Race Relations Nearly A Half Century Ago Mirror Today’s Headlines
Editor’s Note: The Reporters Inc. is pleased to present these exclusive excerpts from author Bill Natale’s new book, 1968 (a fictional tale based in part on a true story). It’s a novel that explores race relations in Chicago at the tumultuous time of Dr. Martin Luther King’s murder.
These passages first introduce the people who work at Anderson Inc., a small factory owned by a white man but staffed almost entirely by blacks. We then meet some Chicago firefighters whose paths intersect with the factory workers, when rioting breaks out after Dr. King is killed.
Natale’s story takes place nearly a half century ago but the race-related anger, pain and fear it portrays mirror some of the sentiments and situations boiling over in the streets of America today–in Baltimore, Seattle, Santa Barbara, Ferguson, New York, Berkeley, Minneapolis, Chicago (once again), and many other cities.
Time may have passed, but in many ways 1968 has more in common with 2016 than you might imagine.
* * * * * * * * * *
A smoky haze permeated the skies above as a lean, middle-aged, executively dressed Dane Anderson ambled up the front apron of a proscenium-arched brownstone. At the top of the arch, etched in stone, were the words, “ANDERSON, INC. FLUID DISTRIBUTORS.” Dane entered his factory passing through stylish bi-fold doors that had been handcrafted to fit the curve of the arch. The doors had small rectangular windows at the top. Dane carried a small white paper sandwich bag.
From six production lines, three on the left and three on the right of a roadway marked with yellow capped letters, FORKLIFT PATHWAY, Anderson, Inc. dispensed a myriad of automotive chemicals, lighter fluids, oils, kerosene and turpentine from overhead vats. Anderson employees filled canisters of all shapes and sizes, moving on conveyor belts. The plant employed fifty workers to operate the machinery, and package, warehouse, and ship the products to major department and hardware stores in Chicago and across the country. All the workers were black with the exception of Dane’s secretary, a light skinned mulatto of Negro and French ancestry and Diego, a Cuban refugee who worked as the plant janitor.
Anderson, a small but vital firm, fit nicely with City Hall’s plan to foster local job development in Chicago’s neighborhoods. The word “neighborhood” was code. Whites heard “neighborhood” and felt safe. In their lexicon, it meant boundaries that protect and, more importantly, separate and exclude.
Blacks heard “neighborhood” as code for an urban community where institutions, churches and social support organizations made life tolerable for denizens of ghetto housing.
Chicago proudly pointed at the newly constructed housing campuses, dubbed by the critical press as “projects,” as affordable shelter for the indigent who came from the south to work in its factories. It was the educated Negro leaders, perceived by white power brokers as trouble makers, who saw the projects for what they were: segregated islands isolated inconspicuously by insidious inner city planning. Specifically, the isolation came by way of ten-lane expressway barriers, ironically hailed by that same Chicago press as modern marvels.
The aroma, wafting from the bag Dane carried, drew sniffs and longing looks from employees on the lines. The scent was obvious, a sandwich exquisitely prepared by Jimmy & Gina’s Italian Beef and Cuisine. The restaurant take-out joint located under a railroad viaduct a mere block away served mouth watering food. Until recently it had been a favorite with Anderson employees. Jimmy & Gina’s was so close yet so far away ever since “The Watchdogs,” a gang of Italian thugs, claimed the eatery to be exclusively in white territory. Their leader, Dominick, brazenly spray-painted, graffiti-style, the viaduct’s bulwark with the words “Niggers Keep Out.” It was a line in the sand that no Negro dare cross.
Dane climbed a black iron stairway to an office suite built using an actual Pullman train car. It hung from the ceiling in the center of the plant. From windows on either side of the Pullman, with electric blinds that opened in an instant, Dane could track the activity of his plant, warehouse and shipping areas.
