Putting Down Roots | Our Town | Chicago Reader

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Putting Down Roots

Lakeview's oldest businesswoman welcomes guests to her greenhouse.



The sign in the window says "Open," but on this cold, rainy Thursday the dusty interior of A. Wall Florist at 3115 N. Greenview gives little clue as to what's happening in back. There, the old greenhouse is bright and cozy, and the air smells of coffee. Chairs, stools, and benches are scattered around the large table once used to prepare corsages and bouquets. In a seat next to the phone, Pearl Wall, the shop's spry 95-year-old owner, sips coffee and shoots the breeze with the parade of neighbors, friends, police officers, crossing guards, and shopowners who come to visit each day.

"We call it Pearl's coffee shop," says her niece, Dorothy Smith, who won't reveal her age but says she retired from her job as a diamond buyer at Montgomery Ward in 1991. Pearl and Dorothy live just around the corner on Fletcher, in the adjacent apartments where Pearl's mother-in-law, Antonia Wall, raised her seven children (and which Pearl now owns). Antonia started the family business in 1886, and Pearl has been working there for 48 years. Every morning but Sunday, when she stays in for Mass on Channel 26, she gets up at the crack of dawn, does the dishes, makes the bed, and tidies up. Then her neighbor Mike, a retired mail carrier, drops by to escort her to the greenhouse, where, from 7:30 to 12:30, she and Dorothy receive friends and--occasionally--serve a customer.

She was born Pearl West on November 6, 1905, at home, the fourth of five siblings. Her parents, Swedish immigrants, met in New Jersey and around 1892 moved to Chicago, where her father became a supervisor at Hedstrom Coal Company. Of her immediate family, only her 85-year-old "kid sister" is still living. "I tease her," says Pearl. "She looks older than I am."

After graduating from Lakeview High School, Pearl got a job as a typist at Lloyd-Thomas Appraisers and Engineers at Ravenswood and Montrose. She met Antonia Wall's son Bill while visiting a girlfriend whose mother had died. "He was coming out when I was going in," she says. "He fell in love with me--I didn't fall in love with him right away."

Bill took Pearl out to places like the Music Box, the Granada Theater, and the old Lincoln Hippodrome, where they'd see vaudeville acts such as Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Or they'd go for chop suey at the Orange Garden on Irving Park, which is still in operation. In her wallet, Pearl carries a picture of the couple in Antonia's Model T. "They snuck it out of the garage, and came over in the alley," she says. "John [Bill's brother] would feel the radiator and say, 'Mom, Bill had the car out.' That was when no one had a car in the family, and when if you had one you were really something."

Their courtship lasted six years--"We were young and he worked for his mother," says Pearl. They were married at Saint Alphonsus Church in April 1930, and Pearl quit her job. "I was a lady," she says. She laughs ruefully as she describes their honeymoon. "It was during prohibition. We went to Niagara Falls and my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law, and my brother-in-law came with. They wanted to get it [liquor] and bring it back. We stayed in one cottage."

She and Bill looked for their own place but wound up living in Antonia's brand-new two-flat, which she'd built next to her four-flat on Fletcher. (The two buildings abut the side yard to the shop and 85-year-old greenhouse.) "She was a doll," Pearl says of Antonia. "I loved her as much as I loved my own mother."

Dorothy, who as a child was paid a nickel to stack up flower pots, remembers Pearl as the "fun" aunt. "I was so glad to have a young aunt, because the rest of them were so crabby," she says. "She was young and exciting and interested in everything."

Pearl started working in the shop after John died of a stroke in 1948. "The first thing I made was a casket spray for the city clerk's wife," says Pearl. "It was my first flower piece--white mums and orchids. I lost money on it, it was so hard to make."

Wall Florist supplied the flowers for all of the neighborhood churches. Pearl's specialty was corsages, which she sprinkled with glitter. "The undertakers disliked her," says Dorothy. "She made beautiful arrangements, but she used glitter, which used to get on the carpet. 'Here comes Glitter Pearl,' they'd say. 'Get the vacuum.'"

She sometimes made as many as 200 corsages for special events. "You had to work every day," she says. "You couldn't go away for two weeks." On their day off the couple would meet their friends at a brewery near Volo. "On Wednesdays the six of us would pal," says Pearl. "We'd eat at places our friend the brewmaster served--golf courses, country clubs. We'd dress up. It was swank."

These days the greenhouse walls are decorated with pictures of Harry Caray and Mike Ditka, hats from retired police officers, and a photo of Pearl with Mark Grace, who visited a few years ago. Today the place is buzzing about an altercation Dorothy had early this morning with a young woman who had let her dog loose in their side yard. "I thought she was here to see us," says Pearl.

"I never saw her before," says Dorothy, who went out to talk to the girl. "I asked her if she was looking for someone. The girl said that her dog needs exercise. I told her that this is private property, and that we didn't want to be cleaning up dog doo. 'It's not from my dog,' she said, and I said, 'Well, who else's dog would it be?' and she said, 'You bitch.'

"At that point Mike came out and asked her where she lives. That got rid of her."

As the day goes on and new guests come, this story will be told again and again, getting richer each time. Dorothy and Pearl say it points to the general state of the neighborhood, which they say is in decline despite its outward prosperity. "People don't have any pride," says Dorothy, who'd had the police tow a derelict car the week before. "They came back and parked it in the same place. To show me. I hate to call again. I wish I knew where they lived."

