Steve Howe is the Nonfiction Editor for Blue Mesa Review and his writing has appeared in The Rumpus and The Vermillion Literary Project Journal. Originally from South Dakota, he has lived in many cities around the country and now calls Albuquerque, NM home.
For one too many days, my girlfriend, Mari, came home to our 14th story studio to find me lying on our unmade sleeper sofa surrounded by dirty dishes and unread Chicago Tribune classifieds. It was December of 1989. Three months before, I had dropped out of the University of South Dakota and moved to Chicago to be with her. She worked as a bookkeeper in an ad agency just off Michigan Avenue and I needed to start pitching in on the rent. Frustrated with my lack of effort, she reached into her oversized purse and pulled out a wrinkled sheet of paper. It was a job listing given to her by a co-worker.
“Judy says the company where her husband works has an opening, maybe you should give it a try.” She handed the sheet over to me.
National Rent-to-Own – Sales and Collection Representative
“She said you have the perfect qualifications.”
“I’ve never sold anything in my life. How am I ‘perfect’ for this job?”
“Well, first off, you’re white.”
I scheduled the interview the next day with the district manager, Russ, who ran three stores around the city. The interview was quick. I was Caucasian without a criminal record and was hired on the spot. The ease with which I was given the job made me apprehensive. It was located on the south side; the side cabbies and bus drivers warned white people to stay away from. The year I arrived in Chicago, there were 741 murders, and the segregated neighborhoods I would be working in had the highest per capita murder rate in the city. I grew up in a small, rural community in South Dakota where murder was almost unheard of and segregation was nonexistent because there were too few non-whites to segregate.
The Lakeview neighborhood in Chicago, where we lived, was predominately white. It felt reasonably welcoming and friendly, at least to me. I was aware of racism, but I saw it as individual acts of hatred, a series of singular incidents, not systemic. I saw it mainly in the form of older white men at the bar back home sneering at pictures on the TV of prominent African Americans, like Jesse Jackson, draft beer lubricating buried opinions. Blackness was an indictment, a character flaw in their eyes.
Despite this, I believed all people were treated just like me. I assumed all market owners recognized their customers and smiled as they picked up their morning coffee. And all retail transactions took place above the shop counters and not through the bullet-proof glass and sliding drawers you only see at bank drive-up windows and liquor stores in the worst neighborhoods in America, in neighborhoods like those served by National Rent-to-Own. Structural racism was a concept too broad for a mind with such limited exposure to the world, and for a person who was not the target.
On my first day of work, I was given a lesson on neighborhood segregation during the hour-long bus ride to the store. Within minutes as the bus moved south through the city along Ashland Ave., the chatter from the passengers changed from my comfort language of Midwestern English to the distinct Polish and Ukrainian dialects near Wicker Park and West Town. Moving further south, Greek and Italian was spoken by the residents of the Near West Side and Little Italy, followed almost immediately by the Spanish speaking Lower West Side, finally arriving at the store located on the 3100 block of South Ashland. This neighborhood was bookended on the east by the Irish of Bridgeport and on the west by the Hispanic-dominated McKinley Park. The store served a wide area that included customers of all races, but the primary customer base was in the African American neighborhoods to the east with misleading, elegant sounding names like Fuller Park and Stateway Gardens. These areas were extremely poor and were infamous for the presence of major housing projects, like the Robert Taylor and Ida B. Wells Homes.
I stepped off the #9 a half-block from the store before it opened. The windows and doors of the businesses along the street were covered with crosshatched metal grating. Unlike their neighbors, the windows of National-Rent-To-Own were exposed on the outside, though on the inside a collapsible accordion gate provided security and served as the backdrop for the signs posted on the glass promising the luxury of $10 a week TVs and $25 a week living room sets.
I tentatively walked into the store feeling light headed from my uneasy expectations. Russ greeted me in the showroom and introduced me to the assistant manager, Ed, and to Sheldon who was busy loading a dinette set into the delivery truck. There were four employees of the store, all African American. I had never been the only white employee before. Russ, who was white, worked most days in the district office and was only here today for my new employee orientation. My first duty was to join Ed and Sheldon on a delivery into Cicero.
As we piled into the cab of the truck, Sheldon guided me into the passenger door ahead of him. “New guy gets middle,” he said smiling. At just 19, he was glad to no longer be the rookie.
“That’s right,” said Ed. “The cream goes in the middle of the Oreo.” Ed and Sheldon laughed and I just smiled nervously and slid to the center. Speaking of race, or even noting it casually, was uncomfortable for me. I feared it would place me in the same light as the barroom racists I knew back home.
