South Side Story


Holy Cross Church

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.

Running laps


Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

Ideally, I enjoy running one, and only, one lap. However, running is seldom ideal and occasionally we must run more than one lap. Last summer, I found my ideal running course, ideal for me, anyway. About nine miles with gently rolling hills and enough variety in scenery to keep my run interesting. I saw and greeted enough runners on this course to make me feel like I was running with someone else. This course was perfect for me! Especially since it was only one lap long!

However, during the fall, the days became shorter, and darkness covered the course much earlier than I would have liked. The first few runs of shortened daylight, I ended my run in darkness. When I lived in Chicago, this wasn’t a problem because of the streetlights. However, in Glendale Heights and Glen Ellyn, there were no streetlights anywhere except downtown. I was running in the dark. And I could barely see where I was running. I was also blinded by the headlights of oncoming cars. I had to adjust my starting time so I could finish my run by dusk when I could still see.

Then in addition to the shortened days, I also had to contend with one of the wintriest winters of my life. The first snowfall, I was able to run my usual course as the snow was fluffy and fun to run in. However, as the snow melted and refroze into ice, it became a slippery hazard, especially on the downhills. The first time I encountered an icy downhill, I re-pulled my already pulled left hamstring. I had only run about a quarter mile, but I had to limp back home at a slow trot, even slower than my already slow pace. I was able to run my course a few more times until repeated snowstorms struck. Not only was my running course dark by 4:30 P.M., but it was also at least ankle-deep in snow in ice in most places. Not everyone shoveled their sidewalks.

I was just getting into the groove of running, so I didn’t want to slow down during the winter. Before I started running this nine-mile course, I was running laps around our housing complex. Each lap was about 0.9 of a mile. I ran five laps as many times per week as my body would allow for 4.5 miles. I’m quite sure the lap was 0.9 of a mile because I measured it with my iPhone 2, my car, my Samsung Galaxy Note 2, and my car again just to confirm the distance. So, I was sure I was running 0.9 of a mile with each lap. And the reason I was running laps in our complex was that I lacked the self-confidence to go out and run on an out-and-back course. I was afraid I wouldn’t have the endurance to finish, and I would be stranded miles from home.

Anyway, once the snow and ice accumulated on my running course, I began running laps again, out of necessity. What I hate about running laps is that they’re repetitive, but because they’re repetitive, I also find comfort in running laps. Despite the snow and ice outside of our complex, snowplows cleared the street of our housing complex, and the street was salted so I had a good running surface on most days. I ran ten laps on most days last winter. I didn’t run on the coldest day of the year because my wife was told she didn’t have to go to work because of the extreme cold and so she was home to forbid me from exiting our front door. Otherwise, I would have run that day, too. Don’t get me wrong, but I enjoyed not having to brave the elements that day. Thank you, wife! Especially, for the hot chocolate you made me that day.

One thing I learned from running laps is that life is also about running laps. We do many things repeatedly in life and running. In running, it’s left foot, right foot, repeat. And I keep repeating putting one foot in front of the other until I finish running my desired distance. Or, until I can’t run any longer, for whatever reason, extreme weather, or lack of desire or endurance. In life, we repeat many things such as education: grade school, high school, college, graduate school. I have run many laps in my life, in many different areas, but it’s all repetition. I choose to enjoy the repetition of these laps because of the comfort they provide. I enjoy the comfort of life’s laps.

However, when I run, I still prefer to run only one lap!

Happy Mother’s Day!


Image
My mother Carmen and I, Perth Amboy, New Jersey, 1956.

Happy Mother’s Day to every mothers everywhere! Yesterday and today!

Yesterday, no , today is Mother’s Day in the U.S., but yesterday was Mother’s Day in México because Mother’s Day is always celebrated on May 10th in México. I was born on May 9th, so my mother would usually tell me how she had hoped I would have been born on Mexican Mother’s Day, May 10th. When I was a boy, she usually told me this either on my birthday or on May 10th, or more often than not, on both days. She also told me how she was hoping for a girl during her entire pregnancy. I would have been Debbie, but I turned out to be a boy.

