Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Escaping and Embracing the Cops of Chicago (first written in May 1968)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bob at 7:45 am on Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Introduction

On April 29th, 1968, I was severely beaten by two plainclothes Chicago Cops at 79thand South Shore Drive. I was handcuffed, thrown like a side of beef into what used to be called a “paddy-wagon”, tho’ no more. I was taken to a police station, fingerprinted, charged and put in a jail cell. What happened in the Police Station was stunning and more surreal than the beating. This story takes the reader into the dark heart of the Chicago Machine. The language is blunt, racist, honest, and a piece of my life that hasn’t receded over the last 54 years.

My Story

On April 29th, 1968, when I was seventeen and self-employed, I decided to move from Hyde Park and find another place to live.

Driving my huge old battleship of a car, a gunmetal blue 1962 Buick Electra 225 purchased six months earlier for $300, I drove further south along South Shore Drive seeking small apartment buildings or hotels that would rent to a teenager.

Contrary to my normal appearance, I was very nicely dressed with a clean white shirt and tie, and a dark blue sports coat, usually worn to weddings and funerals.  My shoes were shined and my long dark hair was parted and combed. In my real identity, as a high school senior and the owner of a popular newsstand in Hyde Park, I usually wore black jeans, sneakers, loose work shirts and my hair hung over my eyes like the fringe of an old fashioned lampshade.

I made enough money from the newsstand, at that point, to live on my own.  I was determined to be free of constant frustrating generational fights with my fifty-six year old father.  I had one hundred dollars in cash with me, in my pants pocket, worth about $400 today in 2004. Enough to rent a studio apartment.  It was quite a lot of cash for a kid my age to carry around, in those days.

Not only was I in top physical condition from working seven days a week hauling endless heavy bundles of Chicago newspapers from delivery trucks, but when I could, I’d go camping overnight in the Indiana Dunes on the far side of lower Lake Michigan with a cooperative pretty girl.  I usually chopped up fallen branches that I’d find on the sandy ground there, with a sharp ax I carried in the trunk of my car.  I’d make huge, dramatic crackling campfires.  When the flames burned low, other things would heat up.

But that night in South Shore, I was having two kinds of bad luck.  When I turned my headlights on in the evening gloom, I found that my dash lights were out.  I couldn’t see how fast I was going or anything else.

My second problem, was that apartment manager after apartment manager said to me: No dice. We don’t rent to teenagers.  Same thing for the little hotels.  I was so frustrated and irritated by this insurmountable obstacle, that I even regretted combing my hair.  What good did it do me?

With my seemingly endless stop-and-go driving, parking and seeking a place, anyplace, to stay, I forgot to turn on my headlights one time because those damn dash lights were out, and so I couldn’t tell if I pulled out the light switch, or not.

It was after nine p.m . when I was walking out of the parking lot of one more hotel, at 78thand Cheltenham, to enter its front door, when suddenly a dark sedan screeched to a stop directly in front of the parking lot exit.  Two large white guys jumped out of the car and moved toward me in a menacing way.

One of them, his suit jacket barely able to contain his bulging shoulder muscles, called harshly to me:

“Hey, kid! Come here!”

I saw these two strange big guys coming at me fast, so I immediately made a dash for the hotel door. When one of them blocked my path to the entrance, I darted past him and raced toward the street.  As I passed the other guy, he reached out and grabbed the collar of my sports coat to reel me back in.

But as a veteran of too many battles in public school playgrounds, I had long ago mastered the art of how to escape the clutches of a kid too big to fight:  when those older kids grabbed the collar of my jacket, I would fling my arms back behind me, and the light jacket would peel right off me like the smooth yellow skin off of a banana.  Then I’d take off like a shot.

When the older guys found out that they couldn’t catch me, they’d leave my jacket lying in the schoolyard dust.  They weren’t thieves, just jerks.

Unfortunately, I soon found out that fleeing a pursuer in a playground wearing loose clothing and gym shoes wasn’t the same as wearing a snug sports coat and stiff leather dress shoes. When the big lug grabbed my collar with his huge hand, I lurched forward, as always, while throwing my arms back to ditch my jacket.  But instead of slipping away into the night, I found my arms sticking to the thin fabric lining, inside the sleeves.

I still managed to wriggle free of it anyway, in my terror of these strangers, but then with those slick-bottomed leather shoes, I tripped in the darkness over a broken curb.  I fell face forward, fast, with my arms outstretched in front of me onto the loose gravel on the sloping sides of South Shore Drive. The sharp pointed edges of the stones in the street sliced through the skin of my forearms.  Streams of dark red blood ran down my arms and over my hands.

I had never been caught before.  I was a fast running son-of-a-bitch, but damn it, those big bastards had me now. They threw me roughly to the ground, on my back, like I was a sack of potatoes.  One stood over me, while the other rifled through the pockets of my sports coat.  The second guy held up my car keys for the first guy to see, with a wide smile. Then one of them leaned over me and held me down by my shoulders, while the other one dug into my pants pockets. They grabbed my wallet and cash. Then one of them said:

 “Well, we got ‘em now…slick little bastard!”

