“I’m waitin’ for ’em to build that supercollider and break down an atom farther than it’s supposed to be brought down–and the whole fuckin’ universe is gonna unravel,” says Chris. “That’s what scares me.”
It’s a typical day last summer at the South Loop Flea Market, a vast warehouse building at Roosevelt and Canal where customers park on the roof. Inside the endless Antique Room, each vendor’s stall has at least one old fan–dating anywhere from 1910 to about 1965–whirring and oscillating in a vain attempt to cool the air, so hot and heavy it’s nearly as visible as the smoke rising from the cigarettes in everyone’s hands.
Chris is a lanky, 40-ish vendor whose brown beard, ponytail, and jeans all scream ex-hippie, though he’s an ex-soldier, ex- gold prospector, ex-printer, and ex-movie projectionist. His conversation with fellow vendors started as a discussion of the dangers of secondhand smoke. “If they took that money and spent it on the space program, we could control space. If you control space what happens on earth is pretty inconsequential, when you think about it. Am I right?”
Bob and Adam nod agreeably. Bob is 57, essentially bald, with a thick graying mustache and a constant smile that reveals several missing teeth. Adam is also in his 50s, with a shock of white hair, thick black-framed glasses, and a friendly, raspy voice. They’re all sitting on mismatched chairs at a main Antique Room intersection, where Chris’s and Adam’s booths are kitty-corner. Bob’s booth is across the room, but no one spends much time at his own place anyway.
“This is a seedpod, man. We’re supposed to outgrow this planet and go explore the rest of it,” Chris insists. “And instead we’re like delving into our navel with a supercollider, OK? Instead of going out and actually seeing this stuff. Because everything big is just built off of small. You go from atoms to the universe, it’s the same thing. Just bigger.”
Customers who park on South Loop’s roof descend two ramps, pay 50 cents for admission, and arrive in the main corridor, which runs the length of the warehouse and is big enough to hold a small steel foundry. A few antique dealers are set up here, but most of the vendors sell new merchandise, from electronics to clothes. The rest of the building is divided into two huge rooms, the Antique Room and the obscurely named Green Room, where an almost weekly auction that all the vendors contribute to is held. Windows do not exist here, and the purely functional lighting combines with the cement floor and cinder-block walls to create a bomb-shelter atmosphere.
The Antique Room vendors share a love for anything old. Here the curves of a 1940s toaster, the streamlined handle of a 1950s iron, the long lines of a Hamilton Beach blender are all as cherished as the ornate carvings on a Louis XIV sofa. Which is good, because you won’t find a Louis XIV sofa here. Vendors deal in the obsolete odds and ends that once defined now people lived–from a compact 1930s razor-blade sharpener to a bright 50s martini shaker. A few vendors specialize, usually in vintage clothes or books, and one black vendor features a politically incorrect collection of pickaninnies. Some of it can rightfully be called junk, but each item is treated like a piece of history, as vital as a Dead Sea scroll.
Still, everyone has to make a living.
“I do this because if I didn’t I’d be living under a viaduct,” says Chris, who set up shop here after being laid off from an O’Hare ground crew three years ago. “I think the first thing that got me hooked was a deco inkstand I bought for 90 cents and sold for $100. That pretty well set the hook. And I said, well, this is a lot easier than workin’ with the planes–no noise, no fumes, and no boss.”
Bob is more typical. “I used to be a collector,” he explains. “Then you turn into a seller once you load up your house. You buy it, then you try to get rid of it when you get tired of it.”
“Well, your tastes change,” Chris says, trying to correct him.
Bob ignores him. “You sell off the minor and keep the better. It’s called upgrading your own household.”
“Ad hoc interior decorators, all of us,” says Chris, grinning.
“Everybody pursues different agendas. This guy here,” Bob says, looking disapprovingly at Adam’s space, “just wants to make money.”
“Yeah, not Uncle Bob,” snorts Chris. “He’s altruistic.”
“We used to be like family here,” Bob says, glaring briefly at Chris. “We all moved en masse from the Lincoln Park Flea Market [which closed about four years ago], and we kind of let Chris in. I’ve been selling about ten years, since I retired. Made a lot of money there at the Lincoln Park Flea Market. There was a bar across the street and all kinds of yuppies.” His voice drops. “Yuppies. They were vicious back in the 80s. Come in and make fun of you. Make fun of your stuff. Sure. You know how the younger generation is. But it’s fun.” He pauses and adds, “It’s usually more fun when you’re making money.”
Business at the five-year-old flea market, open Saturday and Sunday, dropped off last spring. “Slow, as you see,” Chris says, nodding at the few straggling customers. “Half of it has to do with the publicity problem, I think. That and they don’t know what’s going on with the building. Well you know that casino’s gonna be right across the river from us. And if they do that, this place isn’t gonna last that much longer.”