Prior to the retirement of Frank Sullivan, a foreman with twenty years of experience, Dane enjoyed the luxury of only having to concentrate on the business of the front office. With the promotion of Clarence Wilson, from a production line operator to foreman, Dane felt compelled to micro-manage the activity of the plant.
Dane interviewed three white candidates before Clarence surprisingly asked if he could apply for the job. Dane felt compelled to grant the request of the lean, fit, thirty-something man with the infectious smile who always got his line to meet the deadlines set by Sullivan, no matter how big the order.
To Dane’s surprise, Sullivan suggested that he give Clarence, a man with three semesters of post-secondary education, a shot at being foreman. Sullivan argued that it would be good for employee morale and might improve Anderson, Inc.’s bottom line. Sullivan, sensing Dane’s reluctance, put it in terms he’d appreciate. Dane could pay Clarence less than a white man and his new protégé would be none the wiser and forever grateful.
So Clarence got his big break, but contrary to Frank’s assertion and Dane’s astonishment, a number of his Negroes expressed indignation at the thought of reporting to one of their own. Frederick and Cedric, two young oil vat installers with kinky Afros, protested to anyone who would listen that Clarence wasn’t up for the job. Melvin, the shipping dock supervisor, who had the wrinkled face of a Shar-Pei, reminded everyone that he had been at Anderson longer than anyone and was righteously pissed that he hadn’t been interviewed.
And he wasn’t the only voice of dissent. Elmer, the 6’5” beanpole forklift driver who had the task of picking up loaded pallets of product from the lines and stacking them on towering warehouse shelves, considered Melvin a mentor. Elmer was afflicted with a bit of a stutter and eyes that crossed. Upon hearing the news of Clarence’s promotion he didn’t hesitate to spit it out that Dane’s choice was a “mis…mis…mis…mistake, a…a…a…bi…bi…big one.” To show his contempt for the decision, Elmer blatantly ignored Clarence’s warnings to stop racing through the factory.
The only allies that the new foreman had were line-operator Faye, a plump matronly woman who attended the same church as Clarence’s family, and Reggie, a long-time friend and senior advocate who had the graying temples and withered face to prove it. Reggie’s loyalty earned him the line operator position vacated by Clarence’s promotion. Line operators made an extra quarter an hour, so the position was highly coveted.
Only Melvin’s job paid more, and most considered the nickel differential hardly worth the hassle that came with warehousing and shipping. Melvin would now have to report to Clarence and that didn’t sit well with a man already steamed for being overlooked.
It was a small plant. The salaries of everyone that worked the floor were common knowledge except for that of the foreman, which had always remained a mystery.
As jealousy reared its ugly head, Clarence’s dictates were often dismissed with curt epithets. Overall production was off. The situation became so dire that Dane, for the first time ever, questioned Sullivan’s sage suggestion and considered replacing Clarence with one of the white candidates he interviewed that had yet to land a job.
Things continued to go bad as Elmer, ignoring Clarence’s admonition to slow down, hit a wall with his forklift. From his perch on high, Dane’s wrath manifested itself as a primal scream that permeated the entire plant.
“FIRE HIM! FIRE THAT IDIOT NOW!”
Elmer’s termination was avoided only by the new foreman’s quick repair of the damage and a promise made by Elmer, marched into Dane’s office by Clarence, that, “it…it…wi…will…nev…nev…never..hap…hap…pen…a…ah…ah…gin…Sor…sor…sor…ry, sir.” Dane took pity on the errant driver who he had no idea was afflicted with an impediment of speech and criss-crossed eyes. The reprieve won Clarence newfound respect, loyalty, and conversion of the unbelievers, including Dane. Production gradually returned to Sullivan levels and the decision to make Clarence foreman proved to be wise counsel after all.
As the months passed, the new foreman continued to surprise Dane. Clarence presented a plan he was sure would enrich the bottom line by improving employee morale.
When Dane laughed at the notion, Clarence presented evidence from a recent work-time-study he discovered at the library. The research confirmed that “employee productivity is intrinsically linked to employee morale.” Dane was impressed that his new protégé had embraced the foreman position with zeal. Here was a man passionate about making a difference.
Dane agreed to Clarence’s plan, provided it did not cost Anderson Inc. a dime and ultimately improved profitability. Clarence unveiled each new detail of his vision on a series of successive Mondays hoping to instill excitement on a day dreaded by working men and women.
Clarence encouraged employees to participate in a weekly potluck lunch of homemade dishes and recipes. Attendance was minimal at first but, in time, participation improved and conviviality between employees of different departments flourished. Even the bachelors had recipes for potato chip dips that they considered worthy of sharing. While staff shared their dishes amongst each other, Clarence listened to employee proposals on how to improve production and create a better workplace. Frank Sullivan never welcomed that kind of input. Not all of the tips were executed, but Anderson employees felt invested.
Based on tips tendered, Clarence changed the start and end times for various shifts and positions. Initially some were reluctant to accept the changes, but as the tinkering came from their peers rather than a boss, employees were more willing to give it a go. As it became apparent that the modifications improved productivity, opposition melted. A result of the potluck exchange had the shipping department start their day later than the rest of the plant.
Prior to such changes, shipping had an extended and non-productive morning with an afternoon filled with undue stress as they rushed to get everything packed onto transport. The later morning start provided freight carriers with a traffic flow pattern that was less congested. The atmosphere in shipping improved and so did the service of removing pallets of filled fluid containers stacked at the end of a line, which when not addressed, became an impediment to the line’s productivity.
Two of the four vat operators came in a half hour earlier while the other two came in a half hour later from the general start time of 8:00 a.m. In this way, the six lines were ready to go at the moment employees walked in, rather than making employees wait for their fill-up tanks to be serviced. The vat operators who came in later, stayed later, ensuring the cleanup of all the vats, thus making the fill-up in the morning smoother. The shift changes made Clarence the first on site and sometimes the last to leave and everyone noticed, including Dane.
Clarence convinced Dane that the company’s two annual temporary summer jobs should be made available to children related to employees, providing the applicants were at least 16- years-old, able to get a work permit and willing to do the work. The winning teenagers would be drawn from a raffle open to employees with sons, daughters, nephews and nieces who met the required conditions. This was a major hit with Anderson employees whether they had kids or not because it shined hope and opportunity. The drawing was set to take place in late May on the six-month anniversary of Clarence as foreman, with work to begin in early June for the lucky winners.
Clarence read anything and everything about work flow and found from that study that music could actually energize workers for peak performance. Dane was skeptical but allowed Clarence, with Reggie’s help, to wire a turntable into the factory PA system. From his desk, which sat on a raised platform in the front of the factory, Clarence played DJ, spinning jazz, blues and R&B tunes created by artists whose work came to be known as the Chicago Blues Sound. The music vibe helped make the day go faster and productivity continued to increase allowing Dane the assurance that more sales orders could be fulfilled even if that required some overtime, giving employees a chance to make more money, thus paying off for everybody including Anderson, Inc.
Previously the workers only had an unpaid half-hour lunch break but that schedule changed to include two paid fifteen-minute coffee breaks. This was a refreshing change since the tedious rote quality of the work demanded breaks for man and machine, thus ensuring personnel safety and extending the life of the motors on each line. The employees appreciated the additional breaks and the fact that they were paid now 8.5 hours per day rather than just 8 or 42.5 hours per week with the 2.5 hours at an overtime rate. For the workers at Anderson, the additional sorely needed dollars and the promise of overtime compensation energized the ranks. Without expressing it, Dane was pleasantly surprised by the increased output of his factory, since he had always considered his Negroes a bit lazy.
As sales orders increased, Clarence requested from Dane an additional four hours of production to meet the new demands. A survey regarding when the additional hours should be scheduled was taken at a potluck lunch. The overtime was designated for Tuesdays and Thursdays with days starting at 8 a.m. and finishing at 7 p.m.
