At a demolition site on the southwest side, an end loader pulls up to a diminutive old man wielding a hammer. The man, who has a lazy eye and a mouth full of false teeth, looks up with dismay as a new load of bricks tumbles out of an enormous set of jaws and lands on the small mountain already amassed in front of him. He hates it when the wreckers pile up the bricks this way. It makes his job, stacking the bricks, more difficult than it already is.
His name is Aubrey Taylor, but the other brick stackers call him Preacher Taylor, or simply Preacher, because he preaches on Sundays, backed by an electric guitar, drum kit, and organ, at New Omega Baptist, a small storefront church at 71st and Ashland. He’s the associate pastor there, though he never went to a Baptist seminary, or any other school for that matter, and cannot read the Bible he clutches while delivering his charismatic sermons.
Preaching doesn’t put money in his pockets, though, so whenever there’s work, he’s on a demolition site somewhere, easy to spot in a tattered tweed blazer and a fedora with the stub of a red feather peeking out of its band. He smokes cigars as he works, pulling them from a neat row in his breast pocket.
By most accounts, Preacher is the oldest brick stacker, though nobody, not even him, seems to know his exact age. When I first meet him he tells me he is 76, but he later contradicts himself, saying he’s been handling bricks for 50 years, since he was 34. According to another stacker, Preacher’s claimed to be 77 for at least three years. A wrecker says, “He’s as old as Moses. He was old when I was a kid.” However old he is, he has big plans for the future. He doesn’t want to stack bricks for the rest of his life.
Stacking is strenuous work, and the pay is not good. Each Chicago common, the most common local brick, weighs about four pounds. For putting up one skid of commons, 530 bricks, stackers make $10, sometimes $12 if they travel to a site beyond the city limits. In a good week, working six days, the best stackers can earn between $200 and $300. Preacher is not one of the best stackers. Someday soon, he tells me, with the Lord’s help, he’s going to stop stacking. Someday soon, he’s going to own his own wrecking company.
Like Preacher, many brick stackers say they hope to find other work before it’s too late, before their bodies give out and they find themselves unable to meet the physical demands of the job and struggling to get by without a pension. “Ain’t no future in these bricks,” a stacker in his 50s tells me one day. I hear this time and time again on the brick fields. It’s the stackers’ refrain.
They are part of the landscape at demolition sites, black men, often in baseball caps and chalky jeans, digging through the rubble in search of bricks. Bent at the waist, a brick in one hand and a hammer in the other, they pound off the mortar and then stack the bricks on square wooden skids, or pallets. Occasionally, while doing this, they’ll lift their heads and holler something at the guy working next to them–something like “Hey, you son of a bitch” or “I heard your old lady said you got to slide the money under the door tonight before she lets you in.” Or in Preacher’s case, “How much money they raise for you at church?” Signifying briefly suspends the tedium of the work. There are other ways to do this too–getting drunk or high, taking cigarette breaks, or challenging another stacker to see who can finish a skid first.
Five local companies sell and ship salvaged Chicago commons all over the country for use in new restaurants and luxury homes. They consider the stackers independent contractors, so they don’t provide them with health benefits, retirement plans, holiday bonuses, or vacation time. “It’s the closest thing to slave labor I’ve ever seen,” an observer remarked last summer, as the stackers scavenged the remains of a CTA bus barn near his Lakeview home.
Stackers generally scoff at the comparison. Though they grumble about wanting more money per skid–$15 seems to be the consensus–what they like about the job is its freedom. “We are our own bosses. We don’t like it, fuck it,” explains a 41-year-old stacker named Marvin, who prefers, like most stackers, that his last name not be used.
Stackers can come and go each day as they please. They can stack one skid and call it a day or stay until the last brick is gone. Ronald, 32, puts it this way: “When you’re working for someone else and you say you’re tired, they say you’re fired.” Stackers take breaks whenever they want for however long they want without consequence. Since how much they make depends in part on how hard they work, they have some control over their own wages.
But hard work is only one of the variables that dictate earnings. Sometimes there are jobs and sometimes there aren’t. Some bricks are harder than others to dig up or clean. A stacker can earn $200 one week and only $70 the next for reasons that have nothing to do with motivation or capability.
Motivation can suddenly vanish in the middle of a productive day because of disruptions beyond a stacker’s control. “I can stack seven, eight skids like bop bop bop,” one stacker tells me. “But if you stop me for an hour or two and I sit down, I’m done. Even if I haven’t stacked anything but one skid. Once I stop, I’m done. A lot of people are like that, and it happens like that a lot–they knock down so many bricks and you stack them, then you have to wait for them to knock down some more. If it takes a while it really throws the rhythm off.”
Stackers are migrant workers, traveling from site to site. Some jobs last a couple days, some a couple months. They learn of work by word of mouth–from the brick companies, from other stackers, and from the checkers, also called banders, who, in addition to stacking, secure the skids at each site with steel banding and dole out pay at the end of the day.
Stackers who find themselves out of the loop have been known to follow wrecking trucks to demolition sites or to drive around the city scanning the skyline, hoping a crane will tip them off. Anyone who happens upon a site this way can join a stacking crew as long as he has permission from the others.
No one knows how many people stack bricks in Chicago. Most estimates hover around 200. The workforce is composed predominantly of black men, though some black women and a few Latinos stack too. Preacher, in all his years on the brick fields, says, “I ain’t never seen any white stackers.” White people at demolition sites are usually tearing down the buildings, cutting off the gas and water lines, assessing the quality of the bricks, or unrolling blueprints.
The brick fields attract people for different reasons. There are young guys, sometimes teenagers, needing a few bucks to spend on girls or gas, ex-cons who have trouble finding work, people supplementing public assistance checks, senior citizens supplementing social security incomes or looking for an excuse to get outside, hard workers supporting families, drunks and drug addicts supporting habits.
“It beats panhandling,” says Ronald, who finds honor in the work. “To me, it’s a community service.” He figures he’s helping to eliminate a potential danger zone, since “I have a friend whose brother used to prey on women in abandoned buildings.”
Some stackers say that bricks also help keep them honest. “When you work like this, ain’t no need to do a stickup,” Marvin says, waving his hammer at 20 or so men working nearby. “This here alleviates a lot of crime.”
Hammering bricks, I’m told, also alleviates anger, keeps stackers fit, and provides them with a sense of community. “Everyone considers everyone to be family,” says one stacker. But as in any family, tensions exist, disputes erupt, and people draw uncomfortable comparisons. “The older guys look at us like we ain’t got no business being out here,” says one young stacker. “And we look at them like we don’t want to be busting bricks when we’re their age.”
Preacher doesn’t object to young guys busting bricks, but he wishes they wouldn’t use “vile words” or drugs while doing it. He’ll try to dissuade stackers from getting high, but usually, he says, “They don’t want to hear it, so I leave them alone.”
When people talk about Preacher in his absence, they tend to mention two things: that he’s been around forever and that he likes to help people. “If you need prayer or counseling or if you’re sick,” he says on his answering machine, “you can call anytime, day or night, and I’ll come to your rescue.”
His desire to help seems to come more from a religious sense of duty–he was “chosen by God”–than from a nurturing paternal instinct.
His nurturing instincts, according to his 40-year-old daughter, Cecelia Adams, were never that good. He has 14 children with four women; his youngest is only five–younger than his 35 great-grandchildren.
Preacher worked hard to raise the nine he lived with and to send some of the others an occasional piece of clothing or a toy. He usually rose before dawn and returned late in the evening too exhausted to play. He was stern, Cecelia says, and emotionally distant.
Preacher rarely talked to his children about his upbringing, unless he wanted to make a point about how good they had it. Then he would give a slim, rote account of how he “came up rough,” back when black children like himself spent their days laboring alongside their fathers, planting corn or cotton or some other seed, instead of attending school.
Cecelia knows him best, which isn’t well. The firstborn of his second marriage, she lived with him longer than any of her siblings, until she was 18, when her parents split, and then again for two and a half years in the early 90s, after she and her husband rescued him from “living like a homeless person” in a junkyard trailer without heat or electricity.
It was during those years, when Cecelia helped Preacher apply for SSI, that they learned there was no official record he’d been born. All Preacher knew was that a midwife had delivered him on a farm in Eads, Tennessee, long ago, back when not knowing the year of one’s birth wasn’t so unusual among uneducated rural blacks.
Eventually, through a rare investigative process–in which people from the applicant’s hometown sign affidavits swearing to historical milestones, like that the applicant was born around the same time so-and-so was baptized–government employees pieced together an approximate chronology of Preacher’s early years and gave him the official birth year of 1923. Preacher, though, tells me he was already working on the farm with his father by then.
