SHIVA INCARNATE ON DIVISION

snake charmer (3)

The Cobra Uncoiling

Haresh Shah

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

‘No thanks.’

‘They are good pets to have.’

‘Maybe so, but not my thing.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2019 Haresh Shah

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THE MAN CALLED PARIS

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Just Look, Don’t Touch!

Haresh Shah

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

‘You’ve been living here long?’

‘No, have just moved in recently.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Where you off to?’

‘Got a doctor’s appointment.’

‘Is everything okay?’

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

‘You’ll be alright man.’

‘Yeah, I ain’t going anywhere soon!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Where you’ve been man?’

‘Oh, I was in hospital!’

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

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

‘What happened?’

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

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

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

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

‘You see I ain’t dead.’

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

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

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

Amen!

Boy, it really was nice to see him again.

© 2019 Haresh Shah

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

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PAPA’S CACHE SABROSO

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Right Place on Wrong Side of Western

Haresh Shah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2019 Haresh Shah

NEXT WEEK

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

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MARIA OF DIVISION STREET

MARIA 2 JULY 18 (2)

Return of the Krolowa*

‘How old are you baby?’

To be called baby as I am approaching my 70th year of life feels genuinely flattering.

‘I am sixty nine. Will be seventy on November 4th.’I answer. The year is 2009.

‘You’re so young.’ She flays her palm in a downward motion. ‘I will be 87 on January 6th. I (sic) born in 1922.’ A year before my mom.

That was years ago during one of our street-side chats. Since then we have run into each other umpteen times and our conversations have morphed into something akin to loosely getting to know each other over each encounter.

In the beginning I would see her sitting on the rickety old wooden bench leaning against the wall of the Wicker Car Wash and contentedly puffing away at her cigarette – does smoking really kill?

‘If she were to stop smoking, it would probably kill her,’ quipped Felipe Caro, owner of the restaurant Picante down the street. Everyone on the strip knows Mary Kafka, or just Mary as they refer to her.

I often wondered whether she were a pauper, a homeless lady who had found a sympathetic niche at the car wash place? Was she lonely? Did she have a family?  During my east and west bound walks on the Division, she has become to me more of a permanent fixture on that stretch of Division between Damen and Leavitt streets – not a statue, but more like a frozen motion pantomime figure sans the shiny white painted face.

Under the crown of her closely cropped soft straw of white hair, every part of her tiny body is shriveled up like a dried  jumbo raisin that still has retained that particular sheen on its skin. Her English is haltingly fluent, but stuck in the years past when she had probably decided she spoke enough to communicate to really worry about the grammar and the structure of her sentences. Far from being homeless, she actually owns the buildings with the car wash that shares the wall with the one next door to it, in which she lives.

‘My husband and I ran a tavern here,’ she says pointing to the boarded up front. It was called Krakovianka – the maiden from Krakow. While I am trying to compose a response to that, she continues: ‘He died. The Puerto Ricans shot him, here’ she points at her left thigh. ‘But he survived. Three weeks in the hospital, they take out the bullet…’ She gestures in the direction of St. Mary’s Hospital up he street. Then he killed himself, she pauses for a moment and continues,  drinking. She tells it to me in a matter of fact way without letting emotions betray her demeanor. Perhaps with bit of a disgust, as she shakes her head, still unbelieving. And then she waves her open palm downward in the air, the gesture that could mean anything from the stupid fool, to that’s life to oh well, what you gonna do? And then just for a split second, her eyes seem to stare in the distance – perhaps in the long ago past.

I can imagine her visualizing all of that and also the days when stretches of Division Street were far from being safe to walk even during days, let alone in the night time. Puerto Rican gangs infested and ruled the neighborhood.

Maria and her husband migrated to the United States from Poland in 1960 and opened the bar underneath their apartment. ‘I was a bartender,’ she said and then once again her gaze wanders away, perhaps imagining her younger self. I too have often wondered what she looked like when she was young – and as feisty as she now is, she probably was a ball of fire and a looker of a Polish princess.

Her husband and her lived in the building for all their lives. At the first look, if not totally dilapidated, the building looks run down with lack of care. A three storied structure, the building also has two other apartments, that she renovated during the course of our conversations and are now rented out. The store front, which was boarded up for forty some years, is now the home to the upscale pub, Queen Mary.

She alludes to the fact that the rentals are quite lucrative, but she constantly complains about how fast the property taxes and utilities are going up. She reminisces of the days when they used to be a fraction of what they are now. Almost every tax year, she asks me how far up my taxes had gone up. She shares with me the details of hers.

Once in a while we would touch on personal details, such as how she is a proud great grand mother of a 16 year old who had a heart attack – but happy that she survived. She has a daughter in her late sixties who stops by to see her whenever she can pull herself away from her family. Even though Maria constantly bitches about this and that, at the end of our conversations, I have always perceived her to be very positive in her attitude. Someone who has lust for life and someone who is often seen ambling Division down to the Shell station on Damen to pick up a pack of Pall Malls. Like me she considers walking to be a part of her health regime.

When I kid her about smoking too much – she swishes her hand sideways as if telling me: I am 94 years old. What do you want? It makes me feel good! As I walk away, I think: You’re damn right. At your age Maria, you can do whatever you  bloody well please.

And then one day she disappears. I don’t see her for quite some time. I wonder perhaps she has died. Who can I ask? Normally, I walk past there in the early afternoon. The bar Queen Mary opens at five. But one afternoon, I see its door open. They are making a delivery. I pop in and ask. Am told by the young bartender that she got too sick and had to be hospitalized. She no longer could take care of herself. Her daughter took her away to live with her family in the suburb. I feel my heart drop. I can’t imagine Maria living anywhere else but in the city. No, right there on Division and nowhere else. She would not die, she would just further shrivel and  disappear like a wavering flame.

This afternoon, I am walking east bound on Division, on the north side of the street. As I see Wicker Park Car Wash on other side of the street, her image of siting on the bench outside pops up. But nope, she isn’t there. And I wonder once again – whether she is still alive. I continue walking and cross the street at Damen. On my way back, I walk past Fat Pour, Janik’s Café, Nature Yoga, and Inn Joy and Club Roayle and Silly Kori. As if by magic, she materializes as I approach the car wash. Not sitting on the bench as usual, but she is sitting on an outdoor plastic chair. Looking healthier than I remember having seen her the last time.

Maria……. I run to her. She stands up from her chair, and we hug like long lost friends. She is Maria, she is still here. She is alive. And as in the past, she tells me she is 96 now and will be 97 on January 6th. I wonder if she ever wonders that she could ever be dead. January 6th is the date we would have count down to all  these years I have known her. Always looking forward.

‘How old are you baby?’

The same question, year after year. I tell her I am 78. She waves her hand as if sloughing  something off – as if saying, you’ve got a while to go still. At least seventeen years just to catch up with her. She is happy to see me. As we stand there looking at each other not saying anything for a moment, the young bartender comes running out of Queen Mary and locks her into a bear hug. She is in her elements. She is back on the Division Street. As I write this, I am about to break into the chorus:

Hello Dolly
This is miss Dolly
It’s so nice to have you back where you belong
You’re lookin’ swell, Dolly
I can tell, Dolly
You’re still glowin’, you’re still crowin’, you’re still goin’ strong

And as if to echo my sentiments, a young woman in her colorful  Hawaiian dress walking past stops in her tracks, turns around and rushes towards us. Maria is into the arms of another one of her delighted fans. I watch them holding on to each other, big smiles on their faces. Maria has come home!

I belong here. There is nothing there for me, no people, no traffic. I am in a room by myself all day. She tells us. And once again her eyes seem to wander away.

*Queen

© 2018 Haresh Shah

NEXT

Christmas and the New Year are just around the corner – thought I would break for the holidays. But don’t go away, Down Division will be back with a string of new stories starting on January 3rd, 2019. In the meanwhile, have wonderful holidays and let the good times roll.

