Thursday, March 15, 2012

In Memoriam: Maxwell Street

   In Memoriam: Maxwell Street
                           by jjméndez

On litter-covered empty lots 
Dented fifty gallon garbage drums
Stand proud and tall like strategically
Positioned pawns. They belch and cough
Glowing cinders and implied smoke signals 
Into a bustling Maxwell Street

The foggy scent of crackling firewood,
(A miscellany of burning skeletal remains)
Once fancy tables, rocking chairs
And sofa beds, now woos the sweet
Aromas of grilled onions, fat-fried
Pork chops, Mustard-splattered Polish
Sausages and hot dogs… all dressed in
Pickled relish and the obligatory greasy fries.

This wanderlust of smells works its way
Into unsuspecting runny noses leading
Ever-vigilant onlookers in search of
Bargains in the crowded storefronts,
Sidewalk tents, and makeshift corner stands
Filled with neatly folded second-hand
Blue collar shirts and khaki pants,
Pimp oil, bedroom trinkets and
Worn-out bar room artifacts…

Black, Brown and White hawking eyes in
Grubby faces avidly scan the stacks of goods
For lost treasures among piles upon piles
Of Plumber’s tools and carpenters’ glues,
Faded lamps and dining table sets
Crooked forks and ornate spoons
Workman’s shoes and unusual screws,
Rusty nails, fishing lines, tangled nets,
Tell-tale hooks and worn-out pocket knives…

Thirsty winos, bums, pimps, and ladies
Of the night seem to beg onlookers
To stop and listen to lifelong stories
Engraved in the cuts and bruises
They all commonly display…

The busty Gypsy women in low-cut blouses
Luring men –of all ages— into dark hallways
Leading to nebulous up-the-stairs spaces
Saturated with a musty incense that embraces
Giggling Gypsy girls eagerly awaiting
To try out their fortune-telling talents,
Tricks of the trade, and other games of prey.

The chunky Indian lady dressed
In feathers and power amulets brandishes
Her tattooed ten foot boa constrictor
Slithering around her sweaty neck
Like a precious necklace juxtaposing
Her flowery grease-stained undulating dress.

The tall leathery Blackman
With the rooster on his head
Walking gaily down the street
Relishing the stares he gets from
Bug-eyed Black and Mexican boys dressed
In worn-out pants and shrunken T-shirts as
Much younger sibs with fingers clenched to
Mothers’ hands kick up dirt and trash
With their ragged little shoes…

The cacophony of loudspeaker vibes
Interlacing MLK’s I have a Dream and
JFK’s Ask Not Inaugural Address with
Dusty melodies of sweet soul oldies
And Norteño Spanish lyrics doused with
Bajo sexto and acordeón.  And (we can’t forget)
The strumming steel guitar and hollow
Sounds of the beating broken drum and snare
Of skinny bluesmen in their tattered suits
Tapping on the ground with their faded Stacy
Adams and scuffed patent leather shoes…

The raspy voice of the wine-scented
Woman flaunting gaily a dusty wig;
Her neck enveloped in a hot pink scarf
Hanging low –way, way, low— to her knobby knees
As if covering her stained-stiff miniskirt
And unraveling fishnet stockings wrapped
Around her wiry lower limbs.  Oh, but she sings!

She sings the blues like no one else could.
Pouring out her heart and setting the mood out there
In the busy street for those that care to listen
To the pains and joys of the good life
She once lived and now gone too soon…

The final stop –always a treat for me—
At México Lindo.  An oasis
Of familiar kitchen sights
And home-spun smells.  Fresh tortillas,
Luscious salsas, steaming barbacoa,
Succulent carnitas, kickass Jalapeños,
Rice and beans, and crunchy chicharrones;
The kind of place where a homemade meal
Never failed to appeal to a hungry mouth
In need of the delights of sumptuous
Tacos and endless cups of freshly
Brewed Café con leche

Contrary to what’s commonly believed
(Whenever I describe this scene)
This vignette is not a dream
It’s a living memory
Of a bustling Maxwell Street --a
Long-lasting part of me.

So, Mayor Daley and accomplices--
Including UIC-- I say to you:
While you have done away
With what once was the pride
Of Chi-Town’s Near Westside,
Maxwell Street remains forever in my heart
I shall not forget…
                         I shall not forget…

    (no matter how you called it)

Jewtown!  La Garra!  14th and Halsted!


(photos courtesy of  Tom Smith, Maxwell Street Blues, 2004)

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