The Collectors

It was a wet summer morning.  The early rains had saturated Murray Park’s grassless infield to the point where it would take half a day for the slow revealing sun to dry off the thin layer of mud and turn it into a thick humid haze that would linger above the field for the remainder of the day.  That is why we found ourselves in Billy Duffy’s garage that morning, the main door wide open and outside the rain having slowed to an annoying trickle, as we bickered amongst ourselves, swapping and trading whatever the hot commodity was at that moment.  As had been for the past half year, automobile stickers were the rage.  Among the most valuable were the iconic “STP” sticker, the Bardahl Man and a bad-ass Woody the Woodpecker type character who wore a mean scowl and had a cigar hanging out of his beak that somehow sold automobile mufflers.   The stickers were the main commodity at that moment but there were certainly other items that were bartered about.  Classic items like comic books and baseball cards were certainly present during any new fad and once there was even a group effort when we tried to collect different insects to make a bug zoo.  That lasted for about three days until the zoo inhabitants started to die off.  We ended up feeding the survivors to a large spider that we had caught and affectionately named Herman.  Herman lived like a king for about a week until we ran out of bugs and interest and then we released him back to wild where we had originally caught him, in the alley behind my house next to a large telephone pole where some weeds grew through the large cracks in the concrete.

The swap meet was in full bloom that morning when Bullethead stealthily walked in the garage holding something under his shirt, as if he was trying to hide whatever he had on his way here.  My first thought was his dad’s Playboy magazine.  Last fall, he snuck one of his dad’s magazines to the garage and made out like a bandit ripping out pictures and swapping them for big returns.  The pictures themselves fetched a nice price, but when he cleanly detached the centerfold from the staples, unfolded it and held it up for all to see, the bidding turned rabid and he walked away with ten STP stickers, four Bardahl Men and a Joel Horlen card.  The haul was enormous and is still spoken about in legendary terms.

But today he had something different.   As his presence became known, each boy in the garage stopped whatever deal they were in the midst of and turned toward Bullethead, each anticipating that the item he had under his shirt would be up for bidding, picture by picture.  Finally, as all eyes were on him, he slowly pulled out the items and fanned them out like a poker hand.   Instantly everyone recognized his wares and a collective awe filled the garage, as this was something new that nobody had.

For the past couple of weeks, hand bills, flyers and stickers had been popping up in the neighborhood plastered on street signs and under viaducts, some with stereotypical depictions of country blacks coming to the big city with suitcase in hand and, as the hand bill said, were looking to move to our neighborhood and there was nothing to be done unless we supported the American Nazi Party.  Others were less subtle and had a black swastika with a skull and crossbones overlaid on it with the words, “Nigger Beware”, violently scrawled beneath it.  There were other pieces of literature flying around, some more wordy and less comical, but this propaganda became ubiquitous in the neighborhood and, as of that morning, became a hot commodity to be traded for as no one had any of these items.  At least in our group.

“Whoa.  Where did you get those?”

“My brother.  He went to the Nazi joint and they gave ‘em to him,” explained Bullethead.  “Now, what do you guys have?”

“I want to look at ‘em first,” said Randy. 

“Ok, ok,” said Bullethead, “I’ll spread ‘em out over here.”  He walked over to Mr. Duffy’s work table and laid each item down, one by one.  “But if anyone of you mess them up, I’ll smash your face in.” 

In a minute Bullethead had laid out his wares and watched like a hawk as the group approached the table and inspected his goods.   

I looked at my watch.  I would have liked to get involved but I had to leave.  The morning had somehow turned into early afternoon and I had to go to work.  I quickly glanced at the soon-to-bargained-for items and left the garage.  The rain had stopped and the sun was burning up the moisture in wispy vapor trails from the black-tarred streets.

