Red Quarters

Red Quarters

My summer schedule had me longing for school.
Up every morning at six, on my bike to the tavern; three long blocks down Washtenaw, right at St. Rita’s, and eight short blocks down 63rd Street. For every clothing store, bakery or other establishment there were four taverns offering alcoholic solace twenty-four hours a day, complete with neon signs lighted even in the daytime, some with clever features such as an impossibly constructed woman winking or kicking long legs in a solo chorus line.
Jack’s place was open fewer hours, from noon until two the next morning, and his only neon sign just showed the name “Hamm’s,” the only draft beer he offered, for fifty cents a ten-ounce glass.
When I got to Jack’s place I unlocked the door and inhaled the familiar aromas from spilled beer and other drinks, traces of some liquids still present in the bottoms of glasses left on the bar and on the few tables along one wall. I turned on the air conditioning, ran a tub of hot soapy water, collected the glasses, and began washing them and stacking them to dry for thirsty customers anxious to pick up where they left off yesterday. My next steps in the routine were to pick up soggy napkins; mop the floors; straighten out the bar stools, tables and chairs; clean out the restrooms and supply them with paper towels and rolls of toilet paper, not forgetting to make sure the hand soap dispensers were filled. On a good day there wasn’t much throw-up or piss to clean. On a good day none of the previous evening’s patrons had decided to determine how much toilet paper could be thrown into a toilet before it overflowed.
All of that picking up and cleaning got me to somewhere between ten-thirty and eleven in the morning, when I’d lock up and ride my bike a few blocks to Walgreen’s, where I ate for free at the soda fountain because I reminded Doll, everybody called her Doll, the boss woman, of her son who was killed at Pearl Harbor. Or I’d pedal a few more blocks to the Greek place or the Jewish place, where I had to pay but where the food was much better.
I’d be back before noon to open up Jack’s tavern. Just Jack’s. No “Dew Drop Inn” or “Lounge” or “Irish Pub” – just Jack’s. I’d turn on the lights, the jukebox and the bowling game, and get into my bow tie and white apron for the early think-I’ll-stop-in-and-have-one crowd.
It was late June of 1958, and in just a few weeks I’d be back at St. Joseph’s in Rensselaer, Indiana, for my second year of college. I’d thought about staying at home and going to DePaul, taking the El back and forth, but figured Jack would have me cleaning and tending the damn bar when I could be having a better time being a college student, going to classes, spending some time in different bars a bunch of miles from Chicago. I’d even done some studying. I had graduated from Mt. Carmel High School two years ago and had learned something about studying. I also thought surviving South Chicago so far had provided me with enough animal cunning to handle just about anything.
I’d done the clean-up, eat, and open the bar routine for a week or so when Jack showed up a little after noon and sat at the end of the bar nursing a glass of water, frowning and shuffling a few small stacks of papers around. Jack was my stepfather. I have no memory of my father – he split when I was two. My mother and Jack were married a few years ago, right after my mother showed me a letter with Prudential printed right through the rock of Gibraltar across the top.
“He died in an explosion in the factory,” she said.
“What factory? Where?” I said.
“A paint factory out by Calumet City. I didn’t even know he was working there. Didn’t know where he was at all.” She turned away and went into her room, shutting the door behind her.
That first week Jack ‘s routine had been to show up at the tavern around two-thirty, dressed as usual in a gray suit, white shirt, and bow tie. Today he was early, but dressed as usual, and looking not at all troubled that the air conditioning had not quite cooled the tavern to its usual chilly state, prompting one young woman the other day to ask: “Where’s the meat you’re keeping in here?”
Jack was short enough to make him have to stand on the ledge in front of the bar to get his butt on his usual barstool, which was the last one, farthest from the front door and closest to the back door. He called that barstool his office. The barstool was his office and the tavern was his pulpit. The sermons he preached covered all manner of issues; life, marriage, finance, race relations, the universe, and other matters.
He sat and rubbed his mustache and frowned at his paperwork; stacks of bills, envelopes, and money arranged on the bar. I was wondering when he’d stop to rev up one of his daily sermons when the back door opened and the afternoon sun rode in on a faint, hot breeze. Like all taverns, Jack’s wasn’t the most pleasant sight in the light of day. Every crack in the floor tile, every chip on the bar and the tables, and every spot of grime on the walls stood out when the sunlight hit.
