The year was 1974, and I was in my first semester of fifth grade at Sutherland School, located in Beverly on the far southwest side of the City of Chicago. I was 10 years old, and my favorite subjects were reading, geography and boys.
It was nearly 3:00 that Tuesday afternoon in our schoolroom. I kept one eye on the clock on the wall and started gathering my books, each neatly covered with a brown paper grocery bag. I wrote the title of each book across the homemade book cover: Geography; Math (yuck!); Science (yuck again!). I’d lug all three home to help me complete my homework, which I studiously implemented all while sitting in front of our television set.
Tuesday just so happened to be my favorite day of the week since Happy Days was on at 7:00 that night. I looked forward to that evening, so I could watch my beloved television show and sigh over the ultra-cool Arthur Fonzarelli in his leather jacket. Then there was Potsie, the well-mannered chum of Richie Cunningham. They were two (much) older dark-haired gentlemen who I found quite adorable.
Even at my age, I knew those Hollywood types were out of my reach. Knowing that and being pragmatic, I learned to set my sights on boys in my own class.
By mid-September, I had already scoped out my current crush for that semester. The lucky fella’s name was Greg — a tall and lanky 10-year-old himself, with blonde hair, blue eyes, and a devilish grin. What’s not to love?
“If only he’d notice me,” I thought to myself. I was certain we could have a wonderful romance – whatever that consisted of at our immature age. I had already learned Greg was a fan of Fonzie. So, we had that in common. It seemed to me we were already starting off on the right foot.
I daydreamed about the two of us, riding our bicycles to the hobby store or swinging on the swings in the schoolyard. We’d help one another with our homework, just like Richie Cunningham did with his best girl on Happy Days. By the time we’d reach eighth grade graduation, we would be voted Cutest Couple by our own peers.Ahh, pure bliss.
I was knocked back into reality when our teacher announced it was time to wrap things up for the afternoon. The school dismissal bell rang at 3:15 every afternoon and we had only a few minutes left before we were free from the bondage of school… at least until Wednesday.
That meant it was time for teacher’s helper of the week to walk up and down our rows of desks, as he carried the standard-issued green metal trash can. It was our opportunity to toss out any unwanted papers (and contraband chewing gum).
This week it was Greg’s turn as teacher’s helper. My palms sweated as I waited for Greg to pass by my desk with the trash can in his left hand. Due to my last name starting with a “V,” I sat in one of the very last seats in class. This meant by the time he got around to me with the wastepaper basket, it was nearly filled to the brim with crumpled sheets of notebook paper.
My Pragmatism Kicks In
I never understood why the other students crushed their worksheets into a ball. Doing so just took up more volume within the trash can, causing it to overflow onto the floor at the end of the day. I clicked my tongue to myself. “Such a waste of space,” I thought as I shook my head at their ignorance.
Greg stopped short at my desk.
“Trash!” he called out loudly, breaking my sensible thoughts.
I looked up into his clear blue eyes. Trash! What a meaning he gave to the word.
I ripped out several old worksheets from my 3-ring notebook and dropped them – unfolded — into the side of the can. They fit in quite nicely, I thought, lying flat against the side and not taking up any extra space within the receptacle.
Greg looked into the basket and back to me. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “Crumple it up!” he ordered, narrowing his eyes.
I was amazed at how quickly the anger crept in as he furrowed his brow.
Gee, he sure was dreamy...
I furrowed my own brow and shot back at him. “Why?” I boldly asked.
His ocean blue eyes glared at me with incredulity.
Greg jerked his hand, motioning toward the receptacle. He was astounded that I couldn’t see the obvious break in pattern of trash pick-up. For a few seconds, he was stunned and grasping for words.
“Be– because it’s trash!” he insisted, taken aback at how obtuse I was.
I looked down at the full bin and then back up at Greg. “But it’s in the trash can,” I explained, again locking eyes with him.
I let my argument sink in, letting it marinate for a second.
Greg hesitated, not knowing how to respond. His feet shuffled beneath him, as if they themselves wasn’t sure whether to move onto the next pupil or not. He looked down at my flat sheets of paper that disrupted the usual design of mass waste.
He finally gave up and walked away. “Ughh!” he cried, shaking his head. He headed toward the next pupil, who would certainly follow the unspoken rules of our 4th grade classroom.
I watched handsome Greg continue his walk along the row of wooden desks — toward the good students who did as they were told. Where no one else would interrupt the due course of the afternoon trash pick-up.
“There goes our first date,” I regretfully thought, turning back to my geography homework. I mentally kicked myself in my geometric-print polyester pants.
I took another look at the clock on the wall. Now it was mocking me. Tick tock, tick tock . It seemed to slow down with each click. For me, the minute hand couldn’t move fast enough on that most unfortunate afternoon.
My world turned sullen. I rested my chin on my schoolbooks and waited for the bell to ring. “Fonzie or no Fonzie,” I brooded. “Tuesdays are no longer my favorite day of the week.”
Thank you for reading — PIZZA FOR BREAKFAST. Don’t forget to SUBSCRIBE for more posts.
This is a passage about a man named Norman. Let me re-phrase that… Our Dear Friend Norm.
Norm started out as a friend of my father’s — they met when theyboth worked as pressman at R.R. Donnelley’s — The Lakeside Press. Donnelley’s was once a giant in the printing industry, churning out Chicagoland phone books, Sears catalogs, Sears Wish Books, magazines, sales circulars, and more.
Norm and Dad eventually began to carpool to work together. Norm lived just one Chicago neighborhood west of ours — in Mt. Greenwood. On countless weekday (and weekend) mornings, Norm drove toward our home in Beverly, where he picked up Dad before they drove together to work.
Like most carpools, the fellas shared the driving duties. Sometimes Norm drove his car, with Dad in the passenger seat. Sometimes Dad drove his car. For the most part though, Dad’s cars left a lot to be desired since they weren’t the least bit luxurious. I remember one winter in the early ’80s when Norm had had enough of driving in Dad’s dingy yellow beater with no working heater.
Norm didn’t mince words with his cohort: “I’ll drive myself to Donnelley’s until you work out your car situation.”
I once had the fortunate opportunity to join Norm and Dad’s carpool, for about three weeks back in ’82. I had just graduated high school and landed a temporary job downtown on south Michigan Avenue. Dad told me I could ride with him and Norm… they left at 6:40 a.m. sharp, since their shifts started at eight.
For three weeks, I sat in the backseat, while Dad and Norm took turns driving. They had their routine down… take Halsted north to 87th Street, head east and hop onto the Dan Ryan. Keep in the local lanes, since their exit was at 22nd Street.
The two men didn’t talk too much during the car rides. I remember Norm read from a huge book he brought along, while Dad navigated the side streets. “I don’t think that old guy ever sold one newspaper,” Norm remarked, watching an elderly gentleman standing in the middle of 87th and State, holding a stack of Chicago Tribune newspapers in one arm — the Sun Times in the other.
“Hmm,” Dad replied, looking from the paper vendor and eyes back on the road.
That was about the extent of their morning conversations.
Norm was pretty hip, though. Cooler than Dad — or so I thought at the callow age of 18. For music on our car rides, Dad chose classical music on WFMT radio, which I found quite dull. One morning I tried listening to WLS — Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger was playing. Except Dad promptly turned the dial back to his favorite channel.
“Howard, what are you doing?” Norm cried, winking back at me in the back seat. “That’s the number one song this summer!”