That summer, I started to deliver the Chicago American, a daily afternoon paper and, in a strictly metaphoric manner, said good-bye to all that was young and foolish.  From here on I had to generate my own income and try to grasp and understand the mysteries of capitalism.  Of course, I had no idea at the time that this would be the start of something that would dog me for the rest of my life, but it felt a little different, like big-boy stuff.  So once I was hired at the local branch, I bought the mandatory canvas bag and installed metal hooks on my handlebars to hang the bag on.   I was assigned Route 10, which had 43 weekday papers and started at Sixty-Ninth street and went all the way to Seventy-Fourth, along the west side of Wolcott.  Every weekday afternoon, I would have to pick up my papers from Harry the Jew, who ran the branch out of a garage behind a Lithuanian restaurant on Sixty-Ninth and Artesian.  Harry was a tall, middle aged man who seemed to be eternally tanned and whose bald spot on the top of his head was always smooth and shiny like polished river rock.  I couldn’t tell if he was Jewish or not because, frankly, I had no idea what a Jew was supposed to look like.  I didn’t know any that I could think of, for my world at the time consisted of all Catholics and Publics and anything else was strictly a curiosity to be touched and poked at like a hands-on exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry.  I had always pictured Jews to look like Morey Amsterdam who played “Buddy” on the “Dick Van Dyke Show”.  Harry didn’t look like Morey Amsterdam at all; for one thing his whole body shape was different.  Harry was tall and had a long face whereas Morey Amsterdam was a short oval-faced creature who always had a joke.  Harry had no jokes.  He was as serious as a heart-attack and ran a tight ship at the branch, always having one of his branch captains cleaning up around the place and keeping a close eye on the supply of rubber bands in the communal bin.  God forbid if you took too many rubber bands to do your papers, “That shit cost money,” Harry would say, and God strike you dead if he caught you shooting the rubber bands around the branch.  “You’ll put someone’s godamned eye out and then your parents will come looking to sue me,” Harry would also say.

There was a technique in rolling and banding the papers that I was working on and some of the guys had down cold.  In one Ninja-like move, the paper would find itself rolled, banded and in the bag with the heavy end of the paper inserted first, as this made it easier to throw in one motion.  Not only did the papers have to be banded tightly but there were also aerodynamic conditions to be considered.  The papers were delivered to each home by throwing them onto the porch while riding your bike down the sidewalk and to do this properly, one had to calculate many things at one time.  There was the weight of the paper, the speed of the bike, the atmospheric conditions of the moment and other potential factors such as dogs chasing you or small children playing on the sidewalk.  Throwing the papers on the larger porches that extended along the entire front of the house was a piece of cake; the real test was the small porch with the aluminum door.  First of all, the target area was smaller, but you also had the dreaded “big bang” factor.  If you threw too hard, you would hit the aluminum door, which, especially if they had a small dog, promptly alerted the homeowner of the arrival of his afternoon paper in a “big bang” manner, but even worse, you could leave a dent on the door, which was generally not good.   

That day, while riding to the branch, I doubled up with Danny Wachenski.  Danny lived two blocks from me and had the route on the east side of Wolcott.  While we did not travel in the same circles, Danny was a grade ahead of me and a lot crazier, we would occasionally double-up on our routes, especially on winter Sunday mornings when it was still dark and scary out on the cold and vacant streets. 

Behind his back, everyone called Danny “Sweatski” because he always seemed to be sweating.  It was warm that day and despite the dago tee-shirt he had on and his fresh flat-top haircut, which along with the rolled-up scapular around his neck made him look like a young grunt in a trench, the sweating seemed justified.   But Danny would have large beads of sweat along the top of his forehead in the middle of January or a wet upper lip in December and had to carry a handkerchief with him to constantly wipe his brow or lip.  No one ever mentioned his sweating to him because he would probably crush your face if you did, he was a big and violent boy, and his nickname was one of those neighborhood in-jokes that you had to be careful who you said it around.  Whenever I saw Danny I had to remind myself not to stare at or mention anything about the excessive moisture that would amass on his face.  Today was no different; a moist stripe was forming down the middle of his shirt like a surgical scar from a triple-bypass and would soon run down the entire length of his shirt by the time we got to the branch.

