Maxwell Street

You remember Maxwell Street, right? That special outdoor bazaar was located in the near west area just outside the Chicago Loop. I went to visit my buddy Stanley- you know, the one who got arrested years ago by Chicago cops? Yeah, that guy. I needed a bicycle part and that’s what he now sells. I asked how was business going and he said okay but that he had to work harder than ever and wondered if it was worth it.

So, I got about to asking him what was the best job he ever had. “that’s easy”, he replied, “Maxwell Street.” I asked him if he had more time to elaborate and he said, “why not?”

“I started back in the 70’s”, he said. “I used to work for my Uncle Sid who had a long table stand on Maxwell Street selling all types of candy. People used to start coming from all over early in the day on weekends looking for bargains. It’s what you call – what’ did Uncle Sid used to say? yeah, ‘economy of scale’- that’s it. We’d sell large quantities at pretty cheap prices. Our customers owned stores and sold the candy at higher prices in small doses. Nowadays, you got those closeout warehouses that sell to the Dollar Stores so there is no need anymore for guys like Uncle Sid.

“I also helped Uncle Mort who had a stand on Maxwell street as well. During the week he worked for Jewel Food Store and would cut a deal to take their dented cans and other damaged packaging that they couldn’t put on the shelves. You’d be surprised how many people bought the so-called damaged goods at our low prices. They didn’t care. We both went home happy.

“By the time the 80’s rolled around, I was helping a friend sell deadbolt locks and other type of security items there as well. Bottom line- if you had the right merchandise, you could make lots of money. But you had to be careful and hire, uh, security to watch your stuff as well as your back. It was all a cash business and by the end of the day, I sometimes had more than a thousand dollars in my pocket.

“It was a good lesson in life for me as a young fellow. There were those out there hawking their wares and it was their only livelihood. For me, it was extra pocket money. We all had to get there early to beat the crowd and make sure no one else stole our spot. We’d hire local bums hanging around- give them protection money- to make sure to save our spot for us as well as help us put the merchandise out and away and stop shoplifters.

“I’d get up around 3:30am on a Sunday morning to leave the house by four. We had to be all set up by 5:30am. That’s how crazy and busy it was. Like I said, it was a great way to make extra money and learn a little about putting out an effort to do something constructive.”

It ended up that Stanley didn’t have the part I needed and told me that my bike was so old that I’ve never find what I was looking for. He said that I should invest in a new model. I didn’t tell him that it wasn’t my bike but one that I had borrowed and needed to return in the same condition.

Instead, I told Stanley an old joke about a guy who had a stand on Maxwell Street. After he got very successful and turned it into a chain of stores, he changed his name to C.H. Maxwell. An old friend asked him to explain the name change and he said Maxwell was in honor of the place he made his initial fortune. His friend then asked what C.H. stood for and he replied, “Corner Halsted, naturally”. Stanley laughed and then since I wasn’t buying told me to get lost.

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