The Chicago snowstorm is more than just a meteorological event. For my brothers and me, this was the perfect time to go out to play in the snow and make snowmen and snow forts. We actually enjoyed staying out all day in the snow if possible. My mother would send me to the store so we could stock up on milk and bread. She was afraid the stores would run out of milk whenever she saw the first snowflake falling. I had to buy at least two gallons of milk and bread. We were tortilla eaters. We never really ate bread at home unless there was a snowstorm. So I had to buy as many loaves of bread as my mother could afford. We would eat sandwiches and toast for weeks after a snowstorm. My brother Jerry and I used to go door to door with shovels knocking to see who wanted us to shovel their sidewalk. We would earn some money that way. We watched Ray Rayner to see if our school would close for a snow day. But they never did. All the teachers at Holy Cross were nuns who lived in the convent next to the school and most of the students lived within a three-block radius anyway. Ray Rayner would announce school after school closing, but he never called out Holy Cross! Going to school cut into our snow playtime.
So it’s snowing now, and has been since early this morning. I’m hoping for an e-mail from UIC telling the their calling a snow day. But they can’t close down the campus because they also have a hospital. UIC has never shut down the campus for a mere snowstorm. Not even the Big Snow of 1967. So, I better get up early tomorrow morning so I can shovel my car out and drive to school. Actually, I don’t mind going to school in the snow. I’ve lived in Chicago my whole life, so I actually enjoy the snowfall. I enjoy shoveling the snow. As an adult, that’s how I now play in the snow. And I love it!
Long ago, my brother Jerry had a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig named Petunia for a pet. “Why did you name her Petunia?” I asked him. Well, what is Porky the Pig’s girlfriends name? Petunia! And so in a moment of sheer brilliance my brother had a pet Vietnamese pot-bellied pig named Petunia. He was always proud of his naming abilities thereafter.
Petunia had quite a personality. She attracted people from all over the neighborhood since no one else had a pig for a pet. They would drive by just to see Petunia in the yard. One day, Petunia escaped from my brother’s yard and within hours someone had returned her home. Everyone knew where she lived. Petunia was very friendly, especially if you were eating. She would butt her head against your leg until you gave her something eat.
I used to visit my brother quite often, so I used to see a lot of Petunia. I liked her, but not in the same way I would have liked a dog. When I moved next door to my brother I got to see way too much of Petunia, but I was sorry to see my brother move away. But not just because I would miss Petunia!
Once, when he moved to his new house, Jerry left a case of beer on the rear deck and Petunia managed to puncture through the cans with her teeth. She drank the whole case of beer! She staggered around the backyard until she fell over and passed out. There were empty beer cans all over the deck.
I think my brother loved that pig more than any pet he ever had, including our dog Duke. Some days, he paid more attention to Petunia than any one else in his family. Once when I was at Jerry’s house, I noticed that Petunia’s toenails were painted red. Jerry had painted her toenails and his wife Rita wasn’t too happy about it. She said, “He never painted my toenails!”
So I was at the gas station at 55th and Ashland this morning filling up my tank. The first thing I thought of was how this used to be my neighborhood on the outer boundary of Back of the Yards. I used to wait on this corner for the bus whenever we went to the Museum of Science and Industry. Sometimes we would eat at the Burger King on the corner there. I used to deliver newspapers in that neighborhood. Then, the neighborhood changed and it became the “bad side of town,” but when I hear that I have to laugh because it was also called that when I lived there in the 1960s. So I’m getting gas there this morning and I’m getting dirty looks from people who think I shouldn’t be on their turf. I just smile at them, knowing they don’t know that I feel comfortable right there on their turf because it’s still my turf.