In 1959 Preacher came to Chicago thinking he’d secured a job as a mechanic over the phone. When he showed up “the wrong color,” he says, the job offer was rescinded, and he found “farm-out” work for demolition contractors, who would call him in to pick apart buildings with handheld tools like an ax and wrecking bar when space was too tight for their machines.
Back in the mid-60s, when the used-brick industry was still in its infancy, wreckers gave away the bricks at their sites. Men like Preacher would stack them loose on the ground, load them onto their trucks eight at a time with brick tongs, and haul them off to the railroads. There they would sell the bricks to the few entrepreneurs with used-brick companies, then load them onto freight cars that were set aside for the public on what were known as “team tracks.”
Preacher says that he sometimes sold bricks directly to contacts in Tennessee. He organized stacking crews of his own, at times enlisting his sons. In the late 60s, he says, “the white man found out money could be made in it.” The wreckers started selling the bricks. And a tire salesman named Phil Mumford came along and revolutionized everything.
In April 1968, in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., rioters torched 162 buildings on the west side. When the smoke cleared and the demolition crews set to work, Mumford saw an opportunity. He knew little about bricks but had seen men stacking along a stretch of land where houses had been razed to make way for the Dan Ryan Expressway. He’d heard that a market for Chicago commons existed in the south, so he went to the library, found listings in the Yellow Pages for brick dealers in Texas, and made some contacts. Then he called some of his customers in the wrecking business and bought himself some bricks. He and a partner ventured out to a site on Madison Street and struggled all day to stack the equivalent of one skid. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” recalls Mumford, now a white-haired 62-year-old. “A couple black guys came by and said, ‘Hey, man, this isn’t going to work.'”
Aware that he was treading foreign waters–and thankful for the excuse to stop stacking–Mumford hired one of the men to coordinate brick handlers on his behalf. With urban renewal projects all over town and a glut of bricks from the riots, there was plenty of work. Mumford paid the stackers and haulers at a rate of $8 per thousand bricks, then turned around and sold them for $30 per thousand, a little less than the price of new commons. He bought out his partner within a couple weeks and became the sole owner of Colonial Brick Company.
Mumford diversified his inventory with used bricks from other regions, and in the mid-70s he borrowed an idea from a company in Saint Louis that ensured his success. He had the bricks stacked on skids, wrapped in cardboard, and secured with steel banding. He bought boom trucks to lift the 2,300-pound packages off the demolition sites, transport them to team tracks, and transfer them–already stacked–onto freight cars. Packaged skids made unloading the bricks less labor-intensive on the receiving end and customers soon began demanding them. Packaging weeded out Mumford’s competition, as men with smaller operations couldn’t afford to buy boom trucks. Other competition arose over the years, but by the end of the 70s Colonial was the biggest game in town. It still is.
Today the company operates out of a simple brick hut off Halsted Street in south Pilsen. Rail tracks cut through its yard and lead to a freight car shed from which the company ships out about 38,000 bricks a day. Team tracks have all but disappeared, and the company owns 20 boxcars of its own. Mumford, who also has an industrial real estate company, splits his time between Tucson and Chicago. He has ceded managerial control of Colonial to 31-year-old Kevin Gurican, who, unlike the stackers, sees a future in the bricks. Chicago commons, Gurican says, are “probably the hottest brick in the country right now.”
Chicago commons are a finite resource. The last plant to manufacture them shut down in 1981. Nobody knows how many common-brick buildings remain in Chicago, but the used-brick companies in town, which sell tens of millions of commons each year, seem confident that the supply won’t run out anytime soon. You see them everywhere. The city was built, or rebuilt, with this brick after the great fire of 1871 revealed the perils of building with wood.
The fire precipitated a boom in the local brick industry. Of the 1,500 building permits the city issued the following year, nearly 1,000 were for brick buildings. To keep up with the demand, nine new brick-manufacturing plants opened in 1872, almost doubling their number, and two years later, after another devastating fire, city officials created the Department of Buildings and enacted fireproofing codes that required the use of masonry in new construction. Eventually, 12-inch interior fire walls between living units became a standard measure to prevent conflagrations. The 1880 census counted 53 brick-manufacturing plants scattered throughout Cook County–more than ten times the number that had existed a decade earlier.
The bricks these plants produced looked different from bricks produced elsewhere, a result of the geological composition of the indigenous clay and the way in which it was fired. The clay that borders Lake Michigan from Milwaukee to Gary, stretching west to where I-294 is today and south to Kankakee, is derived from drift deposited by the last northern Illinois glacier. Grayish blue in color, this ancient clay contains carbonates like limestone not typically found in clays used for brick making.
The Chicago plants operated scove kilns–open-roof structures in which bricks were hand stacked and fired for up to 60 hours at temperatures between 1,500 and 1,800 degrees. When subjected to such intense heat, the blue clay turned shades of salmon or buff rather than the reds, creams, and browns seen in other regions. Each brick turned out mottled and textured. The limestone particles popped the ware. Variegations depended in part on each brick’s proximity to the source of the heat. Bricks in the hottest zones tended to burn black and were badly deformed. Some bore shadows of the bricks stacked on top. Underfired bricks tended to be lighter.
Before irregularities became coveted architectural effects, common bricks were a cheap and abundant resource–a prosaic building material for places generally obscured from street traffic: side and back walls, for example, chimney flues, and structural support behind facades. People sank their money into the more decorative “face brick,” which tended to have a cookie-cutter uniformity and was shipped in from other areas.
The Depression essentially halted new construction, and the Chicago brick industry never fully recovered. The number of brick-manufacturing plants dwindled rapidly, and eventually the city paved over the clay pits and developed on top of them. By the end of the 30s, only 20 plants remained.
New building materials and brick-making technology further contributed to the local industry’s demise. Concrete block–faster and cheaper to lay than brick–became prevalent during the postwar building boom. Whereas it took three Chicago commons to make a 12-inch fire wall, one concrete block now did the trick. Modern plants began producing bricks in automated tunnel kilns with evenly controlled temperatures. They made the bricks smaller and lighter, with holes in the center, in part to cut the cost of shipping. In 1967, the three remaining brick companies in Chicago consolidated under the name American Brick Company. The company operated only two plants, one in Munster, Indiana, the other at 138th and Cottage Grove.
On burning days, thick steam clouds billowed from the plants, polluting the atmosphere with particulates, sulfur dioxide, fluoride, and sulfuric acid. After Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970, the newly established Environmental Protection Agency ordered the American Brick Company to bring the old-fashioned kilns into compliance with the new regulations. The company agreed to take measures to control the pollution but backed down, according to Bob Carey, who was the company’s president, after learning that the only known “control” would cost upward of five million dollars to install without any guarantee that it would work. After a protracted court battle, a judge threatened to fine the company thousands of dollars each day it operated without the control, and in 1981 the manufacturing of Chicago commons came to an end.
The market for salvaged commons was already thriving, but according to Jim Chronis of the Department of Buildings, the demand then “went through the roof.” A cottage industry arose. Brick peddlers trolled the city at night, razing abandoned buildings themselves. They pounded down walls with sledgehammers. They fastened chains between their truck bumpers and wrecking bars wedged into windows and hit the gas, yanking down bricks. A few people died when walls collapsed on them, but that didn’t deter the steady flow of peddlers, who hauled their loot to used-brick companies, stacked them in the companies’ yards, and sold them for five times what they made at demolition sites.
In 1983 the Sun-Times reported that in one month peddlers stole bricks from 57 Chicago buildings, weakening some structures to such an extent that the city had to order emergency demolitions. “Those brick stealers cost the city $30,000,” the city’s demolition director was quoted as saying.
Mostly, peddlers plundered abandoned buildings, but sometimes they went after whatever seemed an easy target. In 1987, Mike Royko wrote a column about a landlord who stopped by his property and found his garage missing. A tenant said that two men had dismantled it, claiming they had orders to do so, and had just driven off with the bricks.
Chicago commons, Royko wrote, “are considered superior to the modern brick. Sort of like the old and the modern tomato.”
Today plants all over the country make knockoffs, but critics say that in modern temperature-controlled kilns, it’s impossible to replicate the colors, textures, and markings found on the originals. “I chuckle every time I see them,” says Colonial’s Gurican.
