Hollywood Marine


2509 W. Marquette Road

I don’t know why, but I always wanted to join the Marines since I was little. The Marines, the few, the proud. They were real men. As boys, my friends and I always talked about how tough the Marines were with great admiration. So, I eventually enlisted at age 22, much older than the normal age of eighteen or nineteen. My father was afraid that I would get killed in action, even though there was no war at the time. My mother was so proud of me! But I’m not sure why since she was so disappointed when I left the seminary and didn’t become a priest. Perhaps she would have been happy if I had become a chaplain in the Marines.

U.S. involvement in  Viet Nam ended in 1975 and I joined the Marines in 1978. That means that I didn’t see any combat action. I trained at MCRD (Marine Corps Recruit Depot) in San Diego for boot camp. That made me a Hollywood Marine. After boot camp, I went to 29 Palms, California, where I studied electronics for a year and a half for my MOS. By the time I was trained as a telephone and switchboard technician, I had already served more than half of my three-year enlistment. However, I could not serve any time overseas because I only had a little more than a year left of my enlistment. No one was sent overseas unless they had at least two years of service left.

I was transferred to Camp Pendleton near Oceanside, California, where I became a real Hollywood Marine. I actually spent a lot of time in Hollywood watching movies! The people who watched movies in Hollywood really loved movies! I didn’t see any combat except in the movies. The closest I ever got to the battlefield was watching Apocalypse Now! at the Pacific Cinedome in Hollywood.

Another memorable movie that I watched in Hollywood, and I still vividly remember, was Monty Python’s The Life of Brian at Mann’s Chinese Theater. My brother Danny and I saw it together because he was also in the Marines and stationed at the Tustin Marine Air Base. Luckily, we went early in the afternoon to buy tickets. The next two showings were sold out and we couldn’t get tickets until an evening showing. We actually had time to see another movie and eat dinner before the Monty Python movie. Everyone loved the movie! I had never experienced such great enjoyment of a comedy movie before, or since. There was a long line to enter the theater, so I told my brother we should sit near the front. In 1979, before the era of surround sound, the only speakers were located behind the silver screen. And it’s a good thing we sat close to the front because the non-stop laughter continuously drowned out the movie soundtrack!

When I didn’t go to Hollywood to watch movies, I would go to Newport Beach, California, to watch movies. There was a movie revival house that always showed classic movies. I used like reading books and then going to see the movies based on them. I remember reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and then seeing the movies versions of those novels. Unfortunately, the Marines didn’t award me any medals for my deployment to the movie theaters. Nor did I get any medals for my reconnaissance missions to Disneyland! Oh, the long lines I had to endure

Long after I completed my enlistment, I received an application in the mail to join a group called the Veterans of Foreign Wars. All I had to do was check the box of the war that was ongoing while I was serving in any of the branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. As luck would have it, there were no wars while I was in the Marines. I’m not complaining, in fact, I feel very fortunate, but I couldn’t join the VFW! Viet Nam ended in 1975, long before I enlisted. The next eligible conflict was the Beirut barracks bombing in 1983, which occurred two years after I was discharged. Of course, I don’t deserve to belong to the VFW. I was a Hollywood Marine!

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. 

Hoy


Hoy, martes, 16 de enero 2010

Well, I have to admit that I am a news junkie. I try to keep up with most current events, but with my busy schedule, sometimes it is difficult. I used to keep up with the news when I was a newspaper delivery boy and I would read the newspapers as I delivered them. Then I stopped following the news in the 1980s when I returned to Chicago from the Marines. That is, until one day, I went grocery shopping and I tried to buy a gallon of milk, but the grocery store refrigerators were empty. Apparently, there was  a salmonella outbreak that contaminated bottled milk and I didn’t know about it because I didn’t keep up with the local news. Many people became sick from the salmonella because the grocery stores kept stocking the milk and people who didn’t watch or listen to the news didn’t know about the salmonella outbreak and bought the milk anyway. Well, that really scared me into keeping up with the news. I didn’t want to die needlessly if watching the news could perhaps save my life. Not that I ever feared death, but why die stupidly?

