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.

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!

End of the line


My antique telephones.

Sometimes milestones become tombstones. And so I say good riddance to my home phone! We have reached the end of an era!

Would you like to call me at home? Well, you can’t! At least, not on my land-line. You see, I finally cancelled my home phone service now that I totally rely on my iPhone for all of my telephone communications–not that I make or receive that many phone calls in the first place. This archaic device is slowly disappearing from homes across America. I reluctantly surrendered my land-line, but I knew I must. I have cut my umbilical cord. I am no longer tethered to my home. I am now free to roam about the world!

I’ve been paying for my home phone service for years now even though the only people who call me are telemarketers and collection agencies. And they are persistent! I still don’t understand why the telemarketers called if I never answered their survey or bought their products. Equally annoying were the collection agencies calling for Calvin Thomas or Thomas Calvin. Apparently he gave my home phone number as his and everyone believed he lived with me. I always told the caller that he didn’t live here, but they always called back.

I must admit that I never was much of a phone person in the first place. I hate talking on the phone and I hate being on the listening end of a long diatribe even more. The best way to contact me is via e-mail or Facebook. I dread the sound of a ringing telephone. Usually, it rings at the most inconvenient time, like when I’m in the shower or otherwise busy. When I had my apartment in Marquette Park, I went for about a year without a phone. I really enjoyed the privacy. If someone wanted to talk to me, they would have to physically visit me at my apartment. The advantage of this arrangement was that I got to see who my true friends were.

Unfortunately, everyone demanded that I have a home telephone in order to conduct business with me. My job, my bank, my credit cards, the utility companies, and even my newspaper. No phone number, no service. So I caved in and got a phone with minimal service. Yes, it killed me to pay five bucks per month to Illinois Bell for a service I didn’t even want in the first place. When the federal government broke up the Baby Bell monopoly, my phone bill immediately doubled for the same service I didn’t want in the first place. So how was the monopoly bad? I still don’t get it.

Well, I’m not exactly happy with my cell phone service either. It’s more expensive than a comparable land-line, where all incoming calls were free. Now I’m charged for all outgoing and incoming calls! And I pay much, much more just for the basic service. How is this progress? Thank goodness for the vibrant competition among the phone carriers! Who knows how much more I’d be paying otherwise!

So, everyone seems to be accepting this shift from land-lines to cell phones. When I conduct business, everyone asks for my cell phone number. They don’t even care if I have a land-line or not. So, I now only have a cell phone. But please don’t call me. E-mail me!

Haunted


Chicago, Illinois

Sometimes I think my house is haunted. I’ll be sitting at home alone, and for some strange reason, I’ll hear someone walking up the stairs of my front porch. I’ll wait for that someone to knock or ring the doorbell. But no one does. When I look out the front door, there’s no one there! This has happened to me several times. Once, I hurried to the window when I heard the first footstep. I was so sure I would see whomever was coming up the stairs. But again, there was no one there. That was pretty scary! Of course, I’d probably get scared if I saw a the police or fire department at my house, too.

I tried to forget about the footsteps on my front porch. But, then, one day, my son told he was home alone and he heard footsteps on the front porch. He thought I was coming home, so he went to open the front door. But no one was there! He said he heard the footsteps on several occasions, but this was the first time he told me. He said it felt kind of creepy. He also told me that sometimes when he’s home alone on the first floor, he hears footsteps upstairs. I told him that sounded kind of scary, but I didn’t admit to him that I had also heard the footsteps upstairs. I’m beginning to believe my house is haunted.

I’m not a fraidy cat. Really, I’m not!  But sometimes eerie things happen around me. Things that scare me. Especially when I’m all alone, after dark. One night as I was sleeping, I was roused from my sleep by someone talking. Did I mention it was really dark? Well, it was so dark because the street lights were out, so I was really scared. As soon as I woke up, the talking stopped. I was beginning to theorize that the ghost didn’t want to talk while I was awake. But then I realized that I was talking in my sleep again. I got scared for nothing!

When I used to live in Marquette Park, I used to go running early in the morning before I went to work. Some mornings I ran at about 5:00 am. It was always dark when I ran. Running at that time was good exercise for me because sometimes the drunks coming home from the bars at that time would swear at me because they thought I was crazy for running so early in the morning. Sometimes, I got to do other exercises besides running. Some drunks were so personally offended by my running that they would throw beer bottles at me and I would have to dodge them. Needless to say, my morning runs were never boring.

But that wasn’t the spooky thing I wanted to tell you. Usually, there was no one out when I ran in the morning. Once in a while, I would see a family, a mother, a father, a son, and a daughter, all dressed up like they were going to church or a fancy party, waiting for the bus. I would only see them when I ran eastbound on 71st Street. They would be standing on the corner of 71st and Sacramento, waiting for the bus. I mean no one ever waited for the bus there at that hour dressed like that, especially not an entire family.

The very first time I saw them, I just caught them out of the corner of my eye. At first, I thought I was just imagining the family, but when I turned my head to get a good look at them, there was no one there! I had just imagined them! But, wait! When I turned my head forward again, I saw them out of my corner of my eye again. This really creeped me out, if you know what I mean.  I just kept running and tried to forget about the family waiting for the bus. And I forgot about them for a while, but then I saw them again. However, I never saw them when I looked directly at them; I could only see them out of the corner of my eye, and only when it was dark.

