Greg was driving and we were going full blast on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, going south, on a powerful motorcycle, a Kawasaki 1200 I think. It was a beautiful night and just the beginning of it. Greg was a tall black man, and he was a hell of a car mechanic.
In Chicago, I had landed at the edge of Pilsen, by Halsted and 18th, in a neighborhood where there were hardly any blacks to be seen. I was a French wetback but it didn’t take me long to see that this black guy was driving around in a Jaguar, or a BMW, or a Porsche or whatever and also driving powerful motorcycles and what not.
I mean, I could tell a car from a boat.
It didn’t take him long either to find out there was a French fuck in the neighborhood, coming from nowhere, France for Christ’s sake. Greg didn’t care. In the morning, he’d get his machines out of his garage, below where he lived, set them right there on the street and went on to work on them.
Working construction, I was up early too and would see him already at work. When I came back in the evening, he was still there working. I had no one to love me tender so, one day, I brought a six-pack over to his garage.
Greg explained to me that he looked through car dumps, paper ads and whatnot to find parts and fixed up brand new cars, good cars, luxury cars that he liked and would sell later, making decent money.
His cars were awesome. And he was always on a new car or with a new bike.
“Hey bro, for crying out loud, look what I found today,” he’d tell me often once we were acquainted. And he’d talk about Ferraris, Lamborghinis, German cars that I, a French guy, knew what he was talking about. Greg was a mechanic genius. To him, there was a story behind each of his cars’ screws. And that’s saying a lot about a man.
He was living with a Jewish girl, her name was Solenn. It took me a while to understand why they were living here, on the fringes of Pilsen Chicago but it finally occurred to me: where else in Chicago could a talented black young man and a Jewish princess be living?
Think about it. There were not many options. There, at 18th and Halsted, was a frontier where pioneers were trying to imagine their future. There were an Irish construction company, a little Mexican grocery store, a few old Jewish coffee and sandwich shops, a crack house, a crazy slumlord from Poland, two bars which were owned by former cops, be them Irish or Jew. The Salvation Army had the biggest store there, and that says a lot.
Also lived there a few white professional families and artists and old white folks, who owned something there since the fucking Indians, and refugees from just about all Central and South America who couldn’t take refuge within the Mexican or Porto Rican communities, and wetbacks like me coming from all over Europe, Polacks, Irish, a few Italians, a few Spaniards, two French as it was, all of them thinking too much of themselves. Not counting a couple of crazy Vietnam vets. There was even an Elvis shrine. Elvis the Pelvis and Mississippi is spelled M.I.S.S.I.S.S.I.P.P.I.
South of the neighborhood, there were Irish and Chinese enclaves and then the beginning of the huge black South Side. To the west, Pilsen, all Mexican. To the north, separated by derelict railroad tracks, there was a track of land, known as Maxwell Street, which looked then as if the whole neighborhood had been bombed, save for the 24/24 Polish sausages stands. Further north there was Greek town and WASP counties after that. To the east, Lake Michigan, eventually.
Bordering all these territories, even downtown, with I 95 above, the neighborhood around Halsted and 18th was an oasis, albeit a sorry one, where people minded their own business and where there was no judging among neighbors about where people came from or what they looked like. So it was only fitting that Black Greg and Jewish Solenn moved there because that was probably the last place in Chicago where nobody cared. And Greg got for his money a nice place above a huge garage space and nobody there ever fucked with him and that had nothing to do whether he was black or not.
Indeed, around a tiny space of a few streets and a few blocks, there were people living away from the usual Chicago racial tensions. Everybody was poor but everybody was proud, even in their own wicked ways.
In the meantime, elsewhere in the city of big shoulders, Greg had a lot of explaining to do.
For one, Chicago cops on Michigan Avenue didn’t generally like to see a young black guy ride a goddamned Jaguar or what not, especially with a white girl with him. ‘Jewish Baby on board’ was not an option. So Greg’s cruising on Michigan Avenue…, cops didn’t like that and they were most likely to come and ask questions, which they did.
