My father, a WWII vet and mortician from the small town of Ottawa, west of Chicago, would visit a tailor shop on Maxwell street once a year to purchase 2 new black suits. At some time after my birth in ’56 he began to take me on this annual spring trip. We would park under the Dan Ryan (almost new then) and stop for hot dog from the cart at the end of the street. Perhaps my earliest memory is reaching high above my head, on tip-toes, to retrieve my hot dog from the serving tray on the cart. This must have been the spring of ’59.
I remember a chain link fence covered in hub caps at the end of the street, box upon box of EVERYTHING lining the street. Coats! Clothes! Jewelry! Junk! It is where I first learned what a street hustle was and where i first got hustled.
I cannot remember the name of the tailor and my father is long gone. I do remember the warped wood flooring that rose live waves in the ocean and i remember being scolded by one of the old tailors for running up and down the roiling sea. They were Eastern European men, stooped over, with the cloth tape around their necks like a tallit prayer cloth (I am sure they were primarily Jewish men, and probably not a few were death camp survivors). The astounding lesson i learned from them was their sense of pride in the suits they made. My father would haggle with them over fabric, linings, stitching, to a point where I asked him “Why do you do this, why not just buy the suit?” His answer was simple and enlightening, “These tailors will not sell me a suit if I don’t care enough to closely examine the goods. If i don’t haggle they will be insulted.” I understood that my father wanted to respect them and their culture.
Maxwell Street was a whirlwind of sights, smells, noise and people that was a wonder for a small child from a quite town. It seared an impression on my brain that comes alive in an instant, triggered by a sound or smell. I believe those trips tattooed big, tough Maxwell Street, Chicago on my soul.