Economic Indicators | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Economic Indicators 

Notes on the End of the Recession

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

Sunday morning. It's late, close to 9:30 already, and some of the regular Maxwell Street vendors have left empty tables in the light drizzle. At the northeast corner of 13th Street and Newberry, I look twice at what I see on a grainy slab of wood across makeshift sawhorses: two tall Russian fur hats, so new that their earflaps haven't been untied yet. One is black rabbit, the other a heathery tan something or other. From the end of the table a 60-ish man watches me.

"Forty-five," he says firmly in an accent I can't place. I look up and nod at his price. That's not much more than I paid for such a hat in Canada 10 or 12 years ago. Just then I notice that a long, narrow tan ribbon connects the hats to each other and then to a woman standing behind the table.

Unlike the other vendors, who wear clothes that let seller and buyer haggle more convincingly, they're both wearing well-tailored cloth coats with fur collars. They look like they've just left mass.

And at this table there is none of the snarling or good-natured banter that goes along with the open-air market. These people are here to sell these hats, which have the look of gifts, either recently received or once bought to be given.

Two men, wearing play-the-game grubbies, see the hats and stop. The older one, in his 40s, reaches to pick up the black one. It resists. He waits, miffed, as the woman unties the ribbon.

He pulls the hat down over very neat salt-and-pepper hair. It's a perfect fit. He unties the narrow black tapes that release its earflaps and mugs like Johnny Carson in his woodsman's plaid. His buddy haw-haws. The man and woman do not change their expressions.

Amused himself, the man takes off the hat and says loudly, "What kind of fur is this?" Then he demands to see other sizes.

The man behind the table has moved closer to his wife. "Forty-five," he says in a strong accent.

The younger man laughs and says, "Twenty-five?"

"Forty-five," the man repeats in his best English.

The two bargain hunters move on, laughing. The woman reties the flap tapes, pats the hat back into shape, and then runs the tan ribbon through the stout thread loops stitched to both hats.

Fifteen minutes later just one hat is left. An hour later it and the man and the woman are gone.

Tuesday. I'm on my way to a meeting at a school at 62nd Street near Damen. I turn west off Stony Island onto 65th, see it won't go through, and decide to take 63rd. The first northbound street is Kenwood, and I make the turn on three wheels: the fourth has hit the side of an elephant trap I saw too late.

I jump out and see what remains of the left rear tire. An old man with a shopping cart is standing on the sidewalk looking at me. I ask if he knows anybody who might want to fix a tire.

"Got quite a flat there," he says. Then he tips his head toward the opposite side of the street. "Ask one of those fellas on that porch there."

I flap north 15 or 20 more revolutions, toward one of a couple of mansions with a few windows left. A man is coming to meet me.

He wears a knit shirt, jeans, and well-worn work boots. By the time I get out, he's asking if I've got a spare. We walk back to the trunk, and I move a few things out of the way and start to lift the spare.

"Here, I'll get it," he says.

I pull out the jack and tool kit and walk them over to him. He's on his hands and knees in front of the gashed tire, looking for the safest place to put the jack. He sets it in place and turns the slim metal rod. The car begins to rise.

I tell him I need to call the school to let them know I'll be late.

"Next block," he says, indicating west. "There's a pay phone."

He's more concerned that the lug nuts are stuck. A friend, who has walked up to supervise, tells him it's easier to get them off when the tire's on the ground. The man cranks the car down and then up again.

We negotiate about my opening the door so I can get the phone number without upsetting the balance. An old Chrysler pulls up in front of the apartment building on the other side of the street, and a man gets out and walks toward the front door. I catch up with him and ask if he knows of a phone inside I might be able to use. "There's one at the desk," he says.

I follow him through the door and into a cavernous lobby. He nods toward a man in a bright blue jumpsuit, who leads me to the desk, which is surrounded by a metal fence. The man inside slides a phone through a narrow arch at the bottom of the fence.

As I dial, I ask for the address of the building.

The man inside the fence hollers into the nearly deserted lobby, "Where is this place?"

"6450," comes a reply.

When I return to the car, the spare's in place and the man has set the ruined tire into the trunk well. I thank him again and say I've got eight dollars.

"I was thinking nine," he says quietly. I pull out a ninth dollar bill. He looks back at something in the trunk, and I ask if he'd like any of the tomatoes or apples I'd bought at the market. He shakes his head.

"Fresh cider?"

He grins, and I hand him the half gallon.

As I start the car, he says, "Need any painting done? Plastering? Drywall?"

I tell him I don't right now, but thanks.

"I do good work. Decorating, electrical. They call me Red," he adds. "Real good work. Just ask for Red."

Thursday. I'm waiting for a light to change so I can turn onto Halsted Street, and I hear a man boast loudly, "I can fix that."

A guy with a Bears cap above a ruddy face and tired-looking eyes is talking to me from the passenger side of an old black pickup that's also stopped for the light.

"Those rust spots there, on your door," he says, pointing to my car. "I do good bodywork."

I start to say the carburetor just went to the head of the list, but he keeps talking. "Pull over, and I can give you an idea of what it'll cost." He starts talking faster; the truck is beginning to move with traffic. He sounds almost plaintive.

I say "Thanks."

He leans out the window and yells, "I do really good work."

Friday. I'm out with the dog before my Lincoln Park neighbors are up, when I notice the small bright-yellow signs taped to nearly every third tree we pass. The hand-lettered notes invite me to let someone clean my house. "HAVE REFS" the note concludes, above a row of little tear-off tabs with a phone number.

By Sunday all but one of the signs are gone. One of the neighbors, I'm told, went tree to tree removing them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Susan Nelson

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
His Shadow 16th Street Theater, Berwyn Cultural Center
September 05
Performing Arts
The Great Leap Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Upstairs Theatre
September 05

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories