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And Torture Heals

Haresh Shah

It was New Year’s Eve some years ago when I had returned home after having had a Sushi dinner with some friends and had resigned to having a quiet evening, snuggling up with a book – maybe treat myself to a glass of wine. No such luck! Soon I hear a loud knocking on my door. It’s my neighbor Evan from across the hall. Off goes the book and my quiet evening. I join into the celebration. Soon it’s almost three in the morning. We are all happy drunk. Seeing the party is nowhere near about to end, and that I am fading, I say my final Happy New Year to everyone  and begin to back out. I have not far to go. Just before I exit, I am bookended by Tara and Hannah and am showered with squeezes and kisses, we love you so much and such, each clinging to one of my arms and pulling as if I were the rope in a tug of war. I am pleased with the hugs and kisses and all the fuss, but not quite steady on my feet. Neither are they. And then Tara lets go. Hannah and I fall. I have landed right next to her and hit the floor with the back of my upper arm. Ouch!  We get up and I stumble across the hall and into my bed.

The next morning I wake with aching in the muscles of my upper arm. I pop an Advil and don’t pay any attention to it. The days pass, I try Ben Gay, more pills– nada! The pain has actually intensified with time. Dr. Ajmani prescribes Aspercreme. Nope! How about Physical Therapy? I suggest.

Every so often – that is hundreds of times, I have walked past Accelerated Rehabilitation Center on Division  right across the street from Letizia’s. I walk in with the prescription. I end up buying a sleeveless t-shirt. Laura Novak nurses it back to near normal – with massaging the muscles and subjecting me to all sorts of what I have since come to call tortures. I return for my aching back, which doesn’t quite work. Eventually requiring me to agreeing to go through a surgery. I return back for post surgery rehabilitation. The place is now called Athletico Physical Therapy, and I am being treated by Scott Howard. When I leave after 20 sessions – I am feeling a whole lot better. He gives me a printout of several exercises that I can do at home. For the longest time, I can’t get rid of his daily command of two sets of fifteen. I hear his voice every morning when I begin to do my exercises, two sets of fifteen, two sets of fifteen, two sets of fifteen!!!


A year and a half later, I am back on the table – with some discomfort in my back – this time it’s Caitlin Regan. Her touch is softer and she normally orders two sets of ten with some exceptions, especially if happened to have mentioned even in passing about liking one exercise over others. Even though I define them as tortures and the therapists torturers, there is no denying that whatever initial pain you must endure, helps you eventually ease if not totally kill the larger pain for which you have subjected yourself to the physical therapy.

But it takes time – and patience. Not only on your part but more so on the part of the therapists. To cajole and coddle you – to keep you motivated. To keep you in motion for an entire hour for twenty or more sessions over a period of a month or two. Every day they treat between nine to thirteen  patients, with different parts of their limbs hurting. Aching back like mine – twisted ankle, broken leg, arthritic knees!!

How do they do it?

Compassion of course. But then I have often thought, what made them wanting to be a physical therapists in the first place?

Not only physically treating and guiding you, but the therapists are also subjected to multi-tasking. A rolling table and a laptop follow them while they are treating you, constantly inputting details of everything they administer to their patients, do manuals while continuously observing each patient on tables, asking assistants for help. Scurrying back and forth.

Once she acquired her bachelor’s degree in exercise science, when it came to choose a career, Caitlin wasn’t sure. First she considered studying Sports Marketing but then realizing there just weren’t enough jobs in the field, she ruled that out and then gave some thought to maybe becoming a vet. That too she ruled out considering how long it would take to graduate – not to speak of also how expensive. Physical Therapy was mentioned, not exactly but it somehow seemed related to sports and she felt it would be something I might like doing. She enrolled at University of Miami, one of the best schools in the country offering Physical Therapy curriculum. It would take only three years, including on site hands on training. She has been a therapist for last seven years and she really loves it.

When I asked Paul Sraders, the other therapist on site, a good question. When I started looking at career choices I wanted to do something where I can teach and help people. My family background is in medicine. My dad is a doctor and mom a nurse and I thought physical therapy is where I can do both. He promptly enrolled at UIC. Paul graduated two years ago and right out of college, joined Athletico, and is really enjoying what he does.

Whatever their reasons, I am glad they are there. And that they are a walking distance from me, right on Division. Even though it’s a part of a large regional chain, the Wicker Park location is a smaller of the facilities with only two full fledge therapists working with a couple of student trainees. It has a feel more of a neighborhood warmth and friendliness. Soon as you step in, you are not only greeted by Caitlin and Paul, but you’re also greeted with smiles by Jessica and Grace and currently also by Casey, making  you feel right at home and make you oblivious to the torture you’re about to be subjected – knowing that in the end, you will leave your therapy in a better shape then when you first checked in.

© 2019 Haresh Shah

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Athletico Physical Therapy 2143 West Division Street, Chicago, Ill. 60622 773 489 0347


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Simone & Nelson

Haresh Shah

He threw himself on me and for the first time I spoke his name. “Lewis!”

“Anne! I am so happy.”

He was naked, I was naked, and I felt no constraint; he couldn’t hurt me by looking at me, for he didn’t judge me, didn’t compare me. From head to toe, his hands were learning my body by heart. Again, I said, “I like your hands.”

“Do you like them?”

“All evening I’ve been wondering if I’d feel them on my body.’

“You’ll feel them all night long,” he said.

Simone de BeauvoirThe Mandarins

That’s the fictional version of the first night Simone de Beauvoir spent with Nelson Algren at his tiny apartment on 1523 West Wabansia, off Division in Chicago (since demolished to make room for Kennedy Expressway).

Just imagine, one of the French legends of the existentialist trio of the ‘50’s and the ‘60’s consisting of Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, transplanted from the sophisticated Cafe Les Deux Magots  of Paris to what was becoming to be the seedy near north west side neighborhood of Chicago’s Division Street at the intersection of Ashland and Milwaukee avenues, popularly known as Polish Triangle, sitting with Algren and some of his friends in what she describes as a “dreary cafeteria”.

But Simone had fallen head over heels in love with this rogue American writer of down trodden and desperate of the underworld. The contrast couldn’t have been any starker – already acclaimed as the writer, philosopher and the bon vivant of Paris literati socialites  – who would go on to write the sensational and ground breaking The Second Sex –  (Le Deuxième Sexe) considered to be the beginning of the second wave of feminism. By then her prominence and popularity had reached the pinnacle not only in France and Europe but also across the Atlantic, that  soon after the end of the second World War, Simone was invited to give a series of lectures in the United States on her work and the philosophy. As excited and flattered as she was of the recognition and the invitation, she was still unsure and apprehensive about crossing the ocean and step into the unknown. She took her time. Actually several months before accepting the invitation after being repeatedly prodded by Sartre, Camus and their other friends.

During her brief visit to Chicago Simone had encountered Nelson for a day and they had parted with a perfunctory kiss. The one she remembered as she was on the train traveling to New Orleans. And while reading Algren’s book, she thinks of him and reminisces: It’s ridiculous! At my age!” But like virgin’s, my mouth still tingled. I had never kissed a man except those with whom I had slept; and each time that shadow of a kiss flashed through my mind, it seemed as if I was going to rediscover burning remembrance of love in the deepest recesses of my memory. “I will come back,” I said to myself decisively.

And come back she does. While she is still on her American tour. Just for “four days” and then stays for as many weeks. On their first day together Algren shows her around Chicago, including the County Jail and the Electric Chair. This is the night they leave her suitcase at the hotel room – come home and make love for the first time.

She returns to Paris and resumes her normal life. A little over a year later, she boards the plane in Paris and thinks: There is Chicago, I would once more rediscover myself in the body of a woman in love, a woman loved. It’s a long journey. The plane takes her to Athens and then to Shannon in Ireland and Azores and to Nova Scotia – finally landing at the Chicago Municipal Airport (later renamed Midway Airport after the Battle of Midway).

Not knowing when she would finally arrive, they have agreed that she would grab a cab from the airport. I am as much intrigued as I am fascinated imagining Simone de Beauvoir in the cab, cruising along north on Cicero Avenue, the cab turning right on Division and then she doesn’t remember the exact street address. It is when the red sign Schlitz flashes off a local tavern in front of her eyes – something she remembers having seen the time before and then she knows. Probably it was a different sign, but at the time, Schlitz Brewery and it’s “Tide House” were prominent on Division Street. Designated Landmark, the building still stands at the corner of North Wood and Division, complete with Schlitz belted globe at the center of its top gable, which is now the home of Mac’s American Pub.

That Simone would seek out Nelson Algren and show up at his doorstep, in itself must have thrown him off kilter and that the relationship would flourish and last for five straight years spanning from 1947 to 1951 is by any dint of imagination astounding. It would be Simone traveling to America  and staying with Nelson several months every year in Chicago and then his cottage on Miller Beach in Gary, Indiana.  During one of her visits, they together also traveled to Mexico and spent there several months. And of course their relationship took Nelson to Paris many a times. Not only was he warmly welcomed by, but Sartre even translated two of his books into French must have seemed to Nelson so out of his elements and bizarre that for a long time he probably didn’t even realize what hit him. Even after their amorous escapades ended in 1951, they would continue to write to each other up until 1965 is all so incredible.