“Achh!” Dad replied. The radio stayed tuned to Dad’s favorite station.
And that was the gist of our morning drives.
Eventually, I reached the end of my short stint at my downtown job. That night I indulged one too many times in plates of brie and crackers being passed throughout the office party room. Glasses of champagne were available. LOTS of champagne.
Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to say No to the cocktails. The next morning, as I joined Dad and Norm in our daily carpool, Dad warned Norm. “Don’t mind Heidi this morning. She’s a little off her game since last night.” I simply groaned in the backseat, as it seemed Dad hit every pothole on the way in. Norm chuckled at my plight. “Next time invite us along,” he advised me with a grin.
I should stop for a minute and describe Norm. My dad was tall. Norm was even taller. I’d peg him at somewhere near six foot, four inches. Imagine a cross between Tom Selleck and Hal Linden. I’m sure you can picture it. Yessiree, the females took notice when Norm walked into a room. I was no exception.
Norm was a great friend to Dad. They worked together, joked together and drank together. It was Norm who convinced Dad he wasn’t crazy when my father announced he wanted to purchase a 1939 Mack fire truck.
“Howard, you need that fire truck,” Norm counseled him.
“Dorothy will wring my neck if I come home with a fire engine,” Dad returned.
“C’mon,” Norm urged, grabbing his keys off the bar. “I’m drivin’.”
The next afternoon, Dad drove home his fire truck, with Norm in the co-pilot seat, working the siren button on the truck’s floorboard. They were a sight to behold, as my younger brother and I watched, dumbfounded, as the two of them drove down our street in Dad’s newest purchase. Siren blaring, neighbors staring. Dad and Norm happy as a couple of eight-year-old boys.
Norm was a generous soul. So generous, that he and another buddy managed to drop off a 12-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower in our backyard. They didn’t ask for permission, since the donation came about about 1:30 in the morning. The two had been out and about when they “found” the metal tower and were certain that it belonged in Dad’s backyard. This time, free flowing beer may have been involved.
Mom found the statute the next morning, when she came down at 6:00 AM to make the morning coffee. There the giant statute sat, in the middle of our yard, bold as could be. “Howard!” she called upstairs. “I think someone left a package for you.”
Dad couldn’t be more tickled. So much so, he kept the Eiffel Tower right where it was and went so far as to wrap it in colorful Christmas lights in December. It made a for a festive beacon in the winter season.
Eventually, Dad retired from Donnelley’s, and their carpooling days ended. He and Norm managed to continue their friendship outside of work, even going so far as to buy a boat together so they could enjoy the waters of Lake Michigan.
Several years later, Donnelley’s shut down its Chicago operations. Norm (and hundreds of others) were left without jobs. Norm was struck hard, since he had a family to support: a wife, son and two daughters. He took a bold step and changed careers. He went back to school and earned his realtor’s license, and foraged a successful path for himself.
I was one of the lucky ones to call Norm my realtor. When the time came for me to find a new home for myself and my six-year-old daughter, I called on Norm. It was an honor to have him escort me through different homes, as he was patient and took the time to determine my housing needs: good schools, close to transportation, parks, shopping.
There was a particular condo he showed me that still sticks out in my mind, 20 years later. My daughter and I met Norm at a residential building, where he brought the keys to the condo unit for sale. We entered the front door of the home and stepped from the foyer into the living room.
Across the length of one entire wall was a mural. This wasn’t a run-of-the-mill painting of a bucolic country scene. Instead, it was a full blown rendering of the owner, as she lay completely naked on a fur throw. I can definitely say the woman wasn’t the least bit modest. And the fur throw did nothing to shield certain images.
Out of the three of us standing in that steamy room, I wasn’t sure which one of us felt most uncomfortable. It was rather strange, standing there with my father’s handsome friend, along with my young daughter.
Norm was the first to blush. “Umm, let’s check out the kitchen area,” he suggested, as he walked away. “I’m outta here,” my daughter announced, and she followed Norm into the kitchen. I took one more glance at the womanly figure before me. The artist didn’t miss a thing. Not a single thing.
I turned and joined the others in the kitchen, where I found Norm and my daughter opening and closing cabinets, turning on and off the faucets and even discussing the finer details of upgrading to granite countertops.
It is now 20 years later. Unfortunately, my mother called with the sad news this week: Norm had passed away. I was struck dumb when I heard the news about a vibrant, hardworking and caring individual. It was as if a final chapter had closed. First my dad. Now Norm. Two friends together once more.
There are so many ways in which to describe this wonderful person. Handsome, funny, intelligent.
Practical joker. Boater. Proud Union member. Family man.
These are my stories of Norm. Friend to my dad. My family. And myself. My family will never forget him.
Thanks Norm. Rest in peace. And say hello to Dad for me.
Me: “I’m not sure how I feel about taking a “girls only” trip.”
My Daughter: “It’s not like anyone’s asking you to, Mom.”
GIRLS’ WEEKEND IN ATLANTIC CITY
I first mentioned my friend Anita (a/k/a The Goddess) a couple weeks back in an earlier post. Anita is my go-to, my mentor, my friend, my partner in crime. Although we come from different cultures, we became fast friends. As a matter of fact, our differences intrigued us, since at times we made assumptions about one another. We had alternating religious views, our own unique foods at holiday celebrations, different outlooks on life. Heck, we even had vastly different hair but still managed to share hairstyling tips with each other.
But for all our differences, Anita and I also knew how to have fun together. In other words, if she came up with an idea, I was immediately on board.
And that’s exactly how it all started, back when we worked together at Winston & Strawn, the oldest Chicago law firm. We were both secretaries, working for litigators. That meant busy days and overtime into the late evening hours. Heck, a few times we pulled all-nighters in order to meet court deadlines.
When it was all said and done, though, we enjoyed the work. As well as the overtime pay. Some weeks we worked so many overtime hours, our payroll department was obligated to give us two checks on payday. It was those extra dollars in our pockets that led Anita and me to consider a mini vacation for ourselves. A treat for all the hard work we’d been putting in through the winter months. April was just around the corner, and thoughts of spring entered our minds.
“There’s an ad here in The Defender for a coach bus trip to Atlantic City for the weekend,” Anita mentioned, as she perused her daily newspaper at her desk. “If I go, do you wanna come with me?”
“Sure, I will,” my 21-year-old self said, all too eagerly. After all, what was there to think about? Mention a road trip, and I jumped at the opportunity. “Um, where exactly is Atlantic City?” I naïvely asked.
“Hmm, I’m not sure myself,” Anita admitted. “Let’s look it up in the law library. They have an Atlas map there.”
Always willing, I followed my friend down the corridor of our law firm. As always, men’s eyes followed her down the hall, since she has as many curves as Lake Shore Drive. I still didn’t know why she hung around with me. For one thing, she was eight years older than I and clearly more mature. Plus, for the life of me, I couldn’t compare with her engaging beauty. Everywhere we went, people stopped to catch a glimpse of her – yes, she is that striking.
We stopped at the law library’s reference desk. “Excuse me, José,” Anita said softly, her eyes tender and innocent. “We need to take a peek at your Atlas.”
José’s own eyes lit up at the sight of Anita before him. “Sure, here you go,” he grinned. “Anything else I can do for you today?” he suggested, as he handed the catalog to her.
