Friday, November 25, 2005

Thoughts of Sicily

I’ve been in Chicago for a month and I still have no job. The truth is I haven’t applied for any jobs yet. It’s difficult to apply for a job and ask for days off on Christmas and New Year’s. I’m headed back to Connecticut for four days, which includes Christmas. Then my college friend Matt is visiting toward the end of the month and New Year’s.

But waking up rather late and reading the local newspapers and a couple books, most recently There Are No Children Here and A Moveable Feast, can lead to a feeling of laziness and worthlessness. I am in good shape physically as I lift weights and run on the Stairmaster at the gym I belong to on Fullerton three times a week. But even that doesn’t fix the feeling I’ve had lately.

That’s why I put together my resume and best clips of my writing last night. That’s why I took the Red Line to the Grand stop with the intention of freelancing for the Chicago Reader. I’ve been reading their weekly newspaper, which is free, and I feel like it is the only publication in the city that really lets a writer write. None of the limiting restrictions of journalism apply, such as length and style. They give a writer freedom and ambition and talent to explore and spread his or her wings. At least that’s what I’m feeling after reading their newspaper and the white piece of paper that answers questions on freelancing for the Reader. I was given that paper after I walked inside the building on Illinois Street, where there are copies of the Reader stacked in the lobby. Inside I walked up big metal stairs. The walls were painted purple. I told the receptionist I was interested in freelancing for the Reader and that I wanted to talk to whomever was in charge of that. He gave me a piece of paper.

“Thanks, I’ll read it at lunch,” I said.

“Where are you going to eat?” he asked.

“The Billy Goat Tavern. Where are you going?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where are some of your favorite places to go?”

“We’ve been to them all around here so we get kind of tired of the choices.”

“Well, I thought the Billy Goat Tavern would be good. Just thought I’d check it out being famous and all.”


“Thanks, I will, and thanks for the freelancing paper.”

I headed south and then walked east on Hubbard. Most people on the street wore winter hats or gloves or both. I didn’t have either. I felt like a native Chicagoan. I felt tough. I really wasn’t Chicago tough yet. I didn’t have a job. I slept late. And I walked with one hand in my pocket and the paper and my resume and clips in the other hand.

From a distance, I saw the sign for it. I didn’t expect it to be under a walking bridge and somewhat secluded from downtown. Probably better that way. There were a dozen or so people gathered outside with a family posing for a picture near the entrance. Americans love anything famous, that’s for sure. And if celebrities had been around the place even better. From the look of things inside, John Belushi would be proud.

You walk down a few stairs and there is a horseshoe-shaped counter in front with people waiting in line. I walked to the left side and got in line. On both sides were tables, mostly full, including the L-shaped bar to the right. A family tried to sit down at one of the empty tables. One of the servers walked over to them and said they had to wait in line first, order and then sit down. It is a little confusing for newcomers, but the man explained it to them like a Sicilian, like it was obvious. Two months ago I visited Sicily for the first time and tried to order a pizza with my brother. We each wanted a different topping so we asked for half peppers and half pepperoni. The waiter put the tip of his thumb and fingers together and turned his hand and shook it with a look on his face that said, “What’s the matter fo’ you?” He asked the chef and then came back and said he couldn’t do it. He said you want this, pointing to a menu option. We said no. He said you want this. We finally pointed to a pizza with one topping and he agreed. In Sicily, it isn’t what you want. It’s what they want you to want. And if you don’t like what they want for you, then it’s your fault.

Well, I felt like I was in Sicily again. Not because of the food. Because of the men running the operation. They all had dark hair and accents and the man taking the orders went up to each person in line and said, “Doublacheeseborger.” And then everyone nodded. Then he would ask, “Just one?” I told him two. Then he turned to his buddies near the grill and yelled, “Two doublacheese!” This went on through the whole line until it came to the girl behind me.

She was young and pretty to look at and wore makeup. She told him she wanted a single.

“You want doublacheese?” he said.

“I want a single,” she said in an unconfident voice as if it was a request and not an order.

“We only have double and triple today. Double is the best.... What do you want?”

“I want a single,” she said, looking a bit confused and annoyed.

“You want a double,” he said with enthusiasm once again.

“Ok, I’ll have a double.”


There were options for other items, steak sandwiches and single hamburgers, but they served more as menu options on the list above the counter than real choices. As the sign next to the entrance, on the brick outside wall, read:

The World Famous Billy Goats
Billy Goats

Just after the pretty girl behind me gave in to man behind the counter, another person near the back of the line said, “I want fries.”

“What’d he say?” said the man behind the counter. “No fries, just chips. Cheezborger, Cheezborger! Cheezborger! Cheezborger! Cheezborger! Coke, no Pepsi!”

