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Chicago Stories: Tobacco

The doors of John Fiske Elementary School, 61st and Ingleside, Chicago, Cook County, Illinois were four in number, forming two pairs of heavy oak slabs, blackened as were most other doors in a city heated and run mainly by coal and for which the term "natural gas" had a vaguely risque ring to it, being supposed by many to refer a disordered digestion. Each day at exactly 8:00, these doors were swung open and somehow or another locked in place by two large men who were popularly believed by the entire neighborhood to have obtained their door-opening sinecure through some vague relationship with a much-admired Chicago businessman named Mr. Capone. This supposition was based upon the fact that they were white and were not seen around the school after their morning task. Moreover, since it was well-known that Mr. Capone and his associates were involved in the welfare of every establishment in South Chicago, there seemed no reason to believe that John Fiske Elementary School was somehow exempt. Even now I am not sure that this was not in fact the case.

I understand that the reputation of Mr. Capone has come under something of cloud recently, but in the place and time of which I speak, one would have had to look far, perhaps as far as Lawndale Cemetery, where so many good Democratic voters resided, or the Calumet City Sanitation Canal, to have found someone who did not have a good word to say for him. Indeed, my friends and I were great admirers, being, in a fashion and quite irregularly, on the Capone payroll.

At the corner of 63rd and Cottage Grove Avenue was a cigar store, a kind of establishment that, to the best of my experience, no longer exists. Along one long wall was a polished glass and teak counter, and, behind it, floor to high ceiling teak shelves with hundred of boxes of cigars from all over the world kept safe behind polished glass sliding doors. At the front of the aisle, near the cashier's chair, there were forty-two porcelain jars (I counted them many times and memorized their names) of various kinds of tobacco that were blended in the shop to each customer's special taste. Well-dressed gentlemen would frequently come in and say softly to the cashier, "Two hundred to my home," and leave. I eventually discovered that these gentlemen were placing orders for cigarettes to be made up for them and delivered. The store never admitted to selling cigarettes. Whoever it was that owned the establishment felt that cigarettes were unsightly, evil-smelling, and effeminate, so the cashier said, but believed that one served one's clients, no matter how depraved their tastes.

I was seven years old when I undertook to polish teak and mop the white and black mosaic marble floors of the cigar store for an hour each three afternoons a week. There was no question of money; I simply loved the smell of the tobacco and the sheen of the teak, and just walked in one day and said, "I wanna polish d'wood." The cashier took an oiled cloth (it, too, had a wonderful smell about it) from under the counter, tossed it to me, and said, "So polish."

When he saw that I kept coming back, he undertook my education. It was there I learned to make change, always using the touchstone. It had not been too many years since gold coins had been called in, and a number of businessmen still habitually used a touchstone. A true gold coin drawn lightly across a touchstone would leave a faint golden streak, but a gold-washed counterfeit coin would leave only a smudge, if anything. True silver coins, correctly tossed on the touchstone, would ring true, counterfeits would yield a slight clang or thud and lie there as if dead. The cashier tested me many times on this skill, and I could still detect the greasy feel of a counterfeit half-dollar if anyone ever made counterfeit half-dollars any more. Or if it made any difference for a mere fifty cents.

I learned to make two and three ingredient blends, but was not allowed to touch the ingenious little machine in a small back room by which these blends were made up into cigarettes. The cashier insisted that this would be bad for my nose. Considering that in those ante-antibiotic days, kids normally had low-grade infections of one sort or another and generally had runny noses, this might have seemed undue solicitude on his part, but that was not what he meant. "Smell your customers, boy!" he would say. A customer would enter the store, the cashier would gaze intently at him, his nostrils would flare slightly, and he would say, "Corona Corona number five, sir?" and the customer would nod.

I learned only the rudiments of this craft, but did learn that there were hidden depths to it. After a customer would leave, the cashier would look at me with one eyebrow raised, and I would venture, "Kentucky burley?" and the cashier would say, "Lacks imagination, afraid to offend, will marry a nagging wife and never rise in his trade." A customer entered once and the cashier dealt with him in an unusually curt manner. When the man left, the cashier turned to me, and I said, "I couldn't tell. The latakia was too strong." The cashier leaned over and said intently, "When you can smell the latakia, the man is a stubborn and overbearing ass, without taste or consideration for himself or others. He has corrupted his own tobacconist and cannot be trusted." This was perhaps too sweeping a judgement, but I have been told that Josef Stalin added too much latakia to his Edgeworth.

One Friday, the collector came in, as he always did, and the cashier took out the standard five dollars and the week's ledgers for the store's other enterprises, which were multifarious and far too complex for me to explain in this short essay. This Friday, the collector looked at me and asked the cashier, "What's the kid hanging around for?" The cashier answered, "He polishes and carries ... things." "Oh, Okay. What do you pay him? "Nothing. He likes to smell, and I teach him things." The collector stood there and looked me up and down, which was not a long trip. He finally asked, "What do you carry, kid?"

I answered, "Carry? What carry?" He turned to the cashier and said, "Pay the kid," and walked out with the week's protection money and the ledgers.

The cashier looked rather sad and said, "So, I have to pay you." I was old enough to know what was bothering him. Apprentices don't get paid, especially apprentices who have just turned eight. I had gotten a soft blue denim bib apron from the cashier, just like his own, for my birthday, and my future seemed to be taking shape right under my nose, as it were. I said, perhaps somewhat plaintively because I do remember that I felt that things were changing, and not necessarily for the good, "I don't want to get paid," and the cashier said, "You gotta get paid. The man said so. How much do you want." I was almost in tears, but apprentice tobacconists don't cry.

I suddenly had an idea and said, " I don't want no money, but you could give me a cigar on Friday afternoon to give to my grandfather on Saturday." Grandfather and everyone else went to a tavern on Saturday night, and the aroma of a good cigar was something everyone in the place could enjoy, or so I thought. The cashier brightened up and said, "Sure, I could do that. It would be like a present to your grandfather. What kind does your grandfather smoke?" Blood is thicker than water, so I quickly said, "Havana panatella, Supremo deluxe, number ones." The cashier replied, just as quickly, "Done!" It was only then that he began to frown. "Wait a minute," he said, "Havana panatella, Supremo deluxe, number ones cost ..." "Sixty cents each," I supplied.

At supper the next evening, I told my grandfather that I had a present for him, and presented him with a cigar. He looked at it, and then suspiciously at me. You see, weekly wages for grown men at that time in the stockyards were twelve to thirteen dollars for a forty-eight hour week. He was holding about two and a half hours of hard work in his hand, something of which I had no idea at the time. "Where did you get this?" he said rather ominously. I was not paying too much attention at the time, being absorbed in watching my mother prepare a cup of coffee for me, so I answered somewhat off-handedly, "It's a present from Mr. Capone." My grandfather started to say something, but my father forestalled him by saying, "Don't ask, Harry. We probably don't want to know." My mother handed me my coffee, and there was an extra lump of sugar on the saucer.

Lynn Harry Nelson
Professor Emeritus of History
University of Kansas

042404