Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

When Big Bad Men Entered My Deli in 1969 to Explain our New “Facts of Life”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bob at 4:55 pm on Wednesday, February 23, 2022

by Robert M. Katzman © February 23, 2022

This is a true story about corruption and coercion in 1969, when Richard J. Daley was Boss of Chicago and the little guys were helpless. 

People who have read my zillion stories on this site pretty much know the basics of how I came to open a Kosher delicatessen named the Deli-Dali in1969 when I was 19. How young was that?

My girlfriend who was 17 was graduating from the University of Chicago Laboratory School and I had to rush from our “Grand Opening” to attend her ceremony.  We later married and half a century later share two gorgeous grandchildren.

In brief, here’s the scoop: I ran away from a hell hole of violence in the South Side of Chicago at 14 in 1964 to escape to Hyde Park where I quickly found employment in order to (a) eat (b) sleep and attended that same high school until 1968, paying it’s high tuition by opening the first of numerous Bob’s Newsstand in 1965.

There, my whole life (up until then) in one sentence of 56 words. Only a poet could do this.

Four years after opening the wooden newsstand which subsequently became very successful as long as I worked seven day a week, 5 am to 7 pm, except for 5 am to Midnight on Saturday. Making money a dime or a quarter at a time, I had saved enough of those dimes and quarters to open a Delicatessen for $8,501, with my Father, Israel managing it across the parking lot in Hyde Park at 51stand Lake Park. That’s about eighty-five thousand dimes.

We opened with no debt, did all the interior work ourselves, I wrote the advertising and the first day it made money. My experience in the Deli business up to that point? Zip. I did apprentice at the Sinai 48 meat company in the Stock Yards area of Chicago for two weeks to learn the fine art of slicing corned beef instead of fingers and how to take the machine apart and clean it very carefully. Other than that, all of us learned what to do by doing it. 

So, cool, right?

Not exactly.

One day, not long after we opened the place, three very large white men, tall men, comically large as if Hollywood hired them to look very tough with wide shoulders, big hands and scowls on their faces. They barely fit through the glass door and the three of them filled the place. They put a piece of paper on the top of the counter, put a black pen next to it and informed us that we were joining The Retail Clerks Union at that very moment.

It certainly was a moment. We were next to an old, busy A & P grocery store, our 740 square feet in an unused corner of the strip mall where the owner of the shopping property felt a deli would work great. Which was true.

My Father’s father, Jacob, an immigrant from Byelorussia helped start the first Carpenter’s Union in Chicago in the Twenties, a fairly bloody situation until everything was worked out. Maybe all of them had hammers to create some sort of equality. But regardless, mine was a union family either philosophically or in reality which hadn’t happened yet up to that point. 

We asked the gentlemen what we would be billed monthly, which turned out to be a small amount, considering our non-existant negotiating situation at that moment, and what we would get. The answer was Monumental Health Insurance.

My Father and I, being realists, him after nearly four years in World War Two fighting the Japanese and me after about four years fighting the savage and rapacious Chicago newspaper truck drivers, decided in about a second that this was in fact a reasonable concept and maybe we should do it, but he should sign it, because I was still a minor. 

The three guys, dinosaurs in open-necked dress shirts, smoking and simmering, looked us over and then snapped, threateningly:

“Hurry up, bud. We got other places to go, unnerstand?”

We did. My Father signed and we were proud members of the Retail Clerks Union of Chicago.

We never saw them again. But we sure as hell paid the tiny premium every month.

Soon after, in a similar way, except for all three of them being Black this time, in the middle of a very busy lunch hour when the store was filled with kids from Kenwood High School across the street and adult employees from the three-story office building over us. They had timed it exactly because they were very experienced and felt arriving at that exact time would give them a little leverage.

The central man, tall, wide, etc. wearing a sweeping black dress overcoat who was actually handsome and smiling the entire time, including when he placed a metal sign on the bar where people pushed it to open the glass door which stated, clearly: Closed by Order of the Chicago Health Department

Then the man with his two lieutenants ushered everyone out of the store, including those whose orders were in process. They then collectively turned to face us, the main guy’s eyes cold, his face as stern as obsidian and said to us very clearly:

“Two Hundred Dollars!”

He said nothing more, but his words were very precise and distinct, so we understood our negotiating situation as clearly as possible. He stared. We stared. Then silently, I went to the back area where we made party trays on round cardboard pizza platforms, going to the place where the larger bills were hidden away, I removed ten twenty-dollar bills. 

I re-entered the sales area, handed the money to the man, whose face broke into a wide friendly grin, told us he’d be back next year about the same time so we’d be expecting him and it wouldn’t be necessary for him to close our store, again.

Then, as he left the store, he turned back to us, eyes icy cold again and said, 

“That won’t be necessary…will it?”  

And they were gone.

So, in the long run, how did this work out?

The last guy, who demanded and received two hundred in cash, we learned, made his real money from restaurants with white tableclothes. A whole different level of hell for the owners of those. We were a sort of between-meal snack for him, to show off for his friends. We were nothing.

That $200 in 1969, equal to about $1,530 in 2022 cost us then fifty-cents a day to keep our doors open. 

Or $4.22 a day in today’s money. 