He held it tighter as she tried to take the book from her hands. “C’mon, now, let go,” she giggled. Jose’s smile great broader as he flirted with Anita, while I stood watching, mentally shaking my head. How does she do it?
The next Friday evening my father drove me to Anita’s apartment; we were picking her up before heading to Goldblatt’s parking lot, where we were scheduled to board the charter bus to take us on an overnight trip to Atlantic City.
“Thanks for driving, Mr. Van Howe,” Anita said kindly, as she slid out of the front seat.
My dad held the door for her as she alighted. “Please, it’s Howard,” he insisted. As I struggled removing my own heavy bag from the back seat, Dad went on to lift Anita’s luggage from the car trunk. Anita stood by sweetly, allowing him to do the gentlemanly thing. If my father had worn a hat that night, I think he would have tipped it at her.
“Bye, Dad,” I called back, as Anita and I headed toward the bus. The coach was already half loaded with suitcases. Scores of passengers milled about, wishing good-byes to family and friends. Their excitement was contagious, as I grew more thrilled about getting away for a fun-filled weekend with my good friend.
Dad stood at his car, watching us as we waited our turn to board the bus. I turned around once more to give him a wave. “Bye, Dad!” I called over to him. Dad, standing taller than most folks, cupped his hands around his mouth, getting ready to shout to me from across the parking lot.
“Don’t get pregnant!” he bellowed, before ducking back into his vehicle.
I stood there, suitcase in hand, mouth wide open, and was at a loss for words. Anita chuckled, while several others in line peered over at me to see what all the fuss was about.
Finally, we were inside the crowded bus, bumping into others’ luggage, impatiently waiting for the standing passengers while they debated over the best seats. As quick as she could, Anita squeezed past others in order to snag a pair of empty seats toward the rear of the bus, so we could sit together. I scooted in first, leaving her the aisle seat. Our bags stored securely overhead, we settled in for our adventure, talking excitedly with other passengers, until we heard our tour leader’s voice on the overhead.
“Thank you, thank you everyone,” he announced, as he waited for us to settle in.
He held the driver’s microphone, waiting for everyone to quiet down. “I want to thank you all for joining us on a fun-filled weekend trip to beautiful Atlantic City, New Jersey!” We clapped politely, waiting to hear more.
“We promise you all a weekend to remember. Atlantic City has everything: casinos, nightclubs, the ocean-side boardwalk,” he went on. “In a few minutes I’ll pass out $10 in casino chips to everyone on board.” A small cheer came up from the crowd. “That’s right, these chips I’m about to hand out are part of your get-away package.”
We clapped again, encouraging him. “Finally, let’s all give a huge thank you to Mrs. Andrews and Mrs. Pettigrew for making tonight’s on-board refreshments,” he went on. “Can we give them all a big hand?” He motioned toward two petite women in the front seats. The two ladies stood up, each wearing a wool coat with matching hat, complete with hatpins. They turned, smiling and nodding, while we passengers politely clapped a third time, showing our appreciation for our gracious hosts.
“Anita, what kind of trip are we going on, anyway?” I whispered.
“Knock it off, girl,” Anita whispered, elbowing my side. She clapped louder and gave a whistle for the two refreshment hostesses.
We heard the start of the engine and the driver shut the front door. We smiled at one another, as he cleared the parking lot and headed down 87th Street toward the Dan Ryan Expressway, toward the east coast. The ocean. Our weekend away.
The mood on our bus was lively, as folks happily chatted in anticipation of our destination. Anita and I talked together, imaging what our hotel room would look like, the sights we’d see in Atlantic City, and the fun we’d have. Things were going smoothly for the next 30 minutes or so, while the bus headed out of the city, heading east to head down Interstate 80.
Suddenly, a strong voice broke above the general din of the passengers. “Well, I’m all about believin’ everyone’s the same!”
It was a male voice which popped out from the darkened vehicle. Anita and I looked at one another, wondering what that was all about.
“Yep, I’m all for love one another and don’t believe we’re different,” the vehement voice continued.
This time there was no mistaking where it came from – directly across the aisle from Anita. Anita nudged my arm, wanting to break the tension. “What did you bring to wear Saturday night?” she asked me.
“Um, my blue silk dress,” I answered. Except I spoke quietly, because my heart had starting beating quicker. I didn’t know what more to say. That is, I wasn’t sure what to do. In an instant, I felt cornered in my uncomfortable seat wedged next to the window.
But this man was not to be ignored. “You ask me, everyone’s got a right to be here,” he said louder than before. Several others on the bus turned around, looking at him, then Anita, before resting their eyes on me. “You see, I’m just fine with that,” he ranted.
“Girl, we’ll just overlook him,” Anita advised. She opened a magazine and started flipping through the pages, browsing for anything to turn her attention to milder attractions. I reached down into my carry-on and pulled out a novel I had picked up from the library. I flipped on the overhead reading lights for the two of us, so we could better see our reading material.
Unfortunately, the fella across from us wasn’t satisfied and clearly wanted our attention. “Ebony and ivory, “ he started singing. “Livetogether in perfect harmony,” he sang, taunting us for a reaction.
I was getting nervous. Who was this guy? He was big, for one. And sitting way too close to us for comfort. Plus, Anita and I had nowhere else to go, as we were packed into a small bus, that barely accommodated 45 passengers. And from the looks of it, the seats were booked full. There were no other open seats that could accommodate us.
“Side by side on my piano keyboard, oh Lord,why don’t weeeeeeeee?” he went on. “Yep, I’m cool with whatever’s goin’ on in this here bus.”
I sat back in my seat, hoping to make myself smaller. I realized my body had tensed during the episode. I flipped through my book, quickly scanning the pages, but not truly reading. I was uneasy but wasn’t sure of how to handle the situation. Did I need to say something to him? I couldn’t think of anything that would appease him. I certainly couldn’t walk away at that point. We were on an interstate in Indiana, and any escape was futile.
At that point Anita had had enough of it. Her face went solemn – a rare thing, but when it happened, you’d better stay out of her way. She leaned over towards my left ear. I could feel her long hair brush my neck. “Let me take care of this fella,” she whispered.
Anita turned toward the gentleman. She crossed her legs and turned her torso toward him, folding her arms in front of her. “You wanna say something to me?” she challenged the provocateur.
Her expression said it all – Anita meant business. She gave it right back to him, daring the fella to go on with his rhetoric.
Except he avoided her gaze. Instead, he stopped singing and simply stared forward at the seat in front of him. As if nothing ever happened. Anita watched him another half minute, waiting to see if he was going to continue his taunting.
I gripped the edges of my worn book, rubbing my thumb along the spine, I could feel the soft threads of the binding. My eyes darted to Anita, who wasn’t giving in, and back toward the window, worried that the bus wasn’t going stop for several more hours.
I’m not sure if it was Anita’s stance, or perhaps the wiseguy’s wife, who sat next to him and possibly gave him a hard side jab. But that guy shut up just as quick as he started. He settled into his seat more, and I caught a side glimpse of him, and saw his hands relax, while his fingers played with the edge of the arm rest.
Anita unfolded her arms and turned back toward me. She leaned back, resting her head against the pillow-top headrest. She slowly closed and opened her eyes, giving me a reassuring gaze. It was the smile from my friend that I was now long familiar with. I felt safe. Reassured.
I gave her a small smile back, and she went back to her magazine. I turned to the right, gazing out the bus window. The evening was dark, without much light from the summer moon. I watched the car taillights, as they sped along the highway alongside us. The bus engine made a steady hum and I could feel the vibrations of the vehicle, its wheels steadily rolling toward our destination.
