scene: myself, buyer, seller's agent, and resident in illegal basement apartment, known as an 'in-law' in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood
From an infamous Chicago 'in-law', those don't ask, don't tell dwellings that occupy damp dungeons throughout the don't ask don't tell city, where one can find monthly habitation costs for less than a solid medical insurance policy, located beneath a pleasantly fading 2 flat greystone near Central Park and 26th, in the heart of Little Village, known to some as 'La Villita' or the 'real Pilsen'.
One too many Italian beefs, but his giardiniera soaked heart still pumps blood to the stories unfolding like El Milagro tortillas (corn, never flour) from his radiating corpulence. He's the kind of garrulous man you find yourself listening to in front of one of those members only drinking clubs that occupy discreet neighborhood corners. An hour passes, a captivating slice of Chicago history transforms your pixelated mind into a vivid reel of Algren inspired scenes, and you are back home, in your tenant-less basement, still enthralled by this jabbering man's tales, when you realize that you forgot to buy the detergent. We are talking with this man. A caricature of Chicago, one of many caricatures.
His realtor doesn't share my excitement. And he's one of the good ones. One of the few real estate agents selling less than luxury homes who actually shows up to give prospective buyers a tour. Many building owners in Chicago living in homes under $300,000 pay a realtor 5-6% of the sales price so that their licensed representative can go through the painstaking trouble of putting a sometimes functioning lockbox on the door where prospective buyers can 'just see for themselves'. Other hard working realtors expend tremendous amounts of their limited time allowing tenants to show the property. A true treat that all renters should be lucky to experience. These fine pillars of the Realtor community continue to bestow upon the profession it's deserved reputation. And it's because this realtor had appointments to get to that he didn't have patience for another one of Basement Barney's tales of yesteryear. But we did. And we were the Buyers.
His dees, dose, and das were straight from the Chicago school of Hooked on Phonics. This particular accent immortalized by legions of suburban drunks chanting 'da bears' on the corner of State and Division never appears to exit the mouth of black Chicagoans. Perplexing for anyone familiar with the New York accent, which knows no racial boundary. The storyteller, who we'll affectionately call our 'in-law', was not of African descent, but he was two shades darker than a Sicilian macchiato. When he spoke, you reacted with the same surprise as an Asian speaking with a British accent. How was it possible? You don't allow yourself the time to think about one culture raised within another. That would take effort. You just listen with the same childhood curiosity and awe as a man from McHenry county meeting a woman on Halsted, a woman who is clearly not a fully operational woman.
“Ize come here, right d'here, on dis block, oh my, bouts sixty four. Dats right boyz, Werz you even born d'yet (laughing)? So weeze get here, place full of dem bohemians and da poles. Czechs too. Weeze da first Mexicans on da block. Hellz, weeze mayha been da first mexicans in all da area....
I wanted to interrupt. There was so much I wanted to know, but I didn't need to. This flick had no intermissions.
“Oh myze, you shoulda seen da faces of deese Poles. All of 'dem. Deyse be drowing da trash canz in ourse yard every day. I come home. I put da can back in da alley. Next day. Happenz again. I walk to da bus, or to da train, and always be one of 'dem, yelling someding at us. 'Go home beaner. Dirty Mexican.' Deyse be callin us all sorts of names dya know? Every name, all 'dem bad ones. They call us.
So's one day, I decides I'm gonna say someding to deez poles. Maybe da first guy, hez a bohemian or some czech. I can't reallys remember. So dis guy, he callz me some name, and den hes says someding about 'gimme money.' But he don't have da weapon. Nuttin. And dis time, I dont keep walking. No sir. I get up in da Pole's face. I tell dat Pole, 'use want my money, come and get it. Ize ain't scared of you poles.' And Ize just be standing 'dere, looking mean and tough. And dis guy... I tells ya, dis guy, he just starts runnin. And after dat, every one of 'dem who say someding, I do da same, and soon, it stopped. Deyse stop messing' wit me. Dens one day, I notice, dere ain't so many dems left here. More of myse people are coming, and more of dem keeps leaving. I says to people, 'wherez da ol' neyburhood?' And one friend he sayz to me, 'we are da neyburhood' now. And so da white gangs goez a different area and come our gangs. Dya know? Dat's Chicago.”
“Wasn't this crazy for you, I mean, to come from Mexico and see the American dream turn out to be like this?”
He's laughing his one too many Italian beef laugh, and then he puts forth, “Ha. Dat wasn't nuttin for me. Ize raized on Taylor Street. Eye-talyans. Deyse taught me how to fight.”
The in-law's exasperated realtor cut him off. “Ok. Thanks. But we have to get going.”
As we walked up the junk strewn rear porch, falling back into the Earth like most enclosed Chicago porches, the realtor turned to me, his professional opposite but nonetheless a 'colleague', and he curtly said, “Sorry about that. He's got a mouth.”
My client is laughing. I'm laughing. “We love that guy. Make him a partner.”
The realtor with the rotary dial mobile didn't seem amused. “Alright, well, I want to get you guys upstairs but I don't have the key. And the seller isn't coming home. It's a great unit. Totally renovated. I think you're going to like it. But I can't get you in. You'll have to come back.”
It's the reason real estate is one of America's most difficult professions. You have to obtain small delicate metal objects used to gain entry. You need to physically open the doors, some of them requiring an extra push. You need to show people where the cabinets are and how the shower turns on. You need to point to the backyard and tell the buyer what they can plant there. And you have to spend a few extra minutes listening to people's real life stories. Real Estate. The Few. The Proud.
Stick with da in-laws. Da good stuff is always underground.