Things were going Clarence’s way, or so he thought, until his world and that of John Beriso’s collided on April 4, 1968. On that day, U.S. cities exploded with the onset of racially charged riots that ravaged America’s neighborhoods–including that of Anderson, Inc.
* * * * * * * * *
A bell by a red phone on the watch table jingled, activating an alarm that called the men of Truck 13 to action.
From portraits hung high on a wall, the eyes of the president, the governor and the mayor appeared to gaze upon first responders scurrying to put on their gear as they jumped onto Truck 13, a hook and ladder, and Engine 26, a shiny red pumper.
In the kitchen, Chief John Beriso, a tall beefy built man of 45, untied his white apron and flung it on a chair next to a table full of half-finished ravioli. The chief utilized his culinary talent to entertain family, friends and woo the men of Truck 13.
The Irish-American brigade initially bucked the thought of having an Italian as their boss until they tasted his food.
Beriso was one of a handful of firemen without an Irish surname who had captured the brass ring of battalion chief. He had done so at the relatively young age of 35. Beriso’s battalion of ten firehouses with a contingency of 150 men had the hefty responsibility of protecting Chicago’s oldest factories tied to families of distinction. There were rumors that Blackie, a moniker for Beriso, not only had the backing of powerful Alderman Danny Kells, Chicago’s Deputy Mayor, but also the patronage of his godfather, Alfonso Romano, an operative who enjoyed cache with the powerful, be they politicians or mobsters.
At Truck 13, the chief’s house, there was an implicit mandate that everyone had to take a turn cooking. With Blackie in the house, and the challenge of pleasing the finicky taste buds of fire fighters, those who didn’t know how to prepare a meal were more than willing to take tips from a chief who cooked like a chef. Beriso had learned the art of cooking at the hands of his mother, Rose, who upon her arrival in America found employment in the kitchen of one of Chicago’s finest Italian restaurants, Gene & Georgetti’s, at the corner of Wells Street and Illinois, under Chicago’s beloved if not noisy L, short for elevated train.
As an officer, Beriso need never cook again but he enjoyed making dinner at least once a month for his own house and that of another house in the district. Breaking bread was a way to garner esteem, foster morale and solicit ideas on how to deal with harms way that his men faced day in and day out. Within his first year as a battalion chief, Beriso had shared his culinary skills with every house in his battalion. The suppers paid off. His heritage became a non-issue with men who developed a bond with a no-nonsense commander they respected yet feared, willing to die in battle, rather than curry his disfavor. The chief repeated a phrase that became a mantra for his fighting Irish. “From the Greeks comes the word professional; a humanitarian that helps others. Be proud! That’s what we do, that’s who we are.”
And if you didn’t like the chief that was okay, providing you never questioned his judgment while fighting the beast and, subsequently, the backdraft that harkens in the belly of every inferno. The men trusted their chief to ensure their safety above the demands of brass. Beriso’s record as an officer, be it as an engineer, a lieutenant, a captain and now as a chief was impeccable; not a man, in his charge, had ever been lost when he was on the scene. As a manager, Beriso treated men that made an honest mistake with constructive criticism that at times stung. The explosive temper only reared its head for those that violated policy. Even then punishment was fair and swift.
As the alarm blared and the trucks roared, Beriso slid into the shotgun seat of his official car marked “Chief of the 5th Battalion.” Charlie McGann, a carrot-topped 50-year-old Irish-Catholic with a touch of brogue served officially as the chief’s “wheel man” and unofficially as his trusted confidant. McGann flipped on the bubble, activated the siren and lead the battery of fire apparatus onto the street, racing to a blaze.
The radio squawked.
“Base to Battalion Five.”
Beriso grabbed the radio microphone.
“Five to Base.”
“Chief, you will have an escort. National Guard troops.”
