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Cable Guy/There Oughta Be a Law

TV host Marc Sims doesn't want much: safe neighborhoods, good schools, and to figure out" why black folks do what we do."

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One day nine years ago Marc Sims walked into the city's near-west-side public-access TV studio, looking to do a talk show--because he had something to say and nowhere else to say it. Some 300 shows later, he's still going strong.

The show--View Point, on Thursdays at 8:30 PM on Channel 19--has a cultlike following on the south and west sides, mostly because of Sims, whose charm and self-deprecating wisecracks barely cover his bite. "Listen, man, I'm trying to sell out, but the man hasn't called yet--oh, wait, that could be him on the other line," he says, laughing. "Seriously, black folks always be telling me, 'Man, you can't say that shit about Mayor Daley or President Bush or Jesse Jackson.' Well, why not? Who's gonna bother me? I'm just a brother on public access who looks like the Rock. Folks already think I'm crazy just for being here."

Sims says it's not surprising that he took well to TV, since he's been studying the medium ever since he was a kid growing up on the far south side in the late 60s and early 70s. "I watched too much TV. Now I think, damn--all those books I might have read, all that wisdom I might have gathered."

He was, he says, a bit of a knucklehead as a teenager, dropping out of Fenger High School just a few credits shy of graduation. He spent the better part of the 1980s working at various dead-end jobs. For a while in the early 90s he dropped his last name and became Marc X. "I was a follower of Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam," he says. "I still have tremendous respect for Elijah Muhammad, but I'm just not ready for organized religion. I don't have the discipline to follow all of Elijah's rules--though I still order my Egg McMuffins without bacon."

His private life is fairly tame. He lives with his wife and two children in a house on the far south side not far from where he grew up. He makes a living driving a limo. "Most of the people I drive are white, so they don't know who I am," he says. "Most folks in a limo don't even see the driver. You're just the dude driving the car. It's on my show that I come alive."

Like most public-access shows, View Point is low-tech. It uses just two cameras mounted in place. "My mission in life is to be part of a cultural movement that makes sure that every African-American neighborhood is safe and clean and has good schools," Sims says. "So we're talking about the condition--why black folks do what we do. Every now and then we throw on a few psychics--black folks love psychics--just to keep folks entertained."

In the last few months Sims has reached out to the mainstream, bringing on guests such as former schools CEO Paul Vallas and WBEZ radio host Steve Edwards. But more often than not the show features what he calls "regular folks from the hood," such as Clarence Terry, a retired federal and state civil-service worker. "Mr. Terry is the wise old man, which every black community has," says Sims. "I want it to be like a barbershop when Mr. Terry comes on. You know, Mr. Terry sitting back and talking about whatever comes to his mind."

According to Terry, the two hooked up around 1998. "Marc saw something I wrote for the paper about the lottery, and he called me up and had me come on," he says. "I've been coming on ever since."

Sometimes Sims plays the straight man, feeding Terry lines that set him off on rambling riffs. Other times Sims does some riffs of his own. "I try to be funny or outrageous," he says. "You have to have a little humor, but I do have this anger. I see what we've done to our communities, and it breaks my heart. We have no real unity. It's always been dark skin versus light skin, the educated class versus the uneducated class, the black bourgeoisie versus everyone else. As a people we depend too much on organized, fear-based religion. We should be more enlightened, more evolved. Even when I was following Elijah Muhammad, I was clinging to the more nationalistic side of his movement. The main things I liked about his theology is that there are no spooks or saints, no life after death, and God is human. But with most black folks, if you take away their belief in Jesus and Christianity they'd have to rely on themselves, and people are like, 'No, I don't want to rely on little old me--who am I?'

"If anything, I'm hardest on myself," he goes on. "My biggest thing is that I'm 39 years old trying to get to 40, and I'm still wondering, how do I fit in? I don't really fit into white mainstream society. I don't really fit into black mainstream society. Yes, I beat up on the black bourgeoisie, but maybe that's 'cause I secretly want to be part of the black bourgeoisie. I'm like most black people--we only want a little recognition. You got to know how to play it. Look at Michael Jordan. He plays it brilliant. He may live somewhere on the North Shore, but he married a sister from the south side. He'll be seen around the hood. Just show us some love, man--that's all black folks want."

His show has gone through several transitions. "For a time I was shooting it from my basement. I'd just turn on the camera and lecture--just rant and rail and show some old footage of Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan. People who remember those shows think I'm real crazy. But I've settled down since then."

At times he's thought about running for office. "Then I think of all the bullshit you have to eat and I say, forget that. You know, the black community doesn't need any more aldermen. We don't need another Michael Jordan. We need another Marcus Garvey, another Booker T. Washington, another Elijah Muhammad. These are people who were all about building economic strength. We need to pool our resources. You want to go out and get a good job working for the man, fine. But bring some of it back."

Sims wants to get more mainstream guests on his show. "You know who I really want?" he says. "Give me Bill Clinton. I'd love to have him on my show. He's like the bad guy in the movies who gets all the good lines. See, Clinton understands. Most people in this country aren't reading books. They don't want to hear the truth--just dazzle them with bullshit. Pat 'em on the back, hug 'em, tell 'em you're feeling their pain. Clinton never did nothin' for black folks, but that doesn't matter. Most black folks love him because he showed us some love. He's talking about 'I was just a poor boy in Arkansas growing up without a dad.' He knows how to relate to people. I'd love to get him on, and I'd want to ask him, 'When did the light go on? When did you first say to yourself, 'You know, I can play this game'?"

