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Pay Phone



The Korean woman who ran the little grocery store in the middle of my block wasn't about to win any popularity contests with her neighbors, even before she had a public telephone installed out front. It was ostensibly a neighborhood store, the neighborhood being Ravenswood Manor, a tiny island of comfortable suburbia surrounded by less palatable sections of the north side of the city. But why anybody would shop there was beyond me.

Only in dire emergency would a neighbor venture into the store. Items on the shelves seemed never to move, cans of soup, bottles of barbecue sauce, and boxes of cereal becoming coated with layers of dust and grease. The freezer case was half empty; the first time I was bold enough to slide its grimy door open I discovered a few frozen pizzas whose expiration dates had passed mixed in with a selection of cheap sunglasses and purses. Depending, apparently, on how much money the woman wanted to spend on that month's electric bill, either the pizzas were soft and soggy or the vinyl purses were stiff from the cold.

Then there was the woman herself. Her face was grim, and her eyes narrowed whenever a customer walked through the door. More often than not, she'd be involved in a raucous phone discussion in Korean. She'd continue arguing, spitting words into the phone behind the counter even when I had a question or was ready to pay for my goods. Finally she'd punch numbers into her yellowed mechanical cash register and stare at me impatiently, expecting me to read the total myself. Then she'd dump the change into my hand and resume her argument as if I didn't exist. She was the meanest merchant I'd ever seen.

One day she carried a pail of water outside the store and proceeded to wash the sidewalk. I thought this strange since the floor inside had a tacky feel like an old movie theater's. She ran water down the expansion grooves of the concrete, and a few moments later brought out a couple of raggedy floor mats and washed them down. Her task finished, she lugged the soapy pail to the curb and heaved its contents into the street. A car was passing just as she tossed it and passed perfectly through the end point of the arc. The driver slammed on his brakes and jumped out of the car. "What the hell you doin'?" he shouted.

The woman ignored him, blithely wiping her hands together.

"Hey," the driver yelled again. "Whaddya throwin' water on my car for?"

She spun on her heel and launched into a tirade in Korean. Finished, she waved at him as if swatting a fly away. The driver, speechless, got into his car and drove off. At that moment I vowed never to buy even a newspaper from her again.

One spring day workers installed a public phone in front of the store. The woman stood on the sidewalk in the sun and supervised their every move, her arms folded across her chest. They were finished in less than an hour. For the rest of the day she came out and monitored how quickly the cement that held the phone stand's base to the sidewalk was drying.

Within days the store became busier. The phone was the draw. Sometimes people would wait two or three at a time for their turn on the phone. Most of the callers were young, in their teens through early 20s, and apparently from the west, Cobra turf. A young girl would whisper into the phone for more than an hour after dinnertime, and I'd imagine she was calling some boyfriend her parents had forbidden her to see. A trio of boys with sparse facial hair would take turns talking to someone on the line, and I'd fear plans were being made for further graffiti decoration of the nearby Ravenswood el stop. Others who used the phone seemed to be poor, unable to afford a home phone. Many callers hung up, eyed the grocery store, and decided, what the hell--may as well grab a bag of chips and a can of Coke. The woman punched numbers into her old register more than ever. If that made her happier, she didn't let on. She argued as long and vehemently as before with her phone pal.

Soon neighbors on the block were being awakened night after night by people using the public phone. At 3 AM the sound of coins dropping into the slot sounded like garbage-can lids being dropped from the roof of a three-story building. We heard every word of every late-night conversation.

One night a girl spoke loudly and at length about her new boyfriend. Neighbors learned how cute he was, what a bitch his mother was, why he had no need to continue attending high school, and how often he liked to have sex. At 1:30 AM a neighbor finally leaned out his window and informed the girl that most people were trying to sleep. "Oh, OK," she replied. Into the phone she said, "We gotta keep it down," then continued conversing as loud as before.

Each day neighbors would commiserate about the previous night's disturbance. One woman confessed she was a terrifically light sleeper. She said once she was awakened by a caller she wouldn't be able to fall back to sleep for the rest of the night. She vowed if she had half a chance she'd brain the store owner. Her husband calmed her down and promised he'd try to reason with the owner. A week later he reported that he'd asked the owner if she wouldn't please have the phone moved inside her store. Absolutely not, she said. How could people use it when the store was closed? The man asked her why she even needed a public phone. I need the money, she spat, and turned her back on him.

One hot June night neighbors were treated to the loudest midnight phone conversation yet. A woman used the phone while her young child, no more than four or five, tried to keep himself busy nearby. Neighbors guessed immediately she was talking to the child's father. "I'm sick of this fuckin' kid," she shouted. "Every day I take care of him. I never get a break. What do you do? Nothing!" She got louder as she went on. "Sometimes I want to get out of the fuckin' house! Sometimes I want some time for myself. I got things I want to do. But what can I do with this fuckin' kid? Do you ever fuckin' help me out? No! Do you wash his clothes? Do you feed him? You ever buy him a gallon of milk? No! I fuckin' do! I ought to just dump him on you to see how you like it!" The woman carried on like this for several more interminable minutes. Finally she fell silent, listening. No more than ten seconds later she spoke again. "OK. All right," she said softly, almost whispering. "Bye. I love you."