The largest brick manufacturer in the nation, Boral Bricks, makes two versions of Chicago commons at a plant in Bessemer, Alabama: Old Chicago and Chicago Antique, which is the company’s third-best seller. Boral uses a beige-burning clay, coating it with three slurries to add color. To alter the surface texture the bricks undergo the equivalent of stonewashing. They turn out salmon with hints of black and beige and, depending on the model, have indentations or embossments. “We try to make them look kind of beat-up,” says the plant manager, Robert Maner. The results hardly fool people who know bricks. “They’re mass-produced,” admits Maner. “You can’t help but get patterns that occur.”
“When a new brick gets chipped up it doesn’t look good,” says Gurican. “Common brick looks good because the chips are weathered. That adds a lot of character to the brick.”
Boral seems to acknowledge that there’s a difference; the company also offers its customers the real thing, which it buys from Colonial. Salvaged bricks have always looked different from new bricks–even when the new bricks were made from the same kind of clay in the same kind of kiln in the same plant. Salvaged bricks have been exposed to years–sometimes a hundred years–of elements and pollution and have been chipped up in the wrecking and handling. According to Bob Carey, new commons never really competed with used ones. In 1981, just before American Brick Company shut down, he was selling new commons for $38 per thousand; Mumford was selling salvaged commons for $130 per thousand.
Aesthetics, and aesthetics alone, have always been the attraction of used bricks. They offer the consumer no economic or structural advantage. The Brick Industry Association advises against building with salvaged bricks, claiming that they are less durable than new ones and that if the stackers don’t thoroughly clean off the old mortar the new mortar won’t bond well, which could make walls susceptible to water damage and cause other structural problems.
Buyers aren’t heeding the warnings. “We’re probably the busiest we’ve been since 1985,” says Gurican, “probably because the economy is good, everyone’s building, interest rates are so low.”
The biggest markets for brick, both new and used, are in the south, particularly in Louisiana, Texas, and Florida. Temperate climates go easy on brick, and used commons weakened by demolition are more likely to crack from freeze-thaw cycles. Also, according to Mumford, building with brick is a southern tradition. “You couldn’t in most parts of the south sell a wood house,” he says. “The plantation owner had a big beautiful brick house on a hill and the sharecroppers had those little wooden houses. So wooden houses are thought of as being poor people’s houses.”
One day while I am talking to Mumford, a disheveled, jut-jawed man walks into Colonial looking as if he’d just rolled on a bed of flour. Mumford leaps out of his seat to greet him, saying, “My man,” and introducing him as Melvin, a peddler.
Peddling, also called “scrapping bricks” and “hustling,” is a more lucrative venture than stacking. Sometimes peddlers get permission from wreckers to go from site to site collecting stackers’ paltry leftovers, but often they raid the sites at night before the stackers clean up the job. When a peddler pulls up with a truckload of bricks, the used-brick companies effectively operate under a don’t ask, don’t tell policy. As far as the brick bosses are concerned, the bricks belong to that peddler, though in reality they’re either buying back their own stolen property or that of a competitor.
It’s 8:30 in the morning, and Melvin, who’s 31, has been up handling bricks with a 73-year-old friend since one o’clock. Together they put up five skids.
Melvin stacks at demolition sites during the days and has been doing so for six years. When I ask what he did before that, he says, “I went back and forth in the penitentiary all my life.” He was only nine, he tells me, when his father kicked him out of the house and he began running packages for neighborhood drug dealers. “I had to make my living somehow.”
The living he made off drugs eventually compromised his ability to make a more conventional living. “They see on an application you been convicted, they throw that out to the side. You’ll never get called.”
One day he was pushing around a shopping cart “picking up junk” to hawk, when he came across some stackers. “I said, ‘Can you all show me how to stack those bricks?’ They said, ‘Yeah, we don’t mind showing you. Come back tomorrow.’ So I came back the next day and they showed me how to stack. The first day I stacked two skids. That was a thousand brick. They said I did good. I didn’t give up. I kept at it, and I got good and good and good. It take an hour normally. A lot of people look at it and say it’s too much work for $10. But you take a job paying you $10 an hour–why not stack these bricks for $10 a skid?”
Mumford writes out a check for $250 from Colonial’s peddler account and hands it to Melvin, who will share the earnings with the old man outside. Melvin says he’s going to stop home for a quick bite to eat and then spend the rest of the day stacking. “I’ll work 24 hours,” he says. “I love work. I’ll work seven days a week, on holidays–I even worked last Christmas.”
He says he makes a good living too, so good that recently he pitched in to buy a house to share with his aunt and uncle and their 11 children. It’s wood.
Half a two-flat is down on a residential street in Lincoln Park. The front staircase remains intact, reaching eerily up to nowhere, precipitously hanging over mangled heaps of concrete, drywall, scrap metal, and wood, which can be seen through the first-floor windows or from the open back.
It’s a small site, too small to safely operate wrecking machines around the stackers, so the wreckers have pushed the bricks against the south wall and taken the day off. Three stackers work side by side in various stages of putting up a skid: a 52-year-old Vietnam vet who says he got his nickname, Patch, “sewing up wounds on the battlefield”; a 31-year-old woman, Mia, whose gold tooth is inscribed with an M; and a 60-year-old man, Clarence, who’s limping because he dropped a brick on his toe.
Stacking is a four-part process–digging, cleaning, sorting, and building. The stacker’s first task is to rake through the rubble and unearth bricks with a hammer. A flat claw, I’m told, works better than a curved one for making the necessary sweeping strokes, and a long handle works better than a short one for distancing the stacker’s hands and arms from the broken glass, wires, nails, and other sharp detritus. Stackers then pull out their finds, flip over their hammers, and knock away at the mortar. Shards jump off in all directions, and a film of mortar dust settles on their skin and clothes. When the bricks look relatively mortar free–what they call “clean”–stackers toss them into a pile. If more than a quarter of a brick is chipped off or if a brick breaks apart with the crack of a hammer, it is called a “bat.” Bats cannot be reused, so stackers toss them into a reject pile without bothering to clean them. When they have about 500 bricks set aside, they chink away any remaining mortar and stack them on a skid. Experienced stackers can usually assess the number of bricks in their pile with little more than a glance. “That’s $20,” a stacker once assured me, pointing at what I had mistaken for a worthless mound of rubble.
When building their skids, stackers must alternate the direction of bricks on each layer. Otherwise the stack could topple. Common bricks go “12 high.” Pavers–maroon bricks excavated from streets, patios, gardens, and driveways–are twice as heavy as commons, but stackers love them; they’re worth $12 for a skid only six high.
Patch, a former marine who considers stacking “a war against time,” stands in the middle of the pallet and builds the stack around him in an L shape. Reaching over the bricks, he says, would waste precious time. Patch has nine layers up, and has gotten into a rhythm when a pedestrian calls out from the sidewalk, asking for work.
A short powerhouse of a man, with a broad face and more than a few missing teeth, Patch looks up from the bricks and says, apologetically, “We about wrapping up here.”
The pedestrian, who’s gripping a wiper blade, appears frazzled and confused. Bricks slope up against the entire length of the wall.
“What you see may be only one skid,” Patch explains. “Maybe tomorrow. They’ll be tearing down more.”
Stacking is all about getting the bricks, and the number of bricks a stacker can get on any given day depends not only on the stacker’s strength and stamina but on how much of the building has been razed, how many bricks have survived the demolition, the number of stackers vying for them, whether the wreckers have spread the bricks out over the field or dumped them on top of each other, and whether cleaning them requires more than a couple strikes of the hammer.
This is why stackers can’t really control how much they earn.
Stackers like Patch, who could put up nine skids in the right conditions, rarely have the opportunity to do so; often the right conditions clash with the wreckers’ objective: to clear a site as quickly as possible and move on to the next job. Wrecking companies that fail to meet their contracted deadlines risk losing jobs in the future. And since wreckers receive a flat fee, the faster they’re in and out the bigger the profit.
In short, wreckers run the show, and they don’t want stackers slowing them down. In an effort to keep the wreckers happy, the brick companies often overpopulate the demolition sites with stackers. “I’ll put as many guys on a job as I have to,” Gurican once told me. “I don’t care if they make $10 or $100. You make a wrecker mad, you lose your source of inventory.” So instead of sending out two stackers capable of putting up, say, six skids each, brick companies send out six stackers to put up two skids each. The wreckers might gain a half day, but the stackers see it differently: they lose the chance to make an additional $40.
When a site is overcrowded, competition for bricks can be fierce. Stackers pick their spots when they arrive in the morning and generally know where their bricks end and where their neighbors’ begin without carving out physical borders. Occasionally someone will inch into someone else’s territory–which is called cutting someone off–and a fight will ensue. Fear of being cut off sometimes motivates stackers to work faster. “A three-skid guy can turn into a seven- or eight-skid guy if the right person is next to him,” a stacker once told me.