However, when I watch the news now, I always think that everything will affect me personally. If I see or read a news story, I think it will affect someone I know in that area. So while I watched the news about the fire at 3034 S. 48th Court in Cicero, Illinois, I immediately thought about my aunt Concepción Rodríguez Molina and her son Peter Molina, my cousin. Normally, news stories do not involve anyone I know. But this time was different. My aunt and cousin lived next door to the house that started on fire and killed seven people. She smelled smoke and so they both ran out of their house grabbing only a laptop. They are lucky to be alive! The village of Cicero temporarily put them up in a motel, but they’ll have to find a new place very, very soon. I will help them out in any way I can. But I still can’t believe this happened to someone I knew!

You may read the article in Spanish from Hoy online by clicking here.

Age


Tempus fugit.

I’ve been thinking about my age–again. So what got me thinking about my age? I think the presidential campaign had a lot to do with it. Come January 20, 2009, I will be–for the first time in my life!–older than the President of the United States of America.

This must be a significant moment in my life. Now that I think of it, I’m also older than Osama bin Laden–if he’s still alive. I was the oldest of six children. After I failed the fourth grade–the toughest two years of my life–I was among the oldest in the class. When I joined the Marines, I was 22, so I was the oldest recruit in my platoon in boot camp. I’m now older than my mother was when she died in 1986 at age 51.

I remember in grade school how we had to date every writing assignment we turned in. Every time I would write the year 1963, 1964, etc., I would fantasize about the day that I would someday write the year 2000. But I planned to be out of grade school by then. The year 2000 seemed so far off into the future.

Time traveled much more slowly back then. I remember watching the second hand of the clock in our classroom. The second hand moved ever so slowly right around dismissal time. Those last ten minutes of school seemed a lot longer than the previous six hours of school.

I remember birthdays taking much longer to come around. Birthdays meant so much more back then. I remember anxiously awaiting my tenth birthday because writing my age would require two digits. That tenth birthday also took forever to come around. The next milestone was 13 because then I would be a teenager. At 16, I took driver’s ed. At 18, I registered for the draft even though no one was being drafted for Vietnam anymore. At 19, I was able to buy wine and beer in the state of Illinois. When they changed the drinkin age back to 21, ta da, I turned 21.

25 was my favorite age because my auto insurance really dropped then. That meant I was no longer in the high-risk age group of drivers 16-24. The last significant milestone was 30. I sort of enjoyed the nice round number. After that, birthdays didn’t really seem all that important to me anymore. When I turned 40, I celebrated by taking a nap. My friends insisted on throwing me a surprise big 5-OH party even though I told them I didn’t want one after they told me about my surprise party. I mean, it really wasn’t a surprise anymore after they told me about it so I wouldn’t go on vacation before my party even though it was in July even though my birthday was in May. So, I’m older than President elect Barack Obama. How do I absorb all this? I think I’m going to bed. Good night!

00000.0


My Pontiac Vibe

Or perhaps I should write 77777. You’re probably wondering what the heck I’m talking about, right? Okay, just pretend that you are.

Okay, if you insist, I’ll tell you. I was driving to school today when I suddenly looked at the odometer and read 77777. My car’s only three years old and I’ve already put on 77,777 miles (My 2005 Pontiac Vibe doesn’t display tenths of miles). And I don’t consider myself a heavy driver.  I seem to spend more time reading books than driving. So how did I manage to drive so many miles? I really don’t know. However, I stopped the car immediately and took a poor-quality picture–as is characteristic of my photography skills–of the odometer to mark this blessed occasion.

