Magnum Jamal at his store, Four Brothers, in Gary. | Jeff Manes/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 24, 2014 6:13AM
“Hey, Sal, how come they ain’t no brothas on the wall?”
— from the film “Do the Right Thing” (1989)
My interview with Magnum Jamal took place behind the counter of his place of business. Four Brothers is a small meat market-delicatessen-grocery store located at 21st Avenue and Tennessee Street in Gary.
Jamal, 53, lives with his wife in Portage. They have raised two children who are attending college in Chicago. He emigrated from Palestine to the United States in 1984.
Jamal was reluctant about being interviewed, but gradually warmed up as we talked.
“I used to play soccer and basketball in my country,” Jamal began. “It snows about every five years in Palestine. I tell friends and relatives you should see the snow here.
“I was a tailor in Palestine. I would make the whole suit. The customer would try it on twice before I finished it. I tried being tailor when I first came to this country, but you have to work for Sears or J.C. Penney.”
Anything else about your native land?
“No more Palestine. I don’t want to talk about my past.”
I respect that. We’ll keep it in this country.
“I first came to Cleveland, Ohio and then Savanna, Ga. Then, I had a liquor store in a Hispanic neighborhood in Los Angeles. I liked California, but it was too expensive. Back in the ‘80s, I paid $1,000 a month for a two-room apartment. I couldn’t save nothin’. All you do is work and eat.”
What about this place? You’ve been here for years. Do you have customers who’ve been coming here since you opened?
“Not so much. People change. The people who shop here now used to live in Chicago. The people who used to shop here have moved to Indianapolis. It’s 99 percent food stamps and one percent cash.”
“Definitely our bacon. Meat packages are big sellers. I don’t make much money on the meat bags. It mostly helps the community. Meat is sky-high right now. I’m losing money.”
Tell me more about these meat packages.
“Well, for example, the ‘beef and chicken special’ includes four pounds of chicken wings, four pounds of chicken legs, four pounds of ground beef, three pounds of short ribs, five pounds of beef liver, three pounds of chuck roast, three pounds of round steak and a free loaf of bread.”
How much does that cost?
“Beef and chicken special is $69.99.”
Other “meat bag specials”?
“We have the ‘extra special,’ ‘choice of family pack,’ ‘manager pack,’ ‘leader of the pack’ and ‘big bonus special.’ They are described on the signs hanging above the meat counter.”
The catfish looks good.
“Yes, besides whole catfish, we offer turkey wings and drumsticks, pig tails, skins, ribs, neck bone and ham hocks. We get our quality lunch meat from Chicago. Here, sample this rag baloney with some Colby cheese.”
I’ll try that. Thanks, Magnum. I haven’t eaten today.
Magnum Jamal appears to have a gruff exterior. It’s probably necessary. Pushovers won’t last long on Gary’s east side. We’re not talking Martha’s Vineyard here.
With that said, while I was interviewing him, a lady came in needing to purchase two items. It turned out she didn’t have the money for both. Jamal simply told her: “Pay me the rest when you come back next time.”
For years, photographer Camilo Vergara took pictures of Four Brothers Market showing how the exterior of the place changed over the course of time. There was a day when the outside of Jamal’s building was covered with items and their prices.
Not any more. Last summer, when Jamal was approached about displaying Martin Luther King prints of murals on the outside walls of his grocery store, he didn’t bat an eye. In fact, he got into the spirit of things and urged customers to check out the “exhibit.”
“...one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”
— Martin Luther King Jr.