Up until then, and even now, you couldn’t well think of Simone de Beauvoir without thinking of her exceptional life-long bond with Jean Paul Sartre – winner of the Nobel Prize in  Literature and one of the most prominent figures of the philosophy of existentialism and phenomenology. More than or as much as their literary achievements, Beauvoir and Sartre will always be talked about for their “open relationship”. Never married to each other, they together challenged the socio-cultural norms they grew up with – considered monogamy to be bourgeois – they had multiple affairs and liaisons all through their lives, including Simone’s several dalliance with other women – all out in the open, and they would tell each other everything. And the ultimate bond between Sartre and Beauvoir was so solid and well defined that they together had purchased the neighboring plots and had willed eventually to be buried side by side – which they are in Montparnasse cemetery in Paris.

Of course, it all must have bothered Nelson a lot, but Simone must have somehow managed to hold him in her thrall while herself continuing to be smitten by Nelson and yet never ever giving up her independence or leaving Sartre must have finally hit him hard. While Simone was an open book, in which she turned every experience, every liaison, every nuance into her writing – in which most of her writing is autobiographical somehow snuggly fitted into the frame of their existentialist philosophy. Her Prix Goncourt (the highest literary honor in France) winning The Mandarins prominently features Algren as the American writer Lewis Brogan, is dedicated to Nelson Algren.

There is nothing Algren has written tells us anything about himself. While you can tell from his books that he is a keen observer of people and their nuances and speech – in his narration there is never an “I”, probably with only exception of his prose poem, CHICAGO: City on the Make. When you look at his photos – the only expression you remember of his face is “brooding”. We can only speculate about what he might be thinking in his reticent professorial demeanor. In the end he was a product of America’s down home Midwest. Born in Detroit, Michigan and transplanted to Chicago as a child, underneath his macho and tough façade of which Simone has said he was not merely as tough as he would like you to think. And there you have it. His values by and large had to remain mid Western and mid-American middle class.  Or what his French lover and her life long partner had summed up to be, bourgeois.

Because what he would have of course liked was to have a conventional relationship and be married to Simone, her moving to Chicago and them living together happily ever after. But as his friend and writer Stuart McCarrell puts it: She knew it wouldn’t work. I don’t think it would have lasted six months if she had married him and moved to Chicago. It was utterly impractical what he wanted her to do – an everything or nothing proposition.

Finally realizing and even turning sour on his longest lasting love, Nelson began to feel that Simone sold him out by writing about their relationship and their sexual antics in minute detail, that during an interview he cried out: ‘procurers are more honest than philosophers. She must have taken notes every time we made love.’

No matter how their relationship eventually ended or didn’t, the story of Simone and Nelson’s  trans-Atlantic love affair has become as much a part of Chicago and it’s neighborhood as that of Hugh Hefner’s, and Carl Sandburg’s and Al Capone’s. Still fascinating after seventy years!

RELATED STORY                                                                                                                                NELSON ALGREN                                                                                                                                 The Man Who Put Division Street On Map Of The World                                     

© 2019 Haresh Shah

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The Man Who Put Division Street On Map Of The World

On the sunny Saturday of December 5, 1998, Chicago’s literati that included the legendry oral historian, television personality and journalist, Nelson Algren’s close friend and perhaps one of his biggest fans, Studs Terkel, the poet, playwright and the founder of Algren Committee, Stu McCarrell, mayor Richard M. Daley, the alderman Jesse Granato and the Polish leader Zygmund “Ziggy” Dyrkscz and a large group of the writer’s fans and friends got together on the Polish Triangle at the intersection of Ashland-Milwaukee and Division Streets. They had gathered for the dedication ceremony of the newly erected fountain named after the neighborhood’s rogue writer Nelson Algren, who had lived in the neighborhood for thirty five years and in his writing put the Division Street and its neighborhoods on map of the world.

This after the long battle and prolonged negotiations between the members of Nelson Algren Committee and the Polish Roman Catholic Union. Why?

Because as much as he had become an integral part of the neighborhood, the residents and the keepers of the local flame never really accepted him as their own. In what was then pre-dominantly poor blue collar Polish neighborhood, he was an outsider. And he wrote about downtrodden and desperate drug addicts, drunks, criminals, prostitutes and gamblers who also happened to be Polish and poor. Most of them of Jewish origin. Even though Algren himself was part Jewish on his mother’s side, and his first wife Amanda Kontowicz was Polish – the community felt that what he wrote was anti-Semitic and that his stories denigrated the local population in general.