Actually, I’m not so sure what so special about 77777. All those sevens mean nothing to me! Really! But when I saw them, I immediately thought of 00000.0 (I’ll bet you thought I forgot about the title of this blog post!) from when I was in the Marines and my Marine friends with whom I lived in the barracks insisted that I drive my 1976 Chevy Nova with them in it (and a keg of beer, of course–talk about an open container of alcohol in vehicle!) until the odometer turned over to 00000.0. They constantly checked my odometer because they wanted to be with me for the blessed event when I drove past 99,999.9 miles. I really didn’t see what the big deal was about driving so many miles. I had bought the car new and I was the only owner. I had driven it to California and back a few times by that time in 1979.

There’s something that I like about driving. Is it the solitude? Is it the time that I have to myself that allows me to reflect about past transgressions and allows me the opportunity to reflect on how to better myself and the world? Of course not! I just love driving–and fast! Nothing feels better than driving on the open road in the middle of nowhere, such as upper Michigan or the Mojave Desert, with the pedal to the metal and not a worry in the world because I won’t see another vehicle for miles! Anyway, I’m with my Marine friends and a keg of beer with our names on it (To my sons and students who may be reading this: Remember this if FICTION! Please see the disclaimer in the right margin!!) in the car going about a hundred miles per hour because they want me to hurry up and hit 100,000.0 miles! In their excitement, one spilled a beer in the front seat, another drank too much and puked on the exterior side of my rear door. Luckily, we were driving in the Mojave Desert, my car had no air conditioning, and it was 120 degrees out. I’m glad he had time to stick his head out the window. It was so hot outside that his vomit dried almost instantly. However, I had to pull him back in when he felt so bad about vomiting that he tried to clean up the mess and almost fell out of the car.

This was also a memorable trip because as I was driving I thought I heard an airplane engine. When I looked in the rearview mirror, I saw that a small airplane was actually closing in on my Chevy Nova. This really happened to me! The plane buzzed us about three times. Actually, it was quite funny. Then came the much-anticipated moment. The odometer read 99,999.9. I slowed the car down to practically a crawl. There were six heads crowding over the odometer. It felt like a slow-motion special effect as we watched the odometer slowly–ever so slowly–turn to all zeros. The cheering in the car was deafening. They insisted that I stop the car so we could christen it. They poured our precious beer over the hood, the roof, and the trunk, and I was about to complain until I noticed that it was washing the puke off my car door. My friends were drunk with pride–and a little beer (it was a small keg)–over my car’s accomplishment.

I still miss that car. I owned it and drove it for thirteen years. It had 163,000 miles on it and it still didn’t burn any oil. The battery lasted about six years because I always added tap water even though I was told to add only distilled water. When I was stationed in the Mojave Desert, I thought any water was better than no water. I planned to keep the car another two or three years, but someone ran a red light and broadsided me. Alack and alas! My Chevy Nova was no more! The car was totaled! It was only about $1500 worth of damage, but that was much more than the car was worth. Of course, in my personal opinion, the car was priceless because it was so dependable. I really miss my Chevy Nova!

I christen thee, Chevy no va ningún lado sin su dueño.

Church


Immaculate Heart of Mary, Back of the Yards, Chicago, Illinois

I don’t often go to church, but when I don’t, I don’t feel guilty at all. When I was in grade school at Holy Cross, I went to church at least six times per week. So, now, I don’t feel any real need to attend church.If I average out my church attendance over the span of my life, I’ve gone to mass more times than many people who claim to be Catholic. Of course, I still go several times a year. This year, I’ve gone every time my son Alex went to mass before his football game. Last spring, I went to my second cousin’s confirmation. Last week, I went to my cousin Shirley’s funeral. But other than that, I haven’t gone to church. I’m not against going to church, but I never think of going on my own without any compelling reason for going.

I suppose the real question for me to answer is, “Do I believe in God?” Well, the answer is, “Once upon a time, I used to.” I was baptized a Catholic and I was confirmed by the time I was three months old. At one time when I was about twelve, I believed in God so much that I really wanted to become a priest. But then I saw the light. I realized that many Catholics were hypocrites, clergy included, and my faith in God was shaken.

