MARIA OF DIVISION STREET

MARIA 2 JULY 18 (2)

Return of the Krolowa*

‘How old are you baby?’

To be called baby as I am approaching my 70th year of life feels genuinely flattering.

‘I am sixty nine. Will be seventy on November 4th.’I answer. The year is 2009.

‘You’re so young.’ She flays her palm in a downward motion. ‘I will be 87 on January 6th. I (sic) born in 1922.’ A year before my mom.

That was years ago during one of our street-side chats. Since then we have run into each other umpteen times and our conversations have morphed into something akin to loosely getting to know each other over each encounter.

In the beginning I would see her sitting on the rickety old wooden bench leaning against the wall of the Wicker Car Wash and contentedly puffing away at her cigarette – does smoking really kill?

‘If she were to stop smoking, it would probably kill her,’ quipped Felipe Caro, owner of the restaurant Picante down the street. Everyone on the strip knows Mary Kafka, or just Mary as they refer to her.

I often wondered whether she were a pauper, a homeless lady who had found a sympathetic niche at the car wash place? Was she lonely? Did she have a family?  During my east and west bound walks on the Division, she has become to me more of a permanent fixture on that stretch of Division between Damen and Leavitt streets – not a statue, but more like a frozen motion pantomime figure sans the shiny white painted face.

Under the crown of her closely cropped soft straw of white hair, every part of her tiny body is shriveled up like a dried  jumbo raisin that still has retained that particular sheen on its skin. Her English is haltingly fluent, but stuck in the years past when she had probably decided she spoke enough to communicate to really worry about the grammar and the structure of her sentences. Far from being homeless, she actually owns the buildings with the car wash that shares the wall with the one next door to it, in which she lives.

‘My husband and I ran a tavern here,’ she says pointing to the boarded up front. It was called Krakovianka – the maiden from Krakow. While I am trying to compose a response to that, she continues: ‘He died. The Puerto Ricans shot him, here’ she points at her left thigh. ‘But he survived. Three weeks in the hospital, they take out the bullet…’ She gestures in the direction of St. Mary’s Hospital up he street. Then he killed himself, she pauses for a moment and continues,  drinking. She tells it to me in a matter of fact way without letting emotions betray her demeanor. Perhaps with bit of a disgust, as she shakes her head, still unbelieving. And then she waves her open palm downward in the air, the gesture that could mean anything from the stupid fool, to that’s life to oh well, what you gonna do? And then just for a split second, her eyes seem to stare in the distance – perhaps in the long ago past.

I can imagine her visualizing all of that and also the days when stretches of Division Street were far from being safe to walk even during days, let alone in the night time. Puerto Rican gangs infested and ruled the neighborhood.

Maria and her husband migrated to the United States from Poland in 1960 and opened the bar underneath their apartment. ‘I was a bartender,’ she said and then once again her gaze wanders away, perhaps imagining her younger self. I too have often wondered what she looked like when she was young – and as feisty as she now is, she probably was a ball of fire and a looker of a Polish princess.

Her husband and her lived in the building for all their lives. At the first look, if not totally dilapidated, the building looks run down with lack of care. A three storied structure, the building also has two other apartments, that she renovated during the course of our conversations and are now rented out. The store front, which was boarded up for forty some years, is now the home to the upscale pub, Queen Mary.

She alludes to the fact that the rentals are quite lucrative, but she constantly complains about how fast the property taxes and utilities are going up. She reminisces of the days when they used to be a fraction of what they are now. Almost every tax year, she asks me how far up my taxes had gone up. She shares with me the details of hers.

Once in a while we would touch on personal details, such as how she is a proud great grand mother of a 16 year old who had a heart attack – but happy that she survived. She has a daughter in her late sixties who stops by to see her whenever she can pull herself away from her family. Even though Maria constantly bitches about this and that, at the end of our conversations, I have always perceived her to be very positive in her attitude. Someone who has lust for life and someone who is often seen ambling Division down to the Shell station on Damen to pick up a pack of Pall Malls. Like me she considers walking to be a part of her health regime.

When I kid her about smoking too much – she swishes her hand sideways as if telling me: I am 94 years old. What do you want? It makes me feel good! As I walk away, I think: You’re damn right. At your age Maria, you can do whatever you  bloody well please.

