"I hate funerals!"
Tattoo Tom, his muscular arms a filigree of colors and his hair matted with sweat, gazes morosely over the heads of the Sunday morning Maxwell Street crowd as he takes a pull from his can of Diet Pepsi and rubs a meaty hand over his army fatigue shirt. "This is fuckin' Maxwell Street, for Chrissakes, not some goddam yuppie farmers market in the Loop! Today is a funeral, man; a whole way of life's over. What else is there to even bother comin' into the city for anymore?"
Tom operates a tattoo parlor in the western suburbs; he's been coming to Maxwell for years to shop--antique furniture, hunting knives, a sterilizer for his tattoo needles--and he also hangs out with the bluesmen who used to play throughout the market on corners and in vacant lots but have recently been exiled by fences to one or two cramped spaces on Maxwell near Halsted. He's a massive man whose lips are curled into a perpetual sneer, and he's fond of roaring out outlaw aphorisms like "God works in strange ways--so does Smith and Wesson!"
He's here, along with everyone else, for one last Sunday-morning blowout. Piano C. Red and his sidemen have begun to lay down their grinding blues groove on the stage in front of Johnny Dollar's food stand; dancers are already lurching around in wine-soaked circles; the usual conglomeration of hard-core regulars, occasional shoppers, and wide-eyed tourists has started to gather. The death of the market means more to Tattoo Tom than the end of an era or an excuse to party.
"Man, I'm sellin' my place and movin' to Kansas or somewhere. Why not? I got it all set up--some guy tried to fuck me on it but don't worry, I'm gonna fuck him back. Shit, there ain't nothin' like this anywhere. Me and my crazy partner might as well just get the hell outta Chicago and go live off the land, just be left alone. There ain't anyplace left where people understand life like they do here. It's the Mardi Gras of the mind, and there ain't no other like it. It's time to go."
There'd been rumors that the city of Chicago or someone under its auspices was going to hold a tribute to Maxwell Street on this the market's last day in the location where it's been in one form or another for over 120 years. Most of the regulars were appalled--one of Tattoo Tom's buddies even offered to shoot holes in the banners the city has hung from street lamps to advertise the market's restrictive new location on Canal Street between Roosevelt and 15th--but this morning it's clear that there's no danger of any kind of official recognition of the market's demise.
The usual crowd is out in force--along with a few dozen extra cops, some of whom will spend the day taking snapshots like tourists--and the market can put on its own funeral with more class than any politically sponsored send-off could ever aspire to.
The Peanut Man trudges down Newberry with a sour expression on his face, laden with bags of peanuts and stopping only to do business, never to chat or take in the scenery. His cranky dignity seems like an oasis. In the chaos around him children squeal in delight and scurry underfoot, a few even doing cartwheels through the crowds; music blares from all directions out of speakers and hand-held radios; hawkers' spiels fill the air; horns honk, bells clang, the singsong jingles of ice cream trucks loop monotonously.
A man strides through the market with an armful of cloth bags: "Laundry bags! Tote bags! Gettin'-put-out-of-the-house bags!" Another sells X-rated videos, which he sometimes calls "X-ray movies" when he's deep into his spiel. A veteran vendor called Mama sits behind her table of found household objects and bellows orders at everyone within earshot. Her husband, a childlike man with unfocused eyes and a two-or-three-day beard, weaves among the crowds in a dance to 60s-era soul music from a nearby stereo speaker, spilling beer from an ever-present can onto his sunburned arms. Around the corner on Maxwell, across the street from Nate's Kosher Deli, Killer Joe the jazz DJ spins platters--Bird, Diz, occasionally a vocalist like Billie Holiday or Frank Sinatra--on a heavy-duty turntable. The music melds with the rougher sounds of R & B and hip hop from the stand down the block where they still sell eight-track tapes and cassettes.
Through it all, the Peanut Man never looks right or left. In a world of spielers, rappers, and hucksters his refusal to participate in the shout is one of the most effective sales techniques going.
