Memorial for Vito


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.

The Comedy Shrine


Friday, March 6, 2020

I will perform at The Comedy Shrine on Friday, March 6, 2020.

I was surprised to get asked to perform in the first place. I have steadily improved my act over the last nine months since I started doing the standup comedy open mics again.

Just as everyone seems to be abandoning Facebook, standup comedians rely on it for maintaining contact with other comedians. First, I received a friend request, which I immediately accepted because it was from a comedian I had seen perform. After I accepted his friend request, he then messaged me asking me if I had ten minutes of material. When I said I did, he asked me if I wanted to perform at The Comedy Shrine on Friday, March 6, 2020. Of course, I did!

And to think that someone else noticed that my act was improving. The pay for this show will be a videotape of my performance. So now I have to drum some audience members so we have a full house for the videotaping.

Okay, as you’ve probably already guessed, yes, that’s why I’m writing this post! I would like to invite all my readers to come out to The Comedy Shrine to come see me perform standup comedy. Of course, there will be other great standup comedians, too. If you see the show, your laughter will also be recorded!

White chili


White chili

My wife has been trying new recipes lately. I don’t like cooking, although my wife wishes I would. She also wishes I would cook with her. However, I will alwats try everything she dishes up.

Anyway, her latest recipe was White Chili. She was so proud that she cooked it up without any problems. With great fanfare, she announced that dinner was served. Then she waited for my verdict after my first spoonful.

It tasted good. Not great, but good. With a name like White Chili, I expected it to white and taste like chili. Failure on both counts. Not one ingredient was white. If you look at the bowl in the picture, you will observe that in now way does it resemble chili. My expectations for chili are much higher.

My wife was disappointed not only with the appearance of the resulting dish, but also the taste of it. And, as my wife usually does when she cooks, she prepared enough for a family of six–even though my wife and I live alone.

Well, I ended up heating and reheating this dish for about week until it was completely gone. I must admit that I dreaded the thought of eating not-chili white chili. The next day, it still tasted okay. And the day after, too. By the third day, I decided not to even think of it as chili at all. Suddenly, this bean soup tasted much better!

And so it went as I ate bean soup every day until I had finished it alone. My refused to eat anymore after the first serving. The taste actually improved with age!

I told my wife that it tasted great as long as I didn’t think of it as chili, which it never really was. The last bowl certainly tasted the best. However, my wife will never prepare White Chili again.

South Side Story


I learned a lot about Chicago when I attended Divine Heart Seminary in Donaldson, Indiana. For example, in my World History class, we went on a field trip to Chicago to visit the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in Hyde Park. My father had taken us to what I thought were all the museums Chicago had to offer. Mr. Gibson, our history teacher merely told us were going on a field trip without any further explanation.

As we approached Chicago, I was surprised we were going to Chicago for our field trip. Even though we had visited the Museum of Science and Industry many times, I had no idea the Oriental Institute was nearby. I was very impressed by the museum. I was surprised by the many things I learned at the seminary. None of them relating to becoming a priest.

I learned that people in Indiana were fascinated with Chicago and visited my city quite often. Some of my classmates often asked what it was like to live in Chicago. They wanted details! To me, these were mundane facts, but I told them how I lived on the south side of Chicago, near where the Union Stockyards used to be. I told them how I attended a Lithuanian Catholic church and school, how I used to deliver the Chicago Sun-Times, Tribune, Daily News, American, and Today. I also delivered to Polish newspapers, the Daily Zgoda and the Chicagowski (I’m not making this name up!). These rural classmates of mine were truly fascinated by all these details.

Occasionally, I went home on weekends. The first few times, I took a Greyhound bus from Plymouth, Indiana, to downtown Chicago. And then I would take the CTA the rest of the way home. One of my classmates, Jim, was so curious about Chicago that he offered to have his mother take me to White Sox park, which was close enough to home so my father would pick me up. He lived in Whiting, Indiana, so his mother wasn’t driving that far out of the way. He was so excited to be in Chicago! He enjoyed waiting with me for my father in the stadium parking lot. We did this a couple more times.

One of the activities we did together as seminarians was watch television premieres of blockbuster movies. I remember watching Love Story because the upperclassmen made it sound like the coolest movie ever! I was surprised that many of my fellow seminarians cried at the end. There was a lot excitement when West Side Story was scheduled. I must confess that I had never seen the movie. In fact, I had never even heard of West Side Story. Everyone was shocked by ignorance. They just assumed I had seen the movie. I had no idea what the movie was about, and I was afraid to ask after all the teasing I suffered.

Well, I loved the movie! I loved the movie, the acting, the music, and the dancing. But I especially loved Natalie Wood as Maria. Of course, many seminarians were crying at the end. I couldn’t believe how these supposedly tough guys cried so easily.

Anyway, West Side Story suddenly made me the expert on gang life because I was from Chicago. I was always asked questions about the movie, gangs, and what it was like to be Puerto Rican. I explained that I was not qualified to say what is was like to be Puerto Rican because I was Mexican. That didn’t matter. The questions continued.

The next time we had a holiday weekend, my friend Jim offered to have his mother take me all the way to my house. All the way home, he kept asking if there gangs in my neighborhood. If the gangs were like the ones in West Side Story. If I ever saw anyone stabbed. The questions just kept coming all the way home.