Despite the competition, stackers tend to be generous about inviting newcomers onto the site. Like Melvin, a lot of them get started that way.
Patch stacks the last three layers of his skid and then shimmies a piece of cardboard bearing Colonial’s name over the top. It’s almost noon, and Patch has just made his first $10 of the day. Usually by this time, Patch says, he’s put up three skids. “This site is a mess,” he says. “There are a lot of bats you gotta go through to find the bricks.”
He grabs an empty pallet, worrying that there won’t be enough bricks in his territory for a skid. If he comes up short, his labor will be in vain. With this in mind, Patch takes a cigarette break and then says wearily, “Well, I guess I’m as psyched up as I’m going to get.”
Patch grew up in Louisiana, a talented ballplayer, and spent many years preparing for work on a different kind of field. “My first year pitching in high school was 17 and 1,” he tells me as he digs for bricks. “My second year, 16 and 2. My third year, 17 and 1. Then I played one season at Jackson State, 15 and 3. I had great expectations to become a pro. That was my dream.”
I ask him what happened.
“Uncle Sam kind of put a damper on it.”
While in Vietnam, he was stabbed in the neck with a bayonet. The injury temporarily paralyzed him and left him with a steel plate inside his neck. “Sometimes my neck gets stiff,” he says. “That’s one of the major reasons I couldn’t play baseball, because I’d have to turn to look at the guys on the bases.”
But on days like today, when he’s working in close proximity to others, he might as well be picking players off base. As he “throws out,” or sorts, bricks he constantly turns to the left and then to the right, looking over his shoulders to make sure Clarence and Mia aren’t in the line of fire. Patch receives disability payments for his injury, which he says prevents him from holding down a regular job. With stacking, of course, he can stop working whenever his neck bothers him.
Patch started stacking only three years ago at the suggestion of a friend. “I just fell in love with it,” he says. He enjoys the camaraderie and says he thinks of his fellow stackers as family, which is why, when Mia gets frustrated throwing out bricks, complaining that “every one I toss go and break,” Patch is at her side offering help.
“Don’t toss it,” he advises. “Roll it. If you roll it, it don’t break.” Patch rolls a brick into the air. It lands on her good pile without breaking.
As they work, a wiry white-haired stacker wanders onto the site, covered in mortar dust. He nods at Patch and the others and informs them that a job nearby, where he just put up two skids, is “about through.”
“You gonna kick it or take it easy tonight?” Patch asks the stacker, whose light eyes have earned him the nickname Gray-eyed James.
Gray-eyed James, who plays blues guitar on Maxwell Street, is wearing a guitar-shaped belt buckle. When I ask him about it, he tells me that he likes to dress up for work. “Sometimes I wear a suit,” he says. Today, though, he is in trousers, a striped button-down shirt, and pointy oxford shoes with the tongues cut out and the laces removed. “I couldn’t get my feet down in them,” he explains. “They all right now.”
A frail 66, Gray-eyed James makes only pocket change stacking. Lucky for him, he finds a lot of ways to make pocket change.
After determining that he can’t squeeze in between the stackers without cutting anyone off, he climbs onto the heaps of rubble inside the two-flat. Towering above everyone, he rummages around, stuffing into a Sears bowling bag copper pipes and wires that he will try to sell to a junkyard “for a few bucks.”
“You can get hurt up there,” Mia warns.
“I ain’t gonna get hurt.”
“Yeah, that’s what the last guy said.”
Walls can collapse without warning. Fish died that way. So did Doc. Everyone’s heard the horror stories, though details are usually sketchy. Tales of near death abound and usually go something like this: “I saw a wall fall on a dude back in the 70s, when I was a kid. He was a vegetable after that.”
As Patch and the crew continue to work, the only sounds are the dull thud of brick landing on brick and the clanking of hammers. Patch is moving quickly and rhythmically, picking up the bricks from his good pile and stacking them onto the skid with two hands, when suddenly he wedges a thumb between two bricks and lets out a piercing shriek. “Oooh, whee!” he moans, stepping back from the skid. He rips off a glove and darts to the front of the building, flapping out his hand. Leaning up against his Ford Escort, still grunting, he lights another cigarette.
Gloves prevent stackers from rubbing their skin raw while handling bricks but do nothing to defend against the weight of a brick or hammer and little to protect skin from sharp objects. According to one stacker, “If you rub across something that’s real jagged while you’re digging, you can feel it through the gloves almost like a knife cutting through a thin T-shirt.” Gloves wear out quickly on the brick fields. To get more mileage out of them, stackers tape over the holes. Patch goes through a pair of leather or canvas gloves every 12 to 15 skids, cloth ones every 6 to 8. He buys three or four pairs at a time. Gray-eyed James has the best deal around; he sells them used for a buck a pair.
Although stackers know to stay out of the wreckers’ way, not to touch the machinery, and to wear hard hats when beams or other objects loom precariously overhead, there’s little they can do to avoid minor occupational hazards: stepping on nails, turning their ankles, getting mortar dust in their eyes, scraping up their hands and arms, getting hit in the shins by someone carelessly throwing out bricks, dropping bricks on their feet, and, of course, bashing their fingers and thumbs.
Patch holds out his hand for me to inspect. “Didn’t turn the brick loose quick enough,” he explains. Five of his fingernails bear black marks from similar incidents. “Makes you want to take off and run.”
“They say when you hit a thumb with your hammer, you’re a true brick stacker,” a stacker named Donna tells me one day. She shows me a thumbnail she bashed a year ago. It turned black and fell off and is just starting to grow back. It doesn’t take long for most people to become initiated, she says. And then they get initiated over and over.
We’re at 35th and California, the site of a former Campbell’s Soup factory. Segregated heaps of concrete, wood, metal, and bricks fan out over a breathtakingly vast and mountainous terrain. As you walk through it, stackers disappear and reappear among peaks and valleys.
Donna, 37, stands on a flat clearing of bricks in black jeans, work boots, and a sweatshirt. Her hair is tucked under black nylon and she wears a backward baseball cap. She is tall and sinewy, with sharp features and taut skin. “I can get five or six skids a day if the bricks are good,” she says, looking down at her feet. “These aren’t good.” The bricks nearby are still bound together in large chunks, some the size of a stove. She will have to break them apart with her hammer, one by one. “I’m probably only going to get two today,” she says.
Donna makes her living rehabbing houses and stacks on the side when business is slow. The money she’s made off bricks in the past five years, she says, has helped put her daughter through college.
She doesn’t mind the actual work–“I never wanted to sit behind a desk.” It’s the personal dynamics that sometimes trouble her.
“The sexual harassment is the biggest pitfall,” she says.
Her first day at work, the other stackers told her she should be at home “making babies.”
“I told them to kiss my ass,” she says. But she learned quickly not to bother fighting back. “Sometimes it would get rowdy. They’d jump up in my face, and I’d grab my hammer.” Now she ignores their comments or plays along, though sometimes, she admits, it goes too far. “I had to call the police a couple times. There’s some crazy shit out here.”
She says a stacker followed her home once and tried to rape her, but that luckily “some of the guys in the neighborhood beat him up.”
In the brick business, where word of mouth is how stackers get by, reputations precede people. I ask Donna if she knows the Brick Stacking Browns, a family of stackers. She gives me a contorted smile and points off in the distance at a man in a green jumpsuit, the kind mechanics wear. “There go one.” She shouts to him, “Hey, Rapp, she heard about you all.”
Rapp sets down his hammer and walks toward me. We meet halfway between his skid and Donna’s. He has scraggly, graying facial hair and a gold hoop earring. A scar edges out from under his backward baseball cap.
“There are 20 of us within the family that work out here,” he tells me. “Nieces and nephews. Girlfriends even. Sometimes we work all through the night, sunup till sundown and on into the next day. We might build a fire, bring some chicken or hamburgers or something we cooked at home and reheat it and everybody will eat out here, right on the brick field. And we might buy soda or beer or something. It’s just the way we live.”
Rapp was only 12 when his older brothers got tired of him asking for money and said it was high time he pick up a hammer himself. “It’s like a family tradition,” he says. “They say where there’s a brick there’s a Brown.”
