By Jasmon Drain
Standing on the porch I could see Uncle clearly. He was a tall and thick man who looked like he may have played hockey in high school, even though that wasn’t considered a black man’s sport. His posture was perfect, chest poked out like a soldier, and when he stood next to you, long eyebrows and big white teeth shining, you’d trust him and swear he’d missed his calling as a politician. Uncle talked in this commanding tone, but it wasn’t bossy. Even if you were standing at the corner a hundred or so feet away from his porch, he formed words so well you’d interpret his conversation easily like you were a trained lip reader.
But Uncle was at work, so I didn’t bother him. No matter how lonely I may have gotten. He and his friends—the males, that is—would shift their bodies to the side of the liquor store, out of direct view, and kneel to shoot dice. It was eight o’clock in the morning. The moment they left my sight I shot back into the house like I was running bases. I brushed my teeth, grabbed a jacket in case it was cool outside or windy, and raced down the street, dodging glass and trash on the pavement like I was dodging an opponent’s mitt attempting to tag me out. I didn’t even shut the front door.
When I got to the alley by the liquor store where their game progressed, I noticed Uncle kneeling with a bottle of beer as big as my forearm, and there were at least three or four men standing or crouching alongside him. They yelled out numbers and combinations of numbers that sounded like codes to a million-dollar safe.
“I bet he don’t ten or four!” one man yelled.
“No six or eight!” another screamed.
“I’ll bet you seven-eleven for five!”
I stood there, glancing up at the brilliant yellow and blue sign of the liquor store with the rainbow-colored bulbs surrounding its square shape like a Las Vegas casino. They flashed so bright and often that each man—no matter how dark or light their faces were—assumed some color, if only for a second, that made them look alive in a strange new way. Uncle would be so focused on counting numbers quicker than corporate men tallying the Dow Jones report that he hadn’t noticed me there. I watched all those men closely. The crowd of four turned into eight, ten, then twelve of them at a time, with twenties, tens, and single dollar bills spreading wildly across their palms. They hastily yelled numbers, snatched money from the cracked concrete even faster, and those white dice resumed their tumbling along the ground like gymnasts on a mat. And all this was happening by 8:45 a.m. in the alley behind the block of Winchester and 63rd Street.
After a while the shouting decreased and so did the numbers. The tens and twenties turned into only ones and in a single-file line like army troops after losing a battle, those men walked away with their heads hung low. The only man still resting on his knees with a wad of money thicker than any wallet could hold was Uncle.
Occasionally, some of the men who walked away returned. That’s when the really interesting things happened. Their dark faces came back red as they held some package or product they felt worth gambling away. They brought brand new Betamax VCRs with remote and batteries, or a nice four-speaker boom-box stereo with the soft eject button that made the tape release slowly.
“I’ll give you twenty for that VCR,” Uncle had told one man last week.
The man had shaken his head, but took the twenty dollars from Uncle’s hand—the twenty dollars that less than a half-hour before the game had belonged to him anyway, and started gambling again.
On that morning a man returned with a 19-inch television on his shoulder. The television was complete with direct channel buttons, a wood casing, and a swivel stand base. The entire thing had to be worth at least three-hundred dollars. Uncle’s eyes lit up like the liquor store sign when he saw the nice merchandise.
Uncle stood to examine the television. He looked it over intimately as though he were picking fruit from the market in Chinatown: he pressed the top and sides of the television, pushed the buttons, and ran his hands across the screen.
“Seventy-five for this,” Uncle said in that politician’s tone. His mouth moved so quickly and effortlessly that you wouldn’t have known he spoke had you not heard his deep voice. “Yes,” he began again. “I’ll do seventy-five for this.”
“But, that TV is worth three-hundred dollars used!” the man said. “It’s a brand new Zenith, just came out. My wife’s anniversary present! You gotta give me more than that!”
“Do you want the seventy-five, or no?” Uncle said.
“Gimme a hundred?”
Uncle then turned his back to face the other men shooting dice.
