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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