the girl with the crooked teeth

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A story of gentrification in 1990's Chicago.

Submitted: October 20, 2011

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Submitted: October 20, 2011

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It was a good day to give a showing; slow puffy clouds floated in front of the sun and a slight breeze from the lake hinted at autumn. My 12:30 appointment was a middle-aged couple from Oak Brook. He was middle-aged anyway—she was a bit younger. We met in front of a newly constructed townhouse in University Village and they greeted me with the suspicion in their eyes that I had grown accustomed to—nobody really likes a real estate agent. I flashed them my practiced smile, shook their hands with a firm grip, made eye contact and began the sales pitch as I unlocked the front door and walked in.

"I think you’ll be pleased with the spaciousness that this front room offers…" I begin as, in an instant before the Oak Brook couple noticed it, I see the first ‘marmoot’ of the day. A marmoot was a term that my boss at Near West Reality, Jolly Joe Compani, used to refer to anything that could be construed as an obstacle between an agent and his/her sale. This marmoot came in the form of a grayish, brown rock about half the size of my fist lying on the floor by the dining room window, surrounded by broken glass. Jolly Joe preachedreligiously onthe importance of doing a walk-through and eliminating any marmoots before showing a unit—especially at University Village. I had forgotten to do this and found myself in a situation where I had to explain away the broken window with my first half-truth of the day.

"Hmm, most likely an accident by the construction crew" Ipause beforecontinuing withmy sales pitch without another mention of it.

The truth of the matter was something else entirely. The truth of the matter was that University Village was being erected on what had formerly been the historically significant Maxwell Street Market, and now there were a number of activist groups,particularly the CA-GA (Chicago Anti-Gentrification Association), whowere protesting the project on a daily basis. This had been going on more or less since early 1994 when the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) successfully lobbied to block Maxwell Street’s bid to be included in the National Registry of Historic Places. As a result of their victory UIC was able to take over Maxwell Street Market through eminent domain and by the establishment of the Roosevelt/Union TIF (Tax Increment Financing) district. The University Village project was the result--a gated community of cookie cutter condos and townhouses that were going forabout $500,000 each.

Like the other agents at Near West I had been well schooled in this controversy, and knew better than to mention it to the Oak Brook couple. Most yuppies don’t want to be reminded of such things. But when my pitch was done and I walked the couple back to their car (still somewhat optimistic that I could salvage the sale) I came upon my second marmoot of the day: three-dozen raucous Blues enthusiasts dancing and cavorting and peddling their scraps on the corner of Maxwell Street and Halsted. I choked my tie in determination and averted my eyes. Unofficially, it was Near West’s policy to avoid these events of course, but the Oak Brook couple had made thegaff of parking their Lexus right in the middle of an impromptu rally beside the Juketown Bandstand.

A tall, wiry, bearded Caucasian man wearing a faded Army jacket addressed the crowd with a bullhorn as we approached. "Your way of life is about to be wiped out by greedy land developers and city councilmen who have absolutely no understanding or compassion for your culture," the man lectured as he stood beneath a banner 8 foot wide with the large red letters "CA-GA" (Chicago Anti-Gentrification Association) printed across it.

"It’s the exact same thing that happened to the tribes of Native Americans who were forced from their homeland in the 1830’s," he continues, "Right here on this same land, by callous real estate barons with self-serving get-rich quick motives. And today there’s nothing left of the natives but the names of the streets!"

Two aging women dressed in summer dresses, sandals and beads canvassed the rowdy crowd, handing out flyersthat hada recognizable eye puzzle printed at the top. The eye puzzle was familiar—a black and white illustration. Looking at the illustration at first, it appears to be of a beautiful maiden, butwhen you look at it another way it appears that it is actually an illustration of a haggard old maid with a large wart on her nose.

"But what makes the Maxwell Street gentrification even more deplorable," the man with the bullhorn continues, "is that it’s being done behind the guise of a supposed institute of higher learning—the University of Illinois at Chicago!"

"What’s this all about?" the Oak Brook man asks, bewildered whether or not to accept a flyer from one of the hippy women as I’m steering him away from her.

"They’re shooting a movie," I half-lie, remembering a documentary crew had been filming a performance by an elderly Bluesman the week before on the Juketown Bandstand. "This is a very famous neighborhood, you know."