“Okay, okay,” the man started again. “Gimme ninety.”
Uncle counted money and handed it to the man.
“That’s eighty,” he said. “Take it or leave it.”
The man simply folded the money into his palm and stood next to the others, waiting his turn to win back all he had lost.
“I’ll do fifteen for that radio,” Uncle pointed to another man. Another red-faced exchange.
“Nephew, come stand alongside me,” Uncle suddenly called out. I had no clue he even knew I was there. When I came close he placed his hand on my shoulder, directing me to stand right where the merchandise was. He stacked the radio atop the television .
“Stand here,” he said. “If anybody moves toward you—anyone—yell for me.” He then showed me a black gun behind his back, which was tucked into his belt. “Don’t worry if they do,” he continued. “I have something for them.”
I looked closely at Uncle, noticing the sharp bridge of his nose and how when he smirked, he revealed one row of teeth. He straightened his necktie and adjusted the waist of his jeans. Uncle then took the three steps back to the pile of men with dice bouncing between them—men with money in their hands which was once theirs, pawning merchandise with Uncle to get back what had also been theirs. I stood there, the short dark boy I was, pushing buttons and playing with the electronic devices that I was sure Uncle would sell again in no time. Those men proceeded in a perfect circle, all still huddled closely over the dice as though it were a campfire, yelling numbers, exchanging money, and eventually losing it all again to my uncle.
And once that was over he stuffed the thick wad of money into his pocket and continued smirking while saying goodbye to the others. He spoke to them as though they were voters who’d punched their ticket for the loser. He slowly waved like a woman in a beauty pageant. It was all a part of his show. And by 9:30 a.m. he carried them on his shoulder to the other side of the street where the ‘real’ pawn shop was.
Johnson’s Pawn Shop sat across the street from the liquor store in a nearly diagonal line. It had a neon green sign that would shine so bright I swore I could’ve seen it ten miles away. Uncle walked to the door, glancing back at me ever so often as I followed him across the street. He let me carry whatever item was the least valuable. In this case it was the radio.
The large window of the pawn shop was the cleanest glass I’d ever seen. It wasn’t because Mr. Johnson sprayed and wiped it each morning, but because the glass, enclosed in a cold steel bar, was replaced what seemed like every three weeks whenever the store was burglarized. Inside, the pawn shop looked like a miniature department store, with overhead signs alerting a shopper to where particular items were located. You could buy anything at Johnson’s Pawn Shop, used or brand-new: shoes, tarnished jewelry, electronics. You took a risk when you purchased most items considering there were no refunds. There was a clothes section for men and women, and even a small refrigerator in back where most of the guys playing basketball grabbed something cold to drink. But Uncle did another kind of business in the pawn shop.
He’d stand at the counter, talking to Mr. Johnson, who squinted tightly despite his thick bifocal glasses. He and Uncle talked business, negotiating the trade-off prices of the merchandise he’d just won while shooting dice. It seemed to me that Uncle was Mr. Johnson’s favorite person in the world. When Uncle sat with me after baseball practices, he’d explain that if it weren’t for him, Mr. Johnson might have gone out of business long ago. They had this sort of silent partnership, one hand helping the other.
“Like Democrats and Republicans,” Uncle would explain to me. “To keep out them Independents.
The two men, spoke closely to one another over the counter, whispering, using their fingers to count money they’d earned. Mr. Johnson pulled his glasses down his nose while examining the merchandise, careful to notice every little scratch.
“Got some good lil’ merch’ there, son,” he said while looking at me over the rims of his glasses. “You still playing ball?” he smiled.
I nodded as if I’d won the electronics myself, but I never smiled back at Mr. Johnson. Uncle said to me once: “There are no friends in business, none in any kind of business. It’s all politics. Keep the nice guy stuff out.”
He and Mr. Johnson then shook hands, and Uncle snatched some chips and a soda-pop from the refrigerator as a reward for me.
We stepped outside. At 10:30 a.m., everyone in the neighborhood was awake. Uncle stood at the corner with his necktie and blue jeans saying a kind “hello” to each elderly person he saw, a “what’s up” to the men, and a “how are you doing, ma’am?” to every woman, pretty or not. He even shook a few hands along the way. But the men walking by always mentioned loud enough for us to hear how they’d be back to get their things from Mr. Johnson’s, with or without money.
Uncle paid them no mind.
In fact, he hardly paid anyone special attention. Including me.
“Stand there, nephew,” he said as we posted at the corner. “Stand here and smile,” was all he repeated as he continued waving to folks driving by, shaking hands with those walking, and ignoring anyone he didn’t feel would vote for him.
Uncle was focused.
He had a plan.
His goal was to have a business of his own, whether it was a small grocery store—maybe a liquor store with a bright sign like those on 63rd street—a rim and tire shop, or even a little boutique that sold beauty supplies to women. He simply wanted a business of his own. And the issues he addressed in his speeches to me made sense. He told me how black people were very trusting of friends and loved ones, but in money-dealing business, they were a bit more keen on who they’d deal with. He figured that by standing on the corner every day, with his blue-jeans and neckties, waving, shaking hands, and smiling, that he could get so many of the people in the neighborhood to like and trust him that by the time he opened his business, they’d be willing to patronize it with no problem. He and Mr. Johnson were to be partners. Their plan was for Uncle to bring as much valuable merchandise into the pawn shop as he could, let Mr. Johnson ‘have it’ at an unrealistically low price, and eventually he would be part owner of the pawn shop. It was like buying stocks in a business. Once the pawn shop was standing sturdily on its financial feet, Mr. Johnson would match whatever money Uncle had managed on the side. He could finally open a business in the vacant building on the opposite corner.
“I’ll have my own piece of the bright lights then,” he’d say. And that remained his goal.
Day after day in the summer, from about seven-thirty in the morning, Monday through Saturday and some select holidays, my uncle was shooting dice in the alley behind the liquor store. In a necktie and blue jeans, Uncle would be winning, collecting the most valuable merchandise our neighborhood’s men had to offer. After settling with Mr. Johnson, Uncle would wave and shake hands with everyone in our neighborhood as though his love for the people was never-ending.
He believed in the business venture with Mr. Johnson so strongly that he began exploring other neighborhoods on some mornings. Though I was used to him returning home in summers at five, when I’d be watching the Cubs or Sox play ball on Channel 9, that time grew much later. He came home sweating, drinking beer from the bottle and grumbling about how it would take even more capital to open his shop. He said that he and Mr. Johnson weren’t making enough to finance the new operation.
Uncle and a couple of men began robbing trains that brought merchandise from other states to Chicago stores. They’d sell those things in neighborhoods north of ours for what was probably forty-percent of their retail value. On nights when I’d come into the living room to help him count, I’d notice how the figures of money had grown considerably. At times he’d have ten-thousand dollars or more, and after splitting the take with the men he worked with, that usually left him with four. Uncle took that four and gave ten-percent to Mr. Johnson to keep the pawn shop running smoothly.
In the summer of 1984, I was chosen to attend a baseball camp that kept me in Wisconsin for a while. I never realized that my being in and out of his apartment during those years kept away burglars and those who didn’t want to vote for his business plan. I was an unwitting watchdog.
The summer I was gone some men broke into the apartment and destroyed it. They spray-painted nasty words on his walls, slit the leather of his couches, and turned over every box, table, and chair in the place looking for his savings.
They found it. Forty-two-thousand dollars.
And there went the dreams of Uncle’s business.
But he didn’t quit and he didn’t use the gun he held along his waist when shooting dice. He looked me in the eye, sweating, his dark skin shining not from any neon sign but a single overhead bulb in his ravaged apartment, and said, “Maybe I didn’t shake enough hands, nephew.”
I simply nodded.
Jasmon Drain is from the Englewood area, one of the poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Chicago. He would like to dedicate "The Politician's Pawn Shop" to those there who struggle and fight through anything to achieve something more.