WHY? WHY?? WHY???

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Because..Because…Because….

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.

‘India!’

‘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.’

‘Why?’

‘I just don’t.’

‘But why don’t you?’

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

‘Why?’

‘Because….’

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.

GOD!

© 2019 Haresh Shah

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GANGSTERS’ CODE OF ETHICS

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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 – Romero),  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 Romero 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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SHIVA INCARNATE ON DIVISION

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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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THE MAN CALLED PARIS

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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!

Amen!

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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PAPA’S CACHE SABROSO

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Right Place on Wrong Side of Western

Haresh Shah

Back in the fall of 2006, the night before I decided to make an offer on my condo, Anjuli and I walked about three hundred steps down Maplewood and across Division to grab a bite to eat at Papa’s Cache Sabroso. Still not so sure about the neighborhood, I shared my apprehensions with Veronica, the owner’s daughter who was serving us, later joined by her parents Nancy and Victor. From what they collectively told us: not too long before, the neighborhood was indeed rough. You couldn’t just walk around here carefree like you do now. Not only between the gangs but if they didn’t like you, they would beat you up. They would follow to intimidate you. The fact that they had been here on the same location for almost five years by then and were basically a neighborhood family restaurant and functioned without much of a problem put some of my fears at ease.

Before Papa’s Cache Sabroso opened on its current location on Division in 2002, this family restaurant has a long history of meandering through Chicagoland. It all began in the early 70’s with Victor Garcia aka Papa Pollo’s older brother Augusto (Johnny – Taco) Velez and his wife Mercedez, when they opened the Johnny’s Hotdog Stand on Cermak in Pilsen, also famous for its home made fries. Since then Taco ran and sold thirteen restaurants. Among the eateries he created and ran –Johnny’s Taco House, La Parilla, Taco Shell and then City Submarine on North at Maplewood Avenue. It was hugely successful. Something that didn’t go unnoticed by the two restaurants across the street. Green with envy, the two owners banded together and hurled  Molotov cocktails on Taco’s place. No one was hurt but the place was  completely razed. The perpetrators were caught and prosecuted and served jail time for the arson. Even though Taco would take over one of their restaurants – eventually he would move and continue adding to the list of his ventures.

Victor was born in Rio Piedra, Puerto Rico in 1955. The youngest of six children, he was brought to Chicago by his family when he was only a year old. As Victor was growing up and while he went to school, he also worked for his brother Taco as did rest of their family. It has always been a family affair for us. Victor went to Von Humboldt and Yates Grammar School and graduated from Tuley High in Wicker Park and did two years of “try college”. Following that he worked for ComEd for twenty five years as Senior Energy Technician, while he also managed to find time to run his restaurant Papa’s Cache Sabroso with his wife Nancy. Big baseball aficionado, Victor played in Roberto Clemente and Ruben Gomez softball leagues in the mid Seventies. He is still active as the manager of the neighborhood league, the Pirates. Every November the league travels  to Puerto Rico to play with the local teams of the island.

On the parallel track, Nancy Oñate Garcia migrated to the States from Quito, Ecuador at the age of nine. Her parents were to migrate first in 1962, leaving the kids behind with their aunt and the grandmother. They brought kids over in 1965. It was a classic case of chain migration in which 50 members of Nancy’s family not only migrated to Chicago but at one time or another all of them worked for Hart, Schaffner and Marx. Nancy grew up in Little Village, which is where she also went to school. Upon graduating, she worked downtown for Aetna Insurance for five years and then for the industrial gas company Liquid Carbonic for sixteen before moving on to work for Chicago Public Schools for six years as its head clerk.

Both Nancy and Victor were married to other people. They had married young. Victor was seventeen at the time of his first marriage and Nancy only sixteen when she tied the knots. By the time they ran into each other in 1980 at Coconut Night Club on Sheridan – they both had their first lives behind them with ex-spouses and one kid each.

After having started, ran and sold several restaurants in various locations, Johnny Taco eventually ended up on California and Wabansia with the chicken restaurant called El Cache Sabroso, which he ran from 1991 to 1998. By then he was ready to retire and pass on the baton. Victor had worked closely with his brother through all of his adventures, and it came natural that the baton would go to Victor.

El Cache Sabroso was doing just fine where it was, but Victor felt that he needed to be in the thick of it, not closer to but in the middle of where the Puerto Rican community was concentrated. As luck would have it, he knew of just the right location on West Division Street, across from North Maplewood Avenue. Everything fell in place and Victor was able to acquire the building. He moved to the new location in 2002 and changed the name of the restaurant to Papa’s Cache Sabroso.

Papa’s because somewhere along the line friends started calling Victor Papa, and the name had stuck. If  you are wondering what the hell cache sabroso means, here is my take on it. Sabroso is easy – it means tasty or delicious. Now cache  is a bit complicated. It’s a French word which means “hide”, as in playing cache-cache –hide and seek. Or cache can also mean “classified” as in FBI file on you! It also means a secret, a treasure and a lot more. Take your pick. Mine in this case is: Papa’s Delicious Secret. As he confesses; We have to credit Johnny for the creation of our secret sauce, which always keeps our customers coming back for more. Fine, but I can’t imagine eating his pollo without Nancy’s most delicious secret salsa! Seems, we are inundated with all sorts of sweet secretsJ

Whatever, what really matters is that it has become “the chicken place” not only of the neighborhood, but according to my chef son-in-law Carlo Lamagna, it serves the best damn roasted chicken anywhere. Not to mention they also serve one of the best Jibaritos in Chicagoland. Their move to the new location has worked out perfectly. So much so that Nancy would quit her full time job and run the place through the days and Victor would join her in the evenings. He retired from his job five years later in 2007 and joined his wife in running the place full time.

Nancy and Victor, now married for 38 years, have four kids of their own and together they have eleven grandchildren and twelfth is on its way. Add to their ever expanding clan, four great grandchildren with the fifth on the way. And their small restaurant is also full of family members working together. Among them, the daughter Veronica and her husband Miguel,  Victor’s sisters Julia and Nilda, his brother Freddy and even one of his nieces – Malinda.

For some people the location of Papa’s maybe on the wrong side of Western Avenue – but let me tell you, it’s well worth crossing the line. Then again, Papa’s is doing just fine with or without you the east of Western crowd, so why should I give away a well preserved secret of this special BYOB destination??

PAPA’S CACHE SABROSO 2517 W. Division Street, Chicago, Ill. 60622 ○ +1 773 862 8313 http://www.papascache.com/

© 2019 Haresh Shah

NEXT WEEK

THE MAN CALLED PARIS                                                                                                                     Just Look, Don’t Touch!                                                                                                              Other than the restaurants and shops I often pop in and out during my walks, I run into an array of “regulars” who inhabit the street. After initial hi and bye, with some of them you begin to talk and develop a certain rapport and familiarity.

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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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