The raw air lashed our cheeks as we trudged.
Three below, excluding the wind chill, is merely a statistic. I know it’s cold because my Amazon-ordered, Soviet surplus Ushanka isn’t even partially preventing my lips from welding shut more thoroughly than the iron bars that ensure that we stay out of the dining hall after 8.p.m. College kids, man. They’re dangerous!
Always one for mediocre-at-best quips, I suggest to the group that “this is so Stalingrad.”
Ken laughs, at least. It’s one of those throaty, bellowing laughs that, in the moment, seem out of line with a pencil-thin frame, horn-rimmed glasses, and black combat boots. He’s thin…POW thin…but can easily put down ten shots on a Tuesday morning. It makes less than no sense. And it’s the highest honor I’ve received in weeks.
Ted’s carrying the group’s right flank. He shakes inside of his sweatshirt and asks us to stop. A trembling hand reaches inside a breast pocket. Hardly a scene of Napoleonic grandeur, he instead takes out a hard-shell plastic package of discount wine-flavored cigarillos. Only God knows where they came from, and I certainly don’t want to find out.
Ted drags in, but the material—whatever it is—won’t catch. As he labors in vain, the question arises as to whether getting cancer should really be this difficult. Ad hoc is the man’s specialty, and I see him disappear and then just as suddenly reappear with a goofy smile and a lit cigarillo. Of course, he emerges from behind a particularly grimy dumpster filled mostly with ice and forties of Corona.
No, this group’s mannerisms are not representative of the general population. Call it strange, call it gritty, call it screw loose. I call it real.
Ice also covers most of the sidewalk. We collectively watch our step to avoid falling victim to the grim prospect of face to the concrete. Nobody commits a misstep, no joy is to be had for the pavement which allows us transport, but lies in wait like a well-meaning but slightly sadistic younger sibling. The fateful green street sign now appears; dusk hasn’t managed to quash the austere splendor of the two characters: 53. We make the right turn.
The populace here isn’t emaciated. No one that I’ve seen, even on the most precarious of nights, has resorted to slaughtering Lincoln Park zoo animals for food. A college army does march on its stomach. And real people have to eat real food.
CLARENCE’S CHICKEN SHACK: CHICKEN, WINGS, FISH, and PIZZA
Pizza. Ordering pizza at an institution nationally known for its fried chicken. Sounds like a gamble with stakes somewhere between a crate of gas station sushi and Russian Roulette.
We enter. Vagabonds, professionals, homeless, students, lifers, professionals. If Winthrop was here, he’d see a City upon a Shack.
The kitsch is beyond comprehension; the group smiles collectively. The paramount logo features an axe-wielding chef chasing a chicken that’s sweating. My heart leaps at the fact that PETA hasn’t yet hit the South Side. Perhaps the bulletproof glass which separates cashier and customer, and is permeated only by a metal slot into which money can be placed, has scared them off.
We revel in our meal. What is $3.51 for half a chicken, some fries, and a gratuitous amount of indigestion but the ultimate in college grunge? A liter of orange soda packed into a standard-issue brown bag also finds its way through the also-bulletproof lazy Susan which functions as a calorie-delivery system. It’ll certainly be entertaining to brown-bag a bottle of water in class, come Monday. One last look at the menu has an “Extra Bag” listed for five cents.
“I’ll take three wings…with a side of bag, please,” says Ted.
The group erupts.
I’m walking with Robert, a true friend. Like me, he’s spawn of the sterilized ‘burbs. And as a recently accepted student to the University, he wants to check out the area. The standard tour rhetoric would gloss over the curriculum, show the inside of a Chem Lab, and implicitly suggest that no white boys have been openly murdered in the past decade.
To the street it is. We make the fateful right, and head East, towards the water. Towards the pulsing, resilient heart of our American dream.
Clarence’s is necessary, and not just for the purpose of obtaining enough calories to sustain ourselves through the next few days. Only at a place like this could a grizzled yet nervous-looking middle-aged man in a faded trucker hat attempt to order a half gallon of the institution’s hot sauce. The ambivalent crowd stands in wait as if this is just another scene from a half-baked Adam Sandler movie. A half chicken with hot sauce appears through the lazy Susan, at which the man is visibly upset; he wants his damned sauce. Eventually, a gargantuan bucket appears, filled to the brim and down the sides with burbling red something. $3.51 doesn’t do it justice.
Robert’s always intrigued by the debonair. The next establishment we visit is thus a logical one. A veritable blitzkrieg of rolled tobacco products line shelves, cases, and walls. Neither one of us smoke.
