I would like to thank Noël for asking me to say a few words about Vito. He was one of my oldest friends and I have so many happy memories of the time we spent together. As you all know, his real name is Vytautas Jonas Vitkauskas. But we always called him Vito. Everyone called him Vito. Sometimes he would have to explain that he was a Lithuanian Vito. And not an Italian Vito.
It all started with chess. Vito loved playing chess until the very end. When my family moved to Marquette Park, I made new friends. Among my closest friends were Vito and Jim. First, I met Jim at Gage Park High School in physics class. I didn’t learn much physics because Jim and I always played chess during class. Then, Jim told me about the Mar Par Chessmen, a chess club at the Marquette Park fieldhouse. And there, we met Vito.
Our lives revolved around Marquette Park and the Mar Par Chessmen, which met at the Marquette Park fieldhouse every Tuesday evening. People of all ages came to play chess. There were two things we always remembered about playing at the Mar Par Chessmen. The first was Spans, an older gentleman who never missed a Tuesday night of action-packed chess matches. He was well-known for slamming a chess piece down and yelling, “Check!” at the top of his voice. Even though he lost every game, Spans got great satisfaction saying, “Yeah, but I checked you sixteen times!” We, too, would often imitate Spans when we played chess, slamming down the chess piece and shouting, “Check!”
The second, but not so fond, memory from the Mar Par Chessmen was playing chess in the winter. The fieldhouse was located next to the Marquette Park lagoon. So for three straight hours we were forced to listen to, “Danger! Thin ice! No skating!” Endlessly. Sometimes, when we were nowhere near the park, one of us would mimic the PA voice out of the blue: “Danger! Thin ice! No skating!”
Of course, Vito had other sayings he would often repeat. For example, if I mentioned that perhaps we should turn on the lights, Vito would say, “Light is for those who cannot see!” Or, just out of the blue, he would often say, “‘I see,’ said the blind man as he picked up the hammer and saw.”
We had so much in common, besides chess and living near Marquette Park. We also loved going to the movies together. When I started working and owned my own car, we went to the movies all over Chicago. If Jim or I started talking during the movie, Vito would shush us by saying, “Tyliac!”, Lithuanian for “Hush!”. He would even say it to total strangers who spoke too loudly in the theater. We especially loved comedies. We would always sit in the third row. And we would always sit all the way through the end of the credits. At some point, Vito would erupt into applause during the credits: “Let’s hear it for the key grip!” And I would tell him, “Tyliac!” To this day, I still don’t know what a key grip does.
We also loved going out for pizza, before or after the movie. And on a few occasions, before and after the movie. So every weekend we would go to the show and go out to eat pizza two or three times. On Friday night, I would call Vito and start telling him about my week and Vito would cut me off. He would say, “Stop talking right now. Otherwise, we won’t have anything to talk about when we go out.”
Vito was our activity planner. Because of Vito, I saw a few plays I would have never seen on my own. I went to a Sting concert because of Vito. We also went to see Larry Rand in concert for the last show at the Amazing Grace in Evanston because of Vito. As a side note, I am now friends with Larry Rand on Facebook because of Vito. Now that I think of it, I joined Facebook because of Vito.
As we matured, our interests broadened. We sometimes went running in Marquette Park together. When I started going to kung fu classes, Vito started going with me. On lazy Sunday afternoons, we would hang out at my apartment and read the Sunday newspapers. Vito had such a calming effect on everyone. He was a very nice person to have around.
I still remember our university days at Champaign-Urbana. Of the three of us, Jim was the only officially registered U of I student. But Vito and I would visit Jim on weekends. We still fondly recall our college days together.
I never knew when Vito and Jim would come over to my apartment unexpectedly and announce that we were going on a road trip. Well, I thought those road trips were over when my first son was born. However, Vito and Jim taught me otherwise. One Saturday morning, I’m home with my three-year-old son when I hear a knock on my door. Well, it was Vito and Jim announcing that we were going to Mount Baldy in Indiana. Like we used to. I thought I would get out of it by saying I had to watch my son. But, no! They said I could bring my son along. We had a lot of fun that day at Mount Baldy! Vito brought his camera, so I still have pictures of that trip.