This last part was true. Maxwell Street was one of Chicago’s more historically notorious neighborhoods. Jolly Joe, my boss at Near West, in fact encouraged us agents to stress this historical significance to prospective buyers. He coached us to point out buildings in the area that were actually built before the Great Chicago Fire—leaving out of course the part that these buildings were slated for the wrecking ball within the next few months. He also gave us 5-minute thumbnail histories to memorize in regard to the Market itself and the electric urban Blues sound that the area gave rise to. So that’s what I should have done—stress those positives to the Oak Brook couple. But I had already been distracted by that guy with the bullhorn and the hippy ladies handing out that pamphlet with the eye puzzle. Plus I had missed my morning power bar and didn’t have the energy for another half-truth.

"Mar-moot," I sighed to myself.

I tried looking up ‘marmoot’ in the dictionary once, but it didn’t exist. At first I gave Jolly Joe the benefit of the doubt and figured it was some kind of slang Italian curse word from the old neighborhood, Butrecently I begun to wonder if Jolly Joe hadn’t totally fabricated the word in a fit of inspiration. Whatever the case, I gave the Oak Brook couple one last practiced smile as I helped them into their Lexus and watched them unhappily maneuver their way out of the mob and back to the highway without getting their hubcaps liberated.

It was now well past lunchtime, and I headed toward Jim’s Original—a hot dog joint where two dollars and thirty-eight cents buys you a greasy hot dog, some soggy fries and watered down coke. It was about a half block before the hot dog joint as I was checking my pants to find I only had three crinkled one-dollar bills in my front pants pocket, that I looked up and saw a girl. She was standing outside a boarded-up tailor shop. I had seen this girl a few times before, hanging around Maxwell Street--she had a way of sticking out. But a lot of the former occupants of Maxwell Street stuck out now, as they were increasingly being nudged away—and new people moved in. The one's who remained just really stuck out some how. This girl may have stuck out anyway though. She was very pretty, a light, honey-tone complexionwith dark hair. She may have been Hispanic—but her features seemed more Anglo and soft. She was young, maybe 20 yearsof ageand she wore a wrinkled, pastel-tinted summer blouse that would have looked at home on a thrift store clothes rack. There was one thing about her thatwasn't quite right. It was her was her teeth. They were harsh and crooked like little jagged rocks that protrude from an ocean’s shoreline. Shestoodthere as though waitingfor instruction from some unknown entityand I noticed for the first time that she was standing beside a baby carriage.

I had never exchanged a word with this girl on any of the previous occasions, but this time she said something to me as I was passing her. At first I didn’t hear her—I was looking at the baby in the carriage. Something about this baby wasn’t right.Her baby appeared very frail in fact andit was softly gasping for air in a manner that suddenly reminded me of something I had seen several times when Ihad been growing up. Our family had a dog that would have pups nearly every year. Seeingour doggive birth so many times I eventually learned to recognize the look of a pup that wasn’t going to make it—the runt of the litter. I’d seen the runts shrivel up, becoming too weak to suck the nipple. I watched my mother put formula in an eye dropper and try to force feed the runts—even when the runts were too weak to even lift their head. My mom would massage the runt’s frail little neck, desperately trying to seduce it into swallowing. But the formula would just dribble out the side of the runt’s mouth and down its chin. The runt would be too weak to even open its mouth, much too weak to swallow. This was how the girl’s baby in the carriage looked—like one of the runts that wasn’t going to make it. Its eyes were closed and squinted, its mouth slightly ajar, its face seemingly hollow, the blood in the veins of its neck visible through its transparent skin, and its tired, bald listless head.

Then Iunderstood what the girl had said to me—she was asking me for change.

"Your baby’s sick," I stated.

The girl didn’t seem to realize this. "What do you mean?" she asked as a look of fear flashed across her face, suddenly terrified of what I could possibly know.

What did I mean? Of course I couldn’t answer her. I hadn’t meant to react so obviously, to be so blunt... but I had. The fear in her eyes grew and it dawned on me that she didn’t understand what was going on. Even now as it had unmistakably been revealed in the sad glance and nonchalant comment of a passerby, she refused to see it. I thought again of the pups and how surprised I was everytime that my mother would break into tears after a runt would die. "It’s just the runt," I’d try to console her.

"What do you mean?" the girl with the crooked teeth repeated.

I pulled out one of my three crinkled dollar bills from my pocket and handed it the girl with the crooked teeth, without giving her an answer andthen continued walking on toward Jim’s Original. I would only have enough money for fries and coke—no hot dog.

***

The next day my lot in life hadn’t changed. I’d forgotten my morning power bar again and I’d been playing phone tag with a half dozen prospective clients all morning. By midday the confusing encounter with the girl with the crooked teeth was muddled and lost among the millions of other confusing thoughts and memories racing around my head each day. Then just before lunch Jolly Joe called me into his office.

