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Chicago Stories: A Point of Honor

"Il Vecchio" is what we called him, Mr. Braccia, "The Old Man." Within his hearing, however, we called him "il signor," partly because it made him happy and he would sing, and partly because he was, in fact, very old and, although we were just grubby children living from day to day under the roaring el tracks that ran above 63rd street in South Chicago, we respected real age. And what did we think we meant by "real age?" I wish I could tell you simply, but when those complex criteria of childhood are caught by a stray memory and held tight, turned over and over for analysis, they disintegrate into a kaleidoscope of pictures. Children think and judge, not by rational means, but by a mass of distorted and fragmented pictures and sounds. So when I asked myself why Mr. Braccia was "Il Vecchio," and why a bunch of little guttersnipes always stood up when Mr. Braccia went by with his pushcart, I can only say that I have the memory of a picture from some magazine of a gnarled and twisted cypress growing out of some impossible crack in a big rock by the sea, and leaning forward as if the wind never stopped trying to blow it away.

The Old Man was also a man of great honor, and repaid respect with liberality. "Bene," he would say as he swung his fruit and vegetable cart into place on the corner of Maryland and 63rd, pulled out an old fruit box, carefully set it on end, and just as carefully seated himself where the sun would reflect off the light-colored bricks behind him, and slowly and steadily warm the muscles and bones of his back. "Bene," he would say, and point to a spot on the sidewalk in front of him with an air of complete and assured authority that somehow entirely lacked any trace of the head-patting sort of contempt that made us fear and despise our teachers. We would stand in front of him, and this wifeless and childless old man would at look each of us from head to toe, smile slightly and repeat the word "bene." With each of these benedictions, he would dispense a vegetable as if he were giving us some precious gift.

Il Vecchio would then frown slightly in thought and, after a few moments during which we waited silently, he would pass on to us some of the accumulated wisdom of his years. "If she's good olive oil, she shouldn't run too slow," he once told us. On another occasion, we learned that you don't never get all the sand out of endives. Also, "Wait for the seasons before you eat the fruits. They make you sick if you don't." Why do I remember these things when I have forgotten so many words of so many experts, champions, presidents and other important men and women each in their day? Partly because Il Vecchio gave me sweet green peppers and crisp cold celery, partly because he was old and deserved to be listened to, and partly, I suppose, because what he had to say was more important in the long run than their posturing.

I remember that it was a Friday in July, but I can't recall the year. It might have been 1938, though, because, for some reason or another, I think of Luke Appling when I remember that morning. Mr. Braccia had just pushed his cart into its accustomed place as we had gazed with awe from the other side of 63rd street. Il Vecchio had a new, large, and completely magnificent cart! The box was a rich maroon, the spokes were a dark green, and above the neatly displayed fruits and vegetables was a dark green and white striped awning. Modest black-shadowed gold printing on the side of the box spelled out "A. Braccia Green Grocer." Reaching beneath the box, Il Vecchio pulled out a folding chair and cushion. To complete his series of wonders, he reached beneath to box once more, extracted and donned a dark blue denim bibbed apron and a new straw hat.The overall effect was as marvelous as it was unexpected, and a number of people stopped to applaud.

It was just then that an elegantly attired, pearl spatted, white-carnationed figure carrying a small black leather valise crossed Maryland Street, took off his hat to Il Vecchio, and started to continue on his way. He was a familiar enough figure, although I never heard anyone call him by name. He would walk from store to store along the street each Friday, collecting five dollars from small concerns and ten from larger businesses. For this relatively small sum, the businessmen secured protection and the right to bring their problems to the attention of Mr. Alfonse Capone. Unlike the modern arrangement, the businessmen were actually protected and, for the most part, their problems were in fact resolved.

"Hey!" Mr Braccia suddenly called out to the collector, "Where you think you're going?" The collector slowly turned to Il Vecchio, took off his hat again, and said inquiringly, "Si, Signor?" The Old Man stood up, reached in his apron pocket, pulled out a bill, and said "Ain't you forgot my five dollars?" The collector shook his head firmly, "You don't owe no five dollars. Il padron mio don't collect from no pushcarts. No money from nobody what shouldn't afford it. Braccia ain't in my book, so I don't take no money from il Signor." Il Vecchio turned red, and said, with heavy sarcasm, "I gotta new big cart, I gotta apron and hat, I gotta fine customers. I shouldn't get protected?" The collector looked at the pavement, and spoke so low that I could hardly hear him, even though I had crossed the street, as had many others. "The names in my book, they got money and oughta pay, and everybody got something to protect so everybody got protection." Il Vecchio was furious. "I ain't no rag picker or junkman. I gotta business, I gotta good customers, so I gotta pay my share. I don't take handouts even from il suo padrone."

Everyone must have understood, since we kids knew what was happening. It was a point of honor. Il Vecchio was demanding that Mr. Capone take five dollars from him as a sign of respect, and Mr. Capone's agent would not take the five dollars out of Mr. Capone's respect for the Old Man's age and poverty. The collector was staring intently at the sidewalk and said in a dogged voice,"Signor, I ain't never gonna take no five dollars from you. Your name ain't never gonna be in the book. And you're gonna be protected as long as you're alive." Il Vecchio flew into a rage and wadded up the bill and threw it at the collector. He fairly screamed, "Take my money, you son of a whore!"

There was a sudden silence then. The collector had flinched as if Mr. Braccia had actually hit him; he bowed slightly and stiffly to Mr. Bracchia, turned away, put his hat back on, and walked on just as if he had never been stopped in the first place. Mr. Braccia's face was white as he took off his hat and apron, folded up his chair, and stowed everything away once again below the box of his beautiful new cart. He kept his face turned away from everybody and, as he put each thing in its place, he muttered, "Bene. Bene." He put the harness over his shoulders, pulled the chocks from under the wheels, and slowly pushed his cart away. We never saw him again, and the local A&P grocery store opened a fruit and vegetable section a week later.

One funny thing. Il Vecchio had left his wadded up five dollars lying on the sidewalk when he trundled away. Everybody who had stood there watching, turned and went back to their business when he left. We kids went down to Lawndale Cemetery to watch a couple of funerals. People sometimes gave us a quarter to go away, but we really went because we liked to hear the bang of the guns for veterans, the cantor for Jews, the Latin chant for Catholics, and see all the ladies crying so hard that black streams of mascara and tears would flow from beneath their veils. We also liked to watch the women to see if one of them would station herself in front of one of the pall-bearers before screaming that she could not Go On Without Him and trying to throw herself into the grave. The pall-bearer would always catch her and hold her very tight. Times were hard, and a woman could not afford to stay a widow for long, especially if she had children.

It was evening when we got back and passed the corner of Maryland and 63rd Street. The wadded-up five dollar bill was still lying on the sidewalk at the corner of Maryland and Sixty-Third Street. I turned to Bernard, who was munching slowly at the large end of an immense five-cent dill pickle that he had bought with his share of the proceeds from the last funeral of the day for us. "Just what did all that go to prove?" I asked somewhat rhetorically. "It proved," Bernard replied, beginning to achieve a general aroma of garlic and dill that still clung to him even after his Saturday bath, "that you can't buy honor. At least not for five dollars." I thought at the time that it had proved something else, but Bernard seemed pretty certain, so I forgot about the whole business until just recently.

Lynn Harry Nelson
Professor Emeritus of History
University of Kansas

042404