getting-to-know-you situation where the various cops continued telling me stories which were often interrupted by their having to suddenly leave as their radios barked at them. One thing I knew even as a teen and was absolutely strict about, was to never repeat a word they told me. They would find out one way or another what confidential thing they had spoken about to me, was repeated by me, and all of them would disappear from my life. I was a receptacle and not a spigot.

They told me about their lives, expressed their feelings about Chicago’s Democratic Machine’s lock on the city and all city jobs, informed me where the actual political power was in my 4thWard (Chicago had and still has 50 separate Wards, a far better situation than owning a bank) in case I got into some trouble and needed powerful intervention to save the newsstand and my ass.

After a while, it didn’t seem to matter to the cops in their twenties that I was a junior in high school. I was a very good listener—and man, these guys sure needed to talk—they treated me like I was their kid brother. The older cops middle-aged and more, talked to me in a fatherly way. The respect they received from me was likely quite different than the relationship they had with their own teenagers at home. No one brought up sex, where the brothels were in Hyde Park–and there were brothels if you had the money and connections—possibly because they suspected I was clueless about sex. Which I surely was, until September 1, 1967 at about 7:30 pm. Not that it was such a big deal to me or anything. Ok, ok, inside of my newsstand under a swaying kerosene lantern.

No one was concerned that I was a bookie placing bets on horses like, oh, 95% of the old newsstand guys did in the 1930’s, 1940’s, 1950’s; and still into the 1960’s until they began dying off and there was no one left to bust. By some quirk of fate, as I began my career in the newspaper business, the antique idea of an old man or old woman selling newspapers from a shack on a corner to passing cars or pedestrians was just about over. The City of Chicago gave newsstand permits to disabled Vets after Wars in the earlier decades to keep them from being penniless and homeless. The permit prevented anyone—meaning bigger or stronger people—from taking over a guy’s corner because of the possibly lucrative other possibilities of owning a corner. Chicago had thousands of newsstands. But all of them, and I, were the walking dead. I just didn’t know it. Yet.

One, I had no idea what placing a bet meant and two, I had no involvement in anything illegal and was obviously naïve in the beginning when the cops first began hanging around, perhaps subtly looking for scraps of paper with numbers on them and assorted phone numbers without names. When my Father eyed a vice-squad car not so inconspicuously parked under the viaduct across the street from my corner, evidently watching me, my father walked over to them, introduced himself and man-to-man told them I didn’t know a horse’s head from its ass and had never been to a track, so please lay off and catch some real criminals. There was a silence, then smiles, then a shaking of hands and the guys told my Father not to worry, they’d lay off of me.

My Father was a World War Two vet, wounded in the Philippines, who had a way of talking to people that quickly established a rapport between himself and other men, especially men of his age who had been in the War as well. I admired my Father and knew I could never be him with all his life experiences, his Eastern European Jewish parents, immigrant gang fights, living through the Great Depression, look like him–meaning bigger and stronger–or have his charm or sincerity. No, after the War he wasn’t successful, but he sure looked the part.

But from him I learned a world of ideas, attitudes, how to speak to people and to make sure I always kept my word. Being on time out of respect for other people’s time. Once we even had a “class” in how a man should shake hands! More complicated than I imagined. Not too hard, not too soft and the implications of each.

He carefully explained Chicago established corruption to me, the existence, reason and necessity for bribery of police and city officials, because of their expectation of it and the terrible consequences of not playing their game by their rules. It took some time before I believed what he was telling me was true, and more time before I could do what he explained with some finesse and confidence. Awkwardly offering a bribe coud be dangerous.

At this time in the late Sixties there were no Female, Latino, or Asian cops, actually almost no female anything except teachers and nurses, so recently after when they were building tanks and warplanes in World War Two.

Almost all the cops I met were White, Irish, Polish, Lithuanian or German, mostly it turned out because of the height requirements to join the force, aside from prejudice and the family connections it took to become a cop in Chicago, with the pension and security it brought to a family. It was a great rarity for a cop to get shot. To me and my generation, it seemed a sin to hurt a cop. The reason there were few if any Greek or Italian cops, and never a Jew– shorter men–which would also neatly eliminated them since all of us Mediterranean types were five-nine or less. 