The soft din of other passengers continued, as I heard muted conversations, a couple laughs, a cough from a few rows back, and the sound of the crisp pages of Anita’s magazine, as she used her index finger to swipe through the pages, searching for an interesting article.
I settled deeper into my seat and pulled my denim jacket over my chest for warmth. Our bags were packed with our favorite dresses for that Saturday night. We each had our $10 worth of red chips for gambling in the casinos.
So there it was — me and my friend, Anita. The two of us were on our way to Atlantic City.
“I TOOK A QUIZ the other day,” my friend Anita commented, as we sat at our favorite bar, each of us lost in our own thoughts. When she spoke, her intrinsic low voice always made me smile. I was slowly swirling the mini plastic skewer in my drink, while Anita mindlessly folded her paper cocktail napkin, making tiny accordion folds.
We had met after work that autumn evening, catching up after not seeing each other for well over a year. The time and separation didn’t matter. We picked right back up where we left off. It was as though we were still co-workers, from years back when we worked side by side five days a week, churning out the work as legal assistants.
We sat together each enjoying our drinks, listening to the small jazz ensemble, provided with no cover charge at the downtown bar we haunted years earlier. Tonight, we chose it again for old times’ sake – that and for its proximity between our workplaces. The prices were kept low, leading to a tavern with poor lighting and mediocre booze. The grunge was authentic – brought on by years of neglect, with a steady patronage of drinkers who appreciated its understated qualities, which included attentive barkeepers and cheap drinks.
Anita and I didn’t mind one bit. At least the restrooms were kept clean, and we were always guaranteed there’d be available seating. That was all we needed.
“A quiz?” I repeated back to my pal, watching her reflection in the mirror behind the bottles of liquor at the bar. “Tell me,” I begged. “What was that all about?”
She turned towards me, and I saw what I always knew: Anita added class to the joint. Her classic curves lent beauty to the otherwise worn-out establishment. The place had been a fine lounge at one time, evidenced by its corner banquettes covered in worn midnight-blue velvet, while the small wooden stage in the corner was decorated with the names of musicians from years past, as they autographed the walls with their names, eventually covering other old, faded signatures.
Still, it remained a place where we liked to meet for a drink after work, especially since the bartender, Spiro, kept an eye on us, ensuring we were never hassled by overzealous patrons. Of course, Spiro’s manly physique wasn’t lost on the two of us either. The proverbial tall, dark and handsome gentleman appeared in both my and Anita’s daydreams more than once.
All that, and as a pro, our barkeeper knew exactly when to make a joke, when to mind his own business, and when to replenish our glasses. What’s not to love?
I looked around the room, and saw the usual favorable glances from gentlemen, as they admired my friend next to me. Always, always, always, Anita stole the show, her dancer’s legs seductively crossed as she leaned back into the bar stool. Still, she paused before answering my question.
“So, go on,” I goaded her. “I’d like to hear this.” I tipped my glass to my lips, draining the last of its contents.
Anita picked up her drink and carelessly shrugged. “Well” she began. “The quiz was titled called ‘Ten Ways to Tell If You’re a Goddess.” Letting out a coy sigh, she shrugged her shoulders and used one hand to flip her long hair back behind her shoulders. She looked around the room, scanning to see if any new faces had arrived, while also waiting for my reaction.
“A goddess?” I said with a small laugh. “Go on, I want to hear this,” I urged, as I kept one eye on Spiro, watching him carefully squeeze cut limes into two tall glasses of tonic water.
“Well, it turns out that I checked all ten items,” Anita went on, matter-of-factly. She shrugged her shoulders, hesitating continuing. “So,” she paused, “I guess that makes me a goddess.”
As she admitted this, her lips curved upward, growing into a smug smile. A modest blush shown in her cheeks.
My friend’s smile grew, evidencing her self satisfaction. She let her eyes move around the lounge area, taking in the old memories we had of the place. It was clear she was pleased with the results of the game.
Heck, she had every right to be.
I immediately chuckled, something I did often while in her presence. “Yep, I’ll grant you that one,” I answered her, nodding my head in agreement.
Looking back at my long-time chum, I admired her self-confidence, style and charm. As always, she looked irresistible, her allure never fading. Besides the glamorous exterior, though, was a woman who was genuine.
She’s devoted to her family, her work, and her passion for dance. Anita always remained truthful with me, telling me exactly what I needed to hear – whether I liked it or not. Years before, we worked together and vacationed together, She stood up as my maid of honor for my first wedding. She was always there for me, letting me lean on her shoulder if need be.
She’s a stunning gem -- inside and out.
I looked my companion straight in the eye then. I needed to let her know exactly what I thought. “You know very well you didn’t need to take some silly magazine survey to tell you you’re a goddess,” I started. “You see, Anita, I’ve known that about you all along.”
I tipped my glass to hers in mid-air, offering a toast to my long-time friend. Our glasses kissed one another, signaling an understood commemoration between the two of us.
We each emptied our glasses, as we enjoyed the scene before up. Our handsome bartender was putting the finishing touches on a couple of martinis. His professional fingers quickly twisted the lemon peels into curls before placing one on each glass. He picked them up by their stems and set them down before me and my friend.
“These are compliments of the gentleman at the other end,” Spiro winked, tipping his head toward the left.
Anita and I both paused, caught off guard by the unexpected drinks. Then, in unison, we reached for the cocktails and raised our glasses in the direction of the generous patron. The kind stranger tipped his glass back toward the two of us, as we smiled our practiced feminine smiles, demonstrating our appreciation.
Suddenly, we felt a burst of fresh air rush in, uncharacteristically upsetting the mustiness of our favorite watering hole. Looking toward the front door, we each took a sip of our fresh martinis, watching as a small group of eager hipsters entered the lounge, their eyes eagerly taking in the genuine, no-frills aura of our saloon.
In search of their own festive libations.
Celebrating their own friendships.
Or possibly exposing and commandeering our authentic hideaway.
Back in the early ’80s, my pal Nan and I spent an afternoon at the Federal Reserve, hoping to learn more about job opportunities for ourselves, as we were nearly finishing up our last term at business school.
Nan had a connection at the Reserve — a friend of her folks from the Beverly neighborhood. It was he who was good enough to give us a tour of the Reserve and also introduce us to those in charge who may have some sway in pulling strings to get each of us a job.
He was a nice fellow, but for the life of me, I can’t recall his name or what he looked like. I do recall tidbits of our conversations though. It went something like this…
Him: “Did you girls go to the Southside Irish parade last weekend?”
Nan smiled: “We sure did… it was great!”
Him: “You bet it was! Me and my pals checked out every bar on Western Avenue. It was an awesome time. In fact, I didn’t get back to work until this morning!”
Later that afternoon on the train ride back to Beverly, I naively asked Nan… “If he went to the parade on Sunday, why didn’t he get back to work until today? I mean, it’s Thursday already!”
Nan winked at me. “It was a good parade!” she laughed.
Which brings me to another parade story. Fast forward 20 years and I found myself living back in Beverly, with a house conveniently located on Artesian (one block west of Western Avenue). The nice thing about the house was its location to shopping, transportation, the Beverly Art Center, and walking distance to several parks.
