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The Fiction of the American Dream: An Afternoon at Chicago Pawners

Alex Kotlowitz spends a few hours at a Near West Side pawnshop, where the customers are folks who “are walking—sometimes running—one step away from losing a home, or a job, or a lover, or a way of life.”

Dan Lebo talks with a customer from behind the loan window.
Dan Lebovitz talks with a customer from behind the loan window.

A pawnshop is a sobering place.

Along one wall: acoustic and electric guitars, wedding rings, cufflinks (one pair sells for $749), a gold medallion of a hand holding four Aces (which sells for $3,250), a lone trombone and trumpet, a couple of violins, two bikes and a wall of flat-screen TVs. Along the other wall: game systems, cameras, aging fur coats (beaver and fox, mink and lamb), power tools, and more flat-screen TVs—all playing The View. Each item here because it was given up for cash, something to tide their owners over in the wake of calamity or misfortune.

Dan Lebovitz, who runs Chicago Pawners along with his brother and father, once told me that the job was like bartending—listening to people’s woes and offering solace, which in Dan’s case takes the form of money. Late morning, and a petite African-American woman hesitantly sidles up to the window. She’s in her late thirties, wearing a floral blouse and fashionable rectangular glasses. She gives Dan a gold bracelet, a gold ring, and a camera. “How much you need?” Dan asks. “I gotta pay two months of my daughter’s tuition—fifteen-hundred dollars,” she replies, her voice barely audible through the plexiglass window. Her daughter attends Trinity High School in River Forest though she’s hoping to get her into Fenwick. She tells Dan—he never asks—that the ring was a tenth anniversary gift from her husband but they’re now divorced. Nonetheless, she wants her daughter to have it someday. Dan weighs the jewelry, and has another worker—someone more mechanically inclined—examine the camera, and offers her $700. “It’ll get you halfway there,” he tells her. She takes his offer. On her way out, the woman whose first name is Yvonne tells me she’s unemployed, laid off from a clothing store, and that she’s now studying towards her master’s degree in business. “You just gotta do what you gotta do,” she says. She drove in from Woodridge because she heard that Chicago Pawners treated people fairly.

This is the big shift for Chicago Pawners: first-time customers from the suburbs, here because the economy’s unraveling has shaken their routines and their comfort. It’d be facile, though, to suggest that, here, at the corner of Western and Madison, would be a good place to measure an economy’s health. It isn’t. Chicago Pawners been around for 58 years (it used to be in a location next door to a housing project)—and its customer base has always been people who are skimming along the margins, trying to hold on, trying to avoid getting shafted. They’re people who are entrepreneurial, who are walking—sometimes running—one step away from losing a home, or a job, or a lover, or a way of life. They’re hustling to stay afloat, usually with dignity and decency, but without time for reflection, either on the past or the future. They’re so on the edge—so grounded in the present, in the moment—that you can already feel the next crisis descending. In good times, you walk into the pawnshop, people are lined up desperate for just a little cash, and you realize the fiction of the American dream. In bad times, like today, you get a glimpse of what could be around the corner for the rest of us.

The next person in line, a young man, unwraps a silver stud earring from a crumpled-up napkin. He tells Dan he found it. “Look like something to you?” he asks. Dan examines it for half a minute. “Yeah, an earring,” he says, deadpan. It takes a moment for the guy to realize Dan’s joking. “Costume jewelry,” Dan informs him. He returns the earring, and the man pockets it before going on his way.

A middle-aged man in a white T-shirt and gray baseball cap gets $50 for a gold cross necklace—a birthday present from his mom many years ago. It’s the seventh time he’s pawned it. He runs a cleaning business in the neighborhood, but it’s been a slow couple of weeks, and he needs some cash for gas.

A woman plops down in a motorized wheelchair, and wonders if it might fit her friend’s adult son who can’t walk because of a brain tumor. A man brings in two flat-screen TVs, looking for $250 so that he can get his car out of the pound. When he learns he can only get $200, his friend mumbles, “That shit doesn’t even sound right.” They try to get the pawnshop to bump it up $30. A husband and wife, both retired—she a blonde in a long black dress, he silver-haired in shorts and flip-flops—bring a few bags of jewelry and watches and old coins, hoping to get enough money to help pay for their son’s upcoming wedding. Gold prices are soaring now, nearly three times what they were just three years ago, (so much so that hustlers are going door-to-door offering to buy people’s jewelry) and so after half an hour of wading through the goods, Dan offers $5,000, which is $1,500 more than their jeweler offered them.

In good times, you walk into the pawnshop, people are lined up desperate for just a little cash, and you realize the fiction of the American dream. In bad times, like today, you get a glimpse of what could be around the corner for the rest of us.

Dan, who wears a black button-up shirt with “Chicago Pawners” emblazoned on it as if it were a bowling team, relishes the company at the store. Many of the customers he knows by first name. One woman comes in carrying her three-year-old daughter, Denise. “She never smiled, never looked at me,” he tells me. He then reaches below the counter, and pulls out a handful of suckers. Holding them up, he hollers through the glass window to Denise, “This enough?” Denise breaks out into a big smile. “Purple or green?” She chooses the purple. “She’s my buddy now,” Dan tells me.

About six months ago, Dan, who is easily amused, opened a Twitter account (@pawnshoptweets)—something just to pass the time, a collection of comments from customers.

First customer of day..” Hey Dan haven’t seen you in a while…. you are getting fat and old"… can I get a little extra for my ring?” (August 4)

Customer: ” Do you guys take antique toy cars?….. this shit is real old….. from the 1840’s.” (June 14)

Man pointing to his girl after selling his rings for $80…"I am going to the hotel and tear that ass up” (April 21)

Two plumbers pawn a concrete gas saw for $50, enough for gas money so they can drive to a couple of jobs. A woman who’s been caring for an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s but hasn’t gotten paid in a couple of weeks tries to sell her diamond ring, but Dan’s brother, Paul, talks her into pawning it instead. “You like that ring too much,” he tells her. An Hispanic teenager with a lip piercing pawns a gold chain for $160 to help pay tuition at Truman College, where she’s studying to be a nurse. (This, too, is her first time at a pawnshop.) A gentleman in gray T-shirt with a paunch pawns his trumpet for $50 so he can pay the light bills.

Customer: “Motherfuckers would pawn their kidneys if they could” (June 17)

Customer pawning his BOSE Radio….” I love this more than I love my woman” (August 10) 

Midday, the customers are still lined up, a few checking out the stereos in the front of the store. (Retail sales, Dan tells me, are down considerably.) I ask Dan whether he ever cuts people a break. “I’ve got a business to run,” he tells me. But he looks sheepish. The first woman who came in, he tells me, the woman from the suburbs who’s trying to pull together private school tuition for her daughter—"Did I give her a hundred bucks more than I should have?” He looks away. “Yeah. I believed her story.”

“Ninety-eight percent of our customers are people who have had shit happen to them,” he says. “Me, I’ve got nothing to complain about.”


Photograph: Esther Kang

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