We rode silently in single file down Sixty-Ninth Street until we got to the branch, wrapped our papers and loaded our canvas bags onto the handlebars of our bikes.  I followed Danny out through the narrow gangway that went through the pungent exhaust from the restaurant kitchen fan, and I noticed he now had an embryonic sweat mark starting down his back, which I’m sure would be a full-blown racing stripe by the time we got to our routes.  Usually at this point we would jump on our bikes and start to peddle to our routes, but Danny, being in the front, held out his hand like a Calvary sergeant giving the halt order to his troops, so I stopped like a dutiful soldier.    

He turned and looked at me, while arching his eyebrows as high as they could go with and impish look on his face, and asked me, “Do you want to stop by the Nazi joint?”

“Ok,” I said, and we started to peddle the opposite way of our routes and detour over to Seventy-First Street, down Rockwell and when we get there we saw on the corner a typical brown two-story building that resembled every other building on the block, except this one had  a very large and very red Nazi flag hanging on the side of it.  The flag, which covered at least a story and a half of the building, had a big white circle and a big black swastika dead in the middle and seemed totally out of place.

At the Nazi headquarters I figured I could load up on some free collectibles that Bullethead had and do some heavy trading in Duffy’s garage.  Besides Bullethead’s brother, no one that I knew had been there yet, so anything I could get here would probably fetch a high return.  The building had a hand-painted sign over the front entrance which formally declared it as “Rockwell Hall”, which to me seemed like an uninspired choice because after all, couldn’t every building on the thirty mile stretch of Rockwell be named the same thing?  Later I found out that it was named after their fallen commandeer who was shot a couple of years earlier, but I still maintain that they could have put the guy’s first name or initial or something to avoid the confusion that I was going through. 

There were about ten bikes already parked outside the building.  Apparently this place was fast becoming either a hang-out or a one-time curiosity stop for the teen boys it seemed to attract.  Once we parked our bikes, which was hard to do sometimes when you have forty-three folded copies of the Chicago American hanging off the front handle bars in a canvass bag, we passed under the “Rockwell Hall” sign and entered the building.  I tensed up a bit just before entering because I did not know what to expect once we got inside.  The whole Nazi thing had me a bit confused.  Weren’t they supposed to be the bad guys?  What if this is all a trap and once we’re inside we’re captured and forced into stalag camps, never to be seen again unless we   

doggedly tunnel our way out by using a small sharpened eating utensil.   My fears abated a bit as we entered and I saw about fifteen to twenty other guys our age and I figured there was safety in numbers.  They couldn’t capture all of us at once, could they?

Once  inside we found ourselves in a large storefront, which had a kind of pawn shop layout, with glass cases along the walls, each one displaying the wares of the vender, in this case  being Swastika armbands and buttons, blitzkrieg key chains, big-print versions of “Mein Kampf”, and other such goodies.  Some of the stuff was free, like the flyers and cartoons that blanketed the neighborhood.  And Hitler was everywhere.  The ever present Furher floated over the entire room in hanging pictures, pamphlets, books and just plain dogma.  I milled about the room with the other guys. Everyone looked like wary tourists checking out the hand-made trinkets laid out by local merchants on a tropical island and when they spoke, it was in hushed tones, like they were at a museum.   It seemed new to everyone, like it was everybody’s first time being there, and the collective newbie feeling made me ease up a little bit because you certainly did not want to be the new guy in a roomful of Nazis, as I was sure the hazing ritual was brutal.

I reached through a crowd and took a couple of free handbills from a pile that lay on one of the counters and was about to inspect the other free stuff when Danny, who had strayed away when we entered and was now wearing a large swastika button on his shirt, tapped me on the shoulder.