“Oh, shut up,” said one of the guys grilling the thin burgers on the stove. The guy taking the orders loved the attention and being in charge. Nothing seemed to make him happier than telling customers they were going to order double “cheezborgers” and then yelling it to the guys on the grill, who kept taking new buns out of a big brown paper bag and putting them on the grill. No gloves. This was Billy Goats. It moved with the speed of a well-tuned assembly line. I paid the young woman at the register. I told one of the guys by the stove I had two doubles. He put the burgers inside the big buns on two separate pieces of cellophane paper. I added pickles, and ketchup, which seemed to be running out. Mustard was the popular choice as there were a half dozen bottles compared with two ketchup bottles.

I looked around, with my paper, resume and clips, and burgers and Coke in hands. I asked a lady sitting alone at a table if it was full. She said it was. I found an empty bar stool and sat down.

“You have a single?” a middle-aged man sitting next to me asked.


“Did you order a single or a double?”

“I ordered a double. That’s all they had.”

“Yeah, that’s all they’re serving today.”

“What’d you have?” I asked.

“A double. I used to have two doubles like you.”

“Yeah, well, I’m hungry.”

No matter how hungry you are, it is hard to just concentrate on your food. The walls are covered with photos of various writers and newspaper articles and famous Chicagoans. The ones I saw were mostly of Billy Goat and the old gray-haired man at the grill (He’s probably Billy Goat’s son or nephew). There were pictures of him with former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, Sr. Near the garnish table there was an article about the place with several photos of Bill Murray.

There is the head of a real billy goat mounted above the bar wall and a white sign with red lettering next to it that reads:

Billy says...
Try Our Signature Drink
The Horny Goat
7-UP and a kick of Cranberry
$ 4.00

When I began my meal I was watching the television in the corner. Texas was beating Texas A&M 21-15 in the third quarter. Then I saw Vince Young, the Texas quarterback, get sacked and fumble the ball. The Aggies recovered it and scored a touchdown going ahead 22-21. I got more of a kick from the sign next to the television than the game, which read:

We do not CASH
NOT even my own... Billy Goat

I felt like I was living in my parent’s era or even a generation before that. Sure the food was a heart attack waiting to happen, but the atmosphere and people, who all seemed content accept the girl behind me in line, were worth the visit.

I stepped outside and felt the cold air smack me in the face. It felt good, like a love tap. Only after I had walked a block did it begin to bother me. I walked past shoppers, after all it was the day after Thanksgiving, scurrying around town. They looked like rich out-of-towners. But they didn’t have spending or the holidays on their minds. I began to walk fast for the air began to sting my face and hand that held my papers. I saw a black man rummaging through a garbage can at the corner of Madison Avenue. I saw him pick up a used McDonald’s cup and open the lid to see if any soda was inside. I thought about giving him a few dollars, but I didn’t stop for some reason. Maybe it was the cold weather. Maybe he seemed too intent on his business that I didn’t want to bother. I felt bad about it. I don’t like to give money to those who ask. Those who need it and don’t ask, I like to help. I still feel guilty about it.

I kept walking until I came to Congress Parkway, where I wanted to visit an Italian friend I had made when I first visited Chicago in May. I wanted to tell him about my trip to Sicily and southern Italy. He owns a shop called Café Gioia. I opened the big glass doors and saw a young man with a beard behind the counter.

“Is Enzo here today?” I asked.

“No, I’m sorry, he’s not here.”

“How about this weekend? Because I went to Italy two months ago and I wanted to talk to him about it.”

“He might be here Sunday,” said the young man with a pained expression on his face.

“How about Monday?”

“He’ll be here Monday for sure,” he said waving his hands in the air for emphasis.

Then he went behind the back wall as if he was checking something, and said, “Enzo might show up. Sometimes he is here on Fridays.”

Then he asked me what I wanted. I told him I’d like a scoop of the Stracciatella with cream and chocolate lace, and a scoop of the chocolate and banana. I hadn’t had gelato since I left Sorrento in early October. Enzo had told me in May how growing up he watched his grandfather make gelato and that his recipe and method is unique and the best I would have. He wasn’t lying. It was in the same rounded rectangle tubs like in Italy. The small clear fluorescent-colored cups and flat plastic spoons resembled the ones in Italy as well. It cost me $4.40. I gave him a five and told him to keep the change. If he knew Enzo, he was good by me. Besides, he gave me two generous scoops.