When I was in the Marines, I used to go talk to the Catholic chaplain on a regular basis. I’ll be honest: I went to get out of my work detail, rather than discussing any true critical religious crisis. So I figured I had better make it good. I told the chaplain that I no longer believed in God. Which I didn’t at the time. And I still don’t. But I still feel Catholic. Since I was baptized and raised a Catholic, I plan to remain a Catholic and I will never convert to another religion. I’ve known Catholics who converted and became fanatical about their new religion.

I even baptized my sons as Catholics and sent them to a Catholic school. I’ve had friends ask me why I would do that if I’m not really Catholic. I like the sense of tradition.Two of my friends from Spain once grilled me about my Catholicism. “Are you Catholic?” “Yes.” “Do you go to church every Sunday?” “No.” “Then you’re not Catholic!” “I was baptized a Catholic!” “Are your sons Catholic?” “They were baptized Catholic.” “But you’re not Catholic! Why did you baptize them?” “If nothing else, we have something in common.” They were dumbfounded by my logic.

This morning I took my son Alex to his football mass at Most Holy Redeemer Church. I remembered most of the prayers, but there were some new ones. My mind drifted away from the mass several times. I recalled how mass used to be when I was a boy. Things were so different now. When I was an altar boy, only males were allowed near the altar during mass. Today, there were no altar boys. Only altar girls. And about half of the Eucharist ministers were women. And the dress code is no longer the stringent dress shirt with a tie and dress pants for males and nice dresses for females with their heads covered. I was shocked to see worshipers coming to mass wearing jeans, shorts, gym shoes, flip flops, and t-shirts. On the other hand, the church was fairly full and most people participated in the prayers and hymns. Overall, I got the feeling that they were true believers.

Amy


When I joined the Marines, I had to spend the night at a hotel on Michigan Avenue near Roosevelt Road the night before we went to AFEES (Armed Forces Entrance and Examination Station) on Michigan and Balbo. I was so nervous about joining the Marines that I didn’t sleep much the night before. The next day, we had to take intelligence tests and physical exams all day long. From there, we went to O’Hare Airport where we flew to San Diego for boot camp. An interesting thing happened to me while boarding the plane. As I waited in line to get on the plane, I joked about being afraid to fly with a female whom I thought was part of the flight crew. She laughed and we talked a little. When I sat down, I noticed that she had followed me to my seat and had sat down next to me. She was very pretty in a plain sort of way. She had long, light-brown hair and hazel eyes. And she had such perfect teeth. Very white, but not unnaturally white, and all perfectly aligned. We were probably about the same age. “You don’t mind if I sit with you, do you?” she asked, even though she was already sitting next to me. She caught me off guard, so I took a moment to respond. “N-Not at all.” She held my hand and said, “This is to comfort you since you’re afraid of flying.” I couldn’t believe this was happening to me! Oh, yes, and she had this–I couldn’t quite place it–sexy, non-Chicago accent. I loved listening to her speak! Well, I told her that I was on my way to Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego and she told me that her father was a colonel in the Marines. What a coincidence! And I was afraid that she would stop liking me if she discovered that I would soon be a jarhead. She actually took a liking to me and we talked and talked. We had quite a few things in common. This was a three-and-a-half hour flight and I was tired from not sleeping well the night before. Well, I nodded off while I was looking out the window. I had forgotten all about Amy. When I later woke up. not only was Amy still holding my hand, but she had also fallen asleep with her head on my shoulder. I guess she was very comfortable with me as a person and also as a pillow. I liked watching her sleep like that. She eventually even got more comfortable as she turned her body towards me and put her free arm around my waist. Later, she actually drooled on my shoulder a little. When she finally woke up, I felt as if I we had known each other for ages. She gave me her address in Quantico, Virginia, and told me to write to her. Her full name was Amy Trostle Barnes. She was so interesting and I had met her at exactly the right moment when I needed a shoulder to lean on. Well, I wrote to her while I was in boot camp and for about a year after that. But we never met in person again.