There are many rumors that the building will be demolished, for reasons that range from the proposed downtown trolley system to another UIC expansion. “So everybody’s in limbo,” says Chris. “There’s no leases involved, none at all. It’s a very whimsical thing. If he decides the building’s sold he can give us two weeks and say, “Guess what, guys?”‘
“He” is the building’s mysterious owner. No one seems to know who he is. Even Andy, who everyone believes is the building’s manager, professes ignorance. He won’t even admit that he manages the building. He says he’s retired and his two sons are running things.
Chris is fixing a 1930s version of a digital clock. “It’s like an exercise in logic,” he explains. “You’ve got three gears, and there’s only about 142 possible ways they can go in there–and the last part has to hit this gear. The thing about this stuff a lot of people don’t realize is that back in the 50s and 40s and stuff, shit was made to be repaired.”
Bob, who’s wearing his summer uniform–a Hawaiian shirt, baggy shorts, and black sandals–insists on shaking hands. “Let me check your vibrations,” he says.
“Don’t you ever watch Oprah?” he chides.
Adam’s scratchy voice comes across the aisle imitating the latest Oprah commercials: “Oprah’s o-on!”
Bob joins in: “Oprah’s o-on! Oh, 20 million people watch Oprah. She’s got her following. Oh, she’s very spiritual.”
“She’s very open about herself,” Adam agrees.
“She is! She’s a nice lady,” says Bob. “Last week she had all these different philosophers on, and the one guy was from India. And he had a little weight tied to his finger–”
Chris interrupts. “Y’know what made me feel old? Read an article in the paper, kids today up to 12 years old have never owned a record. Whooooah.”
“Anyway,” Bob continues, rolling his eyes, “you tie a string on your finger to a washer and tell the washer what to do–go forward and back, sideways, around in a circle. You just think about it. And I tried it at home, and it worked every time.”
“Like a Ouija board!” Adam observes.
“Yeah! It’s like there’s a magnetic force. That’s why–I often wondered why I had to touch people. If you just hang it over here,” Bob says, pointing at an old chair, “tie a washer over here–can’t do anything. It’d have to be connected to you. But if you hold it, you can tell the washer what to do.”
If you have telekinetic power, then you don’t even have to touch it, I speculate.
“No, but that takes more exercise. That’s like moving ashtrays with your mind,” says Bob.
Bill, another vendor from the defunct Lincoln Park Flea Market, comes by. “Oh, I wish we were still there!” Bob tells him. “We’re not makin’ no money here!” He lowers his voice confidentially. “I think it’s the economy.”
“I think it’s the neighborhood,” Bill says decisively.
“The neighborhood too,” Bob agrees.
“White people just don’t wanna come here,” Bill says, shrugging. Then he changes his mind. “I don’t know why it’s over. I can’t explain it.”
“No, it’s beyond me too,” says Bob, always agreeable.
“It’s just like the one on Morgan Street,” Bill insists. “That guy ruined his market before he even opened up. It’s junk. It looks like this room.”
A new flea market has just opened on Morgan near Grand–the Morgan Market–and its existence is a constant irritation to the South Loop vendors. Like a blockbusting real estate broker, a Morgan Market representative has been recruiting the South Loop vendors. Some have already gone over. And as each weekend at South Loop unfolds with fewer and fewer customers, others wonder if they should follow.
Steve is a native Czechoslovakian who fled World War II. Now 64, he has a thick accent, thick glasses, and a booth crowded with gleaming vintage kitchen gadgets. He used to be a photographer, but he says the pressure made him sick. He switched to flea marketing to “relax.” Today he’s in a dark mood. He’s heard the South Loop building is going to be sold for overdue taxes. “I don’t know is true or not,” he mutters to Chris, who pays little attention.
Chris is sitting in his booth with a 40s-era plastic cow whose head goes up and down according to her tail position. “She used to moo,” he says regretfully. “The mooer is broke. You can’t fix the mooer–ya gotta find another mooer. What’s up there, Louie?”
Detroit Louie, who travels to South Loop twice a month from Michigan, ambles over. He’s 40-ish, and his hair is slightly longer than shaved. Today he’s wearing cutoff jeans and platform sneakers.
“Have ya ever seen such nonsense?” Chris points to the monstrous shoes. “They gotta weigh 15 pounds apiece.”
“I bought my first platform gym shoes in the 60s,” Detroit Louie says wistfully between slurps on a sky-blue Freez-A-Pop. “They say if you wore bell-bottoms the first time around you won’t wear ’em again. I would.”
Detroit Louie catches sight of a very pregnant woman. “My mother always complained. You know how they say, “Oh, I had such a hard time with you, blah, blah, blah.’ As a variation she says, “It was like squeezin’ a watermelon through a keyhole you were so blah, blah, blah.”‘
“My mom gives me the same story,” says Chris. “You were a breech, and I was in labor for 14 hours!’ So what? It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t do anything.”
“Hey, ya chop wood, you’re bound to get splinters, right?” Detroit Louie shrugs.