I sat at a two-seat table in the corner looking out of the big windows on Congress Parkway. I felt good eating my gelato. I thought about Italy and of my brother and my father and the small single-lane streets and mountains and blue water and it all made me thankful and happy. And I felt good thinking about freelancing for the Reader. But that would come later. I forgot I was by myself as I watched some pretty young women and holiday shoppers walk by, and saw the El glide with a roar on the elevated tracks as I tasted another spoonful.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Adjusting to City Life

I feel like I am living in a Choose Your Own Adventure book. There are no limits to the choices and opportunities you have in Chicago.

Eating is a perfect example. There are a handful of places I can order gyros and pizza and sandwiches and subs and so on. I’ve tried a variety of them. They have been good, but expensive without a job. So I go to the grocery store at least twice a week. I always buy water and sliced chicken breast and fruit and vegetables. They are the essence of my diet. I figure I pay a hundred dollars a month, 104 to be exact, for membership at a gym on Fullerton so I shouldn’t be working out and eating greasy. I’m on a high protein, low fat diet and I’m starting to see some muscles I didn’t know I had, especially around my stomach. Sorry to digress. Back to the choices. There are two large grocery stores, Jewel and Treasure Island. I’ve been going to Treasure Island because the lines are quicker and it is less crowded. I hate waiting. They’re open virtually all the time as is the gym I belong to. It seems like nothing is ever closed around here. Some of the pizza parlors and gyro shops never close. And CVS, which is right across the street, never closes either. One Tuesday night I couldn’t sleep so I strolled down the block. It was nearly four in the morning and there was a few dozen people carousing the bars on Division. One girl, about 30, stumbled into the elevator as I was getting out and she made a pass at me. I said hello and walked away. I walked to Walgreens and bought some NyQuill. Even more foreign to me than the late-night drinkers was the fact I waited in line at four a.m. in Walgreens. Chicago never sleeps either.

On weekends there is no point in trying to sleep early. You have to go out, or lay in your bed and listen to the taxis beeping their horns as they sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Friday and Saturday nights the beeping never stops. It’s like listening to an awful elementary school band practice. Of course there are the police and ambulance and fire truck sirens that ring out periodically every day. Those you can ignore and even become accustomed to. The horns continue to annoy you. And the more you drink and the later you stay out the less you care about the beeping. It usually does subside around four.

Besides that it is easy to catch a cab (unlike Boston where I waited for an hour freezing my butt off at two-thirty in the morning trying to find an empty taxi) the subway system, or El, runs virtually all the time. Driving drunk and getting home is not an issue for the most part. Living south of the Loop is a different story.

And there is no better feeling than being young in a city filled with other young, intelligent good-looking people. The women, even in the winter, dress well and look good. Granted most of the women I run into are white, they’ve been very friendly and approachable. Midwestern women seem to know that they are going to be hit on and unlike other parts of the country, they play the game too. Maybe it’s because I am white and I look like most of the other guys in the bars. Maybe they know I’m trying to have a good time just like they are. Maybe they feel like a small fish in a big pond too. Maybe it’s because in a big city you don’t know most people you come in contact with so meeting new people and chatting with strangers is the norm. Sure, everyone has a friend or a group they hang out with, but the cliquish attitude doesn’t seem as pronounced here as the small towns and cities I’ve lived in. Then again, Chicago is very segregated by neighborhoods and ethnicities. Still, I never felt like I didn’t belong at the bars I’ve gone to.

People are very polite in this city and have good manners. The homeless are no exception. They ask you for spare change, but never in a demanding way. Every now and then you might run into one who is drunk and upset, but that’s an anomaly. The homeless I have seen wish me a happy holiday and say have a nice day though I don’t give them change usually. There is one man who is different from the other homeless men. In fact he isn’t homeless but he is in front of Walgreens almost every day asking for change. I kept seeing him and he reminded me of Eddie Murphy in Coming to America. He exuded a bright smile and happiness toward passers by. Oh, there is one other thing. He has no feet. He lost them both in the past two years because of diabetes. He sits outside Walgreens in the cold and windy weather. He recently showed up with a red Chicago Blackhawks jacket and a red Chicago Bulls hat. He pulled the jacket hood over the brim on his hat when the wind starting slicing into his skin like a knife. It has dropped into the teens during the day and the wind makes it feel twice as cold. On days like that, he only is around for a few hours, accepting any change someone will give him. He hasn’t been able to get a job since he lost his feet, he told me the other day at lunch. I naturally treated him. We ate at a sandwich shop across the street. He said he lives on 105th Street and comes up to the Gold Coast because it lifts his spirits. He lived in the infamous Cabrini Green projects for seven years growing up. He is 36 now and balding and can’t find a job since he lost his feet. He said he worked at a Jewish funeral home and it changed his view about Jews. All the stereotypes are wrong, he said. I plan on writing a story about his life. Not everyone loses their feet and smiles about it. Not everyone lived in a YMCA before they lost their feet. But Hyson Brown did, and I know if I do the story right it will be a success. Patience and effort. Those two things are the formula for success once you have something to write about. Like Hemingway said, I would write about the entire world if I had enough time. The city is always moving and changing. Still some things never change. I have to find more people like Brown to write about.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

A City of Champions

Baseball fans from the south side waited eighty-eight years for the White Sox to win the World Series. I waited two days.