At which point, always came the question of where ‘this here nigger’ lived, and with whom. Greg just knew that, whatever kind or race, any Chicago cop wouldn’t like him at first sight. And that is saying it nicely.
Then again Greg was legal – after all, he was born and raised American for God knows how many generations. So this native son would never be caught losing his nerves, and Solenn, a native daughter as well, wasn’t losing hers. So Greg would take the time to explain because he knew he was doing awesome work with his cars and bikes and nobody but idiotic cops misunderstood him for a dick head. And Solenn was so friendly. So, if he was often delayed, Greg always got home safe and sound and eventually local cops knew him and ceased to bother him other than to ask favors for their own cars.
That goes to show the difference. When Chicago cops would stop a wetback like me, just after I say ‘hello’, they’d always ask: “Wow, Now, Where do You MotherFucker come from?”
I’d tell them, of course, accents don’t lie. They’d think this was weird but, at the end, they never ever fucked with me and I wasn’t usually late getting home. Then again I’m white, so that goes to show.
Well, I knew Greg’s shop and, after work, and after speaking about work, weather permitting, we’d be on their porch having cold beers and Pretzels. Greg and Solenn would tell me stories about Chicago, about its many neighborhoods, and they’d laugh. Since then, I know better about Chitown.
I’d tell them about France and they liked that too.
More often than not, that was the time when Greg was ready for a ride. Solenn was used to it and she was happy to let me go. So Greg and I would get into a car – a Jaguar if you will – and we would then cruise north on Lake Shore Drive, smoking a joint or two and drinking beers while making up our minds about which club we were going to show up tonight, out of a Jaguar. I liked that.
Those were always good nights and, save for idiotic cops, always a good cruise. Women just loved it.
But what Greg liked best was to get on one of his bikes and take off on Lake Shore Drive, driving south this time, to black town. Greg would gas up the bike full speed and, wind flying, we’d zip by Lake Michigan. There was no helmet law in Illinois and, somehow, no cop ever fucked with us – with him – on Lake Shore Drive going south full blast on a motorcycle.
Then Greg would take me places in the South Side and tell me: “this is Chicago.” I believed him. Yeah, if Greg was no Bigger Thomas, he was a native alright.
Greg was also happy to share with someone the power of his engines. With Solenn, he had to remain composed and careful and couldn’t let loose. Thus he was happy to share full speed and soul food with me, occasionally making fun of this French fuck out of nowhere accompanying him. I can for example now tell of a breakfast place on Roosevelt Road where, after hard nights’ drinking binges, we’d listen to the sisters singing the Gospel and the blues was gone and coffee and doughnuts were for free. Some of them sisters, I liked their generous figures very much.
In all, I enjoyed Greg’s speed on Lake Shore Drive, passing cars in a blur, going south, and I was never scared and I know now Greg was thankful for that.
We’d eventually come back home to 18th & Halsted, always feeling safe when seeing the Polack’s church right off the highway. Solenn was asleep after probably watching too much TV in that estranged neighborhood she lived in with Greg. She probably missed her Dad. She was always happy and relieved when Greg came home.
So one day I told Greg:
“Greg, I’ve been in the neighborhood now for a few months and I need a car. What do you think?”
“Of course you need a car,” he said.
Shit, he was driving today a Maserati, Solenn driving her very own BMW and I was thinking ‘OH MY GOD!’
The next evening, I came back from work and Greg was waiting for me. And there was a little blue Datsun in front of my place. It was a sportily car, only two seats up front, low on the road but a perfect pussy eye catcher.
“No time to polish it,” said Greg. “But the engine is mine – keep an eye for oil – and it is solid.”
I was like what the fuck? I didn’t care for the paint not being done nor the blue original color, I knew I could step into that car and feel proud. An original.
“How much?” I asked.
“$200,” said Greg.
“$200????? Only?” I thought.
For real, that’s the price I paid.
“OK,” I said, “but what about plates?”
This car had none.
“OK,” said Greg, “wait here.”
So I went to get a twelve-pack and waited.