Unfortunately, my mother is no longer around for us to spend the day with her. She always wanted to have grandchildren from me, but my children weren’t born until long after she passed away. So my oldest son only knew his maternal grandmother until he was almost two years old because she, unfortunately, passed away from ovarian cancer, but he never met his paternal grandmother, my mother. And my twins never met either grandmother at all. I feel that my sons were deprived of some wonderful experiences by not having had grandmothers in their childhood.

The happiest days of my childhood were the days when my parents were still married and my grandmother and tía Matilde were living with us in Chicago. My mother was always so happy having her mother in the house. Everyone needs a mother. And to have a mother and grandmother in your life is to be doubly blessed!

Happy Mother’s Day!

DDR

¡Yo soy mexicano!


Mi familia

Cuando era niño, vivíamos en Chicago y viajábamos a México cada año. Íbamos mi mamá, mi hermano Daniel y yo. Una vez que fuimos, mi mamá estaba embarazada. Todo mundo le decía que no fuera a México hasta después del parto. Como mi mamá era muy cabezona, nos fuimos a México de todos modos. Pues, mi hermanito Diego nació en Celaya, Guanajuato, en la casa de mi tía. La próxima vez que mi mamá se embarazó, nos quedamos en Chicago y mi hermano Ricardo nació en nuestro apartamento.

Cuando yo tenía doce años y ya todos asistíamos a la escuela, yo, por ser el mayor, cuidaba a mis hermanitos mientras nuestros padres trabajaban. Los vestía para la escuela, los acompañaba a la escuela y los acompañaba a casa después de la escuela. Siempre jugábamos juntos y a veces nos peleábamos como suelen hacer los hermanos. A Diego le daba tanto orgullo de ser mexicano de 100% por haber nacido en México. Siempre nos decía, «Yo nací en México. ¡Yo soy mexicano! ¡Ustedes no son mexicanos como yo!». Según él, Daniel, Ricardo y yo éramos gringos por haber nacido en los Estados Unidos. Diego siempre decía «¡Yo nací en México!» con mucho orgullo.

Pues, cuando volvíamos a casa después de clase, no siempre íbamos directamente a casa. A veces cada uno iba con su amigo y luego nos encontrábamos en casa antes de que llegara mi mamá del trabajo. Pero una vez, no llegó Diego para la hora fijada. Me puse nervioso porque sabía que mi mamá me daría una paliza por haber perdido a mi hermanito. Lo fui a buscar por todo el barrio, pero no lo encontré. Cuando mi mamá llegó, me preguntó, «¿Ya están todos?». Le mentí y le dije que sí en una voz muy tímida. Mi mamá se dio cuenta de que alguien faltaba. «¿Dónde está Diego?» me preguntó. «No sé» le dije esperando una paliza.

Mi mamá nos abrigó y salimos en el coche para buscar a Diego. No lo encontramos. Volvimos a casa y mi mamá hizo varias llamadas a parientes, vecinos y chismosas. Nadie sabía dónde estaba mi hermanito. De repente, vimos por la ventana que se estacionaba un coche grande y negro frente de la casa. Salieron dos hombres de traje negro con mi hermanito. Resulta que Diego volvía a casa solo después de visitar a un amigo cuando los oficiales de la migra lo vieron. Le preguntaron, «¿Dónde naciste?», y mi hermanito naturalmente contestó con mucho orgullo, «¡Yo nací en México!» y se lo llevaron. Después de varias horas, lo trajeron a nuestra casa y mi mamá les enseñó documentos para comprobar que Diego estaba en los Estados Unidos legalmente. Luego mi mamá regañó a Diego y le dijo, «¡Ya no le digas a nadie que naciste en México!». Me salvé de una paliza por el susto que sufrió mi mamá. Hasta hoy en día, mi hermano nunca le dice a nadie que nació en México.

English


I'm visiting! I plan on going back to Mexico!