When I ask Rapp if he stacks because he believes it’s his destiny, he says that destiny has nothing to do with it, that he simply likes the work. He tells me that he has tried other jobs over the years but that the brick fields keep calling him back. “Here I feel comfortable,” he says, waxing poetic. “It’s just like a part of me. I have an affection for bricks. It’s something like a gardener who likes flowers. I like the design, I like the texture, and basically I like that they go for rebuilding, you know. One man’s junk is another man’s fortune.”
Rapp likes bricks so much that he sometimes takes them home with him. Several sit on his dresser as mementos, propping up framed photos and vases of flowers. “If something good happens at a job site, like, say, if I kissed Donna, I would get a brick from around her skid and write her name on it. I might find some money buried in bricks–you find all kinds of things–and I’d write the date I’d found it and the site on it.”
At least one brick on his dresser conjures up a more sobering memory. “There were two guys fighting one day, right?” he says. “And one guy got hit on the head by the other guy with a brick. There was blood on the brick, so I took the brick home. Just for a memory.”
Rapp tells me he can put up four or five skids a day and that he works all year round. “You’re looking at, say, $12,000 a year,” he says proudly, calling it a decent living for someone like him, with no extravagant desires and no children to support. I ask how he manages without health benefits, and he widens his eyes and says, “There’s something very strange about me and my family. We don’t get sick. We don’t be hospitalized.”
Donna ambles over to us and launches into a story about meeting the Browns. “There was a group of them at a job,” she says. “Now, I had just started, and everyone told me, ‘You don’t want to go over there with them Browns. Stay away from them Browns.’ I said, ‘I ain’t scared of no Browns.’ I went over and said, ‘Can I get in here?'”
“Chris and I let you in,” Rapp says defensively. “We let you in.”
“But they looked at me like, who you think you are?”
This isn’t the first time I hear that the Browns can be intimidating or that they violate the code of ethics on the brick fields. “The Brick Stacking Browns can do a job on you,” a stacker once told me. “You in the hole, they come out there, 10 or 15 of them, how much brick you think you gonna get when there’s a family around you?” Another stacker said, “You lay your hammer down, you lay your gloves down, they steal it.”
Rapp dismisses such talk about his family as nonsense, saying people just resent them for sticking together. “If you mess with one, you mess with all,” he says. But today he’d have to fend for himself. The rest of the Browns are stacking at another site. He got a call to come here and check.
It’s not only stackers who are wary of the Browns. Jeff Finucane, who runs Delta Demolition and started the used-brick company Windy City Antiques so his wife would “have something to do,” says matter-of-factly, “They’ll fill your skid full of brickbats.”
Rapp admits that when his relatives “start drinking alcohol and stuff, then they get a little crazy.”
I ask Donna whether she learned any tricks of the trade the day she squeezed in between the more experienced Brown brothers. “No,” she says, “they ain’t taught me nothing.”
“The only thing I taught her was how to stay bent over in front of me,” Rapp says, grinning smugly. He sidles up to her, adding, “I worship her from her feet to the top of her head. She know I love her.”
Donna rolls her eyes and repeats what sounds like her mantra. “Let them talk, never go home with them. Never go home with nobody out here.”
Rapp leans in closer to her, his lips nearly grazing hers as he says, “I may tell you I adore you and I admire you, but, listen up”–he points a finger at her. “That’s the way it is. I’m married.”
Donna throws her head back and laughs. “I don’t want you!”
“Look me dead in the eye and tell me that before I kiss you,” Rapp says. “I bet you can’t do it.” Before she can respond, though, Rapp tries to save face. “The only thing I haven’t did was shave, and I do that for one reason–I try to look worse so womens stay away from me.”
“Just keep gettin’ fatter and women will stay away from you,” Donna shouts over her shoulder, walking back to her skid.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” Rapp says when she’s out of earshot. “Womens just don’t work like a man. This is one of the hardest laboring jobs that you could possibly do, and I don’t feel that a woman is equipped.”
This argument is familiar to me. It’s the same one Mumford offered when I asked him why he thought white people didn’t stack. “Most of us can’t work that hard,” he said, “can’t physically do it. There will sometimes be a white guy show up and stack bricks for a period of time and drift off. They refer to the work as stoop labor, and that sounds racist or something, but Caucasians don’t seem to be as able to do that. They use blacks for that kind of labor, ’cause they can do it. Mexicans can do it. We can’t.” I felt my expression change, and Mumford added, “Well, I don’t know if we can’t or we just don’t have to.”
What really seems to bother Rapp, when it comes down to it, is that he believes stacking bricks musses up a woman’s appearance. “You get rough feet, rough hands, nicks, cuts, scratches. And that shouldn’t be on a woman. I look like a brick. I feel like a brick. I’m hard like a brick. I have calluses. My hands is rough like bricks. A man’s hands, they have that roughness. A woman’s don’t. She have to maintain her feminacy, and out here on the brick field she can’t do that.”
So what do you want with Donna? I ask.
“Donna?” he says, wrinkling his forehead. “Don’t believe that. I does that to make her feel good. Actually, she’s what we call a lesbian. But I try to make her feel like a woman.”
I meet more of the Brown clan on a site at Kedzie and Lake, where a strong breeze is whipping up mortar dust and the el rumbles past every few minutes. The oldest Brown, 55-year-old Arthur, is sitting atop a stacked skid, taking frequent swigs of Night Train Express.
“Man, get the fuck out of the way!” shouts the checker, Junebug, who wants to band the skid. “Move, my man, move! I’ll throw that shit on the ground.” Junebug, who’s been stacking for 16 years, has a reputation nastier than the Browns’. Stackers have described him to me as a “crazy ass” and a “motherfucker.” “The skid I’m stacking now,” one stacker said, “Junebug would come and swear it’s his, and we would have to actually fight about it being mine.” Another stacker said simply, “I stay my distance.”
Junebug momentarily stops shouting when a young woman in a navy blue corduroy pantsuit hands him a brown paper bag. “See this girl here?” he says to me. “I’m gonna kill her if she ever take that long with my money again. Her name is Tina. So, if she come up missing–”
Tina, 25, mutters under her breath that she’s going to start charging people a dollar apiece for beer and cigarette runs. She stacks with one of the younger Browns, her boyfriend of 16 years. “I should be a Brown by now,” she says with more pride than resentment.
“Excuse me!” Junebug is spewing more harassment, this time at a group of stackers congregating around a skid. Someone doesn’t move quickly enough, and Junebug chews her out. “Come on, woman, move!”
The woman, a stacker named Gloria, plods over to another stacked skid and eases herself on top. She can’t seem to get motivated today. She looks out onto the brick field with dread. “It make you sore, it make you tired,” she sighs. She’s not a Brown either, but like Tina, she says, she might as well be. “My mama married a Brown. My two brothers is Browns. My sister married a Brown. My cousin married a Brown. My auntie married a Brown.”
Behind her, Arthur is rolling a Turkish cigarette. Mortar dust lines every crease in his enormous hands, and it occurs to me that he’ll probably end up smoking some of it. Gloria turns around and asks him to save her some tobacco. He doesn’t respond, and she snaps, “Save me some before I knock your bitch ass out.”
Arthur continues to ignore her and tries to elicit my sympathy. “See the abuse I get every day?” His voice is raspy and small.
A self-described “winehead” who’s “one inch from going nuts,” he is a haggard, lanky man with sagging eyelids and a wizened face. He looks like someone who has worked himself to the bone and sounds like someone who is sick and tired of it. “At the end of the day I got a pea in the pocket, might be $20,” he says bitterly.
Today he is particularly nettled because circumstances have illuminated what he perceives to be a great injustice. He points across the street, to the brickyard owned by the company he’s stacking for. “You could take one of these skids over there and get $50,” he says, “but you scratch out here all day long and just wind up with ten, ’cause you don’t have nothing to haul it in.”
There’s not much anyone can do about the sorry state of affairs, Arthur says. “Ain’t no unity.” He recalls a day in 1978 when things seemed brighter, if only momentarily. “We went up to the man about 30 strong to tell him give us more money. We got up to the truck where the man was, looked around, and there was only three of us standing there.”
Around 30 years ago, an effort to unionize the stackers failed. Nobody seems to remember much about it–not Preacher Taylor, not Arthur Brown, not any of the other old-timers. Mumford expounded on the subject more than anyone, saying only, “The union was going to have us withhold one dollar per thousand bricks and they were going to use those funds to pay some benefits–and of course make a profit–and they were going to give them a Christmas vacation bonus, but the stackers didn’t want it. They wanted their money. It was a bad idea, really.
