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Michigan Ave
Image Source: Old Chicago

Jes US, I’m gonna be stuck in this shit all NIGHT! Ace Bennett pounded the steering wheel in frustration and junk-sickness as traffic slowed to nothing and Michigan Ave turned into a parking lot. He was supposed to meet Gumbo’s runner Two-Bit at the corner of Division and Milwaukee to pick up the goods. But right now it looked like he wasn’t going anywhere soon.

God DAMNit! It goddamn figures! It was a blistering hot Chicago night, with storm clouds threatening to blow in off the lake. Ace had all the windows rolled down, and a thick fog of heat and humidity, exhaust fumes and static electricity settled into the car like a sopping blanket. Those storms were coming soon, and they would be fierce. He lit a Merit and turned on the radio, which was tuned to WGN 720. Paul Harvey, blathering on with the Rest of the Story.

Something felt off about this entire trip. Sometimes there is an intangible feeling of something being wrong, a vague feeling that the cosmos aren’t quite aligned and bad things will result. Ace had had this feeling before, and it always meant something unpleasant, like the sudden death of a relative or friend. And here it was again.

Two-Bit had a reputation around Division and Milwaukee as a tough enforcer with a hair-trigger temper. He did the grunt work for Gumbo: shaking down Loop bankers who were behind on the vig, breaking up the local tavern if the owner didn’t agree to pay protection, that kind of thing. Two-Bit’s boss Gumbo was known as The King of Division Street, and nothing moved in or out of Cabrini-Green, the most notorious housing project in Chicago, without his say-so. Drugs, guns, sex…Gumbo owned it all. And Ace had just ripped him off.

Or so they said. After the last time Ace bought, Two-Bit tracked him down and said that he was ten bucks short on the deal. Ace didn’t think that was the case: why would he short-change a crazy street hood like Two-Bit? Besides, Two-Bit counted out the money rather quickly, and he didn’t say anything at the time. But knowing Two-Bit’s reputation, and having bought from him a few times, and having seen Gumbo himself once, he didn’t feel like making a federal case over ten bucks. Ace agreed to bring the missing ten-spot to the buy today. No big deal.

The sky overhead grew black with the coming storm and the tops of the Wrigley Building, Marina City and the Tribune Tower took on a silver glow as the light faded and the lightning picked up. Ace felt crazy paranoid, partly because he was coming down and partly because of the situation. He thought he saw Two-Bit at a phone booth way further up Michigan Ave, but it could have been anybody. He thought he saw Gumbo himself in a coffee shop on the Near North side of the river, but why would Gumbo be this far off his turf? Ace worked like crazy to bring back rational thought to his addled brain. He lit another Merit, rolled up the windows against the first drips of rain and turned up the radio. Paul Harvey gave way to highlights of the Cubs win over Philly that afternoon at Wrigley, with Jack Brickhouse’s call from WGN-TV.

Strike from Hooton, and the inning is over!…Whew, boy!…A drive by Bill Madlock!…What a catch by Rick Monday!…Hey-hey!

The first deafening clap of thunder hit.

“Hell of a game today, my man!”

Ace let out a yelp as he saw Gumbo sitting in the passenger seat. He felt something cold and hard under his right ear and realized it was a pistol held by Two-Bit in the back seat.

The rain pelted the roof of the car like thousands of marbles thrown full-blast on a concrete floor. The storm was almost directly overhead: less than a second between blinding bolts of lightning and the deafening claps of thunder.

Ace breathed deep through the greatest terror he had ever known. “H..hu..hi, guys” he said. “Fancy m-meeting you here.”

Gumbo did not look amused.

“My man Two-Bit say you rip him off,” he said. “That true?”

“N-n-no, Gumbo, I wouldn’t do t-th-thaa…”

“White boy lyin’, boss!” Two-Bit said, shoving the barrel harder against Ace’s ear.

“I sw—swe-swear, I didn’t mean to,” Ace said. “Swear! H-h-here, take all m-my money, here’s my wallet.”

Gumbo grabbed his wallet and shoved it in his pocket. Thunder cracked as the deluge continued and time slowed to an agonizing eternity.

“You didn’t mean to?” Gumbo said. “The fuck you mean you didn’t mean to? Two-Bit say you rip him off, you rip the man off! Don’t make a shit bit of diff’rence you didn’t mean to.”