On the drive, Ed told me how they needed a white worker to go into places like Cicero. When we pulled into the complex to deliver the dinette, Ed told me to go find the apartment and ring the bell to let them know we were there.
“They don’t want to see us at their door,” said Ed. He was 6’ 5” and lean with a shaved head and missing front tooth, and he possessed a patient, professional demeanor. As I walked through the complex to find the right door, I began to feel more at ease. It didn’t feel much different from apartment buildings in South Dakota or even those in my north side neighborhood, just a little dirtier, a little poorer. At the door, I was greeted with a grin and “You got the table?” by a white woman and her three kids, all under school age. It reminded me of growing up one of five boys in poverty to a single mother.
As I stepped into the door, I saw familiar disorder. The walls were bare except for the scuffs and gouges from kids playing too rough indoors. Brown’s Chicken takeout wrappers from the night before, or maybe the week before, were scattered on a second-hand coffee table. Sacks of laundry were in the middle of the living room floor, clean or dirty, I couldn’t tell. The stress of poverty filled the room with an inescapable haze and I reluctantly breathed it in and felt the fear of realizing just how easy I could be pulled back.
Ed and Sheldon arrived at the door and we placed the table and four chairs in the only clean spot on the floor, and the kids immediately climbed on the set like playground equipment. The mother yelled at them to get down as she signed for the delivery. That signature committed her to $15 every other week for a year. The set would cost her $390 if she were able to keep up with the payments. Mari and I had just ordered a similar set for our apartment from Montgomery Ward for $125.
Ed, Sheldon, and I returned to the truck and left Cicero without any problems. The woman in the apartment barely spoke to us, much less said or did anything that could be construed as racist. We were there to do a job and she let us do it.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Cicero was an extremely intolerant place. Located in the heart of the metro which was one-third African American, Cicero could only count 141 in its total population of 67,000 residents in 1990. Of the 141 African Americans, most were nursing home patients or seasonal employees of the local racetrack. This unwelcome mat to non-whites was placed on the community porch through events such as the 1951 Cicero Race Riot. In June of that year, Harvey Clark, Jr., an African American war veteran and graduate of Fisk University, rented an apartment for his family in the white suburb. As the family arrived, police stopped their moving truck and Clark was told he would not be allowed to move in. The police chief struck Clark, forced him back into his car, and told him, “Get out of Cicero and don’t come back in town or you’ll get a bullet through you.” Clark bravely defied the orders and moved in, and a month later, on July 11, 1951, four thousand white protesters attacked the apartment building, requiring the Illinois National Guard to protect Mr. Clark and his family.
In 1982, eighteen years after the Civil Rights Act, Cicero still hadn’t embraced the dream of acceptance and equality the law carried with it. They were still deeply committed to keeping others out. A young black man named Ronnie Stackhouse moved to Cicero to manage a fast-food restaurant. He was regularly harassed on the street and his car repeatedly vandalized. Soon after his arrival, Stackhouse’s white neighbor, Donald DeSitter, threw a flaming bottle of lighter fluid into the backseat of his 1972 Cadillac. When Stackhouse reported the incident to police, instead of receiving empathy and justice, he was charged with disorderly conduct for throwing a piece of paper on the floor of the police station and jailed without being read his Miranda Rights or being allowed to make a phone call. While Stackhouse’s civil rights were being violated inside the police station, outside in the public parking lot, his car, with its already charred back seat, had its windshield broken and tires slashed. Only after understanding this context later in life did I really start seeing my own ignorance fall away, along with my “isolated incident” theory of racism.
Cicero was not the only place I worked, nor was it the only neighborhood with underlying anger and prejudice. The store’s service area was in a part of the city where crossing a street was crossing into a different culture, and I experienced tension regardless of where I was. The African American neighborhoods were no exception, though the motivation felt different than in Cicero. In Cicero, residents were angry that people they decided were inferior entered their neighborhood and they used violence and intimidation to keep them out. In the African American housing projects, it was anger at the people who created these inferior neighborhoods and the economic system that forced them to live in deplorable conditions. On a drive through the streets with Ed near the Robert Taylor Homes, where he and his girlfriend shared an apartment, he threw a McDonald’s bag out the window of the delivery truck.
“What are you doing? You’re just gonna pitch it on the street?”
“Yeah. So what?”
“Somebody’s gotta clean that up.”
“Fuck ‘em. If they want it clean, they’ll come pick it up.”
“You complain about how bad this place is, but you’re making it worse.”
“You think a McDonald’s bag is gonna make this place worse?” At the time, I didn’t understand Ed’s detachment. It was a place he lived but he didn’t see it as his home.
