A Tribute

Haresh Shah

MOM 1 (2)

No other word conjures up emotions so deep and so powerful as does the word MOTHER.  Of eight siblings, each one of has encountered our mother differently.  Now that she is dead and gone, however different our individual relationships may have been with her, when all said and done, – we all loved her.   Not only did she bring us into this world and raise us, she influenced each of our lives in ways that have shaped  who we have become.

My mother was born in Rangoon, Burma – in what is now known as Myanmar, to a  wealthy diamond merchant of Indian origin.  Having given birth to the only other child, a boy, my maternal grandmother died young when my mother was only three years old and her brother, uncle Vasant, only a year and a half.  My granddad promptly remarried  a woman much younger than himself. As pretty as my grandma, she sired ten more children – my step-aunts and uncles.

My mother and Uncle Vasant grew up in care of their legendary step mother.  They referred to her as navi – the new one.  Under the regime of the new one,  my mother was pulled from school having only finished the second grade and was subjected to staying home, doing chores.  Those two grades barely taught her how to read and write.  Until the day she died, her handwriting resembled that of a little kid, who had just begun to learn how to write.

She was not even ten when she was required to leave school.  But fortunately for my mom and for my dad – their respective uncles had them spoken for each other and they were promptly married when she was thirteen and he eighteen. Harkishan, the first of my siblings arrived a year later and died an infant, conforming upon me the dubious honor of becoming the oldest sibling by default – and the son to boot!

Even though my father loomed larger than life in the background, we were primarily  raised by my mother.  My father was not a man of many words, not so my mother.  It was not in her nature to hold back. She wasn’t afraid of calling spade a spade and no matter how hard she tried sometimes to hold back, it wasn’t too long before  she would blurt out whatever was on her mind.  There was  no mincing of words. In her, what you saw was what you got.

It must have been the luck of a draw that as handsome as my father was, my mother was a very pretty lady.  In the old Hindu tradition, their marriage was arranged by their families and the first time my father ever saw my mother’s face was on the fifth night after their wedding.  I can’t even begin to imagine how it must have felt when my father raised her ghunghat for the first time on their honeymoon night.  True to her name, Prabha, she must have emitted an aura from behind the veil overwhelming Narottam –   the best man, as my father, the groom was called.  And so they began the journey of life together – bringing into this world nine of us.


It was early on the morning of August 13th, 1995.  I sat on the edge of the twin bed, next to my mother in my brother Suresh’s house.  I had flown in from Chicago and arrived in Bombay in the middle of the night.  She was deep in sleep when I arrived — almost rendered unconscious by multiple  drugs and painkillers.  By then, everything in her body had given up, except her heart.  Both, the family doctor and the specialist had told us that even though it was technically possible to keep her alive indefinitely, at this point all we could and should do is to try to make  things as comfortable and as pain free as possible, for whatever remained of her life.  Not only had all her vital organs failed,  she was in excruciating pain caused mainly by the  bed soars she suffered.

In that dim light of dusk, she lay there looking peaceful, breathing gently with her chest heaving at regular intervals.  I sat there staring at her, taking  in what once was a beautiful face, having now become contorted, with her front upper teeth protruding over her lower lip.  According to the prognosis, it was just a question of weeks, if not days before she would breath for the last time.  I was glad to be there while she was still alive, if not well.  Over the years since I  had left home, and she complained about me being so far away, I had always promised her that in an emergency, I would be by her side within eighteen hours, way before my sister Kumud even made it as far as the closest getaway from the remotest part of the country where her husband was usually stationed.  And there I was, by her side before Kumud had arrived.

As I watched her, I saw her open her eyes ever so slowly.  First she squinted, and then with her eyes fully open, she stared back.  A sudden smile flashed across her face and she closed her eyes as suddenly as she had opened them and went back to sleep and to her gentle breathing. Just that slight single smile made it worth, the door to door twenty four hours of journey from Chicago to Mumbai.


My early childhood was spent living in a traditional Indian joint-family structure.  Considering the ever growing size of the family, my grandfather and his three brothers had to redefine the tradition. In a crowded city like Bombay, they couldn’t well build a multi structured sprawling Haveli, surrounded by a garden and spacious backyard, they settled for a six storied highrise close to the textile business centers of the city. They named it  Jagjivan Mansion – after my great grandfather.  The top two  floors were occupied by the four brothers, their wives and their respective families. Rest of the floors were occupied by distant relatives and some units were rented out.  At first they slept, ate and lived under the same roof sharing everything – including the fabric shop in which they were partners.  As the family grew bigger, they separated the two floors into four large apartments in which each one of them set up their own kitchens, bathrooms  and their own infra-structure in which they functioned as independent families.  They still shared the holidays, weddings and funerals as well as the birthing room in which most  of us were born under the supervision of and in the hands of the same mid-wife – Matubai.

My father was the oldest of the  next generation and at that time was the only married child of my grandfather’s immediate family.  I remember some communication with and some fondness for my grandfather, but my grandmother never allowed herself to be close to any of us.  She was a small framed, frail woman who never seemed quite happy.  I do not remember many confrontations between my grandmother and my mother, but as strong willed as my mother was and as territorial matriarch as my grandmother was, I can just imagine what sort of relationship those two must have had.

Whatever the relationship between my mother and grandmother, it all boiled over one summer afternoon.  It must have been the month of May, the air hot and humid and in the midst of the mango season.  I was probably four or five and on that particular afternoon had a taste for a mango.  I was snooping around under the layers of the straw bed of mangos where they were placed for ripening.   Suddenly, my grandmother appeared from  nowhere and snatched away the mango that I had fished out from under the straw bed. You have just had your lunch, meaning that since I must have eaten a couple of mangos with my lunch, she wouldn’t allow me to have another one so soon.  I began to cry and slowly made my way up to the fifth floor where two of the four brothers lived.  Seeing me crying my great aunt Prabhakaki asked me what was the matter.  I told her that grandma wouldn’t let me have a mango.

Oh my poor baby.  Let me get you some. When I got back downstairs, my face wasn’t only smeared with the tears, but also with the stains of mango slime that I had just eaten.  Seeing that I had gone over her authority, my grandmother hit the ceiling.  She violently grabbed me and dragged me across the corridor to the room where my mother was taking her afternoon nap.

How dare your son disrespect me by going  upstairs and ask Prabha for a mango after I  said no?  I of course don’t remember details of the verbal fireworks that sparked between my mother and the grandmother – but by then, my mother must have had it up to her ears having to continuously submit to the autocracy of her mother-in-law. This time she struck back instead of backing down.  That evening, when my father returned from the shop, she gave him an ultimatum – he had to choose between her and his mother, because she refused to live and raise her kids under the same roof.