Ace shook his head and started crying, the tears shimmering as the lightning flashed in the cloudburst. “I s-swe-swear, I wouldn’t. It was a mistake…”

“Ain’t no mistake, white motherfucker!” Two-Bit said. His rage was a palpable entity, like a bull waiting for the gate to open to start bucking.

“I s-s-SWEAR TO GOD!”

“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” Gumbo said, shaking his head sadly. “Sheeeeiiiiitttttt, now look what we have here. Fine, high class honky like yo’self reduced to this? Yo life ain’t nothin’ but Cubs games, spendin’ Daddy’s money at the mall an’ swimmin’ in all that fine Oak Park pussy, an’ you gotta come into the big city an’ rip off my poor oppressed man Two-Bit here? You ain’t got enough in life, you gotta take a hard-workin’ Neeegro like Two-Bit for ten motherfuckin’ dollar? That what you think of us?”

“G-gu-gumbo, I SWEAR I wouldn’t have…”

“Man, you jus’ ain’ got no respect, do you, white boy?” Two-Bit grabbed Ace around the neck and shoved the barrel in even harder against Ace’s ear. “Ought to show you a thing or two ‘bout what it mean when you mean to do something.”

“That it?” Gumbo said. “We need to teach you a thing or two about respect, white boy? We need to teach you what it mean when you mean to do something?”

Ace, paralyzed by fear, just shook his head sideways. Gumbo looked back at Two-Bit.

“Only way he learn, boss.” Two-Bit said.

Gumbo nodded. “Do it.”

Ace let out a blood-curdling scream as Two-Bit aimed the .44 at his lower body. As the last intense clap of thunder rolled, Two-Bit pulled off two shots. Ace slumped forward against the steering wheel as Gumbo and Two-Bit got out of the car, while the rain slacked off, and the deal was over.

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Image Source: Library of Congress

“So they call this all Back of the Yards neighborhood now. Know what they called it when I was your age? Union Stockyard, was called. Where we sittin’ right now, would have been ankle deep in hog blood or suddenly caught between two locomotive cars!”

Joe Lutkowski and his grandson-to-be Rich Goldman were sitting on Joe’s porch drinking Old Style and thumbing through photo albums. Except for a few Sox games, Rich had never been to the South Side, and Joe didn’t get out too far too often lately. But the two families had spent a wonderful day together gallivanting around Chicago and getting to know each other. It was a beautiful night and the Goldman’s had gathered at the Lutkowski’s for cake and ice cream. Rich flipped to a picture of train tracks and industrial buildings.

“Tell me about this one,” Rich said.

“Ah!” Joe said. “This is where I worked! Was brakeman for Chicago & North Western Railroad. Lined switches and made sure signals worked. Twenty years, worked at 40th Street yards, until they shut whole thing down in early 70s. Trains I worked on carried pigs away from slaughterhouses. Was stink like you wouldn’t believe!”

“I can’t imagine!” Rich said. “So this entire neighborhood was train tracks and slaughterhouses?”

“Ja, was all train yard and stock yard,” Joe said. “Hog butcher of world, Chicago was! Hard to imagine now, but was all different. You know Millennium Park downtown?”

“Yeah, with the Frank Gehry bandstand and the Cloud Gate statue!” Rich said.

“Ja,” Joe said. “Was Illinois Central tracks for years, then nothing. Abandoned tracks. Big change all over Chicago!”

“I barely remember the tracks being there,” Rich said. “I can’t picture trains actually going back and forth through the park!”

“Was different time!” Joe said. “I don’t mean bad now, but was different.”

“Hi, grandpa!” Joe’s granddaughter Casey came out on the porch and gave him a big kiss. “Have you scared my man away yet?”

“We get along just fine, ha?!” Joe said, holding up his beer for a clink with Rich’s. “Am showing Chicago I knew when I was young. Is boring story from crazy old man, ja?!”

“I’m loving it,” Rich said, holding up his beer for a clink with Joe’s. “Tell me more…”

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Photo Source: Vivian Maier

I used to hate Thanksgiving. Used to be all alone, nobody to see, nothing to do but get a turkey sandwich at some sleazy diner, no family to go home to… well, I have family, downstate, but they don’t want nothing to do with me, you dig? And that’s ‘cause of the troubles I got in a few years ago. I don’t blame ‘em. I mean, I was in bad shape. But that’s another story.

Anyway, like say I used to hate Thanksgiving, and being all alone. But wait’ll you hear about my Thanksgiving THIS year!

