From the ages of 5 to 10 I lived in Cicero, Illinois with my family. Cicero is likely a place you have never been to or will ever go to. You may have only heard of it in context with Al Capone running his criminal empire from there when he couldn’t do so within the city limits of Chicago.
The city is perhaps better known for a fair amount of government corruption and questionable civil rights. In the decades that have passed since my bedroom was located there, the city has seen changed demographics from largely Czechoslovakian and Bohemian residents to a heavier influx of Hispanic (Mexican and Central American) residents. Anyways, I was surrounded by Bohemians.
One of them was the knife sharpener. He would come around when the weather was good on a bicycle with a small bell we could discern from the Good Humor truck that signaled his arrival down the city streets lined by Bohemian bungalows and parked cars on both sides of the street. I don’t recall the details of how he exactly did it but the bicycle would convert to a large wheel that sharpened knives and scissors he moved with the same pedals he used to move the bike with the wheel. For a dollar he would sharpen anything that could be sharpened. Children ran down the block with knives and cutlery and scissors to stand in line and watch him peddle the wheel. His English was not very good or he chose not to speak it. Either way, he provided a service for a fee and everyone was satisfied. Our mothers would send us out again with different knives and scissors the next time he came around to do it again. Before we moved his trips became less frequent and more than 30 years have passed since I ran down the street with knives to have them sharpened by someone on a bike with pedals to sharpen the knives.
Jimmy lived two doors down with his family. His mother’s parents lived in the basement and his father’s parents lived in the apartment upstairs from the main home. Jimmy lived with his three older brothers in the main portion of the house. Jimmy was about a year older than me but we were closer in age to each other than either of us was to any of our siblings. The day we moved into our house we became instant friends. Jimmy’s father owned a company that repaired pinball machines, slot machines and pool tables largely from the surrounding taverns and arcades in the area. The repairs were all completed within their detached garage behind the home just beyond the small backyard. So there was a varying array of games and pool tables in states of disrepair and repair to entertain us with. We saw the “guts” of a pinball machine, beyond the bumpers, rails, flippers and flashing lights. Sometimes the problems were mechanical, sometimes electrical or simply damaged in a tavern disagreement. Sometimes the themes were changed and the machine was covered with different displays that were more popular. Jimmy and I were unofficial testers of the repairs. No quarters necessary. We could play for hours before the machines were delivered to their rightful place. The pool tables occasionally had to have the felt or bumpers replaced, pockets fixed or the mechanism that accepted the 75 cents to get the balls out. Sometimes the mechanism to release the balls didn’t work. We could play pool for hours with little risk of damaging the felt since it was going to be replaced. A few trick shots that have never been seen outside of Cicero were invented in that garage.
I don’t think my parents were terribly fond of Jimmy but they knew I would likely stay out of trouble in his garage as I was addicted to pinball machines and learning how to play pool. They are skills of little value now.
The day we moved Jimmy was there in the back of truck with me watching the boxes and furniture get loaded. We had casual goodbye in his garage when the truck was too full for us to stand in there any longer. We said we would call each other. Neither of us did. I don’t think I knew his phone number before that day as we would just go to each other’s houses.
I don’t know what became of Jimmy or all those pinball machines. But if it weren’t for Jimmy and his father’s business those would have been 5 boring years and perhaps we have certain people in our lives at certain times that abruptly start and stop for a reason.
More on Jimmy in Part 2.