Ed dropped out of college and took the job with National Rent-to-Own to provide for his girlfriend who was pregnant. She was eligible to live in the Robert Taylor Homes because she was a single mother with no income. When Ed moved in with her and the new baby, they lied about the living arrangements because the housing authority would count his salary toward the household income and the family would no longer qualify to live there. His salary alone couldn’t pay for rent outside the projects and his girlfriend could only find low-wage service jobs that wouldn’t even cover childcare.
“If we lie and say I don’t live there, we get help. If we tell them the truth, they kick us out. Think about that.”
Skeptically I asked, “So, who’s this ‘they’ you’re talking about?”
“The housing authority. ADC. All of ‘em.”
“You act like it’s on purpose.”
In the way they were administered, aid programs created the stereotype of the inner city black family, the single mom with a slew of kids and dad nowhere to be found, a stereotype that feeds the beast of structural racism and provides bigots with a steady stream of images to rationalize their hate. This image certainly wasn’t new and it was even perpetuated by those managing the programs. In 1962, Raymond Hilliard, director of the Cook County Public Aid Department described single parent, African American families this way in a Chicago Tribune interview:
“His wife nags him and finally, he takes off, or maybe she throws him out. Then he takes up with another woman. He can’t get a divorce because he has no money. Also, he’d be in trouble for nonsupport of his family. So he becomes the father of illegitimate children. Meanwhile his wife takes up with another man and there are more illegitimate children.”
Ed and I were outside the door of an apartment in the Ida B. Wells housing project to collect from a delinquent customer. The project consisted of smaller, two and three story buildings scattered around a series of weed-covered courtyards, as opposed to the much larger, high-rise Robert Taylor Homes. The homes were named for an African American civil rights activist and journalist in the late 19th and early 20th century. Decades before Rosa Parks, Wells was denied the 1st class railroad seat she purchased and was ordered into the “Jim Crow” section. She protested. When the conductor tried to physically remove her, she bit his hand and was escorted from the train. She sued the railroad and won a $500 judgment, but the ruling was overturned on appeal. In honor of her extensive work towards African American civil rights, desegregation, and her condemnation of violence, in 1940, the Ida B. Wells Homes were dedicated in Chicago.
On this visit to Ida B. Wells, which ironically had become the model of racial segregation and violence in the city since its dedication, I was being yelled at by a man who had been happy to see me the last time we met, he even offered me a Coke as he helped me install the rented air conditioner in his bedroom window. He joked at the time about how he wouldn’t have to spend another summer of steamy nights with his wife’s sweaty leg slung over him. But his demeanor had changed now that we were there to take back the air conditioner.
“You ain’t getting my air conditioner, so you can just walk your skinny cracker ass back out on the street.”
“Then you’re going to need to bring your account current,” I said indignantly.
Ed was standing against the wall, out of sight of the renter, but I could see him out of the corner of my eye, covering his mouth, laughing at me. I had told him I could handle this repossession on my own. He doubted me and he was right.
“Fuck you and your apartheid,” the man screamed.
“Apartheid? What are you talking about? We just need payment or the air conditioner. Which will it be?” This time I heard an audible laugh from Ed as the door was slammed in my face.
He threw a lanky arm over my shoulders as we walked back to the delivery van. “You’ll get it in a couple months. No way we’re getting an air conditioner in July. He’ll want that thing out of his window before it snows. Come winter you’ll be doing him a favor taking it back.”
“So he just rents it for the summer, doesn’t pay, and gives it back when he doesn’t need it? That’s horseshit.” I was still humiliated and pissed.
“Yep. And we’ll re-rent it to somebody next summer. Hopefully, we get paid by that guy,” Ed explained rationally.
“And what was that apartheid shit? This ain’t South Africa.”
“It’s all the same, South Africa or south side of Chicago. He’s stuck in Ida B. Wells and a white dude is at his door trying to take his shit.”
“It isn’t his!” I yelled.
“It isn’t yours, either. That thing’s been paid for 3 times over and he knows it. He’s just trying to get his. Nobody is out anything. You’re still getting paid, so you got nothin’ to be pissed about.”
But I stayed pissed. Every interaction was becoming a conflict and I was taking it personally. I was just doing a job and hadn’t done anything to anyone and couldn’t understand why people saw me as someone to blame for the conditions they lived in. I was a guy who just six months earlier was minding his own business on the great plains of South Dakota. I wasn’t seeing the benefit of being a member of a race that hadn’t been told for generations through public policy and intimidation where it was acceptable to live, what jobs you were allowed, or where you could go to school. I rationalized that since some public policy had changed, we were now all on even ground. I grew up in poverty and so had many of the customers. Why couldn’t they just pull themselves up as I felt I was doing?
