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Michigan Ave
Image Source: Old Chicago

Jes US, I’m gonna be stuck in this shit all NIGHT! Ace Bennett pounded the steering wheel in frustration and junk-sickness as traffic slowed to nothing and Michigan Ave turned into a parking lot. He was supposed to meet Gumbo’s runner Two-Bit at the corner of Division and Milwaukee to pick up the goods. But right now it looked like he wasn’t going anywhere soon.

God DAMNit! It goddamn figures! It was a blistering hot Chicago night, with storm clouds threatening to blow in off the lake. Ace had all the windows rolled down, and a thick fog of heat and humidity, exhaust fumes and static electricity settled into the car like a sopping blanket. Those storms were coming soon, and they would be fierce. He lit a Merit and turned on the radio, which was tuned to WGN 720. Paul Harvey, blathering on with the Rest of the Story.

Something felt off about this entire trip. Sometimes there is an intangible feeling of something being wrong, a vague feeling that the cosmos aren’t quite aligned and bad things will result. Ace had had this feeling before, and it always meant something unpleasant, like the sudden death of a relative or friend. And here it was again.

Two-Bit had a reputation around Division and Milwaukee as a tough enforcer with a hair-trigger temper. He did the grunt work for Gumbo: shaking down Loop bankers who were behind on the vig, breaking up the local tavern if the owner didn’t agree to pay protection, that kind of thing. Two-Bit’s boss Gumbo was known as The King of Division Street, and nothing moved in or out of Cabrini-Green, the most notorious housing project in Chicago, without his say-so. Drugs, guns, sex…Gumbo owned it all. And Ace had just ripped him off.

Or so they said. After the last time Ace bought, Two-Bit tracked him down and said that he was ten bucks short on the deal. Ace didn’t think that was the case: why would he short-change a crazy street hood like Two-Bit? Besides, Two-Bit counted out the money rather quickly, and he didn’t say anything at the time. But knowing Two-Bit’s reputation, and having bought from him a few times, and having seen Gumbo himself once, he didn’t feel like making a federal case over ten bucks. Ace agreed to bring the missing ten-spot to the buy today. No big deal.

The sky overhead grew black with the coming storm and the tops of the Wrigley Building, Marina City and the Tribune Tower took on a silver glow as the light faded and the lightning picked up. Ace felt crazy paranoid, partly because he was coming down and partly because of the situation. He thought he saw Two-Bit at a phone booth way further up Michigan Ave, but it could have been anybody. He thought he saw Gumbo himself in a coffee shop on the Near North side of the river, but why would Gumbo be this far off his turf? Ace worked like crazy to bring back rational thought to his addled brain. He lit another Merit, rolled up the windows against the first drips of rain and turned up the radio. Paul Harvey gave way to highlights of the Cubs win over Philly that afternoon at Wrigley, with Jack Brickhouse’s call from WGN-TV.

Strike from Hooton, and the inning is over!…Whew, boy!…A drive by Bill Madlock!…What a catch by Rick Monday!…Hey-hey!

The first deafening clap of thunder hit.

“Hell of a game today, my man!”

Ace let out a yelp as he saw Gumbo sitting in the passenger seat. He felt something cold and hard under his right ear and realized it was a pistol held by Two-Bit in the back seat.

The rain pelted the roof of the car like thousands of marbles thrown full-blast on a concrete floor. The storm was almost directly overhead: less than a second between blinding bolts of lightning and the deafening claps of thunder.

Ace breathed deep through the greatest terror he had ever known. “H..hu..hi, guys” he said. “Fancy m-meeting you here.”

Gumbo did not look amused.

“My man Two-Bit say you rip him off,” he said. “That true?”

“N-n-no, Gumbo, I wouldn’t do t-th-thaa…”

“White boy lyin’, boss!” Two-Bit said, shoving the barrel harder against Ace’s ear.

“I sw—swe-swear, I didn’t mean to,” Ace said. “Swear! H-h-here, take all m-my money, here’s my wallet.”

