Irma was a Mexicana who lived on my block when I was about ten. We lived at 4405 S. Wood Street in Back of the Yards and she lived two houses south of us, upstairs from my friend Carlos Mojaro. She was about six years older than me, but everyone in the neighborhood knew her. She was very pretty and friendly. She always had a boyfriend, but never for very long.

Of course, then all the rumors started about her reputation, if you know what I mean. Even when she wasn’t home, some guy would come looking for her. Sometimes they weren’t even from the neighborhood. Irma’s mother–I never did learn her name because everyone simply called her Irma’s mother–would always look out her second-floor apartment window and shout for them to go away and stay away from her daughter! There was no element of mystery here.

Everyone knew that Irma’s mother was also very friendly with the men in the neighborhood, but only more so than her daughter. She was a single mother raising a son, whom was rarely seen coming or going home, and a daughter. The whole family was very popular with everyone in the neighborhood except for all the neighbors who lived within a half-block of them. They also had a dog–no one knew her name, but we always referred to her as Irma’s mother’s dog–that would often escape from the apartment and wander the neighborhood, occasionally biting children who wanted to pet it. Their dog also developed a reputation of being overly friendly with the other dogs in the neighborhood, but somehow never had any puppies. One day as I was walking our dog Duke, he approached Irma’s mother’s dog out of curiosity and she tried to bite Duke, but Duke ducked and bit her first. Irma’s mother looked out her window and yelled at me. I tried to explain that her dog tried to bite mine first, but Irma’s mother just started swearing at me. There was no talking to her.

One day, I saw Irma go into her house with her boyfriend. I could hear her lock the door as I sat on the porch with my friend Carlos. A few hours later, her mother came home and Irma wouldn’t let her in. Her mother started to swear at Irma as she looked out the window down at her mother. She kept saying, “You better let me in right now!” But Irma went inside and closed the windows even though it was hot outside. By then a crowd had started to gather. Irma’s mother kept shouting, “I’m gonna call the police on your boyfriend!” Then one of the women neighbors started arguing with Irma’s mother because of her dog that had gone into the neighbor’s yard. Irma’s mother asked for a reprieve from the argument because her daughter was in the house with some guy and she couldn’t get in. I was sitting on my bike out in front watching the scene. There were well over fifty people watching.

Then, the woman tells Irma’s mother, “I’m not surprised your daughter’s in there with some guy!” “What do you mean?” asked Irma’s mother. “You daughter’s a whore!” Irma’s mother just laughed. “You’re a whore, too!” We were all expecting for a physical fight to break out, but nothing. Irma’s mother just laughed that off, too. Finally, the woman says, “I’ve seen your dog fucking all the other dogs in the neighborhood! Even your dog’s a whore!”

This was just too, too much for Irma’s mother to take. She grabbed the woman’s hair and said, “You can call me a whore and you can call my daughter a whore, but don’t you ever talk about my dog!” Then Irma’s mother scratched the woman’s face. By then the police arrived and broke up the fight. The two police officers wanted to know what the fight was about and Irma’s mother said that the woman had called her dog a whore. She looked at the police believing that she was justified in attacking the woman.

Eventually, the police said that they came because a girl was locked in the apartment by her boyfriend. They went up to the front door and kicked it open. Both officers went upstairs. Everyone watching was excited because it had been a while since the police had been to their house. Well, Irma’s boyfriend ran out the back door and came out to the front of the house. He saw me on my bike and said, “You have to give me a ride!” Actually, he was much bigger than me, so he rode the bike and I sat on the handlebars. He rode a block away and took off running. I never saw him again.

When I rode back to Irma’s house, the police were out in front talking to Irma and her mother. I don’t know what happened after that because by then my mother came outside and made me go in the house.

Newspaper routes

Bridgeport News, Chicago, Illinois

When I was in Holy Cross School, I had several paper routes and I really enjoyed delivering newpapers. My best friend in the fourth grade was Patrick McDonnell. One day he asked me to help him deliver newspapers on his paper route. One of his older brothers had the paper route, but when he got tired of delivering newspapers, he gave the paper route to his brother Patrick. In those days, it was almost impossible to get a paper route on your own. True to Chicago tradition, you even needed clout to get a paper route.

I helped Patrick deliver his newspaper, The Chicago American, for a few days. One day, he asked me if I knew who all the customers were. Of course, I did! “That’s good,” he said. “Because you can have the paper route!” He had gotten tired of delivering papers and couldn’t quit the paper route until he found a replacement. Well, I was extremely happy to be his replacement because I loved delivering newspapers and I especially loved having some spending money. I’m not sure how long I had that paper route, but it was long enough to see the Chicago American become the Chicago Today. I loved reading the newspaper as I walked door to door delivering it. Then one day, the Chicago Today folded and I was out of a job. But it was fun while it lasted.

Months later, my friend Patrick asked me to help him with his paper route again. He had found another paper route and again he was tired of delivering newspapers on his bicycle. He immediately thought of me as his replacement. This route had many more customers than the other one and you needed to deliver the papers on a bicycle because this route covered our entire neighborhood. This paper route was the most memorable one for me. Paper route number 9! I really learned a lot about life while delivering newspapers on this route. And, I also truly learned a lot about the Back of the Yards and its residents. On this route, I delivered the Chicago Daily News, the Chicago Zgoda, and the Chicagowski, the last two were newspapers published in Polish. I tried to read the Polish newspapers, but they seemed be written in a foreign language to me. And most of the Polish subscribers hardly knew English, but we always understood each other.

There were two facets to delivering newspapers. One was the actual delivery of the newspapers. Some subscribers wanted it delivered a certain way. Folded without a rubberband, or with a rubberband. On the front porch, or on the back porch. Between the screendoor and the door. There were considerate customers who didn’t mind if I just rode past on my bike and threw the paper on their front porch. And my aim was true, most of the time.

One day, as I was approaching a house next to the alley, I was about to throw the newspaper on the porch when suddenly a car sped out of the alley. I was shaken a little and when I released the newspaper, it broke the glass on the storm door. I was so scared that I kept riding and delivering papers. When I returned to the newspaper agency, the subscriber had already reported me to my boss, Ernest Pressman. I swear. That was his real name. She knew it was an accident and she only wanted me to pay for the broken window. I remember I had to pay about four dollars for a new window, roughly my weekly salary before tips.

Sometimes delivering the newspaper could be downright dangerous. One customer wanted the paper delivered in the rear hallway. What I didn’t know was that somethimes she kept her German Shepherd there. One day, I open the hallway door and saw the German Shepherd lounging at my hand that was attempting to drop the newspaper in the hallway. I quickly shoved the newspaper in his mouth and slammed the door shut. I was waiting for another reprimand from Mr. Pressman when I returned to the newspaper agency, but I was never reported for this.

The second facet was collecting the money for the subscriptions. Collecting money from some customers required an excellent memory, ruses, and strategems. All this just to collect a measly fifty cents! I had to remember what day they got paid so I could go collect the money that day before they squandered it away on rent, food, utilities, and other such nonsense. And I also had to make sure I had enough change so they could pay and I could give them change. They wouldn’t pay unless I gave them correct change.

One woman once asked me if I had change for a five. Of course, I did. So then she upped it to ten dollars. I told her I had change for a ten, too. Then, she said for a twenty and I said yes. She then told me she had a fifty dollar bill and I showed her that I had enough change. I was ready for her because she had tried this before. She then paid me in exact change and gave me a nickel for a tip. I mean I got to know all of my customers very well. One woman told me to collect the money on Saturday morning at 8:00 a.m. and then wait for about ten to fifteen minutes until she opened the door. Not a problem, I told her. All I wanted to do was collect my money, and hopefully, a small tip. The reason she wanted me to knock on her door so early was that I was her Saturday morning alarm clock. And she took so long to open the door because she went to the bathroom first. I always hoped she washed her hands.

I delivered the Daily News to a bar on the corner of 43rd Street and Wolcott. When the bartender paid for the subscription, he would tip me fifty cents and tell me to take a bag of Mrs. Vitner’s potato chips, any candy bar of my choice, and a pack of gum. One customer I never saw. She left me a note on her door in the rear hallway saying she would leave the money hidden in a crack in the wall. I was pleased by this arrangement because this mystery woman tipped well.

One little old Polish lady always wanted me to deliver both the Zgoda and Chicagowski directly into her hands. So I had to get off my bike, go knock on her door, she would say something in Polish that I didn’t understand, I would say I was the paperboy, and then she would open up the door. I did this everyday! Actually, I didn’t mind doing it, either. Of course, she wasn’t a big tipper, either, even though she considered herself extremely generous. On the day I had to collect the money for the subscription, she would tell me to enter her apartment and lock the door behind me. She would give a crisp brand new dollar bill to pay for her bill of 99 cents. I would then give her her change of one cent, which she would give back to me immediately as my tip and insist that I put the penny in a different pocket because that penny was for me and not the newpaper agency. Most subscribers would tip a nickel or a dime and that was extremely generous in all reality. But I really loved going through this weekly ritual for my one cent tip! Sometimes I had to run out of the apartment so she wouldn’t hear me when I couldn’t contain my laughter anymore. I really loved this little old Polish lady!

There was another little old Polish lady on paper route who received the Chicago Daily News, the Zgoda, and the Chicagowski. Her bill was about $1.50 per week. She wasn’t as demanding about her delivery, either. When I went to collect the money for her subscription, she would tip me 100%. I told her that $1.50 was way too much money for the tip, but she insisted. Well, being the polite Mexican boy that I was, I would pocket the money, in a different pocket, of course, so the Mr. Pressman wouldn’t get my tip. Sometimes, she would feel really guilty about the tip and slip me an extra nickel or dime before I walked out!

Extra! Extra! Read all about it!