Of course I wasn’t a White Sox fan, but I rooted for them. It was one more excuse to go out for drinks on a Wednesday night. Even though it ended well, my night didn’t begin well. I figured the Sox were playing for the title so I should head to the south side. The White Sox play on 35th Street, the south side. The Cubs play on the north side. I didn’t know the subway system too well at the time and took it down to 63rd Street because I was trying to get to Hyde Park and drink around there. I got off the subway and walked to a gas station and realized if I went anywhere I may not come back alive. It was dark and I was the only white person in sight. A black man at the gas station pulled his car up to one of the pumps and approached me, “Could you spare me some change for gas? I’ll give you a ride wherever you want.” I told him I was sorry and that I couldn’t help him. Then I said, Go Sox as he walked away. He turned around and said, Go Sox, we’re going to sweep ‘em tonight! I walked back to the subway and headed back to my neighborhood. Police had blocked off the section of bars on Division Street in anticipation of a Sox win. I went into Butch McGuire’s, a locals bar with lots of decorations and a good-sized model train that ran on the tracks that were attached by small poles to the ceiling. It is usually busy, and that night obviously was no exception. I had some drinks and began talking with a few guys who said they were from St. Louis and were Cardinals fans. One of them had a Sox hat. He said he had to by default because he didn’t want to get beat up. I guess I was doing the same thing, only I didn’t have any Sox apparel on.

In the top of the ninth inning, with the Sox one out away, a die-hard Sox fan at the end of the bar began a chant, “One More Out! One More Out!” Everyone was chanting along. Then he chanted, “One More Strike! One More Strike!” Then everyone clapped and cheered and started high-fiving one another. I joined in. It just felt right. I saw the guy who had been leading the chant with his hand on his forehead. His wife and brother were hugging him as he cried.

I went back to my apartment to get my camera. It had begun to rain and fans were jumping around in the street and celebrating. The cops didn’t look too amused. In the elevator I met a man with a Sox cap and jersey. He said he’s lived all thirty-six years of his life in Chicago and that “I’ve been waiting my entire life for this.” And he added, “It hasn’t sunk in yet. I’m sure it will when I get outside and see other Sox fans in the street.”

I took photos and video of the celebration. When I returned to my room at midnight I decided it was pointless to get to sleep with all the beeping. Even on the 14th floor. There was bumper-to-bumper traffic everywhere I looked with cars beeping to the beat of “Let’s Go Sox!” The sound was deafening at times. Three guys in their early twenties had white T-Shirts that said “Go South Side” in black letters on the back. They had taken off their jackets to show off their shirts even though they were getting soaked from the cold rain. They were all too happy to worry about it. They went up to each car as it passed and either pointed their fingers and said “Go Sox” or something like that, or they gave high-fives and shook hands of the moving passengers. One cop kept pushing them back when they’d approach a moving car. They weren’t deterred. On the other side of the street I saw a young man with a broom and he swept the sidewalk over and over again, doing a dance as he swept. Then he’d raise the broom in the air and cheer out something. It was hard to hear with so many horns beeping.

I drank well the rest of the night at a bar near Butch’s. It wasn’t hard talking to and meeting people. Everyone seemed in a good mood, especially with the amount of beer and mixed drinks served.

When I visited the city in May I saw many people wearing Cubs hats and hardly anyone with Sox hats. After the World Series, it was the complete opposite. It was as if the entire city had converted. Well, not the entire city. I told Kenny, who is a Cubs fan, about my observation. “Man, fuck the Sox,” he said. “Yeah, that’s one thing about this city, people are a bit fair weather fans with baseball and the Bulls. But the Bears are different. People will always root for the Bears no matter what.” We had been to a Bulls home-opener and they were down by twenty-five points in the third quarter. You could hear almost hear a pin drop in the United Center. Fans were hunched over and seemed bored. Then the Bulls came back and tied the game in regulation and won in overtime. The place went crazy as I heard a middle-aged man behind me yelling everyone exited, “Undefeated! First place! We’re in first place!” Everyone likes a champion and Chicago is no different in that regard. Sox apparel could be seen in the darndest places. There were large Sox hats on the heads of the lion statues outside the Chicago Institute of Art as well as on the head of a giant Picasso sculpture in downtown. It didn’t look right.