Gumbo grabbed his wallet and shoved it in his pocket. Thunder cracked as the deluge continued and time slowed to an agonizing eternity.

“You didn’t mean to?” Gumbo said. “The fuck you mean you didn’t mean to? Two-Bit say you rip him off, you rip the man off! Don’t make a shit bit of diff’rence you didn’t mean to.”

Ace shook his head and started crying, the tears shimmering as the lightning flashed in the cloudburst. “I s-swe-swear, I wouldn’t. It was a mistake…”

“Ain’t no mistake, white motherfucker!” Two-Bit said. His rage was a palpable entity, like a bull waiting for the gate to open to start bucking.

“I s-s-SWEAR TO GOD!”

“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” Gumbo said, shaking his head sadly. “Sheeeeiiiiitttttt, now look what we have here. Fine, high class honky like yo’self reduced to this? Yo life ain’t nothin’ but Cubs games, spendin’ Daddy’s money at the mall an’ swimmin’ in all that fine Oak Park pussy, an’ you gotta come into the big city an’ rip off my poor oppressed man Two-Bit here? You ain’t got enough in life, you gotta take a hard-workin’ Neeegro like Two-Bit for ten motherfuckin’ dollar? That what you think of us?”

“G-gu-gumbo, I SWEAR I wouldn’t have…”

“Man, you jus’ ain’ got no respect, do you, white boy?” Two-Bit grabbed Ace around the neck and shoved the barrel in even harder against Ace’s ear. “Ought to show you a thing or two ‘bout what it mean when you mean to do something.”

“That it?” Gumbo said. “We need to teach you a thing or two about respect, white boy? We need to teach you what it mean when you mean to do something?”

Ace, paralyzed by fear, just shook his head sideways. Gumbo looked back at Two-Bit.

“Only way he learn, boss.” Two-Bit said.

Gumbo nodded. “Do it.”

Ace let out a blood-curdling scream as Two-Bit aimed the .44 at his lower body. As the last intense clap of thunder rolled, Two-Bit pulled off two shots. Ace slumped forward against the steering wheel as Gumbo and Two-Bit got out of the car, while the rain slacked off, and the deal was over.

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Originally Published 09/15/2011

Photo Source: Michael Sean Edwards

It was always an easy score with The Deuce, at least when he wasn’t on vacation at Rikers. When he was out he could be found at the corner of St. Marks & 3rd, one block west and ten blocks south from my apartment on 18th & 2nd. If he was in I’d have to keep going to E. Houston and Avenue A, but more often than not I found The Deuce.

They called him The Deuce because he used to work 42nd St. during the grind house days. Now the heat was all over Times Square, so the trade had moved out. The man was gigantic, probably 6’4” and completely sculpted. You were afraid to score from him, and he made you afraid to score from anyone else.

I called him my Vending Machine. I would walk up, stick out my hand, bills in my palm, for a shake, and he would spit the bag out of his mouth. Nothing to see here, just me – white, 5’8” & 120 lbs – saying hi to my 6’4” 300 lb. good black buddy. I would shove the bag into my crotch, wave and take off back home, sweat pouring down my neck. Well, I was getting my exercise for the day.

Back in my first floor studio, I would set up next to the fan and put a record on. Something mellow, nothing to tweak myself out too much. Miles Davis “Birth of the Cool,” mostly. Next door there was a family from San Juan with a baby that screamed non-stop and a toddler that yelled in Spanish. The hall outside their door always smelled like Sazon and beans and rice, and the noise never ended. Not the most relaxing atmosphere in which to shoot.

I’d turn the TV to a game show or a soap, sound off and cook up, hands shaking from coffee, cigarettes and junk sickness, slam the spike and feel the warmth spread. Like floating in a warm tub of bliss.

And I would think to myself I shouldn’t know these things. I shouldn’t know where to find The Duce and how to tap a vein and that Dilaudid helps when coming down…

I shouldn’t know this.

How did I know all of this? What a life. And then I’d do it all over again the next day…