When he gets to 14th Street, the Peanut Man turns west, toward Morgan. Meanwhile, a block east, on the corner of 14th and Halsted, the Blues Bus Conductor sells tapes from a blue-painted bus that's rigged up with loudspeakers and adorned with brightly painted legends that say "Downhome Music," "Heritage Folk Music," and "Mississippi Delta Blues." Conversation around his bus is peppered with references to the Delta, reminiscences of the old days when a blues club stood on nearly every corner of Chicago's south side, and assertions that today's youth are ruining their souls with rap and sex music. As if on cue, the raucous blues that has been emanating from loudspeakers above the Conductor's head suddenly ceases; after a second or two of silence, the majestic cadences of Dr. Martin Luther King bathe the southeast corner of the market in inspiration.
A bystander asks the Conductor if he's seen the Hat Man lately. No, that guy hasn't been around for--man, it must be months now, maybe a year! The Hat Man didn't sell hats; he made them for himself using pinwheels, Christmas tinsel, old light bulbs, American flags, and anything else he could find that was colorful or reflected the sunlight. Refracting colors danced along the street half a block ahead of him as he walked slowly around the market with his head stiffly erect and his creation balanced precariously atop it.
The city evicted the Hub Cap Guys a couple of weeks ago. On the west side of Halsted, south of the few buildings that remain, a bunch of enterprising merchants had set up makeshift shanties they surrounded with wood fences and filled to overflowing with hubcaps and tires. Several of the Hub Cap Guys lived there full-time with their families. Market old-timers resented their presence: the shanties and some of the Guys as well were filthy, they attracted dubious customers, and they furthered the stereotype of the market as a place where stolen goods were recycled.
Just a few years ago, though, that strip was lined with businesses: a couple of convenience stores, an all-night taqueria, a pub on the corner of Halsted and 14th where mariachi bands would play on Sunday afternoon. Everyone remembers the day the death knell sounded there: a house imploded and almost took one of the market's most irrepressible residents with it.
In those days, the blues bands would play under a tree in a vacant lot directly behind the area the Hub Cap Guys eventually appropriated. The tree itself was dubbed "the Blues Tree," and things got so jubilant there that you could feel the ground shake in time to the music. A young deaf-mute woman regularly showed up to dance; the beat beneath her feet was so strong that she could move in time to it as easily as her fellow celebrants.
Directly behind the band was a house that had been abandoned a year or two before. One Sunday during a song the ground began to shake even more than usual and dust suddenly billowed out of a hole in the roof like smoke from a factory. Within about 30 seconds the entire front half of the building had collapsed.
As the band stopped playing and the crowd stared in disbelief, out of a second-floor door in back came Cookie, a young woman who lived in an abandoned building nearby and would go on dancing, drinking, and hustling around the market until her death a few years later. She descended the back stairs with the regal nonchalance of a Scarlett O'Hara; when she got to the ground she looked back over her shoulder and mumbled, "Man, they must be fighting up in there or something--I went up there to take a leak in the bathroom and the whole house was shaking!"
Someone led her around to the front and showed her the pile of wood, shingles, and metal.
"The Lord looks after drunks and fools," a regular suggested.
"Uh-huhh!" someone answered. "He be workin' overtime down here!"
Every Sunday for the last few weeks a bus festooned with posters announcing rallies and workshops to save Maxwell Street has crawled through the market. Even today, in the Mexican portion of the market south of 15th Street, a child hands out bilingual fliers urging organized resistance.
In mid-August a group marched from the market to Daley Plaza, where they intended to hold a rally and demand that the mayor stop the deal to sell the area to the University of Illinois at Chicago. Unfortunately, the march organizers didn't know there was a farmers market planned for the plaza that day; the 50 or so demonstrators who showed up had to settle for circling City Hall a few times. Few people showed up for a week-long candlelight vigil--billed as a "novena" by its organizers--on the corner of Maxwell and Halsted, and on at least one occasion no one remembered to bring any candles.
In retrospect, it probably wouldn't have mattered if Karl Marx, Saul Alinsky, and Moses had returned to organize the masses and lead "Jewtown" into a new century. It's clear now that the issue wasn't just UIC, not even redevelopment per se. A city with the economic resources and geographic space of Chicago won't go broke if it sets aside a few square blocks of otherwise vacant land so a few thousand people who aren't rich and powerful can make a little money and listen to some free blues once a week.