Jack had vampire’s love for the sun. He squinched up his face, crouched over his papers, and encircled them with his arms. I couldn’t decide if he was keeping them from blowing away or just doing his miser thing, guarding his stuff as though someone were about to take it all away.
When my eyes adjusted to the sudden bright light, I saw two hulks, one of whom I recognized as the guy who emptied the coin boxes in the jukebox and the bowling game. We didn’t know his name and we called him Silo. Not to his face, although Jack thought he’d probably get a kick out of it. I said I made a point of never making fun of anyone whose arms were as big around as my thighs. Silo made guest appearances in my nightmares from the first day I saw him. He always seemed to be looking at me as though he was thinking about picking me up by the legs and making a wish.
The other guy with Silo told us his name was Sam. Sam’s face was as lumpy as the stuff stored in silos.
Jack called over his shoulder. “Shut the damn door. I ain’t trying to cool the entire South Side, for christ’s sake.”
I kept on with my important work, leaning on the bar with one hand and washing glasses with the other. Silo usually headed for the jukebox first, the bowling game next, and then to a booth to count out the coins. That day he plopped down on the stool next to Jack, between Jack and Sam, the new guy. I dried my hand, slid over, put two coasters in front of them, smiled, and said “What’ll it be?”
Sam did the talking. “We got bidness wit da boss man, kid. Just keep up wit what you’re doin’.”
Jack, still with his arms protecting his stacks of papers, gave me the head wave – a quick nod and a flick of his eyes back toward the sink where I’d been washing glasses.
The sink wasn’t that far from where Jack and the boys were talking things over, but with the water running and Frank Sinatra on the jukebox I couldn’t hear what they were saying. But I did know a little about Jack’s body language, and I could tell he wasn’t pleased with what he was hearing.
After another Sinatra song, Silo got up and started emptying the coins from the jukebox. Sam slid over and continued his meeting with Jack, who eased up a little but still looked like a kid defending his food from attacks by older, hungry brothers. The only part of him that moved was his lips, and they didn’t move much.
In a few minutes Silo had all the coins from the jukebox and the bowling game dumped on the table in one of the booths along the wall across from the bar and behind Jack. As he settled his bulk he waved me over, giving me an ear to ear Joker smile while I gave it by best cool guy stroll and a look I thought might convince him I was as cool as my stroll. I sat and helped him divide the quarters; one for him, one for Jack.
There were fifty quarters painted with red fingernail polish. We got to keep all of those. In one of Jack’s first sermons, the first day I ever set foot in the tavern, he told me about the red quarters. “See, we use them to get some music going. It’s a fact. Once people at a bar hear the music, they keep it going.” He told me he painted those quarters himself and that he had the same ones for years, keeping them in a little cardboard box next to the cash register. I picked one off the table and held it up. The fingernail polish was wearing away. I imagined when they were first painted the quarters looked like cherry candy wafers. “Stayed up nearly all night making those damn things,” Jack had said.
Silo spoke. “Talk ta your old man, kid. He’s diggin’ in on sumpin, it ain’t worth it. Tell him to let it go. Talk ta him.”
Not for the first time I wondered what my life would be like if my mother hadn’t married a guy who owned a tavern on 63rd Street in South Chicago. My best pal, Evan Huff, his dad got him a job in an office, downtown, in a building with forty stories and forty thousand knockout babes getting in and out of elevators all day and smelling like the first floor at Marshall Field’s.
“Ya still here, kid?” Silo rapped on the table. “Anybody home?”
I looked up. “I’ll talk to him.” I paused. “About what?”
“He’ll tell ya.” He swept a few more coins in his bag and grinned. “Ya got some meat on ya since I last seen ya. Won’t be long, you’ll be ready for a couple a rounds wit me down at da gym.”
I had no clue what to say to that, knowing he’d pulverize me no matter how much I grew.