So much so that the Polish Roman Catholic Union took the issue to then Chicago Mayor Ed Kelly and had his novel Never Come Morning banished from Chicago’s Public Libraries soon after it was published in 1942. And so it remained for more than twenty years. The animosity lingered even after two generations had turned over and most of the Poles had moved away from the neighborhood, leaving behind only a couple of remnants of its Polish identity. The Nelson Algren Committee faced a very strong and emotional resistance when it proposed and worked on memorializing their beloved author by naming after him what was and still is commonly known as the Polish Tringle. They hope to maybe someday even have his statue erected on the site, because that was the universe in which his characters from three of his books, The Man With The Golden Arm, Never Come Morning and Neon Wilderness inhabited. This had the Polish community up in the arms – totally horrified. They felt that would erase their history in the city. Thus ensued the struggle between two forces. Represented by Zygmund “Ziggy” Dyrkscz – the owner of Chopin Theatre, they argued that it was “their” territory and their identity in the city which is still often defined as containing of the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw.

Finally a compromise was reached and it was decided that the little plaza was to remain known as it always had been – the Polish Triangle which was considered and would remain the gate to the long stretch of Division Street aka Polish Broadway that extended all the way to Humboldt Boulevard. The fountain would be named after Nelson Algren. So the gathering of who’s who of Chicago. After the dedication ceremony everyone probably went to a nearby bar that Algren frequented or not, feeling stoked.

The irony is: though it was never officially named Polish Triangle with a street sign indicating as such. Whereas even though at the base of the fountain is engraved NELSON ALGREN FOUNTAIN in brass and it is also surrounded by a quote from his book Chicago: City on the Make, that reads: For the masses who do the city’s labor also keep the city’s heart. And yet, no one I know knows of the significance of the fountain or has ever looked down at the inscription on the ground beneath it. For that matter, no one I know or lives around here has known or heard of Nelson Algren.

For that matter, up until about six months ago, even I had no idea who Nelson Algren was – other than he may have appeared as a blimp on the radar of my general knowledge of the world literature. And now I see him everywhere. Especially his presence is felt on, around and within the twelve blocks of Chicago’s Division Street.

The third floor of 1958 West Evergreen Avenue was home for Algren’s final eighteen years living in Chicago spanning from 1958 to 1976. It is marked as a building of distinction by Chicago Tribune. This stretch of Evergreen is granted honorary Nelson Algren Avenue sign.  Earlier he lived on 1523 Wabansia and 1815 West Division in an apartment above Millers Lumber Store, the place I used to frequent up until it was demolished some years ago  to make room for modern condos, never realizing that it used to be a home to the man of a certain literary distinction. What’s more, Frankie and Sophie Machine of The Man With The Golden Arm lived diagonally opposite, on 1860 West Division, the fictitious address that doesn’t exist, except in  Algren’s  imagination.

The writer’s writer, Earnest Hemingway proclaimed Nelson Algren to be the best American writer in the same breath along with William Faulkner. Algren won the National Book Award in 1950, a year before Faulkner won his, for considered to be his best novel, The Man With The Golden Arm. The book was made into the movie by Otto Preminger staring Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak, and for which Sinatra was Oscar nominated for best actor. There are at least two coffee table photography books by Art Shay – his friend, fan and the photographer of Life magazine, filled with Algren himself traipsing around his nocturnal turf, as if following in the footsteps of the characters he had created.

And there is enough written about the man and his work, someone you would think is on a revival track, and yet other than a handful of hard core aficionados and the new converts like myself, he seems to have totally disappeared from the literary shelves. While you would have no problem finding titles of the books of his contemporaries – such as Faulkner, Hemingway and Studs Terkel, and most of all his French paramour Simone de Beauvoir, you would be hard pressed to find any of his titles on the shelves – except in used bookstores.

Algren had a love/hate relationship with Chicago, to whom he writes: I never pretended to love for something you were not, I never told you you smelled of anything but cheap cologne. I never told you you were anything but a loud old bag. Yet you’re still the doll of the world and I’m proud to have slept in your tireless arms. But eventually he must have felt disoriented with his love for the city that he couldn’t help but feel: No writer ever gave more to a city and got back less.

So when he got a magazine assignment in New York, he moved to New Jersey and then heartbroken never coming back to Chicago, he went on to live in Sag Harbor, Long Island, which is where he died of heart attack all alone, without a widow or descendants, hundreds and hundreds of miles from Chicago, Illinois, which had given him to the world and with whose underbelly he had been so long identified, mourned Kurt Vonnegut – one of his  literary friends and a fan.

But that’s not the end of the story of Nelson Algren I want to tell. So far I have successfully avoided telling you about his most tempestuous and long lasting trans-Atlantic relationship with the French writer, existential philosopher and feminist Simone de Beauvoir. The one that has intrigued me and rest of the world the most. For that, stay tuned for the part two of Nelson Algren.

© 2019 Haresh Shah


AN IMPROBABLE LOVE STORY                                                                                          SIMONE & NELSON                                                                                                                              No two people can be more different than the “Frenchie”, the sophisticated feminist, the writer and the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir and the toughie who not only wrote of the underworld but himself lived the life in the seediness under the neon lights, Nelson Algren.