Most places try to draw smoke out of the building. This one has two giant vents pumping cigar smoke in.
But the reason why we stand there, of all places, at that particular point in time, immediately makes itself known.
Opening the door had tripped a light chime, but neither man nor beast appeared behind the counter. I was actually close to thinking that this tobacco stock had an absentee owner–until a mannequin appeared through one of the plumes of smoke roiling near the cash register.
He looks like a central character from a stoner comedy. Eyes bloodshot, and with a sidestepping, thoroughly blazed gait to boot. We introduce ourselves and exchange pleasantries, and proceed to browse about the store. Steve stands guard by the register and gnaws on his stogie.
Could his name have been anything other than Steve?
In jest, and purely out of interest, I ask Steve if he’s ever dealt in Cubanos, either from the supply or demand side. “They only sell those in the movies, right?”
“Actually, I have ‘em. Can’t sell ‘em, but they’re legal enough to buy. Legal enough, at least. I just order them online, they ship to a country that isn’t the US, and then they ship them here. We’re having an event next Thursday. If you’re looking to party with Cubans, that’s the time,” Steve replies.
First few minutes, and we both have an invitation to consume gray market cigars. Robert picks up a dark, rich looking one on the shelf. Steve says that the one Robert’s holding is his personal favorite. There’s no front to the way he says it, either. It’s sincere; as authentic as his expression of pure stupor. The banter continues, and Robert and I tag-team casual questions. Within ten minutes, we know that Steve was a youthful cigar smoker, has his own cigar label, and claims ownership of a processing plant in the Dominican Republic. The invitation to crash for a rooftop cigar party on Thursday is repeated.
If only Steve ran the show at admissions. I’d like to think we still would have gotten in.
We’ve reached the end of the street. The stores, some of which are arbitrarily shuttered before their posted closing times, are at least a hundred yards back. As the ground is frozen, the Metra underpass doesn’t smell like stale urine. Another subtle item to put in the plus column, not that it matters by this point. The street lights are out for at least twenty yards in all directions. We’re alone, but we’re not isolated.
The lake’s waves ripple at my feet. A metropolitan skyline appears on both left and right. But straight, straight is the direction I stop to turn towards with complete fixation. Nothing but sky, fog, water, and a single barge exists in my field of vision. The lake stands as a 53rd inhabitant would. Resolute, but not dominating. Bold, but never judging. Aware of modernity, and yet with spirit eternal.
The week after Robert left, I went back to the street. Motivation is split evenly between a desire to return to my new homeland, and a need to pursue the straight dope. Across the Harold’s, a sign reads, again in caps lock: EVEREST INTERNATIONAL.
A portrait of Dr. King, leopard-print scarves, and jewelry carved of bone line the window. As a general rule, white boys don’t have reason to go in these types of stores.
I go in.
The proprietor is an older Haitian woman. I guess Haitian based on her accent, the black knitted hat pulled down over the entirety of her forehead, and the fact that I’ve always rooted for the Haitians. Specifically, the Maroons. The University’s mascot, true, but the original Maroons were rogues that led the first and only successful slave revolt in North America. I find it fitting, as there are no slaves on 53rd. Not to possessions, not to technology, not to nothing.
Through repetition and repetition alone, I know that success here is not dependent on whether I can impress her with a gadget in a middle-school pissing contest. It’s about quick thinking. It’s about truth. It’s about having a touch of humanity.
I throw every ounce of my own mediocre charms at the situation. With genuine interest, I ask about the structure of her business and the neighborhood’s history. In another round of back-and-forth, I learn that the street’s pre-Thanksgiving event that I stumbled upon, which entailed waiting in line with a hundred others to pick up two free frozen turkeys served up out of the back of a truck, was just another “community event” sponsored by the local Church.
She’s happy to school me, and I’m happy to listen. It’s a solid twenty minutes before I’m asked what I’m interested in buying. In some districts, it’s almost like sellers and buyers are doing each other a favor in a transaction. Conversation, if existent, is minimal. Not here. She doesn’t even have a reason to. But this woman cares.
I ask if she has anything of Toussaint. In a near-religious ceremony, she unrolls the painting. The horseman is militant, and yet not in the jingoist way. It’s proud, it’s raw. The artist’s choice of plastic sparkles to accentuate the figure’s uniform isn’t even gaudy. It works. It’s real.
She leans in for a formal greeting, and lightly grazes my cheek.
“Welcome, Isaac, young brother. Forget the rhetoric they spit at you, forget all the impersonal bullshit. You can call me Sister Violet.”