Silo just grinned. He got up and left me sitting there dreading even the thought of ever having to step into a ring with him. A glance from Jack propelled me back to my spot behind the bar. A few more customers came in and I got busy and wouldn’t have noticed when Silo and Sam left except when they opened the back door to the sunlight for another few seconds and Jack put his arms back around his papers. I wandered down until I was right in front of him and dusted a few bottles, then turned and fumbled around under the bar. “What’s the story?” I said. With Jack, the fewer the words the better. He liked to do the talking.
It took him a minute, but he finally looked up. Even at closing time at two in the morning Jack’s eyes were famous for their sparkle, but at that moment he peered and squinted as if he’d just emerged from a dark cave. I thought I was going to get the difference between men and women sermon, the one where he said: “See, you can always depend on the women coming right out and letting you know what’s what. The men they just shrug their shoulders and don’t come back. See, the women will tell you there’s not enough ice, the music’s too loud, put my change over here not over there, all that. Women will come in, notice everything about the place in twenty seconds, everything about everybody. Then they’ll order a drink and notice how you walk, what you’ve got on, what you say, how you say it, whether you smile, what color the napkins are, how you pour, whether you’ve got a sink full of dirty glasses, whether there’s one hook unhooked on the curtain in the window – everything. And if they notice something they don’t like or don’t give a shit about but feel like telling you anyway they’ll tell you. The man will come in, he’s drinking the same thing he’s been drinking since 1946. He sits down, digs in his pocket, pulls out some dough and lays it on the bar. He notices different stuff, like who’s in charge, how many people are in the tavern. He doesn’t notice nearly as much as the woman, and doesn’t say much of anything about anything.”
About this point I’d usually chime in. “What the hell, Jack, every woman does that? Every man?”
“There’s a few exceptions now and then, but by and large there’s the differences between men and women who come in here. You can count on it. See, you screw up with a woman and she’ll let you know about it. Make a mistake with a man and he holds it in. The woman might come back, but the man probably won’t ever come back. For him your place is forever shitty.”
I only heard that sermon about six thousand times. Each time I had to listen I kept my sanity by imagining my real father and what he would have to say about the differences between men and women. Somehow I convinced myself that I would have gotten more useful information from my real father.
That day I wanted useful information and Jack just sat there staring at some spot over my shoulder as I rinsed his beer glasses that didn’t need rinsing. He finally decided on what part of it he’d let me in on.
“They say they’re not making enough out of the jukebox and the bowling game. They want a dice game in here, that they’ll take care of the cops if I put in a dice game, and they’ll supply the girl.”
He rubbed his eyes. I asked about the dice game.
“They bring in a bimbo with big tits in an almost dress. She sits behind a counter and rolls dice for dough. It’s a shakedown. The dice are fixed, but the players will be men and they won’t care. They’ll mostly want to check out the tits. They’ll win a few bucks now and then, but they’ll lose more than they win. They’ll know that, but they’ll be more interested in the tits and trying to make it with the dice girl and won’t care what they lose.”
He put on his disgusted look, the corners of his mouth disappearing behind lips pressed tight together. I ran a slideshow in my head, photos I’d seen in Playboy. I saw Miss August standing in front of the jukebox with one finger on her pouty lip, needing my help to pick out a song to play. I wondered what Jack was worried about.
“What’s the problem?” I said.
Jack lifted a curled claw and let it drop on the bar with a thud, giving me a look as though I’d just suggested serving free beer on Saturday nights. “Damn goons are taking over and you’re asking what’s the problem. For years it’s enough to have their damn jukebox and games in here and split the coins. Now there’s a new goon, has to make his mark like a dog pissing on a bush. They want more. They drop in and remind me how many things can go wrong in the tavern business.”
A dice game is gambling and I know gambling is illegal in Chicago, but I also know it’s going on in most taverns anyway. I’ve also see Jack slip the beat cops a few bucks now and then, and that one of the benefits he gets from that is they allow him to use his under-age stepson as a daytime bartender, which is okay with me.
“You make money off a dice game?”
“Yeah. Fifty-fifty, just like the machines.”
“Doesn’t sound so bad.”
Watching his face was like watching a tire go flat.
“Think a minute. This isn’t some little civics problem to discuss with the priests. This is a neighborhood tavern. Notice the people in here? Working stiffs. Thirty years I’ve been in this business and I’ve never cheated anyone. I don’t water the booze, I don’t foam up the beer, I don’t shortchange someone too blasted to count, I buy a round now and then, I cash their paychecks, I run a tab for them when they’re down. A dice game is cheating.”