My special thanks to Dana Jarmer for kindly passing on to me the letter size manila envelope stuffed with a major article and other relevant information on Nelson Algren which then lead me to other sources. (

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Haresh Shah

Today I have veered off Division and am walking south on Western Avenue for no obvious reason. Perhaps for a change of scenery. As I am approaching the new modernistic round building of Village West Veterinary at the corner of Rice, I notice a young man dressed in grey light weight jogging outfit that could also be scrubs of one of the vets working inside the building. He is standing by the tree outside, probably on his break, soaking up the sun and getting some fresh air on this gorgeous early spring day. We make eye contact and exchange HI’s. Before I move on, out of the clear blue sky, he asks: 

‘How old are you?’

‘Take a guess!’

‘Seventy seven?’

Wow! Because most of the people guess my age to be much younger, even though I have recently turned 78. Don’t remember if we exchange anything more as I hurry past him, because there is something peculiar about the way he asks my age and then guesses it so right on the button. Judging from his clothes and his looks, he seems to be a decent harmless young man, and yet, I find something unsettling about him. Almost menacing, like Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley – as played by Matt Damon in the movie version.

Young and handsome, boyish almost, and yet if you look closer you see something devilish lurking behind his friendly face. So much so that when I reach Chicago Avenue, I want to cross the street and walk back from the other side of Western. But then I think, peculiar as he seemed, it might be interesting to talk to him. So I turn around to walk back. Now he is sitting on the ground circling the trunk of the tree. When he sees me approaching, his lithe figure springs up like the head of a cobra rising out of the snake charmer’s basket. I see him stand up and watching my steps getting closer as if he has been waiting for me all along. We say hi again.

‘Where are you from?’ he asks, abruptly.


‘Are you Hindu?’ I don’t like his abruptness.

‘I was born Hindu.’

‘Are you religious?’ The question and his demeanor puts me on a guard. One of those! I think to myself. Depending on my answer, I fully expect him to ask: what happens after we die?

‘You work here?’ I ask just to distract the conversation. He shakes his head indicating no, he doesn’t. That seems strange because suddenly I remember having seen him outside the building also once before, may be a few months earlier.

‘You live here?’

‘No, I don’t.’ But he doesn’t elaborate – just looks at me with a peculiar gaze in his eyes – like a mad man – a man not quite normal.

‘Are you religious?’ he asks again. Apparently, I haven’t succeeded in sidetracking him.

‘Religion is one of the things I don’t talk about.’


‘I just don’t.’

‘But why don’t you?’

‘Because it’s just too personal to talk about.’



Not knowing where this may lead, I resume my walk without responding. He starts walking by my side.

‘Can I walk with you?’ He asks.

‘Well, it’s a public street!’ Not knowing what else to say, I answer. He is walking alongside me as if we were together to begin with. I don’t like it.

‘So why don’t you talk about religion?’ He persists.

‘If I answer that I am talking about it. And I just don’t care to.’

‘But you don’t mind me walking with you!’

‘Actually I do! Look, I am just going to the store across the street. You can walk with me up to the light.’ And so he does. Not saying anything until we get to the light.

‘Well, see you around!’ I say and try to hurry past him to cross the street.

‘Can I cross the street with you?’ I don’t answer and just keep walking. He keeps up with my stride

‘Can I go in the store with  you?’ I don’t answer but he follows me in. I am getting spooked.

I walk into Rich’s Deli and announce to everybody and nobody in particular, he is not with me, he is just following me. The women who work there must remember me coming in frequently to buy bread just look on without a slightest change in their expressions. I am not surprised, because that’s just how they have always been. I get my loaf of bread, pay for it and rush out of there, he follows me out of the door.

‘Hey, it’s been nice talking to you. Have a nice day. Good bye!’ I hasten to cross the street.

‘Can I walk with you?’ he asks again like a broken gramophone record. And I keep walking – now at a faster pace. He keeps up with me as I cross the street.

‘Nooo!’ I scream. But he certainly doesn’t heed.

‘I am going in that direction anyway.’ He tells me nonchalantly.

‘In that case, you go first.’

When he doesn’t – I take off like an arrow. Totally spooked. He has followed me across the street and up to the bus stop before slowing down. I hurry, almost run and at the end of the next crossing, look back. He is not looking into my direction, but is still standing there by the bus stop looking a bit lost. Instead of walking straight ahead, I turn and turn again and again – just in case.


© 2019 Haresh Shah

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“I wiped their butts and changed their diapers!”

Haresh Shah

Over a period of time, during my daily walks I have often run into Gladys (Lopez – Ramos),  my neighbor several houses down south. She is one of those ever smiling friendly people in bubbly sort of way. We would exchange quick greetings and pick up bits and pieces of general personal information about each other and indulge in a bit of neighborhood gossip, until we would run into each other the next.

