My parents moved from New York to Chicago just as I was turning 20. So when summer break from college came I went to Chicago to live in a strange house and a strange city. My first order of business being "home" from college wasn't to find friends and to get to know the city, the first thing I had to do was get a summer job.
I suppose I'm someone who has always found solace and satisfaction in work. It is a place and a role that you can hold and construct and make your own. At least somewhat. In any event, I answered two ads that were listed in the Chicago Tribune. One was for a clerk in the gift shop of a Northside hotel and the other was for a night shift cashier/stock boy in a Northside liquor store.
The liquor store was the one that came through first. I used my brother's name on the application because I was not yet 21 and it was illegal for me to drink booze, much less sell it. In any event, I spent the first couple of days at this job telling people "my name is Fred, but friends call me George."
The job paid well. For a summer job. For a kid. $3.50 an hour with a guaranteed six hours overtime at time and a half. Plus, there were the busy weekends in the summer when I would be asked to work a double shift. One week I grossed $206. That was decent money back in 1977.
The night shift was a bit frightening back then. The city was wild, and the store's location was amid whorehouses and nightclubs and bars and parking lots. However, every night around 9 an off-duty Chicago cop would come in and sit in the back smoking cigarettes. The brothers who owned the place paid him in cases of beer. I also got to know the regulars. The bottle blonde whores and the sunken cheeked parking lot attendants. The parking lot guys bought pretty much the most expensive brandy we sold, in pint bottles.
One warm afternoon, it had to be 4:30 or so (I started at 4) a limousine pulled up to the store and an elegant older woman came into the store. I was standing with Mr. Bragno, one of the two brothers who owned the place. He went white as creme de cacao. "Claudette Colbert," he whispered to me.
I hardly knew who she was, though of course I knew the name. Later on, when I saw her in DeMille's Cleopatra, rolled up into a carpet and presented half naked to Caesar or Anthony, I was really impressed. Ms. Colbert worked with Mr. Bragno directly to fill her order. I was given the job of carrying her case to her limousine. She gave me a dollar and smiled with her dark eyes.
Another day the representative from a local beer company, Old Style came in. Minnie Minoso. Minoso was one of the great stars of the Go-Go-White Sox of the 1950s and 1960s. He wore his 1959 World Series ring proudly and gave me his autograph when I asked. Minoso was the first major leaguer to play in 5 decades and was the first black player to play for the Sox. His hands were the size of phone books and engulfed mine when we shook.
The most memorable character of all was the 50-year-old stock man, Lorenzo Jeffries. He was the soul of the place, running up and down to the cellar, keeping everything shelved and fully stocked, with not a bottle out of place. If I said to him, "Lorenzo, we're nearly out of Winston cigarettes," he would look at me with his sad eyes and say "The system is supposed to be the solution. But the system is part of the problem." Then he would, in his manner, hustle down stairs singing "The system is not working."
Lorenzo was from Arkansas. In the store we sold a mineral water called Mountain Valley water that was also from Arkansas. Lorenzo claimed it was the best water on Earth and that he brought it from Arkansas himself in his limo, which he called the 151 bus.
At the end of the summer it was time for me to say goodbye to Bragno's and return to New York and college. I made $2,000 those two summer months, met Claudette Colbert and Minnie Minoso and became friendly with Lorenzo.
A couple years later I came back to Chicago to visit my parents who were either about to die or who had just recovered from being about to die. I walked by Bragno's, where it used to be, figuring I'd say hello to whoever was there, but Bragno's was gone. Today, there's a store called Urban Outfitters on the site.