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Monday, June 26

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Airbags

The corner of Roosevelt Road and Loomis Street is small and quiet. The ABLA homes which once sat squat on the northeast corner are gone, a well-manicured field in their place. The empty, ravaged lot sprinkled with overgrown grass on the southwest corner is fenced in and slotted for renovation. The liquor store at the southeast corner, Mike & Sons, still bears the sign but is shuttered and for sale.

On any given weeknight the intersection is empty, a slight shadow of the bustling social center it was two years ago.

My old apartment overlooked the intersection from the northwest corner. When I first moved in there, a 17-year-old familiar mainly with the Loop and the Assyrian neighborhoods on the North Side (Edgewater and West Rogers Park), it was a source of fascination. It was an insignificant little intersection between two residential areas that featured no real commerce, no designated public areas, and virtually no lighting. But Loomis and Roosevelt was always buzzing, for better or for worse.

That corner sits directly between the high-rise housing projects which line Ashland Avenue between Roosevelt and Fifteenth Street, and the atrociously dilapidated "low-income houses" that stretched sporadically from that corner to Taylor Street east to Racine Avenue. For that reason, it was a meeting point for friends and family who had been separated by the CHA and during the relocation process as houses were condemned and prepared for elimination or rehabilitation. Mike & Sons was open late into the night, making it a policy to sell liquor well past the 2 a.m. cut-off, which made it a perfect rallying point.

Directly to the east of Mike & Sons Liquors was a grass field with a few towering trees that provided shade and cover. It was littered with overturned plastic and wooden crates, many provided by the owners of Mike & Sons, on which the neighborhood folks would sit and surreptitiously sip bottles of beer and cheap wine. When police would drive by, people would lean to the side to tip their crates, and throw their bottles underneath; they could do it so quickly that the cops never suspected a thing, and everybody drank -- and gambled -- in peace.

Mike & Sons wasn't popular with everybody. One night as I lounged against a fence on the northwest corner, I noticed a large group heading north on Loomis towards the place, malice on their faces. When they arrived, they separated into two groups -- one significantly larger than the other -- and a grim-faced man with a bullhorn began exhorting the gathered lounge-abouts, the ancient men in sleeveless undershirts peacefully drinking on their crates, to come over to Christ.

"Come over to Christ!" he shouted, not directly at them, but clearly for their benefit. "Whose going to come over for Christ tonight?"

The crowd yelled something unintelligible, and a young woman in tight, worn jeans and a neat orange blouse raised her hands towards the sky and ran over to him. When she reached him, he placed his hand on her head.

People continued to run over towards him, sprinting for Christ, all the while the grim-faced preacher shouting down the increasingly irate patrons of the liquor store. He told them how liquor was a demon to the black community, how they were teaching their own young people how to waste their lives by spending their time and money at a liquor store instead of at a church, devoting themselves to Christ. The more vehement he became, the more people began to filter out of my building.

One woman, a single mother in her forties named Loretta, began shouting support for him, and everybody else nodded solemnly. She was my neighbor and ever since I'd shown her how to jury-rig the washing machine and she rewarded me with a home cooked meal; we were close. I asked her how often this happened.

"Not enough." She put her arm through mine and we watched as a few more teetotalers ran over to Christ, while the old men on their crates sipped and shook their heads.

The religious types weren't the only ones who hated Mike & Sons. One night, while we were sleeping, it caught fire. Actually, it was set on fire: an arson attack. The owner of the store, whom I was not acquainted with, apparently had upset another man and his son, I believe it was, who came back with Molotov cocktails and tossed them in. One clerk was killed. The police swarmed and the next morning there were news trucks all over the place. We could see our apartment window in the live broadcasts as the reporters fought the traffic and passersby to file a report. The front of the place was scorched black and the door was shuttered, but Mike & Sons did reopen, and the old men returned to their crates.

Loomis and Roosevelt was also a good place to scare up some money, if one was so inclined. Take the guy I nicknamed LS, who never gave me or anyone in my vicinity his name. I gave him the name LS because all day, from roughly noon until two or three in the morning, he would stand on the corner shouting, "Loose squares! Loose squares!"

Although he wouldn't give his name, he told me his strategy. On the weekends he would hoof it downtown and wait for the tourists to come out of Union Station, and ask for change. Once he'd accumulated a sufficient amount, he'd come back to Mike & Sons and buy a carton of cigarettes, Newports I believe, but not the normal kind. Back then, Newports ran 25 cigarettes-a-pack specials. Perhaps as a favor, or out of pity, the clerks at Mike & Sons would sell LS one of the cartons and then he'd stand on the corner, selling cigarettes for 50 cents each or three for a dollar. It was a decent racket: underage kids who couldn't afford a whole pack and didn't want to hide it from their parents would buy a couple to go and smoke behind the trees in the lot. People driving by would slow down and buy a few for the rest of the drive. Rough types walking out of Mike & Sons with Owl Blunts for nefarious purposes would buy five or six to smoke after the rougher stuff of the blunt.