Beriso looked puzzled. He turned to Charlie who shrugged as he pressed the button to respond.
“What’s up? I’ve been in the kitchen.”
“Martin Luther Coon, King, was shot. You guys didn’t have the TV or the radio on in the kitchen?”
The Chief shook his head before depressing the switch. He didn’t want to admit once again that he was out of touch with the world when he cooked.
“10-4 base. Thanks for the escort.”
“Don’t thank me. Thank Mayor Daley. He’s ordered a ‘shoot to kill for looters.’ Just be careful out there.”
* * * * * * * * *
The red strobe lights showered reflections off the wet jet-black pavement on which two fire trucks sat at an angle to each other. Flames spewed from a building, revealing silhouettes of unmanned fire fighting equipment. Hoses attached to the pumper, known as “lines” in the trade, lay limp on the street.
A puddle mirrored the arrival of a red chief’s car labeled 5th Battalion. Out of the car stepped big John Beriso. He looked quizzically at the limp hoses and snapped, “Why the hell aren’t these lines pumping water? Where the fuck is everybody?”
A fireman crawled out from under one of the trucks, grabbed the chief and pulled him to the ground as gun shots rang out. “Chief, get down!”
Under the truck, Beriso discovered all the other fireman seeking shelter from a rain of death by fire, not the kind of fire they were prepared to combat. That other kind of fire had always been reserved for “THE MAN” but never for the FIREMAN, who was always, until today, EVERY man’s best friend.
Charlie McGann momentarily froze as a bullet shattered the rooftop bubble light on the car. McGann spun out, pulling away as fast as his Chevy engine could whisk him out of range.
Upon McGann’s exit, National Guard troops pulled up in two jeeps, jumped out and returned fire. One of the bullets met its mark, spraying a black face red. The others on the roof worked as a team to cover two black men who immediately jumped to drag their wounded comrade away from the line of fire. The insurgents retreated.
A National Guardsman dashed under the trucks. “Who’s in charge?”
To his left, the guardsman heard, “I am.”
The guardsman turned and acknowledged Beriso. “We’re trying to clear them out, sir! But if we can’t, just let it burn. Damn niggers!”
The chief reiterated the command, “That’s it. Let it burn! We’ve got another call. Guardsman, we could use an escort. What do you say, Sarge?”
The guardsman laughed. “I’m a corporal but I’m the only one above private so…” The corporal saluted, noting Beriso’s rank. “You got it, Chief.”
The chief jumped into the cab of one of the trucks.
A fire fighter would have to ride standing up in the back. The Guard plastered the roofline with a volley of lead as the trucks pulled out.
The chief picked up the radio and called McGann.
“Charlie, you okay? We’re headed to 2200 West Polk Street.”
The squawk box crackled with McGann’s voice.
“That’s one of ours, right, Chief?”
“Yeah, Red. They’ve lit the factory zone of the 5th.”
Industry on West Polk Street where Anderson, Inc. resided was under siege as rioters moved into the district, lobbing one Molotov cocktail after another at the buildings. Anderson, Inc. was in jeopardy as the rioters targeted the northern plantations of rich white-owned factories.
* * * * * * * * * *
As the beer bottle smashed a window at the top of the bi-fold doors of Anderson, Inc., an incendiary mixture of gasoline and spark erupted into an explosive fireball that ignited both the interior and exterior sides of the entrance. A collective gasp erupted from the workers of Anderson, not knowing whether to run or fight. If the fire spread to the chemical vats hanging above the six production lines, Anderson would explode and become a raging inferno fueled by petrochemicals.
Clarence yelled over the PA mic, “Shut it down, now!”
The various operators immediately hit emergency cut off switches that brought the factory to a standstill. Dane, oblivious to the angry crowds out on the street, raised his window from his perch on high. “Why are we shutting down on an overtime Thursday? What’s going on Clarence?”