I told a few of my friends about my vision. Most of them laughed and said I was crazy. In fact, no matter what I told these friends, they always told me I was crazy. Some friends, huh? So why did I tell them in the first place? I just had to tell someone. I didn’t want to go to my grave withholding this secret from the world. Finally, I told someone who thought that maybe I saw the ghosts of a family who was killed on that corner, perhaps in a car accident. I thought it was possible, but I don’t really believe in such things. Of course, I wouldn’t rule it out, either. Just to be on the safe side, I never ran across the street near the bus stop where the family stood. Over the next few years, I would see this family periodically when I ran early in the morning. A couple of years ago, I saw them while I was driving eastbound down 71st Street about 5:00 am. I’ve just learned to accept their presence and move on with my life. I wonder if they’ll ever catch the bus they’re waiting for.

I suppose this all started when I was a little boy and my mother used to scare me so I would behave well. She would tell me scary things to prevent me from doing something I wasn’t supposed to do. I would actually hear my mother’s voice scolding me, even when she wasn’t around. Once, when I was riding my bike, I knew exactly how far I could ride my bike, but I decided I would cross that imaginary line. Immediately, I heard my mother yelling, “¡David! ¿A dónde vas?” So I turned around expecting to see my mother. But there was no one there! I had only heard her voice! And I was so sure that I had not imagined my mother being there.

Of course, my mother told me that if I stayed out after dark, I might not get back home. Alive. Ever. She didn’t want to have to worry about me coming home late, so she told me if I stayed out too late la llorona would get me and I would never come home again. La llorona, according to my mother, was a dead woman who wandered the land looking for wayward, disobedient children to take as her own; she had killed her own children, so she would never rest in peace until she found her own children. This was pretty scary stuff for a ten year old! Anyway, one day, I was at my friend’s house until after dark. I was scared because I knew la llorona would be looking for me. As I was walking home, I kept a watchful eye for la llorona. Suddenly, some boys who lived on my block ran past me, yelling, “Run! Run!” I was sure la llorona was chasing them! But I just froze dead in my tracks. Just then, I felt someone grab my arm from behind! I knew I was a goner. La llorona had caught me! I regretted not listening to my mother when I felt that cold icy hand grabbing my arm.

Then the grip on my arm tightened and I heard a male voice say, “Run! You were supposed to run!” I looked back and I was being held by a Chicago police officer. I was out after curfew. “Run!” he said. “Don’t you know you’re supposed to run when you see the police? Run!” So, I ran home and never stayed out past curfew again!

Reading


Reading and camping in Wisconsin

Reading has been my lifelong passion. I have always loved reading! Even when I went camping with my friend Jim, I took books along. He took a picture of me reading while I so engrossed in whatever book it was I was reading. 

I loved the first grade when we started reading. At that level, it didn’t matter that I didn’t know English. Our homework involved reading to our parents at home. My mother thought that was too much trouble for her after a long day’s work, so I would read to my abuelita. Unfortunately, not only did she not speak English, but she was also blind. But she loved when I read to her. And I was grateful to have someone to listen to me read. 

When I was a little older, I used to go to the library to read. I mostly read joke and riddle books, but that still counts as reading in my book. In the seventh grade, Divine Heart Seminary let me check out books from their library via the USPS. I only remember two of the books that I read. One book was about Father Damien who was a missionary on a leper island in Hawaii. And the other one was Fighting Father Duffy who was a U.S. Army chaplain during World War II. Now would a seminary only send me books about priests? I’ve always wondered about that. 

I like reading at the library because I had more privacy. If mother saw me reading comic books or even books, she would criticize me for be lazy. When I finally bought my first car, I would drive to Marquette Park just to read in my car. When I would come home, my mother would ask me what I did. When I told her I went to the park to read, her blood would boil. Then she would tell about other constructive things I could have been doing around the house. 

In general, the uneducated masses don’t understand why anyone would want to read a book. When I worked in the peanut butter factory, I always carried a paperback in my back pocket. Whenever the production line stopped or I was on break or lunch, I would pull out my book and start reading, even if I had to stand. No matter who my boss was, he would come by and tell me to pick up a broom and start cleaning up my area. No one at the factory really understood why I liked reading so much. 

Ironically, the books I chose to read were the books that I refused to read in high school. In high school, I spent most of my time reading chess books. For two years my life revolved around chess.  But once the books weren’t required reading, they piqued my curiosity. Why were they required reading in the first place? So, one by one, I read all the books I once rebelled against. Suddenly, I felt a certain sense of fulfillment. 

In the Marines, I bought the Great Books set and I would read them every free moment. My fellow Marines thought I was a bit crazy, but maybe that’s why no one started any trouble with me. That and I told everyone I knew kung fu. No one wanted to risk starting trouble with me. 

South side dinner


El Gallo de Oro Mexican restuarant, Chicago, Illinois.

Well, now it can be told. First, you must admit that you have a problem before you can solve it. My problem? I like to retrace my steps all the way back to my youth.

So tonight, I went to El Gallo de Oro, bought a steak burrito, and parked in Marquette Park by the Rose Garden to eat it, as I am wont to do. I used to do it all the time, but tonight I compared scenarios.

The first time I bought a burrito at El Gallo de Oro, I lived down the block at 3006 W. 64th Street and I only paid $2.25 with tax. But that was twenty-seven years ago. Today, I paid $6.06 with tax. Today, I barely finished my burrito, but twenty-seven years ago, I would also order two or three tacos or tostadas on the side. I would practically inhale all this food and I ony weighed 140 pounds, compared to my 180 or so today.

And Marquette Park isn’t the same, either. No one cruises through the park like in days of old. This used to be the place to hang out, to see and be seen by everyone. I don’t think anyone even noticed I was there tonight. Not even the police car that drove past me driving the wrong way.

On the plus side? I felt very safe there in my solitude reminiscing about my days of old when I was young and naïve and wouldn’t realize that the grease from the burrito had dripped on my shirt until the person I was trying to impress would point out the grease stain. Okay, I don’t miss the dripping grease all that much. I’m much older and wiser now.