There are a few streets in Chicago that are affectionately known to the working class locals as rapers row. These are places one goes to get a used car when one is short on cash, credit, and hope. Places like this are the border towns of the capitalist miracle; where the national character shines most intensely, where regulation is lax, and where everyone seems to either be fleeingto orfrom something.In my long education as a capitalist, I once did a term on the rapers row on North Cicero Avenue, just down the street from the legendary Miracle Motors, whose motto, painted on the wall of the brick building next door, was If it Runs, Its a Miracle."The place I worked at was more modest in its pretentions. We had a deluxe sized house trailer on a triple wide lot. Our motto was Se Habla Espanol, although if any Spanish speaker ever worked there, I never met them.I hired on for what I thought at the time was going to be a bookkeeper job; taking inventories, keeping the ledger, and filling out the mountains of paperwork. The staff was more or less typical for the that street: a semi-reformed bar-brawling alcoholic called Fast Eddie, who ran the place; a deal closer named George with a whiskey blown James Coburn voice who had once been a very big name in the new-car trade but who had since slid all the way down the mountain to Cicero Avenue on an avalanche of white powder; a washed up ex-professional wrestler who went by the name of Zeus; an old debauched jailbird whom we called Blackie after he woke up one morning in his apartment following a night of very hard drinking and discovered that the woman he had picked up and brought back, who he could not otherwise remember, had dyed his hair black with something that wouldnt come off before she left; a 22-year-old semi-literate street person who acted as our gopher and who was allowed to live in one of the junked cars in the back lot and was known as Ratso; and the staff of our body shop one block over on Belmont--three guys known to all as the Chinese Chung Brothers, even though they werent Chinese, werent brothers, and werent really named Chung.What an interesting moral order this turned out to be.
The Chung Brothers were the true heart of the operation (whatever the salesmen thought). Maestros of Bondo and Buffing, they were expert body and fender men whose job it was to reanimate the corpses we dragged in from the auto auctions for sale at the front lot. The Chung Brothers were actually Cambodian refugees, the last survivors of a money making scheme that Fast Eddie and some of his car dealer pals had been involved in several years earlier. At that time, the US Government has found itself with more Cambodian refugees than it knew what to do with. So they had offered a subsidy to schools that would teach them a trade. Fast Eddie and his pals had somehow found out about this and when they saw the size of the subsidy, they had quickly set up an Auto Body College. The first and only class had fifteen people in it, who worked, ate, and slept in the garage where the Chung Brothers lived now. (How all these people slept there I never knew. The Chung Brothers slept in a Three Stooges style bunk bed they had built later.)The school was a great set-up, Fast Eddie later told me. Fifteen slaves and all paid for by the US Government.In this laboratory of free enterprise, the Cambodians did, in fact, manage to teach themselves body and fender work. The Cicero Avenue boys had shown them the rudiments of Bondo, spray paint, and buff outs and then turned them loose for a practicum on the junked cars in our weed choked back lot. The moment that any Cambodian gained a minimum amount of confidence in his work and English skills, he would graduate by slipping out the back door one night. In about 18 months, the college was down to the three Chung Brothers. Somehow it didnt surprise me that no one had bothered to learn their real names. We rarely went over to the garage except to drop off a wreck or pick up a debutante. When anyone needed to distinguish between the Brothers, they would just refer to them as Chung One, Chung Two, and Chung Three.What did surprise me was that the Brothers didnt seem to mind. They were always working and always smiling. Naive in the ways of the free enterprise system, I couldnt understand why the Chung Brothers stuck around. They hardly ever seemed to get paid anything and their work was really, really good. They were so skilled, that had they been physicians they could have botoxed a fifty year old into a high school prom queen.When we were not selling cars, most of the staff except for Ratso and the Chung Brothers would hang out in a bar called The Endangered Species Lounge. There, over Old Style tall boys, we would talk about sex, sports, drugs, and political economy. The political economy part was for my benefit, since my own claim to failure on the team was