Editor’s note: After spending a few carpal-tunneling-enabling hours typing out the notebook contents about my life-endangering journey to Maxwell Street Uptown Polish Sausages yesterday, I belatedly discovered a copy of it in an ancient email, already edited and improved. Dumbass. I also found this message, which chronicles my journey to the Chicago’s South Side later the same day. I have to admit, at the risk of immodesty, that I am a little impressed with the way I rebounded from the setback and fearfully hurled myself into the unknown one more time.
July 20, 2002
The heat is thick and deep and wet, the worst I’ve felt since landing in Chicago. about 6:30 in the evening and I feel the tiny rivulets of sweat coursing gently and endlessly down my torso. No relief to be seen anywhere.
Today was a 13-hour a rollercoaster ride from north to south and east to west and home again. It was packed with experience, featuring a strange and tumbling sequence of events, and I may have trouble doing it justice.
I might end up burying the lead, though I can say with less than the usual hyperbole
that I’m glad I didn’t end up buried myself.
The day began with a short jaunt north in a quest to taste a bit of what might be called, with regrettable triteness, the ‘real blues.’ Whatever that is, I’m pretty sure I found it at about 2 o’clock on another sweltering afternoon. I found the blues in the angry
face of an inebriated black man, a lanky, middle-aged fellow to whom my presence had become so objectionable that he was moved to raise the spectre of guns and hot
lead and, in my mind at least, a very messy belly wound with blood seeping into the cracks of the sidewalk until there was no blood left to bleed.
But it took at least an hour to get there and I don’t want to skip ahead without due attention paid to the preliminaries.
The airplanes fly over this place without cease. Jun says they’re a good 4,000 feet up in the ether, but I don’t believe it. I think that if Barry Bonds were to meet a Curt Schilling fastball squarely and on the fat part of the bat, the ball might just crease the
fuselage of one of those airborne behemoths. I don’t know how people exist in conditions like these, even in this part of the city, which is far more tranquil and habitable than some parts I visited yesterday.
What followed here is a long discourse about my sojourn to Maxwell Street Uptown Polish Sausage and my run-in in with an angry black man who threatened to shoot me, which I have covered elsewhere. After escaping his baleful gaze unscathed, I crossed Broadway to check in with Frank “Little Sonny” Scott Jr., the so-called Supreme Mayor of Maxwell Street.
How to explain the phenomenon that is Frank “Little Sonny” Scott Jr? From the outside, he’s a one-man-freak-show band colorful enough for a couple thousand words in his own right. Of course, a cynic might say that a fill-up at the local Shell station is likely result in a thousand-word essay in my hands.
At first blush it’s hard to imagine Little Sonny as a bluesman or an activist or anything too serious because he looks like a run-of-the-mill eccentric just like any you’d find out of his mind on any urban street corner.
Music cannonades from the trunk of a 1987 Chevy Caprice, a four-wheel piece of living kitsch done up with all sorts of eccentric regalia. To start, there is the old speaker, just a speaker, bare, not encased in anything, like the kind of speaker you might still find atop a pole at the corner of a public square somewhere in eastern Europe, or atop a truck in an old
Three Stooges short. It is tied to a rod that runs parallel to and is bolted to the bumper. next to the speaker a steering column that the owner had replaced a while ago is tied on in jaunty fashion. two Jensen box speakers lay flat in the trunk, one on either side of a stereo unit that includes a cassette deck, in which now plays Albert King’s “The Blues Don’t
In the video below, you’ll get a good look at Frank “Little Sonny” Scott Jr. on the “House Keys” starting around 1:25 in a video from the 2008 Chicago Blues Festival. You can skip the first minute and a half, unless you really want to see some ham named “Dancin” Perkins shamelessly hog the spotlight.
The car seems to my memory some shade of brown, but it easier to remember the red stripes painted vertically along its sides in rough brush strokes. An American flag pillow rests on the middle of the roof.
