The Press: Beautiful Women | Essay | Chicago Reader

The Press: Beautiful Women 

Mercedes was waving her "TempoWoman" section in the air. "Wah dey mean by beaufoe?" she wanted to know. "Deze girls don' be lookin' so fine ta me."

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"Hey, Mercedes, how you doing? You look upset." I had stopped by the apartment of a friend of mine who lives in West Garfield Park.

Mercedes held up the "TempoWoman" section of the Tribune of Sunday, January 29. "Chicago's most beautiful women," read the headline on the cover. "A salute to 12 who radiate a special glow that comes from giving." Beneath the headline were color portraits of the Tribune's selections.

Mercedes rapped the paper with her knuckles. "Run it down fo' me, schoolboy--is why on'y yo' siss'uhs be beaufoe?"

"What's your beef, Mercedes? Look--there are black women among these 12."

"Ha. Yeah, two whole siss'uhs in da dozen. Look like coupla choc'ate doughnuhs gots mix' in wit' da powduh suguhs. Don' see no tacos, no tight eyes neiduh."

"Well, but you can't accuse the Tribune of excluding minorities," I said.

"Dat right? Tell me, schoolboy--is on'y how many pink folk be lef' in dis city?"

"According to the most recent estimates, Chicago is 43 percent white."

"An' 10 ou' 12--dat be 43 p'cen'?"

"You're too sensitive, Mercedes", I chided her. "You see racism everywhere. It probably was just coincidence that 10 of the 12 women they picked were whites."

"Yeah, straight up--nex' time mos' like' be ten home girls, on'y two rabbits, right, schoolboy?"

"Well--I don't know about that."

"An' wah' dey mean by beaufoe, schoolboy?" Mercedes asked. "Dis here dozen don' be lookin' so fine ta me."

"They didn't really go by looks, Mercedes," I said, skimming the article. "It says the Tribune picked these women for their 'undeniable radiance that comes from within' and their 'indomitable spirit.' You know, it was a 'beauty's only skin-deep' type thing."

Mercedes snorted. "Uh-huh, skin-deep. Skin jes' gots be right shade."

"The article says what sets these 12 women apart is their 'determination, devotion, humanitarianism, and inexhaustible energy to fill the needs of others,'" I went on. "It says some of them might not look that beautiful, but they all have an inner quality 'that ennobles, even transfigures them' radiating from them."

"Dey keep radiatin', gon' be toss' off da lie," Mercedes said. "Gon' turn too dark."

"Now, Mercedes, don't be bitter. It doesn't become you."

"Uh-oh. Now I done blow my chance be on nex' year' lis'. Hey, schoolboy, bring me up: wha' deze girls do dat's so bad?"

"A lot, Mercedes. Here's one who's chief of medicine at University of Chicago Medical Center, and a board member of Physicians for Social Responsibility. That's a group fighting against the threat of nuclear war. She's toiling in her spare time to bring peace to the world--that's a pretty beautiful thing, don't you agree?"

Mercedes frowned. "I be toilin' bring peace dis block. Be inna face deze gangsuhs alla time, be tellin' um can' stay ou' fron', move on, move on. Be tellin' mah kids don' hang wit' no banguhs, be teachin' um how duck 'n' run. Don' win no medduhs fo' it doe. Is how dis doctor be fightin' nuc'ear war, an'how?"

"Well, she has to travel a lot, attend meetings, probably have lunch with influential people. She's very dedicated--she says her board responsibilities 'wreak havoc' with her already frantic schedule."

Mercedes chuckled. "Stones 'n' Vicelawds be wreakin' havoc my frannic sched'l too. Gots be in 'fo' dark ev' day."

"How about this one?" I said, pointing to another of the Tribune's most beautiful. "It says she's among the most successful and powerful charitable fund-raisers in the city. She works night and day at it."

"Fund-raise all I be doin', too, honey," Mercedes responded. "Be workin' half time nursin' home, be doin' hair fo' girls I knows, be dealin' mah stamps. Funds still don' be long 'nuf. How dis champeen fund-raisuh be hustlin' up da cash?"

"With a lot of persistence and a lot of hard work, she says. She's got luncheons to attend, phone calls to make, lots of letters to write."

"Ooh, write lettuhs--dat rugged," Mercedes said. "Hope she don' be gettin' no blissuhs on dem beaufoe fingers."

"This one I think you'll appreciate," I said, pointing again. "Here's a woman who helped establish a shelter for battered women in Hazel Crest."

"Well ain' dat somet'in'. I sets up my own shettuh behin' my las' ol' man stompin' my ass, and you settin' in it now. Why you think I gots me dem burg'ar bars? Gots me a piece inna night stan' too, case dis dude be tryin' come on back. What dis baby hafta do set up her shettuh?"

"It took a lot of fund-raising, primarily."

"An' how she do dat? Mo' lunches?"

"Probably."

"Don' un'stan' how deze girls be stayin' beaufoe, dey be eatin' alla time."

"You're missing the point, Mercedes--these women do all this as volunteers," I said, "They don't get any money out of it."

"I be workin' 20-hour week nursin' home, don' end up wit' nuttin neiduh. Still don' see wha' be makin' deze girls beaufoe, me be nuttin' but a rag."

"Here, this explains it. It says all these women 'have made a significant contribution to the community at large in 1988, above and beyond the obligations of their professions, families or personal commitments.' Those things you've done--well, they're nice, but they're not exactly contributions to the community at large."

"Don' 'xac'ly be in p'sition do dat."

"That's just it," I said, "It isn't racism that made 10 of these 12 selections white--it's a socioeconomic thing. Minorities aren't in a position to--they don't have the, uh--"

"I hear ya. Don' be havin' neces'ies be beaufoe. Beaufoe be jes' nudder thang can' 'ford. But tell me, schoolboy--how deze girls be 'fordin' it? Bet you solid qua'tuh dey be stayin' in Chicago's mos' beaufoe neighb'hoods."

"Well, actually, they don't all live in Chicago. This one lives in Lisle. Sounds like this one's from Flossmoor, this one from Glen Ellyn. It doesn't say where they all live, but it looks like at least a couple others are from the suburbs, too."

It was a while before Mercedes stopped laughing. "So dis piece be 'Chicago's mos' beaufoe women uh Lisle 'n' Flossmo'?'

"Jes' wha' I 'spected," Mercedes went on. "Mos' deze girls be havin' beaufoe homes, beaufoe hu'bands, 'n' dey's bank 'counts ain' too scurvy neiduh. Prah'ly be gettin' 'roun' in beaufoe rides, too--don' have be gettin' on no CTA like me, be ridin' two bus 'n' el ta work. On'y transfuh dey be makin' from savin' ta checkin'.

"Well, den, don' be takin' nuttin' much be beaufoe," Mercedes said, grinning. "You be rasty like me 'n' stay top da game--dat be da hard trick."

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

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