BUCK TOWN BEATS BEST OF BORDEAUX

STAG'S LEAP (2)WARREN WINIARSKI 1 (2)

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

Source

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!

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ANOTHER STRANGE BIRD

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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.

Maybe!

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 www.onestrangebird.com / info@onestrangebird.com

◙                                                                                                                                                            RELATED STORY

ONE STRANGE BIRD                                                                            https://downdivision.com/2018/10/04/one-strange-bird

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LOVE HURTS

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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 www.athletico.com

AN IMPROBABLE LOVE STORY

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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                                               https://downdivision.com/2019/03/14/nelson-algren/

© 2019 Haresh Shah

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NELSON ALGREN

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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

NEXT WEEK

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. (www.blastfortune.com www.literateape.com)

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WHY? WHY?? WHY???

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Because..Because…Because….

Haresh Shah

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

‘How old are you?’

‘Take a guess!’

‘Seventy seven?’

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

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

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

‘India!’

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

‘I was born Hindu.’

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

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

‘You live here?’

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

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

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

‘Why?’

‘I just don’t.’

‘But why don’t you?’

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

‘Why?’

‘Because….’

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

‘Can I walk with you?’ He asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘In that case, you go first.’

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

GOD!

© 2019 Haresh Shah

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GANGSTERS’ CODE OF ETHICS

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“I wiped their butts and changed their diapers!”

Haresh Shah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2019 Haresh Shah

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