"How’d that showing go yesterday?" he asked, holding a beef sandwhich..

I told him about the broken window—the marmoot. "Ahhh-shit," he sighed, adjusting his stomach over his belt then giving me with his ‘I don’t know how many god-damned times I have to tell you’ expression.

"Look," he says, pointing his beef sandwhich at me,"most of these assholes that are moving into University Village are these middle-aged couples from the suburbs whose lives are just boring and isolated. Have you ever lived in the fucking suburbs? It’s a bastion of mediocrity and isolation. No one looks each other in the eye, they’re all separated by these walls and windows. So they move to the city, trying to rebuild and relocate their sanitized, safe envoironment here. For at least here they can look out their window and see something exciting, they can drive around and from the safety of their cars see the street action. Of course they don’t want to get involved in the action, but just seeing it makes them feel hip to it. So that’s exactly what you have to sell to these people on. A clean, safe box to live in with the excitement of street action all around them. They’ll eat that shit up. They’ll think this makes them cool to their friends and to their kids who have gone off to college, and yet our security staff and maintenace and landscaping crew will keep them just as safe and comfortable as if they were still living in Oak Forrest Park—or whatever god awful suburb they’re coming from... But now, when they see a rock thrown in the front window of the place they are thinking of living...well,that breaksdown that comfort zone, see...Its..." Jolly Joe had made his point and I was nodding in agreement.

"So I suggest you bus over to Maxwell Street and do something to cover up the window and I’ll get the repair crew to put in a new glass first thing tomorrow," he concludesdismissively.

I hopped a bus back to the townhouse after lunch and upon arriving noticed a yellow flyer hanging from the front door handle. I recognize the pamphlet as one of CA-GA’s and I grabbed it and unrolled it. It gave a brief history of Maxwell Street, going back to the mid 1800’s when Maxwell Street had been nicknamed Bloody Maxwell due to the extremely high incidents of killings between cops and criminals in the area. The pamphlet also explained that Maxwell Street had been a renowned breeding ground for criminals and a hub for fencing stolen goods into the early 1900s. From this unseemly beginning, Maxwell Street became the gateway neighborhood for the waves of immigrants who flocked into Chicago and eventually blossomeing intothe mostunique open air bizarre in Chicago—a gathering place where people of every ethnicity the city had to offer would swap a potpourri of wares. Trinkets and gismos that had lost their flavor among the city’s more privileged population seemed to find their way to Maxell Steet for one last chance to be cherished. Maxwell Street also became a bastion for the exchange of political opinions and news of local interest as soap box orators crafted their skills along its streets and alleys. And then of course, as blacks immigrated from Mississippi in the 1950's, Maxwell Street’s diverse atmosphere cradled the birth of the electric urban Blues.

But, as the pamphlet went on to explain, by the late 1980’s the neighborhood was showing signs of old age. Vulture-like,UIC was quick to capitalize on its waning popularity by buying up pieces of Maxwell Street bit-by-bit thus breaking up the continuity of the marketplace. Then, year-by-year, the buildings fell into varying degrees of decay, making them targets for the wrecking ball. Jolly Joe Compani, who had lived a few blocks from Maxwell Street his entire life, had also been in on the ground floor, right there with the UIC. He kept attuned to all the council meetings, had seen all the tricks and was quick to realize that under Mayor Richard M. Daley’s ‘Everything’s for sale’ administration Maxwell Street’s death was near.

"Don’t LetMaxwell Die" was the pamphlets final line.

When I was done reading it, I shoved the pamphlet into my briefcase, hurried into the townhouse, swept up the broken glass then covered the hole in the window with a large red, plastic Near West banner. I locked the door on my way out and tossed the half-fist sized rock into an unfinished garden bed as I headed north on Halsted. When I came to Maxwell Street I saw a chain link fence erected around the properties that had formerly made up the north side of the street between Union and Halsted. UIC must have contracted a crew to install it earlier that morning in order to keep the former inhabitants out. Imprisoned inside the fence was the Juketown Bandstand, where the previous day’s demonstration had been held.

Across the street from the bandstand was a school bus that was dust-painted blue—the Blues Bus, as it was called. Reverend John Johnson sold Blues albums and tapes from this bus. Rev. Johnson, according to the neighborhood grapevine, had been among the many who had been coerced from his property on Halsted Street by UIC. But he still refused to leave the area. His Blues Bus was on an empty lot where it now partially obscured a Near West billboard advertising University Village’s new town homes and condos. The billboard had an illustration of a young couple jogging through a utopian park on apleasant, sunnyafternoon—Chicago skyline in the background. Butwhen I came closer I saw that some wisenheimer had enlarged the female jogger’s breast using white spray paint and also drew a large penis protruding from the male jogger behind her. It was signed CA-GA underneath. Apparently no one had told Jolly Joe about this yet.

