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Virtual Pioneer

It's hard to keep a business on-line, especially when you can't get your big customer to pay up.



By Ben Joravsky

On those rare slow days when his cell phone's not ringing like crazy, Tyrone Wilson looks out the window of his Beverly-based cyber cafe and thinks about how far he's come and how far he has to go.

He was born in 1959 at Cook County Hospital and he grew up in the ABLA Homes, a Chicago Housing Authority complex at Roosevelt and Ashland. His father left when he was very young and his mother, Mary Magdelene, pretty much raised her family alone. "There were six of us--three sisters and three boys," says Wilson. "I had a baby brother, Johnny, who fell out of a window and died at age 22 months. My mother was devastated."

He was, he says, one of the luckier kids in his neighborhood. "When folks talk bad about the projects, really to me they're talking about the isolation," he says. "But with me, I got to get out and see the larger world, at least other parts of Chicago."

His ticket was a teacher--"her name was Miss Wright"--who used to take him and a friend to restaurants and museums. "If it wasn't for her getting me and my friend Tim out now and then, there's a lot of things I wouldn't know. Tim's a minister, by the way, living in Virginia. I'm real proud of him."

Wright also got Wilson to start riding a unicycle. "She lent me her nephew's unicycle and I took off from there. I taught myself. I used to practice in the hallways of ABLA. I was on my mother all the time, 'please, please buy me one.' She finally bought me my own. At the time it was $55, which was a lot of money for us."

To Wilson the unicycle was both a tool that got him around town and a symbol that he would not be boxed in. "Tim had one too, and we used to ride all over Chicago. We'd go down Harrison to Lake Michigan. We didn't take Roosevelt, too many thugs over there. We'd go to North Avenue beach and perform little tricks and stuff and people used to give us money."

In 1977 he graduated from Cregier High School and enrolled at Loop College, intending to major in art. Within a few months, however, he found himself locked in the county jail charged with a murder. "A guy got shot over at ABLA and they said I did it. I didn't do it. I didn't have nothing to do with that. But I sat in jail for over six months. My mother didn't have the money to pay the bond. I turned 19 in jail. I have a son who's 19 now and I worry for my son, not that he ever did anything wrong. I'd never want him to spend his 19th birthday in jail.

"I was doing a lot of painting in jail--I always liked art. And I brought two of my paintings to court one day when I was having a bond hearing. One was a painting of Barbra Streisand and the other was of Bill Cosby. When I got into that courtroom it was like a movie. The judge asked me what I had in my hands, and I showed him, and the paintings looked like they were glowing. The judge saw them and he said, 'I'll drop the bond low enough for you to get out.' I guess he saw that I had some sort of talent and it wasn't right to keep me rotting in jail, particularly since it was obvious that the evidence against me wasn't strong. He lowered the bond so it would cost $500 to get me out. Well, I was still in there for a week. But my mother won in bingo at the local church, and she took that bingo money and gave it to the court."

In the meantime, his lawyer, a public defender named Alan Goldberg, was assembling the evidence to establish Wilson's innocence. Eventually the case was dropped. "When it happened the thing that angered me the most was that there were some people who didn't believe me," says Wilson. "I feel real bad about the guy who got shot. He was only 19 years old himself. His name was Frankie. His family knows that I didn't do it. Every now and then I still see his mother and brother and they're really nice to me. It's just the saddest thing, such a waste for a young man."

He returned to Loop College, did a stint in the marines, and went on to study electrical engineering at the DeVry Institute of Technology. In 1984 he went to work for Xerox, repairing copiers. "I learned how to take them apart and put them back together. I always had this ability to just be patient about these things--to concentrate and just follow through logically."

He married his childhood sweetheart and they had three children and eventually bought a house on the south side (moving out of ABLA when he was 32). He returned to college, going to Roosevelt University at night and graduating in 1995 with a degree in computer science. "A lot of the success stories in the projects have to do with people who made it big in show business or sports," Wilson says. He wanted to defy the stereotypes. All around him he saw young people making millions in start-up companies related to computers and the Internet. Almost all of them were white. "This was the future--this is the new economy. And I know I can do it. To me learning how to use them was not that much different than learning how to fix a copy machine. You just have to be patient and apply logic and follow through."

He learned almost every aspect of computer technology, from how to build a computer and set up a network to how to design a Web site. In 1995 he left Xerox and started his own computer consulting service, The Wilson Systems. He lists among his clients Toshiba Lighting, Chicago State University, R.J. Dale Advertising, Reg Development, Arencibia Financial Services, and the Community Bank of Lawndale. "I decided the next thing was for me and my wife, Jeanne, to open a cyber cafe on the south side," he says. "It would give me a location. I didn't want to have to work out of my house."