Sims plans to continue his show for at least another year. "I'm not kidding myself," he says. "Most folks turn me on and say, 'Oh, there's that brother on Channel 19,' and just turn it back to Wheel of Fortune. People see me, and they don't get it, 'cause I'm not Reverend Marc, I'm not Doctor Marc. Most people love titles, but I'm just plain old Marc. I had a friend tell me, 'You gotta go easy on white folks, Marc, 'cause black folks don't like black people who don't like white people.' I just have to laugh. It's like the Stockholm syndrome. We're like a kidnapped people, and we love our kidnappers too much. Listen, I don't hate white people. It's the system I can't stand."

Sims pauses. "You know, it doesn't really matter what I say about white people. The beauty of cable TV is that you can say whatever you want. Of course the minute I start organizing, that's another story. Start organizing people and you end up like Mark Clark and Fred Hampton--the man shoots you while you're sleeping in your bed. So that's the great dilemma. How do I make a difference and still stay alive? I don't know. Tune in and we'll find out."

There Oughta Be a Law

For the past several months, the hot topic on View Point has been the lottery. Or, as Clarence Terry puts it, "Why so many black folks buy those tickets."

He thinks it's a major scandal. "The black community's got resources, but we waste them," he says. "You've got poor people, or relatively poor people, wasting their hard-earned money on a crapshoot. That's what it is, you know--a crapshoot. You might as well hope for lightning to strike. It's set up so you lose, and we're just throwing our money away."

A retired special agent for the state's Bureau of Employment Security, Terry has taken the time to investigate the issue. He regularly attends meetings of the Illinois Lottery board and keeps track of lottery sales. He says that what he's learned is depressing.

For instance, the area of Chicago where the most lottery tickets are purchased is zip code 60619, which runs roughly from 71st to 95th between State and Stony Island. Between 1998 and 2000, people there bought more than $60 million in lottery tickets. During that same time, people in the near-south-side zip code 60653--one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, it includes the Chicago Housing Authority's Ida B. Wells housing complex--rang up more than $19 million in sales.

In contrast, Lincoln Park, zip code 60614, did about $14 million in lottery sales. The near-north-side zip code 60611 did about $16 million. "The lottery's the most regressive tax we got--they're just taking from the people who can least afford to pay," says Terry. "They're exploiting their poverty, selling them on a fake dream, an illusion. You don't see rich people buying those tickets. They know it's a sucker's game. Black people can't get it straight--they're spending all this money on the lottery, and the money's not coming back."

So Terry decided to do something about the way the system works. "The state licenses grocery stores, drug stores, liquor stores, and what have you to sell lottery tickets," he says. "The sellers get 5 percent commission for every ticket they sell. The more tickets they sell, the more money they make. They have an incentive to sell more tickets. So I figured, well, if we're going to buy the tickets, at least let's put those commissions to work."

In 1998 Terry introduced a resolution to the City Council. "Anybody can do that," he says. "You don't have to be an elected official." The resolution proposed that "only agents of the Chicago Board of Education be allowed to sell State lottery tickets" and that "all the commissions and bonuses" from those sales "be allotted to the neediest schools in the areas in which they are earned." In other words, if people are dumb enough to waste their money on the lottery, at least use some of the proceeds to hire more teachers and class aides in their communities.

"I was just asking that the city go back to the old code," says Terry. "People don't realize it, but our municipal code prohibits anyone but not-for-profit organizations from selling lottery tickets. The state overwrote that local law, which is why we have all those stores selling the lottery tickets. Liquor stores really stick in my craw. They're selling poison, and then they rip you off as well."

And what did the City Council do with the resolution?

"What do you think? They stuck it in a committee--the education committee--where it's been sitting ever since and where it will be probably sitting forever, 'cause they aren't about to mess with the system. The chairman of that committee is Alderman [Pat] O'Connor. I tried to meet with him, but you can't see him. The best I got was to talk to one of his secretaries. She gave me a song and dance about it being on the committee's agenda. Oh yes, sure. You know how it is--it's moves and thrust and parry."

Did any aldermen respond?

"Yes. Believe it or not, I got a response from Alderman Vilma Colom," of the 35th Ward. "I called her up when she was on a talk show, and she said I should come on in. So I actually went to her office, and I brought all my stuff. I told her about my proposal to give the money to the schools, and she said, 'If we do that we'll put these guys out of business.' I said, 'They're not supposed to be in business to sell lottery tickets. That's supposed to be ancillary to selling milk or groceries or whatever.' That's the last I heard of her."

Terry isn't about to give up on the issue. "I go to the lottery board's monthly meetings, and I listen to their reports," he says. "I recently heard one of their advertising consultants talk about how they had children in these little lottery-ball costumes marching in the Bud Billiken Day parade. He showed them a tape of the parade. They had a big old float that said Illinois State Lottery. They might as well say 'Come on kids, learn how to gamble.' I thought, 'Are they out of their cotton-pickin' minds?' They're not supposed to be advertising to children. And this consultant guy had the gall to show the tape of the parade to the lottery board, as if he were proud of it. That's when it hit rock down bottom. These people are nuts. They're basically promoting gambling to thousands of kids. They just keep on feeding the black community's addiction to gambling."

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

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