I have met a lot of Mexicans in Chicago who talk about going back to live in Mexico someday. My mother always said she was moving back to Mexico, but never did. Because of their close proximity to the U.S., many Mexicans, even those living in Mexico, feel it’s important to learn English and know a little about their northern neighbors. How many Americans have such an attitude about Mexico and Mexicans? When I was in Mexico, a lot of people knew several phrases in English. Many Mexicans had studied English in school at some point in their lives. Several of my relatives were fluent in English and they spoke English quite well. I was actually very surprised by this. And it’s not like they’re ever planning on moving to the U.S. Actually, they’re quite happy in Mexico. In fact, I met several Mexicans who had moved to the U.S. and didn’t like living here. So they moved back because they missed their family and Mexico. Most Mexicans want to live in Mexico.

Speak English! You're talking to an American!

Canas


I scared a lot of people when I looked like this! And I loved it!!

Canas in Spanish means gray hair. My gray hair started appearing in my early thirties. In some of pictures, my hair doesn’t even look gray. Sometimes it looks dark brown or black. Most of the time it looks like I have salt and pepper hair. In some pictures my hair looks completely gray. I’ve never worried much about my appearance. What you see is what you get! No hair dyes or plastic surgery for me. Despite the gray hair, I feel more energetic now than when I was younger. There’s a saying in Spanish: Con las canas vienen las ganas. This saying is difficult to translate, but it could be interpreted as, “With (gray hair) age comes desire/energy.” Okay, I did my best, but it loses something in the translation. I feel that I have more energy than my much younger colleagues, who seem to tire much sooner than me. Well, I just accept life as it comes. Life is a boxing match, so I’ve learned to roll with the punches. When I was younger, I thought that the best defense was blocking punches and punching back. However, no matter how good a pugilist you are, you will get punched. And quite often, too. So, I learned to roll with the punches.

Anyway, gray hair runs in our family. Or, so I thought. All of my uncles in Chicago had salt and pepper hair since their early thirties, and I followed the family genetic suit. But when I went to Mexico, I noticed that my male relatives in their thirties, forties, and even fifties didn’t have gray hair. And they didn’t dye their hair, either. So why do we Rodríguezes have more gray hair in America than in Mexico. Well, I’ll be honest with you, Gentle Reader. I don’t know! And it doesn’t bother me either. Except when I’m in Mexico and they ask me my age. I know that they’re trying to place me in chronological order among relatives, I being the long lost relative who finally returned to the mother country. I think it is only in these moments that I become self-conscious about my gray hair.

But I am thankful to have lived longer than I had ever expected I would as a boy. I remember watching all those old kung fu movies and fantasizing about becoming like the old kung fu master that is baddest warrior of all. You know the guy. The protagonist fights and defeats one combatant after another until at the end of the movie he confronts the deadliest warrior alive, who usually turns out to be a seemingly frail old man with long white hair and a long white beard. This was usually the best fight scene of the movie! Until the protagonist finally defeats him after a long and exciting battle. So this is how I thought I would become in my old age. Other than gradually getting older and older, I really don’t have much in common with the old kung fu master. Okay, I tried growing my hair and beard long, but no one really felt comfortable around me. So, I’m back to my short gray hair happy that, Con las canas vienen las ganas.

Con las canas vienen las ganas.

Newspapers


I just finished reading the Sunday Chicago Tribune. I used to really enjoy reading the Sunday paper from morning to early afternoon. But lately,–of course, the Internet has a lot to do with it–newspapers have been annoying me. I recently re-subscribed to the Chicago Tribune, against my better judgment. The telemarketer insisted that all the problems I had in the past would remain problems of the past. This reminded me of a phone call from an ex who promises things will be different now. Promises, promises!

So, I re-subscribed to the Tribune yet again. And they failed to deliver on their promises–yet again! They told me that this time I would receive the newspaper on my doorstep before I left the house for school. It hasn’t happened yet. Today, I thought I would save my favorite sections from the paper for last. But when I went to read the paper, not all the sections were there!

I love to read all the news about Chicago, but the Metro section was missing. I’m not really into sports, but I like reading about the Olympics, especially the track and field events. However, the Sports section was also missing. The Business and Perspective sections were also missing in action. I called the Tribune to complain, but I was mechanically greeted by their automated answering system. All I wanted to do was get the missing sections so that I could read them. But if I wanted to talk to a live person, I would have to call back tomorrow. By then I will have read the missing sections on the Internet! So why am I subscribing to the Chicago Tribune if they don’t deliver?

