#319: Downtown Brown

May 12th, 2014

“I’m going to take my wife to breakfast,” he said to me suddenly on the highway.

It was the first thing he had said through the cab partition in about five minutes. He hadn’t blinked or batted an eye when I asked him to take me 12 miles to the stately stone towers of the University of Chicago’s Hyde Park campus, a place more movie set than neighborhood.

Instead, he told me he lived seven blocks from there. He said he could drop by his home and kiss his wife, his initial plan before he came up with the breakfast idea.

“She’d like that,” he said of the kiss.

Over those winding 12 miles, as we went from highway to the less-than-stately streets of Woodlawn to the Hyde Park movie set, this story came out in bits and chunks and pieces. Nothing was said in the order it appears and all I can vouch for accuracy is that Downtown Brown told me so.

They called him Downtown Brown because he would work the downtown area 30, 40 years ago when the other South Side cabbies stuck in the neighborhood. The dispatchers would tease that he was goofing off because no one in the neighborhood would see him around.

“If you get 10 of them together, I bet none of them would know my first name. People have asked me ‘What’s your name?’ and I’ve said, ‘Brown.’ ‘Yeah, but what’s your name?’ ‘Brown.’”

I asked his first name. He told me. I’m not telling you.

His father was a man named Brown and his mother married a man named Brown after, so there was no concern about changing names. Both his parents would have other children, but he was forbidden from using “half” when describing them.

“There was no half-brother, half-sister. He was my brother. She was my sister.”

He’s kept up good relations, even able to stay at his late father’s wife’s house when he’s out east, “as if it were my own.”

He grew up playing basketball along 63rd and was pretty good, he said. He would run people out, he said in an elderly, cracking voice. He would run them up and down the court and they wouldn’t be able to keep up with him. They’d be panting, tongues out and then he and a friend would alley-oop, pass, fake or simply lay up to score.

He married the wife he still wants to kiss in 1964. She had a daughter from a previous relationship. He raised her as his own, just like the second Brown his mother married raised him. The daughter died a few years ago.

“At the age of 52,” Brown said.

Brown and his wife had two other children: a daughter who is a minister in Texas and a son who didn’t come up in the story much. At different points, all the children and several of the grandchildren lived in different apartments in the same building, a family down the hall, downstairs, out by the corridor, spilling out through the building.

“I love them grandkids,” Brown said, smiling and leaning forward a little behind the wheel.

It was hard when his daughter went to become a minister, particularly as she left her daughter behind with Brown and his wife. His daughter was worried about the youngest one’s safety. Brown promised to keep his granddaughter from the streets the same way he kept his own three kids.

“I told her, ‘I kept you in this cab. I’ll keep her.’”

He raised his children and grandchildren in the cab, lining them up in the front seat to keep them safe, keep them close. When only one child was there, he would lay a pillow in his lap and give him or her room to stretch out and doze.

He did the same thing with the granddaughter.

“She would wake up and say, ‘I love you,’” he said, mentioning a sweet nickname she would call him that I forgot. “And the passengers would be ‘There’s a baby in here!’ They didn’t know. They thought I was crazy. They thought I was talking to myself.”

He laughed.

That granddaughter still lives with Brown and his wife he was going to kiss and take to breakfast. In the wood three-flats and vacant lots of Woodlawn, seven blocks and a world from Hyde Park’s stately stone, the 26-year-old lives in her grandparents’ spare room.

University of Chicago medical students need to save their money.

“You must be proud,” I said.

“Oh, I am,” he said, smiling behind the wheel of the cab where he raised a doctor.

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