that I was a perpetual ABD sociology student. Even though this meant that my nickname, naturally enough, was Professor, Fast Eddie as the former Dean of the Auto Body College took me under his wing to explain how capitalism really worked.You know, were not lying to people when we sell them these tarted up pieces of crap. Each car has an official State of Illinois paper that says Condition: AS IS. We provide people with what they want and the job of Sales is to make them want it. Its their free choice. Do we point a gun at their head to make them buy?Here I thought about the .45 hidden under the porn mags in the top drawer of the reception desk. And in truth, I had never seen it taken out if there was a customer on the premises.Thats the secret of the free market. You might fib a little at the start, but once the customer himself wants the car, practically begs to buy it, where is the lie now? Nice Chung Brothers paint job, detailed interior to get the cigarette smell out, radio that works, brand new re-capped tires; they all like it and they all want it. If they can slap the cash or cashiers check down, drive the car off the lot, take the right on Belmont, and make it that mile down to Crawford, then the deals done. The sign clearly says AS IS and they signed of their own free will.He had a point. The job that I had signed up to do of my own free will was not the bookkeeping job that I had expected. I was now a credit manager or pencil man as it was known in the trade, getting people to sign notes for up to 50 percent a year interest, since Illinois doesnt cap its interest rates. The Chung Brothers could take a glue factory reject and make it run like a virgin, at least for 20 minutes, by replacing the brake fluid, oil, and transmission fluid with STP. Some paint and buffing and they would create a perfect beer goggle beauty and even when I would jack up the interest rate to 70% as a gentle clue to the customer that he was about to get ripped off, theyd almost give themselves carpal tunnel from signing the note so fast anyway. Why did they do it?You look so sincere and collegiate, explained Fast Eddie. People just naturally trust you because you look sincere and like you have integrity. If I looked like you Id be sleeping with a different women every night. Youre just wasting it.Sincerity might have had something to do with it, but I discovered that this was only half of it. While we were trying to convince someone that they wanted that bright yellow Karman Ghia with the white walls and rag top whose odometer had made at least one complete round trip, the costumer was trying to convince us that he was a good credit risk. I soon found that we were selling a lot of the same cars over and over again. The repo rate was massively high. At least twice a month I would call upon the services of a huge six foot five guy named Pee Wee whose native sentimentality and compassion was evidenced by the three tear drops tattooed on his left cheek. He and his flock of Locusts would take my 10 or 15 work orders, then gather the subsequently collected cars at their headquarters in a semi-abandoned building on the West Side that was furnished with lots of bare mattresses and women with very low self esteem. After doing what they called a Quality Inspection where they would rip out the seats to find any drugs hidden there, they would all drive down to the lot in one big caravan. This, because we didnt hand out any cash until all of the orders were accounted for. And in any case, the Locusts wanted to make sure that the cash stuffed brown envelope that we gave to Pee Wee didnt develop any leaks as it made its way back to the West Side. The Chung Brothers would then screw the seats back down and buff out the scratches and whiskey bumps and in a day or two the car would be back on the lot, well in advance of the 90 days we were required by law to hold the car in case the buyer won the lottery or something.Was this operation profitable? The basic auction house price for the car plus the Chung Brothers magic was mostly covered by the down payment. Between rolling over the repos and the occasional person who actually made their payments, there was also the occasional person whose credit rating was not so terrible that we couldnt sell the contract at a discount to an acceptance company. We made a living. The salesmen only ate what they killed. The Chung Brothers were only paid peanuts. The only other salaried people were Ratso, who took in $50 a week for a seven day week plus whatever change we forgot to get back when we sent him out for cheeseburgers, and your truly, the old Professor.Somehow it all seemed to work It wasnt that we were out to screw people as such, nor were they necessarily out to screw us. We did sell real automobiles to people who needed transportation. But it was always and only about the cash, and the cash flowed through