The neighbors decided to threaten the store owner with a petition. In effect she told them to go to hell. And soon the neighbors, mostly white, mostly comfortable, began fancying themselves guerrillas.

One night a neighbor sneaked out and put an epoxylike substance in the phone's coin slot. The next day a service technician repaired it. Several nights later another man, the one married to the light sleeper, stood in his living room holding a pair of wire cutters. "You know what I'd like to do," he told me, grinning mischievously.

"Something's got to be done," his wife said.

"I ought to fix this problem once and for all," the man said.

"Whoo boy!" I marveled. "A street-fighting man!"

The man's grin shrank. He knew what I was thinking: how ridiculous the notion was that he--an entrenched executive in the financial world, working in offices so stuffy that wearing a tie with a slightly exotic pattern had earned him a stern lecture from the senior vice president in charge of decorum--would commit a teenage punk's crime in exchange for a full night's sleep.

"Nothing else is working," the man's wife said.

"Go ahead," I egged him on. "You'll feel better for it."

"Aw, come on. I was foolin' around," he said.

"Some joke," his wife said. "We'll be laughing real hard tonight when we wake up from another asshole on the phone. I just want that phone out of here!"

The man dropped his arms to his sides, the wire cutters hanging limply in his fingers.

"It's empowerment," I told him. "Take control of your world. Take positive action!"

"One of these days," he began, then fell silent, looking beyond his wife and me.

"You might as well put those things away," his wife said.

He hesitated a moment, and I saw my window.

"Gimme those damned things," I said. "Let's go!"

"Yeah," he said, his voice alive like a child's. It took him less than a minute to find his penny loafers, and we were headed for the street.

We tiptoed toward the phone, our shoulders brushing the side of the building. A car approached. The man seized my elbow. "Hold it," he whispered. He held his breath until the car passed.

Maybe he saw himself as Charles Bronson, righting the wrongs of the world, starting with his own block. Maybe Bernhard Goetz or the Michael Douglas character in Falling Down. Me? I was Abbie Hoffman, H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, Che Guevara. But I was kinder than most of them. My act of revolutionary justice harmed no one, drew not one drop of blood. I was fighting for the simple rights of neighbors against insensitive big business. OK, the store wasn't big, but it was a business, wasn't it?

A tiny corner of my mind reminded me that I was about to commit vandalism. I heard that distant voice pose a question: What made me think my inconvenience justified my breaking the law?

My inconvenience! What about the woman who couldn't sleep after each midnight phone call? What about the innocent children who might have heard that young woman complaining about her "fuckin' kid"? What about the good taxpayers of this city who were going to foot the bill for yet another CTA tagging orgy, the plans for which had been made on this very phone? My inconvenience! I was doing it for them! I was a freedom fighter!

The man and I took turns snipping the phone's receiver cord, then scurried away from the scene of the crime, congratulating each other. We exchanged a soul handshake when we parted. "Brothers," he giggled.

It took me an hour to get to sleep that night.

The next day a service technician was back out. Within a week the cord had been snipped and repaired again.

I decided to run a reconnaissance mission into the store to determine what effect if any our tactics had had on the owner. I walked in during one of the rare times when she wasn't barking into her private phone. Since I didn't want to spend any money, I asked for fresh orange juice, something I knew she wouldn't carry.

"No have," she said brusquely.

"Looks like someone vandalized the public phone outside," I said.

She looked at me, her face filled with contempt. I felt panicky. Did she know I was in on it? How? Would I be arrested?

"The kids," she said in broken English. "No good!"

"It's kids, huh?"

"Yeah. No good! Two times cut cord!" She made a scissors motion with her fingers.

"Two times?" I gasped.

"Yeah. No good!"

"Can you imagine that?"

"Son of a beech," she said.

"Well," I muttered, pulling the door open. "It's always something."

"No good," the woman repeated, her face grim, her narrowed eyes following me out the door.

By the end of the next week the phone was gone, its stand an empty shell. The next day a chubby Asian man in a gray suit got out of a gray Cadillac and with great effort hunkered down and began to pound at the cement base of the phone stand with a carpenter's hammer. But after a few minutes he succeeded only in creating a pebbly mess. The phone stand was still anchored firmly to the sidewalk.

When I told the neighbors about the chubby man, some speculated he was the owner of the building. Others guessed he was the store owner's husband. Someone guessed he was the owner of the company responsible for the phone, for weeks earlier when we'd checked the label on it we'd found the name of a company we'd never heard of.

Within a couple of days service technicians came and took the stand away.

Not long ago the woman sold her store to a Korean man with a young family. We all agreed the man, who speaks almost no English, was a sucker, whatever he'd paid for it.

He shut the store down for a couple days, scrubbed the shelves and floors, painted the walls, cleaned up all the cans and bottles and boxes, got rid of the expired stuff, took the sunglasses and the purses out of the freezer and stocked it with Sara Lee cakes, frozen dinners, and packages of Tatertots.

When he reopened the store he took up the place behind the counter where the woman used to sit and scowl at passersby. But he smiles at customers and most of the rest of the time sits hunched over a Bible, studying intently, a solitary and forlorn figure.

Old habits die hard. The only customers he gets drop dimes and quarters on his counter to pay for tiny bags of chips. I've gotten into the habit of buying my newspapers from him every day. I want to do my part to keep him going. After all, I'm a good neighbor.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Alexander Newberry, Bruce Powell.

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