What was also interesting about that house was the commotion that passed by it every year in mid-March. It all started the Saturday afternoon before the parade officially began, when folks would start slowly cruising down Artesian, searching for an open parking spot. If they got lucky and found room, the driver would park his or her car. But just as quickly, another car behind would pull up, while the driver in the original car jumped into the second car, and off they sped.
Quickly I figured out the sneaky maneuvers… these people were pre-parking before Parade Sunday, when parking up close to the Western Avenue parade route was impossible.
A few of my neighbors were a little miffed over our block being taken up by strangers’ cars. For the most part, it didn’t bother me, since I had my own garage, where my car stayed quietly until the annual shamrock shindig was complete.
After living on Artesian for over five years, I was more than educated as to what went on during the parade. Parade-goers started early, as I’d notice early in the morning, just as I took in my Sunday paper and sipped from my first mug of coffee. The first few fellas to march past my house at half past seven always carried a cooler on their shoulders. Nothing like starting early. By then, I was sorry I hadn’t added a wee bit of Bailey’s to my cup of joe… just to get me in the mood.
As the next two hours went by, one might have thought the Western parade extended to Artesian as well. The sidewalks were filled with individuals dressed in their Southside Irish jackets or any other green-hued apparel they could find. The males sported tweed caps, while the females wore navel-exposing t-shirts, as they shivered in the 50 degree weather. Mardi Gras beads ruled the day, along with KISS ME I’M IRISH buttons tacked onto every moving part.
But what the heck! The sun was shining and we were all tired of Chicago winter. If we were lucky, the ground even joined in by popping up small spouts of tulip leaves and purple Crocus. Needless to say, everyone was happy to be outside, yelling to one another, singing, sipping and generally enjoying the first signs of springtime.
That particular year, my daughter and I invited a few friends over. My pal and her two daughters arrived with a large platter of corned beef sandwiches, courtesy of County Fair. Along with our homemade oatmeal cookies and Irish soda bread, we had more than enough to serve ourselves.
Our group stayed near the house, where we could easily view the parade from my backyard. However, we knew from experience that the more interesting parade was on my own front sidewalk. It was evident the passing families with their wagonload of kids had every intent to view the parade. For the other groups of young adults, it was a different story. It seemed many of them were determined to drink themselves under a table before 3 o’clock that afternoon.
The morning went on, and my new beau — Dave — stopped by that morning as well. Being raised in Cicero, he was no stranger to shenanigans from neighborhood folks. Still, he was awed by the sheer number of people strolling past my tiny home.
Dave became even more bewildered when an overserved gentleman suddenly decided to take a nap on my front lawn. The poor fella wore an authentic knit sweater and plastic green hat, along with countless green and orange beads draped around his neck to add to his festive attire. He lay his empty beer cup in my grass, turned a few times like a tired dog, and plopped down on my front lawn chair.
Dave watched and chuckled before he attempted to wake the guy up. “Hey buddy, you doin’ okay?” he asked, shaking the man’s arm.
We received an incoherent response from the gentleman. He was breathing fine, but nothing he mumbled made any sense to us. He ignored us completely and dove into a deep slumber in the chair, head tilted to the side, eyes closed. Meanwhile, his jaunty hat stayed perfectly perched atop his slumbering head.
This unexpected scene gave Dave had an idea. He ran up the two front steps and into my house. Dashing inside, he had grabbed my digital camera and was already back outdoors before I knew what was happening. I approached the front door, and watched the scene unfold…
“Step right up, everyone! For just five bucks, you can get your picture taken with the drunken leprechaun!” Dave shouted to passersby.
A couple of girls stopped and giggled. “Why not?” they agreed, before forking over a ten-dollar-bill to Dave, who slipped the cash in his front pocket.
By now he was incentivized to continue his scheme. “That’s right, good people! Take your picture today with a genuine drunken leprechaun,” he barked. “Only five dollars and you’ll have a souvenir to cherish forever.”
Wouldn’t you know it, his scam was making money, hand over fist. It seemed everyone walking by truly loved the idea. Groups of friends laughed at the situation before they each took a fiver from their pockets and handed it to Dave. Each individual would crouch next to the sleeping drunk, while Dave snapped a picture. I simply stood there watching, wondering if I had hooked myself up with a con man from the town of Cicero.
Ultimately though, the rest of us girls felt compelled to take advantage of the day. “Grab the plate of sandwiches,” my friend called to our daughters. “And the desserts too. We’re gonna sell them for ten bucks apiece!”
The girls followed instructions and in less than 30 minutes they had over $200 among themselves, simply by selling sandwiches, cookies and soda bread to the hungry strangers. When the last of the food was sold, they walked back into the house, all equally proud of the fast money they earned.
They were followed in by Dave, who was grinning from ear to ear. He had a wad of cash in his hands and just kept laughing to himself over and over.
“What’s so funny?” my pal and I finally asked of him.
“Five bucks apiece for a photo with the drunken leprechaun,” he giggled. “Thing is, none of those folks are ever returning to pick up their photo!“
This post is dedicated to Mom, who celebrates her birthday tomorrow. Happy Birthday Mom!
When I think back to my childhood, it’s filled with memories of outfits my mom had crafted on her Singer sewing machine. Her work was varied, from dresses for me and my sister to window dressings, Mom had it all sewn together.
Mom first learned to sew in her high school Home Economics class. There, the students were taught how to provide balanced meals for their families, manage a budget, maintain a healthy home and, of course, learn how to work a sewing machine and turn out fashionable, creative designs one would be proud to wear.
One of the first items Mom made for me and my sister was a pair of matching dresses. The simple pattern followed the mod trend at the time (circa 1968). The dresses were made from a jersey material of a dusty rose, with a grid of muted grey lines creating a soft pattern. The design was straightforward but striking: a shift dress with a knee-length hem, long sleeves and a narrow collar band.
Mom fitted the dresses to suit us girls perfectly, and the two of us couldn’t wait to wear our new frocks. We didn’t have to wait long, since the very next day Mom instructed me to don my new dress. She helped me into a pair of white tights (which I loathed) and buckled my black patent leather shoes onto my two feet.
“Where are we going Mommy?” I asked.
“I have a PTA meeting,” she quickly replied, leading us toward the front steps of my sister’s grade school.
We entered the oversized doors and proceeded to the cavernous school auditorium, filled with the echoes of chattering mothers. Given it was 1968, that morning’s group consisted of females only, dressed in their best: dresses, stockings, high heels and handbags. Some even sported a matching hat. As always with these PTA meetings, my ears were overwhelmed with the cacophony of excited exchanges and laughter taking place. The mature voices filled my small self with a heavy mix of unintelligible sounds – conversations I couldn’t quite decipher at that time in my short life.
My brother and I followed our mother to open seats, several rows back from the stage. She chatted with the other parents, while I swung my legs over the edge of the wooden seat, wondering how long this gathering would take. My mother reached over and smoothed out a couple wrinkles on my dress. “I need you to sit still and keep your dress looking nice,” she reminded me. Somehow, I knew this meant I wasn’t going to enjoy the program ahead of us.
Two women stopped by us. “Dorothy, we’re ready for her,” one announced. Mom bent her head in my direction. “Heidi, go with those women.” I looked at her, at the women, and back to Mom. “It’s okay, go ahead,” she prodded.
One of the ladies took my hand and escorted me through a side door. Inside, we climbed a short set of stairs, arriving backstage, where I saw another whirlwind of PTA women, all with more excited chatter amongst themselves. I watched as heavy drapery curtains swished back and forth as groups of women and young girls through them.
