The Neighborhood Capitalist | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

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The Neighborhood Capitalist

This neighborhood-store thing is not about race or religion or culture. It's about money and status and the way the free market divides people up and puts them in different camps.



Here's a little store in the big dirty city. Candy, cigarettes, newspapers, soda pop, ice cream, and long, long hours. People who run stores like this grow old and die without anyone ever having noticed.

You're in the neighborhood, but you're not part of it. You're in a community, but not the way other people are. You, you're behind a counter. Those people out there, your customers, your neighbors, your countrymen, they are not. They come and go as they please, they laugh, they love, they work, they struggle, they do their neighborhood thing. Meanwhile here you are, 10, 12 hours each day, seven days a week. Mom and pop, kids too, if you have them. It's a tough, tough way to make a living.

Years later you remember how it was. You wake up from dreams that put you back behind that counter, dreams where the furnace has broken down again, dreams where the back door has been kicked in again.

Dreams with a lot of dirt in them. A little store, one aisle, cement floor, ancient fixtures, constant flow. Could that little store possibly have been as dirty as you remember it in your dreams?

You think about that store when you read about some Korean grocer being boycotted. Or some Arab being told he doesn't belong. And community leaders saying, "We've got to talk."

About what? you wonder. This neighborhood-store thing is not about race or religion or culture. You had ten years to run a store, you blue-eyed Catholic boy, and didn't people in your all-white working-class neighborhood still take you for a Jew? It's about money and status and the way the free market divides people up and puts them in different camps. It's about never being known for what you are, and always being condemned for what you're thought to be; it's about capitalism on the ground level, and sometimes that means war.

An old storekeeper remembers how it was. Remembers the Polish gentleman who for seven long years marched up to the counter and triumphantly extracted ten pennies from his coin purse. "All I bring with me." Same joke every day. Ten pennies in the purse. Not one more, lest he weaken and spend it.

An old storekeeper remembers the people who refused to pay tax on three candy bars. "Here." Three candy bars on the counter, each with its own separate coin. "I'll buy them one at a time."

He remembers mothers, carrying bags of stuff he could have sold them, bringing their children in to buy penny candy with change from someone else's store.

Remembers the woman who called the police because he was selling "fireworks." Items that can be bought at any Walgreen store before any Fourth of July. Went to court three times before that was finally thrown out.

Remembers the merchandise he saw in discount stores at the very price he'd paid his distributor, and how people, charged more, would insist they'd been cheated.

Remembers all those people who wanted him to save them a newspaper. The three-star for this one, the five-star for that one, put it behind the counter--and oh yes, we'll settle at the end of the week.

And all those empty bottles that came in for the deposit, and how angry people would get when he said he didn't carry that brand.

And how those sticky bottles would build up in the aisle and fall over and break if he didn't constantly keep at them, and how no sooner had he picked up one load than he would see a couple of kids and their wagon coming down the block with another, and how the whole back room would fill with bottles, twice as many as this store ever sold, and how they would bring bugs into the store and how people would act shocked when they saw a bug and make noises like this place ought to be closed down.

Sometimes he even agreed with them.

Maybe, after all these years, we can now talk about the rat.

Rat: Any of several kinds of black, brown, or gray long-tailed rodents resembling, but larger than, the mouse.

Remember that chapter in 1984 where Winston is tortured with the "worst thing in the world," and it turns out to be a rat? Orwell knew about rats. Some people do, and some people do not. It depends upon where you come from and who you are. Dan Quayle, he probably doesn't know about rats. Those Korean grocers, I'll bet they do.

I was a kid in a building that had rats. An old brick commercial building with a furniture store and a tobacco wholesaler downstairs, an insurance office next to our apartment, and a building next door where live chickens were kept, sold, killed, and cleaned. If we were quiet and stood out of the way, we kids could come in and watch.

The guy who owned that chicken store kept a .22 rifle above the cash register.

It was for the rats.

We had a dog named Trixie, the kind of dog people in those days called a rat terrier. Probably not an official breed. But she was awfully quick with rats. You could start two of them across the kitchen floor, and she would nail both before they reached the sink. The way she killed was really quite lovely. She would grab a rat by the neck and snap it so hard you could sometimes hear the backbone come apart. In her sleep she would lie growling and twitching, and you knew she was still catching rats.

Rats have been following me around ever since.

My first job was in a print shop. I was what was called a "printer's devil," a term I have not heard used lately. My friends would ask what a printer's devil did, and being an honest young man, I gave a truthful reply: "If somebody vomits, I'm the one who cleans it up."

Our print shop had rats. We were across the street from a grain elevator and connected to it by our basements. In Blue Island, the town where I grew up, there seemed to be an awful lot of connecting basements, a kind of underground world that has gotten much larger in my dreams. But this print shop and this grain elevator did connect, and we did get the rats.