I quickened my pace past the Blues Bus where Reverend John Johnson was sitting on a lawn chair. I was half expecting him to scowl me down like I was a Nazi prison guard, but instead he waved in friendly recognition—after all we were both salesmen. Two weeks earlier in fact, the Reverend had talked me into purchasing a Jimmie Lee Robinson cassette tape. It wasn’t until I got home later that night that I read the liner notes and learned that Jimmie Lee Robinson was a Maxwell Street Bluesman who lost 40 pounds during an 91-day hunger strike in protest of the destruction to Maxwell Street. I left the tape in my Sony Walkman without listening to it.

"Got some new music in this week," Reverend John Johnson called to me.

"No thank you," I answered as I hustled down Halsted Street, careful of my step. The pavement down Halsted Street that had withstoodmore thana hundred years of pedestrians was now uneven and in disarray. Buildings and store fronts were ripped in sections of crumbling bricks and covered with a thick film of debris... pipes and wires were protruding from the ground, chain link fences stretched over cluttered lots, traffic signs and rubble scattered every which way, loud blasting Caterpillar tractors and bulldozers and cranes and sledgehammers pounded away at what was left. The area that had once been the famous Maxwell Street Market now looked like a war zone.

I let out a strangely reluctant sigh of relief as I boarded the Halsted bus until I becamenervously aware of who was sitting in the front seat. It was the girl I had seen the day before—the girl with the crooked teeth. She had her baby cradled in her arms so that I couldn’t get a look at it, but the baby wasn’t moving or making any noise. The girl with the crooked teeth sat with an older woman—a heavyset woman who was wearing a large yellow CA-GA button with that eye puzzle of the old woman who turned into a young woman on it. I squeezed past the girl with the crooked teeth and prepared to avoid eye contact, but she didn’t even recognize me. At first I thought that she must be kind of dense not to recognize a person she had just spoken to the day before, but this girl was seemingly so overwhelmed with reality that I realized that it wasn’t so odd after all. She looked lost—her wits dulled and frayed.

I remained standing a few feet from her, trying to be inconspicuous,as I was able to gather remnants of her story. The heavyset woman was helping her out in some way—perhaps helping her find a shelter to spend the night. They were on their way to an appointment. I also figured out that the father of the baby was out of the picture. He had disappeared and she had no idea where he was. The girl with the crooked teeth looked shell shocked and I had the impression that she would cling to the first thing that would show interest in her. If I would have walked up and said "Come on, come with me," she would have obediently come away with me, not even knowing who I was, with no questions asked. I just knew that she would.

As the bus came to a stop and more people piled in I realized again how pretty she really was, even though she looked bewildered or a bit naïve or even a bit slow. She didn’t seem to be aware of how her life had brought her to this point. Without her noticing I exited the bus at Taylor Street and walked back to the Near West office.

***

The wheel of progress continued, as it always does. The University Village project marched forward. UIC bulldozers knocked down the Shah building, which had been built during the Civil War. They demolished 731 West Maxwell and 1255 South Halsted (two building that were supposed to be spared in accordance to an 8 building preservation plan approved by the Department of Planning and Development). The UIC chancellor ordered UIC police to arrest Reverend John Johnson if he didn’t immediately vacate the empty lot where his Blues Bus sat. 1213 South Halsted—built in 1876, was destroyed by UIC wrecking crews. It had been the original site of the Vienna Sausage Company and a reminder of an age when Chicago had been hog butcher to the world. In total, UIC destroyed over 50 historic buildings, was responsible for vender’s license fees being raised from $25 a year to $30 a week, and forced the Maxwell Street Market to relocate several blocks east of its original location and to become just a once a week affair. The final stroke of erasing what had once been the highly diverse open-air bazaar came when UIC convinced the city to post ‘No Peddling" signs on every other street corner in the neighborhood.

The construction of high rise condos, parking lots, cookie-cutter townhomes made from cheap,bulk materials and the invasion of corporate fast food joints, cell phone retailers and chain store franchises seemed to happen over night. Soon afterward came the young professionals in their Jettas and SUVs who had no idea that the Maxwell Street Market ever existed. My sales prospects picked up again as I witnessed all this. I accepted it for what it was.

