It’s 1965, and it’s time again for my father to purchase an almost-new car. My father walks less than a mile from our home to Crown Buick Co. at 63rd Street and Throop and buys a fire engine red Buick Riviera. He had previously marveled at this beauty in the showroom. As he negotiates a price, my sister Audrey and I take advantage of a warm October day to walk to Coney Island at 63rd Street and Ada, just west of Crown. Coney Island is the neighborhood fast food joint (I guess it was named after the famous New York attraction).
Well, let me correct that: Coney Island is the place where the youngsters hang out. Nan’s on 63rd Street and Loomis, and later Red Apple on 63rd Street and Ashland, which was owned by a former Sixteenth Ward Committeeman Jim “Bulljive” Taylor, and the Walgreens restaurant on the other corner catered to the mature crowd of this Englewood neighborhood. You see, during that time, as is now, the political machine in Chicago was in full throttle. Years earlier, Chicago was one of the first cities where blacks attained great political influence. Oscar DePriest became Chicago’s first black councilman in 1915 and in 1928; he became the first black elected to the United States House of Representatives in the twentieth century. As a matter of fact, blacks had won the official right to vote in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act, and local politicians and their cohorts were taking full advantage of this. It was common to have folks canvass in the community for whatever election was coming up, and my folks were active citizens in the process. It was a big thing to go up to the polling place with them, which was then located at the local elementary school.
People would mill around, talking about one candidate or the other. So Taylor’s restaurant was always crowded, with folks ordering fried chicken, chitlins, and whatever was the featured “bean” of the day, along with cornbread muffins, while discussing current political issues. After the grown folks ate at the restaurant they could walk a couple of blocks and further enjoy themselves with liquor and other “packaged goods” from the Rothschild’s, which was located on the southeast corner of 63rd Street and Loomis. There was always some brutha in front of Rothschild’s, who seemed to be drunker than the customers going in, who served as the doorman—in hopes of getting tips to buy more liquor. One such doorman was a man whose brother had recently been killed. When asked one day about his brother’s murder, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “He’s gone, but I’m still here.”
My usual order at Coney Island is a burger and fries and, of course, a “suicide.” A suicide is a soft drink made from a variety of the fountain flavors. My preference is more coke and orange flavors; something that I still order at the movie theaters even to this day. “May I help you?” the clerk asked from behind the counter. “Give us two cheeseburgers, please,” my sister and I both answered in unison. You see, we weren’t twins, but we often behaved as such. The burgers came with fries at no extra charge. Most of the beef to feed the free world was being slaughtered right here in Chicago, so it was easy to come by.
As my father proudly deposits $400 on a nearly $3,163 debt—leaving him with a thirty-six-month, $77.60 note give or take—we reluctantly clunk down what seems to be a life’s savings of change for our food. As he drives past the Del Farm grocery store, also at 63rd Street and Loomis, reality hits him. He has to give my mother money for food. That’s alright. We may have to eat beans and cornbread for a couple of days, but we are sure gonna look good in that red Riviera. That intersection is busy at this time of day. The rush hour buses running up and down the two streets take passengers either south on Loomis or west on 63rd Street from the final stop on the “L” line. 63rd Street is the business district of this neighborhood. (Yes, this is the same 63rd Street that the late Marvin Gaye sings about in Hitchhike).
Between Halsted to the east and Ashland to the west are a myriad of shops and restaurants that blacks are welcome to patronize. Throughout the years, Thompson’s Barber Shop has also served as the local polling place at election time. A Mandl and Sons Cleaners advertises a “plant on premises.” One of their specialties is blocking hats, and my father uses this service to clean his Dobbs hats that he most likely purchased at Howard Style Shops, down on Maxwell Street near Halsted—or what at that time was called Jew Town (to recognize the many shop owners who were Jewish). The shirts, suits, and dresses would always be so nicely cleaned and pressed. If you peered past the front counter, you could see the guy operating the pressing machine. This glimpse into the dry cleaning business would further manifest itself a few years later, as one of my father’s brothers would open his own dry cleaning business over in the Gresham neighborhood. As teens we would hang out on a Saturday placing garments on hangers and pulling the plastic over each order to keep the clothes fresh and crisp. When you drive down 87th Street near Halsted you can still see the sign “Hegwood Cleaners” in the window.
Then there is Sarah’s Beauty Salon, which is always filled with women vying to look beautiful, especially on the weekends. There are even two banks within this short area—Chicago City Bank and Trust Company and the Ashland and 63rd State Bank, as well as a hospital named Englewood Hospital. The neighborhood to the west of Ashland is entirely white and even though our money is green, we are not welcome to shop there.
On our way back from Coney Island, with small, greasy brown paper bags and overfilled, brimming paper cups, we would spend the rest of our pennies on candy at Big Mama’s grocery store. It takes us a while to arrive home, but it takes my father even longer. Although we live only moments from the car dealership, my father takes a leisurely drive home, beaming with pride every block of the way. This fond memory of the Englewood community will always remain in my heart, just as memories of my father and his new Buick always bring a smile to my face—a smile as wide as the grill on that bright, red Buick Riviera.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago. Lulu Publishing Services. 130 pages.
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