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Image Source: Vivian Maier

They call him “The Professor”, an’ that makes sense since he’s always talkin’, talkin’, talkin’. Don’t nobody know what his story is or what makes him spend his days standin’ on the corner an’ givin’ his lectures to nobody in particular. Some say he was in the war an’ got too close to artillery fire. Some think he lost his marbles because his wife an’ kids left him. Most all agree he should be locked up in the asylum. But I happen to know that he’s harmless.

I always set up my paper stand on the corner of 44th an’ Lex, so’s I can get the Grand Central traffic, an’ The Professor is often up at 46th an’ Lex. So by the time my customers come to me, they already got an earful. You never know what The Professor will be rantin’ about on any particular day. Some days he’s up there yellin’ about the President, an’ some days he’s going on and on about what’s playing at the pictures and how crummy the leading man is. One day he may got somethin’ to say about automobiles an’ design, an’ two days later he’ll be havin’ a fit about how DiMaggio is losin’ a step. I hear all this second hand as traffic moves south from The Professor’s corner, an’ the talkin’ about his talkin’ is always somethin’.

I said that I happen to know that The Professor is harmless. How do I know this? Well, I seen him enough on the street, an’ I talked to him a few times, see? He’s always out there talkin’, an’ I think he’s just looking for someone to talk with him. ‘Cause every time I’ve stopped an’ talked with him, it’s a genuine conversation an’ it’s very pleasant. He’s a very knowledgeable guy. I think he just likes to get going and hope that someone will stop an’ join in, an’ maybe that’s why he’s always going on about so many different things.

So maybe he ain’t a big social guy in the way that others are social. Maybe he ain’t the type that can sit on a bar stool an’ talk up the guy next to him on his own. Our friend Tiny Tom is like that, but ain’t everybody going to be like that. I can’t imagine getting’ up on a stage an’ givin’ a lecture, so I can understand where The Professor might be comin’ from. We all got our things, an’ who am I to judge?

Alls I know is that if you happen upon The Professor, you should stop an’ talk with the guy for a bit. He may look like he’s lost his marbles, but he’s alright. He’s a together guy, probably just a little lonesome. But he’s an alright guy, an’ he’s got a lot to say.

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Image Source: Vivian Maier

I guess it ain’t too nice to say, but there’s already talk goin’ round Mulroney’s about how long The Grunt gonna be able to keep this one. Like say the last time I mentioned him, he ain’t exactly the most respectable or reliable type. But I’m holdin’ out hope.

I heard about this room to let ‘round the bar. Sven The Scrub – we call him that because he’s just over from Oslo an’ he’s scrubbin’ the floors of Mulroney’s – was gonna take it, but I talked him into lettin’ The Grunt have it, out of seniority and all like that. It was perfect for the old guy: a basement level job, meanin’ he only had to worry ‘bout climbin’ down three steps, not up five flights of steps. An’ the rent was enough that even The Grunt, who does nuthin’ but grunt work around a bar for drink money, could make it. Maybe with a little help, but he could make it.

An’ I – an’ I think I speak for everyone that ever sat ‘round that bar – was willin’ to help. A presence at the bar like The Grunt, you take care of him. Sure, he come back from the Great War all shell-shocked, an’ he aint’ been the same since. But we all know him, an’ we know he’s got a heart of gold.

In fact, because of all the talk – an’ The Grunt he don’t know this, so don’t go sayin’ nothin’ – we got a collection goin’ round for a few months rent. So maybe nuthin’ happens but The Grunt come into Mulroney’s an’ does odd jobs an’ sings for his supper. An’ maybe he blows a race or two at Saratoga. Well, if that’s all that happens, he’s got it nice in his new apartment for a while, an’ we got stories for the whole time, so it’s worth it to us, see? A guy like The Grunt, you wanna keep him ‘round, an’ you wanna take care of him much as you can.

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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…

Originally Published 10/27/2011

Photo Source: Vivian Maier

There it was, there in the window. Joe McGillicuddy passed by the display in the department store window daily, and had for years, always dreaming of what it would be like to walk in someday and walk out with such a wonderful gift. Something to have, hold and treasure. Something that meant everything and would be his forever.

He dreamed the dream every day for all those years. He even tried to put a little aside, but it seemed like something always came along and screwed the deal. And Joe always was left just standing outside the window, staring, dreaming and wishing, like a kid outside the ice cream parlor watching all the other kids who got dough for ice cream from their parents. None for him.

Joe knew that things weren’t important, and that love and being loved were the real treasures in life. But gee whiz, when you’re all alone sometimes things are all you’ve got. And the treasure in the window was all he had, all he wanted, and always just out of reach.

He lived in a room, worked odd jobs, didn’t have any callers, didn’t really trust that anyone could care about an old, broken down fella like him. All he had was his dreams and that window display. And the all-consuming want, not just of the treasure, but of the comfort and security everyone else seemed to have and he didn’t know how to get.

All Joe knew was alone. Alone and wanting. Somehow that was comforting, knowing that want was his, the suit he wore alone. But he would trade it in a heartbeat for belonging, and having treasures belong to him.

Joe McGillicuddy took a last look at the window display, feeling the ache of unfulfilled desires and the weight of his life. He had managed to scrounge up enough for a bottle of skull-pop, which he purchased on the way back to his room. He crawled into his bed, sensing the mid-day sun behind the blinds and ended another unfulfilled day.

Originally Published 05/25/2011 06:03:06 AM

This is us.

This is life, distilled to an irretrievable nanosecond. This is history and passion and the unknowable. This is our life and our lives.

What was the old man looking at? What was he thinking? What did he have for dinner that night, and what would he think of our modern pants that don’t even reach the belly-button?

What was that little towhead crying about? How did his handler handle it?

What was the Negro woman clutching her cheek over? Did Ms. Maier know about it? Did her subject know she was being immortalized?

The Drunk: was he saved? Helped, at least? Did he die of his vices? Was he thinking of youth and innocence at the moment the shutter triggered? Or just thinking of getting another fix, and another, and more and more and more?

The family on the sidewalk: what became of them? And why is one apart, sitting on the steps? How many miles did the car provide before conking out? And where did they all go in that car?

Snapshots, moments, momentary glimpses into life. Not our life, but life and lives, as sure as ours. What can we learn from these eternally frozen moments? What are our ancestors, genetic and otherwise, telling us? About how they lived and what’s to come?

What can we learn about how we lived and how we can live? What can we learn about life?

ALL WORKS BY VIVIAN MAIER. MORE CAN BE FOUND HERE.

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