The second thing I thought of was Bob Bloom Roofing. You see, I was pumping gas when I looked up at the roof in front of me, when I wasn’t watching my back. I saw the black tar that repaired a once leaky roof. When I owned my house at 1018 W. 32nd Place, my roof started leaking. At first, I was in denial because I couldn’t afford to get a new roof. I talked to my brother Jerry the fireman because it is a well-known fact that all firemen have a side job because of their work schedule that gives them forty-eight hours off after working twenty-four. In fact, my brother is a also painter on the side who will paint apartments, houses, and just about anything else on his days off. In college, he majored in art. So he’s overqualified to paint your house, just in case you’re interested.
Anyway, I told my brother about my leaky roof. Yes, it continued leaking despite my denial. Jerry recommended Bob Bloom Roofing, a fireman who worked with him. Off-duty firemen seem to gravitate toward jobs that involve ladders. Jerry gave me his phone number and Jerry promised to talk to him before I called him. This is how Chicagoans take care of each other. They recommend a contractor who is trustworthy and then they’ll call him up and tell him to take of his brother, or whomever.
I never actually met Bob Bloom Roofing until years later. To this day, I still think of him as Bob Bloom Roofing because whenever we spoke on the phone, he always, but I mean always, called himself Bob Bloom Roofing. He was always advertising his company. And that’s why I still remember him, I mean his business, all these years later. Anyway, I called him up and explained my roof leak to him. We couldn’t find a mutually convenient time to meet in person at my house because I was busy every day and evening for the next two weeks, but I really needed the leak fixed. Bob Bloom Roofing suggested that he could go check out my roof on the way home from the firehouse. He left me a message saying that it would be an easy repair and he would only charge me about $150. I agreed and within three days my roof was repaired. I mailed the check to Bob Bloom Roofing’s home and we were both happy with our business transaction.
A couple of years later, another section of my roof leaked and we went through the same process to repair my roof. I never actually met Bob Bloom Roofing until one day my brother had a party at his house and he invited a lot of his firemen friends. As I wandered through the party, I would introduce myself to the firemen, who are not exactly known for being polite guests. Eventually, I introduced myself to one fireman who responded, “Hi, Bob Bloom Roofing!”
I’ve heard a lot of complaints this winter about how much snow we’ve had in Chicago this winter and last. People are also complaining about how cold it’s been lately. Most of these complainers are either too young or haven’t lived in Chicago very long. These are the cold, bitter winters that I remember as a boy! No, I won’t exaggerate about how cold and snowy winters were in Chicago in days of yore. I don’t have to. Just recall the weather since December and you’ll see how much snow we used to have and how cold it used to be. Once you get used to the weather, you can actually still enjoy living in Chicago. There are, after all, much colder places than Chicago.
When I was a boy, I spent a lot of time outside during the winter. I delivered newspapers, shoveled sidewalks for money, played ice hockey, and occasionally, played baseball in the snow. We liked to do things that would make adults shake their heads at us. Like staying outside in the cold. The one thing I did learn–although somewhat accidentally–was to dress in layers. We didn’t have very much money for proper winter clothing such as down coats, wool socks or sweaters, or insulated gloves. One day, while ice skating at Davis Square Park across the street, I got cold, so I went home and put on some more pants and socks and shirts, eventually experimenting until I learned the correct amount of layers to wear. I would wear two or three t-shirts, three or four pairs of pants, and four or five pairs of socks, depending on the temperature. When everyone else went into the park fieldhouse to warm up, I continued skating outside. I never got cold again once I learn to dress for the weather.
And I also taught my brothers how to dress properly for winter. One extremely cold, snowy winter, our school, Holy Cross School, had a fundraiser for which we had to sell Christmas cards door to door. There had been snow on the ground since Thanksgiving Day. Even though the sidewalks were shoveled, there was snow pile up everywhere where no one walked or drove. My brother Tato and I started knocking on doors trying to sell our Christmas cards–unsuccessfully. We were at the third house and the woman who answered the door told us she was interested in buying Christmas cards. So, we turned around and started walking down her front porch stairs. When I reached the sidewalk at the bottom of the wooden stairs, I heard my brother Tato slip on the ice and fall down the stairs. I checked to see if my brother was okay and I helped him up. The woman who was watching us through the front window opened the door and called us back up to the porch. “I’ll buy a box of Christmas cards,” she said. Well, we sold her a box of Christmas cards and went on our merry way to the next house. This woman also refused to buy Christmas cards from us. As we were walking down her front porch, Tato again “fell” down the stairs. Of course, the woman called us back and bought a box of Christmas cards from us. We persisted with our sales pitch until we sold all of our Christmas cards. In fact, the next day, we asked Sister Cecilia for more Christmas cards for us to sell. She was suprised that we could sell that many Christmas cards!