Jim continued with his university studies. I joined the Marines. Vito joined the Navy, where he studied journalism. When I started writing for some local running publications, Vito gave me his notes from his Navy journalism classes, which really improved my writing.
I was stationed in California when I came back to Chicago for my first furlough from Marine boot camp. Of course, I had to visit all my family and friends. So, Vito and I drove to the north side for pizza. Even though I was watching the time, I got a ticket for rush hour parking. I looked at my watch again in disbelief. Vito finally asked me, “Did you set your watch to Chicago time?” I then realized that my watch was still set to California time. I was going to pay for the ticket because I would be back in California before the court date. But Vito volunteered to represent me in court. I insisted on just paying the ticket. But Vito insisted on representing me in court, and so he did. He explained to the judge that I was a U.S. Marine on furlough from California and that I had forgotten to set my watch to the correct time. He must have been persuasive, because the judge dismissed my parking ticket.
Over time, many of our interests changed. All of them except our love of comedy. Especially standup comedy. In the late 1970s, Vito, Jim, and I all started performing standup comedy. And all these years, we never lost our sense of humor. We even wrote a comedy skit based on the Marx Brothers. A parody of the Marx Brothers, if that’s at all possible. I was Groucho, Jim was Harpo, and Vito was Chico. I had forgotten all about it until Jim recently sent me a copy of the script. We really put a lot of effort into it and finished writing the skit, but we never actually performed it. But we were still proud of our accomplishment.
Last year, I decided to get back into comedy and I recruited Vito to help me write some jokes. I had used his jokes in the past. And they were usually funnier than mine. So, he helped me write some new jokes. He even told me about all the new comedy venues with open mics. It was just like the old days when Vito, Jim, and I were supportive of each other. He told me about this café called Kibbitznest where they had a comedy open mic night. I think he was more enthusiastic about me performing than I was. We actually had a lot of fun going to these open mics together. Despite me being nervous because of my looming performance, I really enjoyed performing and spending time with Vito. And I also enjoyed watching Vito enjoying himself. He recorded my performances and you can hear him laughing in the background. He took notes on a lot of the comedians. After each of my performances, he gave me lots of constructive criticism, which I have used to improve my act. Vito was tempted to also perform at a comedy open mic. He almost did. But I think he was just happier working behind the scenes.
A while back, I reminded Vito of my encounter with his father. Vito was happy to be reminded of his father. When Vito lived on the northside near Humboldt Park, I went to pick him up at his father’s house. I knocked on the door and Vito’s father answered. “Is Vito home?” I asked. “I’m Vito,” his father said. So, I asked, “Is Vito Junior home?” Vito’s father said, “I’m Vito Junior,” and he just smiled. “Okay,” I said, “Is Vito the third home?” And he said, “Well why didn’t you say so? Vito the third’s not home.” Vito was a lot like his father. Like father, like son.
When Vito met Noël, he couldn’t wait to introduce me to her. He told me that they were taking tango lessons. So, we said we would meet at an Argentine restaurant near my house. But in typical Vito fashion, he took Noël to a gun range first because she had never shot a gun before. Well, we had a very memorable meal together.
I will especially remember the last few times we hung out at Kibbitznest. We both worked really hard for my return to the comedy open mic scene. And we really had a lot of fun hanging out with all the comedians. And then we went to Jim’s house and Vito proudly showed the video of me performing at Kibbitznest to Jim and Ted.
Throughout our friendship, even when we were thousands of miles apart, Vito was never far from my thoughts. He was a different kind of friend. Vito was always honest, but never hurtful. He knew how to keep a conversation going, without making anyone feel pressured to participate. When I look back at our friendship over the years, I realize that he never complained about anything. He just accepted everything life dished out at him. He was never pessimistic. I always felt good when Vito was around.
I will always remember Vito. Vito will always be my friend.