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Produce People 

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At 14th Place, just off Halsted, a crooked street-sign arrow that would direct traffic to South Water Market if it were straight points instead to the absence of light in the western sky. At four in the morning, the streets surrounding Chicago's oldest and busiest wholesale produce market are dark. Only the glowing headlights and idling engines of refrigerated trucks suggest the presence of life. They line up in long convoys, rumbling in the dark, encircling the dirty, rubble-filled lots that on Sunday will fill with carts and people and become the Maxwell Street bazaar.

The main entrance to the South Water Market is on 15th Street, and as you approach the head of the queue of trucks, the orchestrated chaos suggests an anthill rather than a wholesale food market. Trucks and cars and men in soiled flannel shirts fill the street. Forklifts dart back and forth, carrying colorful crates of red, green, and yellow produce. In the storefronts, vendors and buyers haggle and bark, wheeling deals and hoping to turn a profit.

Several block-long warehouses between 15th Street and 14th Place frame the commotion. The warehouses are divided into 166 condolike "houses," each with its own name and number. The first floor of each three-story house opens to the street during the day, spilling out crates and workers onto the docks.

Here most are early types. The sky's pitch black, and Ronnie Solomon has been on the job for over an hour. The owner of Irv Solomon & Son Inc., he's stationed at a receiving desk behind a five foot-high pile of Russets. He traces the dynasty of what is now his potato house.

"I was shot in the eye with a BB gun when I was 12. I needed surgery. My father said that if everything went well, he would rename the family business."

Ronnie survived, joined the business, and in 1958 the "& Son" was added to "Irv Solomon." Seven years ago, at the age of 43, he inherited the company after his father had a stroke and died. Irv Solomon & Son occupies houses 55 and 151, employs several people full-time (including Ronnie's wife, son, and son-in-law), and specializes in potatoes. But Ronnie knows a good deal when he sees it; he won't hesitate to pick up a load of onions if the price is right.

"My grandfather started the business in 1898," he recites. "He stood at State and Roosevelt and sold banana bunches for 15 cents a dozen. A cop came by and called him a dirty Jew, so my grandfather hit him over the head with a banana stalk and ended up in jail. He spoke no English. He stayed there a week until an interpreter got him out. After that he moved to South Water Street, bought a horse, and started the business. He rented a wagon for two dollars a day and did business right from the wagon." As if all this required documentation, Ronnie points to faded photographs framed on the wall above him.

"Gimme a penny," he says, leaning back in his chair and eyeing me carefully. In my pocket I find a nickel and some fuzz.

"All I have is a nickel," I reply, wondering why he asked.

"That'll do, but I owe you four cents," says Ronnie, snatching the nickel from my hand and disappearing behind a stack of round red potatoes. The warehouse is clogged with workers bearing crates of vegetables or handfuls of receipts. Ronnie reappears from the reds and tosses to me what looks like a pocketknife. He says he'll be right back. It is a knife, and I flick it open, wondering why he gave it to me.

"It's a Jewish tradition," a female voice calls from a small window in the corner of the warehouse. "Take it. It's an old Jewish custom."

I hop off my pile of onions and go to the window.

"You see, he takes a penny and gives you a knife. That means your friendship will never be severed," explains the woman. "I'm Margo, Ronnie's wife."

Margo is a large woman with frosted blond hair swept to the back of her head. She leans out the window and smiles. Later I find out that Margo and Ronnie met in 1961 at the north-suburban garden store that Ronnie owned. They married soon after, when she was 19 and he was 23.

"We are an early family," Margo says with her chin in her hands. "Go home early. Eat early. Watch TV early. Go to sleep early. Early. Early."

In the last decades of the 19th century and first decades of this one, when life was simpler, South Water Market was actually located on South Water Street, much closer to the Loop. South Water Street stretched east from Columbus Drive almost ten blocks, hugging the south bank of the Chicago River. The street crossed Michigan Avenue and hooked south, etching the path for what is now Wacker Drive.

The old market, according to a 1923 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was "the busiest produce market in the country," and the street was choked all day long with oxcarts, wagons, and horse-drawn carriages. Boats and barges ferried produce from every Great Lakes state. Because South Water was one of the first mercantile streets in Chicago, later merchants gravitated from it to nearby State Street and Michigan Avenue, kindling a nascent commercial district. In time, the market would outgrow its location. The produce vendors doing their business in the streets dammed the flow of traffic to and from the Loop. Eventually, damnation would come for the market as well.

Daniel Burnham had his own plans for the market: a sleek, modern, double-decker thoroughfare called Wacker Drive. Started in 1925, Wacker was the first bi-level roadway in the United States, and it supplanted not only South Water Street but the ramshackle neighboring brownstones. The original street is still extant, however, running from Illinois Center at Wabash Avenue about a block west to Columbus Drive, directly underneath two other bridgelike streets also called South Water. The only green in the area now emanates from the emerald lights of Lower Wacker.

So the market was transplanted, forced by city planners to its present location at 14th Place and Morgan Street. The new market was on a plot nicknamed "the valley" because it stood near a high-banked railroad viaduct. The neighborhood was home to poor immigrants and petty criminals. Things haven't changed much.