Once when a rat landed in the office wastebasket and couldn't get out, everyone cleared the room and I, the printer's devil, was called. "Paul. Kill that rat."

When you kill a rat you must not hesitate, must not waver in your resolve. Mercy has no place in the dealings between men and rats. The rat that ran through the pool hall. We killed it with our cues. The rat that got into my first apartment. I got him with a broom handle. I had been married less than a year, and my wife had grown up in a part of town that did not get rats. Now we were living in a cold-water apartment in my part of town and we did get a rat.

Somebody had left the outside door open, and the rat got in. My wife saw it coming down the hall. Somehow--and women are very good at this--she directed it into the bathroom, directed me after it, and slammed the door. I could feel her pressing against the latch. It was kill the rat or stay in the bathroom forever.

You hit a rat like that as hard as you can and as often as you can until it stops moving, and then you hit it about nine or ten more times just to make sure. You don't stop to think about what you are doing to one of God's creatures.

So you see, the rat that showed up in the store was really no surprise. Just because something lives in the alley doesn't mean it will stay there. It's a storekeeper's nightmare come true. First the rat, then the board of health, then the word running like the plague around the neighborhood.

Then insolvency.

Well, think about it. Would you do business with a store that had a rat?

There was a night someone saw a flash of brown. Traps were set. Exterminators were called. Poison was placed. Prayers were said.

A rattrap goes off like a pistol shot. A rattrap can smash a pencil, break your finger, bring considerable grief to a dog's nose. But no self-respecting rat, caught in a trap, ever dies without a struggle. It's not the kind of event you care to have happen while a customer is in the store.

And there he is, the customer, leaning against the counter, waiting for the five-star Sun-Times. He's a big guy, overfed, and his favorite topic of conversation is how the niggers are going to move into this neighborhood and we're all going to have to move out. There's not really much you can say to a guy like that.

So it's late and the damn paper driver is late and the store is so quiet you can hear--well, you can hear a rat rustling around somewhere behind the counter. Somewhere near your feet.

Can the customer hear it too? You hold your breath. There's a trap down there.

Sure enough, whang! And then that deadly little struggle. Thank God rats don't scream. Maybe they do. Thank God this one didn't.

"What's that?" the customer asks. He's never heard a rat getting caught in a trap?

Nothing, you say. Maybe he believes you. Maybe now, years later, he suddenly figures it out. Too late. You're no longer in business. Never mind calling the board of health.

A couple days later, there's another one. It's late afternoon. School is out and the little kids are coming in with their pennies. One of these, one of those, one of them. Doesn't everybody just love penny candy?

This kid goes around the aisle to the potato-chip rack. There's a box of those penny pretzels--probably cost a dime or a quarter now--kept on the bottom of the rack where the kids can help themselves. You get about 120 pretzels in a box, sell about 80, and the rest wind up broken and you have to eat them yourself. After ten years, you no longer desire to inhabit the same room where someone is eating a pretzel.

So the kid comes up to the counter with his pretzel and says:

"Mister. There's a dead rat under the potato chips."

That's the problem with poison. The damn rat just crawls off and dies any old where. Sometimes between the walls or under the floorboards, and I don't have to tell you what happens then.

"No there isn't," you say to the kid. He gives you that funny look kids give when they know adults are bullshitting them. They know it, but they're never quite sure.

Being a regular kid, instead of going back to check on what he saw, he runs outside to get his friends. Being a regular storekeeper, you run into the back room, grab a shovel, run back to the potato-chip rack--ugh, he's a monster all stiff and curled with his mouth open--scoop up the rat, race around to the alley, and give him a fling.

You're back behind the counter when the kid returns, followed by a whole line of friends. This way, he says, leading them to the potato-chip rack.

It's not much fun running a mom-and-pop store. But the look on that kid's face makes up for a lot of misery.

"Where is he?" the kid demands. "Where is the rat?"

"I told you. There is no rat."

So you're saved this time, just as you're saved the time the mouse comes staggering down the aisle looking for a place to die and you, moving quickly again, take the push broom and sweep him right out the front door.

Mommy and Mommy's Little Darling are out there waiting for the bus.

"Mommy! I see a mouse!" Little Darling cries, just as you sweep the stupefied rodent through the sewer grate.

Mommy looks over, sees nothing, and you smile and say:

"Lovely day!"

So OK. They're picketing those Koreans. And they're talking trash against those Arabs. And all these people who know so much are writing articles about racial prejudice and the American dream and how we have to get together and work these things out.

But I don't think it matters what color you are or what country you come from, not when it comes to owning a store. What it comes to is this.

When you own a store, you have a country of your own. When you own a store, you have a culture of your own. Never mind if your neighbors are like you. Never mind if they are not.

When you own a store, you are on your own.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Zielinski.

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