A wrecker has told me that if the stackers demanded union wages, they would drive the price of used brick so high that customers would resort to new brick. His assessment doesn’t square with what I’ve heard–that new and used brick are different markets–but the brick bosses say the same thing: the used-brick industry would collapse. “People are only going to pay a certain amount of money for brick before they go and get a different kind of brick that’s less money,” says Colonial’s Kevin Gurican.
Every so often a few stackers loosely organize a strike. Arthur’s brother Charles tells me he stopped stacking for six months recently, to no avail. Only six others stopped with him. “We talk among ourselves,” one stacker admits. “But you gotta eat and gotta pay rent.”
A 32-year-old stacker named Richard puts it this way: “You can’t stop working when you in a bad situation. You have to continue to function. If you have a wife and three kids, you can’t go home and tell her I’m not going to work for the next two weeks ’cause we gonna try to make this right. She don’t want to hear that. She’ll say you should have got a job that was right from the beginning.”
A muscular man with a gold stud in each earlobe, Richard describes himself as a voracious reader and says he can imagine himself in a variety of jobs: writing, working for the Park District, even “taking over DCFS and showing them how to run it.”
At a demolition site in Bucktown, he lingers on the question of money. “We’re making nothing. That skid is gone,” he says, pointing to his first stack. “You don’t even start making money till you get to your second skid. It cost you a dollar eighty to get here, a dollar eighty to get home. That’s three sixty. Between bus fare and a little to eat in the morning and a little to eat in the afternoon, that’s ten dollars.”
I ask Richard why he stacks if the money is so bad. “I could have had a job making $6 an hour,” he says. “Maybe $240 before taxes, maybe $180 after taxes. One hundred and eighty dollars is 18 skids. I can get 18 skids in four days, working maybe four, five hours a day. Put it like this. I can get 18 skids in 18 hours. Why would I go somewhere and work 40 hours, when I can make the same money in 18 hours and do it on my terms?”
Health benefits? I suggest. “If I was older I would be looking for that,” he says.
Richard is stooped over, knocking two bricks against each other. When the mortar comes off easily, this technique cleans both bricks at once.
When he finishes the skid, he tells me he’s calling it a day. “There are six guys out here,” he says, meaning that there aren’t enough bricks left in his territory for another skid and that there’s no room to extend his borders.
Richard believes that jockeying for territory is what deters white people from stacking. “If there ain’t that many bricks, you in the hole with another guy, both of you are going at it as hard as you can trying to get the bricks. I guess a lot of white guys don’t see themselves getting in the hole next to someone like me and trying to get a skid out, you know. It’s like they don’t want to battle with us, we don’t want to battle with them.” If he were working between me and a black guy, he says, and he had 100 bricks left at the end of the day, to whom did I think he would give them?
“Chances are I’m gonna help him, ’cause he’s in the same boat I’m in.”
He crosses the brick field, passing a white wrecker with a mustache and a potbelly. The wrecker asks me what I’m doing and when I tell him I’m writing about stackers, he winces and shakes his head in an exaggerated display of pity. “Look at them,” he says. “What else are they going to do?”
He continues, assuredly, in a grating Chicago accent. “They’re happy. They’re drinking their wine or whatever. They couldn’t keep a regular job. Ten bucks a skid! Would you waste your time doing that for ten bucks?”
Would you? I ask.
“Heck no! I wouldn’t do it. I’d be out stealing. Gotta figure something’s wrong with them if they’re going to do that for ten bucks a skid.”
When I catch up to Richard, he’s emptying his backpack onto a stacked skid, spreading out the contents: a jug of water, a mirror shard, petroleum jelly, Slam body spray (imitation Michael Jordan cologne), a brush, a washcloth, and a change of clothes. He wets the washcloth and wipes the mortar dust off his arms and hands, saying, “You can’t get all of it,” but scrubbing vigorously as if he intends to try. He rubs petroleum jelly into his skin and then steps into a mist of Slam and disappears behind a parked bulldozer.
I begin to think that if anyone could emerge as a leader, it would be Richard. Not long ago, fed up with the stackers’ endless griping and disturbed that the brick bosses had been paying $10 a skid for at least ten years, Richard decided to broach the subject of a pay hike with Colonial’s Kevin Gurican. He hoped that Gurican would be sympathetic to their plight. But Richard didn’t get far.
“He always gotta have a middleman,” Richard told me. “I told his middleman we’d like to talk to him. The middleman said, ‘He don’t really have time to do that. Tell me what you want to tell him.’ And that’s where it ended. Right there.” If the middleman passed along Richard’s request, it didn’t compel Gurican to seek him out and ask what was on his mind. Richard really hadn’t expected him to. “What are brick stackers going to talk to him about? I ain’t gonna ask him nothing about his wife.”
Richard may be good at articulating stackers’ concerns, but he has no illusions of unity. He believes that the brick bosses could even dock the stackers’ pay without much protest because too many people are living hand-to-mouth to stop working.
When Richard reappears from behind the bulldozer, he’s wearing clean clothes–a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt. It’s high noon. The sun is out. He says he’s going to spend the rest of the afternoon in a park reading the paper. But first he walks back onto the brick field to collect his day’s pay from the checker. He walks off stuffing $30 in his pocket.
Brick bosses need little if any contact with the stackers. They deal with a foreman, also called a processor, who deals with the checkers and stackers. The foreman mans each site. He knows who is reliable and who isn’t, who has a car and who relies on public transportation, who is motivated and who is lazy, who drinks on the job and who doesn’t. “If you’re doing a house in Winnetka, the neighbors aren’t going to want to look out their windows and see a bunch of guys drinking or smoking or whatever,” says Gurican. He doesn’t have to worry. His foreman, a former stacker named Nolan, makes sure stacking crews don’t offend Winnetka home owners.
In addition to manning the sites, Nolan spends his days roving from job to job, dropping off empty pallets and giving the checkers money to pay the stackers. He also decides whom to make a checker–a decision that is not made lightly. Checkers must be trustworthy enough to show up at a job when they say they will and to carefully handle the banding machines–which would cost about a thousand dollars to replace. They also must be trusted not to disappear with the wad of cash in their pockets.
Throughout the day, Nolan stays in touch by two-way radio with Gurican, who sells the bricks, oversees Colonial’s 16 boom-truck drivers and forklift operators, and deals with the wreckers, peddlers, and railroad companies.
Gurican commutes to Colonial’s brickyard from the western suburbs in a giant SUV, slugging down a giant Mountain Dew. He has short thin hair, a barrel chest, and a thick neck. He dresses casually, in jeans and work boots. He considers wearing a baseball cap a perk of the job, and enjoys that he can spit tobacco without hearing complaints. Outwardly he is easygoing and amicable, but when it comes to bricks he is all business, all attitude.
Gurican fancies himself a whole new breed of brick boss: ambitious and professional, clinching deals on paper rather than with a handshake and a drink. He’s college educated and Internet savvy. When he put up a Web page, he says, call volume shot up. “There was a lot of animosity from our competitors when I got into the business,” he says. “They all started together pretty much. A lot of these guys didn’t go to college. They worked their way to where they are now. And maybe I learned some things that they didn’t, I don’t know”–he majored in international business at Illinois State University–“but I do things a lot differently. I don’t have a problem with stepping on someone’s toes.”
By stepping on someone’s toes he means wooing the competitors’ employees and soliciting bricks from wreckers, who tend to deal exclusively with one brick company. In the past, he says, the brick bosses “stayed away from each other’s wreckers.”
Colonial’s biggest competitor runs his business from right across the street. “I flip him off every time I go by,” Gurican says.
The obsessive quality of the rivalry seems to go both ways. Gurican says that the competitor, who didn’t return my phone calls, often barges into Colonial unannounced, boasting about sales, making threats, and telling him how to run his business. Apparently the intrusions don’t stop there. “He’ll be in my yard when we’re not here,” says Gurican. “The peddlers will tell me. Someone caught him going through our files once.” As Gurican relates stories like this, the glint in his eyes suggests he is more amused than angry. He appears to relish each run-in and every tidbit of information gleaned from others about the competitor. This is a guy he loves to hate.
Perhaps the best hope for the stackers lies in the intensity of the rivalry. Gurican says that not long after he made it known that he wanted to hire his competitor’s processor, the competitor stormed into Colonial and threatened “to raise the price on all the stackers” if he didn’t back off.
The competition among brick companies matters little to the stackers, if they notice it at all. To them, the companies appear to work together–to conspire, even, to keep the stackers down. “Just by coincidence, they pay you $10 a skid,” Richard says. “Just by coincidence, it’s $10 for a bag of cocaine.”