“There ya go. I was hell on my mother, man. It’s really a weird circumstance. I’ve got two sisters and one brother, but there’s an entire generation between us. Which is why I’m–“‘
“Screwed up,” says Detroit Louie.
“Yeah. I’m dead serious, man. They screwed me all up. I didn’t grow up with kids. I grew up with adults.”
“You had no peers,” Detroit Louie offers.
“Right. And that’s no good, for the simple fact you get too precocious. Plus I didn’t have a stable childhood, as you can tell.”
“Nooooo,” says Detroit Louie sarcastically.
“I’m serious. Off the top of my head I can tell you eight schools I went to before I got outta high school. We were all over the city of Chicago, man. Ya ain’t got no continuity.”
“No good,” Detroit Louie says.
“My dad was absent. My dad was worse than absent. My dad was there when I was born, until I was six or seven, then he’d leave and come back after two or three years. Right now I wouldn’t even talk to him if he walked down the street. I don’t know him. I don’t care.”
“Is he alive?” asks Adam, who’s been listening.
“I have no idea. He left when I was 15–took my stereo, took ma’s fur coat to finance his ride. ”
“Was he a drunk?” asks Adam.
“No, he was an asshole, sure and simple. Ain’t no Oedipus complex here, Jack. He was a jerk.”
Later Bob reveals that he’s the one who’s caused prices at the Salvation Army to skyrocket. “In the old days, honey, there was so much treasure over there! Hmmmmmm. Unbelievable. How should I say–they caught on about five years ago. And in a way I helped them. My house was full. The garage was full. The basement. I only had a narrow aisle like this to get to my bed.” He holds his hands about a foot apart. “The treasure at Salvation Army was so cheap, $2 for a whole crate. I’d go through the crates and still fill up the whole house.” His voice drops to a whisper. “One day I slammed the door on my garage, something fell behind it, and I couldn’t get back into the garage.
“So one day Salvation Army got this new Indian girl, and I said, “Why don’t you buy some antique books and charge more money?’ And I’ll tell ya, nobody’s buyin’ at the stores now. They’re empty. Everybody’s buying at Value Discount because they’re priced right. Hi Ted!”
Ted is one of Bob’s regular customers, and he usually collects railroad memorabilia and maps. “I want china,” he tells Bob.
“A map of China?”
“No.” Ted shakes his head.
Bob offers a map of the Pennsylvania Railroad before it extended west. “Only goes up to Saint Louis!” he wheedles. Then he offers Ted some china from the Drake Hotel.
“I woulda thought you’d’ve sold that already,” says Ted.
“Well nobody comes in here,” Bob says and shrugs.
“Why are you here then?” Ted asks.
“I don’t know. We’re waitin’ for it to pick up. September. I gotta ride it out. Ride out August. See, there’s nobody here.”
Ted nods, then moves on without buying the Drake china.
It’s pouring out, and rain streams down the entrance ramps from the rooftop parking lot into the outer corridor. In front of Chris’s booth this week is a tiny toy sewing machine that’s built into a little blond-wood table. Adam is displaying a pair of black wooden church pews.
Michael Jackson has just been accused of child molesting, and Chris is disgusted that he isn’t being hustled back from a Thailand concert to face charges. “If that had been me–no fame, no fortune–I’da been in jail, man.” He throws his hands up. “Whether he did it or not, it’s over for him. I think they were right when they sent the guy over there to check on the suicide.”
“Oh?” Bob, who’s absently beating an old tambourine against his knee, is suddenly interested.
“They were worried about his mental state, because he’s not tightly wound to begin with,” Chris explains. “Do you think he did it?”
“Yes,” says Adam without hesitation.
“I thought we’d gone further than this, fellas! OK, he looks perverted, he looks like he could do it. But to say he did it on what you know–I don’t know.”
“I also think that’s why he left the country,” Adam says.
“Naw, he ain’t gonna mess up a multimillion-dollar concert tour.” Chris pauses. “Do you believe the father made it up and coached the kid?” he asks rhetorically. “Is Michael Jackson gonna jeopardize his entire reputation, his endorsements, his records, his fondness for kids–the guy lives in Oz, man–is he gonna jeopardize all this for 20 million when he has billions of dollars?”
Yet Chris doesn’t like seeing Jackson get special treatment. “The law, in order for it to be correct, has to be equally applied to everybody. The minute a law is applied to one and not another, I don’t respect the law. OK? And that’s the whole problem with the world. Nobody respects the law because the law has no self-respect. You’ve got cops out robbin’ grocery stores, you’ve got judges takin’ bribes–and none of ’em are being punished the way I would get punished. You get a judge for takin’ money for buyin’ off murder trials, for Christ’s sake, where do they send ’em? Some place that’s a fuckin’ federal resort. They got keys to their own bungalow, they go out and play tennis. And if I were to get caught they’d have me at 26th and Cal fightin’ with somebody over my Jell-O.”
