Parque Marquette


Taste of México, Marquette Park, Chicago, Illinois

My oldest son found a frog at the forest preserves and decided to keep it. He bought an aquarium, but soon the house smelled of stagnant water. He really didn’t clean the aquarium regularly or properly. Then he got bored of having a frog. He thought of releasing the frog in our backyard, but I told him it would die there and that would be inhumane. I suggested he take the frog to the Marquette Park lagoon where it would at least stand a chance to survive. A week passed and the frog was still our roommate and the aquarium water was still polluting the air we breathed. Yesterday, we both were home at the same time, with free time at the same time–something that rarely happens with our busy schedules (even though I’m on summer vacation now!).

So, I said, “Let’s take the frog to Marquette Park now.” Amazingly, he agreed. However, he didn’t want to touch the frog because of the putrid smell. He brought the aquarium down from his bedroom and put it on the front porch. He almost threw as he set the tank down. So, I was the one who took the frog out of the smelly tank and put it into a five-gallon bucket to take to Marquette Park.

I’ve been going to Marquette Park since the 1960s. My parents always loved taking us to parks or beaches whenever possible. When my mother got her driver’s license, she ventured further away from our house. Once she took us to Brookfield Zoo! But first she had to build up her courage. So she took us to Marquette Park. She had heard that it was a nice park. She drove us there in her 1964 Chevy Impala convertible. I remember driving on Marquette Road to get to Marquette Park. My mother was amazed by the houses we saw there. When we drove back home on Marquette Road, my mother said, “Some day we will live on Marquette Road!”

Eventually, we did live at 2509 W. Marquette Road! Many Lithuanians lived in Marquette Park. There were very few Mexicans in the neighborhood back in the early 1970s. But that didn’t stop my mother from moving in. I missed my old friends at Back of the Yards, but Marquette Park was a much bigger and better park than Davis Square Park. Marquette Park had a lagoon for fishing, sailing, RC boats. There were plenty of activities at the field house where I eventually joined the Mar Par Chessmen. Years later, I joined the Marquette Park Track Club that was coached by Jack Bolton. There were soccer and baseball leagues. I went there for a wrestling match when I was in the eighth grade. I got to know Marquette Park very well. There were very few Mexicans at the park then.

So, imagine my surprise when I returned with my sons to Marquette Park to release the frog (I bet you thought I forgot all about the frog!).  Over the past few years the neighborhood has been changing. African-Americans started moving in. Now, Mexicans are moving in, too. Whenever I drive through the neighborhood, I see more store signs in Spanish. Since I don’t spend all that much time there, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived at the park. Marquette Park was filled with mostly Mexicans. Several soccer–actually, fútbol–games were in progress. Unlike the 1970s, all the players were Mexican. Ditto when I drove past the concrete basketball courts. I was also surprised by the Mexican food vendor in the picture above. They sold the usual Mexican food items: elotes, tacos, gorditas, raspados. My son was hungry, so he bought a couple of tacos de carne asada and an elote in a cup. I didn’t even know you could buy elote in a cup! I always buy it on a stick! As Dios intended. But, I’ve also seen pizza in a cup. So why not elote in a cup?

Anyway, we placed the frog (See! I still remember that this post was about the frog!) on the grassy shore of the lagoon and the frog immediately jumped into the water. Live long and prosper!

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City stickers


An annual Chicago rite.

We interrupt the regularly scheduled blog post to remind you to buy your Chicago city sticker. If you haven’t already, PLEASE buy your city sticker now. Or you will be ticketed and fined and charged a late fee AND you will still have to buy a Chicago city sticker if you live in Chicago. And don’t expect any mercy from the Chicago Police because they, too, have to buy city sticker for all their vehicles. If they don’t, they will be suspended for three days without pay. Their personal vehicles are policed by the police police. Someone has to police the police!