In my confusion, I thought these two monsters were just thieves, out to rob me and steal my car. I had no idea what was happening. When one of them opened the trunk of my big Buick, I fought like hell to escape from the other guy’s grasp.  I may have been thin and small, but three years of endless labor at my newsstand had hardened my muscles. 

I almost broke free from the guy pinning me to the ground while he was momentarily distracted watching the other guy dig through the Buick’s huge trunk, but my captor swiftly seized my arm in a vice-like grip and smashed me in my face with his other massive fist. 

I was completely stunned. I fell down hard on the sidewalk. I tasted the fresh salty blood from my sharp metal braces cutting into my cheek. When the guy who hit me reared back to hit me again, I held up my bleeding arms to protect my face, spitting blood at him as I screamed, 

“STOP!!”  into the blackness of the night.

The man who had been digging through my trunk grabbed the arm of the other guy as he was preparing to punch me again.  When my tormentor looked up at the other guy in surprise as I lay so still, defeated, the trunk guy smiled and held up my campfire ax like it was a prize winning Muskie. He laughed as he released my guy’s arm and said,

“This is all we need, John.  Don’t kill ‘em.  Just make the call.”

I laid there gasping on the street, watching as they counted the cash in my wallet and then held it up for me and also the gathering crowd of curious neighbors who must have come to see what all the screaming was about.

“One hundred smackers!!  Lot of money for a young shit like you to carry, ain’t it?”they sneered at me.

I tried to say that I owned a newspaper stand, but when I saw the crowd of people looking down at me, instead I screamed through my bloody spit,

“POLICE!!!  PEOPLE…CALL THE POLICE!!”

But then, the two big guys suddenly grabbed me and threw me chest first against the trunk of their car. One twisted my right arm sharply up my back to hold me still.  I kept screaming, near hysteria in my terror,

“POLICE!!  POLICE!!”

John then jerked my arm up higher and banged my head against the trunk of their car, again and again and again.  I stopped screaming.  The pain was unbearable.  I thought that my arm was being pulled from its socket.

“God, why me?”, I thought, in my despair.

Then, for the first time, I heard the voices from the crowd around us.

One said: “Yeah!!  He’s the guy!”

Another said:  “Yep, I’m sure.  He’s the one that did it!”

I thought I was losing consciousness.

I thought I was in Berlin in 1938.

Who was I now?

Where was I now?

Then, I saw it.  

In my pain and agony, I thought,

“Dear God!!  I’m saved!!”

It was an old Chicago Police paddy wagon, blue lights flashing.  It pulled up along side of their car.  The armed uniformed cops came around both sides of the wagon toward me. People were pointing at me and whispering.  But instead of coming to my rescue, one of the blue-shirted cops grabbed me by my arms while the other one snapped too tight handcuffs on my wrists. Then I heard John say to one of the cops,

“He’s your problem now.  Book ‘em.”

Both cops lifted me bodily and threw me face first through the open back door of the paddy wagon, onto its hard pebbled floor. I lay there, dazed as the metal door slammed shut behind me.  In my confused state of mind, choking on my blood and spit, I thought to myself,

“Why didn’t the cops lock up those other guys?”

As the paddy wagon bumped and jerked toward its destination, I remained where I landed on the cold metal floor, unable to comprehend my fate.

What was this?

What had I done?

What more will happen to me?

My right arm was numb, unable to move.  My face was sticky with dried blood, one eye was swelling shut and my cheek was burning in pain.  I hurt way too much to cry.  But though I lay there silently, my soul was screaming for justice.

Finally, the paddy wagon screeched to a halt.  The two burly cops dragged me out of their wagon by my outstretched legs.  They then stood me up straight, one recoiling from how I must have looked.  He had a kind face, and I heard the other cop call him “Murphy.”

In a very soft voice, Murphy warned me to speak respectfully to the desk clerk, Sgt. Jankowski, saying that it might make things go easier for me.

I was too dazed to pay attention, not open to advice from this guy.

To me, he was one more bad guy with a gun, in this nightmare.

As Murphy led me into the station, he opened the door for me, told me to walk straight ahead and to be quiet.  He followed me over to the desk clerk, where a gruff character sitting behind it barked at Murphy: 

“What’s the charge?”

Murphy replied, in a low voice, 

“Resisting arrest.”

I turned my aching head and looked  at this baboon in blue clutching my arm in total amazement.

Resisting arrest?  Is he crazy?

I then looked back at the desk clerk, Sgt. Jankowski, and through bloody lips I snarled at him:

“You’re God damned right I resisted!”

The very bored Sgt. Jankowski looked up from his arrest form in surprise.  He peered at me over his glasses.  Was I yet another young drunk?