The entire situation was foreign to me but seemed even more odd when my sister suddenly appeared backstage as well. “C’mon, Heidi,” she mumbled, and grabbed my hand to follow her. I stumbled after her and noticed she was wearing her new dress as well, along with the same white stockings and stiff shoes.
“Where are we going?” I cried out. “Shhh… it’s our turn,” she hushed me, raising her forefinger to her lips.
Still holding my hand, she led us onto the auditorium’s stage. There, I found ourselves facing the entire members of the PTA audience. All I could see were smiling female faces, expectantly looking up at the two of us – my sister and I – all alone on stage, except for one woman standing to our left, behind wooden a podium.
My confusion only grew from there.
“These are the daughters of Mrs Dorothy Van Howe,” I heard Podium Lady begin. Okay, I knew that was right. But where was my mom? I couldn’t see her nor my brother in the sea of heads filling the auditorium seats.
“Blah blah blah blah blah,” the announcer went on, using a microphone. I gave her a look of disapproval. What business did she have talking about my mother? I looked over at my sister. She was slowly turning around in her new pink dress, while I stood steadfast in my tight shoes, wondering what the heck she was doing.
I heard a few giggles from the floor. “Heidi, turn!” my sister hissed at me. I gave her one of my best glares, but she ignored me and continued turning around in circles, while I heard more murmurs from Podium Lady.
“Mrs. Van Howe followed a Butterick pattern, blah blah blah.”
My sister confidently turned to her left, to her right, and finally posed with one hand on her hip while she faced the audience straight on. My agitation grew. What was she doing here on stage with me… wasn’t she supposed to be in her classroom? More importantly… why were all these ladies staring at us?
The lady at the podium continued. “The dresses are blah blah, with a knee-length blah,” she announced to the crowd. Immediately I knew I wasn’t fond of this woman. She didn’t give a hoot about my wishes. “How did this woman know about my new dress, and what business was it of hers anyway?” I thought to myself.
More giggles arose, as my face slowly turned the same pink shade as our twin dresses. That spurned me on. I relented and did what I was told: mimic the actions of my older sister. I figured she was in the second grade, so she must know what she was doing. She turned. I turned. She smiled at the ladies, I smirked at them. What other choice did I have?
Finally, applause came from the audience. Podium Lady gave us a dismissive nod, while my hand was grabbed for the umpteenth time that morning and my sister led me back toward the staging area.
By then I was almost near tears, and I ran down the stage steps, searching for my mother in the crowd. I saw her beaming smile, while my brother sat watching me wide-eyed, wondering why his sister was starting to cry.
Sensing my discomposure, he too became agitated. His eyes widened, while his nose twitched and his mouth shaped into a grimace. I watched as his face turned mauve (close to the color of my new dress), and he burst out crying. A loud, sympathetic cry for his big sister. He wasn’t sure what had happened to me that set me off, but he wasn’t going to let his sister cry alone. That morning, his support meant the world to me.
Our mother sighed and turned to her friends, laughing with them. She shook her head and drew a handkerchief out of her handbag, carefully drying our tears and soothing our nerves. I sat down, not bothering to smooth down the back of my dress. Let it get bunched up and wrinkled on the pull-down seat. I didn’t care any longer. I sat, arms folded, and waited for that ridiculous PTA meeting to come to an end.
Luckily for me and my mother, that was my first — and last — PTA-sponsored fashion show.
Did I ever tell you about the time I got locked in my bedroom closet?
It happened several years ago, on a warm and sunny Saturday morning. I was putting away my fresh laundry, starting with sorting my lingerie into my dresser drawers.
Next, I turned to my small closet to hang up the rest of my clothing. The closet was a walk-in, complete with two clothing rods on either side, with a pair of shelves overhead. Inside, there was just enough room for me to walk in, choose my clothing for the day, and even change into my outfit. Not bad for an old brick rowhouse on the far southwest side of the city.
Like the rest of the closet doors in my home, this closet door boasted a vintage glass doorknob on the outside. I admit that it was those cute doorknobs that partly convinced me to purchase my home. Another principal reason was its hardwood floors throughout the home. Sure, they were creaky, but I loved the look of ’em.
But since it was an antiquated home, I also knew to never fully close my bedroom closet door.
Since it tended to stick. And not budge.
You can see where I’m going with this.
I was inside such closet one bright and sunny Saturday morning, putting away my clean laundry, when suddenly my fiancé-to-be decided to shut that closet door.
He often tries to be funny. And he usually can manage to make me chuckle. Except this was definitely NOT one of those times.
I heard a click.
“Hey, Heidi, come out of the closet!” he taunted me through the closed door.
Within an instant, I knew I was stuck. I didn’t want to panic, but I knew the situation was not good. I had shut the door once before — from the outside — and quickly learned never to completely shut it again. You see, old wooden doors tend to swell in the summer heat. And then they become stuck.
Wouldn’t you know it, the door wasn’t budging as I tried the knob from within.
I yelled. He yelled back.
I pushed. He pulled.
My teen-aged daughter came in to help. This time, she yelled. I yelled.
I pushed. She pulled.
Again, you see where I’m heading with this story.
The two of them decided to search for a tool in my basement to pry the door open. Guess what? My collection of hardware was limited.
Next, they ran back down to the first floor, out the front door, and asked the neighbors for any tools that might help my – er – situation.
Meanwhile, I waited inside the closet. What other choice did I have?
The first neighbor immediately ran over to my house, huffing and puffing up the stairs and found his way into my master bedroom.
Problem was, he had no tools with him. This led me to believe he was simply a spectator. Which meant I was getting more agitated.
Next, the gal from the corner rowhouse stopped by. I heard her mumble something to my boyfriend, my daughter, and the spectator. Then her warning came. “Heidi, stand back!” she cried. “I’m gonna chop down your door with my ax!”
“NO!” I yelled from inside the closet. “Please don’t do that to my door!” I had images of a splintered door, a broken door jamb, and — quite possibly — blood.
The group put their heads together and decided to call 9-1-1.
Here’s what happened within the next two minutes.
(Bless you, Chicago first responders)…
Two police squad cars – blue flashers on – arrived in front of my home. A fire truck – sirens blaring — pulled up on Artesian Avenue, effectively blocking any traffic from coming down the street.
By this time, the other neighbors gathered in front of my house. Typically, a couple squad cars and a fire engine will do that — especially in a tight-knit Chicago neighborhood. A group of young boys on their bikes stopped on my front lawn to gawk at the emergency vehicles. And then their eyes turned toward my upstairs bedroom window.
People pointed and asked about the commotion. “What’s going on? Is there a fire? Is someone in trouble?”
They didn’t have to wonder long. The spectator’s wife was on my front lawn, too. “Heidi got locked in her closet,” she conveniently told the crowd.
Next, I heard a number of raucous boots, stomping up my wooden staircase, along with what I imagined to be several pairs of sneakers, and some bare feet from my daughter. The decrepit floorboards had never seen so much action.
I heard a dozen or more boots walk closer to my closet door and stop. A strong male voice rang out. “Are you alright in there, Miss?” I heard from the opposite side of my closet.
“Yes, I’m breathing slowly so I don’t get any more anxious than I already am,” I called back.
“Stand back, I’m gonna pry this door open!” he ordered.
One. Two Three. CRACK!
I was released.