I told him that, yes, our neighborhood did have gangs, but they didn’t dance like in West Side Story. I did see someone who was stabbed, but the not the actual stabbing. Jim kept prodding me for details. I told him about how a rival gang drove into our neighborhood to challenge our local gang. They shouted from their car as they drove past them as they played baseball in the park. Suddenly, their car stalled. Our gang ran up to the car with baseball bats. They hit the car a few times before it started up again and they took off.

I told Jim all these details, and then some, and he was enthralled by these stories. On the way home, he asked me where exactly I saw the stabbed person. His mother was interested, too, so we drove past the exact spot where I saw the stabbed person picked up by an ambulance. Before they drove me home, I had to show them where the rival gang’s car had stalled and where the other gang was playing baseball. Jim and his mother loved the tour I gave them. They finally took me home.

When I returned to the seminary after that weekend, I felt that everyone looked at me differently. Obviously, Jim had told everyone about his south side tour on the way to my house. To me, my life was just a normal life.

The ghost of Thanksgiving past


This Thanksgiving Day, I was reminded of how we have celebrated previous Thanksgiving Days with our family. And by our family, I mean the Rodriguez family. That’s my father’s side of the family, which is very, very big. When my Uncle Simon and Aunt Maricela bought their first house, the Rodriguez family began celebrating Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, and New Year’s Eve at their home. All the family tried to come to celebrate these holidays together. We usually had between forty to fifty people in the house. That included family members, friends, and neighbors for Thanksgiving.

I have many fond memories of Thanksgiving with my family. My aunt was such a great cook. I especially loved her baked sweet potatoes. And all those desserts she baked. I used to go with my parents, my brothers, and my sister until my parents got divorced. Then, my father would take us without our mother. Eventually, just my father and I would go alone.

I especially remember the last time I went there for Thanksgiving. Just my father and I went. I think that was the most people who went to this Thanksgiving dinner. There were lots of cousins and their friends.

I had just finished Marine Corps boot camp that week. I flew back to Chicago from San Diego on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, which is always a very busy travel day. We flew a circling pattern all the way from St. Louis to Chicago. I was beginning to get nauseous. Luckily, we landed before I got really sick.

The next day I called my Uncle Simon’s house and asked if they were still having the annual Thanksgiving dinner. Of course, they were! I didn’t actually talk to my Uncle Simon. My cousin Lulu anwered the phone. I don’t think their family really knew I had enlisted in the Marine Corps. When I told Lulu I just got back from boot camp, she said, “That’s great! Come on over! Wear your uniform!”

So, of course, I wore my uniform to the dinner. My father was so proud to present me to the Rodriguez family in my Marine Corps uniform! Lulu was happy to see that I had listened to her. The dinner went well, but since there were so many people there, we had to eat in shifts. But everyone ate. Then, my aunt brought out the desserts. I remember my Uncle Placido, who is a Roman Catholic bishop, looking at the desserts and saying, “All this and heaven, too!”

After dinner, my cousin told me we were going to Fat City, a bar where she worked. I really didn’t want to go to a bar in uniform, but she insisted. Well, I went, against my better judgment, but people I didn’t even know were happy to see me there. In fact, several people were buying me beers, which I didn’t realize at first. When the waitress brought me the first beer, I told her, “I didn’t order a beer.” She pointed to someone across the room and said, “This beer’s on him! He was in the Marines, too!” I got a few more beers that night.

I have to admit that that was my most memorable Thanksgiving dinner. And, the very few times I saw someone in a military uniform, I bought them a drink.

Confirmation


I actually wrote this on February 12, 2010. I was going through old drafts that I never finished or posted. This is one of them.

February 12, 2010

My son Adam was confirmed today. And I recalled many things past and present about being Roman Catholic.

The holy sacrament of Confirmation is usually the fourth sacrament that a Roman Catholic receives. A Christian baby is baptized soon after birth and then around the age of eight makes his or her Confession and receives his or her First Holy Communion. Then around age twelve or thirteen, usually, he or she makes a conscious decision to denounce Satan and become a Christian, unlike Baptism where an innocent baby has no choice but to be baptized a Catholic.

I am a Roman Catholic (or just plain Catholic). There were times in the past when I told people that I was an ex-Catholic or a lapsed Catholic. I was once hospitalized at St. Anthony’s Hospital and when I was asked my religion I said, “Catholic” just out of guilt. A Catholic priest then came to visit me everyday. I told him that I wasn’t sure if I was still Catholic and he told me that it was normal to doubt. Now, whenever someone asks me my religion, I say I’m Catholic. If I think about Catholicism very objectively, I realize that, once you go through all of my religious training, I will always be a Catholic and never an ex- or lapsed Catholic. That would be the equivalent of saying, “I used to be Mexican.”

Today, I tried to compare Adam’s confirmation to mine. But I couldn’t remember my confirmation because I was baptized in México when I was about two months old. When it came time for my class to get confirmed at Holy Cross, my mother told me that I was already confirmed. That was news to me! Whenever we had confirmation classes, Sister Cecilia would just look at me with disdain and shake her head. She couldn’t understand how Mexicans could confirm babies. That was so contradictory to the whole concept of confirming that one voluntarily and willingly wanted to be a Catholic. Well, I was an outsider during the whole confirmation process. I had to go to the Confirmation, but I couldn’t sit with the class because I wasn’t getting confirmed. I didn’t feel very Catholic that day. Or today when I tried to compare my confirmation with my son’s.

I was happy for my son, but this was an awkward day for me. Since the divorce, we no longer celebrate anything as a family. But such is life.