This is something much bigger: a new, corporate-driven urban vision. People who are being deemed obsolete, the children and grandchildren of migrants who've been lured for decades to cities like Chicago from the deep south, from Eastern Europe, from south of the U.S. border, from Asia. These people who came looking for streets paved with gold and too often found ghetto alleys filled with death created places like the Maxwell Street Market to learn the hustle and get a foothold.
Meanwhile they built cities and forged steel, swept streets, butchered cattle, mopped floors in fancy homes and high-rise office buildings, typed memos and fetched coffee, and still found time to breathe life into America's gray-flannel soul. Now "we" can't afford their presence anymore because "our" cities have been built and it's time for "us" to move on to a new economic order.
Such are the thoughts that run through one's mind as one journeys through the market one last time, immersed in the sights and sounds of this doomed carnival.
* * *
A block or two southwest of the Blues Bus, around 15th and Peoria, a braying moan cuts through the aural farrago. A young woman strolling down the street cocks her head: "There's a cow over there!" "No," her companion answers. "It's a goat."
It's neither: a blind man sits on a chair in the middle of the street. He holds a cup and cries out in a sandpapery baritone that seems to travel through the entire market: "Help the bli-i-i-i-i-nd! Please help the bli-i-i-i-i-ind!"
Any venue like Maxwell Street will have its share of beggars, of course, but down here they seem to have a unique role, almost a place of honor.
Judge Hightower sits on a chair at Maxwell and Halsted rattling the change in his tin cup and holding his white cane erect like a staff, as if he were the market's royally appointed gatekeeper. A part of his role is to attract customers to Jim's Polish sausage stand. He also sells pencils, and his spiel is one of the first market sounds you hear as you walk down Halsted:
"Pencils? Get 'em here! Pencils? Thank you, thank you very much. Pork chop! Polish sausage! Hot dog! Hamburger! Cheeseburger, get 'em here--pencils? Thank you, thank you very much. Double dog! Double Polish! Double chop--thank you very much--pencils? Thank you, thank you very much. Double hamburger! Double cheeseburger! Triple dog! Triple Polish! Triple pork chop--pencils? Thank you very much. Triple hamburger! Triple cheeseburger! Head 'em up, move 'em out!"
An old acquaintance calls out his name and Hightower faces the man and exults, "Well, I declare--look who I see!" Before the accident that blinded him he was a golf caddie at, among other places, Palm Beach Country Club for "Miss Rosalyn Kennedy" and Hackensack, New Jersey, "one of the toughest country clubs in America." Now he plays chess, makes macrame planters in his senior citizens' arts and crafts class, and holds forth on life and philosophy on Sunday mornings.
"Y'see I don't have any eyes, but the Lord, he focused me. You can't be distracted. They tried to shoot a nephew of mine, but you know what the skin did? The skin just closed up on the bullet. His skin was so tight that when the paramedics tried to give him an injection in his arm they couldn't stick the needle in. The doctors, they said this was something you'd seldom see--very, very rare. You see, in the scheme of life these things is just a distraction. Never let these things get behind you. Just because they see me with no eyes, don't let it fool you. Talk to me; you'll get the drive back."
A young man folds a dollar bill and carefully places it in Hightower's hand. "I make sure I do that every Sunday," he tells his companion as they turn the corner onto Maxwell and walk into the market. "Even if I'm short of money, I give him that dollar. That's my cover charge."
At 14th and Peoria a man with luxuriant black hair tied back in a braid beneath a natty black fedora sits on the ground with Buddha-like serenity. He plays traditional Ecuadoran music on a pipe; spread out for sale in front of him are multicolored hand-woven blankets, sweaters, and wooden panpipes. Behind him rollicking music booms up the street from loudspeakers in the Mexican section of the market a block south.
