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Chicago’s Bob’s Newsstand, I’m Not Dead … Yet (2004)

by Mike Hecht

Bob Katzman’s collection of reminiscences and short stories, self-published in three paperback books under the banner of Fighting Words, is in the great tradition of Chicago realism.

The tradition began late in the 19th Century with the satirical humor of newspaper columnist Peter Finley Dunne and the novels of Theodore Dreiser (e.g. Sister Carrie). It continued into the 20th Century with Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle; the poetry and essays of Carl Sandburg; the Chicago Daily News columns of Ben Hecht, published in book form in 1001 Afternoons in Chicago; and the reportage and baseball stories, You Know Me, Al, by Ring Lardner in the Chicago Tribune in the 1920’s. The tradition flowered in the Depression years of the 1930’s with Jack Conroy’s novel The Disinherited; James T. Farrell’s novel Studs Lonigan, and his novels in the Danny O’Neill series; Meyer Levin’s novel The Old Bunch; Richard Wright’s novel Native Son; and the early novels of Nelson Algren, Somebody in Boots and Never Come Morning.

The tradition carried on into the 1940’s and beyond with Algren’s later novels, short stories, poetry, and his non-fiction classic Chicago: City on the Make; Willard Motley’s novel Knock on Any Door; Studs Terkel’s Pulitzer Prize winning novels and non-fiction; the Pulitzer Prize winning poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks; the columns of Mike Royko in the Daily News and Tribune; Jack Griffin’s columns in the Sun-Times; Joe Sanders’ short stories, e.g. The First of the Fiscal Year; Dr. Irwin Siegel’s stories and poetry; and on into the 21st Century with Ron Grossman’s essays in the Tribune.

The common characteristic of all these writers is that they dug beneath the surface to reveal and illuminate the reality of life below. From the corner of his small, original wooden newsstand, located at 51st and Lake Park while still in his teens in the Sixties, then later, from Chicago’s largest outdoor newsstand, in the Loop near the main I. C. Station at Randolph and Michigan, Bob Katzman illuminates life in and around these corners, plus life in other corners of Chicago most of us didn’t know existed. Or perhaps, only dimly.

Alone among yesterday’s fiction writers cited, Meyer Levin’s roots were deep in the Jewish community. Bob Katzman’s non-fiction stories likewise are rooted deep in the Jewish community, and like Levin’s roots, extend beyond into the whole community. Like Levin, Bob Katzman is a full-fledged Chicago writer.

Consider: all fine writers, the world around, shine light on the universal via their excavations of the particular. (The brightness of the light is determined by the depth of the excavation.) Thus: you don’t have to be Irish to appreciate Peter Finley Dunne or James Farrell; you don’t have to be black to appreciate Richard Wright, Willard Motley or Gwendolyn Brooks. You don’t have to be American to appreciate Theodore Dreiser, Nelson Algren or Studs Terkel; you don’t have to be a packinghouse worker to appreciate Upton Sinclair; you don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate Meyer Levin. So, too, you don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate Bob Katzman.

In contrast to Motley’s classic aphorism: “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse”, Katzman’s counsel would be: “Slow down. Take a stand. Fight back and live.”

If you’ve read the yesteryear writers cited, you’ll like Bob Katzman’s Fighting Words! series. If you’ve not read any of them, Katzman’s Fighting Words, Volumes I, II and III will spur you to do so.

Nelson Algren once defined the job of the writer: “To put the reader in the room.” Bob Katzman’s Fighting Words! will unforgettably … put you in the room.

So, have at it … and enjoy!

Notes on Mike Hecht, by Bob Katzman

Mike and have gotten to know each other pretty well over the last eight years, even though I’m 57 and he’s 88.

I spent a lot of time as a teenager learning from significantly older men who taught me the newsstand business, and also the business of life. I learned to respect their experience and the scars tough times can leave on a man. To me, old doesn’t mean “worn out.” It means a person has lived long enough to really get a handle on how the world actually works—in other words, someone worth listening to.

Mike’s family came to America in 1909 from Bialystok, in a border area known as Russia/Poland, also from Brest Li-Tovsk, Poland. My family also came from that same general area, before and after his, in Eastern Europe. Most Jews did.

He was born in May 1919, six months after the end of World War One. When I asked him what he did in his career, he told me he was a Polymer Chemist and a Chemical Engineer, which he said was a rare combination of skills. He also told me he was a printing press technician.

How valuable are senior citizens to America? Mike holds seven patents from the years 1943 to 2006, all related to the graphic arts industry. Of those, he was awarded four of his patents in the last nine years, between the ages of 79 and 87. I think we still need him.

You know, the day may still come when The New York Times, or The Chicago Tribune or, God willing, some of America’s Jewish publications deem my books worthy of reviewing and hopefully, reading. If that day does come, the opinions of those worthy publications will not mean more to me than Mike Hecht’s views on my books right now, in April 2007.

I am an ordinary man living an extraordinary life. Mike is also an ordinary man, of great character and accomplishment. I seek the praise of ordinary men. People who work with their hands and their backs and their minds. People who have been kicked around and know how cruel life can be. People who know how hard it is to make their mark and find someone who cares enough to listen to their words.

I am honored to be so generously praised by a man like Mike Hecht, and fervently hope I can some day measure up to his long list of great Chicago Writers, with whom he says I belong.

I am honored to be appreciated by an “ordinary man” like Mike Hecht. Men like him built this country.

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