Within days, if not on the very next day, we moved out of the Shah family house and were installed temporarily in a roof top apartment owned by Gopiraja, the well revered family priest to whom my father was close and had gone to for counsel.  Following that, my great aunt Prabhakaki and her husband, my great uncle  Karsandas offered us a house they owned in suburban Borivali.  It was a beautiful mansion with a huge garden in the front complete with gardener’s cottage and an enormous backyard with outhouses, our own  personal water well and a small cowshed filled with half a dozen or so cows.  It was universally known as the bhut bangla – the haunted house. There was no running water and no electricity.  It was ours to live in in exchange of taking care of and maintaining it.  Living there also meant that my father would have an hour long commute each way to and from work.  None of this was enough to deter my mother as long as she didn’t have to deal with the constraint of the traditional joint-family, especially being in  constant conflict with my grandmother.  Ours was the first family to break away from the joint family – the tradition that continues to be a norm in the majority of conventional families in India.

Several years later however, my mother had to rescue me once more from a similar situation.  By then, my father had found and acquired an entire floor of the newly erected building  in the heart of Bombay for us to live in.  I had already finished fourth grade and my uncle Dahya had gotten me into the prestigious Bharda New High School.  The apartment still under construction, wasn’t going to be ready for us to move in for a couple of months.  Under the circumstances, it was agreed that I would move back with my grandparents and go to school until rest of the family moved into the apartment.  During those two or three months that I lived with my grandparents, I reconnected with a slew of my cousins, many of them my age and began to feel at home so much so that when my parents finally moved back to Bombay, I didn’t want to go and live with them.  My grandparents had no problem with that – in fact they liked the idea – but not my mother.  She didn’t want her son to grow up away from her and certainly didn’t want him to get tangled up in that web of joint-family all over again.  My grandmother in particular would tell my mother, What’s the difference?  He doesn’t know anybody where you are going to be living, and furthermore, he is our son too!

I can imagine that having gotten me back in to the family house, must have also meant a sort of victory for my grandmother.  Also, by now, I was eleven years old and had a will of my own, so it was no longer a conflict existing solely  between my mother and my grandmother.  My mother must have instinctively known that this battle had to be fought a bit differently than before.  She had to lure me away to her side.  So she began to plead with me and tell me how nice our new place was, and that I could  even have my own room and a real bed instead of just a mattress on the floor, a desk and a chair and the whole nine yards.  But to no avail.  Until she made an offer I just couldn’t refuse  – she would double  my monthly allowance from five rupees to ten. I was sold!

My earliest memory of my Mom’s direct involvement into my life as I began to grow up in Borivali, is of the morning when she took me by the hand and dragged me back to school.  I must have been in the second or the third grade, between the ages of eight and nine.  That morning, I was a bit late getting to the school and as a punishment my teacher Bhikhabhai decided to send me home and told me to come back to school the next morning on time.  Usually, I would have just wandered around all day long and then come home when it was time to be back.  Instead, on that morning, I just turned around and came back home.  When I told my mother the reason why I was sent back, she was livid.

I still remember how she stormed into my classroom while it was in session and began to scream at Bhikhabhai.  No, she wasn’t defending my tardiness – but was abhorred at the punishment.  How dare you send my son back home? Usual punishment for my offence would have been  me subjected to be banished from the classroom and made to bend down, touching my toes for the prescribed amount of time. Or made to stand up on the bench in the middle of the class. She wouldn’t have cared had he subjected me to  physical punishment. But sending me back home?   Fortunately, her son was a good kid and like a boomerang, returned right back home.  But what if instead had he just wandered around and decided to come home at the end of the day?  He could have run into a bunch of  hoodlums on the street who could have done him harm, or  he could have just gone astray.

My teacher, who was also the principal of the school was absolutely horrified by my mother’s assault right there in front of all of his pupils.  My mother left me in the classroom and stormed out as suddenly as she had stormed in with a definitive never do it again!  Even I felt sorry for the poor man.  He was a bit strict at times and lacked sense of humor, but basically he was a good guy who just happened to tripped over the live wire that my mother had become at that moment.

My mother had a temper like no one else I knew.  She was also very physical towards us when she got mad.  We all have encountered her heavy handedness and have taken blows from her bare hands, rolling pins, big serving spoons, bamboo sticks and whatever else she could lay her hands upon.  When I was growing up, physical punishment was a norm at school as well as at home.  Since then things have changed though, leaving my mother’s generation feeling that mine and subsequent generations have become too soft on our kids and that most of us have failed to discipline them. In  modern day America, she would have certainly been branded an abusive mother and would have probably been subjected to whatever correctional methods the legal system deemed just.  But there was another side of her.  She loved us like only a mother can love her child.

My brothers and sisters dealt with her anger and physical beatings in their own ways.  My way often was to sit in the corner, sulk and refuse to eat when it was dinner time.  Having calmed down by then, she would call, try to cajole and  plead with me to come and eat.  But no matter how many times she called, no matter how much she pleaded, I stood my ground.  Eventually she would sit down next to me, plead some more, and then finally break down and cry.  Only then would I relent and succumb to her pleadings.  As harsh a disciplinarian as she was, when it came to the possibility of her child going to bed without having eaten, this was something she could not bear.

My second clearest memory of my mother is that of when I was sixteen and for the first time had decided to stay home in Bombay during summer vacation while my parents packed up my siblings  and headed for a month long vacation in Mathura.  During my high school years, I was an average student, not too bright, nor too dumb.  But I wasn’t good enough to pass the ninth grade.  I could have, had I been willing to bribe the class teacher.  When my teacher insinuated this option to me, my parents were already on their  vacation and I in my teen idealism didn’t want to do such a thing.  Besides,  I didn’t see much sense in continuing to go to school.  What a waste of time? So without giving it much thought, I just forged my father’s signature, wrote a note to the principal and quit school on my own!

My father’s response to that was – well, then you can start coming to the shop from tomorrow.  But this didn’t go over too well with my mother.  She tried to talk some sense in to me, to cajole me, to convince me that whether or not I eventually ended up working with my father, nothing could replace a good education. But to no avail!  When you are that age and think that you know EVERYTHING, whoever listens to his mother?   Realizing that I was not likely to heed her repeated pleas and knowing that my father was no help into the matter, my mother pulled the dirtiest trick in the book to get me to go back to school.  She invited uncle Tulsi to our house for dinner.

I was caught unaware when he showed up that evening.  I was desperately trying to eat in hurry and escape – but he gave me no such chance, informing me that as soon as he had finished his dinner I need to talk to you young man!  As independent as I had become, I was hardly afraid of anyone in the family – that is, except uncle Tulsi.  He not only had a temper, but had a very clear sense of right and wrong and was known to make people shiver with fear when he spoke.  He had established a series of very hard and fast rules at his work, in his family and in everything he did.  These rules had become a part of his overall character.  As hard nosed as he could be, he was also fair and generous when it mattered.   He was a man of action.  After dinner, he took me to my parent’s bedroom, sat me down, closed the door behind us and sternly informed me:

You are going back to school tomorrow morning.  Be ready at 9:30. Krishna will come and pick you up and take you to school.

By then schools had already been in session for a week and there was no way he could get me back into Bharda – or for that matter in any other school – that was  my only defense which I expressed in a meek voice.