Out of the Mexican market emerges a chunky little guy pushing a handcart full of fruit-flavored ices on a stick. He stops at a table where a man speaking in the clipped accents of his native Ghana displays hand-carved wooden artifacts and bronze statuettes. Down the block you can see impeccably dressed young men hawking copies of the Nation of Islam's Final Call.
There's a bit of a roadblock between the Ecuadoran piper, the Nation of Islam youths, and the Mexican market: a group of earnest Revolutionary Communist Party members have spread a banner across Peoria. The banner urges people to join the struggle for third world revolution and to save Maxwell Street too. The RCPers shout through bullhorns in English and Spanish and distribute revolutionary literature.
It's hard to say whether they're making much of an impact. There's a story that a couple of years ago an elderly man from the neighborhood tried to engage one of them in conversation. After enduring about 30 minutes of sloganeering and Maoist quotes, he walked away shaking his head: "If that don't beat all! That white boy just spent the last half hour tellin' me I'm poor!"
A few blocks to the east of the Maoists, two Gypsy women--survivors of what was once a thriving Maxwell Street Gypsy community--tell fortunes. A vendor's table near 14th and Halsted displays what appears to be voodoo paraphernalia (a fake skull, a black plaster fist with a stick of incense protruding from between the second and third fingers), and a photocopy of the cover of an old edition of Death of a Salesman with the handwritten inscription: VOTE TO SAVE MAXWELL; D-DAY 8-28-94 LITTLE HITLER DAY.
Back at the blues stage, Tattoo Tom is sweating more than ever and working on his second or third diet pop; he's diabetic and can't drink alcohol anymore. He's been joined by the Daves: Crazy Dave, a paunchy man with the chest and arms of a construction worker who's holding an ax at arm's length by the end of its handle, lowering the blade dangerously close to his brow, and lecturing a fascinated bystander on this muscle-toning exercise to "strengthen your punch"; and Brother Dave (Tom's "crazy partner" and blood brother), who sports a scruffy beard and shoulder-length hair but disdains any association with the 60s. "I ain't no fuckin' hippie," he proclaims. "I'm a beatnik!"
Brother Dave has just returned from the biker rodeo in Peotone. ("Man, they had them chicks there ridin' on the back of the bikes, and they had a hot dog hangin' over the racetrack from a fishing pole, and the chicks had to grab it with their teeth, squattin' on the bikes goin' past it--them chicks were chewin' them sausages, man!") Now he's explaining to anyone who'll listen how Jeff Dahmer is going to get messed up real bad in prison even though they've got him in solitary confinement.
"There's always a way! I was in Du Page one time, and this Mexican guy who'd been sent down there for molesting some little kid--it was a real big news story, everybody heard about it--he was in solitary, and the cooks in the kitchen found out that he was allergic to some foods, right? Now for the rest of his fuckin' natural life, all he's gonna eat is gonna be nothin' but what makes him sick! Dahmer? Ha! Believe me--there's always a way!"
Brother Dave finishes his monologue and calls Tattoo Tom's daughter Scooter to his side. He breaks into a grin and begins to tease and play with her like a proud uncle. Scooter's been away for a few weeks. Last Sunday she and her father stayed home to celebrate her graduation from grade school; she graduated near the top of her class. She's a soft-spoken girl with thick long hair who defers politely to the adults around her; she takes in the noise and chaos of the street with serene, attentive eyes. Tom looks over his shoulder approvingly at her and Dave. He gulps another mouthful of pop and growls, "Dave's the only man I know who isn't family that I'd trust alone with my daughter."
When Eva goes into her routine, even hardened Maxwell Street veterans have to stop whatever it is they're doing and gawk. Eva's a legend in south-side blues circles as well as on Maxwell: she shows up at sophisticated show lounges like East of the Ryan or Mr. G's decked out in sparkling gold tiaras and lame dresses, parades out in front of the audience, and goes into her strut: she hoists up her dress and shakes her whole body in time to the music, spreading her legs far apart and bending over until her head is nearly touching the floor; then she grabs her hem and prances, kicking like a cancan dancer, around the dance floor. Sometimes she even hops onstage and joins the show, especially when a singer like Bobby Rush is in the middle of one of his bawdy routines.