Clarence, Reggie and Elmer ignored the questions as they grabbed extinguishers from cases strapped to pillars. Reggie and Elmer sprayed the inside of the doors as Clarence stepped outside to combat the fire of an unruly mob, cheering as the front of Anderson burned.
The rioters, some with torches in their hands, illuminated the dark blue skies turning black with night. Clarence was the butt of catcalls and ethnic excrement. ”Working for the man? Ya porch nigger!”
Another called out, “Yeah, you the Uncle-Tom of this place!”
The epithets continued to rain, “Master must love you! Did he fuck your mama?”
Clarence snuffed out the flames licking the front door, unmoved by the rhetoric of the mob, when he noticed a rioter about to light the wick of another Molotov cocktail. “Want to eat that?” Clarence asked.
The rioter scowled back. “What you talkin’, porch monkey?”
Clarence pointed the extinguisher nozzle at the angry man’s face. “You’re barking up the wrong tree!”
Clarence continued to hold the man at bay, suddenly fearful that he might have to spray him. Without moving the nozzle, Clarence rotated his head to face the rest of the crowd. This place is run and operated by colored, just like you, who need to keep their jobs.”
“That’s bullshit,” yelled a tall black with a huge Afro and a face filled with scars from a life in the ghetto.
“We know Anderson ain’t no black man even if you’re his nigger. He should pay for King’s blood.”
Clarence looked amazed and a bit stunned.
Afro shouted for all to hear, “You in the dark, darkie? They done killed King.” He looked back at the mob. “He don’t know. The fool don’t know what’s happened. Are they all in the dark? Dr. Martin Luther King was shot down like a dog by Whitey. Don’t you have a radio in there?”
Sirens echoed and red light effervescently flashed from the darkness of the viaduct just to the south of the factory. The jeeps rolled out first with a guardsman standing in each of the vehicles, rifles raised to the sky. The fire trucks followed with the 5th Battalion Chief’s car in the rear. A pothole jarred one of the jeeps and a shot discharged.
The mob scattered. Anderson’s employees ran back into the plant seeking cover. A Molotov cocktail sailed through the open doorway striking a pallet of cartons containing cans ready to be filled with fluids. A fireball erupted and the blaze quickly spread to Clarence’s platform. Reggie and Elmer sprayed fire retardant only to find their extinguishers quickly emptied. “Shit! They’re dry!” yelled Reggie. The blaze quickly spread.
Clarence couldn’t find the extinguisher he dropped. He rushed down the front apron, into the street, waving his arms as he forced the fire trucks to slam on their brakes. ”Stop, stop!”
A guardsman jumped from his jeep and clubbed Clarence with a baton. Clarence dropped to the ground, moaning as he held his bleeding head.
Chief Beriso bolted from the lead truck. “Forget ’em down the street. It’s lost. Let’s try and save this one.” The chief looked up and saw the sign: “Anderson.”
Clarence looked up to see the man standing over him barking out commands as his men quickly scurried to hook up a hose line from the engine pumper to a hydrant. The chief continued to bark. “Move it! Hose any nigger that gets in the way!”
Clarence’s eyes locked onto the cold face of an angry, stressed Beriso. The gunfire had taken its toll.
Anderson employees, shocked by the news and the bizarre events unfolding in front of them, were slow to scatter as a jet blast from a water canon doused the pallet of burning cartons. Soaked employees socked onto their asses evoked cackling from some of the firemen. Another blast pummeled Clarence’s desk, tossing clipboards, papers and the record player to the floor. Within seconds the threat disappeared, as did the flames.
“Shut it down and pack it in!” barked Beriso. “Take it down the street. Contain ’em so the embers don’t ignite something on the other side. Charlie will bring me down.”
McGann drove the chief’s car up onto the sidewalk as he coasted onto the apron of the plant. Dane bolted from his office to the floor, inspecting the damage and checking on employees drenching wet. He stopped when Beriso approached. “What the hell’s going on, Captain?”
“You mean Chief, don’t you? Saving this plant! Who the hell are you?”
“Dane Anderson, the owner. Look, I appreciate all you guys do but what do your men find so funny?”
The chief cut Dane off. “We’re done here. But I’ll be back, Anderson. You’ve got violations, loads of ’em, and I don’t need to answer to you. Not today.”
* * * * * * * * * *
A month later the acrid smell of smoke continued to infuse the block of Anderson, Inc; it was the only factory still standing and operational on Polk Street.
The smell of petroleum and the buzz of machinery from six production lines greeted Beriso as he entered Anderson, Inc. Operators pulled down and pushed up vats with spouts that pumped lighter fluid into cans of various sizes and labels that moved along a conveyor belt. Two employees on the crew at the end of the line finished off the process as one capped cans while the other stored them into boxes piled on a pallet.
Elmer, the forklift operator, ceased lifting a pallet when he caught the scent of the white bag. He turned to see the chief walking toward the stairs leading to Dane’s overhead office. With a whistle he caught the eye of Clarence and Melvyn, looking over plans to revamp the warehouse layout. With a nod he got both men to follow Beriso’s movement. Before climbing the black iron stairway, the three of them noticed the chief stop to read an employee bulletin board.
“Clarence, do I smell beefs?” questioned Melvyn.
Clarence cocked his head back with his nose high in the air.
“Your sniffer is better than mine but yeah, it’s beefs and the white bag fits. They’re from Jimmy and Gina’s.”
“And what’s with whitey’s interest in our bulletin board?”
“Who knows, Melvyn. You remember what’s on it?”
“Nothing much. Just some safety-first notices and the announcement about the upcoming raffle for the two summer jobs.”
The chief turned from the board with a smile on his face and headed quickly up the black iron stairway to Dane’s executive suite.
“Hmm. Maybe we’ll find out, maybe we won’t.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Beriso reached Dane’s outer office, where Lucille, a stylishly dressed, 20-year-old mulatto sat typing. The big man in uniform startled her and it showed as one of her hands slipped off the keyboard, causing her to make a mistake.
“Dammit, I’ll have to start over.”
The chief stared, waiting to be recognized.
“May I help you?”
“Yeah, is your boss in?”
“Who may I say is calling?”
“I’ll tell him for you.” And with that, the chief walked through the door to the surprise and irritation of Dane, engaged in a phone conversation. He gave Beriso a slight nod, raised his right hand and with a wave bid the chief to sit in one of two chairs before his cluttered, dark oak desk.
Dane concluded his conversation and hung up the phone. He stood with a smile as he greeted the chief with a strong, firm handshake.
The chief returned the gesture.
“So, Chief, what brings you by?”
The chief grabbed a beef from the bag and handed it to Dane.
“It’s not escargot, but the beef will more than do for lunch. I understand you’re one of Jimmy and Gina’s best customers.”
Dane laughed, rubbing his belly.
“That’s an understatement. I love these. Thanks.”
“So, what can I do for you, Chief? Is there a fireman’s ball or something like that coming up?”
“Nah, we don’t do those. That’s strictly a cop thing.”
The chief ripped off a bite from his Italian beef. Dane followed suit.
“Well, this is my district,” the chief explained, “and I do make it a point to know when fire inspectors from downtown invade my territory.”
“So, you know about the 12 violations?”
The chief nodded as he chewed.
“12 violations…typical for a place like this, huh, Chief?”
“Yeah, but you’ve got a problem my friend,” Beriso replied.
Dane dug through a pile of papers on his desk. He found what he was looking for and held it up in his right hand, scrutinizing the document.
“Seven days?” he said, reading a due date. “Hell, I don’t know if I can get all these infractions fixed in that time frame.” He looked up at the chief a bit miffed. “And what’s with the $100 fine for every day of noncompliance?”
The chief nodded. “Ever since the Our Lady of Angels fire, the city is overly cautious with public buildings.”
