Chicago's "Black" South Side: 63rd and Cottage Grove - Where the Beard learned Banks
If Freddy Bentivegna hadn't been brave enough to show up to the all black pool rooms on 63rd and Cottage Grove, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he might never have become the Beard. The denizens of the pool room thought he was out of his mind, a skinny Italian kid, from notoriously racist Bridgeport of all places, trying to get a game? Was he going to get himself killed? Or better yet, get them killed? But his old man had raised him on Louis Armstrong and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and he'd be damned if he didn't stay up late at night listening to the black south side DJs playing Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf. He appreciated southern culture, music and even knew the slang from his father and the guys in his band. He knew there was something special on the black south side, that normal "squares" might be afraid of, and he wanted to be close to it. If it wasn't for 63rd and Cottage Grove, my father would have never found the game that he loved - Bank pool - or learned from the greatest champions of that game and found his calling in life. Like I said, my father was the original hipster - he talked and dressed and walked just like everybody else in that pool room. He came to them, not them to him, and they respected him for it...they respected him for his...balls. In his quest to be cool - to be truly authentic - to be original - he had found a home every night for many years. He was even so loved there that when he beat guys out of their money, the Houseman in the pool room let Freddy leave with the money. My father said all the guys in the pool room used to say they could actually relax when he was around because he didn't "patronize nobody." They were equals in the pool room. And if anything, my Dad was looking to get something from them(knowledge, money) and not the other way around. My father said they hated when people acted differently around them because they were black. My father brought a white hillbilly pool shark to 63rd and Cottage Grove and my father said the guys in the pool room "loved him" - because he wasn't putting on a show. That's what a pool room was, my father said, "a meritocracy." My father loved John Lee Hooker - always had him on in the car. Especially on road trips down south into the Mississippi Delta.When I was a child, and my father happened to be home from being on the road, he would take me to Maxwell Street on Sundays for pork chop sandwiches. In the seventies, it looked like it had been shelled by the Germans in the war, it was so dilapidated, and foreign and exotic. As an adult, I now understand the draw for my father. It was "other" and he knew the other was "the Nutz." I was usually frightened when we arrived on Maxwell Street, usually parking on the sidewalk in my Dad's white Camaro. He would hand some old man a sawbuck to watch the car while we walked around and shopped. In my Rabbit fur coat and party shoes I would hold onto my father's polyester bell bottomed pant leg as I wasn't tall enough to see into the hotdog stand. My father told me "You ain't never going to be messed with on the black south side when you're with me. Do you understand? Never! I'm protected. These are my brothers."