Murphy, now antagonized at my lack of quiet cooperation, tightened his grip on my arm, squeezing hard enough to hurt me, digging in his fingers.  Whispering with urgency now, he hissed,

 “Shut up, punk!”

His expression seemed to me to say: Was I just dumb or what?  Didn’t I get it? They got me.  I was caught. The game was over. Why was I making it worse for myself?

Well…I thought to myself, maybe I am beaten up.  Maybe with all the blood and torn clothing I looked liked I’d been run over by a street car. With my hands in cuffs, and spit dripping off my face, maybe these guys thought I was in no position to argue. But God damn it!!  I sure as hell wasn’t going to go quietly in this room full of Nazis! 

Then Sgt Jankowski looked at me, and he kind of smiled.  More of a smirk.  Then he said to me, sarcastically, 

“Hey, kid.  How’s your brother?”

I looked back at him, stunned, the words pounding into me like a punch in my gut.

I didn’t HAVE a brother.

What was this?  

Then it hit me.

“Oh my God”,I thought, my head exploding with sudden understanding.  

“These guys think I’m someone else.”  

“Oh…my…God.”

Then I said to Sgt. Jankowski,

“I don’t have a brother, man.  What are you talking about?”

He smiled his nasty smile at me again.

“Yeah, sure, punk.  Put him in a holding cell, Murphy.”

“Wait!”,I yelled back at him.

“Just who do you think I am?  I HAVE NO BROTHER.”

Jankowski looked up at me in surprise, and then, in impatient annoyance, he yelled back at me,

“YOU are a little…Arab…shit, just like your thieving Arab brother!!”

ARAB?”,I screeched at him.

ARAB?”

“GOD DAMN YOU!!  I’M A JEW!!”

Then silence.

Dead silence.

Murphy stopped dragging me to the jail.

The desk sergeant’s jaw drops.  Then, quickly reconsidering, he thundered back at me;

“You lying bastard!  You’re no Jew!  Just look at you! You’re that lousy Arab punk we’ve been chasing for six months!!

MURPHY…LOCK HIM UP!!”

But I yelled again, ever louder in my desperation:

“WAIT-WAIT-WAIT!!”

“I  CAN PROVE IT!”

“I CAN READ HEBREW!”

“MY NAME IS KATZMAN.”

“I WENT TO RODFEI SHOLOM TEMPLE ON 91STAND JEFFERY”

“JESUS CHRIST, MAN!! HOW DO I PROVE TO YOU…THAT I’M A JEW?

Murphy again stopped dragging me to a cell.

He turned to look at me

Really look at me.

But I looked slowly all around the room, at all the Polish, Irish and German cops.

My heart sank.

There is a Hell for Jews, I thought. 

And I’m in it.

But then Murphy, the one human being there, who had been studying my face, turned his head slowly toward Jankowski, and in a very quiet voice, my only advocate in the room said:

“Sarge…um…is, uh…Bernstein…still…upstairs?”

He kept on speaking, gaining speed.

“I didn’t see him leave yet..  Maybe…maybe he could help us out, here.  Maybe the kid is telling the truth.”

In silence, Sgt. Jankowski reluctantly nodded his assent, and Murphy dropped his hand from my arm, while at the same time giving me a hard look that said: Dummy-don’t move.  

He swiftly climbed the nearby staircase to the second floor.

No dummy, I didn’t move.

I’ve been in quiet rooms before, like the principal’s office in sixth grade.  Or a funeral home when the service is over and everybody else has gone away, except me.

But I don’t ever remember being in a room, full of cops, as quiet as this one, while all of us waited for “Bernstein” to come down from the second floor, like Moses descending from Mt. Sinai.

These cops were not happy men.

I could feel the change in the room.

A whole lot of hands seemed to be caught in the cookie jar.

Then Bernstein appeared, wearily padding down the stairs.  

A middle-aged cop of some sort, but not in uniform.

Murphy pointed to me, and then Bernstein walked over to where I was still standing, by myself.

He looked at my battered face.  He saw the dried blood on my arms.  He saw the cuffs digging into my wrists.  He was looking for something.  In a very soft, tired voice, he looked into my eyes and said,

 “Well?”

I knew this was my one shot.

I took it.

In almost a whisper, my voice pleading, I said to him:

“My Rabbi’s name at my Temple is Arnold Goodman.”

“I was bar mitzvahed on April 13th1963.”

“My family came from Lithuania, Poland and White Russia.”

“My name means “priest” in Hebrew.”

Now the tears were pouring down my face.

I felt so…alone.

“I can say the blessing over wine—Baruch Ata Adonai Ehloheinu Mellech Haolam Borei P’ri Hagafen…”  

My voice trailed off.  As if it was a prayer, I asked him, 

“Mr. Bernstein…How do I convince you…that: I’m…a.…Jew?”

I was spent.

I had nothing left.

The tears were still dripping off of my face and chin.

Then I saw the light go on in Bernstein’s eyes, as his sagging face darkened.

He was angry now.

