By David Kestenbaum
From the street a hose, stretching like an umbilical cord between the house and the garage behind it, is the only sign of internal machinations. The two buildings, on Elston below North, are otherwise unremarkable, easy to miss the first time and elusive even upon return. The inhuman scale of the nearby billboards and Morton salt building make anonymous everything in their midst, yet inside the garage is a scene that could have inspired Roald Dahl to pen his tale of the magical chocolate factory.
Jack Woltjen is 71 years old, though there is an agelessness about him. Walk into the small cinder-block garage and he's likely to be listening to Pink Floyd's Animals while he works. "I think Roger Waters is one of the great composers of our time," he says, the music blaring from two torn-up speakers nailed to the wall. "I think I'm the only dad whose kids have to ask him to turn the music down." Woltjen's eight children left home long ago to start families of their own, but he has since begun a small business that has filled the gap. At a small table Woltjen hand-fills hundreds of two-ounce bottles with liquids that he says have extraordinary powers. The magic comes in two varieties.
The first, and better-selling of the two, is a lens cleaner called ROR, for Residual Oil Remover. ROR is no ordinary lens cleaner, he claims; it's the only one capable of removing a microscopic oil residue caused by environmental pollution. The other product, ironically, is an oil, one derived from a rare variety of Australian eucalyptus. Woltjen calls the oil V-Vax, and says it can cure everything from arthritis pain to kidney stones. He says ROR has been used by NASA on space walks for the Hubble mission and in the labs of camera companies such as Hasselblad, Zeiss, and Leica. He tells tales of V-Vax helping AIDS patients and transforming crippled octogenarians into jig-dancing proof of V-Vax's powers. Though it's a small business now--he sells around 30,000 bottles a year of the two combined--if faith in one's products is the hallmark of success, Woltjen may soon have to buy some space from the "when it rains it pours" people next door.
Already the operation has overrun the garage into the house, where he lives with his wife, Bonnie. "I used to just cook [ROR] up in a three-and-a-half-gallon turkey cooker, but now I make it 50 gallons at a time," he explains, pointing to a prodigious soup-kitchen pot that stands against one wall. "Then I pump it through that hose to the second floor of the house. I have maybe 30 25-gallon barrels up there." Once transferred, ROR sits in the barrels for as long as two months while the impurities sink to the bottom. Then Woltjen siphons it back down to the garage, where he funnels it into small plastic spray bottles and ships it out. The V-Vax oil he imports directly from Australia and distributes in glass spray bottles. "It'll dissolve a plastic bottle before your eyes," he says. It's not clear why the plastic tubes for the spraying mechanisms appear to be faring well. Though the FDA won't allow him to recommend that V-Vax be taken internally, Woltjen puts several drops in his OJ every morning. "I down it like a shot of whiskey, just like John Wayne."
Woltjen has been selling ROR and V-Vax since 1981, but the story of their origins and how the secrets were passed on to him goes back many years before that.
In 1942, at the age of 17, he volunteered for submarine service in the navy. Shaken by the war, he enrolled in a Trappist monastery in Kentucky after he got out of the service. He spent a year there, then came to Chicago and worked in several soup kitchens, eventually starting a nondenominational one so "no one had to take a dunk or say they were saved to get a meal." Then, seeking solace from the despair he saw in the city, Woltjen went to work on a Catholic Worker farm in Missouri. There he married, bought land, and farmed with the enthusiasm and limited success that he says seemed his due as a city boy. Ten years and six children later, he talked his way into a Jesuit theology program at the University of San Francisco, and the family moved to California. In 1965 they returned to Chicago, where Woltjen took a job working for the CHA in tenant relations. After that he worked for two years at the Commission on Human Relations and eventually for the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities.
