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Entrepreneurs: Soul Food Salvation

A StreetWise vendor turns chef.

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Soul Food Night

WHEN Wed 3/21

WHERE Union Tavern, 2858 N. Halsted

PRICE $10

INFO 773-755-9870

WHEN Thu 3/29

WHERE Lawry's Tavern, 1028 W. Diversey

PRICE $10

INFO 773-348-9711

On a cold Thursday evening last month, five Sterno-warmed aluminum pans filled with fried chicken, catfish, ribs, candied yams, and red beans and rice were laid out on the pool table at the rear of Lawry's Tavern, a quiet bar at Diversey and Sheffield. Hunched over in the bar's tiny kitchen, Everett Atkinson plunked floured legs and thighs into a bubbling fryer to add to the spread. Atkinson, 55, has been a clothing salesman, "the first black bouncer on the north side," a cocaine addict, a StreetWise vendor and an advocate for the homeless. With his new monthly soul food nights, he's added caterer to his resume.

Atkinson, who grew up in Lawndale in the 50s and 60s, remembers his mother, Goldie, cooking for housefuls of friends and relatives visiting from her native Arkansas. He idolized her--and loved her food--but when she got sick, he took over the kitchen.

"My ma said, 'You like this soul food so good, I'm gonna teach you in case you get married and your wife can't cook it,'" he says.

His mother died when he was 19, and Atkinson, who's six-foot-seven, found work at a series of big-and-tall clothing stores. Until several years ago he worked off and on as a bouncer at nightclubs all over the north and south sides. Owners sought him out, he says, not just because he was big but because he was diplomatic. "The thing with being a bouncer is keeping the peace," he says. "You'll fight if you have to, but I think as a bouncer I've only had like maybe six fights. Usually the only ones that really try to fight are the little short guys."

Early on Atkinson developed a problem with drugs--crack and cocaine--never in short supply when he was working the clubs. He says he spent a few months in jail in the early 80s for kicking in someone's door. "In my delusional state I thought I heard my girlfriend having sex in a neighbor's apartment."

He made it through rehab a few times, but kept getting hooked again, and after landing a job at the Riviera in the late 80s, he hit rock bottom. "That was sex, drugs, and everything goes, baby," he says. "People would just give me a gram of cocaine. It's all good when they're giving it to you, but then when you gotta start paying for it it's all different."

No longer able to hold down a job or pay the rent, he bounced from hotels to friends' houses. "When you're doing drugs and you got money you can stay over anybody's house. But when that money runs out, you run out. You gotta go."

Atkinson started selling StreetWise in 1992, the year it launched, and says that's what turned him around. "After three or four months I made a decision I want to live. I don't want to do this anymore. People are giving me a chance so I want to change my life. I asked God to take the taste out of my mouth and the thought out of my mind and it happened."

He went on to write a column about his life for the paper and has been a fixture in front of the Walgreens at Diversey and Halsted for 15 years. Over that time he has gotten to know many of his StreetWise customers, who've offered him food, shelter, and odd jobs on top of his bouncer gigs. In 2004 he was approached separately by two regulars--a student from UIC and an instructor from Loyola--who were eager to do something more. Because Atkinson had enjoyed his experience as a columnist, he suggested a program to help fellow StreetWise vendors develop their writing skills. The schools ended up hosting weekly tutoring sessions over two semesters. Atkinson helped with recruiting and fund-raising, while students provided the tutoring. Later another program was hosted at DePaul.

Atkinson continues to move in and out of homelessness, however, and standing on that corner is taking its toll. He suffers from the painful effects of peripheral vascular disease, a narrowing of the arteries that carry blood to the legs, and he'd like to find a different way to get by.

About a year and a half ago he approached the owner of the Union Tavern, a Halsted Street sports bar that had held fund-raisers for his writing programs. "I said, 'I want to raise money.' And he said, 'Well what do you want to raise money for this time, Everett?' I said, 'For me.'"

Atkinson started cooking his mother's food at the Union once a month and added another monthly dinner at Lawry's after an employee discovered him there.

He gets a lot of help from his StreetWise customers, who've fronted him start-up money, printed his flyers and business cards--"Chef Everett, Catering"--and shown up faithfully to eat once a month. One paid $400 for a course and fees so Atkinson could get his sanitation certificates from the city and the National Restaurant Association. This winter he's been staying down the street from Lawry's at the home of Allen Goldberg, a retired pediatrician who hasn't missed Soul Food Night since it started.

"He has a bunch of people that believe in him," says Goldberg. "For good reason. He's an honest guy who's trying to do a very wonderful thing. Everyone's had a story. I've been down to losing everything once. We all have, and we all came back from it hopefully. And he's gonna do the same thing."

Atkinson aims to launch a full-time catering operation on the north side. He first needs to draw up a business plan and save for liability insurance so he can rent a kitchen and start applying for loans.

For now, he sells tickets to his soul food nights (mostly to his StreetWise customers) in advance for $10. He cooks the third Wednesday of the month at the Union and the last Thursday of the month at Lawry's. Last month's event at Lawry's drew 14 guests. The catfish was particularly good, cornmeal dusted, crispy, and greaseless. Within an hour and a quarter, everything was gone.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.

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