In the early 1900ís, my grandfather, Shepsel Reuben, opened a little general store at 656 Maxwell Street in Chicago. Maxwell Street was an island of pushcarts. To compete with them, the Reuben Department Store had a small stand out front, the purpose of which was to waylay pedestrians and haul them inside. The neighborhood itself was referred to as the Bloody 20th Ward, and everyone who lived there was a registered Democrat.
Not to be was to risk your life.
Since my grandmother could neither read nor write in English, obliging politicians were always eager to get into the voting booth with Eshke and tell her how to vote. The precinct captain knew exactly how many votes a candidate would get before an election, not excluding Teddy Roosevelt Reuben, my fatherís dog, who was a registered Democrat.
After Uncle Jack was born, Shepsel bought a complete set of architectural books, studied them, and began to construct buildings Ė by hand.
During the 1929 depression, he lost the building he had bought at 3346 West Grenshaw Street, where he and his family lived. The bank foreclosed on the property and it was put up for sale. So Shepsel borrowed money from everyone in the family who had any, and bought his own building back at that sale.
When he was on his way to buy another building on Harding Avenue in 1944 or 1945, he put $60,000 in cash in a shoebox and got on a bus. In the Great Reuben Tradition, though, he promptly fell asleep. When the bus driver called out his stop, Shepsel started to leave without his shoebox. Fortunately the bus driver said, ďYou forgot your lunch,Ē and the Harding Avenue building became yet another acquisition.
Each building constructed or purchased by my grandfather and inherited by my father, my Uncles Jack and Mike, or my Aunt Rose had its own story, scribbled between the lines of purchase agreements (one was written on the back of a matchbook), and each chapter of that story reverberated with the hopes, humors, tribulations, and aggravations of a typical American immigrant family.
My Uncle Mike was born in the back bedroom of a house at 3336 West Roosevelt Road. That was a nice memory until hoodlums burned it down during the race riots of the 1960ís. My fatherís building at 3513 Roosevelt Road, uninsured at the time, also went up in smoke. Both buildings, only decades before, had embodied the dream of a poor cabinet-maker.
In an almost impossibly short time, the neighborhood had become a slum. Walls that once witnessed the daily struggles of doers and dreamers were sheltering welfare-recipients, gypsies, con artists and thieves, most of whom considered it a matter of pride not to pay their rent. For many years, friends and relatives had droned the dirge of changing neighborhoods to Sam, but he hadnít listened. Uncle Jack, Uncle Mike and Aunt Rosie had left Chicagoís South Side long before the arsonists, looters and rioters moved in.
But my father had remained. He hadnít sold his buildings. He couldnít. They were too much a part of him. Each door, wall, and ceiling was a page on which the history of his life had been written. Shepsel Reuben had opened his first tuxedo rental business at 3403 West Roosevelt Road. While Jack and Sam ran that store, my grandfather opened another one at 6306 South Halstead Street. Not along after, Shepsel opened a third store at 39 State Street. Jack managed it. Then my father opened a fourth store at 4003 West Madison Street. During that period of explosive productivity, Sam and Jack were still high school students, my father only fourteen years old. Later, tuxedo rentals paid their way through college.
And time went on.
My father stopped renting tuxedos, and the buildings purchased by my grandfather in the proud and prosperous prime of their existence turned from American dream into American nightmare. But Samuel Reuben didnít believe in nightmares. Not even when he should have. That dear and sentimental man was no more capable of selling an entire edifice than he was of giving away hundreds of decades-old tuxedos.
How could he?
How could he sell a memory?
Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit shellyreuben.com
Copyright © 2009, Shelly Reuben