And then one day she disappears. I don’t see her for quite some time. I wonder perhaps she has died. Who can I ask? Normally, I walk past there in the early afternoon. The bar Queen Mary opens at five. But one afternoon, I see its door open. They are making a delivery. I pop in and ask. Am told by the young bartender that she got too sick and had to be hospitalized. She no longer could take care of herself. Her daughter took her away to live with her family in the suburb. I feel my heart drop. I can’t imagine Maria living anywhere else but in the city. No, right there on Division and nowhere else. She would not die, she would just further shrivel and  disappear like a wavering flame.

This afternoon, I am walking east bound on Division, on the north side of the street. As I see Wicker Park Car Wash on other side of the street, her image of siting on the bench outside pops up. But nope, she isn’t there. And I wonder once again – whether she is still alive. I continue walking and cross the street at Damen. On my way back, I walk past Fat Pour, Janik’s Café, Nature Yoga, and Inn Joy and Club Roayle and Silly Kori. As if by magic, she materializes as I approach the car wash. Not sitting on the bench as usual, but she is sitting on an outdoor plastic chair. Looking healthier than I remember having seen her the last time.

Maria……. I run to her. She stands up from her chair, and we hug like long lost friends. She is Maria, she is still here. She is alive. And as in the past, she tells me she is 96 now and will be 97 on January 6th. I wonder if she ever wonders that she could ever be dead. January 6th is the date we would have count down to all  these years I have known her. Always looking forward.

‘How old are you baby?’

The same question, year after year. I tell her I am 78. She waves her hand as if sloughing  something off – as if saying, you’ve got a while to go still. At least seventeen years just to catch up with her. She is happy to see me. As we stand there looking at each other not saying anything for a moment, the young bartender comes running out of Queen Mary and locks her into a bear hug. She is in her elements. She is back on the Division Street. As I write this, I am about to break into the chorus:

Hello Dolly
This is miss Dolly
It’s so nice to have you back where you belong
You’re lookin’ swell, Dolly
I can tell, Dolly
You’re still glowin’, you’re still crowin’, you’re still goin’ strong

And as if to echo my sentiments, a young woman in her colorful  Hawaiian dress walking past stops in her tracks, turns around and rushes towards us. Maria is into the arms of another one of her delighted fans. I watch them holding on to each other, big smiles on their faces. Maria has come home!

I belong here. There is nothing there for me, no people, no traffic. I am in a room by myself all day. She tells us. And once again her eyes seem to wander away.

*Queen

© 2018 Haresh Shah

NEXT

Christmas and the New Year are just around the corner – thought I would break for the holidays. But don’t go away, Down Division will be back with a string of new stories starting on January 3rd, 2019. In the meanwhile, have wonderful holidays and let the good times roll.

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LETIZIA’S NATURAL BAKERY

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Chair by Chair

Haresh Shah

                                       Life is short. Eat dessert first. Jacques Torres                                                                                 Stressed Spelled Backwards is Desserts! Fabio Sorano

The year Letizia’s opened back in the fall of 1998, the landscape around the shop was barren. The two identical corner buildings across from each other at Leavitt didn’t exist. There was a convenience store across the street, which is still there and a few houses north east of there was the recently closed pawn shop. There was a doctor’s office and a block down on the diagonally opposite side of the street where Inn Joy is now, was an antique furniture shop owned by a Palestinian couple with four kids. And that was about it. The neighborhood in general was deserted, desolate and dangerous. Six months after they opened, Letizia was held up at gun point and robbed. Why then you may ask, the recent Italian immigrants would want to open a café in middle of the mayhem?

Her three children, Fabio, Lorenzo and Lavinia, were already in Chicago – each one of them having attended Loyola University and seemed they were here to stay. Following in their footsteps, Maria Letizia Pietroboni Sorano, 72, a language teacher who taught Latin and Italian and her Neurologist husband Vincenzo Sorano, aka Enzo  arrived in the States in 1992 from Piazza de la Minerva in Rome. Letizia taught Latin at DePaul University for a year and Enzo worked as Neuro-Radiologist at the Cook County Hospitals.

While teaching at DePaul, Letizia realized that the students in America were different, in that they were quite disrespectful – a certain shock from how teachers were revered back in Italy. Furthermore, her heart no longer was into teaching. What she really wanted to do all along was to bake cookies and cakes. What am I doing here? She asked herself. Baking had been her lifelong passion. Thus began the idea of starting a small bakery in their new country.

When her older son Fabio, at the time 27 years old, suggested the location on Division Street –   she wasn’t so sure. They lived in the non descript but safe suburb of Des Plains, and what she saw and heard about how dangerous the neighborhood can be, and also realizing that it wasn’t far from the notorious Cabrini Green project, she had her apprehensions. True. But Fabio saw the future of the neighborhood and somehow managed to convince his mother to take the plunge. The mother and the son joined forces and opened the doors of Letizia’s.