There are parallel rods rising from the front bumper, covered in green tape and adorned with a confusing welter of objects. Wires are tangled everywhere, including a nest
on the roof over the passenger side of the front seat that hold a wooden cross in place. Little Sonny doesn’t go in for any of the old-school, Robert Johnson-at-the-crossroads stuff about the blues being the devil’s music.
“I don’t know why they give that stuff that the blues is the devil’s music,” he said. “It’s the words in the song; it could be in any music, it’s not the music.”
No, Frank “Little Sonny” Scott Jr. does not plan on crossing the river Lethe with Charon at the helm when his earthly days are done. I asked him about the recent passing of his friend Jimmie Lee Robinson, and Scott was clear and unsparing.
“Jimmie, he couldn’t face reality,” Scott said. “He didn’t really believe in God like he should have. If he did, he wouldn’t a did what he did.”
He said he’d talked Robinson out of suicide before. He said Robinson once went 81 days without eating.
“He always talked suicide talk,” Scott said. “He always talked that. He fasted for 81 days. If you don’t eat something, your resistance is going to go down and you’re going to catch the first thing coming.”
These days, he sounds more like a self-styled street preacher than a South Side bluesman.
“We live for this hundred years, this here is just for us to get together with God and prepare ourselves for eternity.
“Blues is good for the soul, really good for the soul. It’s where all your spirituals, rock and jazz come from. The blues is the foundation for all this music.”
He is wearing a cap adorned with red-and-white stripes on a blue field. It sits on his head backward, and beneath it shocks of gray hair emerge. he turned 75 on June 21.
Everywhere are symbols of patriotism, even the flag on his T-shirt. He is wearing suspenders, and there is a beaten plastic envelope, a wallet, of sorts, held to his chest by a string tie that loops around his neck.
In it is his Illinois driver’s license, among other valuable documents. In his trunk there is a pile of cardboard sheets, upon which are pasted copies of photos and stories and other memorabilia of Maxwell Street.
He was born on a farm in Montgomery, Texas, near Houston.
“They might tear Maxwell Street down, but they can’t tear the blues down,” goes his most familiar refrain.
“I’m accepting the way it is. I’m trying not to have a bad attitude, that don’t help none. A bad attitude makes things hard for you. I’m not satisfied with it, but I go on and try to keep the blues alive wherever I can.”
About the history of Maxwell Street, which I assume is near the depot where the Illinois Central Railroad dumped an ever-swelling tide of Mississippi migrants in the years between two world wars, he said, “They came from all over the South; they came to Maxwell Street as amateurs and they left as professionals.
“The blues is gonna always be here. Even babies have the blues. A baby gets to kicking and hollering in the cradle for that bottle, you have the blues. The blues is here to stay.”
Skipping ahead, later, after washing down a trio of Goose Island Honkers as fortification, I set out sometime after 6 bound for the Southside, which, if you paid attention during Jim Croce 101, is still the baddest part of town.
Ostensibly, I was headed for a gospel festival in Ogden Park, pretty far south, where I planned on getting sanctified, or at least holy. I drove by (the new) Comiskey Park and couldn’t help but think of Nelson Algren and Ring Lardner and the ChiSox of old, images of Dickie Kerr and Ray Schalk and Eddie Collins floating on the consciousness. The Old Roman
(Charles Comiskey) himself, who went from a fine first baseman to a penny-squeezing skinflint of an owner, just the kind of guy who might end up with a mutiny on his hands. and poor old Joseph Jefferson Jackson, the guy who compiled 12 hits and a .375 average in the 1919 series but nonetheless was banished to fourth-rate town leagues by Fucking Asshole Kenesaw Mountain Landis, or whatever his name and title were. Dumb illiterate mill hand from bumfuck South Carolina, what the fuck did he know?
Baseball, it’s another story.
A little farther south I noticed an exit for 47th Street, and in my head somewhere rattled the knowledge that there was a “Bring it on Home” music festival at 47th and King, but I hadn’t been able to find that intersection on the map. I decided to detour off at 47th
and see what I could see.