This year, I went to the Chicago City Clerk’s office on the first possible day to purchase my city sticker. I don’t want to be driving around without a valid city sticker and risk getting a ticket. It’s cheaper to buy a city sticker right away. Anyway, I couldn’t believe how long the line was at the City Clerk at 48th and Kedzie. And most of the people waiting in line were Mexican. I waited an hour and a half to buy my city sticker! But I was among the first Chicagoans to buy their city stickers.

Unfortunately, when I put the city sticker on my windshield, it fell off and landed on my dashboard. I had seen on the news how the initial shipment of city stickers didn’t stick, but I was hoping I would be spared a second trip to the City Clerk. But, alas! I had to return. And the line was even longer this time around. Luckily, Chicago extended to grace period to July 31, 2010, before they started ticketing and charging late fees.

I decided to go to City Hall the next day. The line was even longer, but I got special treatment because the replacement sticker line was very short. I was out of there in fifteen minutes! The City that Works! Sometimes Chicago lives up to its motto!

Harold’s Chicken


Harold’s Chicken, 6843 S. Ashland Avenue, Chicago, Illinois

One of my favorite fried chicken places in Chicago is Harold’s Chicken.

The first time I ate at Harold’s was about twenty years ago. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t even remember which one I went to the first time. It was somewhere on the south side, perhaps around 71st and State. I ordered the 1/2 chicken dinner. They literally gave me half a chicken. When they asked me if I wanted hot or mild sauce, I asked for the mild sauce because I wasn’t sure how hot the hot sauce would be or if I would even like it. I watched as they prepared my order. I got my half chicken with French fries on a slice of white bread and a small Styrofoam cup of cole slaw that was warmed by the chicken–I’m used to eating my cole slaw cold. Then the cook put the mild sauce on the chicken, the fries, and the bread with a two-inch paintbrush. Yes, the kind you and I use to paint your house. I suppose it’s sanitary if they only use it for putting hot or mild sauce on chicken. I loved how well chicken tasted that I often went back to Harold’s Chicken to eat. I think the paintbrush added that je ne sais quoi.

The first time I ate at Harold’s, I thought the slice of bread was a rather peculiar addition to the meal. I mean, it was underneath the chicken and the fries, so the sauce dripped all over the white bread. But when I ate the slice of white bread, it was delicious! Now, I look forward to the slice of white bread.

Over the years, I have eaten at other Harold’s Chicken restaurants. And I always order the  half-chicken dinner with fries, warm cole slaw, and the one slice of white bread. When I taught at Columbia College Chicago, I often ate at the Harold’s on Wabash and Balbo. You could actually sit down and eat there, but it was always so crowded and homeless people would always ask for money. After a while, they just ignored me–probably because I just ignored them. My only real complaint about this Harold’s Chicken was that they didn’t put the mild or hot sauce on the chicken with a paintbrush.

Chicago flag


My uniform patch of the Chicago flag

Everyone recognizes the Chicago flag, but not all Chicagoans know what our beautiful Chicago flag represents. Once I was eating lunch with my friend Mike when some tourists from France saw the patch of the Chicago flag on our uniforms. They wanted to know what the symbols on the flag meant. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know what the three white stripes represented back then. Mike explained all the symbols to the French tourists, much to their satisfaction. They were genuinely impressed that they had finally met a Chicagoan who actually knew what the Chicago flag represented. The French tourists left the restaurant and Mike and I continued eating lunch. When we asked for the check, the waitress told us that the French tourists had paid for our meal. Talk about the value of a little knowledge!

So, the three white stripes represent the three sides of Chicago: south side, north side, and west side. Notably, there is no east side of Chicago. That’s Lake Michigan! The two blue stripes represent the two bodies that help define Chicago: the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. However, I have also heard that the two blue stripes represent the two branches of the Chicago River. Don’t you just hate when there are two competing explanations? Each red star represents an important historical event of Chicago history: the 1812 Fort Dearborn Massacre, the 1871 Chicago Fire, the 1893 World’s Fair, and the 1933 World’s Fair.

In our era of politically correctness, the Fort Dearborn Massacre has been renamed The Battle of Fort Dearborn. It’s only a matter of time before this “encounter” gets softened even more. What’s next? The Fort Dearborn Cultural Exchange?

