In the 1960s, Chicago was very much a segregated city. Neighborhoods were categorized by race and/or ethnicity. When people moved to Chicago, they pretty much stuck to their own kind. This was in an era before anyone could foretell the coming of Political Correctness and everyone called every race and ethnic group by their corresponding slur. Sometimes, people would be offended by such name calling, but oftentimes, most people merely accepted it as part of life in Chicago. Those neighborhood boundaries could only be crossed when going to work or when shopping, as long as no one over-stayed their time where they didn’t belong. No one ever commented on these inequities back then. That was Chicago, that’s all. When I lived in Back of the Yards, no blacks ventured there except to go shopping at the stores on Ashland Avenue between 45th Street and 51st Street. There was name calling and such, but basically there was never any trouble.
When I lived at 4546 S. Marshfield Avenue, there was a Sinclair gas station, whose logo was a green dinosaur, on the corner across the street. It had one gas pump that was directly in front of the building on the sidewalk. Whenever I needed air for my bicycle tires, I went across the street for it. As a ten year old, I often needed help fixing my bicycle when my father wasn’t home, so I would go to the gas station where Max would help me. Max had the reputation for being the very best mechanic around, not just in our neighborhood, but anywhere. Everyone respected him for his mechanical skills and brought their cars to him if they needed repairs. Max also dispensed free mechanical advice to anyone who asked for it. After a while, no one even noticed that he was black. That’s right, a black man was working at our gas station beyond the allowable shopping district boundaries. But it was acceptable because he was at work. However, Max was accepted amicably by all the neighborhood residents. He was a hero to all my friends and me because he could fix our bikes no matter what was wrong with them. And he never charged us anything. I used to like to hang out with him when I had nothing to do. He just seemed like the wisest man on earth because he could fix just about anything anyone brought in. I would ride my bike over and sit on his bench and watch him fix flat tires. He explained everything he did to me every step of the way. I was always fascinated by the machine that removed the tires from the rim. It was loud and menacing, but Max had tamed it to obey his every command. When business was slow, which was rarely, he would sit next to me on the bench and we would talk small talk. “How’s it going, buddy?” “Great! How are you, Max?” We were buddies. Then all Sinclair gas stations started giving out free passes to the Riverview amusement park with a gas fill-up. Since we were buddies, Max gave me enough passes for my entire family and my father took us to Riverview several times. Max was really popular with all the boys after that.
There was an older boy on the block that I often avoided. I always afraid of this boy because he was rotten to the core and he often scared me. He had that look that threatened physical violence to anyone who returned it. Then one day, he told me that Max was black. Looking back, I’m not even sure if I ever even noticed. He was just Max the mechanic at Sinclair to me. He was a very nice guy and he was always very helpful to me. Anyway, this boy told me that Max was a “nigger.” I didn’t understand what he was talking about. He explained to me that Max was inferior to us because of his skin color. We rode our bikes to the corner and Max was standing in front of the gas station. The boy told me to call Max a “nigger.” I refused because Max was my friend. We stopped our bikes directly across the street from Max and the boy insisted that I shout “nigger” to Max. I just couldn’t. I knew that Max could hear our conversation, but he acted as if he were oblivious to us. Then the boy said he would beat me up if I didn’t. He punched me in the arm really hard, he gave me his patented menacing look, and said, “Then call him a Fudgecicle!” I refused at first, but then I was afraid to get beat up. So I half-heartedly said, “Fudgecicle.” Max didn’t betray any form of acknowledgement that he had heard me. I felt so bad. I was sure my friendship with Max was over. But I didn’t get beat up.
The next day, I felt too guilty to visit Max as I usually did. After a few more days, I went back to the gas station and I tried to act as if nothing had happened. Max greeted me as he usually did. And we had our normal conversation of small talk. As if nothing had ever happened! Max was such a great friend!