Loyalty is hard to come by when everybody pays the same. Even Nolan, who’s been with Colonial 15 years, also works for Windy City Antiques. Processors and stackers follow the money, of course, not the companies, so if one company increased wages, the others would have to follow suit.
Gurican realizes that there’s no loyalty, but he still refers to the people in the brick fields as “my stackers.” He visits every demolition site at least once–in part to look at the brick so he knows whether it’s predominantly buff or salmon, so he can presell it, but also “to make my presence felt.”
One morning I accompany Gurican out to a site in Niles. He got into the brick business about four and a half years ago, when he was working for one of Mumford’s tenants, a lumber company, that was in the process of relocating. Mumford was looking for someone to help him out and offered him a job late one Saturday afternoon, as Gurican was finishing up some paperwork.
“I always looked at the business from the outside and thought, God, what a crappy business,” Gurican tells me. “Dealing with a bunch of crappy people. And once I got in it my whole perspective changed.”
He’s discovered, for example, that he can talk to the stackers “like regular guys.” He says, “I treat them with respect. I don’t treat these guys like what they probably are, which a lot of them are probably drug addicts or alcoholics. I don’t see them that way. I see them as people who are doing work for me who are earning money and that’s the way I talk to them. If someone’s doing something wrong I might jump on them, but that would happen at any place.”
He recently dismissed a whole stacking crew from a job and told Nolan not to let them back on Colonial sites. “They were taking all kinds of stuff out of the building that was being wrecked and selling it on the sidewalk. They were stealing from the person that the wreckers were wrecking the building for, and of course it all comes back to me. I ended up having to go up there and put at least 500 nails into the windows putting boards up.”
Still, the personal contact he has with the stackers is “not nearly as bad” as he’d expected, and he says that he has learned to appreciate them. “What they do is a hard thing. Maybe they’re down on their luck and that’s why they’re stacking, or maybe it’s just what they want to do–to each his own–but I have a lot of respect for the people that do it. I couldn’t imagine doing it.”
He once tried stacking some bricks in Colonial’s yard. It didn’t go well. “I can’t stack bricks,” he says. “It’s too hard. It’s backbreaking stuff, bending over all the time. It takes a unique individual to do that. Someone who likes hard work for sure.”
An awareness of the difficulty of stacking does not translate into a willingness to pay more for the labor.
“I think the stackers make enough money,” he says. “Everyone always wants to be paid more money. Hell, I’d like to be making more money.” As with any commodity, the price of brick fluctuates. Demand ebbs and flows in accordance with construction trends. Gurican says he’s buying bricks from the wreckers for $50 a thousand more than he was a year ago and selling them for only $30 more, which means “I can’t afford to pay more for the stacker too,” even though the company is having an “excellent” year.
Gurican is selling bricks for $170 a thousand wholesale to dealers, his “bread and butter,” and $245 retail to the one-time customers who walk in off the street wanting to build a house. To better compensate the stackers, he says, he’d have to raise the price of his bricks, and he believes he’s selling them for as much as he can get. “And that’s what a lot of these guys don’t understand.”
Gurican hears complaints from stackers all the time–and, when he’s out on the brick fields, occasionally threats. Not all the stackers agree with Gurican that he treats them with respect.
“I don’t want to be around Kevin,” Preacher once told me. “He’ll make me hurt him.” Preacher may be small–only five-six and under 150 pounds–but he says he has a quick temper and that Gurican sets it off.
A while back Preacher and Gurican got into an argument. “He’s been around a long time and wants things done the way they used to be,” says Gurican. “I guess the wreckers used to make the bricks real easy to get, to spread them out and stuff. The way times are right now, you know, it’s survival of the fittest.”
Gurican’s primary concern is the wreckers. “I don’t care about the stackers,” he admits. “I don’t care about the customers. ‘Cause the customers will always be there. The stackers will always be there. The wreckers will not always be there.” And if the wreckers disappear, so do the bricks.
Gurican exits I-94, driving west on Touhy Road. He gapes when he spots his company’s newest source of bricks. “Holy cow,” he says, pulling into the parking lot of the A.B. Dick Company. “That is a big job. Ho. Lee. Shit.”
Most of the factory is still standing. He once told me that he can estimate the number of bricks a building will yield just by looking at it. He counts six and a half bricks per square foot and then figures he’s going to lose half of them in the demolition and another 20 to 30 percent in the handling.
This building is enormous. Gurican does a quick calculation. He expects it to yield at least half a million bricks.
He parks and then walks onto the site, where he tracks down the owner of the wrecking company. They exchange pleasantries and then, as Gurican is walking away, he spots someone leaning against his hood. It’s a 40-year-old stacker who goes by the name Bull.
“Don’t be touchin’ my car,” Gurican says with an almost imperceptible smile. “You’re nothing but trouble. I thought you were back in jail.”
“I ain’t back in jail,” says Bull. “I ain’t going back in jail.” He smiles and adds, “Don’t you want to see me working for you?”
“I don’t see you working for me,” Gurican quips. “I see you standing around a lot.”
Gurican walks farther onto the site. He picks up a brick and fondles it like a gem. It’s pale pink, with barely a trace of mortar. “Oh, man,” he exults, “this is absolutely beautiful. It’s just gorgeous.”
Suburban brick is always nicer than city brick, according to Gurican, because it’s been exposed to less pollution. And this particular suburban brick is the nicest he’s seen. It came from inside the building, behind the face brick, and so it was tainted by neither pollution nor the elements.
Gurican notices an old man hunched over bricks a few yards away. “I don’t want to hear any complaining about this brick,” Gurican shouts. “You don’t even need a hammer out here.”
The old man, grim faced and silent, holds up the brick and points at mortar. “Yeah, probably one hit and it comes off,” says Gurican, who then makes his way over to the checker, an imposing 65-year-old man with a big paunch and bushy gray sideburns. The checker, whose name is Richard, is leaning against a stacked skid talking to Bull. Richard works exclusively with his own stacking crew, a group of about nine men from the west side.
Gurican marvels at the enormity of the site and the beauty of the bricks and then, thinking about his competition, nearly cackles. “He is gonna be pissed!” Richard and Bull laugh along unconvincingly. I ask Gurican how the competitor will know that there’s anything to be pissed about, and he says, “Oh, I’ll be putting the word out that Colonial’s got some nice bricks.”
We say good-bye to Richard and Bull, but before we walk away, Gurican tells them, “I should only be paying you nine bucks a skid, they’re so easy.”
In winter stackers sometimes trade in their baseball caps for knit hats. They grow beards, layer their clothing, and light bonfires in garbage cans. But often their tattered gloves, the holes in their sweaters and shoes, and their thin jackets undercut their efforts to stay warm.
The next time I see Richard the checker, it’s a Saturday morning in December at a site on Diversey, near Damen. Part of a warehouse is down behind the shell of another, which, according to the sign on a nearby trailer, will soon be converted into luxury lofts. Five men are spread out over the site. Bull is not among them. “He’s somewhere he can’t stack,” Richard tells me coyly. “He could be there for a year.”
Before sunrise, Richard met up with his crew at McDonald’s and then drove them here in his van. Unlike other checkers, he delegates the task of banding the skids because he has difficulty squeezing the lever of the banding machine. About ten years ago he crushed the bones in his right hand while fixing a truck tire, and despite several operations he’s been unable to fully open or close it ever since. The hand is large and leathery and still looks monstrously swollen. A few fingers permanently curl downward, resembling the curved claw of a hammer.
Richard stands around like a camp counselor as his crew works, nipping potential disputes in the bud–telling people to move their pallets to the left or the right, for example–and looking out for what he calls “trick stacking,” when someone gets lazy and fills up the middle of a skid with wood or bats or chunks of bonded brick. It doesn’t happen often, but it can damage a company’s reputation.
Richard finds an empty garbage can and plunks it down near a Dumpster, tossing in some scrap wood and paper “for tomorrow.” He’s heard it’s going to be chilly and figures the stackers will want to warm themselves by a fire.
It’s going to be a long weekend. There are bricks everywhere. Nolan has said that all the bricks must be stacked by Monday so the wreckers can resume demolition. “You can work every day and still don’t have jack,” Richard says. In fact, he continues, you can work “100 years and don’t have jack.” He’s on a roll now. “You get too old, you got nothing. This is not a job where you can retire and draw a check. Ain’t no future in these bricks.”
On Sunday Richard brings out three more men. Within an hour of their arrival it begins to rain, and he retreats to his van. The stackers continue digging and cleaning and sorting and stacking.