Don’t you worry about it, you are already admitted at the Kabubai, all you will have to do is fill in the forms. My chauffeur will take you to the principal.   Well, uncle Tulsi was someone you did not argue with.

As I sit here a lifetime later, I can’t even begin to imagine where would I be today had I not been forced to go back to school.


Haresh, Suresh, why don’t you two get together and kill me, kill me please!  I can’t take this anymore!!  In spite of all the prescribed painkillers and drugs, my mother was continuously in excruciating pain.  To see her lying there in front of my eyes, suffering, rendered completely bed bound and having become so helpless, it seemed somehow so cruel and unfair to have happened to once the proud lioness of a woman, who was so strong, so determined, so defiant and so feisty.

Every morning I was there, the visiting nurse and us family members helping her, lifting  her out of the bed,  help her with her toilet and bathe her, change her bed, give her the prescribed medication and then once again lay her down for the day.  Every couple of days, the family doctor would stop by, examine her and then leave us with no more hope than the day before.  There was nothing any of us could do to make her feel better, to ease her pain.  Most of the time, she hardly ever moved, or said anything.  She would open her eyes once in a while, stare at you and then close them as suddenly as she had opened them.  Sometimes she recognized us and others she didn’t.  Once her morning routine was taken care of, my nephew would go onto school, Suresh to his work and his wife Aruna to the kitchen to prepare lunch.  I would read or write or edit the book I was writing at the time, or just sit across from my mom on the twin bed.  A week or so later, as I sat there watching her, she opened her eyes, looked at me and said something in a voice barely louder than a whisper:

Why don’t you cut that shag off your face?

Shag, meaning my beard.  She was lying there, dying and she was worried about my beard, which I had begun to wear some twenty years earlier, and she had never liked it.  I couldn’t help but smile at her.  I felt like a little kid all over again. But Baa, I whined; the women in America love it.  She either didn’t see any humor in what I had said or by then had once again slipped back into an oblivion. However, she continued to stare at me for quite some time before closing her eyes and going back to sleep.  On another day, she once again found me sitting across from her and watching her gentle breathing intently.  After the morning’s hustle and bustle, the house had fallen silent and she probably could sense that I may have been bored just sitting there all by myself and staring at her.

Seems you’re trapped here, aren’t you? Oh mother, mother!

As unconscious and unaware as she seemed, there were moments when she would blurt out things just the way she did when she was hale and hearty.  As is normal in India, when someone is sick, most everyone comes to visit. One of the visitors was an old cook of ours, who would come to visit between the hours of lunch and dinner and linger for long time.  None of us had the heart to tell him to please pay his respect and leave, because it was almost inconsiderate and stupid of him to sit there in the room where my mother lay in a less than  presentable state.  At last it was my mother who  snapped at him one afternoon; Don’t you have anything better to do than show up here every afternoon?  It was as if my mother was coming back to life.

My mother had a certain sense of sizing up people and their motivations and before too long she would summarize people and situations and she would almost always be right.  Instead of going into  details, she would throw out a time tested proverb or two to let everyone know what she thought of the person or the situation.  She would say something like: “be careful, he is just like the dog under a wagon”, or “who wouldn’t worship the rising sun?” or “in order to go to heaven, you’ve got to die first.” 

These are the things I thought about as I sat and watched her sleeping, slowly slipping into the other world.  Hundreds of these sayings would crowd my mind complete with as many examples of how my mom being  right most of the time.  Not only then, but  before and since then, whenever I have faced difficult or trying situations in life, I have always thought of what my mother would have said under similar circumstances?


I believe that most of the women have a sixth sense and my mother was no exception,  only hers was more intense.  She would dream that someone was not doing well or needed our help, she would tell my father about it, he would sort of shrug it off, but  sure enough, it would turn out that yes, xyz was in distress.  Out of the clear blue sky, she once asked me whether my partner Carolyn had ever had a child other than our daughter Anjuli.  At that time, the fact that she did indeed give birth to a daughter when she was twenty two, whom she had put up for adoption, was a big secret which only a handful of Carolyn’s closest circle knew about.   This was never ever discussed with any of my family.  Of course not! is what I had said. She let it slip, but I still wonder, what made her ask me that question?

When I was admitted to  the London School of Printing and had informed my parents that I had decided to accept and spend two to three years in London, my father’s reaction was passive and mute but my mother was not happy about it at all.  She wished for me things that would not allow me to leave, such as: I wouldn’t be issued a passport, or that they would turn down my application for foreign exchange.  These were real issues  back then and still are in certain respect because  the Indian government has always controlled the migration of its people and the hard currency coming in and going  out of the country.  You could leave India only for the approved courses, based on which a passport and foreign exchange permits would be issued or denied.

My mother was truly devastated when she saw that my passport and foreign exchange permits were granted promptly and that I had already set the date to leave on an Italian luxury liner to sail away from Bombay on August 7, 1964.  Having given up on any chances of me not going, she considered the date of my departure.  She consulted the astrological charts and determined that August 7,  was not an auspicious day for anyone to depart on such a long and significant journey.  But I had no choice, because the next ship left fifteen  days later, and by then I would be too late in arriving at my school.  My only option was to fly.  But my heart was set on sailing and not flying, and I could be just as stubborn as she.  When she realized that I wasn’t going to budge, she worked out a compromise.  I would depart from our home the night before with all the pomp and ceremony that are performed in most Hindu families before anyone begins a long journey.  I would then spend that night at my grandparents, and then leave from there the next day.  Technically this meant that  I had began my journey on the day before, which was a more auspicious day.

But my mother wasn’t the only one.  SS Marconi was to carry about a hundred and fifty of us newly enrolled students to the different destinations in Europe.  They did this year after year on or around the same dates.  Suddenly, completely flabbergasted, they woke up to the reality that majority of the bookings were being canceled for what seemed like no obvious reason.  This was because most of the kids that were booked on the ship were not as hard headed as I was and had to succumb to their families’ beliefs or believed themselves in the fact that it wasn’t an auspicious day for them to travel.  When the parent company Lloyd Tristino of  Italy found out through their office in Bombay what was causing the cancellations, they decided to anchor in Bombay for one more day and sail on the next.  Most of the reservations were promptly re-instated.

As it turned out, all of the mothers were right.  August 7 in 1964 saw one of the worst rain storms that Bombay had witnessed.  The next day when we drove to the harbor, roads were strewn with uprooted trees and overturned light poles.  Marine Drive was entirely washed out with the wild ocean waves and where you normally saw thousands of Bomayites strolling and milling around, there was practically nobody to be found.  Even though things calmed down as SS Marconi sailed away on the next day, it felt like our huge ship was no more than a little canoe trapped on the wild waters.