If anyone, Gladys is a true Division Street dweller. Not only did she grow up around it, but also went to schools and then worked as a secretary at Roberto Clemente High School until she retired in 2014. Not long after I had started flirting with the idea of doing Down Division, I happened to have run into her again. It occurred to me, who could tell me better of this rough and tumble neighborhood of not too long ago about how it was growing up on Division Street than would Gladys? I have often wondered how people managed to live and survive in such hostile environment. Now 62, she has lived around here since she was just a year old toddler. Born not too far, her parents bought a house on Division when she was just one year old. As an interesting footnote, in shuffle of the moving, the toddler having barely learned to walk wandered away out of sight. Fortunately she was found not too long after playing with other children, as if to claim already her place in the neighborhood. When I shared with her what it was I was trying to do, she thought it was a great idea and agreed immediately that she would be happy to tell me about what it was like growing up around here.

But instead of me retelling her story, I let her tell it herself:

“Growing  up, I attended Tuley High School (now Jose de Diego – the elementary school) on North Clermont. I was there from my Freshman through Junior years. Tuley closed in 1974. In 1975 Roberto Clemente High opened only a couple of blocks south on Division and Western. We were automatically enrolled in the new school. Both schools were walking distances from our home and we never felt insecure or threatened walking to and back from the school, nor did we at any other time during the normal course of the day.

“This was despite the fact that at the time Division Street was the pits. During the early Seventies, the street was ridden with the gang warfare as well there were political tensions on account of the communities expressing their disapproval of he U.S. control of Puerto Rico. Many wanted an independent existence with no U.S. interference. The mid-Seventies saw a spike in unrest with bombings and violence in form of protests. Everyone still remembers the street riots of 1966, that followed the jubilant Puerto Rican Day Parade in downtown Chicago. Closer to home, I remember my mother having us bring in an individual wounded during the crossfire, away from the danger. From what I can recall, he was safe with us until medical help arrived . There was another riot in 1977. We somehow managed to survive those years unscathed.

“I think us sisters were blessed because of our mother. Everyone knew her in the neighborhood. She was kind to all and she was respected for who she was. Our mom was a good role model to us and the others she touched. She raised us well and taught us to be kind and polite to everybody. She was deeply religious and it was through her faith and her prayers and her relationship with God that guided her the way she raised us. My mother had no fear of us being hurt by any of the rough gangs out there. They dare not, because as she would often put it:  After all, I have wiped many of their butts and have changed their diapers!!

“My sisters and I never felt afraid to walk the neighborhood. I remember one Halloween afternoon when my younger sister Maria and I were walking home and we had to walk past the showdown taking place between the Latin Disciples and their rivals the Latin Kings just across the street from where Papa’s Cache Sabroso is now. They were throwing eggs at each other. Soon as they saw us approaching, one of them commanded: Stop! hold it everybody!  All of them immediately froze and waited until we were safely out of their way before resuming their assault. You would think it strange that these tough guys would be so concerned about our welfare. Although we never really spoke to them, they somehow seemed to know who we were through our mother and the family. We could have been their sisters! And they must have felt protective of us. I guess, even the gangsters have their code of ethics.”

Not only the gangs but the street was also inhabited by other vagrant and drunken characters. The neighborhood tough guys. When now her husband of  40 years, David Ramos was courting Gladys and after an evening out, walking her home, what he describes as a scraggly and scary-looking older man accosted and questioned him in his gruff voice, She is a decent young lady from a good and respectful family, what are your intentions?

A bit taken back, David answered that he genuinely loved and respected Gladys. The man responded, In that case, take her home first, the street is no place for a proper young lady to be walking this late in the night.

Of course he knew Gladys and her family. She later told David that the man’s name was Pedro Navaja aka Peter the Knife. A neighborhood toughie, perpetually drunk, and had been shot and stabbed multiple times. He was no one to mess with, and most everyone in the neighborhood was afraid of him. And yet, he had somehow managed to remain an old fashioned Caballero through and through. Just like the rival gangs, Pedro too had his own code of ethics.

© 2019 Haresh Shah

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The Cobra Uncoiling

Haresh Shah

On a warm summer day, I am sitting at the edge of a bench in Humboldt Park, resting my hurting back. Unlike many people hogging the entire bench by sitting smack dab in the middle, I don’t mind sharing the space. Often, someone occupies the other end of the bench. Sometimes we strike up a conversation, others we don’t. On one such afternoon, I see a young man approaching  the bench. He is snuggly holding against his chest, a round rattan basket like one would hold a baby. As he sits down on the other end of the bench, he carefully places the basket on his lap. We acknowledge each other with a nod and then retreat into our own space. After a while I hear him say: would you like to buy one of these? I turn my face and see him lifting the lid off his basket a little bit and then promptly closing it. What I see during the quick opening and the closing of the basket is a shiny snake head rising and craning towards the opening just to be pushed down in the groove of its own coil.