“There’s nobody here,” says a disgusted Bob. The expected fall rush of customers escaping the cold weather of nearby Maxwell Street and other outdoor flea markets hasn’t materialized. “Did you read in the paper they’re gonna tear the building down?” he asks Gene, another vendor. “Somebody said they read it in the paper. They said no date and no time, but they are gonna tear it down.”
“I don’t think they’re gonna tear it down. What they’re talkin’ about is under the expressway,” Gene says vaguely. Gene is 50-ish, with salt-and-pepper hair and beard, a tiny braid hanging over his collar, and a small gold hoop earring.
“Actually, there’re so many good places near my house, Belmont and Damen, I could walk there!” Bob says, his face brightening.
“Yeah, but nothing’s happenin’ anywhere,” Gene says. “Why go somewhere else to sit on your ass?”
“We wait for God to evaluate,” Bob says. He looks sideways at a flea-market regular, commonly referred to as “the crazy guy,” who wanders through the flea market all day in various costumes. “Oh. I wouldn’t touch him with a stick.” Today the man’s wearing a black sweatsuit, and his head and extremities are wrapped in towels apparently meant to suggest bandages and casts.
“He puts his own casts on,” says Bob. “Sometimes he comes in here with a cast. Far as I can tell, he’s got a head injury today.”
“I think it’s mostly mental,” Gene says.
“I don’t–hate him,” says Bob unconvincingly. “But he’s nuts.”
Up the aisle Chris and Adam have set up chairs next to a huge dollhouse that Adam’s selling this week, and they’re poring over Chris’s parrot magazine. “Here, this is the kind of bird I’m talkin’ about,” says Chris. “A nice African gray. But they’re like four Gs, man. I traded a guy for a lupino cockatiel. I’m tryin’ to find somebody to trade me for a parrot.” He says the cockatiel, Chico, has flaming orange cheeks and lives in a macrame plant hanger in his living room.
Chris rummages around in his stuff and retrieves a pack of faded color photographs. “This is a raft trip I did down the Yukon River. That was 15 days. Me, Brian, and Vern. I was ridin’ my motorcycle to Alaska, wiped out on the bike, and sold it for $500. That’s our oar–a two-by-six.
“Now Vern was a fairly useless individual. He’s choppin’ wood on the raft–which I said wasn’t a very good idea to begin with–with my double-bladed ax. Gets done, he flips it into the end of the raft. On the far side of the bank there’s these big pine trees hangin’ down from erosion, and we’re headin’ under these things. So I’m running around the raft trying to lower the tent–I get hit by one of these sweepers, throws me back almost off the raft. The ax on the end of the raft is now gone.
“Next day Vern comes up. “Chris, lemme borrow your fishin’ pole.’ Now this is the only fishing pole we have. “OK Vern, don’t lose it. Don’t set it down. We’re on a river. We’re travelin’ eight miles an hour.’ “I know, I know. You don’t have to tell me all of that shit.’ About five minutes later I hear “Oh shit’ and a big commotion. Now ya gotta remember all this good stuff I bought was from the proceeds from my motorcycle. Vern ain’t got dime one. So we parted company real quick.
“And here’s me without a beard. That’s enough of that,” Chris says and hurriedly puts away the pictures.
“Whaddaya got a harelip or something?” says Adam. “Lemme see what you looked like.”
“Oh, it disappeared man. It ain’t here no more.” Chris grins and brings out some different pictures. “That’s the road goin’ to my claim. I had a gold claim 83 miles outside Fairbanks, Alaska. There’s my trees, there’s my valley. There’s the road to my claim and my little doggie, Charcoal. She’s still with me, I still have her. She’s goin’ on 13. Yeah, I found gold. But there was no women, man. I might be a tad antisocial, but I still like women. I put the gold in little bitty round jars, and I’d go down to Fairbanks and sell 5 dollars’ worth of gold to tourists for 15 bucks. If I coulda found a woman, I’d still be there.”
Today the crazy guy is wearing a black glitter jumpsuit and black shiny knee-high boots, a cross between a disco dancer and the gestapo. No one gives him a second glance.
Chris is eating a sky-blue Freez-A-Pop and reading a parrot magazine. “You’re watchin’ the transition,” he says confidently, waving at a few customers. “Everybody who’s here would normally be outside. But the weather’s gettin’ cool and damp–they don’t wanna be outside in the cold. That’s why I don’t understand folks leavin’ now.”
He means vendors, who have trickled away over the last few months, leaving most aisles with at least one blank cement space instead of a booth crowded with vintage tuxedo jackets, pre-Depression Christmas ornaments, old rhinestone jewelry. “They went through the summer–the summer’s the worst. If you’re gonna get out, get out last spring.”
But the aisles are still mainly empty. Detroit Louie has cut back his South Loop visits, and another vendor just picked up and moved to Alabama.
