Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

A Terrifying, Mystifying Consequence of Fame

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bob at 6:22 pm on Friday, July 15, 2022

by Robert M. Katzman © July 15, 2022 

In December 1977 in a then-shabby, mostly Eastern-European working-class area of Chicago – at the intersections of Damen, North Avenue and Milwaukee (now part of the too-expensive-for-anyone-to-live-in Wicker Park area) — an incident occurred which would be better placed in an episode of the Twilight Zone than anything I could have anticipated. 

This is real unwritten Chicago history, covered with dust and long forgotten. Long forgotten because I never told anyone about it. Until now. Very young then; I’m 72 now, so I better type faster. I ask you to think of this story as a painting made out of words, so that anyone can see what I saw on that bleakest of days.

Earlier, in that June of 1977, there was a Chicago Reader cover story with me in a (then) new movie, “Rocky”-type pose with my two fists raised defiantly in the air, standing in front my big white truck labeled Gulliver’s Periodicals. The Chicago Reader was a successful and free alternative liberal press newspaper with a circulation of perhaps 30,000; fat with ads and mainly distributed in many areas around Chicago’s lakefront, universities, vintage movie theaters, restaurants and in Kinkos Copy centers. 

It often featured stories about the oppression of “little guys” against “the system” – or about rebels rising up angrily, in a Spartacus-against-Roman-Legions sort of way – leaving out the part where Spartacus was crucified at the end of the movie.

The Chicago Reader had decided, after first learning about it, that my (then unique in America) rebellion against the country’s oldest, largest periodical distributer – who had a monopoly covering the large metropolitan area, just like all the other distribution companies in the country – was a very good story, because I wanted to have my own distribution company after running Bob’s Newsstand in Hyde Park for ten years. I had many periodicals among the 3,000 which only my store carried at the time and I thought there might be a market for them in certain parts of Chicago. I didn’t want to distribute mass-market magazines like TV Guide or Cosmopolitan. I was seeking an unserved niche.

When the existing distribution company learned about my plans – even though we weren’t in any way competitors, – soon it was as if a ton of bricks fell on me. I was suddenly the upstart enemy and there was no room in Chicago for two distribution companies. A series of incidents occurred to stop my little company after that, which angered me because of the insanity of anyone even noticing my tiny company at all; so I found another company in Hammond, Indiana to supply me with TV Guide, Cosmopolitan and every other mass-market periodical I could fit into my truck. 

If the other company wanted competition, I was going to give it to them.

As a business decision, waging my one truck against my Rome-like opponent’s unlimited resources – I was out of my mind. 

But as a guy who escaped a living hell as a child for nine years before fleeing my South-Side home to run away to Hyde Park when I was fourteen; never again would I take abuse lying down. Money had nothing to do with it, by June 1977.

The Reader cover story with its large mimicking photo of the very successful first Rocky movie about never stopping believing in yourself no matter what the odds, created a lot of publicity for a while and led to a Chicago public-television station, Channel 11, to come to my Hyde Park newsstand and film me in a segment several minutes long … asking me, how could I expect to possibly compete with the long-established giant? And, what made me tick, in effect. 

When I responded somewhat emotionally on-camera to the young woman reporter that I had as much right as anyone else to live my life the way I chose to… that I was twenty-seven, unwilling to be harassed, and hell-bent on no one telling me what I could or couldn’t do with my life.

That response was pretty dramatic, unexpected by the reporter which then caused another wave of publicity from the several thousand people who watched public television, all of whom seemed to me to live in Hyde Park. 

An incredible amount of people came out to support me, including a small law firm who specialized in defending “Davids” like me, taking their chances on hopefully winning against “Goliaths”; because I paid them nothing.

They protected me for years against my opponent; until the end – on St. Patrick’s Day, 1980 – when a successful resolution was reached between my giant opponent and Gulliver’s Periodicals, and “The Magazine War”, as the local Press characterized our intense competition in Chicago, was over.

My lawyer, a gentle man who fiercely defended me in court, a saint and long-loved by me, is gone now. 

But this small story is about a certain moment when there weren’t any bright lights, sympathetic TV channel and alternative press and what happened months later when all the shouting was over, and I was back to invisibly working my 16-hour days alone in my long white truck, distributing magazines in every sort of weather.

In 1976, I had designed and built a special aluminum hand-truck, so I could carry twice as many bundles of periodicals as my better-staffed competition on each trip back and forth from my truck – to help compensate for my 150-pound weight, as well as my not having any assistant working with me. This allowed me to hit far more deliveries in a day than I would have been able to otherwise. I had sixty accounts stretching from Hyde Park to the far north part of Chicago..

That hand-truck was about six feet high (taller than me) and had an extended fold-down shelf which was twice as long as the usual hand truck. It also had extra-large wheels to help me get over high curbs. 

I was pretty strong for my size, but no way I could lift 400 pounds on each trip without my special hand-truck. It also had long flat runners on the lower back of it to let me slide it more easily over those same higher curbs.