* * *
A week later they delivered the dice table and wedged it between the jukebox and the end booth. It looked like it should have had a bunch of microphones sticking up in front, like the podium politicians used on television, only there weren’t any politicians behind this podium. Her name was Millie and she was far more fascinating. Her blond curls and sassy looks were enough to fuel several fantasies, but it was the slinky green dress and the constant movement inside that dress that kept me looking for every possible opportunity to look some more, bring her a glass of soda water with a twist when she came in and started setting up.
She started that Friday evening and the place was crowded twenty minutes later. For the first hour both men and women played the dice game, which I never fully understood but had something to do with making poker hands out of the numbers on the dice. After an hour Millie was surrounded by men. The women, both the ones some of the men had brought with them and the few that wandered in with other women, were soon left alone at the bar while the men played or waited their turn. Jack wouldn’t let me tend bar when the sun went down, so I had to invent reasons to hang around until he kicked me out.
While I was there I noticed that Jack barely spoke to Millie, and he wasn’t his cheerful self with the customers either. He didn’t do his usual Friday night mixing with the crowd, listening to their problems or passing along any jokes he’d heard and asking for new ones. Another of his sermons went like this: “See, with the apron it’s like a uniform. You can walk around and talk to people, but with the apron they always know you’re in charge. The white shirt and the bow tie make it complete. Get behind the bar or anywhere else in the tavern without the shirt, tie, and apron, and you’re just another guy hanging around.”
With Millie there, the old polished wood bar was a Berlin Wall – Jack stayed behind it in his uniform. And it wasn’t just Millie he tuned out. Nobody could bring out the twinkle in his eyes.
That first crowd was mostly regulars, but after that new faces began to show up almost every night she was on. I didn’t do anything with the money except make change, but it was obvious the cash drawer had more in it than it did before Millie was on the scene. The busier the place became, the more grim Jack became – from jolly Irishman to sullen barkeep in a matter of days. By the end of August, with me about to head back to college and only to be home to help with the bar during the Holidays, the regulars were asking me what was wrong with Jack. I caught him often staring in Millie’s direction shaking his head, his lips pressed together so completely his mustached looked like someone had underlined it, like he had no lips at all. I’d seen that look when I asked a dumb question or made a suggestion he thought wasn’t my finest insightful moment.
I could see the tavern crowd was changing, but couldn’t see why Jack was so upset. The crowd was bigger and the people didn’t seem all that different from the regulars of yesterday, most of which still came in as often as ever. I enjoyed the commotion that came with more noise and being more busy made the work hours go by more quickly. Jack was making more money and had to hire another bartender on the nights Millie and the dice game were in operation.
I leaned back against the counter behind the bar one Friday when I was just about to leave. I’d hung around long enough to choke down some pizza two of the regulars offered. I was sitting at the end of the bar, nearest the back door – Jack’s office. When he came by I said “lot of people buying tonight.”
“Lot for sale,” he said. He pointed at the back door. “Out there too.”
I started to ask him what he meant when one of the regular ladies, my favorite grandmotherly type, called me over to meet her friends. By the time I was leaving Jack was busy at the other end of the tavern. I waited a few seconds by the door to see if Millie would look over so I could wave good night, but she didn’t turn my way.
* * *
Sam and Silo or whoever was doing the collections never came by again that summer before I left to go back to St. Joe’s. During my first semester I spoke with Jack a few times when I phoned my mother, asked him once whether Millie was still around.
“Yeah. And she’s got an assistant now. We got a bimbo and an assistant bimbo. By the time you see the place at Christmas wouldn’t surprise me if we had several assistant bimbos.”
I’d have to wait two months before I could compare the pictures in my mind with the real assistant bimbos I was looking forward to meeting when I went home for Christmas.
* * *
The blizzard wasn’t the only thing that made the trip to Chicago from downstate Indiana exciting that Christmas. I had bummed a ride from a girl I wanted to get to know better and was happy to endure a few hours of slippery roads with her, even though two of her roommates had come along. After promising I’d call, I stood in the snow and waved. The tops of my shoes were under at least a foot of snow by then.
