We lived on the West Side of Chicago on a street that was only one short block. It was a nice street with well-kept buildings all owned by Black families. Our building was the tallest on the street with three floors and a basement. Before we moved in, each of the floors was divided into two apartments for maximum profit.
That changed when we moved in. Instead of profits, we were “house poor” because we converted the six small apartments into three large ones. Two of the apartments housed our family, and the third was usually rented to someone who could not pay on a regular basis.
Upon arriving home from school, I would be happy if I stepped into the foyer and smelled the stink of greens simmering on the stove with salt pork or the aroma of pinto beans and corned bread. I dreaded the days when there were no olfactory indications that my grandmother was cooking. On these occasions, there were two scenarios for the evening meal: “every man for himself” or my grandmother sending me “down to Mike’s.”
There were no chain grocery stores or supermarkets within miles of our neighborhood. Walking north from our home past the building next door and across a clean alley and a small vacant lot, the next structure was a three-step-down compact store on the corner of Jackson Boulevard and our street.
The store was called “Mike’s” because Mr. Mike, as I addressed him, owned the store. Mr. Mike had owned the store since before “White flight,” and he was the only one who didn’t move immediately as the neighborhood transitioned from all White to all Black.
Mr. Mike was a ruddy complected, short, round man with a shiny dome fringed with black hair around the edges. I think he was a nice man. But because he was beleaguered by folks like us who would run up a tab and not pay when promised, he often seemed harsh when he would cut us off from our running credit line.
I was ashamed to go to Mr. Mike without money, but I had no choice when my grandmother told me to go. There was always a line of customers in front of Mr. Mike’s counter and cash register. I would meander around the little store aisles as if I were searching for something so I could be the last person in line and hopefully avoid the neighbors hearing me beg for credit.
In as nice a voice and demeanor as I could muster, I would say, “Mr. Mike, my grandmother said that I should ask you if you would please add a small piece of salt pork or just one roll of toilet paper, or a small bar of Lifebuoy soap, or the smallest bag of corn meal, or just one box of snuff, or only one pack of cigarettes to my grandfather’s bill, and he will pay you on Friday because that’s when he gets paid.”
I think Mr. Mike had a soft spot in his heart for me because I only experienced him being harsh occasionally. Those times, I was crushed when the bell on the store’s front door announced my entrance, causing Mr. Mike to look up from his accounting ledgers to see me and yell, “Get out of my store until you have the money to pay what you already owe!”
In spite of the humiliation of having to beg for credit, our crazy family almost always found a way to laugh at our situation. When relatives or friends would visit and yell, “Where’s the soap for the bathroom?” or the toilet paper or anything that was missing, one or all of us within earshot of the question would yell back, “Down to Mike’s!”