Hi! I'm Amy! Don't be afraid of the flight! I'll take care of you.

Running


Even though it was 95 degrees, I finished 8th place in 2:44!

I’m enjoying my summer vacation from teaching so far. I get up whenever I feel like. I have a cup of black coffee while I rub the sleep from my eyes. I more or less kill time and stall before I go out my front door for my morning run before it gets too hot out. Lately, I’ve been slowing down on my runs. I’m not sure if it’s due to age and/or allergies. Of course, I’ve had these experiences before, even when I was in my twenties. I have been running, on and off again, since high school. I first started running when I was at Divine Heart Seminary when I joined the cross country team. For some reason I wanted to be on a school team because I thought it would be cool. My first race was the Marshall County Cross Country Championship in Indiana. Since I didn’t know any better, I ran alongside the lead pack right from the start. After about a mile, I suddenly slowed down to a crawl, or so it seemed to me. I’m not sure where I placed, but I received a ribbon. I have one run that I will never forget: I was running on some backwoods road in Camp Pendleton when I felt someone running alongside me. I looked over my shoulder and saw a coyote. At first, I was startled, but I continued running as if this were normal. The coyote and I ran together for about five minutes before we went our separate ways. Well, enough stalling! I am now going out for my morning run.

Hello, coyote! Where are you running to?

Melanie


After my first divorce, I moved back home with my mother to 2509 W. Marquette Road. At first, she didn’t even know I was living with her. She lived on the second floor and I moved back into my bedroom in the basement. When I separated from my wife, I lived in the basement for about two months before I finally told my mother I had moved back home. I guess I needed to feel comfortable about telling her. Plus, I thought that the possibility of a reconciliation still existed. I didn’t want to tell everyone I was getting divorced if we got back together again! The reason she didn’t know I moved back home was that she worked the day shift and I worked midnights. We hardly ever crossed paths, and not just physically, but also ideologically and morally. Anyway, when I told her I was getting divorced, she said I was making a big mistake and that I would never find another wife as good as her. You know, the usual speech a Mexicana gives her oldest son upon discovering that he’s getting divorced. A speech filled with sentiments that would make any Mexican son feel guilty for breaking his mother’s heart by not giving her grandchildren. I was hoping to get a reception like the prodigal son, but I got The Mexicana Mother Speech! I got over it in about two days.

Once I could freely go upstairs to my mother’s apartment on the second floor–she rented out the first floor to paying tenants–I used to see my mother staring out the window a lot. Our house faced north on Marquette Road, just west of Western Avenue, so there was always plenty of activity to observe. One day, as I was trying to sneak downstairs behind her back–she always knew when I was in the room–she called me over to look out the window. A young Mexicana holding the hand of a little girl was was walking past our house. They lived in a basement apartment across the street. My mother had noticed her walking past our house previously. I don’t think that my mother would have taken such an interest in them if they hadn’t been Mexicanas. The next day, my mother saw them again. “They always walk by at the same time,” my mother said to me. “She needs a babysitter. I’ll talk to her tomorrow.” I told my mother to be careful because she might not trust her daughter to a complete stranger, especially one who is waiting for her on the street. The next day, when I went to my mother’s apartment, the young Mexicana and her daughter were in the living room. The mother was a very pretty Mexicana who was completely bilingual. In fact, when I heard her speak English so fluently, I didn’t think that she could speak Spanish at all, but she was just as fluent in both languages. It turns out that Chayo, her actual name was Rosario, took her daughter Melanie to daycare every morning before going to work. Somehow, my mother talked her into dropping off Melanie at our house before going to work. How did my mother convince Chayo to trust her with her only child? Well, my mother was waiting outside about the time that Chayo and Melanie walked back home from the daycare and my mother greeted her in Spanish. One thing led to another and they were talking on the corner for about an hour before they went into my mother’s house. Apparently, they both knew some of the same people. So that was the connection! Mexicans always try to find a common bond, whether it be friends, family, or the same place of origin in Mexico. So my mother had a babysitting job now.