The doctors said, it’s just a question of time.  Days, weeks, perhaps months, but no more.  So why don’t you go ahead and get on with your life.  Uncle Dahya said, why don’t you stay another week?  And I really had no compulsive reason to get back to Chicago, except that it was my home.  And whenever I think about it now, I wish I had stayed.  That’s all it took.  A week, and she was gone.  Just before my flight, we had moved her from Suresh’s house to her own home.  We all sat around in my parents’ room.  She watched quietly as Suresh’s wife Aruna performed the farewell ceremony, put a tika on my forehead, handed me a coconut and rice, blessed me and my journey.   Things that my mother had done when I had first left India and later whenever I came to visit and left to return “home.”  As she watched, I saw her lips flutter.  She was trying to say something.  “What Baa?”  Aruna asked.  She strained herself  once again.  Haar is what she was saying.  Aruna had everything but a flower garland to place around my neck.  She was lying there in excruciating pain, slowly dying and she was worried about the fact that her son had to leave for a long journey without a garland.

The luster from her eyes was fading but her stare was intense.  I bowed my head and asked for her blessings. Her intense stare followed me outside the door.


© Haresh Shah 2020


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Your Family As Art

Haresh Shah

Her Eureka moment came when she was already 38 years old. Up until then her professional trajectory is crammed with a whole slew of occupations. She did well with whatever she chose to do or whatever fell into her lap – but she was never passionate enough to stick with any of them. Things took a turn when her step dad Jim, the man who raised her since the age two and to whom she was very close, passed in 2005. Following that, she went to work for the Catholic religious order The Claretians, doing marketing for their publications division and worked for them for five years. As a leisure activity, she purchased a “nice” camera and wanted to learn more about taking pictures.  Which lead her to take a weekend class in How To Use Your Camera. She was smitten and along with the shutter, something else clicked within her. She found a full time degree program at Harrington College of Design, in downtown Chicago. She talked it over with her boyfriend, who encouraged her to go for it. She met with the admissions counselor. Convinced, she quit her job and started college again. Two years later, she acquired associate degree in Photography and soon opened her studio, Michele Taylor Photography. As she says on her website: It’s never too late to live your dream…

Michele Taylor was born in Peoria, the city in central Illinois 166 miles south east of Chicago. She went to Iowa State to be an architect, because she loved drawing houses and spatial planning. A year into her studies, she realized the soil wasn’t her thing. While at Iowa State, she met Brian Krchmery and they have been together ever since. When Brian switched his major and transferred to Northern Illinois, Michele followed. There she studied corporate communication. Upon graduation she went to work for Sakura Bank. She stayed with them eight months lending money to Fortune 500 companies before moving to the advertising agency BB&A creating automobile ads for Sunday sections of newspapers. Next she had a job with IEG, doing their marketing that provided info and research on the sponsorship industry. Add to that, a job at the Field Trip Factory, where she marketed educational based field trips with girls and boys scouts, for schools and for the super market chain Dominik’s and other retailers on how to run field trips. After all that meandering, she still didn’t know what it was that she really wanted to do.

In the end, nudged by her heart and encouraged by Brian, she decided to become a professional photographer. Now, with the associate degree in Photography under her belt, she began with sharing a studio in South Loop with 4-5 graduates before opening her own first store front photo studio in Humboldt Park on California Avenue. She operated out of there from 2015 to 2018, before moving to her current location on Division Street, which she feels is a perfect spot with its family orientation and visibility. But how do you make your mark and make a living doing something in the days when anyone with a decent cell phone can take pictures – most of them good ones at that? Just think of millions of pictures snapped by phones all around the world every day! Overwhelming! Though soon you realize that  in the end, almost all of them are snap shots, capturing just the moment, and shared with whoever on Instagram, Facebook and other social media. Probably forgotten soon as the next one is posted. While wonderful for instant gratification and a few laughs, they do not make for a lasting memory.

Fortunately, we still have professional photographers like Michele, who put their heart and soul and expertise into creating permanent memories. Broadly speaking, Michele’s is a boutique photography studio specializing in maternity, newborn, children, families and pets. But what she loves to focus on the most are newborn babies, as young as two weeks old. If the parents or other family members are in the frame, it’s to showcase the one who has just entered this wide world. Why families and babies? I wondered. Because babies are little for such a short period of time. Parents are tired and it all flashes by in the blink of an eye. I feel like I am giving them a memory of a significant moment that would otherwise be long forgotten.

After having given some thought, Michele realized that in the last several years, new born photography has become a vogue. Also, Annie Leibovitz cover shoot of the very pregnant Demi Moore in August 1991 issue of Vanity Fair, set a trend for maternity sessions. Probably also because when pregnant, women while happiest and yet vulnerable, they are at their most radiant selves. I have had a pregnant woman posing with her belly decorated with mehandi patterns, and another wearing  the third eye on her forehead. Seemed like it made sense to focus on families and by extension on infants. Because memories begin from the day you’re conceived, and Michele wants you to go back to that moment over and over again all through your life.

Something she wishes she had. Unfortunately, she doesn’t. But then Jim liked to take pictures, who filled albums and albums with them. Michele loves to look at them and re-live the precious moments of her family life. And yet,  as an adult I realized that my family NEVER had a group portrait taken. The only official photos of the family we have are from our traditional Christmas Day snap shots. For as much as I complained about them at the time I am so happy to have them, especially now that my Dad is no longer with us. While I will always cherish those photos, there is no substitute for a well thought out great image! She feels that Your family is art that needs to be created and preserved.

And that takes more than the sweet sound of a shutter. It takes planning. Before we shoot any images, we create a plan for how they will be displayed in your home. Creating a plan and shooting for that plan will result in a successful portrait session EVERY. SINGLE. TIME, emphasizes Michele. What’s more, they are hopefully built in future customers.

And it takes time and money! Just to book a session with Michele costs $200.00. Once that’s done, she sits down with the family to discuss what it is that would create the best memory of who they are and where the photos are going to be displayed and what emotions they want captured. Sessions for new born babies can take up to four hours. Even though she would shoot at places other than her studio, Michele, as do most of the professional photographers, prefers to shoot at her own studio. The place where she can control every aspect of her shoots. Things are set – including a 86” reflector umbrella, the lights, the backdrops, the wardrobe and all.

The most important thing about shooting nearly newborn is to create womb like environment – the place they had inhabited in warmth and comfort for nine months. She cranks up the heating of her studio to 80 degrees Fahrenheit to replicate the warmth of the uterus – closer to the human body temperature of 98.6 Fahrenheit. Once placed in a warm and comfortable environment, babies are happy. Even though they can be cranky at times, as long as they don’t break out in a cry with their little hands and feet kicking, they make for perfect little models. It’s not just capturing the lump of flesh and blood, the important thing is to capture their personalities – something that’s already there when they are six months old. Parents holding the baby makes for great pictures.

Other than keeping the babies comfy, warm and happy, her 1,500 square foot studio is equipped with variety of backdrops, blankets, wraps and hats to choose from. It also has  several outfits for babies as well as a beautiful selection of maternity dresses for mothers to be. It’s stocked with pacifiers, diapers and wipes. And for the parents, she has created a comfortable lounge to sit, relax, and even take a nap; or catch up on work with complimentary Wi-Fi and printer. Or you can help yourselves to coffee, cookies and sandwiches. Her goal is to have everything you should need. Just kick back and relax. You already have so much on your plate as a new parent, it’s one less thing to worry about.

