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.