Thanksgiving Day was a reunion of sorts for the Rodriguez family in Chicago. I really enjoyed getting together with my family as much as possible. As usually happens, this reunion was a last-minute get together that turned out better than if someone would have planned it for weeks.
I really had no plans for Thanksgiving Day since my sons would spend the day with their mother and her family. When we were married, many relatives came to our house for Thanksgiving dinner. But now, I never know what I’ll do for Thanksgiving until the last minute. I’m not really very good at planning too far in advance. Anyway, our family started the day with a memorial mass for three relatives who had died in the last six weeks: My cousin Shirley, my Aunt Marcela, and my Uncle Meño’s mother-in-law.
My Uncle Placido was coming in from Lubbock, Texas, where he is the bishop of the archdiocese and he would say mass for us. We all agreed to meet at St. John Fisher Church for the 9:00 am mass and then go our separate ways because everyone, presumably, already had Thanksgiving Day plans. Well, we stayed in the back of the church talking awhile and then we started taking pictures. Lately, we can’t take enough pictures of each other. I took extra pictures on my iPhone so I could add everyone to my directory, even though I had no immediate plans to call anyone.
Then, my brother Jerry suggested we go back to his house for coffee for an hour or two, but then we’d have to go because his wife was having dinner for her family in the afternoon and it was the first Thanksgiving without her father because he had died earlier this year. Whoever was available could come back at about 7:00 pm. Well, some of us stayed and never left. I won’t mention any names, but I could name all the people who came and stayed, and all the people who left at the appropriate time–because I was there until midnight. And I didn’t come alone either. I brought my father, my Aunt Conchita, and her son Peter. No one complained that there was extra company in the house, especially not the people who had overstayed their invitation. Uncle Placido showed us the 25th anniversary book for his archdiocese in Lubbock, Texas. Later, we looked at more pictures after we ate a huge dinner. Despite the fact that there were more people there for dinner than were invited, there was plenty of food for everyone. In fact, everyone was invited to take leftovers home. We all said good-bye and promised to see each other very soon. We shall see.
Pop. Just Pop. That’s what I call my father now. My brother Jerry’s children who are half Irish call him Papa Diego. I still call him Pop because when I was little we only spoke Spanish at home and my parents were mami and papi. When you’re very little, say up to about five or six years old, calling your parents mami and papi is still acceptable. When I started playing at the Davis Square Park, other kids called me baby if they heard me call my parents mami and papi. So, eventually I began calling them Mom and Pop. Definitely more acceptable by my peers of preteens. But I could never write pap because everyone would mispronounce in English. So that’s how he became Pop, just plain Pop.
I remember, once when I was at the park, Bobby–I never did learn his real last name–started a fight with me. I must have been about six at the time. I still had not learned the protocol that if someone hit you hit them right back or they would forever pick on you. Bobby punched my face and I ran home crying. I got home quickly because we lived right across the street from the park at 4501 S. Hermitage Avenue. Both my mami and papi were home. My father was somewhere in the apartment; how someone could disappear from his family in a four-room apartment is beyond me. Anyway, my mother wanted to know why I was crying. I said, “Bobby hit me!” but in Spanish. “¡Bobby me pegó! My mother thought I had said papi hit me. My mother immediately began scolding my father–who was forced to come out of hiding. It actually took a couple minutes for me clear up the confusion and prove my father’s innocence to my mother. My father took me to the park to look for Bobby, but he had left. Somebody was probably trying to beat him up for some prior transgression. As I would learn later–mainly because Bobby was always in life no matter how I tried to avoid him–no one liked Bobby because he was an all-round troublemaker. Once someone tried to shoot him, but they missed him and shot the person sitting next to him on the park bench. Luckily, the bullet went through the fleshy part of his thigh. Everyone was troubled by the fact that such an act of violence had failed to restore peace to our neighborhood by ridding everyone of Bobby for good.