A carton would last him a few days, and he could make a $70 profit per carton.

Still, listening to him shout "Loose squares!" all day could work on your patience, especially in the summer. There were many times I would hang my entire torso out the window and shout him down. "Hey! Pal! Shut the fuck up for one second wouldja!?"

"Loose squares!"
"We get it! Loose squares! For the love of Christ!"
"Loose squares!"
"Go on!"
"Loose squares!"

One night, he'd forsaken calling and just lounged against the liquor store and silently sold his wares. It was too hot to shout, too hot for anything. I sat on a chair facing the window with my feet up. The room was empty; my roommates had moved out. All that was left was me, the chair, a stereo playing The Best of Edith Piaf, and my cat. We stared out at the corner. I ate sunflower seeds and spit them out the window, although most of them ended up on the sill, dripping with saliva and the object of my kitty's eye. At the back of the big empty lot on the southwest corner there was a public pool, which they would occasionally keep lit at night. Several silhouettes moved across it and grabbed my attention. I couldn't quite make it out, except that it was three or four guys, one considerably smaller than the rest. They were pushing him around. I was rocking in my chair, my bare feet now covered in sunflower shells, when two shots rang out, a hideous strobe effect that illuminated the corner of the lot. It was so loud, so sudden, that I fell backwards and almost crushed my cat. I laid there, afraid to move, terrified of sitting up to see what happened. Everything was silent for a few minutes, and I got up and slammed the window shut, and I grabbed my cat and scurried to the living room where I turned on the television and tried to go to sleep.

Part of the reason I was so terrified, part of the reason I was too much of a coward to jump up and call police, or run out there to see if I could help, was because of something that had happened to me just a few weeks prior. I had been cut from work early and come straight home, shedding my work clothes in the damp, detestable Chicago heat. I then went down to the corner to commiserate with the friendly neighborhood kids, who could be counted on to run errands for a couple bucks, as in, "Hey, I'll give you three bucks if you run to White Hen and get me milk." They were mostly kids from the homes, bright kids with good families who would pitch nickels, dimes, or quarters on the sidewalk. On this particular night they were pitching quarters, and I joined in. I was having a rare hot-streak, taking all these kids quarters. I got cocky and started calling myself golden arm, pitching with my eyes closed, etc. Of course, I planned to split my winnings among them at the end. Maybe.

When the game was beginning to wrap up, we heard a group of guys yell something at us from across the street. I looked up, failing to notice that the rest of the kids didn't. I stared and the guy yelled again.

"What!?" I yelled back, cupping my hands around my mouth. I said it in all sincerity—as in, "repeat the question?" But he must've taken it as, "What the fuck did you say?" because he began firing shots, not quite at us, but not quite far away enough that it wasn't horrifying. The kids duck-walked away, cursing at me for being so stupid.

"How the hell was I supposed to know?"
"What the fuck did you think, man?"

By the end of that summer, I'd moved into a new apartment a few blocks north, quite against my will. My roommates had deserted me and the guy I'd lined up as a new roommate refused to live in the area. Around that time, Mike & Sons shut its doors for good, and the low-income housing was torn down less than a year later.

For a little while, the intersection went on, with kids hanging out in the lot, the men sitting on their crates, the people just gossiping in front of the homes and pitching quarters or just enjoying some human interaction.

I go back to the corner occasionally, to see if I can catch a glimpse of anybody from my old building, but they've all moved away, too. Loretta was targeted by gang-bangers because she used to call the police on them and threaten them, going as far as to actually set up a camcorder in her window. She didn't feel safe there anymore, she said, so she was taking her son closer to the parochial school he went to on the West Side somewhere. Loretta was a wonderful woman who worked long hours and was forever getting in fights with the management for not shoveling the sidewalks or not keeping the place in proper repair. The giant mass of a man who lived across from us, who had no less than six locks on his door and drove a bright-orange SUV -- he was a bodyguard for a local rapper -- moved away, presumably to nicer digs in the West Loop. Our friend Will, who we called Tex, had been forced to move out of the area when his girlfriend's mother got a restraining order against him. Tex was a reformed gang-member who ran track in high school and loved playing old Nintendo games -- he always looked out for us and smoothed things over when we ran into trouble.

Nothing really goes on at Loomis and Roosevelt anymore, for a confluence of reasons. The eradication of the homes, the better policing of the Addams High Rises on Ashland, and the closing of Mike & Sons. But when I asked some of the few people I recognized from my old apartment complex, they were the happier for it. It felt more safe there. There was no trace of sadness in their voices, and for all the fun it seemed, I knew that Loomis-and-Roosevelt should never have been a social center. It shouldn't be romanticized. The more I thought about it, the more that bustling corner became one of the saddest places on earth.

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Comments

Craig / September 3, 2003 9:33 AM

That was a really engaging read, thank you. These are the kinds of Chicago neighborhood stories that I am always looking for, but rarely come across.

 

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