I stood there. They stood there. All of them. My daughter and my bright fella. The spectator and my friend with her ax. A tall firefighter, holding the pry bar he used to rescue me.
In addition to them, I counted four police officers and five more firefighters — courtesy of the City of Chicago. Just staring at me, as I stood in the closet (sans door).
I peered over my shoulder, to check out the windows which faced my front lawn. The neighbors waved. And cheered.
My face turned beet red. “Thank you,” was all I could manage.
Everyone – especially the handsome uniforms – laughed good naturedly, as they milled about my bedroom. I have to admit, having ten of Chicago’s finest in my bedroom was rather gratifying — heck, almost fantasy-like. I just wish the circumstances were a lot less embarrassing.
Truth be told, I really didn’t think the episode could get much more humiliating.
But then I noticed an errant pair of my black lace panties that had been sitting on my bedroom floor the entire time. I’m not sure how many boots had trampled over the underwear at that point. But there they lied, on the floor.
WHAT DO WRITERS (anyone, really) do with a blank page – waiting for some profound thoughts to appear before them. Ready to share their thought-provoking ideas with the world. Or somehow relaying a memorable (even poignant) story that others will relate to. Even cherish.
SIGH. That’s not most of us. Or, at least, it ain’t me.
I started this blog with the idea that I’d routinely write, sharing my ideas with others. From working in the city, living in the ‘burbs and everywhere in between, I’d confidently dash off stories or ideas that would shake things up just a bit. Or at least make people think about 30 seconds beyond the end of my postings.
Except that idea is unrealistic. Creativity comes in waves, carrying levels of energy and enthusiasm. Sometimes the story pours forth tremendously. Many times it simply drips, like an old bottle of barbecue sauce that’s been sitting in the fridge for months.
I’ve been dreading the thought of boring readers with listless prose, dull adjectives, and common themes.
Yet, isn’t that where my past stories came from? Real, everyday life? Authentic stories that hopefully others can relate with?
Yes, I will keep writing, even if I feel it’s uninteresting. I’ll push myself with a simple writing prompt…
“WRITE ABOUT YOUR YESTERDAY”
Simple enough? Yes, to begin with.
Let’s see where it leads.
Yesterday, I left my desk at 5:02 PM, giving me enough time to walk the 1+ mile trek to the Metra train station. I like to allow for a cushion of time – 5 minutes – in order not to rush as I start my commute toward the station.
I’m not a fast walker. Never was. Except now I’m of a certain age. Plus, there’s a certain knee replacement that I can always use for a valid excuse. I also know my right leg isn’t aligned with my left. In fact, the lower right leg stands out to my starboard side, rather than pointing forward like its left partner.
Don’t get me wrong… I’m not complaining. It believe it’s all part of me. What makes me – well, me.
I finished the first block and one half, as I crossed Lake Street, heading south down Clark.
And that’s where it always begins. That’s where I run into confused out-of-towners who are desperately trying to locate the CTA station.
The bus station is unintentionally hidden. Situated inside the State of Illinois building, with no decent signs pointing folks in the right direction. It’s a bit noisy there, with the El tracks running overhead. It’s also dirty with pigeon droppings at each crosswalk. Be careful where you stand, as you wait for a green light. You don’t want to wind up with bird poop on your head.
Tonight was no different from many, where an individual asked me for directions. I see the look in their eyes: they look at their phone, then the street signs, then search the surrounding area.
And the lost look stays in their eyes.
Some of them become bold. “Excuse me?” they ask. “Can you tell me where the train is to the airport?”
I point toward the revolving doors on Lake Street. “Head down there,” I tell them. “Once inside, you’ll see the CTA lines, which will take you to either airport.”
They thank me and rush off, trailing their suitcases on wheels, treasured phone still in hand, afraid to lose their lifeline.
Except yesterday’s lost stranger was a little different. There he stood with a stuffed backpack and his phone in hand. He was standing next to a sitting bus, trying to speak with the CTA driver.
But getting nowhere.
I watched his forlorn face tell part of the story. My eyes switched from him, then toward the bus driver, who sat defiantly in his coach seat, seemingly unwilling to assist. Already, I felt sorry for the poor fella, so I slowed a bit, already sensing he was lost and needed support.
He was young – probably about 22 years old, smooth skin unmarked from time or weather. His hair was dark, and his soft brown eyes showed naiveté. Already, my sense of motherhood was building up in me. “Please, please, help,” he said to me, walking closer. He held out his phone toward me, just close enough so that I could read the words on the screen.
I saw words written in Spanish. “Oh dear,” I thought to myself. “Here we go.”
It was a translation app he was using. Except the words weren’t quite making sense. My Spanish isn’t quite up to par, considering the fact that I only finished three years of the language back in 1981.
Might as well have been 80 years ago.
I reluctantly scanned his phone. My guard was up. I was downtown, after all, and I try to avoid getting too close to strangers.
“Need bus to O’Hare,” the phone read.
“Oh, are you going to O’Hare?” I asked the young man.
He looked at me but gave no answer. Didn’t he speak even a bit of English? I wondered. I recalled a few words from my first year of Spanish, hoping I wouldn’t make a fool out of myself.
“¿Donde calle?” I asked, looking into his soft eyes. Gee, I hoped those were the right words. I also worried that my thick Chicago accent wouldn’t hinder his understanding. I thought of my Spanish teacher, Senora Greensley, way back when at Morgan Park High School.
She would be unimpressed with me right about now.
Evidently, I did okay. The young man started typing on his phone and turned it toward me once more.
“Addison Street,” it read. My face must have shown my confusion. “Addison and what?” I inquired.
He punched in more details. By this time, I figured we were old pals, so I watched over his shoulder.
“Take CTA O’Hare,” popped up on his screen.
“Oh, okay! You want the Blue Line, I explained, pointing toward the building behind me. “In there,” I instructed, pointing even harder now with my finger. As if that would help the situation.
I received another blank look. I couldn’t let this kid walk away without helping him. He seemed so vulnerable, carrying his backpack, still looking lost as he took in the downtown scene around us.
“C’mon with me,” I instructed. This much he understood. He followed, as I quickly walked back to Lake Street, turned west and walked the ¼ block toward the side entrance. I thought about my Metra train that was another 9 blocks ahead for me. We’d have to make this quick.
“The signage here is terrible,” I noted, looking his way. “They need to do something about this for travelers.” He gave a half-hearted grin, and I could see relief washing over his young face. I kept up my remarks, figuring that if I kept speaking, he’d somehow understand me.
Inside the station, I pointed at the O’HARE sign. “Blue line,” I indicated.
Another blank stare.
“Azul,” I tried again. Hey, I remembered more than I thought.
Except he didn’t approach the turnstile. Once more, his phone came out. He typed his question into the app and showed me the translation.
“Need a ticket,” it read.
I glanced over at the electronic ticket booths. Did I have time to go through the screens, read all the prompts and then somehow translate them for this young man?
I did not.
I had an idea. “Here you go,” I offered, digging into my purse. I fumbled through several pockets, before pulling out my transit card. It had at least $20 value on it. I swiped the card at the turnstile for him, indicating that it was clear for him to go through.
“Azul,” I called out once more, pointing toward the sign on the wall, where an escalator took passengers to the Blue Line. I gave him an encouraging look.
He looked toward the signs, still a bit confused. “Thank you,” he called back, again showing me his grateful smile.