The Leadership Council, founded in the wake of the 1966 Chicago march led by Martin Luther King Jr. and dedicated to abolishing discriminatory real estate practices, handles complaints about agencies refusing to rent to black clients. Woltjen would pose as a less-qualified white prospective tenant and persuade an agent under suspicion to rent to him. Lease in hand, the council could take the case to court. Kale Williams, then executive director at the council and now a visiting professor of applied ethics at Loyola, says Woltjen was a legend. "Jack was born to be an investigator. I used to call him one of the world's great natural psychologists. He had an amazing ability to size up people and situations." He was also a great improviser. "Once Jack was following up on an apartment and forgot that he had already called. "Didn't you just call here?' the guy asked suspiciously. "Oh,' said Jack, without a pause, "that was my brother. Good, maybe he's already taken care of it.'
"Jack always dressed the part," Williams says. "If it was a $350-a-month place he put on an old jacket. If it was $1,000 he dressed to the nines. He had a whole string of fake names he used. He also had a real ability to strike a rapport with the victims. People who have had that happen to them are disgusted but frequently reluctant to follow through because it takes so much time. Jack was great at convincing them of the importance of what they were doing. He made friends with a great many of them and really helped a lot of people find their way with great feeling and support."
In a sting operation set up by the Leadership Council for 60 Minutes, Woltjen posed with another council employee, Bonnie Foley, as a white couple seeking an apartment from a real estate agency that had just turned away a black couple seeking a three-bedroom apartment. "Of course," the agent told them when they inquired, there were lots of three-bedrooms available. The agent showed Woltjen and Foley several apartments. When they returned, Dan Rather and the CBS crew were waiting. As they stormed in, cameras and microphones blazing, Woltjen and Foley settled back against the wall to watch.
After playing a married couple Foley and Woltjen found that they got on quite well. Woltjen and his wife had recently parted ways, and he and Foley were soon married and living in the three-flat on Elston they now occupy. That's when V-Vax and ROR entered the picture.
"When we moved here, we also bought the neighboring building that then was in demolition court with the intent of rehabbing and renting the apartments out," Woltjen recalls. "In one of those apartments I discovered an old man living without electricity and water. He was in his 90s and looked a bit like George Bernard Shaw--slight, goateed, always formal in dress and distinguished." One day the man introduced himself to Woltjen's son-in-law, who was sitting on the front steps. "My name is James Dart and I'm pleased to make your acquaintance,' he said. And [my son-in-law], who is South African, responded in kind and mentioned that one of South Africa's most famous men was Raymond Dart, the anthropologist who discovered Australopithecus, the "missing link' in human evolution. The old man said, 'That's my brother.'"
Dart moved out of the apartment to "a shack over on Augusta," Woltjen says, but would stop by when he was working on the buildings. The two quickly became friends.
"All the work would end when Dart came on the scene," he says. "Knocking walls down and smashing plaster gave way to long conversations."
Dart told Woltjen his life story, at one point describing the time during his World War I military service in Australia when meningitis hit the camp. "As Dart would describe it, he would have breakfast with his fellow recruits at 7 AM and by noon some of them would be dead. Well, the army authorities locked everyone in the barracks, closed the windows, and sprayed eucalyptus oil inside the buildings. . . . They did not lose another man to the virus." Dart found out the name of the eucalyptus from the doctors, and after the war moved to New York and started a business importing and selling the oil. The business was successful but, Woltjen says, "When the stock market crashed in 1929, Dart lost everything and ended up the itinerant he was when I found him."
One day the inevitable came up: "Dart wanted to start again and asked me if I would be his eyes, his legs, and his ticket back into the business world." Woltjen agreed to import the eucalyptus for him. "We decided to name it V-Vax [like vivax]," he says, "which is Latin for 'tenacious for life.'
"The V-Vax eucalyptus itself was used for medicinal purposes in the 1800s," Woltjen says, walking around the garage, searching the many handmade storage cubes along the wall and returning with a photocopy of an 1882 advertisement. "Unfortunately it's been perceived as a kind of snake oil. . . . There are over 700 different varieties of eucalyptus trees in the world. All emanate from Australia, and only 11 [including the one V-Vax is derived from] are considered medicinal by the U.S. and British pharmacopoeias," Woltjen says. Some Eucalyptus trees are among the tallest in the world, rivaling the redwoods, but the V-Vax variety is an anomaly. "This eucalyptus grows only 18 inches tall. You cut it like alfalfa and get one ounce of oil for five pounds of leaves. It can only grow in New South Wales, in the Australian desert, and there are only two plantations that grow it. They use it for industrial purposes." That's because, as in the U.S., "they're paranoid about its medical use."
