The merchants of Roseland are begging for business. There are 27 hip-hop clothing boutiques on South Michigan between 111th and 113th, and their window displays of Fat Albert T-shirts, puffy K-Swiss sneakers, orange calf-length shorts with matching tops, and Daisy Duke cutoffs with pink satin roller-disco jackets just aren't bringing in the customers, especially since every other store on the block is selling the same outfits.
This is why a young Pakistani hustler named Samir is lounging atop a pair of overturned milk crates in the doorway of a sportswear shop. Mondays are always slow, so Samir peers up and down the dingy sidewalk, looking for customers.
Two boys in baggy jeans stroll past Samir. He eases off the crates and murmurs, "Whussup, buddy? I got half off today. What you need? Some Rocawear? I got some Rocawear."
The boys keep walking. If you shop in Roseland you get used to "callers" like Samir lurking outside every boutique. All along the block their heads poke out of doorways. It's a sniper's alley for shoppers.
Samir, who's 24, has been working at the sportswear shop for a month. He's posted outside because, unlike most of the immigrant shopkeepers in Roseland, he speaks the neighborhood dialect. He came to Chicago when he was eight, and after his parents died he was raised in group homes with blacks and Puerto Ricans. Samir also sports a street look: his "wife-beater" T-shirt is cut to expose a gold chain and a biceps tattooed with a six-pointed star.
"You gotta be a hustler," he says. "We're out here seven days a week. We got bills. Yesterday the store made $130. We don't have the money for commercials and putting it in newspapers. We got to do it ourselves. It's like a car-lot person trying to hustle a guy to buy a car."
Samir bums a cigarette from a caller next door, smokes it, then hops up to follow a girl sporting blond finger waves. "How you doin'?" he asks, as she clip-clops away. "Hey, you know we got ladies' clothes?" She ignores him.
Samir's boss, who asks to be called "Ali," stops by to check on business. He's carrying a study guide for the citizenship test he'll take tomorrow--he's been reading it to kill time between customers.
Ali owns two stores. This is the bargain bin, selling overstocked brands--like Snoop Dogg's--that went out of fashion two years ago. The other sells more stylish clothes. When he set up shop in Roseland seven years ago it wasn't the cutthroat bazaar it is today. He had one competitor on his block and five or six in the entire downtown area. Then the Maxwell Street Market closed, and all the hustlers moved to the south side. Right now across the street a man is selling purses and hats out of the trunk of a Cadillac. "No, it didn't used to be too much," he says. "Since Jewtown [Maxwell Street] was closed a lot of Jewtown people have come down here. There's too many, too much competition. Rainbo, Dollar Bill, Jonathan's."
Ali points at placards in the windows of two stores on the sunny side of the street. "Look at the competition," he laments. "Four pair pants $49.99. Next door four pair pants $44.99. Pants cost ten dollar. They make five dollar on four pair pants."
Asked how anyone stays in business, he looks up at the bright sky and says, "God keep us afloat."
Outside a store called the Collection a veteran salesman named Mike is chilling in front of a rack of shoes. He says he never calls because it scares away customers, and he blames the Pakistanis, who started buying up local shops a few years ago, for introducing calling to Roseland. When Koreans owned all the stores the street was quiet.
"I don't really like it," he says. "If somebody wants to come in the store I don't see the need to chase 'em down. That's all they do. It's like 'Boo! Boo!' It turns people off. Most of the customers come in here, like, 'Oh my God, they're calling me.' Here the customer has his freedom."
Mike had to call when he worked across the street at the Box, a store that recently closed due to lack of business, and he got to know his colleagues well. The stores are always trying to undercut each other, but the callers share cigarettes and buy one another pop. The best caller in Roseland, he declares, is Blue, who these days does his act in front of Sana Fashion, right next to the bus stop on the corner of 112th and Michigan.
A few days later Blue, who's 36, is squatting in front of the store wearing a white kerchief and a black velvet tracksuit he bought with his 15 percent employee discount. He too used to work the other side of the street, but Sana offered him $40 a day, so he moved over.
Store owners bid for Blue because whichever corner he sits on will within 15 minutes be as bizarrely populated as the cover of the Doors' Strange Days album. He's a genuine local, with cousins on 112th Street, so he's constantly giving dap to passersby and getting shouts of "Hey, Blue!" from cars stopped at the red light. This afternoon he's holding court with a salesman offering Spider-Man videos for $5 and an "outlaw" named Why G. Why G has a bottle of whiskey in one pocket, a tall boy of Old English in the other. Every few minutes he busts out rap lyrics.
"I'm the best man on the corner," boasts Blue, who sold socks at Maxwell Street before making Roseland his domain. "Nobody can shut me down. Yesterday I made some good sales. I sold a Johnny Blaze outfit. First customer who came in spent $200. My boss said, 'How you do it?' Today it's slow. We still made three sales though, so I'm not trippin'."
To bring in the business Blue keeps up a constant conversation with the sidewalk. "What's up, boo-boo?" he calls to a girl walking with her head down. "Come on, look up at me. What's the matter? You tired? Go home and get some rest." She keeps walking toward the bus stop.
Two squad cars, a meter maid, and a detective roll by. The police rarely hassle Blue. The city has an ordinance against soliciting business from the sidewalk, but the local cops tolerate the callers as long as they don't stalk pedestrians or shout across the street. None of the callers has ever been hit with a $500 ticket, though they've all been given a warning, usually by a rules-are-rules beat cop who patrols Michigan. Blue points her out as she walks, scowling, past Sana. "That's the one," he says. "She wanted to give me a ticket. She threatened to."
Blue finally makes a score when a family led by a big woman in red pants peers through the shop's window. They straggle around the corner, where there's nothing to see but a hill and a long brick wall. "She just goin' around the corner," he says confidently. "She'll be back." A minute later she is, and he goes to work.
"You shoppin' today?" he asks.
"Do you have a mesh top? Short sleeve?"
"Come on." He motions to the door. The clerks inside will take care of her. That's not his job. He's just a caller. But he twists around to watch the action. This is his sale too.
"They buyin', they buyin'," he whispers, as the owner's little brother totals up the sale on a calculator. Two outfits. A $100 purchase.
The clothes go into a plastic bag, and Blue lifts his arms in celebration. Once again he's shut the rest of Roseland down. No one can top him. Everyone wants him outside their store. "I told you it's me, man," he cries. "They ain't never gonna let me go."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.