I hugged my mother, who seemed smaller every time I saw her, and started to tell her about school. She clutched a wet dishrag and wiped absently at the kitchen table while she listened. Jack came in and sat down. It was early evening, and the robe, pajamas and slippers he wore were a big surprise I thought it wise to not question right away. Instead I told them about my roommate’s Italian textbook, my Korean physics professor who erased formulas on the blackboard before anyone could copy them, and my English professor who at first I thought would be horrible but who had somehow gotten me all fired up about Homer and Dante.
Mom and Jack started working on dinner midway through my report, slicing and stirring and asking an occasional question and laughing when I told them how I brought a camera to physics class and snapped a photo of the blackboard before Mr. Kim could erase it.
“He get the message?” Jack said.
“Yeah, but not like I thought. He was mad right then, with the class laughing and all. Next class he came in and went around the room putting all the erasers in a small box. He set the box on my desk, gave me a big smile, and announced that he was putting me in charge of erasers. Everybody hooted and clapped their hands. He took a bow and went on with his lecture.”
Jack was drying a mixing bowl. I looked at my watch.
“You close the tavern because of the storm?”
Jack put down his dish towel and turned to look at me. “Tavern’s closed. Permanently.”
I turned to my mother then back to Jack. “Permanently?”
“We had a fire. Place was gutted,” Jack said.
We hadn’t driven by the tavern on the way in. I closed my eyes and saw Silo and a couple of his pals standing by a gas pump across the street, holding an empty can and watching smoke pour out of the tavern windows. What does Jack do now? The tavern was his living for thirty-some years, as he often reminded me. What happens to my mother? What happens to college? Mom studied the salt shaker she turned in her hands as though it were newly discovered treasure.
“Anybody get hurt?” I said.
Mom pushed her chair back, placed the salt shaker in its holder, and left the kitchen. I heard her close the bathroom door and turn on a faucet.
“Nah, nobody got hurt. We were home. Sleeping. Your mother heard the sirens and shook me awake. When we looked out the window and saw how close the fire trucks were I decided to get dressed and go have a look. By the time I got there the place was gone.”
“They figure out what caused it?”
“What’s to figure? To the cops it’s just another bar fire.” He started to stand, changed his mind, then changed it again and stood up to walk to the sink. He leaned against it and turned his head to look out of every corner of the window over the sink. From where I sat at the table I could see a patch of heavy snowflakes falling through a square of light from a streetlamp. “I got sick of it anyway. Millie and her bimbo buddies turned the place into a whorehouse. I kept the drug deals away from the bar, but I couldn’t keep them away completely. Especially outside, in the alley. I told Silo I wanted the dice game gone, told him to leave the jukebox and a pinball machine or the bowling game, just like before.”
“You think Silo burned the place?”
Jack shrugged and flopped back down in his chair.
“How long will it take to open up again?”
“I’m not gonna open it. Not there, anyway. Not again. The new crowd’s too tough, too greedy. There’s no room for a neighborhood tavern in this part of Chicago any more. Besides, in a year or two this part of South Chicago will belong to the coloreds. Along with the rest of it.”
A semester at college hadn’t turned me into a saint, but his language still made me cringe. And he wasn’t finished.
“Look what’s happened with the streetcars. A job that used to take two good Irishmen now only takes one colored guy driving a bus. Remember? A motorman and a conductor. Now it’s just one colored guy. Pretty soon they’ll be running Chicago and there won’t be any room for white people.”
“Jack, what’s that got to do with the tavern burning down?” I said.
“Don’t kid yourself. Look what’s happening on those damn busses. With no conductor you take your life in your hands getting on one of those damn things, never knowing what the hell’s going to happen to you. Damn drivers don’t care, and even if they did they’re too busy driving to keep the lunatics from tearing up the seats, grabbing purses from old ladies. I read in the paper yesterday bunch of colored kids beat the hell out of some old guy on a bus because he wouldn’t give them his money. By the time the driver parked the bus and tried to help the old guy the bastards were out the back door and gone and the old guy’s on his way to Mercy Hospital. Probably come out of the hospital horizontal.”