A cop passes by, apparently browsing. “They got a hot sheet they’re checkin’ from, here and on Maxwell,” Chris explains. He says he once bought a $20 modern sculpture of a cat on Maxwell Street that turned out to be worth $25,000. The police confiscated it, and he never got any more information on it.
Irene, a pretty ten-year-old Latina, is playing a toy trumpet in Bob’s new booth. He’s moved to a space across from El Taco Place, the South Loop’s only food outlet, which consists of a counter and several booths set on the concrete floor. Irene’s parents run El Taco Place, so the flea market is her weekend playground.
“It’s yours,” Bob tells Irene, referring to the trumpet. “I give it to you for a present.”
“Are you serious?” Irene can’t believe her good fortune. She skips off.
Bob starts talking about being a Buddhist. He says he gave a friend a ride to a Buddhist meeting in about 1970 and ended up joining. “I said, well, sounds all right. That everything in life was based on cause and effect. That’s the main tenet. If you make a good cause, you get benefits. If you make a bad cause, you get punishment.”
He’s half Jewish, but grew up Catholic. It didn’t stick. Buddhism, he thinks, has value. “We chant “nam myo-ho reng-e kyo.’ Say it.”
I try and fail miserably.
“Good. Now just do it for two more hours. No, do it as long as you want. Three minutes, eight hours. That’s the only tenet.”
“You and me are the only vehicles parked up in the parking lot,” says a vendor who’s come over to browse.
“The world is coming to an end,” Bob says. “I think they’re gonna tear this building down. It’s gonna go along with Jewtown.”
They get into a discussion of Rostenkowski’s property taxes, then trade bad-tenant stories. “I went to building court,” says Bob, “and then I was really scared–because the judge was a Polack with a big pompadour. Gray hair and a big pompadour.”
What was so scary?
“Money talks,” Bob says cryptically, then lowers his voice. “All the judges are crooked.”
What does that have to do with being Polish?
“Oh, old establishment. He had the big pompadour! Fifty-five years old and he combed his hair like a 15-year-old. Don’t that tell ya somethin’? I’m afraid of people like that. Anyway, he let me off because I chanted the day before. See, with Buddhism, it’s like–you change reality when you chant.”
Bob has added to his collection a whole box of little round tubes about four inches high that are filled with a green waxy substance. “The Original Kru Kut,” reads the label. “It’s too early for you,” Bob explains. “Remember when crew cuts were in and your hair stood up? No, you don’t. That was the 50s. This is the original stuff. It makes it real stiff, porcupine. Still good too. A little old.”
Bob has officially switched from his Hawaiian shirt to what he calls his winter attire: jeans, Nikes, a blue chalk-stripe jacket, and an old brown fedora. Management has called a vendors’ meeting. “Maybe he’ll give us the news that we’re gonna close,” Bob says, meaning Andy, the alleged building manager.
“He says, “Give me new ideas on how to get new people in here.’ The first thing I told him was advertising. What he said was, well, they want to advertise on the Spanish station–it’ll be $10,000 a month. And I said, “Well, why don’t you put a sign across Roosevelt Road that says flea market? That won’t cost $10,000 a month.’ They never put up the sign. He’ll take all the ideas, and then he’ll do what he wants to do.”
The meeting is in the Green Room, which used to house the vendors now set up in the corridor. A year ago the vendors were herded out of the Green Room to make room for the auctions, creating a simmering feud over the building’s heat. The corridor is impossible to heat due to the peculiar layout of the building, so the Antique Room doors are flung open in a vain attempt to share warm air. The effect is like turning off the heat.
About 50 vendors eventually straggle in and sit on folding chairs set up in front of a small paneled counter that looks like a basement rec-room bar made by a bad handyman.
“I thought he was calling us together to tell us he was closing,” says Bob. “There’s no hope for this place. “All ye who enter these portholes abandon hope.’ Hahahaha!”
“Portals. Portals,” says an irritated Chris. “Nobody can fit through a porthole on their best day.” He tilts his chair back. “Ain’t nothin’ gonna fuckin’ happen, man,” he grumbles.
Finally Andy appears, a tall silver-haired man who looks somewhat like Bob Uecker. He gets right to the point. “There’s a lot of rumors going around. One is that we’re gonna close down. That’s a lie. Two, three years from now, I don’t know. I don’t own the building. But as far as this market closing, no. It could be the back half could get torn down for a trolley system, but the last I saw, the paper said that might be too expensive.
“Winter’s coming. I know it gets cold in here, and we’re going to try to do the best we can with what we have. Electric heaters, they eat up the juice unbelievable, and I have to pay for it. I’ve never charged for electric, but when it comes to electric heaters I have to charge something. Three dollars a weekend. I don’t want to do it, but I have to.”
“Andy, nobody brought heaters in until there was no heat,” Bob calls out.
“Is this open for comments now?” Chris asks.
“No, I’ve got a few other things,” says Andy.
“Uh-hunh,” Chris mutters, folding his arms and slumping in his chair.