At 8 Judy, a former neighbor, announces herself with a "Yoo-hoo!" Like most of the people who visit Pearl, she brings a treat--chocolate mints. She's stopped in on her way from Skokie to her job in Lincoln Park. She takes a seat next to the boiler, under a photo collage of Pearl's birthday parties.

About ten years ago, Judy's best friend told her she had to meet Pearl. "I had a couple of pieces of toast that I had wrapped up," she says. "Pearl looked at the toast and said, 'It tastes better when you eat it with someone,' which is so true." Since then she's been a regular, and has even gone on a couple of cruises with Dorothy, who has gone around the world four times.

"Pearl has good friends," says Dorothy. "Everybody does little things for her." Judy orders root beer and other items from Sam's Club for her. Others do her laundry and clean her house. When it snows, Mike shovels from the back door to the greenhouse, and Dorothy does the path to the street. "When I come they hand me the hanger, to get rid of the icicles," says Judy.

"Dorothy is my right hand, and Mike is my left hand," says Pearl. "Dorothy does all of my work for me."

At 8:20 Pat the crossing guard arrives, wearing a bright orange raincoat. "There's a song going through my head," she says, and starts to hum "You Belong to Me." Pearl, Dorothy, and Judy join in. "Get the bubble machine going," says Pearl when they finish.

Pat first came to the greenhouse several years ago, after her predecessor, Martha, passed away. "Martha would stay here and wouldn't go home," says Pearl. "It's an old shed, but it's warm."

Talk turns to the torn-up state of Ashland Avenue. "There used to be trolley tracks on Ashland," says Pearl. "In my heyday it used to turn around at Belmont and Lincoln, and go back to Chicago."

Just after 9 a tiny woman named Diane, who's been coming for 16 years and cleans Dorothy's house, stops by with a container of spaghetti for Pearl. She's on her way to the hairdresser and stays just a few minutes. The conversation turns to parking and Alzheimer's. Then Debbie, who cleans Pearl's house each Saturday as a favor, arrives with her young son and a carpet cleaner in tow and heads up to Pearl's apartment. She also does Pearl's hair on Saturdays.

At 8:45, Judy leaves. Pearl lets her go with a kiss and a "Bye, pie."

Bill died of a heart attack on June 28, 1958. After the burial, says Pearl, "I came down here and looked up at God and said, 'I'm going to make it or break it.'" She started doing all of her deliveries herself and kept the business going.

She says she got her biggest thrill the time she made a horseshoe of flowers for the Bears when they defeated the New York Giants for the NFL championship at Wrigley Field. She delivered it to the clubroom herself. "I was so nervous," she says.

She shows me an antique brown Address-o-graph full of address cards; each is covered with names, all crossed out. "Look at this, they're all gone," she says. "I look at this and think, 'I didn't have that many friends.'"

"They were customers," says Dorothy. "They became friends."

The phone rings--it's one of Pearl's policemen checking in. "We were just talking about you," she says. "About how you got the car removed." After she hangs up she says, "That's one cop. He's an old-timer. He said, 'Can I have a beer at your doings?' I said, 'No, you have to be a good boy.'"

The "doings" is a reception for Pearl on Saturday, March 31, at 2 at the Lincoln-Belmont Branch Library, 1659 W. Melrose, where she'll be honored as Lakeview's longest-enduring businesswoman. Though she doesn't like to draw attention to herself, in 1980 she won the Good Neighbor Award from the Lakeview Council on Religious Action for her service to the community; these days some of her friends are trying to get the patch of Greenview in front of the shop named after her.

Though she has difficulty seeing and walking (her motorized wheelchair sports a Cadillac sticker) Pearl still takes the occasional excursion; Dorothy took her out recently for corned beef and cabbage and a manhattan, and they usually go out for her birthday, which is a big affair. A few years ago they went to see Forever Plaid and Always...Patsy Cline. But mostly she sticks around the shop. "I come down here so I can live happier the few years I have left," says Pearl.

The corsage work has been dropping off since the 1980s. "Ever since blue jeans," says Pearl. "Ever since they started dressing down." But Dorothy still decorates the windows for each holiday and Pearl gives poinsettias and lilies to her friends and tenants for Christmas and Easter. Over Valentine's Day the shop sold exactly two plants.

Her arthritis has made it impossible to keep up with her church clients, because she can't lift heavy things. The funeral business has also dried up. "We thought the business would always continue, because people always die," says Dorothy. "But now they always say to give to a charity in lieu of flowers."

Still, Pearl has never really retired. Dorothy recently picked up some plants and flowers for Easter, and they've already sold a few. The business loses money, but Pearl says it's worth it. "I can wake up and be ever so tired and crabby. I come down here and wow--they really keep me going."

At 10:15, one of Pearl's tenants, Gladys, sits down. She moved in when she was nine, and has lived on Fletcher about 65 years. When she doesn't check in, Pearl calls her. Today she's full of news about her trip to the Navy Pier flower show and her long, drawn-out search to find WGN radio personality Spike O'Dell.

In the middle of the story Debbie's five-year-old bursts in. "Does your mother know you're here?" Dorothy asks. "No!" he says.

Pat leaves, and Debbie comes and collects her son. "He's a little dickens, but he is cute," says Pearl.

At 10:40 Mike pops in, on the way back from his stockbroker's. "I have a question," he says. "Can I walk my dog?"

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

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