Opened in the early spring, first it was just a small bakery. It would provide high quality natural products – cakes and cookies. Among them Crostata, the classic Italian crusted tart and pie – something she knew best how to make. Soon she would learn how to bake American cookies, muffins and among others, traditional cheese cakes. They began by supplying wholesale to Neiman Marcus Epicure on Michigan Avenue followed by the Whole Food. Not a bad start. And yet they felt that something vital was missing. Face to face interaction with “real” people. Soon they decided to switch to retail. It would also be more profitable and rewarding, being able to talk to people.

In the fall they expanded the bakery into a cozy little café, about half the size of what it is today. With little help from her friends, she slowly turned her bakery into the place funky and warm and comfortable, in the image of the Sixties. Strewn with mismatched thrown together furniture.

First came a set of antique chairs with rounded backs and cushioned seats. Compliments of the antique shop opposite in a friendly barter. In exchange for several chairs, the Palestinian asked  for four cakes, elaborately created by Letizia and her crew. She stacked the chairs against the bare brick walls with small café tables. Then came a living room set, two love seats upholstered in grey velvet. The solid wood top resting on upside down  fruit baskets served as the coffee table. Bordering them, she placed small black tables and rattan chairs.

Soon came two futon sofa-cum-beds covered in burgundy satin and thrown over them were a couple of Indian shawls. This time around, all of the coffee table was made of solid wood. And then there was an imposing life-size plaster figure, sitting by the window with dark liquid chocolate spilled on its knees. No bartering of any kind for them. Just the goodness of her friends and customer’s hearts. I must say that the Americans are very generous people. Us Europeans are not so. More than anything else, I got their love and support. They wanted me to succeed. I am thankful to them from the bottom of my heart.  I, also being an immigrant and having experienced similar generosity, totally agree with her.

And then Letizia’s Natural Bakery grew and grew. What is her secret? You may ask. Among many other attributes, the key word is natural. Letizia and her son Fabio – her partner in the crime, swear by and are proud of their uncompromising use of natural ingredients. You couldn’t have possibly missed the round red circle in the mode of a traffic sign with a slash across the word MARGARINE at the top of their entrance. Whatever you imbibe in the place is pure butter! They use real flour, extra virgin olive oil and water. Never use stabilizer in their whipping cream. No high fructose corn syrup or FDA banned trans fats. Use only clean healthy pure chocolate. No wonder everything tastes so SUPER YUMMY.

The day it opened, she took in all of $40. But once the word spread, more and more people began to show up – majority of them from nearby Saint Mary’s Hospital. At times lining up outside the café. The early customers were artists and other creative types. Now the crowd comprises of a whole mélange of characters.

Retailing was a totally different experience for me. In the beginning I was embarrassed even to ask for money from the customers for something I loved to do. As she says this, I could see on her face that if she had it her way, she would probably want to have people come in and treat themselves to the place and the delicacies and leave with a big smile of satisfaction on their faces.

And treat she did on Letizia’s 20th anniversary celebration that took place in the café’s spacious flower filled courtyard, complete with old fashioned gas lamps and an Italian quartet performing Vola re ho ho ho ho, Cantare ho ho ho ho. And there was a constant stream of cornucopia of delicacies and Italian wines flowing as she said BIG THANK YOU to us – her loyal customers, her friends and her family.

© 2018 Haresh Shah

Letizia’s Natural Bakery, 2144 W. Division Street, Chicago, Ill. 60622 + 1 773 342 1022 http://www.superyummy.us/

NEXT WEEK

MARIA OF DIVISION STREET                                                                                                  Everyone’s Dolly                                                                                                                                 If  you walk Division Street as frequently as I do, you can’t miss this  vintage woman sitting on a rickety bench outside Wicker Car Wash, contently puffing on her cigarette. Your first thought would be, her being some sad pauper bidding her time. That is; until one day you begin to talk with her.

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WICKER PARK WEIRDO

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Drunken Brawl Around the World

Haresh Shah

Surrounded by low rise apartment buildings and single family homes, the Wicker Park feels more like a town square. Named after the brothers Charles and Joel Wicker who in 1868 purchased 80 acres of land along Milwaukee and Damen Avenues and carved out a subdivision with a mix of lot sizes to develop residences that would surround the four acre park.  It is basically a front yard to the people who inhabit one of those homes. Closer to Damen is a field house with gymnasium and meeting rooms. Outside there is a playground, basketball hoops and a baseball diamond and open field for playing soccer or football.  It also hosts all sorts of community activities including craft fairs and open air movie nights. In the middle of the lush gardens is the “centerpiece” fountain sprouting up from he wading pool for kids to frolic in. An ideal urban park in which you can step out of your house and step right in.

