MAXWELL: Maxwell Street memories

8/21/1994 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


If you haven’t visited Maxwell Street in Chicago, you’ve missed a grand piece of Americana. And, sadly, Sept. 4, will be the last day of the street’s existence as millions of us _ those who love it _ have known it. Even as I write, bulldozers and backhoes are pushing down and digging up what has been one of the nation’s richest traditions.

I fell in love with Maxwell Street in 1966, when I was 20 years old and straight out of the piney woods and citrus groves of Crescent City, Fla. An uncle took me there. My relatives and friends didn’t always call it Maxwell Street. Over my objections, they called it “Jewtown.” They also used Jew as a pejorative verb: “He Jewed the hell out that sucker.” Or, “I Jewed him down to $10.”

Even before seeing the thousands of shoppers and hundreds of stores, tents and shacks, I was thrilled. I was visiting a street that had the same name as mine. “Maxwell Street,” I said, over and over, secretly enjoying my special status. My uncle parked on Morgan, and as he, his son, two daughters and I walked toward Halsted, the sounds and aromas pulled me forward. After we reached our destination, my uncle pointed to a vender’s shack.

“That’s ole Swill Mouth Eddie,” he said. “Don’t buy nothing from ’em. None of his crap’s any good.”

Swill was the skinniest, darkest black man I’d ever seen. Years of hard living made him seem a lot older than he was. And my uncle was right. Swill’s merchandise was mostly the trash he’d found _ dented hubcaps, pliers too rusty to operate, radios with no guts, chipped records, half-empty bottles of Hoyt’s Cologne, half sets of false teeth, mismatched shoes, broken mirrors, filthy commode seats, bent oven racks, electric cords without connectors.

When Swill wasn’t trying to sell one of his worthless items, he strummed a steel guitar and sang the sweetest country blues I’ve ever heard. That’s how Swill made his money: Blues lovers tossed money into a hat beside his chair. Years later, I often put a $5-bill into that old hat.

After becoming a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the early 1970s, I made Maxwell Street part of many of my Sundays.

No food was as delicious as the food there. I would arrive about 10 a.m., just as the first Polish sausages were releasing their hot juices. I’d stroll from Halsted west to 14th to Blue Island, eating and drinking. I’d buy carne asada from Big Al; egg rolls from Nagasaki Lu; hamburgers from Gate Mouth Betty; corn on the stick from My Nig Curtis; watermelon from Mississippi Black; ribs and bibs from Bow Legged Bob. And, yes, Isaac the Jewman sold the coldest beer.

Like many others who went to Maxwell Street looking for bargains, I never really found any. But the promise was always there _ enticing you, making you return time and again. Even the books I bought weren’t bargains; I could’ve gotten them for the same prices at most second-hand stores. But doggone, there I was, buying yet another H. G. Wells, one more Sir Francis Bacon (as if I would really read Bacon again).

But this was the Maxwell Street flea market, a magic place, a place where your shoulders touched those of other people who, like you, subconsciously drew sustenance from the nearness of strangers; where risk-taking replaced routine; where dickering empowered cowards and humbled bullies; where hawkers and their victims bore the same cross; where you forgave sins that you would condemn in other environments.

Maxwell Street’s redolence, vibrance and rawness smudged the lines that separated classes, races and ethnic groups, religions and many of the other arbitrary differences we use to avoid intimacy. Maxwell Street’s grunge forced its visitors to be human _ at least temporarily. It had no Disney-like appeal. Its vendors, one and all, had warts. Some limped. Others hacked like the lifetime smokers they were. They sweated and wiped their faces with dirty rags. Some had no teeth.

I’m truly sad that I won’t see the old Maxwell Street one last time before progress, the manifest destiny of University of Illinois at Chicago, gobbles it up. After many years of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, the university bought the 130-year-old, 11-acre area for $4.25-million. In my mind’s eye, I see the first proud Jewish immigrants who, in 1871, established their small businesses here. In a short time, as its reputation spread, the area become a bustling commerce center that attracted Chicagoans citywide.

During the 1970s, the street began to lose its luster. It’s ambiance became more risque, and stolen property _ especially tires, hubcaps, vehicle tape decks and other electronic equipment _ became the norm rather than the exception. In the late 1980s, the cops of the 12th District who patrolled the area seemed to have adopted a live-and-let-live policy toward the hawkers suspected of selling stolen property. And now, as the city helps owners resettle along Canal Street, officials know that they’re turning a blind eye to a lot of stolen property.

Even in death, Maxwell Street has a powerful pull.

When my uncle in Chicago telephoned last week to tell me of the street’s demise, I asked him if Swill Mouth Eddie was still around. Turns out that Swill, now selling tires and hubcaps exclusively, was one of the first street vendors to be evicted before the bulldozers moved in.

“He’s an old man now, but he’s still singing the blues,” my uncle said. “But people ain’t filling up that old hat with money no more. It’s gonna get rougher. Life won’t be the same with Maxwell Street gone.”

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.


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