He really was a cute kid. I hoped he’d figure it out from where I left him and that he’d successfully find whatever it was on Addison that he was looking for. I waved once more before he walked away. A sense of pride washed over me… almost like sending my little one off to the big city for the first time. I thought I felt a tear coming on.
I headed out toward Lake Street, turning right to continue along Clark Street. My good deed for the day was done. Now, I had my own train to catch.
Memo to file: call CTA and ask ifthey’ll put me on retainer.
THE RAIN POURED DOWN steadily that Saturday, as we set out to visit the covered bridges of Parke County in southern Indiana. Our weekend trip was culminating with a few hours to view the famous bridges, most of which were built over 100 years before.
We drove the car slower than usual, wiper blades swishing back and forth with gusto. As flatlanders, we weren’t used to the rolling hills and twists and turns that came up in the roads leading to our destination. But that didn’t matter, since it was late October, and we were met with a spectacular cornucopia of fall colors at every turn.
As the rain continued pouring down, the colorful variations were even more distinctive among the soaking wet leaves. We became mesmerized, watching the gorgeous canvases before us, with intermittent farms plunked down between the rolling hills.
And the rain poured down.
We missed our turn. Somewhere along the drive, among lost GPS signals, a worn-out paper roadmap and our distracted sightseeing eyes, we missed the sign for the most direct route to the covered bridges.
Except all was well, as we turned into the small town of Greencastle, Indiana, home to DePauw University, bookstores, coffee shops, a town square (boasting a German buzzbomb of all things) and a lone antiques shop.
Parking our car on the town’s main street, we brave the weather in order to read a fact-filled plaque about said WWII weaponry — namely a German vengeance weapon — erected in memory of local veterans who successfully shot many of those same missiles down.
Next, we leap across large puddles of water, intending to duck into the stores across the way. First in our path was an antiques store, its sign glowing a bright red OPEN on that grey day.
The rain continued pouring down.
The shop’s style was typical of any small American town. Glass display windows flanked each side of the narrow doorway, with pentagon-shaped black and white tiles at its front walkway. How quaint. How charming.
We ran in, stopping at the threshold to take in the goods and to shake excess water off our raincoats.
A cheerful silver bell clanked behind us, announcing our arrival, but still, we saw no one else within the store.
“What’s with the buzzbomb across the way?” my husband called out, hoping to capture the attention of a shopkeeper who was perhaps deep within the building.
At first, it was quiet, and we thought perhaps we were alone. But several seconds passed, and we received a reply.
“That’s been there for years,” responded a raspy voice from the back. The sound of feet shuffling against the tile floor announced the fact that someone was indeed tending to business in the rear of the shop.
"Here, I got some literature on it,” the hoarse voice continued. "Somewhere..."
The voice trailed off. Still, no person appeared to go along with it.
I grew impatient and started to browse. Fiddling with my raincoat’s hood to avoid getting my face wet, I went further into the store, admiring the treasures. Set atop every shelf inside were dishes from the early 20th century dishes and serving pieces, some in colored glass, while others boasted fine hand-painted florals. These were dishes from my childhood, reminding me of warm homes with smells of Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas cranberry sauce.
Soft footsteps came from behind, and suddenly I heard the same gruff, yet kindly voice.
I turned, staring straight into the dark eyes of the shop’s owner. There he was, a couple inches shorter than I, with wispy white hair softly swept across his head and face stubble to match. He watched me with intent from behind his gold wire spectacles, framed by thick, dark eyebrows – a significant contrast from the rest of him.
He held his chin forward, anxious to greet his customers and assist in any way he could. His posture was slightly bent forward, and he wore a tan flannel shirt with criss-crossing maroon stripes. His olive green trousers were faded from wear, and his worn leather loafers blended right in with the rest of him — wrinkled yet durable.
And then, it was as if a jolt of lightning struck me.
There I was, enclosed in a musty store with any outside noises eliminated from the pounding rain. There was something about the gentleman that immediately aligned with my memories from the surroundings.
His gait and manner of speech seemed familiar. There was an air about him that reminded me of my father, or even my second cousin’s husband (a WWII vet) — two individuals from that generation who had a certain boldness about them. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it the reason for the connection, but rather sensed similarities from his deep voice and mannerisms.
After speaking with him for a few minutes, one would quickly realize the gentleman had a surplus of life experiences. The shopkeeper didn’t gloat or try to impress others. He didn’t have to. One instantly knows when meeting one of these individuals – he or she is the type of person that isn’t afraid of hard work, is glad to share stories, and is proud but not boastful of life accomplishments. They are those types of patriarchs who leave us to wonder exactly how much change and progress they’ve experienced.
They leave behind impressed listeners.
And I was not in a hurry to leave.
Outside, the rain still beat down in unrelenting sheets, threatening the front display windows, which showcased china plates, cups, saucers and platters.
The owner was anticipative that we came to call on this dreary day, explaining how he came to acquire a wealth of dishes over the years for his tiny shop.
“Here, let me show you. Just look at the bottom of this bowl,” he said, turning the piece over so I could read for myself. “These were made in countries that don’t even exist anymore," he explained. "You follow?”
I removed my glasses so I could read better. “’Made in Prussia’… you’re right!” I exclaimed. I turned it over to admire the fine work done by someone long ago.
“This bowl is about 100 years old,” he went on. “Beautiful work," he said, mostly to himself. "Beautiful,” he whispered.
The gentleman put it back onto the front counter, along with two other painted pieces. “These are going up on the plate rail today,” he said, motioning to the wall behind the cash register. “They all go up there. Pieces of art, they are.”
“They’re very nice,” I agreed.
Wistfully I picked up the second bowl, featuring green and gold flowers. It looked just like the serving pieces from my childhood, where my grandmother and aunts filled the bowls with homemade mashed potatoes, complete with pats of butter melting from the top peak. Admiring them further cemented all the memories that came flooding back.
I set the bowl down and passed through the two aisles once more, considering a crystal creamer and a pair of silver tongs, the words Made in England etched on the back. Then I recalled the pact I made with myself not to spend any money on souvenirs on this road trip. There were plenty of heirloom dishes already filling my cupboards at home.
“Well, thank you for your time,” my husband called out. “I’ll have to check on the Internet for the back story of that buzzbomb across the way.”
“Yes, thank you sir,” I told him. “You have lovely items in your store.”
“Thank you for stopping in,” the man nodded, watching us leave his shop.
We ran back across the quiet street, quickly unlocking the car and scooting into the front seats. I thought about the pretty bowls painted by hand. Once upon a time, they sat in someone’s home, removed from the china cabinet for Sunday dinners. Today they rest, waiting to be gingerly placed onto a high plate rail in an elderly gentleman’s antiques shop – a man who still appreciates their beauty.
We made a U-turn with the car and passed by the store on our way to the covered bridges. I turned my head and looked back toward the antiques shop.
There he was. The shopkeeper solemnly watched us from the front window, his gaze holding us close to him, even though we were heading further away.
Seeing his face, the guilt flooded through my core as we left. Was he disappointed that we’d left? How could he be? Since he hadn’t truly known us but for ten short minutes. Except I felt as though we had abandoned him, leaving him alone with his cherished memories, waiting for customers to stop in and appreciate his wares.
Behind the drenched window, his solemn face took on an ethereal appearance as the rainwater quickly dribbled down the storefront glass, obscuring the man and his treasures.
Washing away not only the images — but possibly the man and his memories inside.