Tony Bacon is a 55-year-old south-side resident who works as a custodian for the Chicago Public Schools. —Ben Joravsky
My family’s been in Chicago for a long time, but I’m the first and only Bacon to work for the Board of Education. My dad was a hat maker—he had a store on 47th Street, right off of King Drive. After he passed, my brother ran it.
My dad was Arthur. My brother was Arthur Jr., but everyone called him Butch. He died a few years ago, and now the store is vacant. But you ask a lot of folks on the south side, and they’ll tell you about Bacon’s Hatters. We sold a lot of hats.
I never was in the hat business. I became what they call a window trimmer. I learned to decorate windows. At that particular time, there were a lot of Korean merchants coming into the neighborhoods and they would hire me to set up their stores. I’d put the clothes in the window, that sort of thing.
One day a man named Ed Edwards, who used to be a customer of my dad, asked me if I was looking for a job. I said yeah. He said, “Well, they’re hiring custodial workers at the Board of Education.” I went right down and signed up. That was 1994 and I’ve been here ever since.
First, they sent me to the Blaine School over on Southport. But after about two weeks I wound up at Franklin Fine Arts school in Old Town. I don’t know why they sent me there, but I’m glad they did. I love that school.
I worked the six to 2:30 shift. I was the first one in every morning. I was the guy who opened the building. I took out the garbage, swept the floors—you know, usual stuff. The kids were great. We had all kinds of kids—black, white, Hispanic. It was really mixed at Franklin. They’d see me and start smiling. They would tell me what’s going on in the school. You know, you can’t keep the secrets from the kids.
It was a great job. Career service—benefits, vacation. Make pretty good money, buy a house, raise a family. That sort of thing. That’s why they call it career service, ’cause you can make a career out of it.
But here’s the thing—I was the last of the career service. After that year, the board stopped hiring custodians and started awarding contracts to different companies. The companies hired their own guys, and their guys made less money than me. You had custodians working side by side, doing the same thing, but getting two different pay scales. The private company guys are making around $14 an hour, and we get around $20. It never caused any tension. But it was two-tier, just the same.
Earlier this year, the board moved me out of Franklin. They sent me to the Darwin School over in Logan Square. It was sad when I left—I wanted to stay at Franklin. But it wasn’t my decision. The principal wanted to keep me. But she couldn’t do anything about it. The board was shifting custodians around.
My fifth-grade daughter goes to Franklin. I still drive her to school from our home on 83rd Street. Then I go to work at Darwin. I asked the union if they could do something about it. But the union guy told me, “Just be happy you got a job.”
Now they’re talking about closing more schools. There will be even fewer jobs. Everything’s changing. It’s the way of the world, man.