‘No thanks.’

‘They are good pets to have.’

‘Maybe so, but not my thing.’

Following which we don’t say anything more. After a while he gets  up, wishes me to have nice day and he is gone.

Snakes were always around when I was growing up in the suburb of Mumbai. At the time, Borivali was just a sleepy little hamlet, scantly populated. Vast plots of the lands separated by single family houses were called Mansions or Villas. With outhouses and water wells in the backyards, fronts normally paved into pathways covered with gravel and the hedges on either side of the paths that lead you to the houses. We had no electricity nor running water. The front yards and the backyards beyond outhouses were like mini forests. There were two paved main roads covered with tar with drooping dirt shoulders. Like the modern days bike paths, those shoulders were the strips over which the snakes would traverse. During the dry months you may come upon a lone serpent meandering along side by side keeping up pace with your stride. But it was during the monsoon seasons that hoards of them would come out from their hibernation and surface from their underground grooves. And it wasn’t unusual at all to suddenly see a family of several feet long slimy creature slithering along by your side. We were told that unless provoked, they were harmless – even though an accidental stepping on one of them could cause a snake bite and even death. All you had to do was be careful, look before you took each step, make sure to avoid stepping on one of them, and when you saw one, just get out of its way and let it pass.

As much as the snakes were co-habitants, and still are in the Indian rural communities, I was and still am always mortally afraid of any kind of snakes glistening with their slithery selves. To watch them flicking their tongues was scary enough, if one of them dared look directly into your eyes, it would have caused me to faint.

The man’s closing and opening of the basket was so quick that I didn’t bolt, but it left me feeling  a bit unsettled. While realizing that the man in the possession of them meant no harm and had them under control just like the snake charmers in India who often show up on the streets of Mumbai not with one but with multiple baskets and have them sway to the sweet sounds of his beena, to see one popping up and out like a Jack in the Box. To encounter one in the middle of metropole like Chicago is something you just don’t expect. Even though I had seen a green one drifting along with the flotsam under the Humboldt Boulevard bridge.

The year is 2011. I have just returned from India and my biological clock is turned upside down. The reason I am up and about so early in the morning. Just like I did in Bombay, I just jump out of bed and go out for my walk. It’s a gorgeous early fall morning. I am sitting on a bench across the street from Citgo gas station at the corner of Division and California. As I normally end up doing, I am staring at the sign up above showing that day’s gas prices. Regular $4.29. Mid-grade $4.39 and Premium $4.59.

While siting there, I am trying to decide whether I should get some coffee and croissant from Dunkin’ Donuts inside the service station, I sense a man walking towards me and then plump himself down next to me on the bench. Just from the thump, I could tell he is sitting a bit too close for comfort. And then I sense him lifting both of his hands near to his neck and removing something, some sort of a neck wrap, like a dark heavy scarf. I turn my face, and what I see, wrapped around his neck is a shiny fat body of a cobra, which he is in the process of loosening like one would a scarf. In that quick glance, I see that he is a brown man, sort of stocky, dressed in knee length black shorts, white shirt and a black vest, but the most noticeable thing about him is his flat topped round hat. And then I see the tail of the snake uncoiling on its own, just inches away from me. My immediate reaction is: “Oh.” And I leap out of there like a spring loaded object let loose – trying not to run, I resume my walk, albeit at a swifter pace.

Wondering whether the man intended to scare me with his Shiva in the Humboldt Park manifestation. As scared as I felt, I couldn’t help but dare look back for a quick second. I see him following my track and laughing out loud. Shiva was anything but a sadist! On my way back, I couldn’t help but check out the bench. But he has now moved to the little round meeting point with bulletin board and benches surrounding it. I see him prancing and holding court with the regulars, the snake still adorning his neck.

© 2019 Haresh Shah




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Just Look, Don’t Touch!

Haresh Shah

It was the very week or the next when I had moved into my condo on Maplewood after nine years sojourn in Prague, that I heard some commotion outside and then quick steps thumping  along the passage between the front gate and the parking lot in the back. I crane my neck out and see a cop running as in a chase. Seeing me he stops, you haven’t seen anyone escaping from here? And then he begins to tell me that there was a shootout between the gangs right outside of Roberto Clemente High School and that one of the cops got shot in his arm. Just a young kid, who had darted out of  there.

‘You’ve been living here long?’

‘No, have just moved in recently.’

‘Welcome to the neighborhood!’ And he fills me in on the gangs and the guns and tells me, even though it’s not as dangerous as it once was, just to be on my guard. Whenever possible, to avoid the crossroads of Western and Division between two and four when school normally lets out.