Then one late Sunday afternoon,not quitetwo hours after the sun had disappeared behind the Westside cityscape, I was walking down Maxwell Street. I had just closed a deal ona townhouse that looked exactlylike theone that had had the broken window in it,and now I didn’t feel like returning to my apartment just yet. There was nothing but a frozen pizza and TV reality shows awaiting me there, so I continued walking south on Union Avenue. Yellow and orange autumn leaves sprinkled the sidewalks and occasionally a car would pass with a soothing murmur over the damp road. Not another soul was on the streets and I walked aimlessly with my head down, letting my thoughts drift wherever they wanted.

About a block north of a bar called Pauley’s, a woman in a scuffed off-white jacket appeared in the distance. I only glanced up for a split-second. She looked about 60 years old and I planned on passing by without looking at her again. But then as she approached, about 20 feet in front of me, I could sense she was eyeing me, so I looked up at her, and just as our paths met, I saw her face. She was pretty but her dark hair was uncombed and tangled and her teeth were rotted and harsh reminding me again of the jagged rocks on an ocean’s shore. It was the girl who had the sick baby, only now she was without the baby. She came to a stop in front of me at the exact moment I looked up—her hands tucked into the ends of her coat sleeves and her shoulders raised as though she was shrugging or was cold. She sighs, and her hands fall against her thighs as if she’s summoning her courage before she speaks. "Would you like to have a drink?" she asks, her voice like a bashful 7-year old girl whose mother has just caught her stealing candy and is now making her return it to the grocer. I look carefully at her face, into heranxious eyes. Beneath the light cast from a street lamp her skin is smooth and creamy like buttermilk and I want to reach out to touch it. I have an urge to hold her with tenderness and run my hands gently across her shoulders and down her neck and back and waist.

"I just like talking to people sometimes," she confesses, still as though she is apologizing for even talking to me, yet with a distinct desperation in her voice.

For a moment I wonder if she remembered me from before, and it dawns on me that her baby must surely be dead by now.And a strange thought comes, its the thought of taking her home with me. I could let her stay with me and maybe help her find a job, and I could take her to a dentist to have her teeth fixed. And I could buy her some new clothes and take her somewhere nice, and make her feel like she is special.

But then, as she stands struggling helplessly in front of me, I say nothing. After a moment of awkward silence I dig into my pocket and come up with 82 cents.

"This is all I have," I show her, regretting that I don’t have more to offer. "I can’t buy you a drink." I tell her.

"That’s all right," she says bowing her head as if to examine her shoes.

I make to hand the change to her but as our fingers touch a quarter drops to the pavement. I benddown and kneel in front of her to pick it up then hesitate for a moment. I notice that her legs seem to be trembling as though she’s about to fall.

"Go ahead and keep this…" I say standing up, hurriedly. "I’m sorry." And I avoid looking into her eyes as I hand her the quarter, afraid of what she might see in my eyes. I quickly turn and start walking toward the el stop.

***

For several months after that, on Sunday nights, around 2hours after the sun vanishes behind the Westside cityscape, I go back and retrace the steps I took that night. I walk by Pauley’s Bar and peer through the blue window. I will often see a girl sitting alone. But it isn’t the girl with the crooked teeth. I’ll keep walking, listening to my Jimmy Lee Robinson tape in my Walkman and trying to conjure up the ghosts of Maxwell Street past—the buildings, the people, the music, the sentimental scraps of junk that ended up in a vender’s grocery cart looking for one last chance to represent something special to someone. But even as Jimmy Lee sings "…I started playing on Maxwell Street in 1942. During World War number two…" somehow the memories never take hold; perhaps they are too overwhelmed by the now Disney-fied effect of University Village.

Eventually Iend uppassing the spot under the tree next to the lamppost where I had met up with the girl with the crooked teeth for the last time. I’ll slow my gait, remembering how she seemed so out of place there. Maybe she was the kind of girl that seemed out of place wherever she was. But I still looked for her, thinking that maybe one day I will see her again, but I never do. She had disappeared.

AFTERWORD

Beginning in 1994 black student enrollment declined for 5 straight years at UIC and the area in general became whiter and wealthier. UIC’s expansion was also responsible for displacment of uncounted numbers of low-income black and low-income Hispanic residents who could either no longer afford the rising property taxes or who lost their homes to eminent domain. The once flavorful and exciting Maxwell Street Market is today a sanitized and sterile shopping corridor.


© Copyright 2017 Ed Wagemann. All rights reserved.

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