Now that you know the meaning of the Chicago flag, help share your knowledge of the city of Chicago and the Chicago flag to any tourist–whether from a foreign country or another state of the USA–who visits.

Topelandia


Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo

When driving in Mexico, you will encounter el tope. It’s a speed bump that is very unique to Mexico. They come in all shapes and sizes. They actually resemble a speed hump, but they’re actually taller and wider so it takes longer to drive over them. My cousin Mara’s neighborhood has so many topes, that she calls it Topelandia. In America, we also have speed bumps or speed humps. Usually their existence is often linked to petitions. About half of all Americans will petition to have speed humps placed in their residential neighborhoods in order to slow down traffic and make the streets safer for their children. After the construction of said speed bumps, the other half of the residents will petition to have those speed humps removed in order to speed up traffic. Besides, parents should be watching their children so they don’t play in the streets! You either love them or you hate them. I mean the speed humps, not the children.

Most of the time the topes are clearly visible and you must slow down before approaching them to avoid totaling your car. Occasionally, you don’t see one because it hasn’t been painted and you drive over it too fast. Your car bottoms out and all your passengers hit their heads on the car roof. It happens to the best of Mexican drivers every so often. It even happened to me. Everyone complains about the topes, but they’re there here to stay. You just have to accept them. Driving over topes would make great astronaut training. The only place they don’t have them is on the toll roads that lead to America, otherwise no one would pay to use these toll roads that closely resemble American highways. Without those topes, Mexican drivers would drive even more recklessly, if you can even imagine that! I absolutely hated driving over them. The topes, not the Mexican drivers. But I did have a few close calls. With Mexican drivers.

When I was younger, I never slowed down when driving over speed bumps or speed humps. In fact, if I drove over them at regular speed, the speed bumps felt less bumpy the faster you went over them. And they never damaged any of my cars, all of which I drove until they were totaled in accidents, none of which were my fault–I swear. I remember always driving full-speed ahead over the fourteen railroad tracks at 55th Street and St. Louis Avenue on Chicago’s south side and feeling less jolts than when I drove over the tracks slowly. I don’t know who said you should slow down over tracks, speed bumps, or speed humps. You should go over them as fast as possible to feel less bumps. That’s why cars have shock absorbers! I now have a car, a 2005 Pontiac Vibe, with a wheelbase so short that I can ride over speed humps or topes without actually having to slow down! It’s actually kind of thrilling! You go up and down rather quickly, much like an amusement park ride!

Bridgeport welcome


Bridgeport, Chicago, Illinois

Bridgeport is a neighborhood unlike any other in Chicago. Actually, there are two Bridgeports: the mythical, political Bridgeport that every Chicagoan hears about since starting school and the earthy, gritty Bridgeport that contrasts sharply with the mythical, political version.

In grade school, we learned all about Bridgeport, which is the birthplace of five Chicago mayors, including the present Mayor Richard M. Daley (Richard da Second). Bridgeport didn’t invent machine politics; they merely perfected machine politics, reaching its apogee in Mayor Richard J. Daley (Richard da First). Bridgeport is also very near the geographical center of Chicago. Many south siders often went to the White Sox games at Comiskey Park in Bridgeport. When I was a student at Holy Cross School, no school field trip would be complete without first driving past Mayor Daley’s bungelow at 3536 S. Lowe Avenue. Bridgeport was the Mecca of the south side. Every Chicagoan made a pilgrimage to Bridgeport at some point in their life.

When I told my mother that I was planning to buy a house in Bridgeport, she cringed and told me that I would regret it. For some unknown reason, I was drawn to Bridgeport. Besides, this was the location of the only house I could afford using the GI Bill. But before I bought this house, I checked out the neighborhood first. I drove past the house several times, at different hours of the day and night. Every time I drove past my future home, the block was extremely quiet. I never saw any movement in this vicinity at any time. I was sure that I was moving into a good neighborhood. After all, this was Bridgeport. So I bought the house, much to my mother’s disappointment, and I moved in.