“Hey, come with me to the back,” he said as he impatiently motioned.  I dutifully followed and he led me to the back room of the storefront, which at first seemed like a regular office with cheap wood paneling, some book shelves and a used desk exactly where one would expect the desk would be, but behind the desk sat what I at first thought was a wax figure of Hitler without his mustache, but suddenly the figure’s head moved slightly and I realized this was a real person, decked out in head to toe Nazi.  He was thin, almost frail, and had on a brown shirt with all the necessary patches, a dark tie, and a wide leather belt with a strap that went over his right shoulder.  His hair was shiny and black and thinning and combed over just like Hitler’s.  In fact, except for the lack of moustache, this guy seemed to emulate Hitler in every way.  I wondered why he didn’t do the moustache.  Was it a medical thing, like, did he get a rash or something under his nose if he tried to grow one?  I just guessed at the possible reasons.  Maybe by not having it, he was expressing his individuality within Nazi circles, or maybe he always had one but just screwed it up shaving that morning and decided, ‘the hell with it, I’ll just shave the damn thing off’.  Flanked behind him were what seemed to be his muscle.  Two burly, blonde attendants with the same uniform, but with less patches and insignia, stood at attention behind the fuhrer lite and between them a Nazi flag hung on the wall as a background, ostensibly to give an aura of officialism to the whole scene.  A lone spotlight shone down on where the leader sat, which highlighted the sheen of his hair and his receding hairline, as he sat slowly scanning the office that was filling up before him with the young male crowd that was flowing in from the front part of the store.  Apparently, the show was about to begin. 

The room filled up and no one knew what to do, but everyone knew something was about to happen, but just had no idea what.  The crowd silently formed a semi-circle around the desk and just looked at the leader, and he returned the stare, his bottom jaw sticking slightly out in an attempt to look somewhat menacing, as he did a slow pan back and forth with just his head moving, like an animatronic display at Nazi World or something.  I looked about the room to see how everyone else was reacting only to get the same return looks from the other spectators, apparently with the same questions I had.  Finally he stood up and did one more quicker pass across the room, stopped and then rigidly raised his right arm three-quarters up and yelled, “Heil Hitler!”  The muscle behind him took the cue and responded loudly together, “Heil Hitler!”

The sudden burst of activity caught everyone by surprise and snared everyone’s attention.

“White power!” he yelled and paused for effect and then again scanned the room, allowing time for the premise of his speech to sink into each impressionable young, white, male mind. “White men must unite against the scourge that is the nigger and the Jew!  They are what hold us down!  The nigger wants your neighborhoods, wants your life, and wants to be like whitey!”

I looked down at my feet and shuffled a bit.

“They need to stay on their side of town.  We don’t go there and they don’t come here.  They want to march on Marquette Park, for what?  To cause trouble?  To be where they are not wanted? ” 

No one answered his rhetorical question.

“Marquette Park is for the white people and white people only!  We don’t go over to Washington Park or their parks, why do they want to come to ours?  Only to make trouble and rob you.  That’s right, a whole parade of them will be marching down Seventy-First Street, just imagine, the stores will all have to close for fear of these black bastards looting and robbing their businesses.”  The intensity of his speech increased with each word.  He was approaching the end of his message when he paused again to let his point sink in while the rapt and silent audience returned his stare.  An uncomfortable silence fell about the room.

I began to feel queasy and again shuffled my feet.  This was getting weird and I felt my morning oatmeal slide around in my stomach and it was then that I let out a loud fart.  I didn’t mean to, but it was one of those sneaky bastards that give you no advance warning so you could properly stifle it, like when you’re in church or at the dinner table, it just came out.  The one good thing was that we were all standing so close together that no one could identify the culprit.  I looked about the room for the guilty party along with everyone else, hoping that such action would save me from any repercussions from the American Nazi Party.  I was scared.  A few small snickers were quickly silenced when the Nazi raised his arm and continued.

“This is serious shit!  Your parents have worked long and hard to make this neighborhood what it is today, and we cannot let it go to the dogs overnight!”  It was then that, even though I was standing with a group of other guys to his left, he turned and seemed to be looking right at me with a look that I thought seemed to say, ‘I know it was you, you little fucker, and you will die a horrible death’, but he turned away and continued his speech as I glanced about the room searching for the exits, just in case. 

“What can you do to help prevent this?” he continued, “a lot!  That’s why we’re here!  That’s why we are giving these signs for you and your neighbors to let the nigger know that we do not want them here!  We do not appreciate their presence in our neighborhoods, and we need to let them know that!  For all that is right and holy!  White Power!  Heil Hitler!”

The muscle responded, “Heil Hitler!”

And the presentation was over.  The self-proclaimed Nazi leader exited the room through a side door to his left as his muscle remained in Heil Hitler mode until he exited the room, then they followed him out through the same door. 