So the next day, Melanie was upstairs when I woke up in the afternoon after working the midnight shift. I love children, so it was nice to have a little girl in the house again. She was like my mother’s daughter and my little sister. We both pampered her. Melanie looked much happier now than when she walked home from the daycare. Melanie’s first day at our house was very exciting for Melanie and us. Then Chayo, who was about my age, came to pick up her daughter. We talked for a while and when it was time for Chayo, and Melanie to leave, Chayo asked my mother how much she charged for babysitting. I knew mother didn’t want any money, but she had to name a price, so she said, “One-hundred dollars! Cash!” Chayo’s mouth dropped open. And then my mother laughed. She said that she would babysit for free. Chayo said that she had to pay her something because she was saving so much not taking her daughter to the daycare. Chayo tried to slip some folded dollar bills into my mother’s hand but she wouldn’t accept them. As far as I knew, my mother never charged her for babysitting.

Melanie took quite a liking to me. She had just turned four and she was at that age where she was so much fun. She had long, dark brown hair, brown eyes, and olive skin. She looked liked the cutest Mexican girl ever. She would always anxiously await me going upstairs when I woke up in the afternoon. We played games together and she always sat next to me at the dinner table. When I started working the day shift, she would look out the window waiting for me to come home. She was always happy to see me. Soon, she wanted to go with me whenever I went out. At first, I didn’t want to take her with me, but my mother said it would be okay. Melanie and I walked to my car hand in hand. I was going to the store to buy some groceries for my mother. Melanie sat in the front seat with me. Actually, she kept standing up and putting her arms around my neck, holding on for dear life. This was in the 1970s before it was mandatory to have small children in safety seats. Well, I almost got into an accident because Melanie obscured my vision, so I had to swerve and slam on the brakes. Melanie lost her grip around my neck and slid across the front seat until her head hit the passenger door. Luckily, she didn’t even get a bruise. I learned my lesson and from then on Melanie wore a seatbelt. After that, I felt more comfortable driving, too.

Then, my mother started talking to me about Chayo. She was available. I should ask her out. But what about Melanie’s father? He was in jail. I didn’t even want to know what crime he had committed to wind up in jail soon after Melanie’s birth and I didn’t want to know. Besides, he never married Chayo. No, I never asked Chayo out and she soon met someone else, something I have never regretted. One day, Melanie, out of the blue, started telling me, “I love you.” Somehow, she had become like my daughter. I didn’t mind, either. I like having Melanie around. Then, it all ended when I enlisted in the Marines. My mother told me to look for Chayo’s brother who was also in the Marines. In one of those unbelievable coincidences that you’re not supposed to write about because no one would believe it anyway, I actually met Chayo’s brother at Camp Pendleton. I wrote about this accidental meeting in a previous blog entry. And in yet another one of those unbelievable coincidences, I met one of Chayo’s sisters at the University of Chicago Track Club. But wait! Here’s another coincidence. When I was a member of the Marquette Park Track Club, Joe Gregory, one of our runners, announced the he was getting married. To whom? To another one of Chayo’s sisters. After I was honorable discharged from the Marine Corps and I had my own apartment near Marquette Park, Chayo called me. We talked awhile. My mother had previously told me that she would try to set me up with Chayo. So Chayo called me, but I wasn’t really interested. She called me a few more times, but that was the end of it. My only regret? That I didn’t ask her about Melanie!

I love you, Daddy!

Bridgeport welcome


Bridgeport, Chicago, Illinois

Bridgeport is a neighborhood unlike any other in Chicago. Actually, there are two Bridgeports: the mythical, political Bridgeport that every Chicagoan hears about since starting school and the earthy, gritty Bridgeport that contrasts sharply with the mythical, political version.