But, I knew our situations weren’t equal. I could see the differences as I did my job every day. I could feel it when I entered the homes of the most poverty-stricken and watched the disbelief and desperation in the faces of families as I removed their living room furniture and appliances. On more than one occasion, I pulled the food from a refrigerator and placed it on the kitchen counter to rot, then strapped the refrigerator to an appliance dolly and wheeled it out the front door simply because someone missed a $20 payment. On the counter I would see the sad contents of the refrigerator of my own poverty-wracked childhood; cheap frozen dinners in segmented tinfoil trays, pale hotdogs, pitchers of reconstituted powdered milk, store brand mayonnaise, and a noticeable absence of produce or anything fresh. But I never had to see the couch I watched Saturday morning cartoons on be taken out the door by strangers, with loose coins and lost toys still in the cushions. I never had to pull the sheets from my mother’s mattress while her bed was dismantled and placed in a truck. My mother never held my head to her hip as she screamed obscenities at the repo man and then whispered down to me, “We’ll be fine, baby.”
Each day I stepped on the bus to head to work, my stomach would twist. I could not escape the fact that I was the one taking way people’s furniture. I was the one emptying their refrigerator. I was the one taking away the basic necessities of a dignified life on behalf of a company that saw these families as nothing more than a cell in a spreadsheet. I hated what I was doing, but I didn’t yet see myself as part of the bigger problem, nor was I even fully aware that centuries-old bigotry was at the root of these conditions I was perpetuating.
It took me years to recognize how minority populations living in poverty in Chicago, and other cities, were faced with unenviable options that my family never had to contend with; being economically forced to live in terrible housing projects under the constant threat of gang violence or face the same fate as Walter Clark, Jr. and Ronnie Stackhouse if you had the audacity to escape the projects and attempt to live or work in the surrounding neighborhoods, neighborhoods designed by public policy to exclude you.
To live, not in the home you choose, only in the home you’re allowed is not a condition I will ever know. I was a tourist in this inner city reality and a party to a system that exploited those most in need and with the least options. Yet, I continued this immoral trade until, in a decision adrift from sanity, the store began to offer rent-to-own jewelry alongside the household goods. The early 1990s saw the growth of urban, hip-hop culture that valued street fashion and lavish jewelry. In response to this change in demand, National Rent-to-Own saw the inner city poor as a new market for jewelry, particularly when offered with irresistibly low weekly payments. What wasn’t considered, aside from the decency of the practice, was the security employed by traditional jewelry stores. The store, adjacent to the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in the country, was not outfitted with a security guard, an alarm system, or even a baseball bat behind the counter. Within days of this new product offering, a man entered the store and identified himself as Robert Taylor and asked for an application to rent jewelry. As I turned to him with the single-page application and a thought to confirm his name, he gently placed a revolver to my nose.
“Yeah, it’s real,” he said. I hadn’t doubted him. He handed me a paper bag the size I carried my lunch to work in each day and told me to fill it with the cash from the register and jewelry from the display case. I no longer controlled my hands; they were shaking and I couldn’t keep the mouth of the bag open. He screamed at me to hurry up, now not so gently poking my forehead with the barrel. The bag was too small. I couldn’t make the cheap plastic jewel cases fit and it tore down the side. Sheldon stood frozen behind the counter, eyes wide and his hands at ear level. Angry, the man flipped over the wastebasket next to the display case and dumped the trash onto the floor. He grabbed the plastic liner from the basket and set it on the case and ordered me to fill it. He left with the trash bag over his shoulder like Santa Claus in a reverse parallel universe.
Sheldon called the police and I called our manager, Russ. I told him we had been robbed and that we had closed the store. He said, “You’re open for payments, though, right?” I lied and said we were. The police drove us to the district station and took our statements in the manner of a DMV clerk seeing their 500th customer of the day. What was boring and routine to them shook me irreversibly. The smell of oiled steel and spent gunpowder has never left me.
Walking out of the police station hours later and still shaking, I took a cab instead of the bus back to my neighborhood. I was dropped at the corner market and received a smile from the owner as I bought a 12-pack of ice-cold Hamms. With my free hand, I punched the security code into the keypad at the front door of my apartment, an apartment I didn’t have to lie about sharing with my girlfriend. I slipped in quietly to not wake her, got drunk, and penned a resignation letter to National Rent-to-Own that was never delivered. I just never went back. I was able to walk away, to simply go home.