Plus, he felt the south side was ripe for such a service. As hard as it might be for north-siders--with copy stores and cyber cafes on almost every gentrifying block--to believe, few if any such services existed south of Hyde Park. It's as though the great computer revolution had hurdled black Chicago.

So in 1999 he and Jeanne found space in a storefront in the 1400 block of West 103rd Street and went to work creating Wilson Systems Cyber Cafe. "We oversaw the build-out--plumbing, electrical, new walls, you name it." His days were spent in constant motion. He scrambled all over the city and into the suburbs setting up systems and working with clients, and returned each night to 103rd Street to work on the cafe.

As many obstacles as he's cleared, there has always seemed to be another. First, his landlord fell behind on mortgage payments and the building was foreclosed last October. Less than three months after he and his wife had spent thousands of dollars in construction costs and opened, they had to leave 103rd Street. Their new storefront, which is at 9927 S. Wood, just east of the Beverly Metra station, is smaller than the old one, with enough room for only five computers.

Part of his problem, he concedes, is that he's not a tenacious businessman. He often does too much too soon and then finds himself chasing payments long after his leverage is gone.

His biggest setback, he says, was with radio station WVON AM. As he tells the story, he began doing business with them in 1998 filled with high hopes and great expectations. "I was going to take Chicago's only black-owned radio station into the cyber age."

He says he built their Web site, set up their E-mail system, installed wiring, linked their various computers so they "could talk to each other," and was generally on call almost around the clock, answering dozens of panicky phone calls. "Thanks to me, WVON was one of the first radio stations to be on the Internet live," he says. "You could listen to them live all over the world."

But WVON paid only a fraction of what it owed him, he charges. "They were going to pay me in part with free commercials for my cafe, but they stopped airing the commercials even though I was still providing them with service."

He says station manager Melody Spann-Cooper told him "that they weren't paying me for my labor. She told me that they were a major radio station and that any time you work for a major media source you're getting a lot of recognition and business just for being associated with them. And that wasn't true--especially since they weren't playing my commercials."

Last March, he says, he had a final meeting with Spann-Cooper. "She went crazy on me. She started cursing. She jumped up. She kicked her desk. She told me to 'get out of my office.' Her sister was in the office and saw the whole thing. After I left, her sister took me into a studio and apologized to me for how Melody had behaved. But it was very depressing. I never thought a professional would act like that. It was particularly depressing because this is a black-owned radio station."

On July 20 Wilson filed a breach-of-contract suit alleging that "at the special insistence and request of the defendants, plaintiff [Wilson] performed the services requested by [WVON]. A relationship existed between the parties where the plaintiff's expertise and knowledge was exploited by the defendant." The suit concludes that "defendants are indebted to plaintiff in the liquidated sum equal to $222,709."

Spann-Cooper refers questions to WVON lawyer William Hooks, who dismisses the lawsuit as an irrelevance. "There are thousands of people who file all sorts of suits--so what?" Hooks says. "Lawyers are filing breach-of-contract suits all the time. It's as common as taking a leak in the bathroom. I don't understand the significance of it or why you would write an article about it. You must be new to the legal beat."

Hooks says the radio station will respond to Wilson's allegations in due course. "Our story is we're filing an answer in court," he says. "We strongly deny the allegations and we will vigorously defend ourselves against them."

In the meantime, Wilson busies himself with the needs of his other clients. Some days find him at the cafe, where I stopped in last week. It was a hot, slow day. A lanky kid came in to buy doughnuts. A young man stopped by for a cup of coffee. A few women worked the copy machines. An odd-looking character carrying a battered briefcase and wearing a tie and wool jacket in the sweltering heat walked in. Jeanne Wilson served him a cup of coffee and he left.

It turned out that this man's an old acquaintance of Wilson from DeVry. "I don't know what happened to him--he just sort of wanders the street," says Wilson. "He says he hears voices. One time he was laughing so hard--he said the voices were funny. Other times he says they're terrifying. It's sad."

A client named Bob came in. He has a Web site that Wilson designed. "Tyrone's a genius, a certifiable genius," said Bob, pounding a table for emphasis.

The subject of WVON arose and Bob shook his head. "You're too nice, Tyrone," he said. "You have to be tougher."

Wilson sighed. It's advice he's heard many times. Wilson's 19-year-old son Bud dropped in, turned on a computer, and connected to the Internet. "Hey, daddy," he said to Wilson, "can you help me here? I need to find something."

For a minute or so Wilson hovered over his son, quietly offering instruction. "My son's been operating computers since he was four--he really knows his stuff," Wilson said. "He's helped me a lot. Now he's working in the computer center for the Hyatt Hotels. Maybe someday we'll work together again. That would be nice. I still haven't given up my dreams."

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

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