A journey into life

Chapter One

Birthday Surprise

Today is my twelfth birthday. Dad told me a little while ago that he has a surprise for me, told me to get dressed, that we’re going out. “Just you and me,” he said. I begged him to tell me where we’d be going but he said it wouldn’t be a surprise then, “now would it?”  Still, I wanted to know. I really don’t like surprises to tell you the truth. Too many surprises lately.

 Last week, Dad surprised us all when he’d lost his job. A few weeks before that, he lost another paycheck. Mom doesn’t like surprises either. She wasn’t too happy when Dad told her, how he lost his paycheck, “on a sure thing. Couldn’t have possibly lost.”  I overheard him tell her this when I was passing their bedroom on my way to the kitchen. The kitchen is right next to their bedroom and as I was sitting there eating my cereal I could hear my mom crying. I hate when Mom cries. The last year or maybe, the last two, I’ve heard my mom cry a lot. Sometimes I’ll see her cry but that’s not very often though. Mom doesn’t like us kids seeing her cry. She does it in her bedroom with the door closed. She knows we won’t bother her when she’s in her bedroom with the door closed.

            After getting dressed in my jean pants and tee shirt, Dad and me leave the apartment. On the way to the bus stop, once again I beg Dad to at least, give me a hint to where he’s taking me.

            ”Okay, okay,” he says. “We’ll be taking the elevated.”

            “Do you mean the El train?”

           “Yes, Ricky.” He pulls from his pants pocket a couple of C.T.A. (Chicago Transit Authority) tokens and then quickly switches them from one hand to the other, back and forth, back and forth and now my head’s getting dizzy. He finally stops, thank goodness, and holds out his fists. “Okay,” he says, “I bet you don’t know which hand they’re in.”

           I point to his right fist and he unclenched it, revealing nothing. “All right, it’s in your left then.” I’m wrong again. Somehow, the two tokens had ended up in his ear, and I don’t know how, it just amazes me, seeing my dad pull out of his ears two bus tokens. The bus pulls up, we climb aboard, and again, I’m amazed. This time Dad pulls the tokens from his mouth and deposits them in the fare box. The bus driver looks at my dad like he’s crazy or something. We ride the bus to the El station; all the way I’m trying to guess on my birthday surprise. Each time, Dad assures me that I’m wrong. “No, we’re not going to the movies. No, not bowling.”

Chicago CTA Bus

   As we wait for our El train to come, Dad and me watch the pigeons. They’re waddling the platform pecking at bits of bread a big lady in a dark shawl is tossing. A couple of times the big lady throws the bread too far and they land next to the third rail of the track. Watching those pigeons swoop down to the tracks near the third rail is getting me very nervous. God forbid, they touch the third rail; they’d be “fried chicken.” I don’t know how many volts are running this track but Dad tells me enough to electrocute an elephant. I don’t think many elephants ride this line though. They’re usually on the circus train and I think those kinds of trains are run by steam engines, maybe diesel.

           Beyond the blue spears of electric discharge, the Marina Towers, resembling two tall stacks of poker chips rise above the ground, giving me the chance to place another bet on my birthday surprise. This time I bet on a trip to the museum. I heard it’s downtown somewhere. But this bet doesn’t pay off either. Try again. Dinosaur bones, mummies and whatever else they have enslaved at The Field Museum would have to await my young and unwavering curiosity for another time.

           As the el train whizzes along, I feel as though I’m flying. Through the window I see nothing but the city below. There’s nothing in between. No track, nothing. Veering to one side, my body pressed against the cool steel, I see the expanse of blue just beyond the line of gray edifice. It looks like the lake, the very big lake. The beach, that’s it, I bet we’re going to the beach.

           “Dad, we’re going to beach, right?”

           “No, Ricky.”

           After negotiating another turn and then straightening out, in the distance, well beyond the breakers, boats, all kinds of boats begin to eclipse my view. I bet that’s it. I feel really good about this one. “Dad,” I say, “are you taking me on a boat?”

