Thursday, July 5, 2012

An independent life: my grandfather

Posted By on 07.05.12 at 06:18 AM

This is a Yellow Cab; my grandfathers car was marked Flash and, later, American United.
  • This is a Yellow Cab; my grandfather's car was marked Flash and, later, American United.
My grandfather’s decision to work as an independent taxi driver was also, I suspect, a show of respect for the Chicago cab companies he refused to work for. Anyone who knew him would attest that no one could have been his boss: he was too stubborn, argumentative, and skeptical of anyone else’s way of doing things. He had a habit of telling other people how to spend their money—which was great if you were looking for business advice, but aggravating if you weren’t. Thankfully, there were enough men around who appreciated his way with money enough that he could indulge his habit without being too belligerent about it. I remember as a kid following him around the city and visiting the long-standing small businesses that still welcomed him. And when he ran out of adults to advise, he’d lecture me, usually over a corned beef sandwich at one of the delis where the Jewish drivers used to hang out.

“If you’re living on your own and you don’t have a lot of money, you’ve got to save where you can. So, if you’re at a restaurant and you have a choice between a seven-dollar sandwich and a five-dollar sandwich, you get the five-dollar sandwich. These things add up . . .” His lessons always sounded a bit like commands. The consistent subtext was that you were a moron if you didn’t do what he said. When he was younger, he used this power to argue down the prices of cars (even car salesmen felt intimidated by him); the men in his neighborhood would take him along whenever they were looking to buy one.

It was obvious that he took pride in his self-reliance. Since he never had a boss to regulate his hours, he drove as much as he could—seven days a week for the first few decades of his career, six and a half starting in the 1960s. He didn’t sell his cab until 1988, when he was 70. The great irony of his adult life was that he preserved his independence from employers by working twice as hard as he would have under a boss. He ended up serving the entire city, but on his own terms. That difference was crucial, and it had nothing to do with money.

In fact, he had little of it set aside for his old age. To supplement his social security checks, he talked his way into a part-time job at at a draper’s (an independently owned storefront, of course), and he only abstained entirely from working in the last five years of his life. I accompanied him on a few drapery hangings, and I remember him taking such pleasure from overseeing the process that I thought he was doing it for fun. Only recently did I learn from my father that he was actually getting paid for his time. I was surprised: I’d always assumed from his stories of cutting corners that he’d amassed a decent reserve.

Had I known more about money, would I have guessed how little of it he had? I don’t think so. Though he was an opinionated son of a bitch, my grandfather was inscrutable when it came to sensitive matters. (I also had to learn from my father that he routinely gave a portion of his earnings to charity; my grandfather kept this a secret from almost everyone.) Decades of supporting himself had hardened him in a way I admired but could never envy. True independence, he taught me, meant living in opposition to the rest of the world. That’s not to say he was selfish or unkind, but that the life he lived required an inexhaustible confidence that few people could sustain into their 80s.

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