Time for Frankie Coolin tells the story of a plasterer turned landlord in Chicago who, in the late 1970s, buys abandoned buildings and makes them just habitable enough that he can charge minimal rent to his mostly black tenants. Frankie—both a tough guy in the trades and a family man—has done well by his wife and kids, moving them to a house in the suburbs. But a casual favor for his wife’s cousin—allowing the man to store some crates in an empty building—and a random act of arson set in motion a cascade of crises, including a menacing pair of G-men and the looming threat of prison if Frankie doesn’t talk. But since talking has never been one of Frankie’s strengths, he copes as he always has: by trying to tough it out on his own.
Calling to mind such gritty poets of the urban scene as George V. Higgins and Nelson Algren, Time for Frankie Coolin is both a psychological thriller and a ’70s Chicago period piece that shines a surprisingly sympathetic light on the often ignored stories of the people who lived, worked, and died at the city’s margins.
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Time for Frankie Coolin
By Bill Granger
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1982 Bill Granger
All rights reserved.
The G came around again to Frankie Coolin on Thursday, just when he was taking the last of the radiators out of the six-flat he had bought in June.
There had been a dozen other jobs that were more important and now it was October and there really wasn't much time left to strip the old building of the pipes and radiators. The building was empty at the moment but Frankie Coolin intended to hustle in new black tenants before the weather turned cold.
Two of the G stood there and showed him their plastic cards with their color photographs on them and their names and the outline of the Justice Department seal. Coolin took each card in turn and examined it as though they were showing him three-dollar bills for the first time.
Coolin met them in the vestibule by the front door, which was still not painted. There was sweat in a sheen on his face because he had lugged a radiator down out of the next-to-last bedroom of the south apartment on the second floor. He had figured on heaving the radiator over the railing on the gray, wooden back porch, dumping it in the littered back yard by the alley. The dirt in the yard was pockmarked with other depressions caused by other radiators thrown down in this way. But the back door of the south apartment was jammed shut and when Frankie Coolin started whacking at the jamb with his hammer, the ancient wood began to split and show its white insides. Cursing the door and the radiator and his own bad luck, he had wrestled the radiator down the front stairs.
The G were about the same height. Coolin gave them back their cards. They looked like wallpaper patterns, he thought, stamped out over and over in great sheets at the G school and then rolled up for shipment. They didn't wear glasses and their hair looked as though it never grew; they were solid without having weight around the middle and their clothes were neither too expensive nor too cheap. The only thing that made them stand out at the moment was their surroundings.
The neighborhood was black, it was black for miles in every direction. It was the middle of the afternoon, the most aimless time of all in the ghetto. Black women, fat and shuffling, walked down the cracked and broken sidewalks and packs of vicious, hungry dogs slouched down the alleys, upsetting garbage cans and casually fighting each other in the search for food. The G had taken up positions in the middle of the narrow vestibule, hemmed in by the unpainted walls and the radiator and now Frankie Coolin himself. They looked as though they did not want to touch the walls. Frankie Coolin smiled as they put the cards back in their pockets and stared at him. He saw how out of place they were, in this slum, in this narrow vestibule. Frankie Coolin owned three buildings on two blocks and this was the fourth. He had picked them up at county tax sales for nothing and slapped bright paint in them and rented them out—after he made sure all the heat radiators and steam pipes were pulled out.
"We talked before." It was the G in the gray suit who shifted his weight slightly from one black Florsheim to the other.
Frankie Coolin realized he had already forgotten his name. Gribbs or Tibbs, something mushy.
"I seem to remember. You want to talk down here or up in the second floor? I got the north flat finished on the second floor, it's nicer."
"How could anything be nicer than this?"
Gribbs or Tibbs in the gray suit looked at the steam radiator. He drew back his polished right shoe slightly. "You were carrying out this radiator. I saw a radiator in your truck outside. I thought you owned this building. You doing a wrecking job here instead?"