But back to my father. Pop. When I started calling him Pop, no one made fun of me anymore. One unintended side-effect was that my little brothers stopped calling my parents mami and papi. That was rather sad because everyone knows how cute little children are when they call their parents mami and papi.
After Duke, the best dog I ever had, I never had another pet for as long as I lived alone. When I had my own apartment, I liked living alone so I never had a pet. Now that I’m living alone again, I have no pets. I guess I enjoy the solitude between visits from my sons.
However, when I was married, my wife and four-year-old son insisted that we get a dog. I kept making excuses at our first house in Bridgeport that the house wasn’t big enough, the yard wasn’t big enough, or someone would probably steal our dog. After a few years, I moved next door to my brother Jerry whose neighbor sold the house to me for a discounted price since he didn’t use a realtor. I enjoyed living next door to my brother for the most part–except that he always had some home-improvement project in progress and sooner or later he would call upon me to help him.
Anyway, once we settled into our new house, my wife and son started talking about getting a dog again. All of my previous excuses were no longer valid and I was too tired to invent new ones. So, we immediately went into negotiations. I knew we were getting a dog one way or another. And despite promises of my wife and son that they would be walking, feeding, and generally taking care of the dog, I knew that eventually the dog would become my sole responsibility. I insisted that I get to choose what kind of dog we got. I got my wish and chose a chow chow. Was I ever sorry! But not immediately.
I had a friend who had not one, but two chow chows. Whenever I would visit him, the dogs would look me over and then I would pet them and then they’d go away. So I pitched the idea of getting a chow chow to my family. They weren’t too enthusiastic about a chow chow. We saw one at the park and we went over to talk to the owner. He let us pet his chow chow and he was very friendly. My wife and son were then sold on the idea of getting a chow chow.
Well, we bought a six-week-old chow chow puppy and he was the cutest little fur ball that you ever saw. The woman who sold him to us said that if we ever changed our mind about having him, we could take him back to her farm in Indiana. My wife, son, and I had more negotiations over naming the new puppy. I insisted on naming him Beowulf, but my wife and son out-voted me and named him Simba, after The Lion King. My niece Bridget came next door to our house everyday to feed and play with Simba. He grew so fast and he wasn’t cooperating with the house training. He was almost full-grown and he was still relieving himself in the house. I would put his nose in it and hit him with a newspaper so he wouldn’t do it again. This had worked with other dogs that we had previously had. One day, I was about to punish him for pooping in the house when suddenly he turned on me and tried to bite me. Well, I had to show him that I was the master, so I picked him up and he kicked the wall and we both fell to the ground. I wanted to show him that I wasn’t afraid of him so I wrestled him to the ground. He bit my hand and forearm, but I took him back to his mess and hit him with the newspaper. When I let go of him, he growled at me and walked away giving me the evil eye. My wife and son were watching and they were both pretty scared by what they had just seen. I knew something was wrong with this dog because I never heard of dog biting its master before.
I also learned that chow chows are very territorial. My niece Bridget would come and go to house at will before we had Simba, but afterwards she came to visit him a lot. She really loved that puppy. Until, one day, Simba was sleeping by the side door of the house. She came into the yard to pet Simba, but he woke up and started biting her. As she ran out of the yard screaming, he bit her behind repeatedly until she was out of the yard. I really didn’t understand his behavior at all because Bridget took care of Simba since he was a puppy and she was like part of our household. I didn’t realize how vicious Simba was until then. There were a few more incidents where children walking by would see Simba in the yard behind the chain-link fence wagging his tail. When they tried to enter the yard to pet him, he wouldn’t growl or bark, he would continue wagging his tail. After they entered the yard, he would bite them. I put up a six-foot wooden fence around the whole yard to protect the neighborhood children from Simba.