            “Yes, Ricky,” Dad answers. “We’re going to take the two-hour scenic tour on Lake Michigan,” he says soberly.  Now I’m getting excited, real excited, so excited that I nearly piss on the graffiti-laden seat. What a great surprise! Never been on a real boat before, only a small rowboat up in Wisconsin when I was either seven or eight or perhaps five.

           “Dad,” I ask, “why did you decide to take me on a boat?”  He looks up for a second, puts his index finger to his chin and begins to ruminate that his own father, my grandfather who I had never met, who died mysteriously well before I was born, took him on the same tour, but back then, “things were different, well, you know, the city wasn’t built as high as it is now, didn’t have a lot of these buildings we have now and no Ricky, no John Hancock building and no Playboy Bunny atop the building next to it either.”

           As the train begins to sweep around the outer edge of The Loop, with buildings tossing shadows and shadows casting streaks across Father’s face, I’m kind of enjoying this ride aboard the elevated, although I’m starting to feel more anxious and excited about getting off this darn thing and getting on that boat. I feel a trickle down my leg. I’m kind of embarrassed so I look around at my fellow passengers, people of various age and color, most of them in light summer clothes, and realize they are all ensconced in business of their own and pay me no attention, none at all.



Chicago Lake Michigan Boat Tour
The train lunges into a tunnel and then snakes out into a clearing, where the mid-September sun penetrates and emblazons the crayoned swastikas and spray-painted gang insignia that are worn tightly and selfishly upon the walls of our urine-smelling compartment.
Across from Father and me, slumped unconsciously forward, sits a man with decrepit overcoat, clutching a brown paper bag. A closer look reveals a puddle, a yellowish bubbly puddle below his knees. I reason with clear conscience that we should switch to another car. But Dad says, “We’re off at the next stop.”
I put my face in my hands and think about the meatloaf that Mom will be cooking for me later on. I have simple tastes and meatloaf is what I want and not some swanky Porterhouse or lobster tail. Besides, Porterhouses and lobster tails probably cost too much money anyway and I don’t think there’s much money for things like that, well, not since Dad lost his job last week.
I feel the train losing speed. I lift my face off my hands and look at Dad, who is now staring pensively at the man across from us, the one slumped in drunkenness, and I wonder if Dad’s being reminded of his own self as he was five or six months ago, when he, himself, was drunk a lot of the time, falling down and knocking things over and sometimes passing out on The Elevated and missing his stop, probably missing a bunch of stops.That was then, before he vowed never to take a drink again. Dad is sober and I’m proud of him and we’re going to spend the day together. I’m so happy.
I feel the train slowing. Dad nudges me and then he gets up and grasps the handrail. “C’mon,” he says.
We walk for what seems like forever. Dad says we have time before our boat lifts anchor, and besides it would be good to walk and talk and look at the various landmarks and different people who, too, are out taking advantage of this most perfect day.
On this day, everybody is out. This day is warm, warmer than most mid September days and Chicago is alive with its many children, who are carrying on and enjoying what this perfect day has to offer. For some, it will be a day at Lincoln Park Zoo. And for others, a day unfurled on a stretch of sandy beach. Today, there will be family picnics, slow-pitch softball games. Horseshoes will be tossed, volleyballs slapped, basketballs dribbled.
Today, perhaps one last romp before the sun turns its face and the leaves fall from the trees and then the snow builds icy fortresses along the avenues and boulevards, keeping the city’s many children hostage until Spring comes along again and pays ransom.
We come to the Michigan Avenue Bridge and cross over it, below us the Chicago River gleaming in the sun. Once on the other side, Dad takes my hand and leads me down a flight of stairs to the dock. Awaiting our embarkation is the boat that’ll take us down the river and then out to the lake. Today I’m a sailor and I feel so proud. Scampering across the planks, head held high, I know that there are worlds to conquer. I’m young, full of hopes and dreams and ambitions and nothing could stop this boy from accomplishing his mission.
I look up at Dad and he, too, is beaming with pride. He knows that he’ll duly fulfill his obligations to his family and his country and nothing will stop him.
He’ll find another job, a good job and finally buy me that bicycle I wanted for the last two years. And maybe that shiny electric guitar I saw in the window of Morley’s Music.
 With his new job, we can move into a bigger apartment, maybe one with three or four bedrooms. Maybe Lenny could have his own room and big sis Cara, hers. And little Wendy, she could get that canopy bed she had wished for. Yeah, things are going to be great. I know this, Dad knows this, and the entire world will know it.

