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:
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.
© 2018 Haresh Shah
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.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE www.playboystories.me