Simba never bit my wife or son, but when the twins were born, he bit Adam when he was about one and a half. Adam walked by Simba while he was eating and Simba bit him. I risked getting bit, but I punished Simba for biting my son. Most dogs don’t bite small children for something like that. I wanted to take him back to the farm where we bought him, but my wife said no. She insisted that we keep Simba. This dog was a real monster. If he didn’t like someone on the other side of the fence, he would start chewing on the wooden fence. I had to replace some of the boards on the front gate because he had chewed through them. Another time, my sons and I were going to a little league game. Simba was in the yard and I opened the garage door and the minivan side door for my sons. Simba ran and jumped into the minivan before my sons. He wanted to go for a ride, but we couldn’t take him with us. I told him to get out, but he wouldn’t. I told him a few times. So I reached to grab his collar, but he bit my hand so hard that I thought he had broken some bones. I started yelling at Simba like a maniac and tried to grab his collar again. He was so afraid of me that he ran out of the minivan. For two or three days afterwards, he would run away from me. A master and his dog should not have to live in fear of each other.
When my wife and I were getting divorced, we agreed on everything except what to do with Simba. I told her she could have him since she was the one who wanted a dog in the first place. Besides, Simba had never bitten her. She didn’t want him. I was stuck with Simba. When I was selling the house, I knew I had to give Simba away, but no one would be able to take him because he was too vicious. He even scared me and I was his master. Eventually, I had to take him to the Chicago Animal Control Center. But I didn’t know what else to do with him. Well, they probably had him put to sleep because he would probably bite anyone who tried to befriend him.
Now, my sons keep asking me to get a dog, but I keep making excuses. I’m afraid to get another dog! If I ever do, I’ll probably get a mutt.
Duke was the best dog that our family ever had. When we lived at 4405 S. Wood Street, he followed my brothers and me home from school. He really did. At first, he followed us at a distance and that was fine by us because we weren’t sure if he would bite us. He was already full-grown and he was at least part Golden Retriever and maybe a little bit German Shepard and Chow Chow. We were sure that, since Duke got along well with the whole family, he probably was also part Mexican.
He followed us into our backyard and we went into the house. When we looked out the window later, he was still there. We gave him some bologna and went back inside. The next day, he followed us home again and we gave him some milk this time. He let us pet him and he seemed very friendly. He was too clean to be a stray dog and he didn’t have the battle scars of street dogs, but he didn’t have a collar or dog tags either. We never let him into the house because we knew our mother would get mad at us. But Duke kept following us home after school. He knew what time we got out of school and he would meet us at the corner of our block and follow us home so we could give him something to eat.
One day, my mother came home from work and asked us about the dog on the back porch. “What dog on the back porch?” I asked, knowing we were about to get in trouble. We didn’t admit to anything. Eventually, my mother brought Duke into the house and we all started playing with him. He was really happy with us and never even growled when my little sister pulled his ears or fur. We asked our mother if we could keep it, but she said it probably belonged to someone else and they would eventually want him back. We could keep him until someone claimed him.
We were so happy to have a dog again. And the good news was that he was already house-broken. At first, my mother would open the door to let Duke go out by himself thinking that he would eventually go to his real home. But he always came back. After a while, I started walking him without a leash. He always stayed close to me and he would never run away. I walked him all over the neighborhood so that maybe Duke would recognize his original home, but we never found his original owner. Soon I knew I was Duke’s master because one of the neighborhood bullies threatened me with Duke at my side and Duke growled at him ready to defend me.
