Leonard Gage Jr. saunters down a busy Fond Du Lac Avenue just west of Sherman Park. Gage’s wide, slightly toothless grin says more about him than anything.
“I didn’t know too much about god until I got older,” says the 67-year-old. “And, I’m still a baby crawlin’. But, at least, I got sense enough to know that, you know, Jesus Christ was the almighty father’s son, or he might’ve been god — you know what I’m sayin’ — who knows? ‘Cause god don’t let you know everything.”
Gage grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, the only boy and youngest of four. He says his childhood was a good experience, but there’s no denying Leonard has seen things many people haven’t. That’s because of where he grew up, in the low income area of the city, he says.
“In St. Louis, you know what I’m sayin’, there ain’t no rebuildin’. It’s almost like East St. Louis, and East St. Louis is really bad,” says Leonard, “Except if you go down into, you know, downtown area where the Gateway Arch and all that stuff is — they keep that up. But, in the inner-city …”
“I done seen people get they throat cut,” says Gage.
He recalled another scene he saw while shining shoes as a youngster. “A man got mad because his wife wouldn’t go back with him — shot his wife, and then shot his-self, and his daughter’s standin’ there cryin’. I’m runnin’ over lookin’, you know, ‘cause I was a curious little boy,” he says. “Even in the junkyard. I used to jump over the fence and go into the junkyard and there’s a dead man, butt-naked, you know, all kind of crazy stuff.”
That was Leonard’s reality. So, he focused on working, to help his mother.
“When I was old enough to carry a shoe-shine box, I went and shined shoes; when I got a little older I went and pulled carts down the alley to sell morning newspapers; and, then, when I got a little older, I went on to service stations, pumped gas.”
Gage didn’t pay much attention in school because “it wasn’t makin’ no money,” he says. He was the class clown, and eventually dropped out before the seventh grade, an decision that would ultimately leave him unable to read.
When he turned 18, Leonard wanted to go into the service, but he was turned away.
“I was illiterate but I did want to go in the service, ‘cause I figured the service could make me some money — you know what I’m sayin’, I could help my mother.”
Leonard says his mother was very loving and “a scrapper.” His father, on the other hand, he calls a “gangster” — he liked alcohol and he liked to loan shark. Gage even claims that he kept the company of Sonny Liston, the one-time world heavyweight boxing champion who led a life of crime until he was convicted and sent to prison at the age of 20.
His parents’ relationship wasn’t good. According to Gage, his father was the kind of drunk “that wanna act a fool and make a bunch ‘a noise and act silly.” Leonard describes him as an angry man who would shoot his pistol into the ceiling after a long night of drinking or a lost bet.
“He never put his hands on her, but it was a mental thing,” he says. “Scared the shit out of her.”
“[There’s] a mental effect, too — you can put mental pressure on somebody, and that’s just as bad.”
One night, when it seemed a similar scene was about to take place, Gage saw his father ask the neighbor for his gun and told his mother. It was one too many times, and she left. He was about 13.
When they split up, Leonard cried because he wanted to go with his mother. But she didn’t make more than about $10 a day in her cleaning job. After the woman she worked for helped her get a place, she came back for her children, all four of them.
Even after they left he still saw his dad, even though this father blamed him for the divorce. He says his father never learned, continuing to drink until he had a stroke and eventually died at 82. Still, it seems, Gage was able to find peace about their relationship.
“I loved him,” he says. “He just had a disease, an alcohol problem, and that took a toll on ‘im.”
After Leonard was unable to enter the military as he’d planned, he didn’t know what to do. His plans were dashed. Unable to read, he didn’t have many options.
“I was walkin’ and I asked god — I looked up and I said — ‘God, please help me.’ I said, ‘I really need something to try to help my mother.’
“I stopped in at this big old plant place. And I went up there, and wasn’t nobody in the office or in the building,” he says. “So, I was lookin’ around, lookin’ around, and another guy said, ‘Can I help you?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ I said, ‘I’d like to get a job.’ He said, ‘Okay,’ he said, ‘I’m hirin’ three people … you’re the third one.’ He said, ‘I’m gonna put y’all on the assembly line, see how y’all work out.’ So, he put me on that assembly line, and I’m used to cars — I’ve been workin’ around them all my life — and I was jumpin’ in and outta them cars and he said, ‘You hired.’ So I worked at General Motors for 20 years.”
Over the course of his employment there, Gage was awarded some savings bonds and was eventually able to buy his mother a house. But even that wasn’t enough to calm her spirit.
“My mother didn’t live to be nothin’ but, uh, 62 years old before she had a heart attack,” he says. “She worried herself to death.”
Leonard adds, “I don’t know … I guess I had my faults too. But, you know what I’m sayin’, I did the best I could, and the girls did the best they could. But she—I guess she just wanted to … worry.”
After that, he came to Milwaukee. “I had never went nowhere. But my sister, she brought me up here. I didn’t want no more part of St. Louis, and I definitely didn’t want no Chicago, ‘cause, to me, Chicago was similar to St. Louis.”
But Milwaukee hasn’t been much kinder to Gage. He calls it a “fast” city, and says it’s been hard to find steady work, though there’s plenty of jobs. He’s fathered a few children, by two women who he considers ex-wives though they were never married. He received a miraculous hip replacement after slipping on some ice — he’d been almost completely immobilized for two years before, after being hit by a car. And, Leonard has seen more heartbreak, having to watch two young people whose lives he was a part of die from drug overdoses.
“These were just bad choices they make, you know what I’m sayin’? Breaks your heart to see it. You don’t realize it as much until somebody, you know, close to you … where it really hits [you],” he says.
“Who knows. That’s why they say god does everything, and he does it for a reason, and it’s good.”
It’s the simple things that bring a smile to Leonard’s face. He says he’s blessed to be in his children’s lives and have grandchildren to spend time with. He wants to show his offspring the good side of life so that, even if they find themselves in a bad environment, “they can make a better choice, rather than to be a follower.”
And, he’s learned the lessons of his parents’ lives. Gage will make suggestions to his now-grown children, he says, but he doesn’t worry about their every move.
“My daddy told me, when I was little, he said, ‘Son,’ he say, ‘You can’t control nobody; you’ll be lucky if you can control yourself,’” says Leonard, adding, “sometimes I can’t even do that.”
But he does know one thing. “God’s good, you know? And I can say that.”
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