Just as a Great Dane knows in a second that a miniature Collie is still a dog, Bernstein knew that Katzman was a Jew.

He looked down at the floor for a moment, as if he were trying to contain himself.

Turning away from me, he looked over at the desk clerk, Sgt. Jankowski.  

I thought he might erupt. 

 But he just said, quietly, calmly:

“Sargeant, I think you have a problem here.

 Take the cuffs off this boy.

 Clean him up.

 Get him something to drink.”

Then in a sea of worried faces, he turned back to me and said:

“Son, how old are you?”

I replied,

“Seventeen.  Eighteen, tomorrow.”

Bernstein looked distraught. I was confused. Then I understood him.

To the other men in the station, he wanted to just be another cop.

To me, however, he was a fellow Jew, and he seemed filled with pain for what had happened to me.  I could tell. I knew the expression on his face was just like my grandparent’s faces when they talked about deadly pogroms in Eastern Europe.

He murmured so softly that I could barely hear him, speaking to himself:

 “…and a minor, yet.  I really need this tsouris (trouble).”

Then to me he said:

“Do you have someone you can call?  You’ve got to get to a hospital.  You look terrible, son, terrible.”

For a long moment I felt so sorry for him.  Maybe he imagined that it could be his own son, standing there helplessly, like me.

Bernstein waited while they called my father.  He stayed with me until my father, in a fury, showed up at the station to claim me.  He tried to speak to my father, trying vainly to calm him down, but my father’s angry roar echoed though the Police Station.

Someone summoned the Captain of the station.  My father threatened him with all sorts of legal nightmares.  Then the Captain called in the two goons who beat me. When they arrived a few minutes later, they seemed stunned by the very bad news that they had captured and severely beaten…the wrong kid.  

Then, with serious expressions on their faces, they complained about what a fierce fight I had put up, and that they just couldn’t hold me down.  They simply had to hit me to get me to hold still.   Then John said,

“He resisted, Captain, honest.  We didn’t want to hit ‘em.  He must lift weights or something.”

My dad looked at these two gorillas.  Each was at least six feet tall or taller, two hundred pounds or more, apiece.

I was five foot eight and one half inches tall.  I weighed one hundred and forty-five pounds.  

His voice filled with venom, my father turned to the Captain of the police station and said:

“My son owns a newspaper stand in Hyde Park.  He has employees.  

He pays for his school and all his own expenses.

“He goes camping in the Dunes sometimes, and uses that ax you took from him to chop wood for fires.  He goes to the University of Chicago High School.”

Then he paused, choosing his words.

“Captain, do you have any idea what kind of Hell is going to fall on you guys here?”

Silently, the Captain handed my wallet and the one hundred dollars in cash back to my father.  Then he gave him my ax.  My father signed a form that said that he had received them. 

Then the Captain said to my father,

“Mr. Katzman…these two guys here have families, children of their own.  They made a big mistake.  That Arab kid has been breaking into homes and apartments all over South Shore for months, and just driving my men crazy with frustration.  These two officers thought that they had finally caught that kid. Can you possibly give them a break?

“Maybe they made a really stupid decision…jumped the gun and grabbed the wrong boy.   But, sir, you can end their careers.  Haven’t you ever made a mistake that you really regretted?”

My father, a combat veteran of World War Two, and used to all sorts of bullshit from superior officers, looked coldly at the Captain and replied, with obvious contempt:

“They didn’t have to beat my son to arrest him, did they?  Why didn’t either of them just show him a badge? My kid knows lots of cops.  He would have stopped in a second to answer whatever questions they put to him.  Bob had no reason to run.

“Just look at him now.  Look what your goons did to my son.”

The Captain looked down at his desk and said nothing.

The two men that were responsible for all of this, said nothing.

My father, with his arm protectively around me, walked out of the police station, letting the heavy glass door slam behind him.

He took me to a nearby hospital emergency room.  The doctors and nurses there carefully examined all of the damage that was done to me. They gave me an antibiotic for my cut mouth and cheek.  They told me that time would soon heal the cuts on the inside of my cheek.  Then the nurses cleaned up my arms, put some kind of ointment on the cuts, and then bandaged my forearms with soft gauze over the larger cuts, to protect them while they healed.  Wide strips of white surgical tape held everything securely.

They put my right arm in a sling and said it might take a week to regain normal motion if I refrained from using it to carry any bundles at my newspaper stand.  They gave me a prescription for pain.

Then, the doctor assured my worried father that I would fully recover…that I’d be fine, in time.

My father told them to send the bill to the police station.  He gave them the address, the phone number and the name of the Captain.

The hospital billing people called the Captain, verified that my father was telling the truth, then told me to be more careful in the future. 

We went home.

For a while, anyway, my home was where my father lived. 

This is what happened to me, to my life, after that night.

It was a while before my dad and I could decide what to do.

But when I finally had to make my choice, a big choice for a young person like I was, my real life education about fairness, mercy, civil rights, Chicago’s political organization, friendships, policemen as individuals and as an organized force, and my slow comprehension of the meaning of the major events about to unfold in Chicago, was just beginning. 