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LETIZIA’S NATURAL BAKERY

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Chair by Chair

Haresh Shah

                                       Life is short. Eat dessert first. Jacques Torres                                                                                 Stressed Spelled Backwards is Desserts! Fabio Sorano

The year Letizia’s opened back in the fall of 1998, the landscape around the shop was barren. The two identical corner buildings across from each other at Leavitt didn’t exist. There was a convenience store across the street, which is still there and a few houses north east of there was the recently closed pawn shop. There was a doctor’s office and a block down on the diagonally opposite side of the street where Inn Joy is now, was an antique furniture shop owned by a Palestinian couple with four kids. And that was about it. The neighborhood in general was deserted, desolate and dangerous. Six months after they opened, Letizia was held up at gun point and robbed. Why then you may ask, the recent Italian immigrants would want to open a café in middle of the mayhem?

Her three children, Fabio, Lorenzo and Lavinia, were already in Chicago – each one of them having attended Loyola University and seemed they were here to stay. Following in their footsteps, Maria Letizia Pietroboni Sorano, 72, a language teacher who taught Latin and Italian and her Neurologist husband Vincenzo Sorano, aka Enzo  arrived in the States in 1992 from Piazza de la Minerva in Rome. Letizia taught Latin at DePaul University for a year and Enzo worked as Neuro-Radiologist at the Cook County Hospitals.

While teaching at DePaul, Letizia realized that the students in America were different, in that they were quite disrespectful – a certain shock from how teachers were revered back in Italy. Furthermore, her heart no longer was into teaching. What she really wanted to do all along was to bake cookies and cakes. What am I doing here? She asked herself. Baking had been her lifelong passion. Thus began the idea of starting a small bakery in their new country.

When her older son Fabio, at the time 27 years old, suggested the location on Division Street –   she wasn’t so sure. They lived in the non descript but safe suburb of Des Plains, and what she saw and heard about how dangerous the neighborhood can be, and also realizing that it wasn’t far from the notorious Cabrini Green project, she had her apprehensions. True. But Fabio saw the future of the neighborhood and somehow managed to convince his mother to take the plunge. The mother and the son joined forces and opened the doors of Letizia’s.

Opened in the early spring, first it was just a small bakery. It would provide high quality natural products – cakes and cookies. Among them Crostata, the classic Italian crusted tart and pie – something she knew best how to make. Soon she would learn how to bake American cookies, muffins and among others, traditional cheese cakes. They began by supplying wholesale to Neiman Marcus Epicure on Michigan Avenue followed by the Whole Food. Not a bad start. And yet they felt that something vital was missing. Face to face interaction with “real” people. Soon they decided to switch to retail. It would also be more profitable and rewarding, being able to talk to people.

In the fall they expanded the bakery into a cozy little café, about half the size of what it is today. With little help from her friends, she slowly turned her bakery into the place funky and warm and comfortable, in the image of the Sixties. Strewn with mismatched thrown together furniture.

First came a set of antique chairs with rounded backs and cushioned seats. Compliments of the antique shop opposite in a friendly barter. In exchange for several chairs, the Palestinian asked  for four cakes, elaborately created by Letizia and her crew. She stacked the chairs against the bare brick walls with small café tables. Then came a living room set, two love seats upholstered in grey velvet. The solid wood top resting on upside down  fruit baskets served as the coffee table. Bordering them, she placed small black tables and rattan chairs.

Soon came two futon sofa-cum-beds covered in burgundy satin and thrown over them were a couple of Indian shawls. This time around, all of the coffee table was made of solid wood. And then there was an imposing life-size plaster figure, sitting by the window with dark liquid chocolate spilled on its knees. No bartering of any kind for them. Just the goodness of her friends and customer’s hearts. I must say that the Americans are very generous people. Us Europeans are not so. More than anything else, I got their love and support. They wanted me to succeed. I am thankful to them from the bottom of my heart.  I, also being an immigrant and having experienced similar generosity, totally agree with her.