Eva's a compact woman of at least 60; she lives near the Gold Coast. She neither drinks nor smokes, and although she's black herself she speaks disdainfully of "these niggers out here" who consider themselves too good to get down and party, but then will go out into the street and shoot at each other from behind the wheels of expensive cars. On Maxwell she's even more uninhibited than she is in the clubs, although recently she's taken to carrying a small baseball bat for protection.
Eva's dressed a little more casually today--a black fishnet blouse over a black slip, white slacks, socks, and tennis shoes--and she begins her act by grinding her hips slowly to the band's dirty boogie groove. Pretty soon she's sashaying around in front of the stage, raising her blouse teasingly as far as her midriff, then a bit higher and higher still, fixing a ferocious look-but-don't-touch glare on the men around her. In a few minutes she's into her spread-eagle routine and the blouse is halfway over her head. Finally one of the men can't restrain himself: he approaches with his hands outstretched and begins to dip and weave in front of her. She plants her feet, her expression hardens, and she tosses her head back, eyes glinting with steel. He quickly backs away, and Eva relaxes and slinks back into her dance.
Tucker and the Walker have left the blues stage area to share a bottle of wine in an alley. The Walker is a tall man of indeterminate age with a pained expression who strides in gigantic steps through the market all day, looking everywhere and saying nothing. He seldom stops, and when he does he jerks himself away almost immediately from whatever it was that had grabbed his attention and plunges back into his endless, obsessive journey. He even drinks on the move, downing an entire bottle of Richard's in a swift gurgle between strides. He dresses in filthy rags and communicates only with a handful of hard-core drinking buddies, mostly fellow street people like Tucker, the "professional dancer."
Tucker lived in an abandoned building on Morgan Street along the western border of the market until it was torn down. He dances for tips wherever the blues bands set up. When he's in high gear he'll belly flop into a mud puddle, boogie barefoot in running-in-place stutter steps on a vacant lot strewn with broken glass, even leap into a pile of trash and emerge with a toothless grin, clutching a bottle of wine he'd stashed there. His specialty is a routine where he pulls up his trouser cuffs and whips off his shirt, only to reveal another layer of clothing underneath; then he does it again, and sometimes a third time. He carries a photo of himself dancing, his "publicity photo," framed in a recycled cardboard box. When he lived on Morgan, he'd hang it during the week on a bare wall in the room where he slept.
It's unclear whether either Tucker or the Walker knows that the market is about to be closed, but as the afternoon wears on they both seem to be carrying on with even wilder abandon than usual. The hot pavement on the street in front of the blues stage takes a harsher toll on Tucker than the vacant lots where he used to perform, and after a while he disappears. In his absence the Walker occasionally breaks into a lurching dance routine when he passes through the area--at one point he begins to cock his fists and fire imaginary pistols at the people around him--but mostly he's still locked into his ceaseless travels up and down the streets and through the alleys, conducting one final grim survey of the neighborhood he's called home for as long as anyone can remember.
Down the street from the blues stage in front of the Johnny Dollar store, guitarist David Lindsey has carved out a tiny space for himself and his band behind some vendors' tables. He's directly across the street from the old location of the Maxwell Radio Record Company, the record store/recording studio where entrepreneur Bernard Abrams recorded Little Walter and Othum Brown's "Ora Nelle Blues" in the late 40s, a record that laid the groundwork for a revolutionary new urban-folk blues style, the style that would soon blossom into what we now call Chicago blues.
Al Harris, Lindsey's sweet-voiced lead vocalist, has been alternating most of the day between spoken tributes to the market ("This is the last day--it's raining already, the sky is crying, but we gonna get down; we gon' rock the house!") and standards like "Sweet Home Chicago" with a few timely lyric changes. ("C'mon--baby don't you wanna go / c'mon--Jewtown's the place to go / Talkin' 'bout Maxwell Street, won't be here no mo'!")