Today I have veered off Division and have wandered a few blocks north on Damen. I have parked myself on a bench of the south bound #50 bus stop shelter across from the park at the corner of Damen and Schiller. As the bus approaches the curb, I shake my head, indicating to the driver that I wasn’t waiting for a bus. But it stops in front of me and a man holding a stuffed shopping bag gets off the back door. He looks around as if to survey his environment. Sitting down at the other end of the bench, he puts the bag in the middle of us. Pulling the top of the bag wide open he asks me whether I would like some. I couldn’t quite see what it was in the little bag placed inside the big one. Looked like a paper bag full of peanuts, or what to me appeared like a bunch of yellow cigarette butts. Whatever. I politely decline.

He must have been in his mid-fifties or maybe even early sixties. Disheveled mop of snow white hair, a mustache that reminds me of someone and for some reason I presume him to be of Polish descent. But he speaks impeccable English. Held between his fingers is a mauled cigarette stub. He asks me if I had a light. Then answers his own question: you don’t smoke? He then proceeds to dig into his various pockets. He wore blue jeans and a light colored shirt under a bright turquoise windbreaker. He fumbles into various pockets of his pants and his windbreaker, the side pockets of his jacket and breast pocket of his shirt. Not nervous, just looking a bit frazzled.

‘Of course I can’t find any, because I didn’t have any in the first place.’

‘I guess you just will have to go without smoking that cigarette.’

‘No, I am going to smoke it and then I am going to get drunk. And I am going to live for a hundred and three years.’ You would think he was already drunk or high on something, but nothing on his face or the breath indicates that he were either. Just looked a bit crazed and if I had any apprehensions about continuing our conversation, once I looked at his face, he seemed quite harmless.

Placed next to the bench is a garbage can. He fumbles inside the can to see if there might be a match box in there. No such luck. He turns around and asks:

‘You from India?’

‘Yes, I sure am.

‘From Delhi, Jaipur, Bombay?’

‘I am from Bombay.’

‘I am going to travel the world and also go to India with my daughter.’

‘That’s cool. When?’

‘Oh, yesterday or tomorrow.’

‘Well, yesterday’s gone. So I guess tomorrow then!’

‘But first I am going to get drunk and smoke. By then they would have passed a law which would allow us to smoke and get drunk on the plane. Even the captain would have to be drunk. I wouldn’t fly an airline whose captain wasn’t drunk while flying the plane. What the hell, also the stewardesses and all. We would have one drunken brawl.’ He says all of this to me with a straight face and an impish but earnest smile on his face.

And then he suddenly picks up his shopping bag and stumbles away. He crosses Schiller street and I see him looking inside the garbage can on the other side of the street, stopping a pedestrian and asking for matches and then finally I watch him sitting down around the fountain in the park.

© 2018 Haresh Shah

NEXT WEEK

LETIZIA’S NATURAL BAKERY                                                                                                            Earlier this fall, Letizia’s celebrated its twentieth anniversary with big fan fare. That she has not only survived the rough and tumble days of Division Street, but has grown and prospered with a loyal group of customers for two decades and still going strong is a tribute in itself. What is her secret?

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PODHALANKA

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Lady of the Highlands

Haresh Shah

I must have looked at the sign Podhalanka across the street from the west bound #70 bus stop on the Polish Triangle and must have also walked past the restaurant itself hundreds of times and yet I was never curious in the least to nudge the door open and enter the place even just to check it out. Looking from outside in, what I could see through the mostly covered windows and the doors was a place dark and dingy inside. The long tables draped with the curling plastic covers and generally unkempt look of the place didn’t look too inviting.  And it seemed generally stuck into the devil may care attitude of the communist era. And yet, as I began to look more into doing Down Division, I realized the importance of the Polish Triangle and its relationship to  Division Street, it became inevitable that I had to check out Podhalanka – loosely translated Lady of the Highlands – and find out how it could have become a part of the history of what makes Division Division. What better person to go have dinner with me there than my Polish friend Marek 

I was the first one to arrive. Feeling apprehensive based on the reviews on Yelp, I was fully expecting to be greeted by a pushy middle aged man. No such man to be found. Instead lurking in the background was an elderly lady weaving between two long tables, serving her dinner guests. She waves me in to sit down at one of the empty tables.  Sunk into my chair, I could hardly put my arms over the table top, feeling like a toddler needing a booster seat or a pile of old telephone directories. Soon as Marek arrives, she places the menus and two short glasses filled with red liquid on the table – looking like cheap red wine. We make this in the house. She informs us. Marek declines it, I decide to try it. Some sort of spiced syrupy looking red liquid. Wouldn’t kill me, I think and drink it. Soon we move to the bar with our menus in our hands.