In grade school, we learned all about Bridgeport, which is the birthplace of five Chicago mayors, including the present Mayor Richard M. Daley (Richard da Second). Bridgeport didn’t invent machine politics; they merely perfected machine politics, reaching its apogee in Mayor Richard J. Daley (Richard da First). Bridgeport is also very near the geographical center of Chicago. Many south siders often went to the White Sox games at Comiskey Park in Bridgeport. When I was a student at Holy Cross School, no school field trip would be complete without first driving past Mayor Daley’s bungelow at 3536 S. Lowe Avenue. Bridgeport was the Mecca of the south side. Every Chicagoan made a pilgrimage to Bridgeport at some point in their life.

When I told my mother that I was planning to buy a house in Bridgeport, she cringed and told me that I would regret it. For some unknown reason, I was drawn to Bridgeport. Besides, this was the location of the only house I could afford using the GI Bill. But before I bought this house, I checked out the neighborhood first. I drove past the house several times, at different hours of the day and night. Every time I drove past my future home, the block was extremely quiet. I never saw any movement in this vicinity at any time. I was sure that I was moving into a good neighborhood. After all, this was Bridgeport. So I bought the house, much to my mother’s disappointment, and I moved in.

This was when I saw the earthy, gritty side of Bridgeport for the very first time. You don’t really know a neighborhood until you move in and you live there 24/7/365. It was only then that I saw the seedy side of Bridgeport. My house was situated next to an alley that ran alongside the length of my house, an alley that everyone in the neighborhood used as a shortcut. I always heard whomever walked through the alley talking, at all hours of the day. Then one day, I noticed that Bridgeport had a gang problem and my house was right the border between two gang turfs. My neighbor always tried to start a fight with me by pointing to my camoflage shirt, a remnant from my Marine Corps enlistment, and tell me, “Hey, man! The war’s over!” I would ignore him and walk past him quickly. It was about that time that I learned that there were two sides to Bridgeport. And I lived on the wrong side of Bridgeport! I lived on the side where the public housing projects were located, the only white projects in the whole city of Chicago!

While I lived in the Marquette Park neighborhood, I had developed certain habits and I thought I could continue them when I saw all the stores, shops, and restaurants that were available in Bridgeport. I really thought that I would enjoy all these places that were within walking distance of my house. I went to Lina’s Italian restaurant that was less than one block from my house because they served authentic Italian food. Or, so I thought. When I entered the restaurant, I was greeted by Lina herself. I asked for the beef ravioli because I love authentic beef ravioli. Lina said, “It takes too long to make.” I said, “That’s fine. I’m not in a hurry tonight. I brought a book that I can read while I wait.” “Well, I’m not going to make ravioli just for you. Why don’t you order something else?” So I did. But I went back a few times hoping to eat ravioli, but she always refused to make it.

I once needed a button sewn on my winter wool coat, so I went to a tailor on Halsted Street. The tailor said, “You want this button sewn on? Why don’t you buy yourself some needle and thread and sew it on yourself?” He didn’t understand that I didn’t want to sew it on myself and that I was willing to pay him to sew the button on for me. He continously refused, so I left.

I went down the block to the barbershop that appeared to be in a continous state of disrepair, since at least the 1960s, judging by the newspaper clippings on the wall. There were no customers in the store, so the barber was sitting in a chair. When I entered, he stood up and said, “How may I help you?” I told him that I wanted a haircut. Well, he wasn’t giving haircuts that day. So I left.

Then, I went to the 11th Ward Office because I needed garbage cans for my house. They refused to give me garbage cans because I didn’t appear as a registered voter within their ward even though I had just moved there. I left without garbage cans. This was certainly a fine welcome to Bridgeport. I eventually adjusted to life Bridgeport. You just had to learn not to have too high of expectations.