But on the other hand, at that time, some of the best restaurants in Chicago that the cops flocked to were owned by immigrant Greeks, Italians or Jews. So there. But all that began to change by about 1970, in the future of this story. Also, there were very few Black men, who had no problem with the height requirement, but they had a big problem with the Irish requirement.

Ethnically, Hyde Park was majority White and some Asian. There were a significant number of Jews who had fled the parts of the city farther South because of the great influx of Black families moving North from the Southern states. There were a small number of Black people, perhaps because it was much more expensive to live in Hyde Park than the surrounding neighborhoods. As to Hyde Park being unique in America as a place of tolerance toward inter-racial dating and marriage, one of the first things I heard when I arrived in Hyde Park was that it was supposed to be the only place in America where a Black man could date a White woman, or walk while holding hands, without one or both of them getting killed. When a kid is fourteen, that sort of malignant comment lingers in one’s memory.

So Hyde Park was like a White Island in a sea of Black Chicagoans and the cops were nervous about that all the time, especially the evening shifts. In Fall, Winter or Spring, my sturdy kerosene lantern hanging from a hook under the wooden roof projecting outside of my small structure, and during the night, that swaying in the wind burning flame often the only bright light on the street. Policemen who had grown to know me, and to trust me, started bringing up a delicate subject. They told me I needed to carry a gun for protection at my newsstand when I was alone so much of the time at night. A hand-gun, maybe a small revolver.

When this was said to me by one cop, then another night by a couple of them, I stared at them, said nothing.

A seventeen-year-old kid running a newsstand needed a gun??? 

It wasn’t that I had never shot one. For five years my parents sent me to Jewish Summer camps, initially for two months, and the people running the camps were sometimes Israelis, sometime survivors of the Concentration Camps. They were very firm in their belief that the only ultimate protection the Jewish People had was to be able to protect themselves and to be able to fight back. Heavy stuff for a nine-year-old, but we also swam and had water balloon fights. Four years later, my last year before leaving home, I was stunned to discover that after dark, the giggling girls from the girl’s cabin attacked the boy’s cabin while they were sleeping, jumping into their cots, grabbing them and kissing them. This totally terrified and stunned me. At thirteen, I had no idea what was happening. My first experience with aggressive Jewish girls. 

Back to guns, I became a very proficient shot with a 22-rifle, but after camp ended for me, that was it. I was going to be an artist and owning a gun wasn’t on the list of things I needed to become successful at that. Leaving home at fourteen ended my artistic career plans, and three years later cops were telling me that it was ok for me to have a gun, even though it wasn’t legal, and gradually, all of the group of guys I’d come to know assured me that it was the right thing to do and I’d have no trouble from anyone in the 21stDistrict. 

After a while, between the distractions of my failing physics and algebra at Lab School, I decided they were right and wondered where does a guy get a gun, anyway? I was getting worldly, but not that worldly. Though it was probably a sin to tell me, one of the guys confided to me about a certain man who owned a hardware store on 53rd Street who was the man to see, and if I was intending to go see him, they’d tell him about me first so I wouldn’t get thrown out of his store. Almost fifty years later, this all seems surreal to me today. The guy wasn’t a licensed gun dealer. This was a little side business for him, all cash, too.

I went to see him.

Call him Jack.

I went in, Jack saw me and waved. He and a lot of local business people recognized me from the newsstand and we would run into each other in restaurants and in the bank. Not too difficult to know Bob in Hyde Park since anyone with a dime could drive up and be my customer. Also, I was endlessly repairing and expanding my wooden structure, so I was a frequent visitor to Jack’s and other local hardware stores. He motioned me over to the wide thick wooden counter he was standing behind—this was a hundred-year-old hardware store—and he told me in a quiet voice to wait until there were no customers lined up at his register. I did that. His gloomy ancient store was cavernous, with a tin ceiling.

In a little while, in a whisper, Jack asked me what was it I was looking for, as if I came in there shopping for a bazooka or a machine gun. I told him I was recommended by the cops—he nodded—that I needed to arm myself and what did he recommend? He was silent. I asked him what a handgun would cost, too.

