One of the very great impediments to my own spiritual development is the delicious solace I take in believing that no matter what kind of sinner I am, there are far worse sinners out there. I would not be surprised to find that there is engraved on the stone threshold of Hell (where all the short sighted people can see it) the words “YES, BUT AT LEAST I DIDN’T….
I was well aware of my tendency to feel this wicked pleasure (although I didn’t think of it as an impediment at the time) when I was surrounded day in and day out by the outrageous rogues at the used car lot. I even used to fancy that I provided a ray of moral sunshine to the place; that perhaps the staff was less excessive and blatantly dishonest when I was around. Now I can see that my attitude probably contributed to the “sincerity” that the customers believed that I had that made me such a good Pencil Man capable of getting them to sign notes at 35 plus percent interest for 48 months.
I know now that my co-workers were not so different from me in the way that they thought of themselves. They certainly took pride in the fact that compared to most of our customers, they led very responsible and disciplined lives. They also believed that they compared favorably to the squares that worked downtown in the straight jobs. The used car guys thought that they led lives of greater freedom and individuality, without necessarily even compromising their material standards. George, for example, the cocaine-blown ruined businessman maintained much the same lifestyle that he had when he had still been relatively sane. He would point out that his high personal standards still required him to send all of his laundry to the cleaners, including his t-shirts, and that he was still able to live up to his life long vow of never living outside of the square made by the Chicago River, Division Street, Michigan Avenue, and the lake.
He considered himself a modern parent and a progressive in all things.
“How many other fathers do you know that would give their kids a good bump of blow?” he proudly asked us once after he had had them over to his studio apartment for a very rare weekend visit. Fast Eddie would laugh about this. “George is such a piece of work. Picking up his 17 year old son and saying “Here kid, have a bump” while they are still pulling away from his ex-wife’s house.” And Eddie would shake his head in disgust as only a man could who had only recently pulled a 500 pound coke monkey off his own back; a coke monkey that had always been well marinated in Jack Daniels (Black). Eddie had just managed to move back in with his family a few months earlier as a reward for being verifiably sober for 18 consecutive months, and his only little vice now was when he would take the sales guys out to a brothel in the suburb of Cicero when they had a good week. Fast Eddie considered himself a sort of latter day Ward Cleaver.
But within this refined system of moral gradation, there was another group that cast its well organized and prosperous shadow over Cicero Avenue. This was the Chicago Mob, a member of which happened to be our landlord.
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