So much to come in my life in the many years ahead, because of my objective evaluation of the two men that beat me that night, was simply beyond the comprehension of an eighteen year old boy.

We first went to the famous liberal lawyer and Alderman of the 5thWard located in Chicago’s uniquely independent Hyde Park neighborhood, Leon Despres.   He was endlessly re-elected by his admiring constituents for consistently standing up to the politics and practices of the Chicago Political Machine ruled by Mayor Richard J. Daley, thefirstMayor Daley of Chicago, but not the last.

Stunned by my treatment at the hands of the two brutal policemen who beat me, Ald. Despres raged about the terrible trampling of my civil rights.  This was an unforgivable atrocity against an innocent and minor citizen of his ward, and the City must not be allowed to get away with it.  Honest citizens should not have to fear their policemen.  Policemen could not beat anyone they chose to whenever they felt like it, even if the person closely resembled someone that they were determined to capture.

The Alderman asserted forcefully that this was a country of laws and not men.  Laws were all citizens had to prevent anarchy.  He urgently beseeched us to sue.

My father and I completely agreed with him. We were both liberal to the core and both of us were repelled by the aggressive behavior of all repressive regimes.

We were ready to move forward with the Alderman’s assistance when a voice was raised from an unexpected quarter.

My sixty-seven year old Polish immigrant grandmother, Celia, my mother’s mother, the smartest person in my family—on both sides—who knew the whole story already, strongly suggested that I speak to her son, my Uncle Milton, who was my mother’s younger brother.  My grandmother’s “suggestions” were not…negotiable.

He and I were not especially close, but I knew quite a lot about him from my parent’s conversations, as well as from family holiday dinners, Passover and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  I would listen to him talk in a knowledgeable and confident tone of voice about Chicago politics, and his connections to the administration.

He seemed to know everybody, and the inside story about everything. He had friends on the police force, including the brass, was a sheriff’s deputy and was licensed to carry a gun.

Though he actually made his living from a tile store he owned, he long ago understood, most likely coached by my politically sophisticated grandmother, that the only way to survive and succeed in Chicago’s medieval political structure was to become part of it.  It seemed to me, and my father with whom he was friendly, that Milton was imbedded in the Machine. This was not a situation looked upon with disdain in the Jewish community.  With connections, came power.

When I told him the whole story, soon after it happened while the cuts and bruises were still visible, he remained quiet and listened patiently, especially that last part about Alderman Despres strong recommendation that we sue both the City and the Police Department.

After I finished telling him all the facts of the story up to that point, he sat there with me for a while without speaking. I could see he was weighing my options and their consequences in his mind.  We were not strangers to each other.  During a very stormy time in my parent’s marriage, I had lived with my uncle’s family for a brief time, in 1958.

I remember very clearly standing in the dark at the top of the second floor stairs of my house listening to my mother’s bitter frustration with my defiant behavior.  There was a pause that night, and I heard my Uncle Milton say:

“I know Bobby doesn’t lie.”

I was only eight years old, but his firm confident words stayed with me, giving me hope as they discussed what to do about me. His family was nice to me and didn’t ever bring up my family’s troubles. I knew that he cared about me, and would give it to me straight.

He said this:

“Sure, Bobby, you can go ahead and sue the City.  But you’re not dead or disabled or blind.  By the time your case gets to an actual judge in a courtroom, all your cuts and bruises will be healed.  You will look like the healthy and strong young man that you are.  There will be little sympathy for you. 

“Of course, you may eventually actually win your suit, in a few years, after all the City’s appeals are exhausted. You may even get some money out of it.  But by then, everything involving your newspaper stand will have changed.

“Every single time a customer of yours makes a right turn to pull up to the front of your stand to buy a newspaper, and neglects to use their right turn signal, they’ll get a ticket for a moving violation.  A cop will always be watching for that.  After a few dozen tickets, your drive up business will disappear.

“Any little violation of any obscure municipal law, be it littering or even the ages of the kids that you hire to sell your newspapers, will continually come under microscopic examination of the local city street inspectors who report to the Mayor.  You will never get a pass.

“You will receive such a barrage of tickets and summons that eventually your newspaper permit, issued by the City, will be revoked.  You will be hounded out of business.

“Is this fair?  

“No.

“Will it happen?

“Bet on it.

“The Machine must survive to take care of everyone, so naturally, everyone takes care of the Machine.

“Instead of you being the universally popular “Bobby, the neighborhood paper boy”, you will be targeted as “The Enemy” and everything you have worked for, for years, will be gone. Is this what you want?

“Is suing these two stupid middle-aged cops worth what you’ll lose?

“If it matters, Bobby, I can assure you of one thing:  Those two guys that did this thing to you—their careers are over.  A couple of letters in their files and they’ll get early retirement.  They will never, ever, be able to beat up another kid, like they beat you.