This was when I saw the earthy, gritty side of Bridgeport for the very first time. You don’t really know a neighborhood until you move in and you live there 24/7/365. It was only then that I saw the seedy side of Bridgeport. My house was situated next to an alley that ran alongside the length of my house, an alley that everyone in the neighborhood used as a shortcut. I always heard whomever walked through the alley talking, at all hours of the day. Then one day, I noticed that Bridgeport had a gang problem and my house was right the border between two gang turfs. My neighbor always tried to start a fight with me by pointing to my camoflage shirt, a remnant from my Marine Corps enlistment, and tell me, “Hey, man! The war’s over!” I would ignore him and walk past him quickly. It was about that time that I learned that there were two sides to Bridgeport. And I lived on the wrong side of Bridgeport! I lived on the side where the public housing projects were located, the only white projects in the whole city of Chicago!

While I lived in the Marquette Park neighborhood, I had developed certain habits and I thought I could continue them when I saw all the stores, shops, and restaurants that were available in Bridgeport. I really thought that I would enjoy all these places that were within walking distance of my house. I went to Lina’s Italian restaurant that was less than one block from my house because they served authentic Italian food. Or, so I thought. When I entered the restaurant, I was greeted by Lina herself. I asked for the beef ravioli because I love authentic beef ravioli. Lina said, “It takes too long to make.” I said, “That’s fine. I’m not in a hurry tonight. I brought a book that I can read while I wait.” “Well, I’m not going to make ravioli just for you. Why don’t you order something else?” So I did. But I went back a few times hoping to eat ravioli, but she always refused to make it.

I once needed a button sewn on my winter wool coat, so I went to a tailor on Halsted Street. The tailor said, “You want this button sewn on? Why don’t you buy yourself some needle and thread and sew it on yourself?” He didn’t understand that I didn’t want to sew it on myself and that I was willing to pay him to sew the button on for me. He continously refused, so I left.

I went down the block to the barbershop that appeared to be in a continous state of disrepair, since at least the 1960s, judging by the newspaper clippings on the wall. There were no customers in the store, so the barber was sitting in a chair. When I entered, he stood up and said, “How may I help you?” I told him that I wanted a haircut. Well, he wasn’t giving haircuts that day. So I left.

Then, I went to the 11th Ward Office because I needed garbage cans for my house. They refused to give me garbage cans because I didn’t appear as a registered voter within their ward even though I had just moved there. I left without garbage cans. This was certainly a fine welcome to Bridgeport. I eventually adjusted to life Bridgeport. You just had to learn not to have too high of expectations.

Rudy


South Side, Chicago, Illinois

Rudy was the consummate pitchman. The last time I met him, was at his mother’s funeral when we were both adults. He was telling about his job as a brake pad salesman and I was thoroughly impressed by his knowledge of brake pads.

However, I shall always remember how he tried out as pitcher for the Chicago White Sox every spring. He was a south sider, after all. The coaches always told him to keep working out. In the traditional Chicago fashion, Rudy always reassured us with the words, “Wait till next year!” One of the main reasons he never made the team was because he focused more on spending time with his drinking buddies.

He was a great storyteller who always attracted the attention of everyone within hearing range. He was a very likeable guy who was fun to have around. We spent much more time in bars than on the baseball field. Although he lost interest in his workout plan for much of the year, he never lost the hope of making the team. Come springtime, he would get all worked up again for the open tryouts. After a few years we lost touch, but I always kept watching baseball with the hope that I would see him on the mound someday.

When I saw him again at his mother’s funeral. He still had not lost the hope of playing in the pros even though he was well past the age of the rookie pitcher. He had planned to try out with one of the Texas teams where he was now living. He was a great brake shoe salesman due to his outgoing personality and doing quite well working on commission. After explaining the virtues of his brake shoes in comparison to the competition, I was sold on his. Then I recalled why I always believed he would one day become a Major League Baseball pitcher. He could make you believe in whatever he was pitching.