It didn’t take 20-20 vision to see a world of misery, poverty and blight. Everywhere. Block upon block of onetime businesses now grown wild with urban flora and brick houses that were no homes at all. I’m not afraid to tell you that I was a little scared.
I wandered up to 51st street, then west until I found a McDonald’s across from a large cop shop and the Francis Parkman School. I pulled in and nervously fumbled with the map. Soon I was approached by a man with a vague plan.
If you’re white and bourgeois and driving and screwing about in this no-white-man’s land, it’s expected you’re looking for something specific. Crack, maybe, or pussy. Or maybe just some mellow, mellow pot. Fuck, I don’t know.
Lawrence Lee, who said he was 29 and had never really held any kind of job in his life, had never been married, never sent any kids into the world, thought he knew.
“Understand,” he said, “you’re looking for something, But you don’t feel comfortable with me, because you don’t know me, so you’re not saying. I tried to tell Lawrence that I wasn’t looking for anything save a story.
And it’s pretty easy to understand why he could not believe me.
If you had lived the life of Lawrence Lee, mostly in and out of doors in south Chicago, maybe traveling once as a kid to visit a grandmother in Mississippi and maybe later to bury your father, whom you hardly knew, in Indianapolis. Your circle of experience is so circumscribed that, when asked if you are a Cubs fan, or, more naturally, a Southside Sox supporter, you react with confusion.
“The Cubs and the Sox, they is the same thing, right?”
Twenty-nine and lived on the Southside for a lifetime And he didn’t know about the large music festival going down right this minute just four blocks away and couldn’t distinguish between the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox.
Naturally, he couldn’t fathom a relatively easy off white dude driving into the Southside hood looking for something as ridiculous and foolhardy as a story. I must be lying. He said he knew where he could get me a bag, or maybe some freaky-deaky, but I demurred.
So I did the natural thing. I invited him to come for a ride about with me, promising to pay him in return for his story. He didn’t look too dangerous, after all. Skinny bastard, with a chipped tooth in the middle of his smile, though I don’t remember him smiling once in the half hour we shared together. The letters “L-E-E” are tattooed unprofessionally in
diagonal fashion along his right arm. His vocation was begging money outside the Mickey Dees at 51st and the Kennedy Expressway (US 94).
Each of us a little scared and unsure of the other’s intent, we drove north to 47th street and then east until we reached the barricades and booming sound that signaled the “Bring it on Home” fest. Well, I’d found 47th and King (that’s Martin Luther King, dumbfuck), with a little help from Larry Lee.
He didn’t have a hell of a lot to say. We turned south at the festival perimeter and up Calumet toward 51st, and I reached for the tape recorder I had borrowed from Jun
and bought batteries for but had not employed yet.
I figured this was as good a time to break it out as any, but Lawrence didn’t feel that way at all. In fact, he was downright uncomfortable with the notion.
This is all I got:
Me: “Anyway, your name is … Lawrence Lee, right?”
Me: “Sa-sa-say say ‘My name is Lawrence Lee.'”
He had already said as much as he was going to say.
The recorder reeked of official overtones and shit. And bad shit, too.
I was very solicitous, as you might imagine, and got rid of the mechanical contraption post-haste. Lawrence confessed his fears, which only amplified mine.
“Something might happen to you, and then my name will be on that tape.”
Well, fuck. You don’t mean you could make something happen to me, do you, Lawrence?
“No, no. I think I’m the nicest guy in the world. I don’t steal or rob or nothing. I just beg.”
Well, he was just afraid, he said. Maybe some horrible fortune would strike me a year from now, in an unlikely place like Walla Walla or Nizhny Novgorod, and poor Lawrence Lee’s name would turn up in a mini-cassette found at the bottom of a pile of rubbish that was my life, and the Chicago cops would finger him as part of the Russian mob and he’d go down for the count. I understand.
Lawrence said he spends his time begging for money for “food and transportation.” Said he sometimes travels to the shelter downtown on State Street called Pacific Gardens.
