Al Simmons, 8/14/2011
Current Occupation: Retired
Former Occupation: Writer/Businessman/Entrepreneur
Contact Information: Al Simmons was born in Chicago, Illinois. He is a founder of the infamous Blue Store Readings, Chicago 1971, birthplace of the Spoken Word Movement, the first regular reading series in Chicago since Sherwood Anderson held readings in his living room in the 1930s. He was Poet-In-Residence City of Chicago, 1979-80. He founded and was Commissioner of the World Poetry Association and served as commissioner to the WPA and the World Poetry Bout Association, (WPBA), Chicago, Taos, New Mexico, 1979-2002. He is the creator of The Main Event, The World Heavyweight Poetry Championship Fights. He lives in Alameda, California.
One Day During The Riots
I was born and raised in Chicago
And shit went down all the time.
Growing up in my day was different
Than the way kids grow up today.
There were more of us then
Hitting the streets all at the same time.
We were the war babies landing like a youth invasion force,
We were everywhere.
We didn’t require chaperones,
And we weren’t offered any.
If I asked for a ride I was told,
You got legs, use them.
Take your brother and be careful.
Once you walked out the door
The adventure began
Whether you liked it or not.
During my junior year in high school
I was offered a work-study program
Three days a week.
I worked part-time since I was 12,
But no one ever offered me time off from
School to earn money before.
They sent me to a retail store called Color Furniture
On Roosevelt Road and Kedzie Avenue,
On the west side of Chicago
Where my parents grew up, actually.
The neighborhood had since turned black.
Color Furniture had a second store, east
On Roosevelt Rd and Halsted,
In the Liberty Shopping Center, near Maxwell Street,
Home of the first and longest running
Closed street outdoor flea market in America.
I was working at the Liberty Shopping Center store,
With Oscar Flowers, a short, slim, black man
Who never left his house without his lucky pen and
A blank contract in the inside pocket of his suit jacket.
Oscar was a seasoned professional.
I was 16.
Oscar and I were discussing what to do
About lunch when two black stick-up guys
Entered the shop, one with a gun and the other
One with a baseball bat.
The one with the Louisville Slugger stood behind me
And held the bat above my head. One word, he said,
And I’ll crack your head open.
I held my hands up to signal, no problem.
The guy with the gun negotiated terms with Oscar Flowers.
There wasn’t any money in the till.
It was late morning and business was slow,
So Oscar offered the man with the gun a boom box instead.
Here’s a good one. This one’s our best, Oscar said.
I don’t want no boom box. No?
Oscar looked confused. What do you want? Money?
Ya, said the thief. We haven’t sold anything in days, said
Oscar, and besides, people pay by check. Nobody buys furniture
And pays cash. Here,
Take the boom box.
Oscar Flowers and the man with the gun
Discussed the boom box display in the window.
They spoke quietly between themselves
While the guy standing behind me
Holding the baseball bat stood trying to
Hear what they were negotiating.
He looked nervous and concerned,
And his nervousness made me nervous.
The gunman took the boom box.
He made his choice, signaled
His buddy and they left peacefully
Without further incident.
We waved them good by as if they were satisfied, happy customers.
Oscar looked at me. Ok, that’s done, now, about lunch? he said
Like it was just another day.
The two gunmen headed up Roosevelt Road
Toward Halsted Street
Where they jumped a woman
And tried to rape her right there
In broad daylight
In the middle of a major intersection.
The cops came.
There was a shoot out.
And those two guys who just committed
Armed robbery against us,
Then tried to rape that woman
Were both dead by Noon.
I had the local specialty of the house,
A pork chop sandwich, fries and a coke.
Oscar said, I’m watching my diet, and
Ordered a BLT on wheat bread.
My sales skills at age 16 were not so good
So Murray, the boss, put me on a truck
I worked on the truck as a helper for
Jose and Junior.
If I had to choose which one of the two
To work with
I would prefer working with Jose.
Jose was a professional middleweight,
And a very cool guy.
We delivered furniture in some of
The roughest neighborhoods
In the city, but I never had a worry
When I worked with Jose.
Work went smooth and between deliveries
He took me with him to visit his girlfriends
Who lived in the hood. I would get an inside look
Into the apartment lives of single black women,
And more often than not I’d get
A homemade snack to eat, as well.
Working with Junior was another story.
Junior was bigger and stronger than Jose, and
A nice kid, but Junior was a rough character
And never thought twice when it came to a fight.
Junior didn’t lose fights.
Junior had bone-crushing fists, like ten-pound river stones.
The only man I ever met
With hands as big as Junior’s
Was Max Baer, Heavyweight Champion of the World, who
I drank with one time during my brief bartending career.
I liked Junior, but riding with Junior was dangerous.
Junior didn’t understand trouble.
We were walking up the front stairs
Of an apartment building and some guy sitting there
Didn’t get up to let us by
So Junior kicked him and the guy moved.
Junior seldom spoke and never asked.
I would be holding up the other end of that sofa
And I would smile when Junior did stunts like that
Because I was young and almost as dumb.
Murray, the boss, would tell me,
Your job is to help deliver furniture
And keep Junior out of fights. Then
Murray would give me his buck tooth smile, chuckle and
Puff on his cigar.
Meanwhile, Junior was three years older
Than me and twice my size.
One day I was sent out on a lunch run
When a handful of squad cars followed by
Several media trucks drove up and
Shut down traffic in both directions in
Front of our store.
And then a black Lincoln Town Car pulled up
And The Reverend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights leader,
And a couple of his associates jumped out. A man in a black suit and tie
Placed a fruit crate on the street. Dr. King
Stepped up onto it like it was a platform stage and
Delivered a speech right there
On the topic of non-violent civil disobedience.
He spoke to the cameras.
The entire spectacle occurred so fast
Few actual people were in attendance
And I was able to walk up to the front
Of the sparse crowd who gathered around
To hear the great man speak.
The Reverend King looked down at me and
For one brief moment we made eye contact.
His look surprised me.
He had the eye of a predator, fierce and alert.
He looked me over with a harsh suspicion.
I must have stood out in the crowd of blacks,
A teenage white kid
Staring up at him from the front row.
The next morning at 10 am,
Several organizers entered the shop to
Notify us that riots were scheduled to begin that day at 3 pm.
They advised us to lock up and vacate the premises ASAP.
They assured us safe passage
Out of the neighborhood until noon.
That night the entire 2300 block of Roosevelt Road
Was burned to the ground, along with my job
And those of my co-workers and benefactors,
Whose economic fate got somehow tied to equal rights and
The road to freedom.
I never saw Jose or Junior, Oscar Flowers,
Murray, or the rest of the guys again.
But I remember my last day working.
Junior and I were delivering several
Mattress and box spring sets
To a 12th story apartment in the projects
And the elevators were both out of service.
It was a hot and muggy, summer day.
Had we been asked to haul mattresses and box springs
Down twelve flights of stairs in the projects it
Would have been simple, like descending into hell,
But since we were climbing twelve flights of stairs
It was only another challenging nightmare.
After the initial shock and reassessment of the task before us
As just another on-going surreal part of the job we were
Expected to deal with for our modest day’s pay.
For the same task Hercules might have been offered a kingdom.
And, thank God for Junior.
What would I have done without him, the black Hercules?
I’m pulling Junior off guys left and right.
It was a very hot summer day in the city,
And we were hauling the steel bed frames, our third trip
Up the same 12 story concrete staircase,
And as we climbed so did the temperature,
With the fuming garbage pails and the stink,
The kids and the crying babies and the piss in the hallways.
And somehow the job got finished. And, back down on the street
The hot summer day on the baked tar, sticky asphalt
Felt as cool as the beach in comparison
When that first breeze hits you in the face.