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! The Tribune fails to deliver.

Jenny


High school Spanish student.

Now that I think of it, I have also had some memorable Spanish teachers in addition to Enrico Mordini at Divine Heart Seminary. My first semester at UIC, I made sure that I registered for a Spanish class. I took a placement test on which I scored poorly. When you sort of know Spanish, as I did then, you manage to talk yourself into the wrong answer many times just because it sounds right. I had to take a second placement test in the Spanish department because I had a Spanish surname, I admitted that I came from a Spanish-speaking family, and I still actually spoke Spanish. Sort of. For the placement test, I had to write in Spanish and explain where I worked and what I planned to do at UIC. This was actually very difficult for me because I only studied Spanish for two years at Divine Heart Seminary and I didn’t really apply myself because I was just a rebellious teenager. I occasionally wrote letters in Spanish to Mexico, but they were usually very short. So I wrote this little essay in Spanish and they placed me in Spanish class for heritage speakers. This class consisted of students from Spanish-speaking backgrounds who sort of knew Spanish, but not really.

I will always remember our first Spanish instructor. She was a teaching assistant from the Dominican Republic named Juana. She insisted that we call her Jenny. I think she wanted to fit in with the rest of the Americans. As a side note, I was always, and still am, amazed by the fact that graduate students would come from Spanish-speaking countries to UIC to study Spanish. Anyway, Jenny was quite a teacher. When we took exams, she would look it over and tell us we might want to look over a certain answer. When I did, I realized that I was wrong and she gave me a chance to correct my mistakes. She came to Chicago in September and she was amazed at how cold it was: about 60 degrees Fahrenheit! The next week, the temperature dropped to about 50 degrees. When I saw her walking to class that 50-degree day, she wore a full-length winter coat, a hat, a scarf, and gloves. She couldn’t believe how cold it was in Chicago. Just as a warning, I told her that it would get much colder in just a few weeks. I also reminded her that it also snowed in Chicago. Once winter arrived, she would only take off her only her hat, scarf, and gloves, but keep her coat on. She would shiver during the whole class. When she graduated with her masters degree, she immediately went back to the Dominican Republic.

Comedy


Sally’s Stage, Chicago, Illinois

I’ve always loved comedy in any form since I was a boy. Of course, I loved all the old TV comedies like The Dick Van Dyke Show, the Honeymooners, and Laugh In, and the variety shows like the Carol Burnett Show and the Flip Wilson Show, but I especially loved watching the standup comedians like Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Bob Newhart, Joan Rivers, and Phyllis Diller. I loved watching them so much that I wanted to be a comedian, too. For some strange reason, I would always remember every joke that I heard. Of course, I had trouble retaining my school lessons, like the multiplication tables. But I knew hundreds of jokes by the time I was a teenager. Other boys memorized baseball statistics from baseball cards or knew where all the pretty girls in the neighborhood lived. My friend Adrian could tell the year and make of any automobile just by looking at the taillights, the headlights, or the grille. When that became too easy for him, he graduated to airplanes. Anytime a plane flew overhead, he would tell us what kind of plane it was and what airlines used them. If no one stopped him, he would recite every statistic he knew about that plane. He even knew about military aircraft. But he still knew his cars as well.

Anyway, surrounded by friends like that, I wanted to find my niche, my very own specialty. Something in which I could indulge to the nth degree. In the immortal words of Tina Turner, I never do nothin’ nice ‘n’ easy! I decided that jokes would be my forte! When we went to the library, I would check out a joke book. Every Sunday, I would read the jokes religiously in the My Favorite Jokes section in the Parade Magazine that appeared in the Sunday paper. Since I didn’t speak English that well, learning all these jokes helped me improve my English. And I became one of the best spellers in the third grade even though I didn’t speak English all that well. My mother, who had the same love for jokes, and I would always tell each other the latest joke we had heard. I even read Reader’s Digest just for the jokes.

So, it’s no wonder that I became a standup comedian. However, I was always nervous on stage, even when I settled down and became comfortable. That’s one of the reasons I gave up performing. I would feel nervous for days before performing. That feeling would intensify while performing. And then, I wouldn’t get over my nervousness afterwards for days because I would think about all the mistakes I had made or things that I should have said. But that didn’t stop me in my quest to become funnier.