So I got on at the Greek’s place a few months ago. Mostly washing dishes, but some line cooking here and there. That kind of thing. I’m doing good, checking in with my PO, taking my prescriptions, showing up early at the Greek’s and staying late…doing my best, you know? The Greek likes me well enough, and he gives me a little extra here and there, lets me work a little longer when he can…and every so often he spots me a little something from the kitchen. That’s the last thing I’d ever want, and it kills me to be in that position. But the Greek, he insists, and I ain’t too proud to take a little help if I need it.

I got a room in a four-flat at Milwaukee and Halsted, right by the Blue Line. I got a borrowed bed and a borrowed chair, a record player, a hot plate and that’s it. It ain’t much, and the neighborhood is rough. But it’s all mine, and I’m keeping up. It ain’t one of them towers on Lake Shore Drive, but next to where I was, I’m doing good.

So it’s the day before Thanksgiving. I’ve been mopping dishes for the Greek during the breakfast rush, and the lunch rush is on the way. I’m about to do some mopping around my sink when the Greek comes over, and he tells me he’s giving me the rest of the day off, and all of Thanksgiving off, AND the day after Thanksgiving off! With pay! I tell the Greek I can’t do that, but of course I know he ain’t going to take no for an answer, so I say thank you, the both of us smiling like a couple of clowns, and I get ready to grab my bag and go home.

When I reach into my bag, I see the Greek has already loaded it up with a couple of cans of tuna, some bread and some mayo, a couple of jars of milk and fixings enough to make two turkey sandwiches and some stuffing for Thanksgiving. And at the bottom he’s thrown in a ten dollar bill. I’m feeling so good when I see all this I almost start crying. The Greek, he sure has been good to me. I go over, pump his hand like mad and say thank you over and over again. He tells me I deserve so much more, doing such a good job and being such a good kid. By the time I let go of his hand, I got a tear streaming down both cheeks, and I gotta turn around and run out because I’m too embarrassed to stay around.

So I get outside, and it’s terrifically cold. You know how those Chicago winters are. But I’m feeling so good from the Greek I don’t even feel it. I just feel warm all over, even without a coat. I could have gotten on the el, but for whatever reason I felt like walking. I’ve got my bag, and now its way heavier than it was, thanks to the Greek, so I sit down on a stoop for a few minutes to rest.

And I’m sitting there, and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, this kitten comes over to me. I’m just sitting there, and the kitten comes from out of nowhere, and looks up at me and starts mewing at me in this squeaky little voice. Like it’s trying to tell me something. I reach out to pet it, and the kitten starts rubbing its head on my finger, then it starts rubbing its head against my leg. You believe that?

I picked the kitten up, put it on my lap and gave it a scritch on the head. And the kitten turned a circle, flopped into a little ball and started purring like crazy. Like it liked me! It was just a little gray thing, so cute and happy. I got up, carefully holding the kitten, and started looking around for someone to ask about the kitten.

“I think she likes you!”

The super of the building I was resting at came down the steps. “I seen that kitten come around here for two days now. I ain’t seen no signs about her around the neighborhood or anything. Looks like she’s a feral. Whyn’t you take her home?”

I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing.

“Really? You really think I should?”

“Sure, why not! She needs a good home. And she’s taken to you! Hold on just a second…”

The super turned around, went back into the building and returned with a leash.

“I got this ‘case I had to take her to the shelter. But this is even better than that.”

The super clipped on the leash, and the kitten was mine.

Once again, I started crying. I thanked the super, we exchanged Happy Thanksgivings and I kept walking home. I got to my flat, opened my bag, took out one of the cans of tuna the Greek gave me, opened it and threw a little down on my lap for the kitten. She was so tiny! I picked her up, held her and decided her name was Mittens. Because of the little bits of white on her paws. I set Mittens down and she started eating tuna like she had never eaten before. So I got a bit more, put it down and she kept going.

I had a little myself, and I poured a little milk out on a plate on the floor. Mittens lapped that up, then I poured some more and she lapped that up. Then she jumped back on my lap, flopped into a ball and started purring like crazy and licking my hand with her little sandpaper tongue. And she was with me for all three days of my Thanksgiving vacation, and I cried the whole time I was so happy; happy to have so much and to have a friend to share it with.

I made two turkey sandwiches and warmed up stuffing on my hot plate and had milk for Thanksgiving. I ate Thanksgiving dinner with Mittens, and for the first time in a few years I wasn’t alone on Thanksgiving…