Apprehensively, I order Kotlet Schabowy – breaded pork cutlet and Marek orders Ryba Smazona – fried fish. The meals include soup and salad and come with mashed potatoes and gravy. Just like back home! Muses Marek. Not bad! I mutter. We bring home Pirczen Wieprzowa – roast pork dinner for Eric. Eric raves at every bite he takes. And all of that for less than fifteen dollars! Only thing missing was a chilled mug of Zywiec or Okocim. But no worries, you can bring your own wine and beer. What can be better? A piping hot bowl of their mushroom barley soup! I got a taste of it during one of my follow up visits. The best mushroom barley soup I ever had! I tell her. She is pleased with an “of course” smirk on her face.

As Marek and I sat at the bar savoring our delicious food, my eyes caught sight of a couple of signs that most everyone would have missed. Right across from where we sat, staring at us were two small placards. They said:

KEEP THIS PLACE IN MIND

For A Better One Is Hard To Find

And

THERE IS NO PLACE

JUST LIKE THIS PLACE

Anywhere Near This Place

So This Must Be The Place

I couldn’t help but grin, thinking they sure have a sense of humor. And what a delight it was to chat with the owner/head chef, cute as dickens seventy one years old Helena Madej! After a bit of hesitation, she begins to talk – and smile. Even in her black chef’s apron thrown over a pink knit crew necked top, there was something charming about her. If a bit mischievous, still a very good looking, I couldn’t help but just imagine how hot she must have been in her youth!!

Born in Krakow, Poland in 1947, she is still a feisty lady. If not perfect, she speaks fluent English. Animated and full of vigor, you can’t help but notice a certain impish glint in her eyes and a constant sense of wonderment in her smiles. Helena, married and divorced, has a daughter in her thirties. She came to Chicago in 1981 to join many of her family members, some of whom had come to the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century in 1905. In 1986, at the height of the concentration of the Polish population in the neighborhood, she took over the existing  Podhalanka, and has not only survived but is still thriving after 32 years of feeding the locals. At the time  it wasn’t easy existing around crime infested three way intersection at Ashland, Milwaukee and Divisionbut I am not afraid. One night around eleven a guy from the neighborhood breaks in. I was alone with just one helper. He demands: Give me money. I shout back at him: I give you nothing. Get out of here, I know who you are. He yells, “you bitch, open the door.” Similarly, a Mexican young man walked in with a knife, she stood her ground and threaten to call police. He promptly exited the restaurant.

I have always wondered what drives people to open a restaurant, one of the riskiest businesses and one that requires twenty four seven involvement and practically no free time. It obviously had to be deep passion and love for what it takes. To that Helena says: I love this business and I love my customers. And I love it that my restaurant provides a place for the Polish people to come together and enjoy home cooked meals.

All those negative reviews on Yelp and other social media had demonized Helena’s nephew Greg Jamka. On my second visit I encountered him as a stern looking man with a deep  gruff voice, closely cropped salt and pepper hair, wearing a red and blue striped t-shirt. His looks sort of confirmed those reviews. But to my astonishment, as I waited for Helena, what I witnessed proved him to be a man so kind and considerate.

Waiting at the table next to mine was a young African American woman. When she walked up to the counter to pick up her take out order, she realized that Podhalanka was a cash only restaurant, which she didn’t have.

‘You live in the neighborhood, don’t you?’

‘I work close by here!’

‘You can stop by tomorrow or sometime in the next days with the money.’

Fumbling into her purse, she pulls out a few dollar bills which she offers to pay. She has only about ten dollars.

‘No problem. I’ll take that. The total is $13.40. You can stop by anytime and pay the rest in the next couple of days.’

Huhn! This nephew, he wasn’t such a devil after all! And I was touched at the kindness of his voice with which he put the young woman at ease!

What more can you expect from a down home neighborhood restaurant?

© 2018 Haresh Shah

PODHALANKA, 1549 West Division Street, Chicago, Ill. 60642 +1 773 486 6655

NEXT WEEK

WICKER PARK WEIRDO

He didn’t seem crazy and or even drunk. All he was looking for was some matches or a lighter to light his cigarette with. And yet, there are times you encounter people, you can’t help but wonder.

