Bob Wulkowicz introduced me to the writing of Stuart Dybek. Wulkowicz appeared one day outside my cubicle at the Mayor’s Office of Employment housed in the old Kraft Building on Peshtigo Court. I think it was 1982, and the long forgotten Jane Byrne was Chicago’s mayor at the time. He was told by someone over at City Hall that I was the guy he ought to see to help him with his project that had to do with some kind of electronic signal that he devised for the Outer Drive on-ramps.
As I witnessed countless times in my twelve years of non-continuous employment with the city, the guy was steered to the wrong office. Wulkowicz should have been directed to see the bureaucrats at the Department of Transportation, but instead he landed at my cubicle where I helped plan job training programs for the city. Obviously he was at the wrong office.
Nonetheless, I started chatting with him, and after a couple of minutes we established instantaneous connections that often guys raised in Chicago’s neighborhoods make. He was raised in the West Pilsen/Little Village area. I lived in Lawndale until I was ten, and then moved to West Rogers Park. He went to Catholic schools, I attended CPS schools. We had the shared experience of riding the CTA trains and buses, sneaking into the box seats at the Cubs and Sox games, and watching in amazement and amusement how Chicago politics played out over the years.
Wulkowicz told me about a friend of his from the old neighborhood named Stuart Dybek who was a writer. He thought I would enjoy Dybek’s stories, and two days later he stopped by my office again and presented me Childhood and Other Neighborhoods as a gift. He let me know that the character Vulk in one of the book’s stories, “The Long Thoughts,” was based on him.
The next few years I saw Wulkowicz off and on. He worked briefly with the city, and then I heard he left town. In fact, he left the country and moved to Canada.
At a Printer’s Row Book Fair maybe ten years ago, I chatted with Dybek before he mounted the stage for a panel discussion where Studs Terkel was also a participant. I told Dybek my Wulkowicz story, and he, pointing at Studs, related that Wulkowicz was the one who first turned him on to Studs and his radio interviews on WFMT when they were both teenagers.
This weekend Dybek is one of the headliners at Printer’s Row. He has two new books out and has emerged as a major literary celebrity in Chicago. If I can get his attention for a minute, I will have to ask him if he has heard from Wulkowicz lately.