On this freezing December day in 1977, there was sleet falling from the grey skies, the streets were full of dirty slush and it was very difficult for me to navigate my large hand-truck under those conditions, even on the smaller deliveries. At this one stop in Wicker Park, the man was an excellent long-time customer and he expected good service; on time, and all the magazines to be in perfect condition.

I had made it across the slick streets with my full 400-pound load. My large wheels kept the bottom magazine bundle from being soaked by the slush. But when I bent the hand-truck over the curb, I realized that the curb was a full foot high – impossible for me to lift the loaded hand-truck over it. And if I lowered the hand-truck back down, the bundles had already shifted and might fall off of the hand-truck. I was precariously perched halfway up the curb and unable to escape my predicament, as the sleet ran down my face, back and chilled my hands.

Then, in the near distance I saw someone walking toward me. It was a hulking man somewhere over six foot four or five, wearing blue-jean coveralls with one strap hanging down, his shaggy blonde hair hanging over his face. He was as wide as he was tall; terrifying to perceive – or in my damned situation – escape. He looked like a coatless Neanderthal, shambling through the slush on the sidewalk with a kind of limp; like a damaged Frankenstein. I was trapped in a concrete nowhere-land with no one else in sight on the street.

When the giant man reached me, I braced for whatever such a creature might choose to do to me, when he reached out with one massive hand and pulled my hand-truck up safely over the curb like it was a Twinkie. I stared at him, speechless and stunned.

Then he placed his other hand on my shoulder and, in a thickly-accented Appalachian Mountain kind of voice, looked right into my eyes and said, 

“I saw ya on da TV about yur fight with them bad guys, and I jus’ want ta wish ya good luck.”

Then he dropped his hand off my shoulder and went on his way; Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy, heavily disguised. I was stunned. I am still stunned, forty-five years later.

In my helpless state, where I automatically assumed by the looks of the man that he was one more curse on me – it never occurred to me that he already knew who I was; maybe because of my white truck – and realized I was in a bad circumstance right there in the sleet storm, and he chose to help me. 

I finished the delivery and returned to my truck, sitting there for quite a while in the worsening sleet storm trying to digest why I would assume the man was a danger to me, and not a Good Samaritan. I was upset with myself for prejudging the man, who may have long-encountered such responses from strangers only because of his appearance.  

The Gentle Giant may be long dead, but he is forever frozen in amber in my heart for rescuing me at the worst of times; and teaching me to have a kinder, more generous frame of mind.

One more thing: He was the ONLY fucking person on the street that day.

I decided to accept the unexpected and cosmic realization that it was very possible that I was being looked after by more than only visible people.

I was very moved by the experience, and the thought that perhaps I never really was alone.

Yeah, I believe.

Oh, and I still have that ancient banged up and scarred handmade hand-truck in my garage; moved from place to place with me over the decades. Like my earlier comparison about Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy, in this story I am Geppetto, originally the creator, then eventually the “Father” of the initially lifeless object. When I see my old friend still standing upright in the dark, I smile and imagine it is smiling back, remembering with me the very hard times we shared from 1976 to 1980, when both of us were so young. It has become my private veteran Icon reminding me not to prejudge people, and I cherish it.

5 Comments »

Comment by Maureen Stewart

July 16, 2022 @ 10:05 am

I believe God is always with you! Loved the story, the lesson and your FB page. Former southsider St. Anne’s at 55th Garfield
Mercy HS at 81st Prairie

Comment by Brad Dechter

July 16, 2022 @ 10:10 am

Nice story with a good lesson to learn. It was short and sweet. The story provided great imagery- I was there with you.
Thanks for sharing!

Comment by Sam Orlando

July 16, 2022 @ 10:16 am

Thanks for the read. My family came from Poland in the early 60’s to Ukrainian Village and they would often go to various places in and around Wicker Park and Bucktown. I grew up in the suburbs, but me and my siblings all found our way back to the city. I currently live in Wicker Park. I always enjoy hearing stories about places from people’s past.

Comment by Jackie Katzman

July 16, 2022 @ 11:15 am

Inspiring story! Wow! You are such a fabulous writer, dear cousin.

Comment by David Griesemer

July 17, 2022 @ 9:52 pm

First of all, I’d love to see that Channel 11 news story, which elicited such response.
Note that Bob initially thinks all PBS watchers live in Hyde Park (the upper-middle class south-side). That will come into play.
If you’re a Katzman fan, you’ve seen a spiritual development.
At one point, he consciously embraced his Jewish identity, but largely for cultural reasons.
As he aged, a string of experiences (involving his sister, father and second wife – all deceased) wrought a metamorphosis. The formerly hard-nosed businessman now has an inkling of the unseen. That he is being protected.
After a lifetime of defying abusers, angrily defending his rights, Bob has come out the other side and found humility.
What an ending it would be, if that gentle giant were still alive, if he read this story and recognized himself. Clearly the Wicker Park Neanderthal watched PBS. After a lifetime of being prejudged, how would he like being called kind and generous. A teacher.
The fact that Bob was upset with himself marks another stage of spiritual development. A desire to not do what had been done to him.
This piece depicts the start of a man’s transition from warrior to explorer. Here’s to new worlds.

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