“Uhhhh . . . Maxwell Street,” Andy continues. “They’ve been talking about closing it forever, but I think it’s coming to the point that they’re going to do something. The last I heard was they were thinking about blocking Clinton. How true that is, I don’t know. When you’re dealing with the city things can change at any time.”
“OK, how many vendors are in the corridor?” Chris pipes up.
“Twenty, 25,” Andy says.
“You’re going to inconvenience and make a cold winter for us for a few people to keep these doors open–that’s the whole heating problem,” says Chris.
Throughout the room people murmur “That’s true.”
“We’re given two summers of no air conditioning, a winter with no heat–because we’re trying to heat that corridor,” Chris insists, his voice rising.
A large 30-ish black man leaning against Andy’s counter answers Chris. “I’m in the tunnel. You’re saying it would be more cost efficient we should move?”
“Yeah. Why should we all be cold when we could all be warm?” says Chris, his voice just below a yell.
“And you’re saying we use too much heat?” the man at the counter asks.
“Don’t get personal,” says Chris.
“You don’t have to shout,” the man says calmly.
“I talk loud. Forgive me, man. I worked at the airport for four years,” says Chris, making an effort to speak calmly too, though he’s still all but shouting.
“The issue is, we need people coming in here spending money,” says the man.
An older black man sitting in back speaks up. “That’s not gonna get no heat.”
“What I’m saying is, let’s say we pay that money for electric heaters. Fine. Let’s move on,” says the man at the counter.
“You’re not being logical, my friend,” Chris says. He’s shouted down by Andy, the man at the counter, and an apparently anti-Chris contingent. “OK, OK, OK,” he says.
“When I have these guys come in for the heat, I’ll ask them how high we can get it up,” says Andy.
A long debate on promoting the flea market ensues. Andy exhorts the vendors to come in on time. Others call for advertising.
Althea, an older, heavy black woman with graying hair, stands and gives a rousing speech. “I guess I’ve been here as long as anyone else, and the judge didn’t sentence me, nor did Andy put a gun to my head. I’m here because I wanted to come. There’s times when this place’ll make you cry. It’s not gonna change. One day I made $2,000. This place’ll break you or make you. We have to stop pulling apart and pull together. This is a small business. You are a small businessperson. But you’re not acting like one. A lot of vendors are telling people we’re going out of business. You’re shooting yourself in the foot. We have to advertise. I’m gonna pay my $3 for heat. When you get old you need heat. If we have to pay for it, I will. We have to do what we can do.” She sits down to resounding applause.
But the meeting deteriorates, and finally Andy asks people to pick up fliers and hang them up in their neighborhoods. Bob shakes his head on the way out. “He won’t put up a $50 banner. Why should he advertise? He listens, and then he’ll do what he wants.”
Chris is showing movies in a space that opened up when two more vendors fled the market this past month. He’s bundled up with a hat, scarf, and gloves. The corridor has sucked the heat out of the Antique Room. “I got some great 50s lounge acts, stuff from the 40s. It’s hysterical,” he promises happily. Spirits are up. Everyone expects a big flow of Christmas shoppers soon, if not today.
Charcoal, the Alaska gold-claim dog, had to visit the vet for a bad nail, Chris reports. “The vet ripped the nail out–literally. Didn’t give her Novocain, didn’t give her nothin’. I felt like punchin’ him out. He says “OK, hang on to her.’ I figure he’s gonna give her a shot of Novocain, and I’m tellin’ her it’s gonna be all right. And he reaches over, grabs her toe, and just went–” He demonstrates a yanking motion. “When he did it her whole body just convulsed, and she starts crying. And I’m in the middle of it. I’m the good guy, the guy she trusts, you know? Oh well, life goes on.” He sighs.
Chris’s projector is propped up on three plastic milk cartons, a screen is tacked to a booth wall, and everyone is sitting on folding chairs. After some skimpily dressed singing carhops, a mediocre belly dancer appears in a bit entitled “Turkish Delight.”
Steve, the Czechoslovakian, wanders over. “I used to be photographer. I used to take pictures like this. Lots of pictures like this. It was my whole life! I used to spend all my money at cabarets! I like oriental music,” he says wistfully.
“This is Turkish,” Chris corrects him.
“Yeah, oriental,” Steve says.
Adam arrives in time to see an extremely well endowed woman in a harem outfit simply sway and move her arms slightly.
“This poor lady I feel for,” says Chris. “There’s only one reason she’s up there.”
Millie, a buxom vendor with a friendly, low voice, crows, “Ya’ll wanna see the real thing, let me get undressed!” Everybody laughs, and after a while she adds in an awed voice, “Her boobs are so heavy she can’t hardly move!”
“This is a real cute episode,” says Chris as titles come up for “The Doll Dance.” A marionette does a tame striptease and winks, then the scene cuts to a real woman dressed like the puppet. She imitates the puppet, and the two alternate, removing more and more clothing.
