Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Sign of the Times

One summer afternoon in the mid-1970s, I was walking about 30 yards behind a guy heading east on the 800 block of West Grace Street. Then, like it was his, he casually picked up the Organic Food Store’s hand-painted sandwich board style sign from the sidewalk in front of the store. Without turning his head to look around, the sign thief kept going at the same pace.

As I walked faster to close the distance between us we continued 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 would 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 while walking. 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, with the sign under his right arm, holding the weight with his hand.

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.

With a big smile I carried the recovered property back to the store, which was a few doors west of the Biograph. Obviously, I don’t really remember exactly what I said to the thief three decades ago, verbatim, but that was a faithful recounting of the events.

What I had done came in great part from a young man’s sense of righteous indignation, together with the spirit of camaraderie that existed among some of the neighborhood’s merchants in that time. There were a bunch of us then in our mid-20s, who were running businesses on that bohemian strip — bars, retail shops, etc. We were friends and we watched out for one another.

Now I’m amazed that I used to do such things. My tough guy performance had lasted about a minute. The character I invented was drawn somewhat from Humphrey Bogart, with as much Robert Mitchum as I could muster. Hey, the thief didn’t look back, so he must have felt lucky to get 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. There was Chelf’s Drug Store 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 since the late-1940s. 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 years, while the new Village goes on across Harrison Street. That 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. But 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 ‘80s I remember an angry, red-bearded street beggar with a missing foot threatening to “bite a plug out” of me, because I had had the temerity to tell him to stop bothering people in front of the Biograph, to move on.

In that moment it was painfully obvious to me that times had indeed changed. Wisely, I didn’t press my case any further that day. Instead, I moved on.

-- 30 --


Jocelyn Testes-Harder said...

Didn't you post this story before? I remember it from somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Dude, you did run this story before and stealing signs is nothing. As this Second Depression really sets in this Fall, we are going to see some real carnage. Drugs like meth will only be part of the story. The Baby Boomers failed.

F.T. Rea said...

Sometimes I recycle stories.