“I know this will happen.  I talked to some higher ups I know in the Police Department, downtown, before I came here to listen to your story today.  Your father had already filled me in.

“Everyone regrets the incident.  But everyone also wants you to forget it.

“If you do choose to forget it, down the road, the Machine will owe you something, and believe me, Bobby, the Machine does not forget.

“Your dad tells me that you have friends that are on the Force.  They may be your friends, but they work for the City, too. If you let this terrible incident pass, everyone in your police district will know that about you, too.

“Believe me, it will matter in the years to come, if you choose to keep running your newsstand.

“Whatever you decide, these are the facts.

“I love you, Bobby, you are my only nephew, my sister’s son. Please try to make the right choice.

“You will have to live with it for a long time.”

We shook hands, and my Uncle Milton went back to his tile store. 

My father and I discussed the two choices that I was offered:  Suing the City and the Police Department; the ideal, morally correct choice urged upon me by the well respected but politically powerless Alderman Despres, or, the “Real World” choice—let it go, forgive them, and hope that the gamble pays off in the years to come.

To my surprise, my father advised me,

“Bob…Let it go.”  

It turns out that my father was in complete agreement with my uncle, once my father’s anger died down.

“Let it go, son.  I believe, in the long run, it will be for the best.”

Perhaps if it had been my father alone who urged me to reconsidered my intention of following the principled advice of Ald. Despres and make an example of the two violent cops by suing them to discourage their literally heavy handed tactics from being considered acceptable by the Chicago Police Department, I would have rejected his advice out of wounded passion and a strong desire for revenge.

But the involvement of my cold-blooded but extraordinarily politically astute grandmother, Celia, whose father and grandfather had been murdered in anti-Jewish riots in her small town in Poland, who more than anyone else in my family really saw the “big picture”, was a far greater influence on my final decision.  She was not affectionate to me or as far as I could tell, anyone, but her wisdom went unchallenged in our family.

Add to that her clever move of letting her son give voice to what were actually her own opinions, but delivered by someone who would explain things to me in a manner that I could understand and hopefully be able to accept, and more than that, trust as really caring about what would happen to me if I made, what I believe she felt, was the wrong decision to go ahead and sue the City.

So while she wouldn’t hug me, she nevertheless had every intention of protecting me, from myself.

I think her intent was also to begin the process of my being absorbed into the Daley Machine, and that my “noble” willingness to forget the whole nasty affair would get me noticed and looked after. It wasn’t just to protect my business that was her motivation. Her main goal was to shelter me from being outside the existing power structure of Chicago

I didn’t understand her goals for me, then. But from the distance of decades, I fully understand her now. 

What I heard out of all of this, was that I should show those two stupid men some compassion, forgiveness—and not paint all policemen with the same brush.  By chance, this meshed seamlessly with my own emerging concept of the main ideas of Judaism: justice and mercy.  My grandmother didn’t know about my involvement with Jewish ideas.  I don’t think she would give two seconds thought to those concepts as any reason to do anything, one way or the other.

She was too hardnosed and practical for that.

So, strange as it seems to me today, though some would say that my not suing the Chicago Police was a form of selling out to protect my newsstand, that was never my motivation.  What the whole episode awakened in me was a willingness to be kind to people who might not really deserve it.

What I began to understand in my eighteenth year, was that to respond to violence with another form of violence, legal revenge, in a way turned me into the same kind of person as those two men.  But my actually offering forgiveness to them might have a much greater impact on them and maybe beyond just them.

It was a kind of dawning for me.  I saw that not hitting back could be an act of greater strength of character, and was not being submissive or weak.  Trying to make the other person see themselves and realize the harm they had done.

Christians reading this story will say that this is their concept of “turning the other cheek”.   But I saw it then, and I see it now as being quintessentially Jewish, and I’m proud of myself for making the choice I made based on those reasons, because I am proud to be a Jew.  Our ultimate irresistible weapons…are ideas.  Not guns.  Ideas cannot be stopped.

So.

I never pressed charges.  

did know a lot of cops.  Some of them were my friends.  They had a really difficult job to do.  People make mistakes.  Cops are people. 

I let it go.

Simple as that.

Maybe simple for me, but not for lots of other people.

My arm was better in about a week, as the doctor had predicted.  All my cuts and bruises healed.  The Police Department did indeed pay the hospital bill, I guess, because they never came after me for the money.  I went back to my last year in high school and my newspaper stand.

No one ever brought up the incident again.

Not even my cop friends spoke to me about it.

I just shrugged the whole thing off as a difficult lesson to learn about the real world.  But you know, though it took me a few years to really understand my Uncle’s words, eventually it all sunk in.  How did I come to understand the meaning of his advice?

Well, in the seventeen years I continued to operate that newsstand in Hyde Park after the incident, I never received a ticket. Not for speeding, not for parking, not for anything.