And then Letizia’s Natural Bakery grew and grew. What is her secret? You may ask. Among many other attributes, the key word is natural. Letizia and her son Fabio – her partner in the crime, swear by and are proud of their uncompromising use of natural ingredients. You couldn’t have possibly missed the round red circle in the mode of a traffic sign with a slash across the word MARGARINE at the top of their entrance. Whatever you imbibe in the place is pure butter! They use real flour, extra virgin olive oil and water. Never use stabilizer in their whipping cream. No high fructose corn syrup or FDA banned trans fats. Use only clean healthy pure chocolate. No wonder everything tastes so SUPER YUMMY.

The day it opened, she took in all of $40. But once the word spread, more and more people began to show up – majority of them from nearby Saint Mary’s Hospital. At times lining up outside the café. The early customers were artists and other creative types. Now the crowd comprises of a whole mélange of characters.

Retailing was a totally different experience for me. In the beginning I was embarrassed even to ask for money from the customers for something I loved to do. As she says this, I could see on her face that if she had it her way, she would probably want to have people come in and treat themselves to the place and the delicacies and leave with a big smile of satisfaction on their faces.

And treat she did on Letizia’s 20th anniversary celebration that took place in the café’s spacious flower filled courtyard, complete with old fashioned gas lamps and an Italian quartet performing Vola re ho ho ho ho, Cantare ho ho ho ho. And there was a constant stream of cornucopia of delicacies and Italian wines flowing as she said BIG THANK YOU to us – her loyal customers, her friends and her family.

© 2018 Haresh Shah

Letizia’s Natural Bakery, 2144 W. Division Street, Chicago, Ill. 60622 + 1 773 342 1022 http://www.superyummy.us/

NEXT WEEK

MARIA OF DIVISION STREET                                                                                                  Everyone’s Dolly                                                                                                                                 If  you walk Division Street as frequently as I do, you can’t miss this  vintage woman sitting on a rickety bench outside Wicker Car Wash, contently puffing on her cigarette. Your first thought would be, her being some sad pauper bidding her time. That is; until one day you begin to talk with her.

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WICKER PARK WEIRDO

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Drunken Brawl Around the World

Haresh Shah

Surrounded by low rise apartment buildings and single family homes, the Wicker Park feels more like a town square. Named after the brothers Charles and Joel Wicker who in 1868 purchased 80 acres of land along Milwaukee and Damen Avenues and carved out a subdivision with a mix of lot sizes to develop residences that would surround the four acre park.  It is basically a front yard to the people who inhabit one of those homes. Closer to Damen is a field house with gymnasium and meeting rooms. Outside there is a playground, basketball hoops and a baseball diamond and open field for playing soccer or football.  It also hosts all sorts of community activities including craft fairs and open air movie nights. In the middle of the lush gardens is the “centerpiece” fountain sprouting up from he wading pool for kids to frolic in. An ideal urban park in which you can step out of your house and step right in.

Today I have veered off Division and have wandered a few blocks north on Damen. I have parked myself on a bench of the south bound #50 bus stop shelter across from the park at the corner of Damen and Schiller. As the bus approaches the curb, I shake my head, indicating to the driver that I wasn’t waiting for a bus. But it stops in front of me and a man holding a stuffed shopping bag gets off the back door. He looks around as if to survey his environment. Sitting down at the other end of the bench, he puts the bag in the middle of us. Pulling the top of the bag wide open he asks me whether I would like some. I couldn’t quite see what it was in the little bag placed inside the big one. Looked like a paper bag full of peanuts, or what to me appeared like a bunch of yellow cigarette butts. Whatever. I politely decline.