I asked him the idiotic question of what he would do if he could turn it all around and become anything he might dream of, and he said:
“Be a police officer. … Take all the money, drug dealers money and stuff.”
Lawrence and I completed our jagged excursion in the parking lot of the McDonalds, and then I went in to get change so I could pay him off. I’d told him $5, he’d said $10 would be better (of course it would. Of course, with the perspective of 10 years, I wish I could’ve written that I’d given him the whole $20. But for the love of Ebenezer Scrooge, I’m one goddamn stingy SOB. I am sorry.).
I changed my $20 bill on a 42 oz.-diet coke-for-64 cents deal and gave Lawrence $6. He questioned my integrity, said he’d thought we had a deal for $10, I refused to up the
ante, though he begged for at least one more dollar, and he beat it on down the line.
My adrenaline alive, Sam Cooke on my mind, I headed in the direction of the 12th annual Bring it on Home Festival. Right in the heart of Alderwoman Dorothy Tillman’s district.
It might not surprise anyone to learn that one of the top sponsors of the 12th Bring it on Home fest were the good folks at Anheuser Busch Corporation. They even donated one of those cuddly inflatable Budweiser bottles that dwarfed a few trees there in the festival
But I hadn’t seen that yet.
I was scuffling to find a parking spot. In fact, I’d gone in and backed out of one lot when I found it held no vacancies and made a couple passes around the same corner when a Chicago cop looked up from his cruiser and addressed me.
“No. I’m looking for a parking spot. Can’t find one.”
“Here?” he said, with an incredulous tone that is tough to overstate.
“Yeah, I wanna check out the music festival. Does that sound crazy?”
When I told him that I’d noticed that his colleagues were stationed at every corner I’d driven by thus far, and that it couldn’t be that dangerous, he only said, “We’re as outnumbered as you are.”
Well, I guess it inevitably would come to this. When push came to shove I had, spiritually and culturally and oh-so cowardly, thrown in my lot with the cops. How else can I see it?
Not only am I cheap, I am a coward.
Their ubiquitous presence bolstered my shaky sense of safety. Bastards. And there on this
occasion there were crooked cops and honest cops and mean cops and compassionate cops. How do I know this?
Because the place was crawling with cops.
Unmarked cars and marked cars. Uniformed and un-uniformed. Behind the stage to the north there were even trailers with horses, waiting for their cavalry mounts to steer them through the mass of humanity and sound all the nice folk home once the show was over.
I finally found a parking spot on Calumet between 46th and 47th, exited the car and beat it on foot in the direction of the pulsating beat. Around 8 p.m. I crossed Calumet, looked up and saw where the three-story brick rowhomes featured open-air ventilation. Well, some windows were boarded up, and some were just windowless holes.
When I finally got home later around 2 a.m., I looked down to remove my $15 Big 5-bought basketball shoes and noticed the laces were double-tied. Thank you, Mimi.
As I neared the end of the block where Calumet joins 47th, a woman named Mimi addressed me, telling me I had better tie my shoes. Not only might I trip, she
said, but someone else might get caught on my wayward laces and take a header. She’s right, I wouldn’t want that to happen.
In deference to her concern, I bent over and did as she said. then she told me to tie them
again, “so there won’t be no worry.”
Yes, Mimi. I did. Shook her hand, shared a smile, shook the hand belonging to her husband George and then was accosted by her little boy, who wanted in on the shaking, too. He had braided rows and a face full of smeared chocolate or something and his name is “Mister.” That you have to like. Force Whitey to greet the child with respect.
I bid Mimi and George and Mister adieu, feeling at home in the neighborhood and turned left onto 47th and into the sea of festival-going men and women and children.
There is some kind of lesson, however anecdotal, beyond the visceral sense of displacement and fears rational and irrational, to be learned from putting yourself into the position of a minority. Here, racially speaking, I was the minority. The extreme minority.
I wandered through the milling, shaking crowd for maybe five minutes before I noticed another caucasian couple. Counting them, I would see only four non-black folk among the
thousands I saw in the two hours I spent at the festival.