Even outside my tight little world in Hyde Park where a lot of people recognized me after my years of standing outside the newsstand selling papers, when some city cops would stop me for a burnt out taillight, or an expired license plate sticker or even if I went a little too much over the speed limit, which rarely happened, one of them would take my driver’s license, go back to their squad car, talk on the radio to someone, and then moments later give me back my license and urge me, in a friendly way, to be more careful next time.

Ten years later, when I was involved in a desperate magazine distribution war with a giant local company, sometimes I was caught up in some serious confrontations stemming from the war, and there were times when the police were called in to break things up.  No matter what it was, the police always came down on my side.

When some neighborhood bluenoses of some influence tried to get my newsstand shut down because I sold Playboy and other magazines like that, their protests went exactly nowhere.

When there were strong objections by some of the same people to my expanding my wooden newsstand into a larger brick building, after the stand had burned down for the second time, there was a public hearing on the matter.  Many people attended and everyone there had their say.  

Shortly after that, I received my building permit.

Funny thing was, the permit was dated from before the hearing was held.

Lastly, when there was a near riot in Hyde Park in 1982, fourteen years after the incident in South Shore, I was surrounded by an angry mob of young black men over a racial misunderstanding.  My life was very much on the line and there was no escape from the mob…I was trapped on all sides.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, two cops in a squad car appeared and roared into the middle of it. They swiftly broke up the mob, sent everybody home and took me to a local hospital to get my broken hand treated.

At no time, in all the intervening years did one person, cop or not, ever speak to me about the two guys who beat the hell out of me at 78thand Cheltenham on April 29th1968, when I was seventeen years old.  But in my heart, after that last just-in-time rescue, I called it even.

I learned that the police really were a brotherhood. For better or worse, they were all connected. It really mattered to them that I let the thing go.  To their minds, I guess, I was giving all of them a break.  Some of this was finally told to me, at last, just before I closed down my newsstand in 1985, by a long time local commander who was about to retire. 

I guess I just…can’t…remember his name.

Though I never really realized it, for almost twenty years in Chicago I was effectively protected by an invisible shield. 

No. 

Make that a very visible shield, pinned to the chests of so many very good Chicago Policemen.  Even though I never knew it, they felt they owed me, and they watched over me, for years.

Very few people knew about the story you just read, when it happened to me in 1968.

Even though I wrote up the incident, anonymously, for my high school newspaper, The U-High Midway, I never told the other few students in the journalism class that I was the writer of the column.

Was I concerned about possible repercussions to myself, or to my newsstand?

Yes.

My journalism teacher, Wayne Brasler, who periodically appears in my stories, did know the truth about everything but agreed to keep it between us.

So, everything that you just read, is true.  It all happened.  I am very determined to stick to the real truth or why bother to write an autobiography at all?

However, in 1968, and even in my writing of this story now, in 2004, I left something out.

I never told my father about it, or my Uncle Milton or Alderman Leon Despres.  Or even any of my friends.

Sometimes, some bits and pieces of my life seem so bizarre, even to me, that it’s easier to just forget about them than to expect people to believe everything I write about.                       

But thistime, some months after I completed the writing of “Choices”, parts 1, 2 and 3, I decided that the missing piece mattered. So, here it is:

After my father came to get me at the police station, and the two cops that caught and beat me were also summoned there by their Commander, I was pretty much of a bystander to all the adults arguing about what had been done to me, and why.  I was in a great deal of pain, and didn’t want to have anything more to do with any of it.

But there was a moment…between when the desk sergeant was writing up a receipt form so that they could return my ax and cash according to the police rules of procedure, and my father and I were waiting for him to complete it so that we could leave… when my father went looking for a washroom.

In the few minutes that passed while my dad was gone, I saw one of the two cops, John, sitting on a long bench, over to the side, by himself and leaning back against the wall.  I walked over to him.

I thought about it first, then softly said what had been on my mind.  Standing in front of him, he slowly raised his eyes to look at me, like he was coming back from a million thoughts somewhere else. 

I quietly asked him:

“What would you have done if I had gotten away from you, instead of slipping on all that gravel by the curb?”

John looked at me with dead eyes, and with a voice drained of all emotion, he replied:

“I would have shot you.”

Heat and ice ran through my body, my face, at the same time.  But I persisted.

“In the back?”

He answered me in the same voice.

“In the back.”

It was in this moment, when I first fully realized the impossible situation that this cop and the other one were now in. With an unfamiliar jolt of comprehension, I stopped thinking about my own terror, my own pain and misery.

I wasn’t the victim, anymore.

The wheels of justice, with incredible speed, had already begun turning and my oppressors were stunned, or certainly appeared to my young eyes, to be stunned, by the terrible turn of events and their irreversible role in them.

I suddenly realized that John and his partner were about to be the real victims of their misjudgment in this situation, from this moment on.

I may not have been able to express the emotions that I felt then, at seventeen, in 1968, but I can and will now, at fifty-four years old.