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TRUE LOVE

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Just ‘Cause They Are Divorced…

by Haresh Shah

One of the pride and joys of our stretch of Division Street is Humboldt Park, if not the largest, it’s one of the prettiest and family friendly with the music blaring every weekend and barbecue grills sizzling on warm days. The park and its Boathouse fronting the natural water lagoon are the creation of the landscape architect Jens Jensen and Prairie School architect Hugh Garden, is considered to be one of the best examples of Prairie School architecture, not only in Chicago but in the country.

On this dream like overcast fall day, I am sitting on a bench facing the fishing area of  Humboldt Park lagoon, watching its gentle waves ambling towards the Boathouse across the water. Feeling mellow and contemplative, I am savoring the peace and tranquility of the afternoon.

Breaking the spell, I sense a mild stirring on my left. A few feet away I see an elderly woman turning the wheelchair around, occupied by what I perceive to be her disabled husband. They are out for a stroll. Stopping by the bench, she puts the security break on the wheels, and then as a response to something that the man must have muttered, I hear her saying several times, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry while gently caressing and petting his folded arms. Like a mother comforting her poor little baby. I only have the back view of the man and his baseball hat. Having pacified him, she says to him in Spanish, I’m going to sit down for a while over there on the bench.

Sitting down at the edge of the bench, she greets me with Hola with a slight smile on her face and  then pulls out her cell phone to call her daughter. I hear her telling that she has a dentist appointment at 3:15 and that also a doctor’s appointment later in the day or the next day. She arranges with her daughter some details and after a while turns her face towards me and utters:

‘I just can’t abandon him.’

She is talking to me in Spanish. It’s not that unsual for people to presume me being a Hispanic – especially in our pre-dominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood. I happen to speak decent to fluent Spanish. When she realizes I am not really a native Spanish speaker, our conversation switches back and forth between English and Spanish.

The story she tells me is this: ‘I was married to him for years and have four children from him. My parents came to this country from Puerto Rico when I was four months old. He came when he was twenty one. We met here in Chicago and got married. He was living by himself on north Sheridan. He got afflicted with Alzheimer and Parkinson. He also has other ailments and can’t do anything by himself. I live here near Fullerton and Pulaski, it was too far for me to go to his place everyday and take care of him. I moved him here in Casa Central.’ Up until then, I had thought of Casa Central to be a center for socializing for the neighborhood’s Latinos, meaning the Puerto Ricans.

‘No, it’s really a nursing home. But there is no such thing as good nursing home. You’ve really got to watch over them. Someone’s got to constantly tell them what to do. I come here every single day, make sure his needs have been taken care of. When I come, I ask him, Pee pee? Kaka? He is in diapers and needs to be changed more frequently than they normally do.

‘I just retired and was thinking I will do this and I will do that now that I’ll have time, but now all my time is taken up by him, even though we have been divorced for sometime, I just can’t leave him like this.’ She doesn’t tell me anything about when and why they got divorced. Whether either of them had been remarried. I don’t interrupt, just listen.

‘Of course not, after all he is the father of your four children.’ I say.

‘Yes, the children also come to visit, but they have their own lives and their own work. So it’s not possible for them to be around as often and my youngest daughter just had her third child only three months old. So her hands are full.’

She needed to unload this on someone other than a family member, and perhaps found a sympathetic pair of ears in me. Quite attractive for whatever age she was, well preserved and taken care of. I could feel her pain but not in a way that would make you feel guilty. She was not looking for sympathy, just being a matter of fact and doing her best and doing what she must have felt to be the right thing to do.

As I walked back home, it got me thinking about how life can change and turn upside down at a stroke of something like Alzheimer or Parkinson or a a Stroke. And you have absolutely no control over what strikes you.

© 2018 Haresh Shah

NEXT WEEK

PODHALANKA                                                                                                                                      Lady Of The Highlands                                                                                                                    A hundred years ago, most Polish immigrants settled in and around what is now Wicker Park. The crossroads of Ashland, Milwaukee and Division Streets formed the Polish Triangle, and Division as far away as California came to be known as Polish Broadway. Since then the Poles and most of the local restaurants have relocated to the North and the Southwest of the city.  Now more than three and a half decades later, Podhalanka still remains on Division at the Polish Triangle and is flourishing under Helena Madej, its Lady of the Highlands.

