By Neal Pollack
Wherever Stanley Oles walks in Pilsen, he’s surrounded by children, like Hans Christian Andersen in old Copenhagen, or Willy Wonka in his chocolate factory.
“Hey Stosh!” the kids shout. “Hey Stosh!”
Since 1947 Oles has worked the counter of a small general store on the first floor of a three-flat near the corner of 17th and Wood. He sells all varieties of candy, ice cream, bubble gum, soda pop, chips, and baseball cards, and almost nothing costs more than 50 cents. Oles has been called Stosh for as long as he can remember. Once upon a time some neighborhood kid couldn’t pronounce Stanley, and Stosh stuck. The Mexican kids used to call him “El Polaco,” which he found amusing but not particularly good for business.
“Everybody knows Stosh,” says Pete Rodriguez, who’s been stopping by the store for nearly 40 years. “You gotta know Stosh.”
Now men and women who used to be his customers are bringing in their own kids. “You still here?” they say. “I can’t believe it.”
“Aw, shit,” says Stosh. “I’m 72 years old. I’m a bachelor. Think I’m gonna go to the suburbs and stare at four walls all day?”
Stosh is a tiny man with big eyes, pants hiked up high, and a full head of hair that’s not entirely his own. In warm months, he sits on his stoop in a rusty brown colored chair, mumbling about the White Sox and waiting for the kids to stop by. If they don’t come, he’s usually visited by folks from the old neighborhood, Polish or Mexican, depending on which old neighborhood you’re talking about. If things are slow, he’ll invite visitors back to his kitchen behind the store for a snack or a game of cards. If the trickle of kids is steady, he’ll sling the bull from behind the counter.
A nearly toothless hulk named Ray stopped in the other day. He was wearing a T-shirt that read “R & R Sewerage,” and he smelled of his day’s labor.
“Hey, whaddya say, you bum?” called Stosh. “You finished that job?”
“Five thousand dollars!” said Ray.
“Five hundred dollars?”
“Whaddya, Polish?” Ray said, pointing at Stosh. “I don’t like him. I just put up with him because I’m in da business what cleans up da shit. You talk to dis guy? I wouldn’t.”
Another man walked in to buy a pack of gum and said: “It’s unavoidable. Every day of my adult life, I have to put up with Stosh. Is there any wonder why I turned out the way I did?”
“You coulda been a Polish Michael Jordan,” Ray said to the guy. Then he turned to Stosh and added, “If we were to interview your customers, the majority of people we would interview would not like you.”
“That’s not true,” Stosh said. “I don’t take their money. I undercharge them.”
“Don’t take their money? Then what the fuck are you doing?”
“I,” he said proudly, “am providing a service.”
“Eh shaddup, you cranky old brick,” Ray said. “I come in here smelling like shit, and he treats me like shit.”
Stosh grinned and waved Ray away.
Every morning at five, Stosh drives a mile to a warehouse near downtown to buy candy and snacks, which is cheaper, he says, than having the stuff delivered. By 7:30 he’s open, having put out the Tribune and Sun-Times in neat stacks on the counter. Business is generally good all morning. Around 10:30 he locks the shop and drives to the southwest side for lunch. He likes the Burbank, a diner at 79th and Cicero, but sometimes eats at a few other places. He hasn’t supped in the neighborhood for a while, though he used to down five bowls of Bishop’s Chili in one sitting. But his stomach can’t take the beating anymore, and besides, Bishop’s has been bought by the city, which will build a school on the property at 18th and Damen.
Ole’s Store, as it reads on the front window, is open again by 1:00, when kids start getting out of school. Certain items–like Cool Ranch Doritos, Jalape–o Fritos, and batteries, which are needed for Game Boys–move quickly. Others–like old bottles of Vitalis and nail-polish remover–tend to stay on the shelves. Stosh does a steady business selling packs of Trojans. He has no shame.
“Look,” he whispers, furtively opening a cigar box under the counter, “they got colored ones.”
Other items of interest include a copy of the March 1997 issue of Chicago magazine headlined “How to Remodel and Avoid Disaster,” a book called Valiant Companions: Helen Keller and Her ‘Miracle’ Worker, and a copy of Picture Week magazine from October 20, 1986. These are still for sale, Stosh says, along with ancient bottles of arthritis salve, Mexican votive candles, and dice, which go for 40 cents apiece.
Lately Stosh has been receiving offers from real estate companies looking to buy his building, but he doesn’t bite. His neighbors up and down 17th Street have been getting similar proposals. One day an old friend named Juan Santiago came in to buy a newspaper. A driving rainstorm hit, so Juan and Stosh sat on the porch, under a tin awning. Juan showed him a mailing from the real estate company Habitat.
“Brick 6 Flat with side Lot,” it read. “$214,000. HOT PILSON AREA!”
“Heck, that’s cheap,” Stosh said. “They’re not giving a good price for it.”
“They want to move us out,” said Juan.
For years, Juan’s been buying up buildings on the block, waiting for the boom. “They don’t want our buildings,” he said. “The buildings are over 100 years old. They just want the land for condominiums.”
Stosh said his mother bought their building for slightly more than nothing. “My house is 50 feet long,” he said. “Years ago, I coulda bought this house next door for $5,700. Three stories!”
After the rain, the kids started pouring in again.
“What kinda candy you got?”
“Apple, cherry,” said Stosh. “You want apple?”
“Gimme some candy,” they said.
Stosh sat in his brown chair and looked up and down the block. The streets were still slick from the rain. He regarded the two-flats and three-flats, the tarred and broken sidewalks, the strollers dodging potholes, the chipped and bent window frames, the tough-looking guys standing on the corner. From Stosh’s chair, things looked a lot like they did 50 years ago, only better. The Mexicans, he said, give him far more business than the Poles ever did.
“I’da been outta business a long time ago without these Mexicans,” he said. “Eh, this neighborhood had it good until…”
He looked down the street again. Some kids came running.
“Actually,” he said, “now that I think about it, it still ain’t all that bad.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Nathan Mandell.