Gribbs, Coolin thought, deciding. "Winter's coming." He touched the pocket of his flannel shirt for a cigarette and found none. That was usual. Gribbs watched the gesture but did not respond to it, even when Coolin looked at him.
"You take out the heat, your tenants are going to freeze," said the other one. Coolin had talked to him before as well. Coolin had not liked him and vice versa from day one, especially when he found out the guy was from the Des Moines office of the G. Des Moines. A hick, he had hair like hay.
"Space heaters," Frankie Coolin said.
"What are you talking about?"
Frankie Coolin smiled. "You got slums in Des Moines or only farmers?"
Garwood, that was the name. Gribbs and Garwood. Garwood with hay for hair and a brown suit that came off the same rack as Gribbs in gray.
"I know what space heaters are."
"Well, if you were looking out the window of your command car coming out here, you probably noticed this is the low-rent district." Coolin reached at his pocket again, found nothing, and rested his foot on the radiator. "When kids grow up from here, they got something to tell their grandkids about. You know—'When I was a kid, we were so poor'—that kind of stuff. So what am I going to do about heat? I can't heat these people. I'm not charging them half a throw a month, you know."
Garwood blinked and kept staring.
Coolin made a wide gesture. "Look, when gas heat didn't cost nothing, the gas reader comes around every other month, sometimes he doesn't come around at all. Heat was practically free. When I was a kid on the West Side, you didn't pay for gas. Nobody cared about gas. And then the Arabs raise the oil and naturally the wise guys in the gas company said they might as well jack up the gas price too. So that puts me in the middle, see? There's three people involved. There's me. I rent flats. There's them, my brothers out there, they rent from me. And there's the gas company where there didn't used to be. I don't want to be in the middle so I don't get between them and the gas company. They want to rip off the gas, fine, just don't involve me in it and I am involved if I give them the heat and the gas company collects from me and I got to collect from them. The way it is now, it's simple. I pull the boiler out of the basement, radiators, everything and then the guy rents from me wants to sit around in the middle of winter with the windows open and space heaters on full blast, that little meter going around like a Ferris wheel on the Fourth of July, sweat coming down off his face, so hot they make it in here they sit around in their underwear with the windows up, you can grow tropical plants in here—well, it's up to them. This way the gas man doesn't come around and say. 'Hey, schmuck, I got a bill for twenty-three thousand dollars last month for your six-flat, come up with it.' You see what I mean? I leave my people alone, they don't bother me and the gas company and them can work it out. I just want to be an innocent bystander."
"You haven't been innocent for a long time," said the G from Des Moines, shifting his weight back from the left Florsheim to the right. His shoes were brown with little tassels where the laces should be.
"You keep saying that," Frankie Coolin said.
"It keeps being true," said Garwood. Coolin stared at him, shrugged, looked down at his brown boot on the radiator.
"We thought you wanted to tell us what really was stored up there," Gribbs said.
"I told you that."
"Tell us again, only try to get it right this time."
"Every time it's right," Coolin said. "I got the same thing to say I said last time. Just play the tape back and you don't have to drive out here every time to talk to me. Saves you time, saves Uncle gas."
Garwood from Des Moines blinked again. His face was blank.
Gribbs said, "A conservationist. You make me proud of you."
Gribbs took a half step forward, pushing the polished toe of his right shoe closer to the dirt-encrusted radiator. He stared down at Coolin.
Coolin could smell the soap and aftershave. Old Spice, he thought. Or maybe just a government brand they issued at G school, the same place agents got their suits and shoes and haircuts.
"I want to talk about something different this time," Gribbs said. "Just to add variety."
"I like a change."
"I want to talk about something about your tax returns for 1978."
"That was a bad year for me."
"You aren't dumb."
"That was the year you listed your losses from the warehouse fire. On the returns."