In other words, Michele’s studio spells class and quality. The whole session can cost anywhere between $595.00 to $2000.00. Michele makes sure that what her customers take home with them are the memories for a lifetime, something that would hang on a preferred wall or be placed in a beautiful keepsake album that can be passed down for generations and is something that will be cherished forever.

© 2019 Haresh Shah

Photo: Courtesy Michele Taylor

Michele Taylor Photography, 2124 West Division, Chicago, Il. 60622, +1 708-359-8881

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© 2019 Haresh Shah

Photo: Courtesy Michele Taylor

Michele Taylor Photography, 2124 West Division, Chicago, Il. 60622, +1 708-359-8881

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Red Stones And Cafes – No Vehicular Traffic

Haresh Shah

On October 1, 1995, Chicago Tribune ran a piece by their City Hall editor Robert Davis that screamed: The Daley Clan Thinks That Eating, Like Sex And Politics Should Be Carried Out Behind Closed Doors. Mayor Richard M. Daley had made it amply clear for years that he didn’t want Chicago to become another New York. The father, Richard J. Daley had banned outdoor food stands decades earlier and followed it up with orders to crack down on moving food carts on the grounds that they were unhealthy and dangerous to chasing children.!!

But there are laws and there are daring souls who defy them. When in the summer of 1968, I began to work at Time & Life magazines’ production offices in Chicago, my first taste of the  city’s all too famous  Vienna hotdogs – the long soft buns overflowing with  succulent tomatoes, onions, relish, ketchup, mustard and a couple of not so hot Italian peppers – came from a stand set up by the gas station on 22nd street near the Lake Shore Drive exit.  Certainly illegal then, but either it went unnoticed because of its off the beaten track location – or the streetwise stand owner was probably able to grease a few official palms – or both. When in a hurry it was our go to spot for a quick grub.

But yeah, come to think of it, back in the late Sixties, early Seventies and beyond, I knew of no other eating establishment in the long and wide city that offered a sidewalk seating. Except one – off what is now known as Viagra Triangle at the northern tip of State and Rush, sandwiched between East Elm and East Cedar streets. There was a hamburger joynt called Melvin B’s Truck Shop – which fronted the dilapidated and once crime infested rooming house called Cedar Hotel. They had the most sought after patio right off the sidewalk of N. State Street. Probably it was allowed or overlooked for it being on private property. I am not sure, if it was even an issue – but it sure was a pleasure to sit there and watch the world go by while savoring your sandwich and beer before with a hop skip and jump moving onto all night spots on the eastern end of Division Street.

The place still exists, albeit now there is a ritzy 200 room boutique hotel called Viceroy – a glittery eighteen story building sporting the mounted façade of the old Cedar Hotel. And Melvin B’s Truck Shop is replaced with equally as glittery restaurant and bar called Somerset. The Patio is still there, still buzzing with people. No longer the lone outdoor establishment. It’s now surrounded by dozens – that is every bar and restaurant on the triangle and the streets sprouting in and out of there – all sprawling and buzzing with hoards of their clients pretending sitting at a café in Montmartre in Paris.

And then there was Fricano’s on Halstead at Altgeld  – one of my most favorite restaurants that had a beautiful alfresco terrace on it’s second floor. There may have been a few hidden ones some place, but nothing that I was aware of.

When after having lived in Prague for nine years, which has so many if not exactly street side outdoor cafes – alfresco courthouses hidden inside huge buildings. And having experienced cities like Barcelona, Paris, Munich and Berlin, I was dreading the idea of coming back to live in the city with no cafes, let alone outdoor ones. Even though over my subsequent visits I should have realized, that was changing, and changing fast. When I retuned back to Chicago in 2006, there still weren’t many cafes or restaurants that offered outdoor sittings. I remember one: Pint, the Irish pub on Milwaukee. There may have been a few more, but because of the narrow sidewalks they seemed quite cramped. People seating on top of each other. Now practically  every eating and drinking establishment in the city has claimed as much outdoor space as possible. Most of them, still cramped and sparse.

None so spacious and airy as on Division Street. As if the street were originally conceived and created precisely to someday accommodate every store, restaurants and bars to have large outdoor areas. The first one on the stretch to take advantage of it was Letizia’s. She put up tables outside her bakery way back in the spring of 1999. Plus like in Prague, she also has a large courthouse garden in the back of the entire building.

And to think that almost up until then, outdoor cafes weren’t even allowed in the city of Chicago! I am not sure what finally made the younger Daley change his mind and the city started issuing outdoor cafes permits allowing them to expand on their sidewalks during the warm months. And most recently, Mayor Rahm Emanuel extended it entire year!! Not too crazy! As cold as Chicago can get, when and if there happens to creep in a single day with the temps around 50 – (10 celsius!!), Chicagoans are known to grab those few sunrays even if they have to bundle up.

There is nothing on record that shows the official change of mind (heart?), except that I remember having read somewhere that it was during Richard J. Daley’s trip to Europe that he experienced outdoor cafes in Madrid, Spain and something clicked. He must have thought, these people sitting outside on sidewalks or the squares didn’t exactly look unhealthy. In fact they looked radiant and relaxed and happy. Or it is more likely that he must have realized how lucrative it could be for the city to collect fees for granting permits allowing them to serve food and beverages outside of their establishments. Currently it’s an average of $700.- per season per establishment. That’s a lot of moola when you add up!! For sure a smarter move than socking the Chicagoans with life long quadruple parking feesL

Whatever. Now every time I walk down Division Street, I can’t help but be amazed at how every single one of them  create their own unobtrusive and beautiful barricades around their spaces. Normally, the first ones to put up their plant stands are the twins Enoteca Roma and Letizia’s. I would notice Letizia’s husband Enzo Sorano first bringing out the posts from the storage as early as mid to end of April, or at very beginning of May. The next day there would be bags of soil and then I would see him planting fresh flowers, interspersed with mini evergreen cones. It basically signals the beginning of the new spring. Following their lead, the landscapers create an elaborate “square” in front of Folklore. And then you see Joe Dalton and his wife Yvonne putting their gardening skills to pretty up their space in front of Joe’s Wine Cellar. Within a month after that, flowers and potted plants begin to show up in front of every restaurant and bar starting with the western most Café Colao, to Guerrero’s, Teacher’s Lounge and Papa’s down the street at the corner of Maplewood. This continues on to Fat Pour, Via Carducci, Parlor and all the way down to Wood Street and beyond. A stretch of almost eight city blocks. The variety of colors and arrangements, potted plants and hanging planters – you would think there must be some sort of competition going on among the establishments of the street.

