Building 5 and The Gypsy King: The Den of Thieves – Part 1

| June 23, 2014
"We don't use crystal balls anymore, we just Google you"

“We don’t use crystal balls anymore, we just Google you”

Here is another piece that did not make it into “A Piece of My Mind” edited for content and lengthened to update from initial thoughts 20 years ago.  Like many on Sunday before last, on TV, Facebook and even medical websites, people reminisced about their fathers, the lesson they learned from them and the hopes that they are as good as being a father as theirs were. 

My whole life and most of his, my father was self-employed.  He claimed he could never work for someone. He tried.  It lasted a week but that is a story for another post.  If he didn’t already think it at the time, he was convinced he could only work for himself and furthermore, was not interested in having any associates or partners.  He was going to be a one-man show.

I mentioned a bit about my father in a previous post about how his work took him to Argentina where we watched a hockey game.

During most of my formative years my father ran his own jewelry store in Chicago. He learned how to make jewelry, became a certified gemologist and traded commodities like gold and silver as part of his business.  His store during this time was located at 5 South Wabash Avenue in Chicago’s loop, a part of downtown encircled by the elevated electric trains that pass through the city, also known as “The El”.

5 S. Wabash was also called the Mallers Building and operated, until many years ago, the last manual elevators in the city.  An attendant would push or pull a lever to take you to your desired floor.  The building itself was completed in 1910 and was considered a “high-rise” building at the time consisting of 21 floors with a terra cotta façade and ornate doors.

If you wanted a classier address other than Wabash Avenue, you could also use the “official” main address of 67 East Madison Street.  Most people called it simply the Mallers Building or “5 South”.  The building occupied one spot on Chicago’s Jewelry Row, nothing compared to New York, but several buildings with 100s of merchants sold their wares on Wabash Ave, or Madison Street, in parts.

Whenever there was a fund raiser for extramural activities, I simply went floor by floor through the Mallers Building to sell what I had to for Boy Scouts or other organizations.  Everyone knew my dad and were happy to help support my interests.  It was easier than going door to door through the neighborhood with much less competition. I could sell out in 2 hours versus 2 weeks.

For those who worked at the Mallers Building, it was affectionately known as the “Den of Thieves” and the unassuming general public was probably completely unaware. The building, again, many years ago had a deli/restaurant on the third floor where I use to bus tables and wash dishes. As much money probably passed across those tables as it ever did across the brightly lit jewelry counters with shimmering merchandise.  Occasionally, a stray diamond or gold watch would be left behind with usually its rightful owner discovering it missing and claiming it by the close of business. I worked for free dishes of cottage cheese and fruit and chocolate phosphate sodas.

There were many bright colorful characters that I recall best who would walk the halls. One was Slim Jim, a 7+ foot tall, super thin bearded middle-aged gentlemen who was a wholesale diamond and gold broker.  He spoke with a heavy Chicago accent and claimed to be a “middle man” for New York diamond and gold brokers.  For many years my father would work with Slim Jim until he started to pass fake diamonds and gold and was blackballed.

The other was a gentleman who only went by “Bill”.  Bill was short and stout with a ruddy complexion, uncombed hair and only wore shoes without shoelaces.  He spoke like W.C. Fields and carried a plain canvas bag through the Loop.  Inside the bag were Faberge eggs. Or so he claimed.  The famed jeweled eggs were unlikely to be sold by someone who talked like W.C. Fields and didn’t wear shoelaces, but in his mind, they were real, and he wanted you to believe they were real too.

The list of characters goes on and on.  Some only sold wholesale, some retail, some by appointment, on commission or consignment. The antique dealers appeared to be the best dressed and most eccentric and best historians. I learned a little bit about each business model.

Poker games in the back of the stores were a perfect place for the merchants to exchange stories, money and merchandise, for debts owed.  Again, some perhaps made more playing poker than they did dealing with gold and silver.

And I had a front row seat for many years to all the goings on. Including the gypsies.

gypsy-fortune-tellerGypsies live the world over as nations within nations. They call themselves the Rom and live by a strict religious and legal code known as Romania. Their mother tongue is Romany, a Sanskrit-derived language that reveals their Indian origins. Typically they resist working for others, preferring to be self-employed in occupations as varied as fortunetelling, used-car dealing, and traveling cinema operations. Their involvement with non-Gypsies is mainly economic. They have no interest in assimilating into any country in which they live and have preserved a strong ethnic identity. Two separate Gypsy subgroups settled in Chicago. The Machwaya came from Serbia and parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with heavy Serbian populations such as Croatia and Vojvodina. These Machwaya Gypsies spoke Serbian, had ties with the Serbian Orthodox Church, and played traditional Serbian music. They settled on the Southeast Side of Chicago, living on the outer edges of the immigrant Serb community.

And they were largely not trusted by anyone outside their own community, with the sterotype that are uneducated, troving bands of illiterates devoted to lives of crime. They all have crystal balls, lie, rob, cheat and steal.

Few in the Mallers Building trusted them.  Many did not open their stores to them.  Others refused to deal with more than one at a time, suspicious that they would steal from them the first chance they had.

My father felt differently, either naively or because of some shared heritage or their preference to be self-employed, so to speak, albeit.  I never really knew why he trusted them.  But he did. And in turn, they trusted him.  And so he became the jeweler to the Chicago gypsies and became a part of their families.  He made house calls and we were invited for weddings, funerals and other religious ceremonies.  Since they were unlikely to fill out census forms, the total number of gypsies in the Chicago area is not completely known but estimates many years ago put the figure between 5,000 to 10,000. He  had a lock on the market.  They liked jewelry and only paid in cash.  The children often came to my father’s store with their parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins and we would find what we could to entertain ourselves which wasn’t difficult being in downtown Chicago.

The gypsy children would call the Mallers Building, “Building 5” and had a little song for it I don’t completely recall, it was more like a chant, with recognition that they may be getting more jewelry and my father was part of the reason why.

My father always claimed they never stole from him which I would like to believe but sterotypes are hard to break as I would discover years later in medical school when I admitted The Gypsy King as a sub-intern at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.  More of that in part 2.


Category: Humor, Personal

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