This and many other such incidences around the city, prompted many schools, among them, Roberto Clemente to install metal detectors to curb kids bringing in guns to schools. That wouldn’t restraint frequent blow outs and fist fights outside the schools.

Enter Safe Passage guards of Chicago Public Schools deployed within several blocks of the participating schools. They are men and women garbed in neon greenish yellow vests, just standing there and greeting passerby with big smiles on their faces with how’s your day going so far? Did you have a nice weekend? Have a great day. In short, they are friendly sorts. They see many of the same familiar faces and strike up conversations and just be there to make sure that kids don’t get into any rows. They don’t carry guns or any other kind of weapons. They are not allowed to get involved when there is a commotion of sorts. Not allowed to use their cell phones during their work hours. But they all have a pager with direct connection to the nearest cops should there arise a need.

One of those guards on the north west corner of Western and Division is the man called Paris aka Perry Wright. A big fellow with a friendly face. He is always talking to people while his eyes survey his surroundings to make sure the hoards of kids who have just come out of their classes amble along leisurely without getting into any trouble. Paris and I have developed quite a friendly rapport over a period of time and we often get a chance to joke and also talk about philosophy of the thing called life.

‘Hey, you don’t stop to say hello to your buddy here!.’

‘Oh, Paris, I am so sorry. Actually I was looking for you on your regular spot, but not there!’

‘I am right here, how can you miss such a big man?’

‘You’re right. I am so sorry!’ And he extends his fist, we bump.

‘I’m sorry, I really didn’t see you,’ I emphasize. He doesn’t answer – just looks at me with bit of smirk on his face.

‘I said I’m sorry – do you forgive me?’

‘Of course I forgive  you. God forgives you, and if he does, so do I.’

He always has to throw in his God bit in-between. Something I don’t know how to counter, but thinking that you can never be blessed enough, I just let it pass.

‘Where you off to?’

‘Got a doctor’s appointment.’

‘Is everything okay?’

‘Yeah, just that having bit of a problem breathing.’

‘You’ll be alright man.’

‘Yeah, I ain’t going anywhere soon!’

‘Of course not – stay. Just keep walking.’

‘We’ve got to, you know? We’ve still got some “looking” left to do.’ As I say this,  I pull my skin down under my eyeball, turning to look at a cluster of young co-eds just gotten out of the classes at Roberto Clemente’s.

‘You’ve got that right man! Something to live for. But just look! Don’t touch!!! And he too turns his dirty old man’s wistful eyes towards the colorful cluster of mainly African American and Latina young things. I cross Western and shuttle over to St. Mary’s Medical Center building.

I see him again the next day. We talk some more. Former furnace maintenance man, at 57, he has seven children and seven grand children. The eighth is on the way! (since then, the little boy is already born). He says and then he is lost in imagining one more grand child in his life.

‘You’re doing well for yourself,’ I chide. And he smiles, as if I have placed upon him some sort of divine blessing.

Normally I would see Paris two or three times every week at his post. But it had been a week or longer that I didn’t see him. The post was covered by different substitute every day. Just when I thought I would ask one of them whatever happened to Paris? – lo and behold, there he was. I walk up to him, we bump our fists as usual.

‘Where you’ve been man?’

‘Oh, I was in hospital!’

‘What were you doing in the hospital? You didn’t ask me if you could go to the hospital,’ I kid and then, ‘are you okay?’

‘Yeah, I am fine, but I sure am glad I did go to the hospital, otherwise I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you.’

‘What happened?’

‘I don’t know. The week before while standing here I felt this pain in my stomach and then it got to the point where I didn’t know what was going on. Something with my heart. I was bleeding and all!’

And then he tells me how they checked him out and treated him and now he is fine. But while recuperating, they placed him into a room with a cancer patient in the bed next to him.

‘I was resting and I fell asleep. And suddenly I feel that two men had lifted me and were about to placed me on a gurney. I woke up with a start. Hey, what you’ll doing? Where are you taking me? Seeing my body spring up like Jack in the box, looking at their faces I thought they were having a heart attack.’

Sorry! We were taking you to the morgue! They told us you died.’

‘You see I ain’t dead.’

But they did, look, here is the paperwork!’

‘Well, they must have made a mistake. As you can see….’

They never make a mistake…’ one of them started telling me and then stopped short.’ As it turns out, it was the guy in the next bed who had died. How could I have died? As much pain as I was in, at times it felt like it, but then I prayed and I prayed and prayed, Lord, don’t let me die. I’m still so young. I have been good.  I ain’t ready to go yet!


Boy, it really was nice to see him again.

© 2019 Haresh Shah

NEXT WEEK                                                                                                                                          Undetermined. I have some stories in the making, but not sure which one would be ready by the time its time to post the next one.

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