As I walk, I can’t help but think, what if…

The first one to reminisce about Division being the street covered with the cobble stones and the tram tracks, was recently retired Dr. R. Shah, who having associated with Saint Mary’s Hospital had been pounding the its pavements for decades. And then Warren Winiarski, remembering it very clearly to be then covered with shiny red paving stones – about the size of 4” x 6” in dimension and about 4” deep.’ In my imagination, I have it as the pedestrian zone sans any vehicular traffic. Like some of the great streets of Europe, such as Marienplatz in Munich, La Rambla in Barcelona, Staré Město and Celetna in Prague, and Kalverstraat in Amsterdam. I can also imagine Division Street to be tree covered boulevard – made possible by its sheer width. A median with a row of trees swaying is totally possible. And colorful clusters of people milling around, heads bopping from behind the landscaped barricades of different establishment all merged together like a Leroy Neiman painting. No cars wheezing by. Just you strolling leisurely and taking it all in. Am I getting carried away? Or am I echoing John Lennon’s ever so optimistic IMAGINE?

Most probably not in my lifetime, but maybe someday?

© 2019 Haresh Shah

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Glad You Stopped By

Haresh Shah

‘Where do you live now?’

‘In Humboldt Park.’ As I answer, I am fully expecting him to say either: huh, where’s that? Or, oh, Humboldt Park, isn’t that…?

Yeah, it’s /was predominantly Puerto Rican and yes there were and still are at times gang related crimes – mainly murders. And it’s a poor cousin and not as desirable as all too drummed up twins, Buck Town and Wicker Park.

Instead I hear him say: ‘Did you see the alligator?’

Oh yes! Our world famous alligator! I live just a stone’s throw away from the park and its prettiest lagoon, but the first I heard of this celebrity visitor was from my friend Ashka in Prague, who has visited and stayed with me several times in past years.

Today morning I have heard that there was an alligator in the lake in the park in Chicago. Interesting! I checked where exactly, and yes, Humboldt, exactly where i used to do my daily morning run workout 🙂 This message came on July 10. I briefly wondered and then promptly forgot about it. That is, until I began to reply her on July 16. I had to google it. And voila. Happy Ending. I watched the video of the alligator’s several days’ sojourn in our neighborhood, trapped in the waters of Humboldt Park lagoon.

Over those few days the story of the sighting of an alligator in middle of the city overshadowed the divisive politics of mud throwing anger and insults, it became the daily news headliner. The trapped alligator and its rescue put smiles not only on the faces of the local residents but whoever else following the story from around the world.

While Chicago can effortlessly clear a foot high snow with swift scoops of its army of snow removal trucks – the city was totally lost when faced with what to do with the presence of this 5’3” animal wandering around above and under the shallow waters of the Humboldt Park lagoon. The rescue came a few days later in the form of the bearded tall and lanky alligator catcher by the name Frank Robb, expressly imported from the swamps of St. Augustine, Florida. It took him scant thirty six hours and a simple fishing rod  to hook the animal weighing some thirty to forty pounds, now christened on social media Chance the Snapper, sounding like Chance the Rapper – the Chicago rapper who sings gospel and struggle of the urban life.

Hoards of national media gathered by the lagoon to witness Robb sliding out the gator from it’s temporary habitat – a heavy duty plastic storage box and lovingly holding it in the cradle of his arms. Even with the alligator’s mouth clapped shut and secured with heavy duty duct tape and a red bandana wrapped around his neck, he looked ever so adorable, if a bit scared finding himself in the middle of all the mayhem, a crowd of cheering onlookers and the journalists from all over. Disoriented, it had that sad ET go home look, making you want to reach out and touch it.

During the impromptu press conference with about a dozen microphones shoved in front of him, Robb looked amazed in the glow of his sudden celebrity. His well deserved fifteen minutes of fame. And humble at that, to the boot. Everybody’s got different blessings. This is my blessing, said Robb.

So grateful was the city of Chicago that it bestowed upon this hero of the moment the status of a VIP and had him throw the opening pitch at Chicago Cub’s baseball game. All decked up in the official Cubs regalia and all. The Cubs’ twitter feed said gratefully: Thank you to alligator expert Frank Robb, who safely and humanely captured the Humboldt Park Lagoon alligator, for joining us tonight! Not only that, the next morning, he was honored by the city by inviting him to turn on the Buckingham Fountain – the Chicago landmark in the Grand Park. A true folk hero.

But at the end of the day, the true winner was, up until now suffering from the negative image  and unappreciated Humboldt Park.  The park is named after Alexander von Humboldt – the German naturalist and geographer, known for his five volume work, Cosmos: Draft of a Physical Description of the World.  Ironically, though he did visit the United States once – his itinerary did not  include Chicago. The city is full of beautiful parks, but none as beautiful and as significant as Humboldt Park. It’s a key park of Chicago’s urban history with landscaped lush green patches that flank the city’s boulevard system incorporating wide avenues running right through the park. Designed and supervised by the Danish immigrant Jens Jensen, he extended the park’s lagoon into long and meandering prairie river. At the time, Prairie Style  was all the rage in the city’s architecture. Jensen hired Prairie School architects Schmidt, Garden and Martin to design the impossible to miss the imposing and yet unpretentious Boat House fronting the lagoon. Just to name a few highlights: the park is also the home of several playgrounds, basketball and tennis courts, baseball diamonds and soccer fields as well as Humboldt Park Stables which now houses the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts, the Field House and the Refractory.

But for the residents, the most important are its trails, and tree covered open grounds for the families to get together over barbecues and picnic baskets. Summer weekends are filled with the sounds of Latin music blaring out of boom boxes of parked cars, often accompanied by live musicians and the onlookers suddenly breaking out in impromptu dancing. And believe it or not, it’s probably the best location in Chicago to watch the 4th of July fireworks – our own, being launched and lit from a dinghy in the lagoon.

True, because of the gang wars and generally high crime, the park had fallen into sort of a danger zone – but thanks to Chicago’s law enforcement, it’s now as safe as any major city of the world. And yet, what still lingers is a certain feeling of psychological discomfort among many of its residents. Today I am very comfortable walking the park and watching other people do the same is a big comfort. It’s totally pleasant and peaceful experience to watch a lone fisherman sitting at the edge of the lagoon, meditatively holding his fishing rod and waiting so patiently to feel the fish bite. And to watch clusters of Swans and Ducks and other water birds gliding upon the shiny surface of the lagoon is a sight to behold. Unfortunately, once stained, the image and the perception are not that easy to change – if at all.

But the arrival and the departure of this harmless and even lovable creature has done wonders for the city and the park. Now the people saw with their own eyes or on their television screens, how pretty and pleasant the park is. It cost the city more than thirty thousand dollars to capture the crocodile and bring the animal and locals to the safety. But that sum is peanuts when considering what it has done to alter the image of this truly beautiful oasis in the middle of the city. Something the city wouldn’t have been able to do even with a million dollar PR campaign. It put Humboldt Park on the map of the world.