JOE’S WINE CELLAR

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Red Beret And Pony Tail

Haresh Shah

Soon after it opened in June of 2012, I ran into the owner Joe, futzing around on the sidewalk outside his Joe’s Wine Cellar. Though not quite familiar with the shop yet, I was quite impressed at how compact and yet how organized and how classy it looked and felt. During our brief conversation, I remember telling him that if he could manage to survive for the first three years, he may have hit upon the right idea in the right neighborhood at the right time. Joe sounded very upbeat and optimistic: I am sure I can pull it off. Plus what I have going for me is that I know the landlord… and then he lets it out with an impish smirk, I own the building!!!

‘Well, in that case…’ and I smirked back. We talked a bit about wines and I may even have let him talk me into buying a card for his signature WineStation. A lovely way to try out several sip sized wines before deciding on a bottle to take home. Better yet, for $10.- service fee let them have cork it and pour yourself a glass or two and savor it right on the site – which since then has grown into the stainless steel topped long tasting tables in the fashion of zinc bars of the French bistros. And when it’s nice outside, Joe has even set up a spacious side walk patio. As an added incitement, you can now also order an assortment of cheese, charcuterie and fresh baguette. How can it get any better?

Life long Chicago area native – Elmhurst, Libertyville and now Gold Coast, Joe Dalton, 61, was a telecommunications sales executive for thirty years. He began his career at Sprint in the mid-80’s and retired from Quest Communications as VP wholesale sales – a position he held for more than a decade. His jobs took him all over the world and while entertaining or being entertained, exposed him to  some of the best food and wines. When around 2007, with the industry consolidating, Joe decided that if Quest changed hands, it would be time to retire. His dream was to open a wine shop, grow his hair long and have it dangle into a pony tail, put on a red beret, sit behind the cash register and collect cash!!! Wrong!!! My wife ruled that out!

Soon he began to shop for a property to buy and settled on the six units building on Division Street in Wicker Park. Five of those units are residential, which brings in income and then he would still have the store front for his wine shop. Soon as Quest changed hands in 2011, Joe promptly retired and began to make concrete plans for the wine shop he would open. A year later, in June of 2012, Division Street saw the arrival of Joe’s Wine Cellar, sans pony tail and red beret.

‘Why Division?’ I asked.

‘Two reasons. The first, I loved the wide side walks. And second the demographics. I did also consider Halsted Street in Lincoln Park, but that crowd already into their forties had their own wine guy. At the time, average age group around here was about 27. Perfect place and the most desirable demographics to start and grow the wine business – taping into the crowd graduating from their craft beer phase. And you could just feel the energy!’

‘I am by no means a wine connoisseur, or knew much about wines, other than the fact that I liked wine and I knew what I liked and what I didn’t. I was never a wine collector either. That changed during a 1986 ski vacation in Lake Tahoe. We were having a dinner at Izabella Ristorante and the waiter recommended we try Far Niente, a California wine.  We ordered a bottle each of Cabernet and Chardonnay. And we just fell in love with it. When we returned home, I ordered cases of each of them and eventually ended up with the cellar containing 800 bottles. Since then  it has become more expensive, but as much as I still love it, just can’t afford to drink it every day.

But Joe’s is by no means a neighborhood cheap wine place. Even though he always has on the floor a barrel of inexpensive wines that cost around $10.- a bottle, the most of his clientele prefer slightly upscale wines, which is what his selection caters to.

‘What do  you tell your customers when they don’t know what they want.’

‘Though there are some ground rules, as for pairing wines with the food goes, I tell them to drink what they like.’

‘Your personal favorites other than Far Niente?’

‘That’s a hard one. But I love all Rhône wines. Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I like French Syrah, and Rousanne and Marsanne grapes. I am partial to wines from Provence. And I love Muscadet from Loir Valley.’ We spend a while talking about Sauvignon Blancs and how most of them go so well with fresh oysters and other seafood, but some in his opinion taste too citrusy and some poorly made ones even taste like cat piss!

Moving onto more practical aspects of the business, pointing at the wine station he says that this turned out to be a lucky move. He first got the idea for it from a wine shop in Avignon, France. Basically a wine preservation system that pours wines by glass. This way people get to try many different wines without having to buy a bottle and have fun doing it. It’s working out very well for us.

At the end of the day, it’s a business like any other. But Joe said he would never recommend  anyone to go into wine business if looking for high returns. Even though I must admit that we have been highly successful and broke even within the first six months; it’s a life style business. You make a decent living and have fun doing it!!!  I will certainly drink to that. Prost!