Friday, November 4, 2005

Moving to Chicago

I had more questions than answers when I left my native Danbury, Conn., and drove west. I didn’t know what I was going to do to earn money other than write. And I didn’t have a job? I didn’t know where I was going to live. I only knew one good friend, and he lived in the first suburb west of the city. I knew, however, I wanted to live in a big city while I was in my twenties. And I knew I wanted that city to be in Chicago even though I had only visited it for a long weekend that prior May.

So in late October, while the World Series was underway, I drove to Chicago in an SUV I had rented. I had sold my car before the move because I knew I wanted to live in the city and use public transportation. The SUV had plenty of room. I actually should have packed some more items such as pots and pans. They are useful.

At any rate, I moved to the Windy City with the intention of becoming a great writer. No one ever moves by choice away from his family to a big city to be less accomplished. I use the word accomplished instead of the word success. Modern society uses the word success to relate to one’s happiness and achievements in life. But success refers to financial well-being. I wanted to have the feeling of achievement that money can’t buy, that great feeling of accomplishment. I also was single and figuring there are over a million women in Chicago. I felt I might find someone that is compatible.

People asked me the same question before I moved and even after I was settled in. Why Chicago? Why not, I often remarked. It’s a big city with all the pleasures and problems that big cities have. The architecture and museums and sites are world-class. There is an endless amount of food and entertainment. And the people. They are friendly for the most part, and there are so many different ethnic groups and classes of people. There are millions of stories waiting to be written. For someone who wants to write, why not sounds like a good answer. The other thing was the people I met from Chicago who visited the hotel I worked for in Colorado. They all adored Chicago. They all said it was the best city to live in. I read about the city and came to the same conclusion. Chicago it was. Chicago it is.

I drove straight through, stopping for gas and food on the long monotonous drive. It began raining in Ohio and at times I could barely see the road, staring at the white lines on the pavement in order to avoid trouble. Neither the rain nor the lack of vision bothered me. I made good time.

When I entered the Dan Ryan Expressway and crossed over the bridge into the city I had to pay a toll. Twice. It didn’t make sense to me. Before I entered the bridge I paid $2.50 and then as I was exiting it, I paid fifty cents. I asked the toll booth woman, a black lady, why they didn’t require drivers to pay three dollars and only stop once. That doesn’t make sense, I said. “That’s the truth,” she said. “I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because the tolls are owned by separate companies.” She was very polite and answered my query with no arrogance in her voice. New York as far as I could tell had more of a chip on its shoulder than Chicago. Everything seemed more genuine and sincere in Chicago, which later I could verify was an accurate assumption. The Hancock Building and Sears Tower were lit up in light purple at the top.

I arrived at my friend’s house in Oak Park and told him about the drive and went to bed. He was excited I was there. So was I. We both were tired. He woke up at five every morning, and I had a big day ahead of me as well, or so I thought.

Finding an apartment is an important decision. After all, you have to live there. Sometimes, as I’ve found out from moving around the country, important decisions can be made quickly. That is what happened when I decided to move into the Canterbury Court Apartments on State Street, near the corner of Division Street. From talking to a friend who had lived in the city, I decided I wanted to live in the Gold Coast. I had five or six apartments on my list. They were close to one another and took me only ten minutes or so to tour. Canterbury Court had been my first choice after looking online and talking to my friend. Besides, I had a good vibe from the general manager. She was a middle-aged woman with short, straight brown hair and always seemed to be smiling and in a good mood. In less than three hours I signed a lease with her and moved in. The apartment was fully furnished and I signed a three-month lease. It was almost too good to be true. Sure, it was not cheap, but for city standards not bad. I chose the room on the fourteenth floor with a view of Lake Michigan and the Hancock Building. The apartment had been built a long time ago and had seventeen stories. There was no thirteenth floor, the elevator went from twelve to fourteen. So technically I was on the thirteenth floor.

My friend in Oak Park, Kenny, helped me move all my stuff in. He was my one real friend at the time and still is one of my best friends. The first couple weeks I settled in and walked around the city and bought certain items I thought necessary for my apartment. Certain things in the city made life outside it feel outdated, like stores and shops being open at all hours. The CVS across the street never closed as did the gyro shop a few blocks down on Division Street. It was a great time. The weather wasn’t too cold; I wore jeans and sweatshirts. I enjoyed watching people scurrying to work or to a convenience store. It was such a big city. Such big opportunity. Still, I felt like a small fish in a big pond.