Soon we’re out on the Second Great Lake. A flotilla of pleasure craft, hewing and hawing, bouncing and bobbing, surround us. Aboard, young ladies, bikini clad and tanned, wave and cheer; beer-bellied men, bellicose and vain, grunt and growl. We’re a curiosity, an oddity, an attraction.

A little while later, perched atop the waters, aided by rehearsed narration, I learn more about the city that has been my home since arriving here eleven years ago. Home to brother Lenny for thirteen. Wendy, seven years. And big sis Cara, sixteen years and counting. She’s been talking a lot about California lately.  She and her hippie-looking friends, the ones with the tie-die and moccasins. Behind me, the speakers speak and I listen:
“Chicago, the City of Big Shoulders…
My shoulders are kind of big, not that big though. Maybe I have to work on them more, do more push-ups, pull-ups, maybe lift weights and end up looking the way Dad used to look, a zillion years ago, when he was a serious body-builder, had his picture in Physique magazine a few times, when he used to be the hero of the neighborhood, Taylor Street—taking care of the bullies and providing security for his buddies. Dad was serious about his body; four, five, six hours a day at the gym, eating all the right foods, not smoking, not drinking, drinking, drinking, drinking—
…Chicago, the Windy City, incorporated March 4, 1837…
Gee, that was one hundred and thirty-six years ago. just like Dad, I am pretty darn quick adding numbers like this in my head. We are of the same cloth, I guess, have pretty much the same genes.
People say I look like him, I guess I do, different color eyes though—his are blue; mine are green but same high cheekbones, pouting lips, aquiline nose. Lenny, he has more of Mother’s genes, lighter hair, rounder face. Both Wendy and Cara, they have a good mix of both Dad and Mom – their hair, a combination of black and blond, probably brown, although it’s hard to tell sometimes, especially when we have to stare at each other in the candlelight because the power had been turned off again because somehow Dad had lost the money to pay the power bill.
Sometimes, we would have to wait for a week or so or until Mom gets up the nerve to ask Papa Joe for a small loan. Mom hates to ask her father, well, stepfather for money, she doesn’t want him to know our problems, especially doesn’t want to let Nee know, my grandmother. Sometimes, it’s better to keep things in the dark, I guess.
…The John Hancock building, one thousand, one hundred and five feet, ninety-seven stories, built 1969. Big John…
Uncle Johnny Leonatti, I admire the man. He has always provided well for Aunt Celia and the twins Mickey and Michael. And of course, Little John, their youngest.
What Uncle Johnny does for a living, I’m not quite sure, a little bit of this and a little bit of that, I suppose. He doesn’t have a regular job, the kind you have to go to usually at the same time every day. At all different hours of the day or night, he’d jump in his Cadillac and head off, maybe for three or four or five hours and then come home, breast pocket of his jacket full of cash.
He’d throw a wad down on the table and instruct Aunt Celia to pay the bills and stock up the pantry and fill the freezer with the “best steaks money can buy.
And while you’re at it, make sure the kids get their favorite snack food. And since Ricky is sleeping over, let him pick out whatever he wants. He’s kind of looking skinny. Have you been eating right, Ricky?”
“Yes, Uncle Johnny, we always have plenty of food at home.” I hate to lie but Mom always warns me: “Ricky, don’t you dare let my sister, your Aunt Celia, know about your dear father losing another job.” Or, “Ricky, please do not let your Uncle Johnny and Aunt Celia know that our refrigerator is empty again.”
…Chicago’s world-renowned Art Institute, founded 1879…