My mother came back in the kitchen. She rubbed her eyes and tried to explain about insurance and maybe moving farther south, maybe even out of Chicago. Jack said he’d been thinking about places like Park Forest, Blue Island, Midlothian – places I’d heard him describe in the past as too far out. “Maybe even Kankakee, down the street from the lunatic hospital. Get some real nuts for customers. Put some miles between us and dice games and all that goes with it,” Jack said.
“We’ve been looking at some nice places,” mother said, giving me a small, sad, almost frightened smile. Jack smiled at her; she smiled back at him.
They had me going with this. After dinner we talked some more and when they went to bed I was still wide awake. I had earned most of my college money during the summer and the holidays and odd jobs at school, but still needed some help even with student loans. They told me not to worry, that they expected me to stay at school and they could help, but I wasn’t convinced yet.
After reading a little of a Fitzgerald novel for English I finally got sleepy and went to bed. Jack still kept the apartment cold and I decided pajamas consisting of sweatshirt and pants might keep me warm enough to sleep. I looked out the window in my bedroom one last time before getting into bed and saw the snow still swirling around the streetlights up and down Sacramento Street. A huge branch of a blue spruce in front of the apartment building had yielded to the weight of the snow and fallen to the sidewalk, narrowly missing a lighted snowman in the front yard next door. The apartment was still as death. I would wait until after Christmas Day to ask whether they were certain I could continue at St. Joe’s.
The sweatshirt and pants helped, but didn’t get the job done. I was still too cold to sleep. I decided to get up and look for another blanket, then decided I needed to see what was in the refrigerator. That was one thing about school; no refrigerator in my dormitory room. I manufactured a suitable snack and sat down, propping my legs up on the table. It was good to be home, to see the bread and the milk and the sugar and toaster right where they were supposed to be, right where I’d last seen them. I’d found another blanket and looked forward to wrapping myself in it.
Back in bed I was warm but wide awake. Was it the long ride, the anticipation of a date with the driver, or the news about the tavern? I got up and was almost to the bathroom when I noticed the light coming from the small back room where Jack kept his desk. How odd, I thought. He must have heard me thrashing around in the kitchen. I padded over to his slightly open door. Maybe it was the way he was sitting, hunched over his desk, like he was that day at the end of the bar the day he was told to put in the dice game. Maybe that’s why I didn’t ask him if he wanted a sandwich. Anyway, I just stood there. Maybe he noticed me, but didn’t want to. Whatever his reason, he didn’t say anything, didn’t even turn his head.
He wasn’t working with little slips of paper. I strained to see what he was pushing around in front of him, on his desk. The lamp on the desk spotlighted stacks of coins. I could see the flecks of red as he picked up one of the red quarters and carefully added it to one of the stacks.
* * *
I never asked. It wasn’t the kind of thing Jack would want me to bring up. He’d think of it as a confrontation and ignore me. He didn’t want me to call him anything but Jack, so on Father’s Day, when I was younger, I’d cross out Dad or Pop or Father and write in Jack. I did it then hoping to remind him that I knew he wasn’t my real father, but he double-crossed me. He got a kick out of it. He’d given his sermons on men and women, race relations, white apron uniforms, and quite a few other subjects. His information wasn’t always reliable, but it was heartfelt and he was a convinced man. Somewhere along the way he had taken a measure of my respect and held on to it.
He’d also told me that those red quarters stayed in the box next to the cash register. The first time I’d taken the box home after cleaning up he wasn’t angry. When I forgot them he just sent me back home to get them.
“See, they always stay right here,” he said. “Next to the cash register, where everybody can see them. That way, when I run out, I can hold up the empty box and shake it a little, let them know they’re all gone for now.”
I watched him finish with the stacks of coins and gently return them to the familiar box. Then I turned and tiptoed back to my room and crawled into bed. I stared at the blue spruce tree that had lost one of its limbs. Jack was like that tree; weighed down, stressed, bending here, breaking there, but still standing. I fell asleep wondering how he did it, admiring his grit and fearful about what would happen if he was found out.
I decided that in the morning I’d find a way, some indirect, maybe even diplomatic way, to suggest hiding the red quarters where they couldn’t be found.


One thought on “Red Quarters

  1. I’m not sure exactly why but this blog is loading very slow
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    I’ll check back later on and see if the problem still exists.


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