Friday, January 26, 2018

Sign of the Times

One pleasant afternoon in the mid-1970s, I was walking some 20 yards behind a guy heading east on the 800 block of West Grace Street. It was probably summertime. Curiously, he picked up the Organic Food Store’s hand-painted sandwich board style sign from the sidewalk in front of the store and put it under his arm.

Without looking around for any witnesses, he resumed his walk, eastward. I don't remember what I thought, at the time but to close the distance between us, I walked a little faster down the red brick sidewalk.

By the time we had passed the Biograph Theatre, where I worked, was plotting what to do. I was sure he had no honest reason to take the sign. He was a big-haired hippie, 18 to 20 years old. I suppose 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 five or six yards of him when I spoke the lines I had written for myself. My tone was resolute: “Hey, I saw you take the sign. Don’t turn around. Just put it down and walk away.”

The thief’s body language announced that he had heard me. He didn’t turn around. Instead he walked faster. I continued following and I said with more force: “Put the sign down. The cops are already on the way. Walk away while you still can.”

Without further ado the wooden sign clattered onto the sidewalk. The sign thief kept just 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.

So I carried the recovered property back to the store. Obviously, I don’t really remember exactly what I said in this incident all those years ago, verbatim, but what you just read was a faithful recounting of the events and the spirit of what I said.

What I had done came in part from my 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. In the '60s and '70s the same neighborhood was also home to cartoon-like characters such as the wandering Flashlight Lady and the Grace Street Midget.

By the late-'70s the scene in that neighborhood had evolved. It was meaner and more dangerous. Bars needed bouncers at the door. Hippies were being replaced by punks. Cocaine was replacing pot as the most popular recreational drug.

In 1981, or so, 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.

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