A family story about cars and guns, life and death
Sixties and Seventies in Chicago. People, their cars and their guns.
I live hundreds of miles from Chicago now. Tonight I was telling my middle child of life at his grandfather’s car business on that city’s South Side.
When I was in high school, Father took the $300 from my bar mitzvah savings, a similar amount from my brothers’ account and the $300 he and Mom had saved, to open a used car lot on Ashland Avenue where Chicago approaches suburbia. His father and uncles had been dealers.
The week he took over a painter came and emblazoned the following onto what used to be a gas station: Good transportation, $95 to $295.
I worked there during high school and during college. Mom didn’t like it much at first, but each day started out with Dad fixing his gun into a belt holster.
Early on, Dad took a dog in trade. Mostly German Shepherd, she undoubtedly saved us from harm innumerable times. Etched in my mind are the dark evenings, with one or more thuggish characters outside the door, the dog barking furiously, refusing them entry. “Do that dog bite?” one asked.
“Only if you mean to bite us,” was Dad’s stock reply.
I was never held up, but my younger brother was. At gunpoint, he was relieved of the day’s receipts and then locked into the trunk of a car. Hours went by before Dad realized his youngest son was missing. Between them and the mechanic, my brother dropped the keys through a hole in the trunk bottom. Some money gone, no harm. You could say no harm, no foul.
From a vantage point of decades, I miss the little office and the people who passed through it. The mailman who every day helped himself to the Canadian Club bottle in Dad’s desk. The barber nearby who’d gone to Italy to study music and survived WWII with relatives to become a barber.n The woman who descended from a CTA bus outside, weighed down by two large shopping bags. “Can I use your bathroom?” she asked. Dad said “Only if you flush it,” and nobody thought much about it.
“Let’s talk about college,” Mother said about that time. “You can go anywhere you want as long as you live at home, pay for it yourself, and help in your father’s business.” I chose DePaul.
Instead of dorms, our social life centered around cafeteria tables assigned to various fraternities and sororities. One of the sorority girls who happened to to live just south of the lot asked me to help her find a car. I suggested a slant-six Dodge Dart with some miles but what I thought was an indestructible mechanical heart. It cost her a few hundred dollars
Seeing it the school parking lot, I assumed the car was holding up. One day, she stopped me in the hallway at school. “About that car, I was cleaning it out after I bought it. Under the seat, there were pictures. That car was owned by Black people. Did you know that you had sold me a car that was owned by Negroes?”
It was about this time that five or six employees at a Cadillac agency not far away were killed by a disgruntled customer. At Dad’s place, cars were sold on a cash basis. There were other dealers, as you can well imagine, where the sale of transportation was secondary to the sale of credit. It was at one of these agencies that the deaths occurred.
Into it had walked a hard working, black man. Needing a car to get to and from work, to take family members on various errands. It might have been a bigger vehicle than I would have chosen, but he picked out a car and signed a series of papers. Almost immediately, the car began to fall apart, wouldn’t run. This was in the days before Lemon Laws, and the dealer wouldn’t or couldn’t fix it, replace it, make good on it.
The payments, in their minds, were untouchable. They had to be made. Without transportation, hounded by bill collectors, the customer’s life fell apart. Worthless as it was, they repossessed his car.
It was at this point that he returned to their business, one or more guns in hand. First to fall was the salesman who had sold him the car, and one of the brothers who owned the place. Other employees were killed. I think the customer saved his last bullet to commit suicide.
The killings were front page news. I remember feeling vulnerable for some time, working where the rubber met the road. A short walk from our home, Richard Speck killed all those nurses. It was about then I was accepted to graduate school and left Chicago. The neighborhood where we lived changed, and everyone I knew moved.
So, what happened after all the car business killings? My middle son lives with me now, and that’s what he wanted to know. I told him the truth: More of Father’s peers carried guns, and those who had always had one kept it closer.