A Sign of the Times
Without looking around for any witnesses to his act of dishonesty, the sign thief kept going at the same pace. To close the distance between us, I walked faster down the red brick sidewalk.
By the time we had passed the Biograph Theatre, where I worked, I had sized him up and decided what I was going to do. He was a big-haired hippie, 18 to 20 years old; he could have been a student. Or, he might have been a traveling panhandler/opportunist. In those days there were plenty of both in the neighborhood.
Passing by Sally Bell’s Kitchen, in the 700 block, I was within six or seven yards of him when I spoke the lines I had written for myself. My tone was resolute, my voice clear: “Hey, I saw you steal the sign. Don’t turn around … just put it down and walk away.”
The thief’s body language announced that he had heard me, but he didn’t turn around. Instead he walked faster. Moving closer to him, I said with more force: “Put the sign down. The cops are on the way. Walk away while you still can.”
Without further ado the wooden sign clattered onto the sidewalk. The sign thief kept going without looking back. As I gathered my neighbor’s property I watched the fleeing hippie break into a sprint, cross Grace Street and disappear going toward Monroe Park at the next corner.
Then I carried the recovered property back to the store. Obviously, I don’t really remember exactly what I said to the thief nearly 40 years ago, verbatim, but that was a faithful recounting of the events and the spirit of what I said.
What I had done came in part from a young man’s sense of righteous indignation. That, together with the spirit of camaraderie that existed among some of the neighborhood’s merchants in that time. There were several of us, then in our mid-to-late-20s, who were running businesses on that bohemian strip — bars, retail shops, etc. We were friends and we watched out for one another.
My tough guy performance had lasted less than a minute. Now I’m amazed that I used to do such things. The character I invented was drawn somewhat from Humphrey Bogart, with as much Robert Mitchum as I could muster. Hey, since he bought the act, the thief probably felt lucky to have gotten away. Who knows? Maybe he’s still telling this same story, too, but from another angle.
This much I know — that quirky pop scene on Grace Street in those days was a goldmine of offbeat stories. Chelf’s Drug Store was at the corner of Grace and Shafer. With its antique soda fountain and a few booths, it had been a hangout for magazine-reading, alienated art students for decades. It seemed frozen in time.
The original Village Restaurant, a block west of Chelf’s, was a legendary beatnik watering hole, going back to the 1950s. Writer Tom Robbins and artist William Fletcher “Bill” Jones (1930-‘98) hung out there. Strangely, that location has remained boarded up for decades, while the new Village still goes on across Harrison Street. In the '70s the same neighborhood was also home to cartoon-like characters such as the wandering Flashlight Lady and the Grace Street Midget.
During the late-‘60s the hippies had come on strong to replace the beats, as the strip went psychedelic, seemingly overnight. By the mid-‘70s the hippie blue jean culture had peaked. It was about to be replaced by the black leather of Punk Rock and polyester of the Disco scene. All-night dance clubs became popular.
So, by the late-‘70s the mood on the strip had changed severely. Cocaine was becoming the preferred drug of choice with the druggie in-crowd, replacing pot. Several restaurants were serving liquor-by-the-drink, the dives catering to the young set began having rugged bouncers at the door.
Into the early-‘80s, I can also remember a day when an angry, red-bearded street beggar with a missing foot was scaring old ladies coming and going from the then-new Dominion Place apartment building on the 1000 block of Grace. We were about the same age. I said something to him like, "Cut it out and move on."
The surly panhandler laughed like a villain in a slasher movie and threatened to, “Bite a plug out” of me. Wisely, I didn’t press my case any further. Instead, I moved on.
Walking eastward away from that unnerving confrontation, passing the 7-Eleven store that's still there, it was more obvious than ever that the times had indeed changed in the neighborhood. By then Chelf's was history. The same space had become home to a greasy spoon restaurant.