Art. Impressive. Lenny, left handed and talented, sitting in the corner of the room, next to the half-open window, drawing with colored pencil the many objects of his obsession—dragsters, souped-up motorcycles. With change of mood and pencil, caricatures of various funny men—Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello. An occasional Jack Benny. For Mom, a Dean Martin holding a huge martini glass, green olive and all.
Art. Very Impressive. Uncle Gino, Dad’s brother, creates in his bedroom-studio with charcoal or oil renditions of Michelangelo’s Pieta, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
Uncle Gino also loves clowns. Once in a while he would sell one of his clown paintings to a neighborhood café or tavern. Otherwise, if he didn’t sell some of his paintings, where else would he get the money to pay for the tobacco that fills his ever-present pipe. Uncle Gino doesn’t work outside the house, no, his sister does—my Aunt Tina.
She slaves away every day at some factory, making shoes or sweaters or airplane parts. Bless her heart, that woman. She is primarily the sole breadwinner, taking care of both Uncle Gino and Grandma Rosa, paying for the apartment that they share on Cicero Avenue, above a diner.
…The Chicago Public Library…
Books. I love books, all kinds of books. Books on astronomy, I’m traveling through space without a care in the world.
Books on Hawaii, I’m sitting under a palm tree, watching the tides roll in. Books on fish, I’m a guppy in a pond full of sharks. No, I’m a dolphin at Sea World, entertaining the children, jumping through hoops and being fed mackerel.
And then there are the classics. I had started a collection, my very first—War and Peace, in hardcover, given to me by Mother’s friend, Trudy Myers, who claims to have read it three times already and no longer has use for it. Bless her heart, that woman.
…About ten miles due west of downtown is Oak Park and birthplace of two of its famous sons, Ernest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright. Now, Frank…
Frank Morelli, my best friend; friends since that day back in the fourth grade when he tried to steal my swing. New to the school, how dare he jump aboard the swing that I just got off, only momentarily, so that I could tie my shoes. What’s wrong with you taking my swing, I ask him, fists clenched. You got off, he tells me. Yeah, but to tie my shoes. I push him and he pushes me back and I go flying.
Boy, this new guy has some strength. I tell him that he could have the swing and he thanks me and introduces himself: “My name is Frank, Frank Morelli, just moved here from Kostner and Armitage, my father bought a house just down the street, on Parkside.” I apologize and we become friends.
It was hard for Frank at the new school with a lot of the other kids making fun of him, trying to start fights with him, ganging up on him. And why? Just because he was overweight? How dare these kids call him these ugly names, Sewer RatThe Blob. How dare they, huh?
Frank and I, we became Batman and Robin, the dynamic duo and not only did I help him in a few brawls but also with his homework. I’d do his homework and he’d buy me candy and soda pops and stuff like that. Unlike me, Frank always seemed to have money. Unlike him, I loved doing schoolwork. I excelled in it. Ever since kindergarten, everything that was taught, I grasped, rather easily.
Until one day, maybe the beginning of fifth grade, I realized how foolish I had been doing my best friend’s schoolwork. What was he learning? Nothing! I told him that he was learning nothing with me doing his homework and that he’d have to do it himself from now on. I told him how I appreciated the candy and stuff but my concern for his welfare was greater. “I understand,” he says, “and I’ll do my own homework from now on. And I’ll still buy you candy and soda pop and stuff at lunchtime, okay?”
“Thanks, Frank.”
“No problem, buddy.”
“Frank, by the way… you look like you lost some weight, well, did you?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *