Maurice Olshansky – The Maxwell Street Entrepreneur
“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work and learning from failure.” General Colin Powell
I spent my childhood playing in the Casbah. No, not the one in the movie Casablanca where the actors Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman hung out, but the one in Chicago, Illinois: Maxwell Street. My Casbah was a business community straight out of the Arabian Nights with stores, stands, pushcarts, wagons and boxes, all jumbled together on the west side of the city.
Within its boundaries you could buy almost anything you wanted or needed from people with accents originating all over the world. They often brought their native dress and scents with them, blending and creating exotic sights and aromas, enticing one into the bosom of the market.
On weekends huge crowds gathered, and I could barely squeeze through the mass of vendors and customers. Excitement mounted that I haven’t experienced anywhere else in the world. The Grand Bazaar in Turkey, the famous markets in Egypt, Mexico, and the one I love in the Old City of Jerusalem, couldn’t compare with the diversity, color, odor or visual delights of Maxwell Street.
Maxwell Street 1930s
My father, Maurice Olshansky, the immigrant was drawn to this area because here he found other “Greenhorns” with whom he felt comfortable. This was a place where he could adjust to the unfriendly atmosphere of the hurried big city. Herehe discovered the streets were not paved with gold, but he could make a living and support his family.
Lucky for me, Maxwell Street was where I spent most of my preschool years and as I grew older, my weekends and time after school. I was born in 1932, and from then on, I learned about life under the Maurice Sporting Goods sign at 810 West Maxwell Street. My father’s store, my home away from home, my cave of comfort.
I laugh out loud when I think about my father having a sporting goods store. I’m sure when he arrived in this country in 1922 he had never seen a baseball bat, a football, a tennis racket or a basketball. Yet, those were the things he sold in his store.
He got into the business in a roundabout way. My mother, like most Eastern European women, learned to knit, crochet and sew as a young girl. Being an excellent seamstress, she made uniforms for the local school bands and orchestras, while my father sold musical instruments to them.
The school athletic departments liked the uniforms my mother made and ordered some for their teams. Naturally my father, a budding entrepreneur, took advantage of the situation and began to sell equipment to the various athletic teams. It wasn’t long before my dad was selling more sports equipment than musical instruments. And so his store evolved into Maurice Sporting Goods.
For me, it meant I had the most beautiful white-laced high-boot ice skates and roller skates in my entire world, which in those days wasn’t very vast.
When he first came to the US, my father worked in a pickle factory. Had he stayed there, I would have been heir to unlimited spicy dill pickles. I liked the skates more, more than having all the pickles I wanted. The pickle factory was where he made the money to open his own store. “I never rode the streetcar,” he confided in me. “I saved pennies and walked to work every day, rain or shine, even in the blowing winds of Chicago winters.”
He confessed to one luxury: “The two chocolate custard éclairs I bought once a week, two for a nickel. They were so delicious. I never ate anything like them in Europe.”
After years of saving pennies, in 1923 he opened his own store. It was a windowless room approximately 20 feet wide by25 feet deep with a potbellied heater in the center and a tiny bathroom.
In the store I helped fold and sort merchandise and open boxes. I learned to count, add and subtract in English, Yiddish and Russian. I also ventured out on Maxwell Street to meet the unique people who would shape my life.
Every morning, Ray Bloom anxiously awaited the arrival of my father, his mentor. Like a guard he stood at the front door, his black eyes darting in every direction, framed by thick eyebrows wet from snow in the winter and from perspiration in the summer.
When and where Ray came from I have no idea, but he was part of my life from my earliest memories. I don’t even know the origin of his relationship with my father. I have a sense that Ray, like a squatter, just wandered into the store one day. My father sent a kind wave his way, and Ray put his merchandise down and stayed.
Ray was there because he sold pants. In this store, crowded with all types of merchandise, Ray was allotted a section on top of one of the showcases to display his pants. He spent his time endlessly counting his wares. If I looked over to the corner of the store, I could see his mass of unruly wavy directionless hair. His hunched-back body, covered in his all-season black wool coat, was always bent over his pants. At any given moment he knew exactly how many pairs of pants he had. The rest of the time he spent hours talking to himself, his soft voice like elevator music humming in the background of our busy day.
At midday he would pull out his brown herring-stained bag and begin offering everyone, particularly me, its contents.
“So maidele, little girl, would you like some herring?” On my menu, herring didn’t make the list.
But Ray was insistent in plying me with food. “How about some bread?” Before I could answer he was on to seltzer or a glessela, glass of tea. He never caught on that I didn’t like the same food he liked.
After offering to share his lunch, he would come out from behind the counter and walk to the pot-bellied black heater in the middle of the room. He circled the stove, sniffing, his nose too close to whatever my mother was warming for lunch.
My mother, who lived each day as if the Great Depression of 1929 was an ongoing event, would bring her leftover brisket, potato knishes or whatever and warm them on the black pot-bellied heater in the middle of the room. She would place her white chipped porcelain pans on the small ledge surrounding the vent, careful to keep them from sliding down the rounded edges.
She never realized what a poor cook she was, so heated or unheated, her overcooked food tasted awful. The smell of black ashes would seep into my nostrils, tickling the inside of my nose. Only when someone opened the front door could the odor of burnt food escape.
As Ray circled the stove, inspecting the food, his voice would begin to rise above the whisper he used for counting his pants. Looking at the daily selection, he would comment aloud about what he liked and what he did not like. Generally he preferred Eastern European food; borscht, kishkee, gademnt, an overcooked meat dish; nothing too American, like hamburgers or hot dogs. If he saw something he really liked warming on the stove he would ask himself, “I can eat some of this food?”
Of course, whoever was in the store could hear his conversation with himself, and usually my mother would offer him some of her leftovers. He would quickly grab the food and like a squirrel, run back to his position behind the counter to eat.
When he finished eating, the hum of his voice counting his pants would fill the air again. Listening to Ray counting may be how I learned to count, in Yiddish and Russian.
If the weather were more temperate, Ray would pile his pants on the stand in front of the store. That was my signal to do my gymnastics. I would bounce up and down on his piles of arranged pants, as he stood by his arms outstretched, protecting me so I wouldn’t fall off the platform. His eyes were glued to me as if I were a fragile vase that could easily fall from the pants and shatter into a million pieces.
At the same time he kept up a steady stream of conversation with himself in Russian and Yiddish, sprinkled with a dab of English. Sometimes he would direct some of his conversation to me, “Faigala, Fay, it’s cold, come my kind, child, let me button your sweater.”
Late in the afternoon he would announce it was time for him to go home. I would help him bring his merchandise inside, and he would insist I stay in the store because it was getting dark. Only after he was assured that I would remain inside with my parents, and he had patted my back affectionately, would he shuffle out the door to go home.
As quiet and soft spoken as Ray was, every once in a while, like a shot of lightning, he would become extremely agitated, and start shouting, “The bum, the bum is here!” His eyes would grow wide; his whole body would twitch violently while he wrapped his arms around his head to protect himself from the bum. Everyone present directed his or her attention toward Ray, as if a spotlight had been focused on him. There was nothing that precipitated his outburst, it just came out of nowhere, but it came fast and furiously.
Screaming louder and louder he would shout, “Oy, oy! The bum is here!” his voice desperately pleading for protection, “The bum–the bum!” He would run and hide behind the counter warning us, “Be careful of the bum. Hide! Hide!” He would crouch way down, his hands protecting his head, as if he were expecting to be beaten.
My pudgy, bald father, who looked more like a pumpkin than a rescue hero, would immediately rush to Ray’s side, patting his back and in a quiet voice assure him it would be all right and he was safe. “Allis vet zon geet, everything will be okay. I’ll protect you.”
After a while Ray would calm down, stop screaming, and go back to counting his pants. Everyone would go back to whatever they had been doing before his outburst.
I never saw the bum and never thought to ask my father or mother if they saw him.
The only disparaging remark I ever heard them say about Ray was when they called him the meshugina, the crazy person. They never said it in anger or in front of him, so I took the comment as a description of Ray’s eccentricities. After all, this man looked like Rasputin, acted like a nut, had the soul of an angel and was wonderful to me.
What could possibly have happened to Ray in his lifetime that caused him such trauma? This kind, soft-spoken man as gentle as a summer rain, suffered so deeply. If pain had been inflicted upon him, he certainly had turned the other cheek. I never saw Ray ever, ever act in a cruel way to another human being.
As an adult, when I think about Ray, I wonder if he ever had a family, a wife and children? Where was he born and how did he get to the United States? Did he too escape like my father? Fleeing in the dead of night from Russia to evade being conscripted into the army? I remember my father mentioning that Ray had some relatives who occasionally stopped by the store and asked how he was doing, but basically my father was Ray’s caretaker. In return Ray was a devoted son, although he was probably twenty years older than Maurice.
Years later as an adult social worker, I realized that Ray was a paranoid schizophrenic and that my father taught me my first social work techniques: When you are with an agitated person, speak softly, slowly and with a soothing voice.
Where did my father learn these behaviors? Was he innately a kind, gentle person, who naturally soothed others? As his daughter I can attest to the loving, warm person he was. Being loved by my father meant being unconditionally accepted. I could accidentally break a dish from my parents’ best dinnerware, lose my winter coat, walk in the rain and ruin my shoes, and my father would pat my head, rub my back and tell me, “Not to worry, allis vet zon geet.” As I watched my father care for Ray and Ray in turn care for me, I believe I learned how to care for others.
On rainy days, rather than be confined to the store where the only private place was the tiny bathroom, with barely enough room for the toilet and a sink, I had a favorite destination. I would walk to the building next door and climb the three flights of stairs to visit Davey, a pudgy, crooked-faced, ex-prize fighter and his twenty or more dogs.
The tough environment of the area produced a number of pugilists. Jackie Fields, whose father had a kosher butcher shop on Maxwell Street, became an Olympic champion and later held the world’s welterweight boxing title. Barney Ross, whose parents had a small grocery store on nearby Jefferson Street, became the lightweight and welterweight boxing champion of the world and later a hero in Guadalcanal. Kingfish Levinsky, whose family had a fresh fish stand at Maxwell and Halsted Streets, was a top heavyweight contender, fighting a number of world champions. To my knowledge, Davey wasn’t a recognized hero or a champion.
As I flip-flopped up the dark stairs covered with wisps of dust balls to visit him, I would call out in a sing-song tune, “Davey,” but the way I sang it, it came out “DAAAvey, it’s me, DAAAvey, it’s me.”
“Me who?” he echoed in the same sing-tong tune. I would start giggling, “DAAAvey, it’s me,” I would call back through my laughter. “Me who?” he would sing out to me again.
By the time I reached the third-floor attic where Davey lived, I was doubled over from laughing and enveloped by the odor of his dog- infested home. I was five years old when I first started visiting him alone. Considering I was only a few years out of diapers myself when the visits began, the foul smell was not unfamiliar. From his fighting days Davey had received so many blows to the head that we were probably mentally on the same wavelength.
I could see his scalp through his thinning light brown hair, and loose flesh fell from his arms and face, but Davey was probably only in his early forties.
When I reached Davey’s attic home, I would proudly present him with the package my parents had given me to bring to him. He would grab it and rush to plop his plump body down on the edge of his uncovered soiled mattress. He would put the bag on an old, peeling, all-purpose table next to the bed. I would sit near him in the only chair in the room, a spindle-back with all the spindles missing, my legs dangling, not yet able to reach the floor.
Davey’s decorating belonged to the minimalist school. The bed, the worn table and the chair were the only pieces of furniture in the room. A few exposed light bulbs and a small window at the back of the large attic space weren’t enough to keep the place from being dark and dingy.
Slowly Davey would open the package I had brought him, expressing such glee, you would think he had just won the lottery! “A brisket sandwich, oh how wonderful! And some of your mother’s homemade mandel broit, a cookie. Boy, oh boy, am I lucky,” he would announce.
Davey’s favorite food was jelly-filled sweet rolls–those brown sugar-coated delights. He would bite into them with such pleasure the jelly would spill out over his mouth, often dripping on his rumpled, dirty shirt.
“Davey looks like a clown,” I would tell him. In response to that he would curl his jelly-covered lips in funny ways to entertain me. All the while he was jerking his head to the side involuntarily, as if he were avoiding a punch to the jaw of his already misshapen face. He would continue to eat while I played with the dogs, careful not to step in their piles of feces. When he finished eating we would both play with the dogs. Throwing a ball into the room, we would wait to see which dog got to it first. Then I would guess the dog’s name. “Spot, Spot got it,” I would guess.
“No, sorry, you’re wrong,” Davey would respond sadly.
Even if it really was Spot, Davey would quickly tell me it was a different dog. Before long he would get mixed up and we were roaring with laughter. Laughter was how Davey and I related.
When my feet could touch the floor as I sat on the spindle-free chair, I drifted away from Davey, and our laughter became less hearty. Yet some of the funniest, tender memories I have are of my rainy days with Davey.
On warm summer days, I would escape the heat of my father’s store and wander out to explore Maxwell Street. The smell of corned beef, salami, steamed hot dogs, bread and cookies, and sausages on open grills permeated the air. There were cooks of every nationality and race in their white, food-stained aprons, all barking, “Get it here!”
Across the alley and half a block away at the corner of Maxwell and Halsted Street, stood my favorite outdoor hot dog stand. In a heavily accented English- Hungarian voice, the owner of the hot dog stand always greeted me the same way, “How’s Dablonda today?”
He told me, “You can have hideg, cold lemonade, and meleg, hot French fries, because they match your hair.” My hair was yellow and straight and that’s why he called me Dablonda.
“Hello, Mr. Hot Dog Man,” I greeted him, which made him laugh. I don’t think I ever knew his real name.
I had to walk around to the side of his hot dog stand to hand him the fistful of money my parents gave me. I couldn’t see over the front, it was too high. In turn he gave me a paper cup of sugar-sweetened lemonade and a little brown oil-stained bag full of savory, salty, fried potatoes.
When I peeked into my brown bag with wide-eyed anticipation, he would announce, “No red hots for you. They aren’t kosher.”
He knew my parents didn’t allow me to eat traife, non-kosher food. I assumed that hot dogs, being red, had something to do with a color called non-kosher, that I couldn’t have. At five years old that made perfect sense to me.
Sometimes I liked to sit on the stand in front of my father’s store and just watch the people walk by. I pretended that the gypsy women in their dresses of rusty red satin and grasshopper green pieces of fabric were princesses from another country. I imagined the men in torn shirts and tattered pants had just jumped off railroad cars. Those wearing spiffy suits and ties I was sure were presidents of the local banks.
Eyes peering out from black clerical frocks often frightened me.
Then there were days when I just counted the different hats I saw. There were baseball caps, sunbonnets, fedoras, skullcaps, berets, Irish caps and scarves. It was truly a United Nations of head coverings.
When I tired of that, I would slip across the alley to see my friend, Feter Hans, Uncle Hans. He wore a funny magnifying glass in his eye while he worked steadily, fixing what he called der zeiger, the watches, with his tiny precise fingers.
Feter Hans was a dwarf, and I was just as tall as he was when I was five years old, but of course he was an old man with thinning grey hair and a wrinkled, smiling face.
“What time is it?” I would call out as I entered his narrow shop, filled with watches and clocks that covered every inch of the walls and counters.
“Who vants to know?” he would ask, looking down from where he sat on a high stool.
Before I could answer, he would reach down with his muscular short arms, lift me up and prop me on the stool next to him. While I sat there he would show me his tools and teach me how to repair some of the things he fixed.
“Vos, Vos, what, what?’ was his mantra as I fumbled with his tools. I wasn’t very good at fixing clocks, but he was patient and loving, so I enjoyed the time I spent with him.
In his creaky old voice he sang German songs to me. I got to know them and together we would sing, off pitch, swaying from side to side, careful not to fall from our high stools.
The songs sounded similar to the melodies my grandparents sang to me in Yiddish. I still remember some of them.
Wuft Ich Doch Den Weg Zuriick
(O Could I But Find the Way Back) Owuft ich doch den Weg zurick
(O could I but find the way back) Den lichen Weg zum Kinderkand (the dear way to the land of childhood) O warum sucht’ ich nach dem Gluck (Why did I search for happiness) Etc., etc.
When I grew older and learned the history of the Holocaust and realized the watchmaker was German, not Jewish-German, just German, it caused me a great deal of confusion. Would the Germans have killed my friend, the dwarf, just as they killed other dwarfs and millions of Jews? I liked that wizened old man with the squeaky voice. Was I supposed to hate him? It’s true, one is taught to hate. It’s not a natural condition.
A visual abundance of merchandise greeted you when you came to shop on Maxwell Street. A person could buy everything and anything: jewelry and socks, sandwiches and belts, instruments and dresses, perfume, and every kind of ball, all offered at discount prices.
Yet, buying something on Maxwell Street was different than shopping in other parts of the city. Here, there was an ongoing selling game where bargaining was accepted and expected.
As I wandered about, I listened carefully to the comments I heard from the sellers: “You’re my first customer, I have to break the ice.”
“You’re my last customer. I’m closing, so I’ll give you a better deal”
“You’re a friend of so and so, so I’ll make you a discount.” “For you, I’ll make a special price.”
And from the buyers came these replies:
“Is that your best price, your very best price?”
“My friend told me he bought it a lot cheaper!” “If I buy two, will you give me a better deal?”
“My cousin said if I mention his name you’ll give me a discount.”
Most of the time customers did get bargains because of the merchants’ low overhead, and because they often bought samples or odd lots of merchandise from auctions or overstocked manufacturers and wholesalers at a very low cost.
I can still hear my father bragging about the inexpensive baseball bats he bought in Louisville, Kentucky. “I’ll make a lot of money on that buy,” he would promise.
Maxwell Street was the forerunner of the discount stores and the currently popular designer outlets.
I had my own special way of bargaining with my buddies on Maxwell Street. When I poked my head into the bakery and held up a finger, the owner would generously put a cookie with a hole in the middle on my finger. Sometimes, I would try to finagle more than one cookie, by holding up more than one finger. If he felt generous that day, I got more cookies.
In the winter, the bakery was a warm, pleasant place to be, and I would linger and talk to the owners and customers. In the summer it was hot and stuffy, and I would grab my cookie and rush outside to visit with some of my other friends on the street.
There was the raggedy old man who sold toys from his pushcart. If he was in a good mood and business was slow, he would let me play with his stock of rag dolls and mechanical animals, which was great fun for me.
A bevy of police patrolled the area both on foot and on horseback. I knew them all by name, including the horses. I constantly nagged for rides, but was told it was against the rules. It didn’t stop me from asking.
The one person who remains an enigma to me to this day was John, a man with tiny stubs for arms and legs. Weather permitting, he would be dropped off by people I assumed were family members, and propped up on the stand in front of my father’s store, with a collection box in front of him.
He would perform tricks, like threading a needle with his little stubs, or catching a small ball. Sometimes a large crowd would gather to watch him and put money in his collection box. Occasionally he would even attempt to catch the coins people gave him, yelling, “Try, again,” if he missed.
Having watched John perform for years, I knew he could catch anything he wanted to if it was remotely close to him. Missing was really his trick to get people to throw more money at him. I never divulged his secret.
“Those scumbags,” he would growl.
“Get me a drink,” he would order. He never gave me the money to pay for his drink, but I would dutifully walk over to one of the vendors and beg, “John wants a drink.”
Most of the people in the area knew John or had seen him perform his tricks, so they willingly gave me a Coke or lemonade for him. I never brought him coffee. I was afraid he would burn himself if he tried to drink anything hot, and if he did burn himself, I was terrified he would be angry with me.
I always put a straw in his drink, otherwise it was almost impossible for him to manipulate his body into a position to swallow any liquid. It was so painful to watch him twist and turn just to quench his thirst. Most of the time I tried to avoid him, because all he did was bark orders at me.
In retrospect, I think I was afraid of him. Not because of his disabilities, but because of his anger! Poor thing, who wouldn’t have been angry, put on display like that, as a freak? It’s sad to think he probably had nowhere to put that anger and certainly no one to talk to about how he felt.
Maxwell Street was my secret. As fascinating as the area was and as much as I loved it, to the outside world Maxwell Street was tainted, cheesy, second class or worse. Most people thought the merchandise was obtained illegally, maybe even stolen.
I couldn’t go to school and brag about my father, the Maxwell Street businessman, because I would have been sneered at. When my friends bragged about their fathers–a doctor, a lawyer, or merchant chief–I averted my eyes and looked at the floor.
I never told my friends where I spent my weekends or what I did after school hours. Although I loved being on Maxwell Street more than anything else in my life, at the same time I was horribly ashamed of my family’s association with the street. It was as though I had a married lover; the relationship was wonderful, but I couldn’t tell anyone about it, for fear of what they would say.
Carrying a secret is very difficult. You must be hyper-vigilant so you never expose your unknown life.
“So Fay, where is your father’s store?” “Ah…oh…I don’t know the exact address.” “Well, what part of town is it in?” “Um…on the far west side.”
“Can I go there and buy some skates like yours?” “Actually he sells things wholesale.”
“Maybe you can ask him to get me some?” “Maybe.”
I cringed and suffered when I heard people speak disparagingly about the place and the people who worked there.
“We’re going down to Jew town to buy some cheap stuff.”
“My folks want to pick up some bargains on that street with all the creepy people.”
Those years I spent exploring my special Casbah, I lived a double life. I could have been in training for the FBI or the CIA.
From the time I was born on May 8, 1932, I spent the other part of my life, the part that took me away from my beloved Maxwell Street, with my parents and two brothers in a very spacious, middle-class apartment on the West Side of Chicago.
When I was ten years old we moved to a nicer apartment on the far South Side of Chicago, an area called South Shore.
I went to the local public grammar school called Bryn Mawr, where I learned to call myself Fay, instead of Fagela. I attended religious services at the synagogue closest to my home, South Side Hebrew Congregation. I learned that not everyone was Jewish. Some of my friends actually went to church. I danced in the park district shows, and backstage gorged on peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches on sliced white Silver Cup bread. I found new heroes and swooned over my favorite movie stars at the Jeffrey Theater. I played hopscotch and jump rope with the girls in the neighborhood in a peasant blouse instead of the sweater my mother knit of leftover strands of colored yarn. The South Side of Chicago is where I learned that my blue eyes and straight blonde hair were highly desirable and that I didn’t have to sleep with rags in my hair every night so I could look like my cousins who shook their black curls with pride. This is where I learned that not everyone’s parents came from the “Old Country.” It was in my South Shore neighborhood that I got my status, my passport to the middle class of America.
On my beloved Maxwell Street, I was pulled back to the broken-English-speaking immigrant world of my parents and others who worked there. These were people who were looked down on, not looked up to. Being ashamed of my association with Maxwell Street was a psychological burden I carried well into my adult years. My own personal insecurities never would have allowed me to stand up and be different, to announce to one and all, “Hey, you may have some negative thoughts about Maxwell Street, but I love it. I love going there, it’s a very exciting place and I love the people who work there!”
Now I know better. The people I met and the lessons I learned on the street were invaluable. Tolerance and acceptance of others, no matter how strange or different, are my inheritance from being there. Looking back, I know how lucky I was to have been a part of it.
My father and mother, Ray, fetter Hans, the hot dog man, the baker, the toy peddler, the police, Davey, John and many others taught me lessons I couldn’t have learned anywhere other than in that microcosm of the world, Maxwell Street.
Urban renewal and the whims and desires of city life erased the Maxwell Street market. It saddens me when I think that other generations of children will not experience the Magic Kingdom, the Casbah, I loved.