Of course, I don’t know what it all means, why I had come here. I’m sure it had something to do with placing myself in discomfiting situations. I’m sure I probably thought it would make for a better story.
Hopefully it does, and hopefully not at the expense of the folks in the neighborhood.
I met a woman named Lorraine who taught me the finer points of barbecuing in your motel room. A big-boned, fleshy woman with a hearty laugh, Lorraine said she’d been in a motel once near Seattle and been forced to improvise by this high cost of room service. She said you keep the ribs on ice until you’re ready to eat. Then you empty out a potato chip bag and dump in the ribs. Next you cover the bag with a towel, warm up the iron and just steam the bag on both sides.
Lorraine also told me you can cook your macaroni and cheese in a coffee pot. She doesn’t
drink coffee, anyway.
That was just before Clarence Carter’s set. I’ll skip to afterward, when I retraced my earlier path of hitting the port-o-Johns, tastefully supplied by Waste Management Inc., and then back to the grassy knoll where Lorraine and her friends were hanging.
She smiled, then I kind of kneeled down and got to talking with a friendly woman named Barb Witherspoon, who grew up in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia (I was born
in Chestnut Hill Hospital, many years ago). She’d moved out here with a TWA man, they have since divorced.
Now she works downtown as, I think she said, an insurance subrogation specialist. Anyway, we were chatting very amiably when a middle-aged man, a friend of hers, stalked in my general direction with an unpleasant look on his face. The girls said it’s OK, and he walked off, only to wander back a minute later, murderous gaze on his face.
“Whatchyou doing here, motherfucker?”
Well, to be fair, he didn’t say “motherfucker.” But I wish he had, because that’s what his eyes said. He was not happy with my presence and wanted to know just what the fuck
I thought I was doing in this place.
I stammered, “You mean ‘here’ here or at the music festival in general?”
And he thought, I guess, I said I’d come for the festival. and he blasted me with a less-than-felicitous “Good. We like the music, too.”
He was not going to be mollified, and I knew it was time to get moving. I figured I’d heard one good set of genuine ass-grinding music from blind Clarence Carter, full of tight rhythms, soulful vocals and a ton of sexual innuendo, so I was ready to move on.
I wandered in the direction of the car, keys clutched tightly in my right mitt, and when I turned the corner I noticed that … I’d left the lights on.
Blues in the night
Check out Jimmy Thackery and the Drivers if you get the chance. Got to the suburb of Berwyn (the name would soon take on more significant implications when I met a girl from Berwyn, Pa., named Becky) by midnight for a 90-minute set, expecting to be bored by another example of flashy, white-boy blues. I was surprised indeed.
Mr. Thackery can make the guitar cry, scream, wail and petition the gods for rain, I think. He played a sweet mix of slow, sultry blues and uptempo jump numbers. Best was the encore, a double shot of Muddy Waters with “Mannish Boy” and “Got my Mojo Workin’.”
After all the talk of strokin’ and bumpin’ and grindin’ I heard at the Bring it on Home fest (God bless those African-Americans. They don’t beat around the bush when it comes to sex), I think there are few more sensual, sexual, earthy on earth tongs than “Mannish Boy.”
And Jimmy did it right good. I was dancing, though all this dancing alone is getting kind of tiresome. I looked over at the waitress by the bar and noticed her head was buried in a book sitting on her tray.
To each her own, I suppose.
Postscript: Well, guess you know the car started back on Calumet Street. BMW has some nifty technology that dims the beams and saves your battery when you pull the key out. It’s now Wednesday, 12:10 p.m., Eastern Daylight Time. Yes, I’m in Pennsylvania. Fuck.
In State College, Schlow Memorial Library. Tired.
Coming soon: Monday’s frolic in Gary, Indiana, with Jun Hyun and Jefferson Pepper, which produced the shocking news that an unknown lunatic named Gerald Fronden, and not Michael Jackson, invented the Moonwalk at 21st and Washington, Gary, 1968.