He must have been in his mid-fifties or maybe even early sixties. Disheveled mop of snow white hair, a mustache that reminds me of someone and for some reason I presume him to be of Polish descent. But he speaks impeccable English. Held between his fingers is a mauled cigarette stub. He asks me if I had a light. Then answers his own question: you don’t smoke? He then proceeds to dig into his various pockets. He wore blue jeans and a light colored shirt under a bright turquoise windbreaker. He fumbles into various pockets of his pants and his windbreaker, the side pockets of his jacket and breast pocket of his shirt. Not nervous, just looking a bit frazzled.

‘Of course I can’t find any, because I didn’t have any in the first place.’

‘I guess you just will have to go without smoking that cigarette.’

‘No, I am going to smoke it and then I am going to get drunk. And I am going to live for a hundred and three years.’ You would think he was already drunk or high on something, but nothing on his face or the breath indicates that he were either. Just looked a bit crazed and if I had any apprehensions about continuing our conversation, once I looked at his face, he seemed quite harmless.

Placed next to the bench is a garbage can. He fumbles inside the can to see if there might be a match box in there. No such luck. He turns around and asks:

‘You from India?’

‘Yes, I sure am.

‘From Delhi, Jaipur, Bombay?’

‘I am from Bombay.’

‘I am going to travel the world and also go to India with my daughter.’

‘That’s cool. When?’

‘Oh, yesterday or tomorrow.’

‘Well, yesterday’s gone. So I guess tomorrow then!’

‘But first I am going to get drunk and smoke. By then they would have passed a law which would allow us to smoke and get drunk on the plane. Even the captain would have to be drunk. I wouldn’t fly an airline whose captain wasn’t drunk while flying the plane. What the hell, also the stewardesses and all. We would have one drunken brawl.’ He says all of this to me with a straight face and an impish but earnest smile on his face.

And then he suddenly picks up his shopping bag and stumbles away. He crosses Schiller street and I see him looking inside the garbage can on the other side of the street, stopping a pedestrian and asking for matches and then finally I watch him sitting down around the fountain in the park.

© 2018 Haresh Shah

NEXT WEEK

LETIZIA’S NATURAL BAKERY                                                                                                            Earlier this fall, Letizia’s celebrated its twentieth anniversary with big fan fare. That she has not only survived the rough and tumble days of Division Street, but has grown and prospered with a loyal group of customers for two decades and still going strong is a tribute in itself. What is her secret?

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PODHALANKA

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Lady of the Highlands

Haresh Shah

I must have looked at the sign Podhalanka across the street from the west bound #70 bus stop on the Polish Triangle and must have also walked past the restaurant itself hundreds of times and yet I was never curious in the least to nudge the door open and enter the place even just to check it out. Looking from outside in, what I could see through the mostly covered windows and the doors was a place dark and dingy inside. The long tables draped with the curling plastic covers and generally unkempt look of the place didn’t look too inviting.  And it seemed generally stuck into the devil may care attitude of the communist era. And yet, as I began to look more into doing Down Division, I realized the importance of the Polish Triangle and its relationship to  Division Street, it became inevitable that I had to check out Podhalanka – loosely translated Lady of the Highlands – and find out how it could have become a part of the history of what makes Division Division. What better person to go have dinner with me there than my Polish friend Marek 

I was the first one to arrive. Feeling apprehensive based on the reviews on Yelp, I was fully expecting to be greeted by a pushy middle aged man. No such man to be found. Instead lurking in the background was an elderly lady weaving between two long tables, serving her dinner guests. She waves me in to sit down at one of the empty tables.  Sunk into my chair, I could hardly put my arms over the table top, feeling like a toddler needing a booster seat or a pile of old telephone directories. Soon as Marek arrives, she places the menus and two short glasses filled with red liquid on the table – looking like cheap red wine. We make this in the house. She informs us. Marek declines it, I decide to try it. Some sort of spiced syrupy looking red liquid. Wouldn’t kill me, I think and drink it. Soon we move to the bar with our menus in our hands.