© 2019 Haresh Shah

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Warren Winiarski – the Man of and from Wine

Haresh Shah

‘Not only did they have street cars, but Division Street was then covered with shiny red paving stones – about the size of 4” x 6” in dimension and about 4” deep,’ reminisces Warren Winiarski of the days when he was growing up in Chicago’s predominantly Polish neighborhood of Buck Town. When the trollies stopped running and were replaced by the busses, the task of removing the paving stones and the tram tracks was so daunting and expensive that the city just decided to cover them up with asphalt.

Born in October 1928, now 90, Warren remembers that there was Wieboldt department store on Milwaukee and there was a YMCA on Division and a restaurant called Lenard’s.

Our interview begins with him asking what is it that Division Street divides? The question almost everyone has asked and none has yet come up with a satisfactory answer. Warren speculates that if there was anything to divide, such as the extent of the Polish community that stretched between Division and Armitage, or maybe even as far north as Fullerton – then the logical street to divide it into north and south would be North Avenue that runs parallel to Division four blocks north.

‘And did you know why it’s called Buck Town?’

‘I really don’t. I have wondered about it though.’

‘It’s because in those days the area was prairieland and the residents kept “bucks” on their properties which they used for milk and cheese. It was easier to keep goats in the city than would have been cattle.’

The reason I am talking to Warren Winiarski is because on May 24, 1976 blind tasting in Paris of French and California wines, the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar’s Cabernet Sauvignon crafted by this Buck Town born and bred son of the Polish parents was judged to be #1 above best of Bordeaux. An incredible story of a local boy having made it big on to the world stage.

Of the event, late Robert Mondavi, the legendary Napa Valley icon said: Dramatic (wine) tasting sent shock waves all around the world. Even though it took a while for the tremors of the shock wave to be felt – that singular event swiftly put the California wines on map of the world. The waves made even bigger also because another California vintage, Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay created by Miljenko Grgić (Mike Grgich) topped the list of the whites.

The tasting was organized by Steven Spurrier – an Englishman who owned a small wine shop, Caves de la Madeleine in the arcade of Cité Berryer in the heart of the chic 8th arrondissement neighborhood of Paris, and Patricia Gallagher – an American young woman working with him. Even though there were whispers about California wines for some time now, no one ever thought much of them, let alone dreamt of pitting them against almighty French Bordeaux and Burgundies. Though Patricia and Steve had been flirting now for sometime with the idea of staging some sort of California wine tasting in France, neither of them really knew them that well either. So when in the summer of 1975 Patricia was visiting her sister in southern California, she suggested a trip to the wine country, to which Steve immediately agreed. He met up with her in San Francisco at the end of her vacation. Some appropriate introductions were made. The two of them visited several recommended California wineries and tasted their wines, and picked  two dozen bottles of assorted Chardonnays and Cabernets.

It wasn’t something  you shipped and risked bottles being broken or worst yet, have them stuck in the customs at Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris. But with a little help from a friend working for TWA and thanks to the airlines’ Wine Bridge program, transportation and the delivery went smooth. It was spring of 1976, just when America was poised to burst out in celebration of its bi-centennial independence day on the 4th of July. The timing couldn’t be more right.

Patricia had tried her best to interest and invite local journalists to the tasting – none of them showed up. That is: except Paris based Time magazine correspondent – a native Californian – George M. Taber. Taber decided to take a short stroll from Time’s nearby office to the Hotel Intercontinental, thinking: If, as expected, the French wines won, there would be no story. But you never know, and a wine tasting – where maybe I’d get a chance to try a few of the wines myself – seemed, at the very least, like a perfectly wonderful way to spend an otherwise slow afternoon.

George Taber’s story appeared as a single column in the Modern Living section of Time magazine’s issue dated June 7, 1976 that hit the stands on May 31. Two days later, The New York Times picked it up and ran two columns in their popular Wine Talk page.  Add to Time’s readership of two million to New York Times’ twenty and you have it. The rest, as they say, is history.

Astonishingly, both of the winning entries came from small California start ups. The winners Mike Grgich – the wine maker at Montelena and Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Cellars both apprenticed and worked with Lee Stewart of Souverain Cellars and Robert Mondavi of Robert Mondavi wineries during their formative years. Mike and I both went to public schools, says Warren. It has been said about the wine country that even though vintners’ may compete for the market shares, at personal level they are close knit congenial families. In case of Mike and Warren, not only did they sort of follow the same trajectories, they are also friends. Even though Warren no longer owns and runs Stag’s Leap Cellars, he still supplies them grapes that he grows on his Arcadia Vineyards, which in turn once belonged to Mike Grgich – the same one where the grapes of his winning Chardonnay were grown. Mike has now moved to Southern California, but Warren talks of him with fondness and how they have remained friends and remembers the winemaker’s winemaker, late André Tchelistcheff, we were not only friends but also teachers to each other.

Warren Winiarski’s father ran a livery business, whose hobby was to make fruit, honey and dandelion wine. Little Warren remembers pressing his ear to the “bubbling barrels” fermenting wines in his family’s basement. At the time, neither livery nor wine making is something Warren aspired to.  But he liked gardening in his family’s garden, growing carrots, lettuce, beets and tomatoes. He loved the soil and what it was capable of yielding.

But Warren, like most of us at that age, not knowing exactly what he eventually wanted of his life, chose not to go to Tuley High in the district but instead went to Lane Tech out of the district. Once graduated, he veered from studying forestry at Colorado A & M University to Great Books program at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland – where he met his future wife Barbara Dvorak – and back to Chicago ending up at University of Chicago where he studied Political Science and Philosophy, leading him to doing research on Niccolò Machiavelli at he Croce Institute in Naples and then at University of Florence in Italy.

It was during his stint in Italy that he first experienced wine as a lifestyle beverage to be consumed with meals on daily basis. Even though he would return to University of Chicago and stay on for six years as a lecturer in the basic program of the Great Books studies, something deep inside him craved for simpler life. He flirted with the idea of leading some sort of agricultural life out and away from the city. In the end, his Italian experience with wine as a part of life style lead him to write to small wineries in California. Lee Stewart of Souverain wrote him back and offered him the job to be his number two. Without much a do, on August 1, 1964 he packed up his rickety Chevy station wagon, hitched to it a U-Haul trailer and with his wife Barbara and their two young kids, aged four years and eighteen months, headed West. Must be in his blood, because his family name Winiarski means someone or something “of wine” or “from wine” in Polish.

What was so unique about the Paris wine tasting was that none of the California vintners had any inkling as to when and where the tasting was taking place and whether theirs was one of the competing wines or there was even a competition. Or whether anyone cared! The French certainly didn’t. In his interview with Lane Tech High School’s newsletter, Warren says: I did not know that the tasting would be a beauty contest with French wines. (Normally) in the Paris tasting only one wine was tasted, evaluated and scored at a time.

As reported by George M. Taber in his Judgment of Paris, when Grgich heard the news of his Montelena Chardonnay winning, (he) still didn’t know what to do. So he started dancing around the winery shouting in his native Croatian, I am born again, I am born again! On that day, Warren was visiting his old family home in Chicago, and couldn’t be reached directly. Later when his wife Barbara called him from California with the news, he said simply, That’s nice. Ever so professorial!