In the nearly three years I had been running my newsstand, I’d met so many cops, got to know some of them pretty well, and came to really understand the enormous pressure they felt from all the demands placed upon them by different rulers of their lives:  

Their commanding officers, and the Public’s scrutiny of their every decision. 

The ever present, ever critical Chicago Press that focused a magnifying glass on any misstep or mistake any young cop might make on their way to learning all the thousand things he needed to know to be really effective in his job.

The fifty different Chicago Ward Alderman, who could be quick to torpedo a young cop if some situation that went off the rails in their Wards meant the possible loss of either their own or the cop’s career, knowing full well that their Aldermanic voice was louder, more powerful and far more likely to prevail in a public dispute about whatever scandal had occurred, and that sometimes, a mistake required a victim to be sacrificed. 

Lastly, the several “union-like” police organizations that, while they fiercely protected their officers as much as they could from what they considered to be unfair treatment by powerful politicians, Chicago businesses or even the complaints of ordinary citizens, their very existence also created a barrier that caused all sides to be more cautious in their relations, and maintained a kind of tension that was not such a healthy work environment for any person to live under, day after day after day, for decades.

I developed a great respect for so many of these men I came to know on a personal level, as I came to realized that on any day, at anytime, some stranger might shoot a bullet at one of them notbecause of some personal grudge, even motivated by an uncontrollable need for revenge.  But just because that particular cop, on that particular day, was wearing the blue uniform of The Chicago Police Department, and for some evil souls, that was reason enough to kill one of them.

How many people would volunteer for a job where that sort of irrational deadly risk was a daily part of the work they woke up to do, every morning?

How could I not feel a deep empathy, even as a teenager, for these brave men whose job, essentially, was to protect me, my friends, my family, or just any group of anonymous but vulnerable people, every dayof their career? 

I believe that the seeds of my compassion, for John and his partner, were planted at that moment when I saw his total vulnerability and despair, in his eyes.

Maybe on the surface I still wanted revenge. On that day that the assault on me occurred, I wanted to hurt those men as badly as they had hurt me.  Or worse.   

But those seeds of understanding never stopped growing, and eventually overwhelmed any other vengeful thought or emotion connected to my brutal beating that terrible night on South Shore Drive, in April, 1968.

had to forgive them. 

There never really was any other choice, for me.

8 Comments »

Comment by Mike

April 26, 2022 @ 9:46 am

Bob,
This is a wonderful story. I am so glad to have read it.
Law Enforcement Officers have a tremendous bourdon to carry with terrible choices to make in a split second.

Comment by Arnie

April 26, 2022 @ 11:29 am

Bob,

After your information about Robert Morse, and my comment that I’ll keep watching for “TRU” on TCM, somehow I saw a snippet of your encounter with the Chicago police in 1968. I decided to read the article nonstop. Took me a good 45 minutes, I’m thinking, “you’re in the wrong business,” as you really should have been an author. I think, in the coming weeks, months or years, I’ll try to read more.

Comment by brad Dechter

April 26, 2022 @ 1:20 pm

Love Arnie’s comment- you should have been an author.
Haha.
Bob – a nice story.
I get it- flying towards 70, I could someday need the police. But honestly, I spent my entire life fearing the police, knowing that there is no protection for me/my loved ones should they make a bad decision about me/us. Sort of scary to have your life in the hands of a perfect stranger and they then make a mistake?
I felt the story was well written albeit a tad long. Could I suggest that when you have a story over a certain amount of words, or that takes close to or more than 10 minutes to read, you let the reader know? Even though I enjoyed the story, I felt if I had known how long it was I would have picked a different environment to read it.
Good read- thank you!

Comment by Eileen Schroeder

April 27, 2022 @ 6:24 am

the story is about getting to know you…thank you for sharing

Comment by Stephen Veenker

April 27, 2022 @ 3:39 pm

Bob,
I have considered you a friend since 1973, and read your posts, but this in something quite different, and moving. You ARE a writer, something we’ve always known. I missed this story when it was new, but I will share it widely today. I already sent it to a friend whose birthday is today; yours is upon us, and mine is Sunday. Happy birthday!
=veenk

Comment by G

April 27, 2022 @ 3:51 pm

I have reason to believe

your experience us the

“tip of the iceberg”

and appreciate your

publishing your story.

Public cameras, whether

police body cams or

cameras on street lights

might provide evidence

to motivate legislation

that alters police behavior.

There does not even yet

an anonymous report

line such as yhe FAA

has for aviation incidents.

And of course, the question

of federal legislation

restricting police violence

is as yet not even contemplated

to the best of my knowledge.

Comment by Karen

April 28, 2022 @ 4:27 am

Great story. Obviously the cops were wrong. I feel sorry for police today, they have less power now. No way would they have gotten away with what they did to you. They did a lot more in 1968 and got away with a lot more. ( not that it was right) Today they have to be afraid to even make traffic stops. I don’t know why anyone would want their job.

Comment by Dan Rosenheim

April 30, 2022 @ 8:13 pm

Quite a story, moving and well told.

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