Duke had some pretty good street cred, too, because when other dogs would see him, they would run away. I didn’t need a leash to control Duke because he so obedient that he listened to my every command. However, he loved to chase squirrels, but he would only do say when I gave him permission. Whenever he saw a squirrel at a distance, he ears would perk up and he would growl, but he would stay by my side until I said, “Go get him, Duke!” And he would run at full speed toward the squirrel. He never once caught a squirrel because the squirrels were usually too far away from us and too close to a tree that they climbed to escape. Only once, did I think that Duke would actually catch a squirrel in his mouth. He was rapidly closing in on a squirrel that was foolish enough to try to outrun Duke instead of climbing a tree. I think that Duke slowed down to give the squirrel a running chance and the squirrel got away.
When we moved to 2509 W. Marquette Road, Duke moved with us. By then, he was part of our family. Somehow, I remained Duke’s master. My brothers and I had to be careful when we wrestled because Duke would attempt to bite my brothers in my defense. Even after I married and moved away from my mother’s house. Once I was visiting and I started wrestling with Tato, my brother Jerry, in the basement just like in the good old days. Duke just stood there watching. He was a lot older now and he didn’t growl at my brother as he once did. Well, I could still out-wrestle all my brothers even though we were all about the same size now. I managed to throw my brother down on his back on the sofa. I jokingly said, “Sic him!” and Duke ran and bit my brother’s face. I really didn’t think he would attack my brother. I immediately grabbed Duke by his collar and he finally calmed down. My brother had some puncture wounds on his face from being bitten a few times. I apologized profusely to my brother. Neither one of us thought Duke would attack. But he did. I was still his master even though I had lived away from him for about a year. I still feel badly about this even now as I described the incident.
Duke lived to be very old, but we never knew his exact age since he was already full-grown when he started living with us. Eventually, he had so many health problems that my sister had him put to sleep. He was such a great dog that I can still visualize him.
Back in the 1980s, my brother Jerry told me about a writer’s group that met every third Tuesday in Beverly at 107th and Hale. So I joined the group because I really enjoyed writing and reading my works for this group motivated me to write. I met a lot of interesting people and I always looked forward to every meeting.
One of the poets, introduced me to her sister who just by chance had married a Mexican whose last name was Navarrete, just like one of my aunts in Mexico. The poet’s sister just happened to be a commercial artist. Eventually, she drew a caricature of me for my comedian’s business card. I remember that she was afraid to show it to me because I might think that she was making fun of me. I really loved it! It was exactly what I wanted. I was always proud of my business card.
Elizabeth-Anne Vanek was the president of the group and she was a published poet. She was the heart, soul, and muse of the group. Without her, the group would have disintegrated. I also met Marc Smith before he became famous for his poetry slams at the Green Mill. He came to many meetings and would read his latest poetry for us.
I also remember Frida who came to every meeting religiously and listened to everyone’s work patiently and then commented with objective criticism. She was a writer who didn’t actually write anything. She couldn’t write anymore. Her muse had abandoned her.
I also brought my friend Tony Trendl from the Marquette Park Track Club for a couple of meetings. I must admit that I did the most writing in my life while I belonged to this group. It was then that I started writing for The Finish Line and the Illinois Runner. However, I never published any of my short stories that I read to the group. My writing improved immensely while I was a member of the Writer’s Desk.
And in another one of those cosmic coincidences that frequently occur to me. I now live right down the block from where the Writer’s Desk used to meet!
I have confession to make. My sons are Mexican! Why wasn’t aware of this all along? There are some things that I just never think about until someone points them out to me–like the fact that I’m also a great-uncle. I never felt that old until my brother Jerry pointed out that I was now a great-uncle when his grandson was born. I have two younger brothers who are already grandfathers and I’m not. So maybe I’m not that old.
So I was at the birthday party for my grandnephew when my brother Rick, the grandfather of the birthday boy, says to me, “You are the only one in our family who has Mexican sons.” I had never thought about this before, but it’s true. My brother Jerry married an Irish girl, Rick married a Polish girl, and Joe married a German girl. So all their children are only half-Mexican. Yes, I’m the only one with 100% Mexican children. So how did this occur? I’m not sure. I guess just because I love Mexican girls.