Apprehensively, I order Kotlet Schabowy – breaded pork cutlet and Marek orders Ryba Smazona – fried fish. The meals include soup and salad and come with mashed potatoes and gravy. Just like back home! Muses Marek. Not bad! I mutter. We bring home Pirczen Wieprzowa – roast pork dinner for Eric. Eric raves at every bite he takes. And all of that for less than fifteen dollars! Only thing missing was a chilled mug of Zywiec or Okocim. But no worries, you can bring your own wine and beer. What can be better? A piping hot bowl of their mushroom barley soup! I got a taste of it during one of my follow up visits. The best mushroom barley soup I ever had! I tell her. She is pleased with an “of course” smirk on her face.

As Marek and I sat at the bar savoring our delicious food, my eyes caught sight of a couple of signs that most everyone would have missed. Right across from where we sat, staring at us were two small placards. They said:

KEEP THIS PLACE IN MIND

For A Better One Is Hard To Find

And

THERE IS NO PLACE

JUST LIKE THIS PLACE

Anywhere Near This Place

So This Must Be The Place

I couldn’t help but grin, thinking they sure have a sense of humor. And what a delight it was to chat with the owner/head chef, cute as dickens seventy one years old Helena Madej! After a bit of hesitation, she begins to talk – and smile. Even in her black chef’s apron thrown over a pink knit crew necked top, there was something charming about her. If a bit mischievous, still a very good looking, I couldn’t help but just imagine how hot she must have been in her youth!!

Born in Krakow, Poland in 1947, she is still a feisty lady. If not perfect, she speaks fluent English. Animated and full of vigor, you can’t help but notice a certain impish glint in her eyes and a constant sense of wonderment in her smiles. Helena, married and divorced, has a daughter in her thirties. She came to Chicago in 1981 to join many of her family members, some of whom had come to the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century in 1905. In 1986, at the height of the concentration of the Polish population in the neighborhood, she took over the existing  Podhalanka, and has not only survived but is still thriving after 32 years of feeding the locals. At the time  it wasn’t easy existing around crime infested three way intersection at Ashland, Milwaukee and Divisionbut I am not afraid. One night around eleven a guy from the neighborhood breaks in. I was alone with just one helper. He demands: Give me money. I shout back at him: I give you nothing. Get out of here, I know who you are. He yells, “you bitch, open the door.” Similarly, a Mexican young man walked in with a knife, she stood her ground and threaten to call police. He promptly exited the restaurant.

I have always wondered what drives people to open a restaurant, one of the riskiest businesses and one that requires twenty four seven involvement and practically no free time. It obviously had to be deep passion and love for what it takes. To that Helena says: I love this business and I love my customers. And I love it that my restaurant provides a place for the Polish people to come together and enjoy home cooked meals.

All those negative reviews on Yelp and other social media had demonized Helena’s nephew Greg Jamka. On my second visit I encountered him as a stern looking man with a deep  gruff voice, closely cropped salt and pepper hair, wearing a red and blue striped t-shirt. His looks sort of confirmed those reviews. But to my astonishment, as I waited for Helena, what I witnessed proved him to be a man so kind and considerate.

Waiting at the table next to mine was a young African American woman. When she walked up to the counter to pick up her take out order, she realized that Podhalanka was a cash only restaurant, which she didn’t have.

‘You live in the neighborhood, don’t you?’

‘I work close by here!’

‘You can stop by tomorrow or sometime in the next days with the money.’

Fumbling into her purse, she pulls out a few dollar bills which she offers to pay. She has only about ten dollars.

‘No problem. I’ll take that. The total is $13.40. You can stop by anytime and pay the rest in the next couple of days.’

Huhn! This nephew, he wasn’t such a devil after all! And I was touched at the kindness of his voice with which he put the young woman at ease!

What more can you expect from a down home neighborhood restaurant?

© 2018 Haresh Shah

PODHALANKA, 1549 West Division Street, Chicago, Ill. 60642 +1 773 486 6655

NEXT WEEK

WICKER PARK WEIRDO

He didn’t seem crazy and or even drunk. All he was looking for was some matches or a lighter to light his cigarette with. And yet, there are times you encounter people, you can’t help but wonder.

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