I wanted to get the hell out of there as fast as I could as I was sure that Mr. Nazi would come after me with his goons.  Unfortunately, the murmuring crowd could only slowly file out of the room, which I thought gave the Nazis plenty of time to go out around the back of the building and meet me outside, where they would violently take me away in the back of a hoop truck, never to be seen by anyone again.   

After finally reaching the exit of the building, I stepped out and quickly looked around to see if they were indeed waiting for me.  To my relief, I didn’t see anyone in a Nazi uniform when Danny turned to me and asked, “Boy you sweat like a pig.”  I felt my forehead and sure enough, the moisture was oozing out of my pores.  I wiped my hand on my pants and quickly stashed my collectibles into my bag as Danny and I got on our bikes and started the trek to start our routes.  The farther away from the building we got, the better I felt and became less fearful and more inquisitive.  I turned to Danny and asked him, “What’s the deal with the Nazis?”

“What do you mean?” answered Danny.

“I mean, weren’t they the bad guys during World War Two?  Isn’t that who we fought?”

“Oh, no man.  That was the German Nazis,” Danny replied with an air of someone who knew about these things.

“They’re different?” I asked.

“Oh yeah, two different groups.  These guys are different all together. ”

“How so?” I asked.

“Well, for one thing, these are American Nazis.  Totally different from the German ones, these Nazis speak English, the Germans sure didn’t.  I think they bought the name at a bankruptcy court or something.”

It didn’t sound right to me and feeling a quick burst of defiance, I dared to question the wise Danny’s information.  “Are you sure about that?”

With a glare, he turned to me and sneered, “Are you calling me a liar?”

The combination of the look and the line drawn in the sand made me back off.  “No, no, of course not,” I pussily replied, “it just seems a little strange, that’s all.”

Satisfied that the challenge to his keen insight had been extinguished, Danny tried to exude a mentor-like wisdom as he turned his attention back to road, “That it is, my man, that it is.”

We rode in silence for the remaining three blocks of the ride, until we got to our routes.  I rode down Wolcott tossing papers on porches and trying to reconcile the whole Nazi thing.  It just didn’t feel good in that place.  There was a sense of something that wafted through the small building that I could not put my finger on at that time, a thick and heavy air that I did not want to breathe in for fear of getting sick.  The idiot in the Hitler get-up reminded me of a kid who outgrows Halloween but continues to trick-or-treat every year and gets strange looks from the people handing out candy at the door.  I think most of the people in that room listening to him felt like the candy-givers, I knew I did, just staring at the pathetic figure who just didn’t get it for some reason.  It was easy to deduce that Danny didn’t know shit about the Nazis, yet he seemed enthralled with them as he paraded down Sixty-Ninth Street with the swastika buttons on his shirt, but then, everyone knew that Danny was an idiot.

At the end of my route, I had no extra papers and all that remained in my bag was my Nazi collectibles.  I rode back up Wolcott to go home, and when I approached the corner of Seventy-Third Street I noticed the skull and crossbones and the “Nigger Beware” warning posted on the ‘Stop’ sign there.  I stopped my bike and took a hard look at the skull and crossbones.  It wasn’t the pirate-flag comic book skull and crossbones, but a 3D type, with artistic shading of the bony cheek and evil smile.   It seemed to be copied from somewhere, like from a warning label on a bottle of cleaning solvent or some other deadly household product.  I remember those labels used to scare the crap out of me when I was younger.  It seemed like every bottle and box we stored under the kitchen sink at home had the scary 3D skull and crossbones warning on it and that was certainly enough to keep me from even touching any of the containers for fear that I would get some of the deadly poison on my fingers and carelessly pick my nose or something and die a slow and painful death.  I started to feel the same way about the propaganda in my bag. 

I cut down the alley between Wolcott and Honore, stopped at a garbage can and dumped the contents of my bag into it. That night, after supper, I met the guys at Duffy’s garage and had a trading session.  For the price of only three Bardahl Men, I got five Woody-Woodpeckers, a large Penzoil decal and a Tommy John card.  It was a good night.