Sure enough, Greg came back. He got his tools out and, in a few minutes, there were brand new plates on my car. He even had the fucking stickers.
Alright then, I didn’t ask any more question.
Greg was showing me the car when Solenn showed up. She had a big smile and I could tell they were both happy to surprise me, so we drank some more beers and smoked joints and cigarettes.
“Let’s have a ride,” I said finally. Believe me, I couldn’t wait.
Really the sportily Datsun was a two-people car so I took off with Solenn only. Instinctively, I guess, I went north. Shit, there I was, a wetback, cruising on the mighty Lake Shore Drive in front of downtown Chicago with my first car in America, and some car, a Greg car.
Downtown on my left, Lake Michigan on my right, the car just asking for more, I was feeling very good about myself.
That’s when Solenn told me how hard it was for her. She understood my joy, she knew this Datsun engine was furring like a cat, better yet, like a jaguar. She knew how good Greg was and how much she loved him and how much he loved her. She loved her very own BMW for sure. So she felt that she could tell ME, NOW, how hard it was for her.
Fact is, yeah, I knew. I could imagine mom & pop going to the synagogue and meeting neighbors.
“So, how is Solenn doing?”
“Oh Solenn is living in a bumfuck place called Pilsen and fucking a car mechanic nigger.”
Hers was not a family that would trust a ‘nigger’ driving a Jaguar with their daughter inside, unless he was the chauffeur. Solenn felt very bad about that and was feeling the pressure. I knew.
Fact is, I remembered Greg, on our South Side Chicago’s excursions, telling me about how hard it was for him to tell his friends about Solenn. Then again, he was very proud to discover that his parents and family were not that much prejudiced after all. Fact is, it was a lot easier for him to take Solenn down south than it was for her to take him north!
When I met with them, I could tell Greg’s folks also thought very well of this unique mechanical talent and knew Greg was special and loved him. So Greg knew it was Solenn’s decision.
So far, she had always said yes.
Sure, Solenn was torn and always hoping about her Dad but she was happy in Pilsen and she felt strong and Greg was happy and he felt strong and his cars and motorcycles had never been better and I was happy and I felt strong driving my little Datsun and when Greg and I hauled ass on Lake Shore Drive going south, engine full speed, I knew nothing could happen to me.
Indeed. Solenn told me. They found him shot down in a neighborhood in the South Side. The car – was it a Jaguar? – was all poked and Greg laid lifeless and bloody, full of bullets holes on his beautiful and lovely pristine leather. Cops figured: wrong place, wrong time, some local gang of morons making hay about this ‘nigger’ showing up in a Jaguar, thinking he was a threat or something. Some idiots even killed Michael Jordan’s father this way!
Anyway, there went Greg.
Solenn soon started getting ready to leave.
In the meantime, the guy who was living in the flat above mine was also shot down, but by cops this time. He was a Vietnam vet and, when drunk, which was every night, he screamed after demons and woke and bothered everybody. He was very aggressive and nobody liked him and I didn’t know what to make of him and he was my next door neighbor and I knew he was lonely and that he didn’t like me nor anybody. I was seeing him every day – weird in the morning, fucked up every night – scorning at me.
Well, he must have said or done something too nasty one night because the cops mowed him down. His mother – I guess – came to pick up his stuff the next morning.
That’s how the neighborhood was going so nobody said anything when Solenn had to pack up her shit and go back to where ever she had come from.
Solenn didn’t know what to do with the cars and the motorcycles in her garage. It’s not as if she could take them back to old daddy for souvenirs. “Hey Dad, what do you think of this Maserati?”
Greg’s relatives that I had never seen before came and went with the cars and bikes. I couldn’t help Solenn. If anything, I was thinking: what about my plates now? Who is going to testify that this car is mine, me a wetback with no legal papers but proud owner of an awesome blue little Datsun (although it wasn’t polished)?
Solenn kept her very own BMW though and the neighborhood watched her leave. I know people felt for her.
Yet, I must say, my blue little Datsun never died on me.
Abstract by Ellar Wise