After 4 AM you can't legally buy liquor anywhere. The 7-Elevens and White Hens stop selling at 2, as do most bars and taverns. But even after the four o'clock bars have closed, the old man bootlegger of Uptown, call him Sam, is still open for business.
"This is the way I make my living," says Sam. "I been doin' it for 11 years now, and I ain't caused no trouble."
Sam sells booze right from the curb out in front of his SRO hotel all morning long. "I sell one size, one brand of everything--fifths of vodka, fifths of rum, fifths of gin, fifths of whiskey, and on special nights I got champagne."
Sam doesn't sell beer. "Beer just takes up too much space, and it's hard to get my money with it," says Sam. "I tried it a while back, but I gave it up."
An old, beat-up Cadillac pulls up. Looks like a boat. Rocks like one too, when it rides.
"Hey Sam," shouts the elderly black gentleman in the passenger's seat. "Gimme two."
Sam disappears through the door of his hotel, then returns with two fifths already bagged and sealed. The passenger hands him two bills, and the car drives off into the night. No change asked for, none given.
"I ain't got time to give change and all that, now," says Sam. "My people know this."
How has Sam been able to operate, untouched, illegally, in this same spot for 11 years?
"I ain't gonna say much," says Sam. "I will say I'm too old to run. We got something worked out."
Five screaming white boys pull up in mom's Subaru, music blaring.
"Hey," says one of the guys. "I heard we could still get some liquor here. You guys got rum?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," says Sam. "And if I were you I'd keep driving."
"Nigger," yells one of the boys as they drive off, and another yells, "Fuck you."
"I don't take no offense," says Sam. "Them boys was plenty drunk already, and besides, I don't serve people I don't know."
Sam's customers are all regulars or referrals.
"Take this boy, he's all right Sam," says Billie Ray, one of Sam's best customers.
"You sure, Billy?" asks Sam. "You know I don't like serving youngsters, 'specially no white boy."
"But this here's the dirty white boy," says Billy. "Remember him?"
"Oh yeah," says Sam. "What you need, son?"
"Gimme a fifth of Johnnie Walker Red," says the dirty white boy.
"That'll be $20," says Sam, as he bags up the purchase.
Sam says he came to Chicago from Georgia, in 1962. He got a warehouse job, and as soon as he'd saved enough money, perhaps too soon, he sent for his mother and sister. They lived together in a two-room apartment on the south side.
"My sister, none of us, had the benefit of an education," says Sam. "She never felt right here, in the big city. In six years, she only left the house once a week or so, on Sunday, to go to church and to do the laundry."
Eventually Sam met a girl he wanted to marry. They did get married and she moved into the apartment with Sam, his mother, and his sister. Then his wife had a baby, and now there were five people living in a two-room apartment. Sam couldn't take the pressure, and one day he snapped.
"I just left," says Sam. "That was in 1968. I moved to the north side, me, my wife, and my baby."
Sam's wife died in 1979, he won't say how. His son is 24 years old now and works on the south side. As for Sam he's content to sell liquor from the curbside as he's done for the last 11 years.
"I figure I'll be out here doin' this for two or three more years," says Sam to no one in particular. "Yeah, I figure I'll be out here till I die."