a fantasy world where we worked on peoples secret desires to drive an impressive looking car as well as on their practical needs. The moral nature of this world was short term expediency and the fulfillment of fantasies and even though pretty much everyone got screwed, we were nonetheless doing it with our eyes open, for this was the free market.In a way, the whole thing rested on top of the Chung Brothers, who in their dream engineering at least produced something tangible. Given what kind of wrecks we were feeding them (and I knew how wrecked these cars really were, because I had to shepherd many a sick puppy home from the auction house) they seemed to perform cost efficient miracles turning these junkers into sparkling lumps of valuable cubic zirconium. They always seemed to be willing to work any number of hours and to turn out a car no matter how fast we said we needed it. With their perpetual smiles, they were the perfect image of the cheap Third World labor force that just loves to work for substandard wages under appalling conditions.It was Ratso who turned out to be the weak link in the Chung Brothers operation and he was the one who brought down the whole house of cards.As our gopher, Ratsos main job was to fetch car parts, buckets of Bondo, barrels of STP, bags of cheeseburgers, piles of dirty magazines, and all of the other things that a modern used car lot needed to operate. He seemed quite content to be living in the wheeless 63 Pontiac Catalina in the back. And while we didnt particularly trust him, he really did look like a guy who was living on only $50 a week.But Ratso got busted when a questionable item appeared on a car parts bill. It was a hub cab, something that we would have never under any circumstances purchased new. Ratso was skimming off a portion of what he got on our tab at the car parts dealer and then was selling it at a discount to our competitors. Between the inventory we found in the trunk of the Pontiac and what we could gather from a long overdue audit of all the bills going back several years, we soon got the impression that he was more or less doubling every order and was therefore skimming about 50 percent. He had been doing it so long (and apparently so had his predecessor) that Fast Eddie had long since simply priced it into his overhead and had never really noticed it, since we rightly assumed that all the wrecks we dragged over to the Chung Brothers needed extensive restoration.But a more shocking truth was revealed when Fast Eddie, George, and Zeus took Ratso out to the back lot for his "exit interview". It turned out that the Chung Brothers were far and away his best customer. They would pay him a flat $100 in cash a week to pick up whatever they ordered, which was double what they actually needed for us. Ratso had actually been skimming off the Chung Brothers, who in fact were running a very profitable body and fender shop in our garage, using our tools and parts. The Chung Brothers had such a good reputation in their community that they had even opened up a satellite garage a few blocks away staffed with Mexican illegal aliens. The fact was, they had learned our ways all too well atthe Body Shop College and had turned into even more ruthless businessmen than we were.The was a very bitter pill for Fast Eddie to swallow. The smiling slave faade had been in fact a cruel hoax. Knowing what I know now about business, the smart thing for Fast Eddie to have done would have been to write off his losses and cut a new deal with the Chung Brothers. But Fast Eddie hadn't gotten to where he was in the world for nothing. He instead fired them on the spot and kicked them out of the garage.This rash and thoughtless act spelled the beginning of the end for the dealership. New slaves turned out to be rather hard to find, and Fast Eddie had to start paying something much closer to retail for his body work; workthat never seemed to rise to Chung Brothers'standards. Our stock began to look as shabby as everyone elses on the street and we began to lose our edge on Cicero Avenue. About a month later, I quit when I discovered that Fast Eddie had been renting out cars overnight to scary bling covered guys with names like Julio and Ramon who came up to us from Humboldt Park. But I also quit because I found that I was getting a good reputation in the rapers row community as a pencil man and I started getting serious professional offers from the guys down the street. I became afraid that one way or another I might never leave.I have been surprised over the next 25 years how much the entire business world is really like those days on Cicero Avenue. The politics in a big corporation are much worse, of course. It was always easy to brush the druggies and the wrestler with the bad back aside if I needed to. But the basic hustling to create and sell dreams is not different at all, even one little bit.