APPLES SELL FOR A NICKEL EACH ON A LOOP STREET IN 1933 DURING THE GREAT DEPRESSION. CHICAGO DAILY NEWS ARCHIVE PHOTO.
Updated: February 7, 2013 6:01AM
During my 16th and my 17th year, I lived with my parents and siblings in Woodlawn on the South Side of Chicago. Earlier that decade, in an era James T. Farrell wrote about in Studs Lonigan, the Irish had lived there, but they had moved on. A polyglot collection of immigrants — Jews from Russia and Poland alongside Greeks and Italians from Southern Europe — had taken their place.
A few blocks from our apartment, at Marquette Road and Dorchester Avenue, was an enclave of four stores adjoining a train station of the Illinois Central Railroad line that ran from the south suburbs into downtown Chicago.
There was a drugstore owned by Nathan and Irving Harris, brothers who were both pharmacists. Next door was a liquor store owned by Lud Svenson. There was a resale clothing shop owned by a henna-haired lady named Ruby Waters, who lived in the back of the store. The final store was a dry cleaning shop owned by Max Fisher. During the course of two years, I worked in three of the four stores.
My employment tenure began in the drug store where I mixed milk shakes and ice cream sodas at the fountain. I also delivered prescriptions. Since neither Irving nor Nathan stood any more than 5 feet in height, at the prescription counter, they had to stand on stools.
Nathan had a son named Lenny that he referred to as a “moron.” Irving had a wife named Pearl, who he called a “witch.”
Despite this lack of marital harmony in their own lives, both men freely offered me advice on life and love.
“Woman are all the same,” Irving told me somberly, “So marry one who is rich.”
“If you do marry, my advice is don’t have children,” Nathan said, “Get a servant instead. They’ll do more for you, and won’t cost as much.”
One story made a lasting impression.
“In the Depression when that useless schlemiel Hoover was president,” Nathan told me, “I borrowed on my insurance policy and went on a vacation to the Catskills.”
“In the middle of the Depression?” I asked.
“That was the beauty of it!” Nathan said jubilantly, “Everyone was moaning how bad things were and Nathan Harris has the chutzpah to take a vacation! When I got back to work, believe me, my confidence was boiling, and times grew better.”
In the spring of 1939, I left the drugstore to work for Lud in the liquor store. He was an amiable boss who had never married, and so had no marital confidences to impart.
Lud’s principal business was package liquor for patrons who were mostly steelworkers from the South Side mills (I would work in those mills later on), laborers from factories in South Chicago and more neatly dressed clerical workers who rode the Illinois Central to and from downtown Chicago.
The faces of the customers who entered and left the liquor store blur in recollection, except for one I called ‘No-Name,” because I never heard his name spoken.
He was of medium height, stocky build, always dressed in black work trousers, a leather jacket with metal zippers, and a black leather cap. He carried a lunch pail and his purchase each night was a pint of cheap red wine.
He was brusque and contemptuous of me, snarled his words and sometimes cursed me for moving too slowly. But it was his face I remember most vividly after all these years — his eyes under dark thick brows were the coldest I have ever seen on a human being. His features combined to fashion so malevolent a countenance that it brought to mind the monstrous head of the legendary Gorgon or the terrifying mono-eyed visage of the giant Polyphemus.
In the way No-Name watched me, in the few snarling words he spoke, I felt a pervasive aura of menace. He seemed to understand and relish my fear. When the two of us were alone in the store, I felt a tightness in my throat and a trembling in my gut. And every evening I worked, each time the door opened, I prayed I wouldn’t see No-Name.
Once as I handed him his change, he grasped my arm in his big hand. His fingers were large and misshapen, the nails discolored. He squeezed my wrist and a shattering pain shot from my fingers to my shoulder. I understood in that moment how strong he was and how easily he could strangle me.
Aside from the single time when No-Name clasped my wrist, he never touched me. Still he embodied some force of evil and I feared him, as I have never feared anyone in my life ever since.
My work for Max Fisher in the dry cleaners commenced after his frequent lectures that clerking would get me nowhere. He suggested the professions of medicine and the law. Meanwhile, since he needed a presser, he would teach me that craft.
From the beginning, I proved a poor apprentice. The great pressing machine with the heavy hinged lid descending on a garment required a deft touch, which I lacked. That was distressing enough when applied to clothes that had first been cleaned. But if a soiled garment were pressed without being cleaned first, too heavy a burst of steam would incite a swamp of odors.
“How does a nice Greek boy get so heavy a foot?” Max lectured me sternly, “Did you hear me say touch the pedal lightly! Lightly! Go home and have your mama give you some castor oil and barley water!”
But nothing seemed to improve my heavy foot. Once after I’d blasted a particularly soiled pair of trousers with steam, I found myself engulfed in a vaporous poison of odors that almost caused me to pass out. I tore the trousers off the presser and threw them on the floor.
“To hell with this job!” I cried. “I quit!”
Max, accustomed to outbursts of temper from both employees, as well as disgruntled patrons, patiently picked up the trousers.
“I wish I worked for someone else,” he said plaintively, “So I could quit, too.”
Many years later after we’d moved out of the neighborhood, after I’d left the city for residence in the dunes of Northwest Indiana, on a drive into downtown Chicago, I gave in to an impulse to revisit that row of stores. I got off the Skyway at Stony Island and at Marquette Road turned west. I was curious what businesses might have taken the place of the owners I knew.
Passing under the familiar viaduct that held the IC station, in place of that enclave of stores I remembered so well, there was only a stretch of vacant lots. That world I had briefly known, Nathan and Irving with their marital laments, the genial Lud, the menacing No-Name and the bedeviled Max had all disappeared into a landscape as barren as the terrain under the vanished cities of the Old Testament.
All that remained were patches of crab grass, clusters of weeds and, here and there, the scraps and lumps of trash.
This is the latest in an occasional series of Chicago-based memoirs by the novelist and short-story writer Harry Mark Petrakis. More on his work can be found at harrymarkpetra