A moment went by. Jack was thinking, and looking me over. I should mention that at seventeen I looked closer to fifteen due to some genetic miracle in my family, but which wasn’t an advantage to me right there at that moment. Then he whispered that he had something he felt would work for me, and that it would cost me $100, including a box of 100 bullets and a small leather hook-on-my-belt holster to conceal the gun inside of my belt.

One hundred dollars! 

Jesus Christ!

I’d bought a car, a whole car, a 1962 Buick Electra 225 earlier that year for $300.

But I said nothing. Jack waited. 

$100 in 1967 would be about equal to almost $800 in 2021 money.

I decided that based on the encouragement from my friends in Blue, and the fact that I did have a hundred dollars, I would take the leap. 

I said ok.

Jack said be in his store early the next morning when it was quiet.

I agreed.

Next day at 7 am, nervous as a stray cat in a dog park, I quietly opened the screen door to Jack’s store, felt the paper money in my pocket to assure myself that I hadn’t forgotten it and quietly walked over to Jack, nodding to him. 

He motioned me to come behind that shiny old wooden counter of his and he reached under it to produce a wrinkled brown paper bag, then he softly asked me for the cash, which I handed it to him. He handed me the bag. Then a woman came over to his register and began talking to him. I stood there silently with the surprisingly heavy brown paper bag.

Then, I guess unexpectedly for Jack, more people came in needing things he sold, and I was a little bored, so I looked inside of the bag. There it was. A shiny black automatic pistol and a yellow box of ammunition. I held the bag in front of me and peered down into it. I saw a name on the side of the gun. It said: Beretta.

Never heard of it. I thought guns were made by Colt, Winchester or Smith and Wesson. But for all I knew, Betty Crocker might have manufactured guns, too.

 As the line in front of Jack’s counter grew, and my teenaged curiosity took over. I reached into the bag to see what it felt like, how heavy would it be to hold it in my hand. I was holding the bag sideways, about chest high. Then, quietly, I slid my left hand around the gun’s handle and carefully placed my finger–I guess it was gonna be my trigger finger from now on–into the trigger guard to see how that felt. Then, ever more curious, I gently squeezed on the trigger expecting a muffled “click”. 

The fucking gun exploded.

Sounded like an atom bomb went off in Jack’s store.

I froze. Everybody froze. Jack, calm somehow, turned toward me, looking somewhat unhappy.

He held my arm, now made of stone, reached in and extremely carefully removed my trigger finger from the trigger, and then took my hand from the gun, placing my “still in the bag” gun, under the counter. I remained frozen.

In the silence, Jack, and soon I too, wondered where the bullet—the bullet I never dreamed would be in that gun—had gone, because no one was dead, no one was screaming and there was no blood. The line quickly disappeared. Jack sighed.  He must have innocently assumed I was an experienced gun-totin’ teenager, but in reality, he must have concluded that in actuallty, I was a schmuck.

Well Jack, what sort of schmuck would hand a loaded automatic pistol to a kid who’d never seen or shot one before?

No police appeared. Probably all the nearby police were hiding in the bushes somewhere.

Imagine the stern interrogation: 

“So, tell me young man,” the Chicago Detective inquired, “exactly what possessed you to come to Jack’s hardware store to pick up a gun from him?”

Jack examined his counter, found the bullet hole, then the one beneath it and the one beneath that one, too. 

He picked up the bag, removed the Berretta, removed the clip of bullets he likely wished to God he’d never placed in there in the first place, placed the clip inside of the bag, put the gun back inside of the bag, handed it to me, now that I’d thawed out but was in fact, still shocked at what might have been.

Jack said,“Son, I think you need a little practice. You go ahead now and take care of your newsstand, ok?”

He gave me a little push, breaking my spell of incomprehension and guided me toward the door, opened the door, watched me walk out, then closed the door. I heard it click when he locked it, then I turned back to see him place a sign in the window saying,

“Closed until noon, Sorry if I missed you.”

Perhaps Jack needed to pause and have his heart attack.