“I wish I had that puppet,” Adam says thoughtfully.
“Why Adam, what do you have in mind?” someone hoots.
Adam blushes. “No, just ’cause it’s old!” he protests.
“My sister was a stripper, my third wife was a stripper, and my daughter’s a stripper,” Gene announces.
“Notice the flesh-colored panties. They’re all a tease,” says Chris.
“But I like that,” says Gene. “These days they lay down and–” He waves his arms vaguely. “And all that crap. Back then they really stripped, they had an act.”
Later Bob says nothing came of the vendors’ meeting. “He won’t turn our heat on,” he says, meaning Andy. “I wear long underwear. I know how to deal with it. But he’s punishing us.”
For what? Complaining about the heat?
“No, for bitching about his leadership. I’m trying to get out of here. I’m just slow and inefficient. I take stuff home every week.” He thinks he might move to the Morgan Market. Or take a vacation. “But maybe not. I’m very indecisive.”
It’s the last shopping weekend before Christmas, and South Loop is nearly devoid of customers. Bob is lounging in his booth, and Irene is goofing around with a pair of tap shoes he has. “Sing for the people!” Bob commands, but Irene just laughs and keeps tapping. “She’s shy now, but she sings for me,” he insists.
Chris has bad news about Charcoal, who’s seeing a different vet now. “Horrible, horrible, horrible. She has cancer. It went from her toe here. They did a biopsy and found it cancerous. And from the time it took them to do that operation–the stitches weren’t even out–her back paw got a tumor on it under the nail. So the vet says it doesn’t look good.
“Plus she’s layin’ on the couch. She gets up to drink, eat, and poop, and that’s it. I come home–she doesn’t get up to greet me like she used to. I’ve been thinkin’ about it all weekend. She’s a great dog, a wonderful dog. She’s been to Alaska with me, through Canada. She’s ridden on a raft, she rode on my motorcycle. Chasing sea gulls on mud flats in Seattle. It was fun. And then I go over and tell the pet-store owner, and he says, “Oh well, you get a little cancer and you’re gonna kill it?’ I was ready to punch him in the mouth. Like I’m not bein’ whipsawed enough.”
Today it’s subzero. The snow on the roof parking lot is completely undisturbed by customers’ cars. Inside seems even colder, though you can escape the windchill factor as long as you don’t pass any vents. Chris has his chair pulled up to a small electric heater strapped to a two-by-four.
Irene is in Chris’s booth trying to play an old game called “Tippecanoe,” which involves guiding a marble along wooden sticks to the bottom of a box. “It needs a smaller marble,” Chris tells her. “Go see if Uncle Bob’s got a smaller marble.”
The crazy guy passes by dressed as a scuba diver.
“Man, if things don’t shape up I’m gonna get outta here,” says Chris. “Now you get 50 people all day, and if you don’t bend over for ’em they don’t want it. Andy hasn’t done anything. He’s dinkin’ with us. He’s just takin’ a free ride.”
Bob is sipping coffee at El Taco Place, talking about the Bobbitts. He didn’t see the trial, but as an inveterate watcher of talk shows, he feels he’s seen all the evidence. “He was there with Jenny Jones. Boy, she turned red a few times. Actually I believe him. He seems to have very high morals. He was a marine. I sense things from people, even on TV.”
“I think she’s a squawlin’ little bitch,” says Chris, who’s just walked up. “Nobody was holdin’ her in that apartment, nobody was holdin’ her in that relationship. I use the same logic with this as that other trial, the Menendez trial. They coulda left at any time. I also heard that she was the one that was insatiable, that she used to demand sex from him. He’d work 18 hours and come home, and if he couldn’t get it up for her, she’d be in a stiff mood, man.”
I say I don’t remember that from the trial.
“No, this was on the shows,” Chris and Bob say together.
“It’s been on a lot of shows,” Bob assures me. “Been on Hard Copy too, I think.”
So what was her motive?
“Woman scorned,” says Chris. “Her husband can’t lay her, so he musta been layin’ somebody else.”
“No, not quite that–she was just pissed off,” says Bob. “I know you’re young and you maybe don’t understand the difference in nationalities. Women from South America are very hot.”
“Filipinos, even,” says Chris.
“They’re very hot, especially young ones. It’s like these teenagers who stand on the corners, Puerto Ricans? Very hot. They’re kinda like Italians. They’ll shoot ya, and then they’ll cry because they’re sorry.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean it!” Chris squawks sarcastically.
“Right, right. Just at that minute they’ll take out a big knife and kill ya. And then they’ll be sorry–but that’s the Italians and South Americans. You probably think I’m being racist or something, but I’m half Italian.”
Later, back at Chris’s booth, a twentysomething guy in a big letter jacket strikes a deal for a bunch of old school pennants. “The Morgan Street market, do you know where that is?” he asks while Chris gives him change.
“Uh, yup. But I ain’t gonna tell ya, man,” Chris says, grinning.