The rain picks up in intensity. A 64-year-old man named Jimmy who stacks “to keep from starving” ties a plastic bag over his hair, looking weirdly out of context, like he should be sitting under a beauty shop dryer. When he finishes his skid–his second of the day–he hobbles over to Richard’s van with the help of a cane, saying, “I’m outta this rain. I’m through.” A growth the size of a softball protrudes from the back of his neck.
Chicago commons absorb water. As it rains, the bricks get heavier. The mortar gets harder to knock off. “Your hands get cold,” a stacker named Woody says. It’s easy to see why his would. All five of his fingertips poke through the glove on his right hand. In the coming weeks, he will begin wrapping his fingers in duct tape to keep them warm. The last time he worked in the rain, he says, he caught a cold he couldn’t shake for two months. He didn’t see a doctor. Stackers rarely do.
Pete, who’s working nearby, can’t remember the last time he had a physical. “At least 10, 15 years ago?” he guesses. “I only go to the doctor when I overdrink myself.” He treats all his ailments with one of three quick remedies. “I take me an Alka-Seltzer, a pain pill, or a drink of whiskey.” He informs me that he could use a drink right about now–for “go power.”
A few men trickle into the remains of the warehouse for shelter. You can hear the tinny pecks of their hammers as they try to loosen up copper wires. Yesterday, a stacker named Ernest told me a story about getting trapped inside an abandoned building. About six years ago, he said, he and a friend took their sledgehammers to a three-flat to get the bricks to come down. “They came down, all right. The whole building collapsed.” The Fire Department spent a couple hours digging them out. Ernest escaped serious injury; his friend broke a few ribs and “sprung his neck.” They made the TV news “for about a week.” Though they defied death, their luck ended there. After they were released from the hospital, police carted them off to Cook County Jail. Both had outstanding warrants. Apparently Ernest didn’t learn from the experience. He’s one of the men now pecking away at the warehouse.
With his story fresh in mind, I ask Woody if the men should be inside the building. “We know the soft spots,” he says. “We know a lot about buildings. The only thing separating us from the wreckers is knowing how to drive those things.” He points at a crane, track loader, and excavator parked behind the warehouse.
Woody is drenched, but he seems unfazed. He’s talking about his part-time job at McCormick Place, cleaning up after conventions. It was a full-time position until it got privatized, he says. The bricks have helped keep him afloat, but “I’m not sure I want to do this for the next 10 or 15 years.” Like Preacher, what he would really like to do is wreck buildings.
Preacher has been talking about his wrecking company to everyone lately. The Reverend Harry Hopkins, with whom he shares a pulpit, can’t feign enthusiasm. He sees Preacher come to Bible classes on Tuesday evenings so worn out from a day’s work that he can hardly stand up. He knows that Preacher nods off sometimes when he shouldn’t, and he listens sympathetically when Preacher complains about feet so sore and swollen that he wears shoes a few sizes too big. “Man, you’re too old,” Hopkins tells him, when Preacher announces his plans.
But Preacher believes the wrecking company will be his salvation from the manual labor that’s taking its toll. “I don’t want to do no work,” Preacher tells me one day. “I want to be out there showing my sons how to do it.”
He feels an urgency. He sets a date. Taylor and Sons, he declares, will be up and running by the first of the year–less than 30 days away. He calls his son Jimmie in Pennsylvania to plant a seed of interest, imagining that Jimmie will reconstruct his life to help fulfill his father’s dream.
When I ask Preacher whether the $40,000 wrecking bond will be an obstacle, he assures me he’s got it covered. But when I ask whether he’ll be able to afford the wrecking machines, he evades my question, saying instead that he’s shopping around for a fenced-in lot to keep them in.
Preacher is used to fighting for things he wants, even when obtaining them seems unlikely. He didn’t let the fact that he couldn’t read prevent him from getting a driver’s license. And five years ago, after his daughter was born with cocaine in her system and DCFS placed her in a white couple’s home in Peoria, Preacher retained an attorney and fought for custody. DCFS, of course, wasn’t keen on placing an infant in a one-room senior home with an old man, so Preacher persuaded the court to turn the baby over to his daughter Cecelia. For the next several years he continued to go to court to try to get custody, even after a 1996 bonding assessment noted that he was in the early stages of dementia and would fall asleep during visits with the child.
But Preacher, determined as he is, is not blind to reality. He finally agrees to let Cecelia and her husband adopt his daughter. And as December slips away, he pushes back his deadline for getting his wrecking company off the ground. He calls Jimmie, promising to pay him a visit over the summer with a concrete proposal for him to consider.
The last Sunday in December, Preacher gives a sermon, titled “The Curtain Is Coming Down,” that only days later will send a chill down the spines of the people who witnessed it.
I learn the basics about what happened next while flipping through the Tribune. Everything else I learn from the police, the state’s attorney’s office, the medical examiner, and a few of Preacher’s relatives.
On December 30 Preacher woke up before dawn and got ready for work as usual. At 5 AM it was 1 degree outside, but the windchill made it feel like 22 below. Bracing for the cold, he bundled up as best he could: in two pairs of sweatpants, a couple of short-sleeve shirts, a blue sweatshirt, and, of course, his tweed blazer. He had winter coats, but wearing one would restrict his movement on the brick field.
His youngest daughter’s biological mother had spent the night. The Roseland Manor senior home prohibited guests from being on the premises without the residents they’d come to visit, so Preacher asked the woman to leave. She resisted, and they began to fight. Police say that Preacher beat her so fiercely with a broomstick that he broke her arm. At some point during the scuffle the woman grabbed a knife and fended him off with a stab to the neck.
Preacher ran out into the hallway to alert security, bleeding profusely from two major arteries. Paramedics arrived at 5:49 and rushed him to Christ Hospital and Medical Center in Oak Lawn, where doctors cut open his chest, cross-clamped his aorta to stop the bleeding, and ligated the arteries that had been slashed. They sewed him up, hoping for the best. But Preacher was old. His blood pressure was dropping and it didn’t look good. His coronary arteries had narrowed with age. His heart had been damaged by a previous heart attack that Preacher, in his mistrust of doctors and medicine, shrugged off as a “bad case of gas.” Still, Preacher might have been able to survive the injuries, but for some reason–a fall?–his brain was hemorrhaging. At 10:15 in the morning, 35 minutes after coming out of surgery, the oldest brick stacker was dead.
“He preached his own funeral,” one of the deacons at his church says later, recalling his last sermon.
Cecelia also thinks Preacher knew the end was near. When I meet with her a week after the funeral, in her south suburban home, she says that the last time they spoke her father didn’t waste time on small talk. He asked pointed questions about the adoption process. He wanted to tie up loose ends.
“Do 100 percent of me believe this child is his?” she says. “No. But he cared enough to make sure that she had a home.” She imagines that Preacher promised the mother the baby would end up in good hands and did whatever it took–claimed the child as his own–to make good on the promise. And besides, Cecelia says, at his age, whatever it was, a new baby was a “big feather in his cap”; it gave him “bragging rights.”
Cecelia has found nothing in Preacher’s belongings to suggest that he was close to fulfilling his dream of starting a wrecking company. A lifetime of hard work on the brick fields left him with no savings and few material possessions other than a broken record player, an unreliable van, some Sunday suits, and half a dozen hammers.
The next time I return to the site on Diversey, it looks remarkably different. There is order to the chaos. The wreckers have cut a swath through the building, piling embankments of bricks on either side. The stackers work alongside the steady hum and intermittent beeps of the wrecking machines.
Woody tells me it’s hard to dig the bricks out when they tower above you this way and that you need quick reflexes to jump aside in case of an avalanche. When the stackers take breaks, they smoke cigarettes and drink coffee; they eat Dolly Madison fruit pies and sardines straight from the can; they use the portable toilet brought here by the wreckers; and they huddle around the barrel fire raging in a rusted-out garbage can. The loud hiss of sandblasting on the nearby warehouse renders them silent and pelts them with saltlike granules.
Word of the job has spread. Along with Richard’s original crew, a Brown has shown up with his wife. Melvin the peddler has come with a grade-school friend. He tells me he recently moved out of the house he shared with his aunt and uncle and their 11 children because he needed more privacy. I meet Chicken George, a 40-year-old newcomer to Chicago and to the brick fields. Chicken George recently moved from the south to be closer to his mother, who had a stroke. The head of his hammer keeps falling off, slowing him down, frustrating him. He says he’s supporting 12 children, and that he needs to find a better job. “Know of any?” he asks, hopeful.
I ask what he’s looking for, and without giving it a second thought, he says, “Any kind of work but brick.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Eugene Zakusilo.