In stony fashion, I walked away from Jack’s store, carefully clutching my illegally purchased weapon and my 100 bullets. I think it was a .32 automatic. Now I was a very well-armed teenager in rootin’ tootin’ Hyde Park.

The night Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed, April 4, 1968 and Black neighborhoods on the West Side of Chicago went up in flames, some nervous cops told me to lock myself up inside of my newsstand all night in order to protect myself if Hyde Park was attacked by angry mobs of Black men, whom they expected to arrive shortly.

I did that. The burning lantern made me hot and sticky, and I breathed kerosene fumes for hours, until sunrise.

But no mobs of angry Black men tried to torch Hyde Park that night.

I was still 17, and scared as hell.

About a year later, when I was 18, I was able to get a Firearm License. Then I found a shooting range, eventually using up most of the one hundred bullets. Wyatt Earp would not have feared me. Maybe Bozo. I kept that heavy gun on my body for five years, never pulled it out or showed it to anyone. At 23, I decided it was pretty heavy and I would be ok without my Berretta.

It ceased to be a part of my life.

My employees, my friends, my family, my then teenaged wife–not one of them ever knew that Bob got his gun and was walking around with it as casually as if it were a watch, when I was with any of them, day or night.

In fact, the only time I was ever directly assaulted by anyone in my newsstand, in the summer of 1970 when I was 20, was by a mentally ill man, a very large man the size of a defensive football player. Something set him off inside of the small wooden building. He screamed at me, towering over me, ripped my phone out of the wall and came toward me. I didn’t happen to have my Berretta automatic on me that day. In my desperation to save myself, I grabbed the closest weapon within reach, a heavy hammer, which when I gripped it and raised it high, over my head, ready to strike, he stopped. 

Both terrified and furious at being in this insane situation, I screamed at the son of a bitch,

“Get the fuck out of my newsstand or I’ll kill you!”

I never said those words before — or since — in my 71 years. But I meant it, and after an agonizing thirty seconds, his twisted face cursing me, the guy slowly backed up out of the doorway and walked away. I waved down a passing blue-and-white patrol wagon–the guys in it recognized me immediately–told them what had just happened. They raced after the guy and caught him. I never saw him again.

For those who might not grasp the reality of my situation, grab an actual carpenter’s hammer and hold it up over your head for thirty seconds. Heavy, isn’t it? Could I do it? Could I have hit him with it? These were bad questions to ask myself on that hot and terrible summer day. How did that unique moment in my life affect me?

Since then, I have never been without a hammer close to me.

No joke.

In my car, near my bed at night, in my kitchen with assorted other tools, whenever I’ve gone camping anywhere in America or Canada. The thing about a hammer is, it’s always loaded. And it’s helped me sleep better in the 51 years since that horrific day in my life.

In real life, humor, anger, fury, terror and murderous intent can all occur within moments of each other.

Oh yes, about the gunshot in Jack’s store in 1967: At no time in the next 18 years I was at that newsstand, did any cop breathe a word to me about the explosion in Jack’s Hardware store.

********************

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

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

Shipping by air to most of Europe, due to the weight of my books is $99.00

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 Brad Dechter

July 25, 2021 @ 5:26 am

Great story Bob! Brought back a lot of memories as my grandfather, and later my dad and uncle owned Universal Army Store at about 53rd and (I want to say) Drexel(?). A family named Shelemsky owned a hardware store about 4 doors down from them. Marlene was about our age, and the fathers and sons’ names (I THINK) were Seymour and Lee.
My dad had a similar gun around the same time- I found it hidden in his 1966 Mustang.
I like to way you give background and history and then take us into the story. Noticed a typo r two (swan instead of swam). Great story! Thanks!

Comment by Jim Payne

July 25, 2021 @ 6:59 am

Bob, You are the best story teller I know. You bring me into your story as you show me your history and your surroundings. The interesting details, the vivid contrasts, the side trips all keep me feeling in it while reading on to its dramatic conclusion. Thank you for such entertainment about real life.

Comment by Dan Rosenheim

July 25, 2021 @ 9:38 am

Terrific story

Comment by Ron Buzil

July 26, 2021 @ 10:31 am

Well done, Bob. Nice writing.

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>