The morning sky brightens as I stand inside house 55 considering my surroundings: more kinds of potatoes than I ever thought existed. Potatoes from Idaho. Potatoes from California. Potatoes from North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and New Jersey. There are Round Whites and Round Reds, Long Whites and Long Reds. There are Russets, Red River Valleys (sizes A and B), Garnets, and Burbanks. They are packed locally or locally repacked, wrapped or unwrapped, bagged or baled. All, of course, are for resale or wholesale.

Ronnie appears, motioning for me to follow him. He leads me to the back of his warehouse where the produce is unloaded. I walk into the sunlight on the cement dock; parked next to it is a flatbed truck with a load of Bunny-Luv Onions from California. I sit on a stack of wooden skids used to carry the onions. A tall, muscular black man standing among the onions in the truck stares at me. He has a heavy beard and wears a black jersey that reads "Sweat Works." I ask who he is.

"A lumper," the man replies. "They pay me for lumpin' loads. The name's Noel. I'se born on Christmas--get it? Today I work for Mr. Solomon, buts I work for anyone. A free-lance lumper."

To market insiders, a lumper is anyone who shows up at the market and asks to unload trucks. Yesterday Noel grossed $85 unloading fish for a seafood house on the other side of the street. Born Christmas morning 1957 in Sunflower, Mississippi, Noel moved to Chicago seven years ago with his mother to look for work.

"I got a brother and a sister. Never met my sister, but my brother gots a good job being a salesman for cars," says Noel as he begins tossing bags of onions onto a skid. "I'm not like the average guy, gettin' in and out of jail. A lot of people I grew up with are in jail now. I like workin'."

Noel is married. Camille, Roslyn, and Maria are his three daughters. His wife, Adrian, works as a nursing assistant. Noel dropped out of high school in his junior year and says he's going to finish soon. But for now he's lumping.

The flow of fresh fruits and vegetables starts literally at ground level--with the farmer. Farmers usually hire a shipping company or broker to cart their produce to markets like South Water. Once they relied mostly on the railroad for commercial transportation; and to the benefit of South Water, Chicago was the only major rail hub in the midwest. Now most produce arrives by truck.

South Water is known in the trade as a "terminal," or final market, though actually it's just a resting place for produce on the way to consumers. Most food in the United States will pass through such a place. Once the goods arrive here, South Water vendors store it and negotiate with potential buyers for profitable resale. Most buyers are restaurants, hotels, food-processing companies, and mom-and-pop grocers.

For years the large chain supermarkets were South Water's best customers. Now Jewel, Dominick's, and others often buy directly from growers, bypassing the market entirely in an attempt to save money. The chains still keep friendly ties with the South Water vendors, though, as shortages are inevitable and specialty items are often too expensive to get any other way. Now that the chains shop less often at the market, South Water's vendors either specialize or cater to established food-processing companies to stay in business. Despite the changing demands of buyers, the wholesale food industry is growing annually by nearly 10 percent--a bull market by most standards.

Back at the Solomon dock, a semi pulls into the alley next to a flatbed of onions. The engine revs, hisses, and goes silent. A thin, tired-looking young man shuffles to the side of the dock and asks for a Mr. Solomon. His name is Joe Connelly. He has delivery orders for 200 cases of carrots and 400 pounds of sweet potatoes. Ronnie greets Joe with a firm handshake. The truck's passenger door opens and a blond woman in a pink dress tumbles out. She pokes her head back into the trailer and scolds her cat, Alvia, for not using the litter box. Then she slams the door shut and cusses loudly. This is Ann, Joe's wife.

Ann and Joe were married two years ago, two days after they met at a bar where Ann was dancing. Joe proposed to Ann in a motel near Albuquerque. Neither could remember the name of the motel. Ann quit her job as a topless dancer and moved into Joe's truck with Alvia, and they honeymooned somewhere along Interstate 44.

"You get 25 dollars a day for expenses plus 20 cents a mile. We go mostly west to east, explains Joe. We live in the truck, so it ain't so bad."

Ann tugs at her wrinkled dress and digs through a lime-colored vinyl purse looking for lipstick. She is a lady, she explains. Always wears skirts and blouses on road trips--never pants. Never been pregnant either.

"Most truckers are filthy," she says, peering into a compact as she smacks her bright red lips. "Those truckers always say stuff to me, but I ignore them. Truck stops get pretty nasty, you know. I ain't no lot lizard."

A lot lizard jumps from truck to truck for money. Ann explains that lot lizards charge truckers lots; Joe takes me aside and says you can find a cheap one for ten dollars. Ronnie and Joe exchange signatures, and the transaction is complete. Joe and Ann abandon the truck to the lumpers and go for some scrambled eggs at the Market Club Restaurant.

Ronnie invites me back inside for coffee with Margo. We sit among the Russets, and they talk about the price of peas in Florida. It's afternoon and I'm hungry, craving something artificial, something with preservatives. The pace of the market tapers off around two o'clock; by five the streets are empty. Now mostly lumpers linger about the storefronts, smoking cigarettes, stacking crates. Some will get paid extra to navigate the filthy streets, shoving piles of organic leftovers ahead of their heavy push brooms. When they're done, the market will have been, if not cleansed, then at least cleared for another day.

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

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