About author Robert M. Katzman
Robert M. Katzman is a Chicago writer born in 1950 on the city’s South Side. His non-fiction stories sketch his tough and tender struggles through almost seven decades. He is the author of a two-volume autobiography, A Savage Heart and Fighting Words, published in 2018, and four previous books in his Fighting Words series.
Born to a talented, artistic, and mentally ill mother, he was beaten with fists, metal belt buckles, leather straps and rubber hoses until he was 14. Then, accepted as a student at the prestigious University of Chicago Laboratory High School in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, he ran away from home and established “Bob’s Newsstand” in a four-by-four-foot wooden shack at the corner of 51st Street and Lake Park Avenue in order to pay his tuition and living expenses. The business grew, eventually becoming a chain of five locations.
Read an excerpt from 'A Savage Heart'
I was too intrigued to hide in the shadows and crawled out in the hot bright sunlight to see this one armed old man, wearing a Chicago White Sox baseball cap, shielding his craggy, snarling, white-whiskered face, standing there bellowing at our tiny business.
“God damn it! You satchel-ass bastards can’t sell papers hiding in that shack! How the people gonna see ya? Jesus Christ, you guys don’t know your ass from a hole in the ground! Yell to ‘em! Paper! Paper! Tell ‘em who won the game! Don’t just sit on yer ass and wait for ‘em. Jesus, how dumb can ya be?”
I stared at this angry old man. He was almost foaming at the mouth. What had we done to him? Usually people have to get to know me not to like me. This geezer apparently had a running start in hating me, or us, or whatever it was that set him off.
He calmed down and started laughing, apparently at our stupidity, allowing us to see a wide range of his emotions and facial expressions, all the while waving his stumpy left arm at us in complete exasperation.
“First of all, yer in the wrong place. You gotta be on the other corner to catch the cars when they want a paper. Who the hell told you to put the shack over here?”
He was muttering to himself now, beside himself with contempt, frustration and amusement at these two skinny greenhorns who clearly had absolutely no idea of how to properly hawk newspapers.
We were afraid this was a hanging offense. He finally sat down on an old metal milk crate and wiped his brow with his muscular right arm, squinting at us in the bright summer sunshine. He had exhausted himself, or maybe he was just resting up for another attack.
We watched him, talking to himself, and laughing, shaking his head. Rick, my scientific partner stared silently at him, perhaps assuming this was the first alien sighting. And, they weren’t friendly!
I stopped sneezing long enough to approach the man and stood in front of him.
“I’m Bob. This is Rick. This is our newsstand. I built it myself!” Rick had heard this little speech many times and had no idea why I was so proud of the tiny, four foot by four foot by six-foot high box. Built from old wood snatched from construction sites, painted green and white, Rick thought it set a new standard for ugly.
I thought it was sensational. It had four swinging doors that locked up at night. Its little roof stuck out a couple of feet to protect us from the sun, almost. It was sturdy, it did the job I built it to do and it was mine!
Or, ours. But, Rick had never been impressed with it. And now, here was Methuselah out of the bible to tell me how stupid I was, raining fire and brimstone on me. I expected the earth to open up next and swallow us all.
But it didn’t.
The Ancient looked up at us and smiled.
Kindly. A nice face. A strong face. Bald.
“I’m Bill,” he said.
“Bill Reynolds. I sold papers on this corner in 1908.
Why don’t you do it right?” he said, and looked suddenly tired, almost sad.
Bill slowly stood up and limped home. He had no more to say. But, he was back the next day. And the next. Each day haranguing us on what to do, wondering why weren’t we listening to him. Were we just dumb?
But as the days of August came to an end, he calmed down and became a regular visitor, talking about baseball, the weather, our newspaper sales, and slowly, about himself.
Born July 11, 1896, he had been a house painter, back in 1912, after running the newsstand for some time, when he decided to hitch a ride on a west bound freight train. He wanted to see California, see America. But somehow, he lost his footing on the ladder on the side of the boxcar and fell beneath the huge wheels of the speeding train. The train accident cost Bill his left arm below the elbow and his left leg below the knee. He was sixteen at the time of the incident, sixty-nine when we met in 1965.
(Excerpted from A Savage Heart, by Robert M. Katzman)
While some may be timid about starting small businesses, Katzman is tireless.
At age 19, he opened the Deli-Dali Delicatessen & Bakery, two hundred yards from his newsstand.
At age 24, he launched Gulliver’s Periodicals, Ltd., a newspaper and magazine distribution company via which he fought a Chicago distribution giant for the right of gay magazines like Blue Boy to be distributed along with all the other mass market publications. What Katzman saw as a basic civil rights principle turned into an antitrust suit and a protracted legal battle — but in the end, the blockade was broken and the LGBT magazines were distributed.
When he was just a year old, Katzman was given a massive dose of radiation at a Chicago hospital — an infamous mistake like the one that also harmed movie critic Roger Ebert in childhood. At age 18, cancer was discovered in Katzman’s salivary gland. Doctors cut away part of his jawbone, and later replaced it with one of his ribs. Bob has endured 39 operations to date.
Greatest love story
Bob met Joyce Bishop — his Viking queen and the love of his life — at a dance on April 27, 1975, and within a month she had convinced her reluctant boyfriend that he was her guy, period. They had three children (she lovingly cared for a daughter from his first marriage) and 16 years later, they adopted another child, now 21.
“Through prosperity, bankruptcy, having no money and traveling for weeks in Europe, she was the essential woman in my life,” Katzman writes.“Silently enduring me when necessary. Endessly loving me, all those years. God bless her.”
Joyce Esther Bishop Katzman died from cancer on Mother’s Day, 2017. Her ashes rest in Iceland and Israel.
Robert M. Katzman resides and writes in Racine, Wisconsin. He blogs at DifferentSlants.com.