No wonder that while still growing grapes at his new winery Arcadia, he continues to teach at St. John’s, the courses include Democracy in America, Aristotle’s Ethics and Machiavelli the Prince.

During our conversation, he tells me that Chicago is a great town, vital and full of energy. While he is reminiscing of what the neighborhood was like, I fill him in on how it has evolved even since I moved in here just a dozen years ago. I tell him about the bars and the restaurants scene and tell him about one of my most favorite restaurants on the strip, Via Carducci, and that he would be pleased to know that how the down home Joe’s Wine Cellar has become one of the most favorite spots for the local wine lovers. To which he says: it’s been a while since I have been back. When I come back to the town you can take me to your favorite restaurant and also to Joe’s Wine Cellar. And if you ever come back this way, I will take you around.

That’s a deal Warren. It would be an honor to show you around your old stomping grounds – so take me up on it. And you have certainly got me thinking about hoping a plane west to take you up on your offer!

© 2019 Haresh Shah

Illustrations                                                                                                                                      The Winning Wine Bottle – Courtesy Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars                                                    Warren Winiarski – Bob McClenahan / Courtesy Arcadia Vineyard


I would have not thought of writing this without having come across Judgement of Paris by George M. Taber. A fascinating history of wines that is a fast paced page turner. Thanks George!

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE                                                                                                                     Joe’s Wine Cellar                                                                

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Flown in from the Global Skies

Haresh Shah

I can now report with a sigh of relief that Emily Book Gloekler, the new owner of One Strange Bird certainly isn’t chopped liver. In the short eight months since she has taken over, you can’t help but feel the new energy and enthusiasm in the products and the activities that defines this store as a different kind of place. Outwardly, the store is the same, the feeling of warm friendliness and ease that makes you want to pop in, browse and linger, remains the same. Most of the basic product categories are still the same, such as abundance of hand made greeting cards, coffee mugs and t-shirts. It is also filled with one of a kind artisanal jewelry and other lovingly hand crafted objet d’art as before. But there are more of all of them, and you see wider variety. Interestingly, the ex-owner Nicole Northway and the current Mama, Emily Gloekler both originally stem from the state of Missouri, and they both bring the down home mid-western sensitivities in their store and the products. Emily adds to that an international dimension. The difference between  winding down and starting anew is certainly palpable.

The store is the place for the people looking for something other than run of the mill commercial products. They are looking for something special, something personal and something unique for very special occasions and people in their lives. Gift is not just a gift – a well thought out personal gift is one step above. The store changes its focus for all the special days of the year, be it Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year. Valentine’s Day, St’ Patrick’s, Easter and Mother’s Day. It amazes me to see how fast its window display and decor changes soon as one holiday segues into the other.

Emily comes back to her mid-western roots via an extended stay in Tanzania, someone who has not only traveled wide and far but has also lived in various countries.  Not yet forty, born and grown up in Prairie Village, Kansas, she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration from Northern American University, in Flagstaff, Arizona. Ten years later, she picked up her Master of Arts in International Development from the  University of Kent in Brussels, Belgium. Her professional trajectory include trading Foreign Exchange in Chicago, Microfinancing in Bangladesh, Kenya and Tanzania and then moving to global health, working for Population Services International, also in Tanzania.

What started it all is Emily becoming pregnant in 2012 with her now six year old daughter Evie. While on the maternity leave from her PSI job, on impulse she began making clothes for her yet unborn daughter. All the mothers and mothers to be around her loved what she created, so much so that at some point she acquired a sewing machine and hired help to meet the demand. She also started making hand crafted one of a kind jewelry and other artisanal stuff.

Instead of going back to work at the end of her maternity leave, she took off a year to expand her little cottage industry – now under her newly formed company Kipepeo (Butterfly in Kiswahili) in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.  When Evie was one year old, Emily’s relationship with her father was falling apart, resulting in her leaving him. Following her split and facing financial constraint, Emily went back to work for PSI. However, she continued to produce handmade designs and work part time at Kipepeo.

Three years later and still operating from home, it began to get a bit crowded between her workers and her customers constantly milling around. The brand and the concept had grown. It became apparent that she needed some sort of an outlet away from home – a pop up shop. Helen Espey Kelly – a close friend of hers owned a weaving company and offered space for her to be able to do just that. Not too long after, she realized that what was up until then a sideline, could well be viable as a full time venture and opened up Kipepeo retail shop at Slipway Shopping Center.

On the parallel track, even with Kipepeo up and running, her contentious relationship with Evie’s father had gotten down to an all time low, in which their daughter was becoming a pawn as they began to negotiate the terms of un-dearment. It got to the point where she no longer felt comfortable in that environment. Something needed to be done. Emily packed up her daughter and eight suitcases and moved back to the States on February 1, 2018. The reason Chicago because during her two plus years of stint working for the Foreign Exchange in the city, she had acquired a condo in Wicker Park, which she was renting out. She at least had a home to come back to.

While still in the process of getting settled and with Evie enrolled in school, Emily frequented the neighborhood stores – among them Paperish Mess and Komota, both in West Town on Chicago Avenue. And of course One Strange Bird on Division. Actually she walked past the store almost everyday while walking Evie to her school. One day she just called Nicole at OSB and asked her if she would be interested in carrying her jewelry. Nicole said sure – on consignment of course – even without asking to look at what she had. The store sold so much of Emily’s stuff that she would often hang out at the shop. Nicole mentioned too bad because she was soon closing the store and moving to Florida.

Ever so entrepreneurial, Emily wondered:

Instead of closing down, why don’t you sell the shop?

Why? Are you interested? Nicole asked.


And so they began to talk. The rest as the saying goes, is history. Emily promptly took over the shop as of August 1, 2018.

Since then Emily has put her heart and soul into the store. With her seductive granular voice and the smiles she welcomes every browser, perhaps also a buyer, putting them at ease, which also works to her benefit when she holds her BYOB craft evenings and sans BYOB kids’ camps. Other than being a shop for things different and unique, to borrow from it’s website: One Strange Bird is an event space/art studio that features a carefully curated selection of apparel, accessories, and gifts from local and national designers.  Not to mention featuring creations form her store and connections in Tanzania where she travels frequently and it has also resulted in her acquiring unique merchandise from her stop overs in Turkey. The art studio offers a welcoming environment. It’s the perfect place to express your creative side and unwind after a long work week. A wide variety of classes from terrarium building, painting, print making, and collage are offered. And they are fun!!! Additionally, the studio offers kid’s art summer camps, private events and parties.

The events bring out Emily’s skills as a teacher and an instructor and a group leader. She is natural in these varied roles. And this strange bird and single mother, if not exactly thriving yet, sure promises to do just that in not too far of a future.

◙                                                                                                                                                                © 2019 Haresh Shah                                                                                                                            ◙                                                                                                                                                                One Strange Bird, 2124 W. Division Street, Chicago, Ill. 60622 -773 276 4420 /

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ONE STRANGE BIRD                                                                  

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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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