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It's said that everybody in this town has some sort of hustle going. Quite often I come across evidence that it's true—and not just at City Hall.
The other night I stopped at a convenience store to buy a pack of gum. The store is just down the street from a large Catholic church whose bells were chiming for an evening service.
The clerk rang me up. "One sixty-four," he said.
I looked down at the pack of gum. The price tag said it cost $1.39.
A quarter tax on a pack of gum? I don't think so—not even in Cook County.
I asked the clerk about it and he started stammering—something about the tax going up. Funny, I hadn't heard anything about that. He said sorry, the store was just sold and the price has gone up even though the price tags haven't been changed. I was skeptical. Then he said he'd accidentally added a dime to the total. I said that still seemed like too much. He said maybe he'd just typed it in wrong.
As politely as I could, I told him I didn't care that much about a quarter but what he was doing was called consumer fraud, and even if I decided not to call the authorities someone else would because that was some cheap and dumb bullshit.
He rang me up again. "One forty-two," he said.
Outside I found Marvin sitting cross-legged next to the door, red-eyed and drunk but pleasant as ever. I've known Marvin since he used to stop in at the homeless ministry where I worked in the late 1990s.
Marvin asked how I'd been and I told him the people in the store were thieves.
"Yeah, what they charge you depends on who's behind the counter and who you are," he said. "It's not right."
I told him I thought somebody would rat them out one of these days. I said I should do it myself.
"No, you can't do that," he said, "because they cut me a lot of slack out here."
A woman walked up and as she stepped into the store Marvin asked her for some help. "Please think of me on your way out," he said.
He told me he'd just returned to Chicago after a stint in Tennessee and was living in a shelter in Lakeview. As if I thought otherwise, he told me this was sad. "I used to own a place up there," he said.
When she emerged from the store the woman leaned over and dropped several coins into Marvin's hands. He thanked her and offered her a blessing.
"Hey, I would get up and talk with you some more," he told me, "but I'm afraid I'm working right now."
Of course. I told him I'd catch him later.