For that amount, no one from any other part of the city came to see us. He was the head guy, he found us to be incredibly cooperative and there may have been some sharing arrangements with the other city inspection guys. But for the ten years the Deli existed, none of them ever bothered us.

Compared with advertising, thievery from our meat suppliers, theft from our employees and other assorted overhead we had, pay-offs were at the bottom of the list. We had no moral qualms because if we resisted, we both were very certain, there would never be a Deli-Dali open again. The other aspect was, that main guy protected us from anyone else leaning on us for more cash. We were essentially buying protection for fifty-five cents a day.

Bob’s Newsstands had magically come under the protection of the most powerful politician in the 4thand 5thWards of the City of Chicago, a Marshall Korshak, a wealthy powerbroker in Chicago politics.  

When I requested to meet with him a couple of years after opening the original newsstand, I requested a small favor from him that I be allowed to have a telephone in my newsstand because it was dangerous to work until midnight on Saturday nights with no way for teen-aged me to call the cops if something bad happened. His say-so was necessary to make any red tape evaporate.

He was good-humored, looked me over — a dark-eyed, dark-haired skinny kid — asked me if I was a Jew — like he was, wondered why a Jewish boy would be working at a newsstand on a Saturday night, was astounded to learn I owned the place because of reasons I then had to tell him. That, essentially, I was carving out a place for myself because I had no place else to go when I ran away from home in 1964.

That was a difficult thing for me to do in his office and he seemed to connect with something. I didn’t like telling “my story” to new people because it was so bad, but to him, it was about a Jewish boy escaping real danger less than twenty years after World War Two, lifting himself up out of the muck in his ife in order to make something of himself, in fact, as he told me, just like he himself had done!

This was awkward for me, because I didn’t know how to act around people like him.

I hated having to explain who and why and when and where and how .

Like my life was turned upside down and shaken out. Like I was the National Enquirer’s latest true-life pathetic story.

I wasn’t aware, at seventeen, of how vulnerable I was to endless city “inspectors” coming to prey on me to extract money to get rid of them. He didn’t mention the other kinds of men who would also come to attempt to aso prey on me, which had already begun and would continue for years. Priests, teachers, university professors, security guards, and on, and on.

To a kid who couldn’t get a date for four years in high school, I couldn’t comprehend the attraction.

He then told me not to worry about the phone line, it would be installed shortly, but also told me I was going to be “under his wing” and out of bounds to anyone else in his area of control. We shook hands, I thanked him and he never asked me for anything, not a penny. Today, although still emotional for me to recall, I see it as a miracle of a chance encounter.

About the three big guys from The Retail Clerks Union of Chicago essentially representing Monumental Health insurance:

My way of looking at this is a bit skewed, as you will see, but those guys put pressure on the wrong person in terms of signing me up to buy the insurance. I’d had cancer in my face a year earlier, December 20, 1969, which although it kept me out of Viet Nam when called and rejected by the army because of my missing left jaw, meant I was living with a piece of molded titanium wire in my face.

A year after signing the paper from those guys, I was found to have a situation where the wire had dissolved where it was bent to resemble a jaw-line , was now in to separate pieces and the sharp part of one of them was going to soon pierce my face.

I found one of the surgeons who had operated on me in 1968 – the original doctor had died – and he offered me the choice of having the top of my left hip  “harvested” to serve as an inert replacement to recreate my jaw after the broken wire was removed, or they could take one of my ribs to do the same thing. Like I was a human Lego withinterchangable parts.

The thinking was that my face would not reject another part ofthe same body. I, at twenty, had to make the choice and I decided that the top of my hip might be best based on complete ignorance. But the operation failed. 

The titanium wires were removed, the top of my left hip was sawed off and installed instead, and then, within a week, it became extremely infected. A nightmare where words won’t work here.

The transplanted top of my hip bone was removed, I was placed in isolation for two weeks to cure the infection (in 1970), and in my anger at the incompetence of the whole situation, I said no more experimenting on me and had nothing on the left side of my face for twelve years. It was obvious to anyone and it was flat. 

So, it would be a mistake to assume I had some charmed life.

But.

The surgery cost $30,000 at that time, about $230,000 in today’s money.

I informed the surgeon and the hospital’s billing office that they’d never get a penny out of me after fucking up my face the way they did.

I believe I was sufficiently convincing because no one ever called me about it again.

So, they went after Monumental for all of it.

About a month later, Monumental Health Insurance sent me a letter telling me I was considered to be a “bad risk” to insure and so they were dropping me as insured immediately. 

End of this slice-of-life story?

It took years and years for me to find anyone to insure me after that, because I guess hospital records showed I was “rated” which I later learned from an insurance guy whom I knew, meant I was a very “bad risk” and not likely to live very long after having cancer and then the failed transplant. 

Fifty-two years later, the actuary department of many health insurance companies were wrong and many monthly premiums were never paid.  At 72, I’m covered by the United States Government now, and so far, they seem pretty steady to a “bad bet” like me.

***

2 Comments »

Comment by Tom

February 24, 2022 @ 4:48 am

Thanks for sharing. Excellent description of life as you lived it.

Comment by Bill Skeens

February 24, 2022 @ 10:43 am

Your amazing stories continue. I had heard part of this but not all of it. Be well. Bill

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