Dart's other great hope was a lens cleaner that he had been selling before the war. This was an early version of ROR that he called Clersite (pronounced "clear sight"). As Woltjen tells it, Dart was an awkward if enthusiastic salesman. "I went down to a conference for heart transplant surgeons with Dart once, at the Drake Hotel," Woltjen says, laughing. "Dart sat there with a sign advertising [Clersite]--but the letters were all streaked from the rain. Dart would run up to people and ask if he could clean their glasses. People would put them back on and say, 'Jesus Christ, I can't believe it!' Dart sold Clersite for $12 a bottle."
"Dart was brilliant, but he also had his problems," Woltjen says. "Dart didn't own a car. I used to drop him downtown, then circle the block waiting for him to appear again. When I asked him what he was doing, he said he had to pay a bill but wanted to save the stamp. Dart was a real tightwad. He had money in England, Canada, and down on Michigan Avenue. He was a classic entrepreneur. I don't think his family knew what he had. They didn't believe in Clersite--they thought it was just another lens cleaner."
For several years the two toured the country, selling Clersite and V-Vax at county fairs, but in time they had a falling out as business partners. They remained good friends, however, and Woltjen continued to import the eucalyptus and bought Clersite from Dart to sell. Woltjen was worried that the secret of Clersite would die with Dart. "Dart was very protective about his formula. I had to go outside whenever he mixed it." But over the years Woltjen had accumulated enough clues and began to try to re-create it himself. Clersite was a pastelike soap, and Woltjen wanted to make it into a sprayable liquid. "Dart never believed it could be a liquid, only a soap," Woltjen says. "He was encouraging, and we would talk over my experiments, but he rarely gave me any specifics."
In 1988 Dart died at the age of 99, but by then Woltjen had broken through with a liquid version of the lens cleaner and gave it its current name, ROR, for Residual Oil Remover. "During my experiments I came to the conclusion that the oil residue present on the surface of the lens was not a result of the original grinding process [as Dart believed], but simply a by-product of environmental pollution, and even the carbon dioxide in the exhalation of breath." He discerned this from the fact that the lens appeared less clear after a few days of exposure to air. "There are four solvents in ROR. Each dissolves everyday grease on their own, but together they do something they can't do individually. When they're combined under heat, they bond like hydrogen and oxygen. It's that synergism that gives ROR its power."
Woltjen still emulates his old mentor. Even today one of the first things he'll do when he meets you is offer to clean your glasses: "Brace yourself," he says, "the difference will be startling." He intermittently removes and cleans one of the two pairs of glasses he wears around his neck and will even clean the crystal of your watch. Woltjen also follows Dart's example in the sales department, as he and his wife tour the country, selling ROR at air shows, county fairs, and photography conventions. "I just grab people's glasses and clean them," he says. "Then they're sold."
Hank Asmussen, an engineer at Lockheed, tells how ROR ended up on the space shuttle. "I remember one of the astronauts had just come back from a photography convention and had seen ROR and wanted it on the shuttle. In those days we provided the astronauts with whatever they wanted. We didn't do any particularly scientific tests with it, but it seemed to work well enough."
Nevertheless some remain unconvinced of ROR's greatness, even when confronted by Woltjen with cleaner and cloth in hand. "One time I met the president of Polaroid at a convention, and I sat him down and told him that cleaning with ROR adds three-fourths of an f-stop [letting through more light], even after it's been wiped with another cleaner, and he said, "You're full of shit.' To people in the photo industry, it first seems absurd, but then we get letters from people who say they are in awe of what it does. If you knew what was in it, you'd be even more surprised. There was a review"-- he gets up to locate another photocopy--"recently in Rangefinder magazine by a guy who cleans cameras with ROR who says many times people think their lens has been left out, but that it was just so clean they couldn't see it!"