Now Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis approaches the microphone, a borrowed guitar slung over his shoulder. Davis is an elder statesman of Maxwell Street blues: a veteran of the old southern traveling minstrel shows, he studied under John Lee Hooker in Detroit, hit Chicago around 1953, and almost immediately began to perform in the market. Eventually he opened a restaurant there, the Knotty Pine Grill, and he often played in front of it to attract customers. Although his performances have become erratic over the years, everyone senses that today he'll take his role seriously as the living repository of over 40 years of Maxwell Street heritage.
He knocks off a couple of warm-up tunes in his usual hyperkinetic, flamboyant fashion, then falls silent. After a few seconds he jerks back into focus and snaps out a long, moaning bass note. An expectant hush falls over the crowd: this is what they've come for. The band kicks into a hypnotic slow grind and Davis begins to moan in a rich, quivering vibrato: "M-m-m-m-o-o-o-o-h-h-h, there's two, two trains runnin' . . . "
The song is "Still a Fool," Muddy Waters's anthemic update of the Delta standard "Catfish Blues." The lyrics are full of images of midnight getaways, jealous lovers, and fate; the pulsating intensity of the beat makes these brooding meditations seem to dance in front of your ears, and Davis plays the melody in a raw, single-chord Delta drone punctuated occasionally by searing slides up and down the fretboard.
Everyone's moving now, regulars and tourists alike: bodies swirl and spin through the street, stopping traffic and pedestrians; Davis's lady friend stands imperiously beside him at the microphone, fixing her gaze on him with an expression of regal adoration. Finally Davis and the band grind down to a conclusion, and for about 30 seconds after the song's over hardly anyone speaks or moves.
Slowly the rest of the market's sounds begin to filter back into everyone's awareness, the conversations and laughter start up again, and the band gets ready to kick into another number. Lindsey and Piano C. Red will both keep playing for another hour or two, but after Davis's performance a lot of people begin to wander away. The street feels like Congo Square in New Orleans, the place where African slaves used to dance their whirling kalinda dances, where the melding of African, Caribbean, and European music and culture that gave rise to jazz first began, and where, if you go in the right frame of mind and sit still long enough, you can swear you feel the presence of the spirits of the ancestors still drumming and chanting, protecting this sacred space.
In New Orleans, of course, they turn such places into shrines. In Chicago, we turn them into parking lots.
Ol' Coot's daughter has made an appearance on the street. Coot--Tenner "Playboy" Venson--was a drummer who lived on 14th Street until his death in 1985. His drum set--a perilously fragile and battered contraption with torn and taped skins, warped rims, and cymbals that sounded like pie tins--was a Sunday morning fixture for years in front of the tumbledown graystone apartment building where he lived. His technique was as elemental as his traps: he'd lay down a primitive medium-tempo four-four beat no matter what the rest of the band was doing, and in the middle of a song he'd sometimes quit playing, light his cigar, and amble around to the front to pound on the bass drum backward through his legs with his sticks, intoning a sardonic commentary in his ancient-sounding, gravelly baritone.
Nonetheless, some legendary blues musicians used to play with Coot--Floyd Jones, Big Walter Horton, Homesick James, Snooky Pryor, among others--and he claimed to have accompanied Muddy Waters on Muddy's infrequent Maxwell Street appearances back in the 50s. Today his daughter's appearance triggers an epidemic of nostalgia: everyone says hello, and even the younger musicians--most of whom cut their teeth on Maxwell with Coot or other departed old-timers like John Embry, One-Arm John Wrencher, and Eddie "Porkchop" Hines--begin to trade stories of the old days, back when there was a band on almost every corner and they'd all show up at eight in the morning or even earlier to get the jump on one another. Once there, they'd play and fill their tip boxes all day long.
"Yeah, them days, there was dedication out here!" one veteran remembers. Willie James, who got his start playing on Maxwell with guitarist Pat Rushing, kicks in with some memories of his mentor: "Ol' Pat, man, he was a monster! He played more blues with that grungy, out-of-tune guitar of his--he played more blues with one note than half these young kids who've been through school and everything can play all night up on the north side somewhere. And party? Whooooh! He was hard core! He was the real thing, Jack, and they don't make 'em like that anymore!"
