After looting, a woman enlists Sun-Times columnist to help 2 South Side business owners
A reader with an unusual request sent Mark Brown on a rewarding mission of mercy with 2 envelopes with cash and a chance to do some good at a bleak time.
I knew her husband from his involvement in Chicago progressive politics.
She felt she knew me from reading my column all these years.
She emailed with an unusual request. She’d read in the Sun-Times about the damage inflicted on many South Side businesses during the looting that followed George Floyd’s death and wanted to donate to two of the people mentioned, to help them get back on their feet. But she wanted to do it anonymously.
Would I be the go-between to track down the owners and deliver the money?
Delivery services aren’t part of my normal job description, but her heart was in the right place, so I agreed.
Glad I did.
I met with her at her own small business. She slid two sealed envelopes across the table. Each contained $1,000 in cash, she told me.
The plan was to give the money to the owners of a sub shop and a nail salon, both located along 79th Street.
The handoff to the sub shop owner, an Arab American businessman, went smoothly. He had reopened and was busy restocking.
He said looters had taken everything, even the salt shakers, as they loaded the food into garbage cans to haul it away.
“Thank you very much. God bless you,” he said as I delivered the money, even though I was just the courier.
The nail salon proved more difficult. After two fruitless days trying to track down the Asian American owners, I suggested giving the money instead to a black-owned business.
I think that was always my anonymous donor’s preference. She’d thought the nail salon was owned by an African American woman until I pointed out the mistake.
I sent her information about a GoFundMe campaign for Roseland Pharmacy, a community institution at 113th Street and Michigan Avenue cleaned out by looters, and she agreed.
That’s how I got to meet Howard Bolling, which turned out to be the highlight of the whole adventure.
I spoke with Bolling, who is 81 but could pass for 10 years younger, at the pharmacy he has owned and operated for 47 years.
He and his wife, Priscilla, were working to get everything in order for a full reopening. The front windows that were broken are now boarded up, and the shelves are still mostly empty, but Bolling said the bigger problem was the theft of a computer with his patients’ records.
Bolling said these days he dispenses more advice than medicine, but he dispenses enough of both that people in the community were concerned about losing him after what he describes as “criminal looters” kicked in the back door and took most everything.
Bolling said he never had any doubt about reopening. But his wife said he was pretty shaken until people from the neighborhood offered encouragement and set up the GoFundMe account to help him repair, restock and remodel.
“I’ve got a lot of support from people I didn’t know. It leaves me speechless,” said Bolling, who proved anything but during our enjoyable chat.
He hopes to operate the pharmacy for at least three more years. He thinks 50 years in business has a nice ring to it and plans to reassess after reaching that milestone.
Around the neighborhood, they call him “Doctor Bolling” out of respect, although he’s quick to point out he’s not a doctor.
Bolling grew up in Harlem and attended the elite Brooklyn Technical High School before studying at Howard University to become a pharmacist.
He said he never experienced prejudice until he came to Chicago for a job with Walgreens and tried to find an apartment on the North Side, only to be rebuffed by a landlord who thought he sounded on the phone “like a Negro.”
The experience didn’t embitter him. He said he probably has more white friends than black friends, though it’s clear he has plenty of both.
I’m not sure Bolling even needs the money to reopen, but I’m positive he’ll put it to good use. He said he hasn’t remodeled since opening in 1973.
My donor friend said that when this started, it was something she wanted to do. By the end, she realized, it was something she needed to do.