© Haresh Shah 2018

Joe’s Wine Cellar, 2108 W. Division Street, Chicago, Ill. 60622 ● 773 303 4884 www.joeswinecellar.com

NEXT WEEK

TRUE LOVE

Just ‘Cause They Are Divorced…

A story of how divorce is not the end of love and relationship. Just because a couple is divorced, it doesn’t stop them from still keep loving and caring for each other. An encounter in Humboldt Park.

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THE YELLOW PAGE HANDYMAN

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Always A Bridesmaid. Never A Bride

Haresh Shah

When I first moved back to Chicago and needed a handyman to help me with installing my sliding shower door and the ceiling fans, I found Antonio Luna on Yellow Pages. Remember those brick heavy door stoppers? Though he tells me, now most of his new clients come from Yelp! Times they’re a changin’J. A Puerto Rican, he grew up in Humboldt Park  – practically right around the corner, though he now lives farther north of here in Roger’s Park. He remembers the early days of his countrymen occupying the near north-west neighborhoods of Chicago – containing of Wicker Park, West Town and pre-dominantly Puerto Rican, Humboldt Park – the area mainly sandwiched between the high flying Puerto Rican flags made of steel pipes, firmly posted on the east at North Artesian and on the west at North Mozart Avenues, arch over West Division Street aka Paseo Boricua (Puerto Rican Walk). The reason the flags are made of steel is to honor thousands of Puerto Ricans who came from the island between  1946 and 1966 to work at Chicago’s steel mills. The masts are 55 feet tall and the flags span 56 feet across Division Street. Each of them weighing 30 tons and can withstand 75 miles an hour winds.

When a couple of months ago I mentioned to Tonio about my Down Division project, I had no clue how Division Street has a history not only of the crime and the gang warfare, but that Paseo Boricua, mere five houses south from where I live was the hot bed of the political unrest and riots forty some years earlier. Tonio begins to reminisce about how he witnessed the riots of June 12 -14, 1966. The day when the Puerto Rican Day Parade that began on State Street downtown Chicago – all joyous and colorful, broke out into the devastating riot on Division Street at Damen Avenue, in reaction to the Chicago cop Thomas Munyon, having shot in the leg the Puerto Rican young man, Arcelis Cruz.

The years  that followed saw more of the unrest with the gang warfare and the political tensions over the U.S. control of Puerto Rico. The mid seventies saw a spike in violence with bombings and years of protests.

Something I could hardly begin to fathom, having watched the Puerto Rican Day Parades of the last ten years and how they all have been peaceful fun and frolicking. People milling around and dancing in their vibrant multi-colored outfits, dressed up in Puerto Rican motifs – hundreds of Puerto Rican flags flying, hoards of families watching the floats filled with celebrants draped in flamboyant folkloric costumes, followed by a large fleet of awesome vintage automobiles followed by hundreds of motor bikes vrooming their powerful machines. The happy noise and the revelry. Proud Puerto Ricans and other locals alike watching or marching in the parade, big happy smiles plastered over  everyone’s faces.

I mention to Tonio what I had heard about the gang the Latin Disciples and how they would disrupt and terrorize.

‘I may even have been one of those gang members.’

‘Were you a Disciple?’

‘No, I was a part o the rival gang, the Latin Kings.’

Seeing that I was still trying to process the information, he adds a disclaimer: You know, I was just in my teens and it was one of the things you just did when you’re that age – you know, when you’re that young, you want to belong. A brief pause later, he continues: Never participated in any of the riots or shoot outs. I was not that colorful a person in my teens. Always a bridesmaid never a bride.’ And I believe him because Antonio I know is a gentle soul and doubt if he could even kill a fly, let alone hurt innocent people!

And I got married at seventeen and had three children in the following six years – my oldest  son is fifty years old now. He refers to his wife of the time as “the mother of my children”. Since then he is very happily married to his current wife, Lucia.

He continues with a distance look in his eyes: I still remember the riots breaking out on Division Street during the Puerto Rican Parade. There were armies of police and shootings. The cars were turned over and burned. Forty five buildings on fire.

© 2018 Haresh Shah

Illustration: Mural on N. Campbell Street at Division

 

NEXT WEEK

JOE’S WINE CELLAR

When I sailed back to the US in the fall of 1975, I drove cross country from New York to California. During my stop over in Chicago, I ordered a glass of white wine at a neighborhood bar. I almost fell off my chair when the bartender asked:  straight up or on the rocks? Who would have known that forty some years later, we would have a sophisticated neighborhood shop specializing in quality wines? Filled with the passion and the devotion of likes of Joe Dalton.

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