Rushing is still alive, although he hasn't gone to Maxwell lately: after decades of the blues life, he finally joined the church a few years ago. But up to that point he was relentless: he and his family band--including child prodigy Rico on bass, Danny on drums, and daughter Waxie ("Miss Peanut Butter") on lead vocals--might play a gig downstate somewhere on Saturday night, but they'd always get back to Maxwell by seven or eight in the morning, even if it meant driving all night. As the kids grabbed a few precious minutes of sleep in the car Pat would be outside setting up equipment. For breakfast he'd toss down a bag or two of dry pork skins. Then he'd grab another half-pint, summon the family, and by nine or so the vacant lot between Newberry and Peoria was rocking to his blues--a sound that was, as an observer once put it, "funkier than a whorehouse in a fish market."
Shaking off fatigue and drunkenness, Rushing would play as long as there was anyone within hearing distance, and sometimes later than that--you'd drive up Halsted at six, seven, or eight o'clock in the evening and he and the band would still be there, half-invisible in the dusky gray, grinding out chorus after chorus of raw, back-alley blues to an empty market under a darkening sky, as garbage swirled over vacant lots and the setting sun cast a crimson glow over rooftops, abandoned cars, crumbling buildings, and a solitary straggler or two making their way silently through the desolate streets.
Every year there'd be a Gift Sunday.
Usually in October, sometimes as late as Halloween weekend, weeks after the wind and cold rain of autumn had swept the market clear of all but the most tenacious devotees, suddenly it would all return for a day.
The world would explode one last time into crisp Indian summer ferocity--temperature in the 50s or 60s, the sky a harsh hospital blue, everything looking sharply defined and vibrant. It was as if the gods, the elements, and the market itself had conspired to bless everyone with one more reminder as winter closed in that "trouble," as the old gospel song promises, "don't last always."
The bands, who'd usually been away, or at least been threatening to leave for weeks by this time, would always return. The dancers came back, draped in shaggy wraps and knee-length coats; the more determined winos trembled a little more intensely than usual in the morning chill.
Thick black smoke billowed from bonfires in oil drums as vendors rubbed their hands in the sooty warmth; occasionally a spark would ignite some of the stubborn prairie grass that grew in the vacant lots, and a lone fire truck would come clanging and careering through the crowds, adding yet another riff to the ongoing Maxwell Street jazz symphony. This, more than any other time of the year, was when you believed that it would never end, that the spirit of survival that had gotten us all this far--and would see us somehow through the gray winter that hovered just beyond the horizon--would continue to prevail.
A few years ago on Gift Sunday, Willie James and Maxwell Blues played as storm clouds gathered to the west. The scenario was almost too perfect: this was the year the house almost fell in on Cookie and the university finally made public its designs on the market. Wreckers and track loaders were beginning to lurk around the alleys and crawl over the vacant lots; several buildings had already been razed. The sense of impending doom seemed more pervasive every day, and now here we all were, dancing and boogying under the Blues Tree, virtually in the eye of the storm.
Nobody wanted to stop. Three o'clock, four o'clock--maybe later--the sky darkened as the band recycled song after song, Tucker danced and drank himself into exhausted oblivion only to rise like James Brown with his cape and do it again and again, the air got chillier, dirt and debris swirled and peppered against the faces of dancers and celebrants. Finally as lightning began to rip across the western sky, the band brought everything to a climax: a frenzied medley of blues, R & B, and pop hits both recent and venerable, with four or five guitars screaming away on the changes and various guest singers coming to the mike to imitate masters' voices--James Brown, Jimmy Reed, Muddy, Wolf, Tyrone Davis, and more--with varying degrees of proficiency.
The musicians' eyes were glazed with alcohol and exhaustion, the crowd huddled under blankets or danced furiously to stave off the chill, yet the music went on until it seemed as if it might keep going clear through till Christmas. Finally Willie James gave the signal, the band hit one more metallic thunder chord, and everything fell silent; another summer of Maxwell Street blues was over. The last two songs they played that day were the Isleys' "It's Your Thing (Do What You Wanna Do)" and "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)" by Sly and the Family Stone.
And then the rains came.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.