"Sure. I know that. I mean, I don't do my own taxes, you know. I can't keep up with it, you guys keep changing the rules every year. I got a Jew."
"Losses," Gribbs said, letting the repeated word drop like a radiator falling from a second-floor porch.
"Kappelman. He says it was all right to list losses."
"Big losses, Frankie. But not a thing about television sets stored in the warehouse."
"I don't know about TV sets. I don't store TV sets. I had losses, I'm in the trades, I got buildings I own, I'm trying to rehab, provide a little decent housing—"
Garwood said, "This don't look like a historic district."
"I think you're being prejudiced," Coolin said.
Gribbs broke the tangent. "TV sets, Frankie."
"You checked the returns. I list my losses neat. Everything is going up, even losses got to keep up with inflation. My wife went to the store, she comes back and bacon is two dollars a pound. Remember bacon was thirty-nine cents a pound. I mean, what is the stuff but fat from pigs? Two bucks a pound for fat from pigs, I could have got steak for that a couple of years ago."
Garwood interrupted. "You're just playing the hard guy. Very, very hard, very tough guy."
Coolin let a sigh blow over his lips. He was thirsty and he wanted to go to the truck and get a beer out of the cooler but he wasn't going to do it while they stood there. He didn't look at Garwood but turned to Gribbs. He tugged at the peak of his battered black Sox cap, the one he had found in the litter of the truck because he had to get his six-month inspection sticker that morning. His lucky cap.
"I'm not a hard guy," Coolin said to Gribbs as though Garwood had disappeared. "Just a little guy, I got a couple of buildings, I got some skill in the trades. I hustle for myself, you know? Who's got time for this, for you guys coming around all the time. What are you guys going after? You after me? The G must have a lot of dough, sending out you two guys over and over all the time, just to give me a hard time. For what? You think I deduct too much on my returns? I claim too much in that fire? You want an amended return?"
"You want to amend your return?" Gribbs said.
Coolin made a face and shook his head and sighed again. It was like playing stickball in the alley. Everything was so constricted, no one could hit swinging out for fear the ball would pull right or left and break a window. It was the way the cops talked, all of them, city and G. Stupid. They danced him to the point of lying to them or saying something that wouldn't be healthy in the long run. Coolin wasn't dumb, like Gribbs said.
Garwood pointed it out. "You know you lie to us, to federal officers, you know that's a felony."
"I heard that. That's what makes you guys less fun than regular cops. Especially you, Garwood, with that Sony taped to your chest."
"Mr. Garwood to you. Mister."
"Whatever you say. Your wife lies to you about the milkman, is that a felony too? You lock her up?"
Garwood did not blink this time. For a moment, a flush colored his face and then it was gone; for a moment, the federal veneer slipped and then it was adjusted back over the pale skin and the flat eyes. "You're getting dumber by the minute," Garwood said. But it sounded lame to the three of them as soon as he said it and it made it worse.
Coolin closed his eyes for a moment. This didn't do him any good. He opened his eyes. "Look." His voice was soft. "I ask you guys fifty times why you come around to hassle me. For Christ's sake, I got work here. I got maybe only three weeks left to finish up this building or I eat it for the winter and the bums move in and burn me out."
"You know a lot about fires," said Garwood.
"Yeah. Maybe you could use another income tax fire." This was Gribbs.
"So if I'm a big shot from downtown with my connections in the Hall and I come out here and rehab these buildings, they put my picture on the front page of the Trib. But if I'm only Frankie Coolin, then fuck me, right?"
"You're screwing yourself," Gribbs said, stepping around the stronger word that Coolin suggested. "You want to know what we want?" He let his voice fall to a confidential whisper, as though they weren't standing in an empty building or Garwood didn't have a very sensitive tape recorder whirring away under his coat.
"Sure. That's what I said from the start. Either you guys got a smoke?"
Garwood stared at him and then blinked.
"Shit," Coolin said. He tapped his flannel shirt pocket again. "I run out."