Funnier? I wanted to be the funniest comedian ever! That’s the way I am. When I do something, I must go all out. I don’t let my actual talent and limitations stop me. I know my limits because I cross them all the time. I wanted to become so funny as a standup comedian that I would make someone die from laughter! I fantasized about someday performing at the Chicago Theater and seeing my name on the marquis and an ambulance on standby parked in front. Yes, I thought I could be that funny!

And to that end, I watched every classic TV comedy show and every classic comedy movie ever made. But that wasn’t enough for me in my quest for killer comedy. I also read every humorous book I could find, usually by culling the bookshelves at one of the many used bookstores that we used to have in Chicago. I even bought a book autographed by Bob Hope for a dollar! I read a lot of comedy, humor, and joke books in my lifetime. Well, as usually happens to me whenever I read a book, while reading I discover at least two or three other books I must read. Especially with the comedians who are always thanking someone who positively influenced their comedic skills. So, let’s just say that I read a lot of funny books.

My favorite book of all time!

So, one day, I was invited to a party by my friend Mary McCall at her condominium at 400 E. Randolph. That’s the high-rise building with the pool covered by the glass geodesic dome that used to be located by the Lake Shore Drive S-curve until someone decided to straighten out the S-curve. The building is still there, but the S-curve is gone. Anyway, I met, just by chance, Aaron Freeman the comedian. Mary introduced me to him, but we already knew each other because we both had performed at the Clout Club, the comedy club founded by Jim Wiggins on North Lincoln Avenue in 1986. Aaron mentioned that there weren’t any funny books written. I couldn’t help it, but I had to disagree. “What about the classics?” I asked him. Aristophanes and Shakespeare wrote some very funny stuff. Cervantes was a very funny guy, too! Of course, Catch-22 and Catcher in the Rye are also hilarious. I told him he had to read anything by some of the lesser-known humor writers, but equally as funny, such as Ring Lardner, Stephen Leacock, S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, Groucho Marx, Will Cuppy, Woody Allen, Dorothy Parker, Richard Armour, and Max Shulman. He said he would read them. I really enjoyed that conversation with him because I love talking about jokes and funny things that I have read. I never met Aaron again, so I haven’t been able to ask him if he ever read any of my suggestions and read any of those funny writers. Such is life.

DDR

Cordi Marian


My oldest son went to daycare at Cordi Marian, 1100 S. May Street in Little Italy for three years. They accepted all children provided they were potty trained. My son was hardly overqualified, but they accepted him anyway. These three years were quite a learning experience for me because of series of unbelievable coincidences, the kind you couldn’t include in a novel or a movie. First of all, I learned that my aunt Concha also sent her son Peter there for daycare. Peter and David didn’t really know they were related because they had never met before. One day I recognized my aunt Concha as she was leaving Cordi Marian with her son. Our sons soon became good friends and since Peter was a year older he kind of looked over my son to make sure he was fine.

Another surprise was that the nuns who taught at the school knew our family. In fact, the nuns were all from Mexico. So were all the lay teachers and teacher aids. All the parents liked the fact that the children were learning Spanish. Since most of the teachers spoke very little English, most of the children were speaking Spanish. One day, Sister Teresa, the principal, asked me how my father was. She knew my father by name. We talked a while and then she told me how she knew not only my father but also his brothers and sisters and their parents, my grandparents. Since my grandfather was a carpenter, he did some carpentry with his sons at Cordi Marian. Sister Teresa showed me some of the shelves and bookcases that they had made for the school. And three generations later, my son is using these cubby-hole shelf to store his backpack and blanket.

One day my father called me to me that his sister, Sor Ancilla, had come from her convent in Texas where she is Mother Superior. I go to Pilsen to pick up my father and I ask where we have to go to pick up my aunt. He asks me if I know how to get to 1100 S. May Street. Of course, I do! That’s were I take my son to daycare, I tell him. Well, I get there and sure enough, my aunt Sor Ancilla is staying at Cordi Marian for the weekend. What a coincidence! Or rather, what a series of coincidences that no would believe if I wrote them into a novel.