Apparently the lens-cleaning business contains a few impostors, and Woltjen takes no comfort in the notion that imitation is flattery. He's silent now as he circles the small garage, cluttered with a phonograph, an unplugged clock radio, a fax machine, a photocopier, and precarious piles of shipping boxes. After a moment he produces a box of bottles that look just like ROR except that they bear the letters "OFR." You feel like looking for Thomas Pynchon hiding behind a door somewhere, because this is the evil lens cleaner, the packaging identical in all respects to ROR, except that the printing is black instead of ROR's red and blue and sports a gun-sight cross over the "O." OFR is sold out of a small town in Texas, but Woltjen doesn't know much more. He has acquired a copy of their Material Safety Data Sheet, which must be filed with the U.S. Department of Labor. "It's a Xerox copy of mine," he says--and it is. The text, which is repeated on the bottle, even has the telltale "microcarbon oil residue" claim. Woltjen says he has discussed the situation with a lawyer but has been advised that to apply for a patent he would have to disclose the formula, making himself vulnerable to other copycats who could make small changes and market their own versions.
Worse, he says, OFR is the Velveeta of lens cleaners--a cheap imitation, ammonia in five-cent packaging. "My product is less than one percent ammonia," he says with pride, reaching for an old gallon milk container under a nearby table. "Here, smell this. This is one percent ammonia. Now smell theirs--it's much stronger. They do ROR a great disservice."
In the end Woltjen lets his product speak for itself. He's not interested in proselytizing. "If people don't get ROR, I don't push it," he says. Ask him about his detractors, those who doubt his claims, and he responds with indifference. "I've become inured to it." After all, astronauts have taken ROR into space to clean their windows, and the number of earthbound believers seems to be growing. "I don't know what's in it," says a camera store owner in California, "but it's the best damn stuff out there."
While Woltjen and his wife have enlightened people everywhere about ROR, they have also spread the word on V-Vax. Ask Woltjen to choose between his two children and he doesn't hesitate. "ROR is a great product," he says, "but V-Vax has the real potential to benefit society. . . . We give a lot of V-Vax away, just because it's so useful. . . . We gave it to a kid once who had a bad sprained ankle. It was swollen so badly he was on crutches and couldn't walk. We gave him a bottle of V-Vax and saw his parents the next day: "We saw [our son] approaching in the distance but couldn't believe it was him. He was carrying his crutches over his shoulder!"'
Woltjen recommends V-Vax for a host of afflictions. "We were in Fryeburg, Maine, and I had acute nephritis, but then I remembered what Dart said, so I started taking V-Vax internally." After 20 days the kidney stones were flushed from his system: "It dissolves kidney stones like a snowball in the sun." It's also good, he says, for spider bites, cuts, and burns. "There was a guy across the alley--used to make the statuettes for the Oscars--and he burned himself quite badly one day. We put the stuff on him and the following Monday it was gone. It's also good for problems associated with PMS, anal herpes, lesions associated with AIDS . . . " Woltjen is on a Dr. Bronner's roll now. "If you wash a dog with it, it makes the fleas' breathing apparatus malfunction. They jump off, bounce once in the tub, and die. They could spray airplanes landing from places like Malaysia with it when they land--it's better than those pesticides. The only problem is no one knows about it!"
There is an element of the artist in Woltjen, which may explain his enduring faith in his products. The walls of his apartment are cluttered with paintings, some of which he has accepted from artists in lieu of rent. There are also numerous framed prints. Upon close inspection a few reveal alterations: a Matisse with a line erased that Woltjen thought unnecessary; a cutout of a cat added to a Gauguin painting of a South Pacific scene.
Outside of the garage where all the alchemy takes place is a piece of art that's 100 percent Woltjen's own creation. Rising out of the ground in the front yard is a tall wooden post the size of a telephone pole. Hanging from a crossbar at the top is a long wire. At the end of the wire--about eye level--is a large metal anvil, which seems to float over a dish filled with seeds. It's a bird feeder. "When the birds come, they kind of look up nervously at the anvil while they eat," Woltjen says with an understanding smile. "I think it's a beautiful juxtaposition of power and fragility."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Anastasia Congdon.