"I'll bring a carton next time," Garwood said.
"Make 'em Luckies."
Garwood turned to Gribbs and said, "This guy doesn't want to listen. He's a comedian."
"I want to listen but I want a smoke too," Coolin said. "OK. It's your dime."
"You had those TV sets there. You knew they were there. In the warehouse. That's why you rented the space in the first place. And you knew they were hot."
"I thought you were going to say something new this time."
"What else did you have up there, Frankie?"
"I had in there what you know I had in there, what you saw on my '78 return. I had my own shit there. I didn't have no TV sets. Look, I don't even give the shines heat, you think I'm providing them TV sets?"
"You were keeping the stuff for someone else."
"I don't do that, you know that. Ask anyone, I don't do charity work. Go to the Salvation Army on Ashland. I work by myself, you guys know that, you been following me in that white Pontiac. Ask around."
"What about Kennedy?" said Gribbs.
"What about him?"
"Your wife's cousin."
"I know the man."
"He was storing the TV sets, right?"
"Come on, Frankie."
"I don't know nothing about it."
"We know enough about it, Frankie."
"Is that right? You know enough? Then what the fuck you coming around here? You get paid to hassle me, right? Did I vote wrong in the last election? You want to nail Kennedy, you got enough, nail away."
"You don't seem to get it for a bright boy," Gribbs said. "We ask you if you see Kennedy and you tell us you don't see him, don't work with him, don't talk to him."
"I see him around. He's my wife's cousin. You see everyone around after a while—"
"You don't talk to him, right? Is that right, Frankie, am I getting it right?" asked Garwood. He was hustling now, setting Coolin up.
"I see him, what do I do, not talk to him? You want me to avoid seeing him, I can handle it. This guy is no great friend of mine. Friends you can choose, relatives you got to take. I was down by the Bohemian's place maybe a week ago Thursday, I see him, if you mean seeing him like that. I see lots of guys at the tavern. I see you more than I see my uncle, you guys are becoming like relatives, maybe I'll invite you over at Thanksgiving, you can meet the rest of the family. Hey, Garwood, how long do those tapes go before you gotta change the side? Can I see your machine? I wanta get a machine for my kid for Christmas, he's going to college, he could use it."
Gribbs went on. "You saw Kennedy at the Bohemian's tavern, you don't talk to him, is that right?"
"If I knew you guys were out in the parking lot watching me, I would have invited you in." Coolin smiled. His teeth were white in the sun-dark face. "You guys got expense accounts, right? We could have had a couple of beers."
Garwood blinked again. Gribbs sighed, stepped back away from the radiator, and looked around him. The vestibule had grown stuffy with the presence of three bodies breathing and sweating. Gribbs opened the door for a moment. The air carried a musty chill. He shut the door. "Maybe," he said at last. "Maybe we all ought to just go someplace like the Dirksen Building, just go down and have a little talk, the three of us, until we get all this straight."
"Aw, man. I got shit to do here. You think I'm working like a Polack because I need exercise? The doctor says I'm in better shape now than half the guys he sees that are half my age."
Garwood said, "What did Kennedy have in the warehouse?" It was an old question, an old trick, and he sounded tired of it.
"In where? We're talking about the warehouse now, not the tavern? In the tavern, I think he was drinking the usual, Walker and water. I don't drink whiskey, I never did."
Garwood let the words explode then, as though they were mines laid down a long time ago. "You know what he did. You know because you were part of the scam, you stupid little prick. Hard guy. You're so fucking hard, you can break like ice. You won't be so fucking hard when you start spending winters up at Sandstone. And they don't have space heaters in Sandstone. Uncle pays for all the heat."
"Well, that's the G for you. Got all the money in the world."
"John Q.," Garwood said. 'Just a taxpayer."
Excerpted from Time for Frankie Coolin by Bill Granger. Copyright © 1982 Bill Granger. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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