The Our Lady of Angels parochial school fire claimed the lives of 92 children and three nuns on December 1, 1958. It received national attention, sullied Chicago’s reputation, and perpetuated the myth that the city that burned to the ground in 1871 was still an unsafe metropolis when it came to fire. Chicago’s Mayor Richard M. Daley, the political boss of Illinois, hated the press headlines and vowed that fire inspection and protection would not be compromised by graft, ineptitude or ignorance of the statutes.
Chief Beriso finished off his Coke and placed it squarely on the front of Dane’s desk, with a bit of a bang. “100 bucks a day is a bit steep, but lucky for you, I can buy you some time.”
“Oh, so you’re here to rescue me, Chief?
Dane slammed his Coke bottle down on his side of the desk. “I know what this is and I don’t like shakedowns, Chief.”
Beriso sneered. “I’m insulted, Dane. I’ve never taken a bribe in my life. I just figured in this case we could help each other.”
The taut lines in Dane’s face and the veins in his neck relaxed. “Okay, I’m listening. How can I help you?”
“My boys, Vince and Joe, need summer jobs to help cover college expenses. But with the recession and the riots destroying Caputo’s, the fruit and vegetable market where the boys have worked previously during their summer vacations…well…jobs are tight. That’s where you come in.”
“What’s in it for me?”
“I can buy you thirty days without the fear of fines.”
Dane’s eyes lit up. “Now we’re talking.”
“But, you still have to fix everything, Dane, and I mean everything.”
“With your support and direction?”
The chief removed his hat and wiped his brow. “Yeah, sure. So are we good?”
Dane put his hand to his chin and began to stroke it. “I’ve got a minor problem. We just instituted a raffle that will pick two kids from my employees via a drawing for summer work, the quarter when we’re the busiest. It’s a crowd pleaser, you know, employee morale and it brings us favor with Mayor Daley’s summer youth jobs program. How about we make it one job. That way I’ll be able to keep the peace.”
“But you haven’t had the drawing yet, right?”
Dane nodded his head slightly as if to ask, “How the hell do you know?”
“No,” Dane said, swigging a bit of Coke as he spoke. “We haven’t had the drawing yet.”
“Well, then, we don’t have a problem, do we? You’re the owner, so who you hire is your business, right?” The chief smiled. Since you’re hiring two teenagers, you’ll still be a hit with the mayor’s summer jobs program, right?”
Dane finished off the last morsel of sandwich. He crunched the wrapper into a ball and threw it into the basket. “Okay, Chief, you got me at a disadvantage. Anderson’s got to be in line or we lose a chance at that new business I just scored with Marshall Field’s, not to mention having to lay employees off if we’re shut down.”
Dane nodded his head towards the windows revealing the activities of his workers. “To you, they may be just a bunch of niggers but they got families too. That’s what it’s all about right, helping our families? You can empathize with that, yes?”
The chief ingested the last morsel of his beef. “Delicious, yeah?” He refrained from looking at Dane, concentrating instead on discarding the wrapper into the white bag he had brought from Gina’s. His silence indicated that Dane would have to give him both jobs.
Dane sighed, “Okay, I’ll set it up for your boys this summer but don’t come knocking again. On June 1st have them report to Clarence, my foreman. He’ll have to run interference for them.”
“Interference? Why?” asked Beriso.
“Interference from employees who will be angry that I hired two white kids, brothers no less, not giving even one of their kids a shot at a summer job even though we made an announcement encouraging them to have their young submit applications.”
The chief shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He knew he’d crossed a line.
“But you don’t have a problem with that, do you?” asked Dane.
The chief nodded “no” but he couldn’t help but notice a wry smile on Dane’s face as he stood to leave. Like it or not, his boys would have to suck it up in a hostile setting. Dad had done the best he could do in the very rough year of 1968.
Bill Natale can be reached at email@example.com
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