Street Hustler

Kathryn Lynch

Copyright 2019 by Kathryn Lynch

Photo of John F. Kennedy.

Every large city has its share of street corner hustlers. This is the true story of a man who stood one afternoon on a corner to sell his wares. Many bought into the dreams he had for sale, and not one of us has ever been the same again.
In 1960 I was a student at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin taking classes to earn a bachelor's degree. Although I had been teaching for several years in the Catholic schools, I could not obtain a teacher's credential to teach in the public schools until I had that degree.

My finances were extremely limited. I rented a room in an old apartment house on the first floor in the rear. I suspected that the room had formerly been used as a closet or storage room. A small window opened into an alley which ran beside the structure. Surrounding buildings cut off any sunlight attempting to seep inside. One bare light bulb hung from the ceiling for the room was otherwise always dark. In my room was a single bed and an old full size refrigerator. The frig did double duty for I had moved it in front of the window to prevent anyone entering from the alley. The frig also cooled a carton of milk. A case of Ramen sat on top of the unit—completing my personal paradise.

At that time, the only phone service was through a land line. One called the phone company and made an appointment for the telephone man to install service. A day was given and on that day the person ordering service waited sometimes for several hours for his arrival. Installation included the placement of jacks and plugging in a company owned telephone. When service was cancelled, the instrument and all jacks were removed by the phone company. All of this service was expensive enough that most students could not afford a personal phone.

In the early days, the University dominated a middle class neighborhood. However, as the years passed, the student body grew but the surrounding residential areas had declined to the point that brochures for the institution avoided any references to the school's placement in the City. In fact, the area featured a high crime rate, a dope problem, prostitution, water escaping at hydrant locations, unrepaired streets, and hustlers of every ilk peddling wares on the street corners.

Local hustlers included:

Doberman Eddy—Every afternoon Eddy passed by as he walked from his residence to the street corner where he sold his drugs. a vicious Doberman on a very short leash walking beside him. As he made his way down the street, every dog inside or out began to bark. No one and no other dog ever challenged him.

The Girls—Claire and Alice arrived on their favorite corner around 4p.m., as working men would be leaving their jobs at 5. Both wore classy, colorful clothing which came to an end above the knee, revealing extravagant fishnet stockings covering long legs. Above the waist, blouses were a size too small, unbuttoned at the neck to show off large breasts which appeared ready to escape their confines with the slightest encouragement. Both Claire and Alice were over six feet tall. The locals called them “the Girls”, but they were men.

The Hookers—Real girls who sold themselves to willing men occupied almost every corner. There appeared to be a continuing competition for the most extravagant “look”. Most wore fancy boots, decorative stockings, and skirts no bigger than a towel tightly wrapped. Blouses were often see through or so tight that buttons were lost from the attempt to move anywhere. Many wore wigs and all wore jewelry, especially large ear rings. A hooker might move on, but her spot on the corner was quickly claimed by a new face.

Roving Hustlers—In addition to the regulars, a number of hustlers could be seen every day, selling everything which could be carried into the neighborhood. Passersby were offered stolen watches, rings, necklaces, handyman services, gardening services, card tricks, a song, drums beating, fake furs, a sidewalk cello concerto, a religious sermon, pills to stay awake, pills to go to sleep, pills to enhance libido, pills to dull any you-name-it pain. Human ingenuity operating under stress defined the roving street hustler. There was always room for another idea.

I called my parents once a week to assure them I was still alive. Although phones were available at the smoke-filled Student Union, there was also a pay phone inside the Walgreen's store about three blocks from my room. So it was, that one late afternoon I made my way to the drug store, past the neighborhood hustlers, to make a call.

Walgreens stood on a corner with a busy street running horizontally in front of the building. I had to cross this street to get to the store. The corner was controlled by a traffic light which was red when I reached the edge of the crosswalk. As I waited for the light to change, I studied the corner hustlers. I could see four or five hookers, the Girls, and somewhat back out of the way stood Doberman Eddy. A man in a suit, shirt, and tie paced back and forth in front of the store, approaching anyone who went inside or who came out, reaching out his right hand to shake hands while he said what he had in mind. I wondered what this extremely handsome man was selling and I knew no way into the store without passing him by.

So it was, that when I reached the store, the man in the suit approached me, offering his hand for me to shake. He started talking immediately. “Hi, I'd like to introduce myself. I'm John Kennedy and I'm running for President of the United States. Please consider voting for me. Your vote is very important.” Without much thought, I entered the store and made the call. When I left the store, he approached me once again, asking me to tell my friends to vote for him. At that time, a person had to be 21 years old at election time to vote. I explained that although I was old enough to vote, most of the other students were too young to qualify. I left the corner to return to my room completely oblivious to the fact that I had just had a personal encounter with a person of gigantic historical significance.

I had watched the nightly news on the apartment house TV. I knew that Kennedy had decided to run but at that time he had several major strikes against him. He was younger than most Presidents. He was relatively unknown across the United States, and he was a Roman Catholic.

I wrote home asking my parents to send me an absentee ballot. I was going to vote for this man who went after votes one at a time on a street corner. Of course, as the weeks passed, Kennedy became well known to all. He no longer stood on street corners. The public came to his rallies. And of course, he became the President of the United States.

Six months after the election, President Kennedy rolled past my apartment building riding in a limousine. I could make out his handsome face as he passed by, but of course no one could approach him unless on official business.

Epilogue: The 26th Amendment to the Constitution which was ratified on July 1, 1971, gave the right to vote to those who had reached the age of 18.

Thousands of young people bought what Kennedy had to sell. I was in the first group of Peace Corps volunteers, serving for 13 months in the south of India.

My encounter at Walgreen's remains one of my most cherished memories.

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