“But I just made a purchase!” the young man protests.
“Yeah, but you chiseled me two dollars,” Chris says. He tells the guy anyway.
“Thanks!” the young man says, smiling.
“There’s no heat over there either!” Chris yells after him.
The pipes are frozen throughout the building, and everyone is reduced to patronizing two Porta Pottis near the Roosevelt entrance. Irene and her little brother are goofing around in Bob’s booth, the little boy stomping around in a pair of giant mukluks that Bob’s selling for $100. He puts on a huge fur coat that goes down to his ankles. “Hey, Bob,” he yells, and thumps his chest like a gorilla. Irene whacks her brother over the head.
Bob is worried about Lorena Bobbitt’s not-guilty verdict. “It’s a bad stroke for women. She just lied! Oh, now this is not good in the universe.” He spots Irene’s brother in the mukluks.”Take your shoes off! You’ll get them all dirty inside! Oh, you got your shoes off? OK. If you got your shoes off it’s all right.”
He comes back to Lorena. “Actually, I felt sorry for the poor girl. I said “Oh, shoulda been found guilty because you made such a wave in the universe.’ Y’know what I mean? She made a heavy cause. She screwed all the women.”
What does Lorena Bobbitt have to do with anyone else–me, for instance?
“You have collective karma with her because you’re a woman.”
Why don’t you have collective karma with her because you’re both human beings?
“Well, that too. But because she’s a woman, as you make an outline–you’re one step ahead of me because you’re a woman.”
Chris is walking back from the auction, adding up his take on a piece of cardboard torn from a box. “Let me total up my vast wealth here, see if I eat beans or steak this week,” he cackles. He comes up with $120. “Not bad. Got rid of all my junk. Ah, ha ha! That means steak this week darlin’, it sure does.”
“I give up,” says Chris as the crazy guy passes by. He’s dressed, possibly, as a World War I fighter pilot; he’s wearing a black sweatsuit and a black knit cap and has goggles on his forehead.
The postholiday rush hasn’t materialized either, and Chris is less optimistic about business. “I’m hangin’ on, though. I’m waitin’ to see where Maxwell Street goes. If they’re near here, it’ll work. If they’re not, I don’t know. I’m not makin’ anything here. I’m lookin’ at a store on Foster right near the house. I’m goin’ in with my sister. She’ll live in the apartment, and I’m gonna have the store.”
Steve’s been listening while he warms himself near Chris’s heater. “This is a good idea. This is one idea good,” he says, grinning.
“I had a rotten year,” Chris sighs. “Charcoal developed cancer–you remember that. Took her in to the vet, and he says her kidneys were failing, she wouldn’t have more than six months. And I says, well, it’s time. And then three days later Chico bought it. Just fell off her perch. That all happened within a week. I cried for two days.”
Bob’s lost his brown fedora and has to make do with a knit Bears cap. Maxwell Street doesn’t interest him. “Do you see Oprah much? She did a show this week on those organ transplants. She had on people who, if they signed their license, they woulda had their organs taken right out. People thought they were dead, but then they made a complete recovery. I used to sign my card, but not anymore. I could be at the brink of death, and they could say, “This guy’s got a pretty good heart, and that guy needs a heart–why not help him along?’ Put a pillow over my head or something.”
Detroit Louie packed up his permanent booth last week, though he says he intends to come back on a transient basis. The papers report that the Maxwell Street Market is moving by April 1 to Canal between 12th and 15th streets, bordering the South Loop building. It’s the headline on the Tribune’s Chicagoland section. Several vendors are discussing it at a jewelry booth across from El Taco Place.
“I think Andy’s gonna screw it up,” says Chris. “He’s gonna wait too long, and we should be in place now.”
Bob walks up with an old glass lamp shade, the kind that hangs by chains from the ceiling. Chris needs the chains to fix a shade he has that some customers are interested in. “Yeah, these are just the right size too. I’ll give ya a quarter for ’em.”
“Andy’s got a five-year lease on the building,” someone says.
“That’s not what he told me,” says Chris. “He told me he don’t even have control of the building. He spins so much shit you can’t tell it from the flowers.”
Millie arrives carrying the Tribune. “It ain’t done yet,” she declares.
A whole chorus answers her: “But Daley’s pushin’ it!”
“They gonna open them dock doors?” Millie wonders.
“I told Andy I want one of them dock doors or I leave,” says Chris, heading off to show his customers the lamp chains.
“I don’t care what they do,” says Bob. “It’s worth me staying here another month, I guess.”
Chris comes storming back. “I got the chains to fix that lamp, and those three cows that were in the stall broke it and left without saying anything. Fuck it.”
“We’re all happy campers today,” someone says. “The Maxwell move is supposed to be on April Fool’s Day.”
“And we’re gonna be the fuckin’ fools, ’cause we ain’t gonna be there,” says Chris. “I hate bein’ on a boat when I can’t steer. Y’know?”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.