The Monte Cristo

Humming an old Greek lullaby that his mother sang to him as a child, Spiros Lomedis swiped the raggedy dishcloth rhythmically across the Formica countertop. In his mind’s eye, he conjured up the gentle Aegean breezes and the scent of figs from his island home of long ago. For centuries, the Lomedis and Kalanos families had been farmers, growing bountiful vegetables in the volcanic ash soil of Santorini.  The families had the reputation of the best growers of tomatoes, eggplants and cucumbers on the island.

Life on Santorini, as in all of Greece, took a drastic turn for the worse in the 1940s. First there was the merciless German Occupation, followed by the horrific Greek Civil War. Young men in their early twenties, like Spiros’ uncles, Demetrius and Alexi Kalanos, grew restless and saw no future by remaining in Greece. They knew, from the successes already there achieved by some Santorinians, that America beckoned to them as a land of golden opportunity

Leaving behind their parents and two sisters, Demetrius and Alexi came to the Chicago in 1950, sponsored by a cousin who owned an ice cream and candy store. There they worked for three years, until they saved enough money to buy a place of their own. It was a small restaurant, that some people in the neighborhood called a “coffee shop.” Inside there was a long circular counter, as well as six booths and eight tables. The neon sign above the door flashed the name of the restaurant, The Monte Cristo, repeatedly through the night.

The brothers bought it from a Jewish man who had owned it for twenty years. They decided to keep the name because they thought it something uniquely American that a Jew would name his place “the Lord’s mountain” in the Italian language. They soon learned that the restaurant’s name was derived from a popular sandwich on the menu.

Located on a busy intersection in Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood on the North West Side, the place had a steady stream of customers from morning to night. At first, Alexi prepared food in the kitchen while Demetrius managed the restaurant and worked the register.

Then in the early ‘70s, Alexi, a bachelor, became ill with cancer and soon passed away.  Demetrius’ two children were both college graduates who were beginning their professional careers, and they had no interest in becoming involved in the restaurant business. Demetrius, in desperation, wrote to his sister Elena in Santorini, to start making arrangements with the proper authorities back home to bring her twenty-year old son Spiros to Chicago in order to assist him in the restaurant.

Spriros Lomedis loved farming and truly thought that is what he would be doing for the rest of his life. He took pride in growing the juiciest and tastiest tomatoes on the island.  He was about to ask his girlfriend Melina to marry him. But Spiros was also a devoted son, and he did not argue with his mother when she decided that he must go to Chicago to help her brother. It broke his heart when he told Melina what he had to do. He left Santorini, never having made a marriage proposal to her.

When Spiros first arrived in Chicago during the middle of winter the frigid air shocked his system. He never dreamed that weather could be so cold. “You will see, my boy, that you will get used to it. We all do,” Uncle Demetrius assured him in comforting Greek words.

Under his uncle’s tutelage, Spiros learned every aspect of the restaurant business. He opened the place in the morning and closed it at night. He bussed the tables and washed the dishes. The young farmer from Santorini learned how to fry fish, broil steaks and bake chicken. In about a year or so, he mastered all the mundane tasks of restaurant work, and his English was improving so much that he started to wait on customers and work the cash register. But what Spiros liked to do best was to go to the produce market in the early morning when it still was dark outside, and choose the best fruits and vegetables available that day from the merchant stalls.

The Monte Cristo did a steady business in the in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Workers from a nearby factory crowded the place at the shift changes in the morning and afternoon. The local business owners found it convenient and affordable for a decent breakfast and lunch. Cops came in all day for coffee and a quick bite to eat. Demetrius and Spiros always made sure to comp them with a rice pudding.

Spiros worked twelve hour days; seven days a week. He half-kiddingly told his customers that he never had a family because he was married to his restaurant. He made a good enough living to provide for himself, and each month he would wire some money to his family back home.

The community was changing and sometime in the mid- 90s, the neighborhood factory closed. A decade later it seemed that half the local retail shops had closed as well. Then the largest bank in the neighborhood shuttered its doors. Gross receipts for the restaurant dwindled. It seemed that people nowadays would spend five dollars for a sugary and creamy Starbuck’s frappuccino, rather than a full breakfast at The Monte Cristo for the same price.

Then Uncle Demetrius’ dementia began to set in. His children arranged for him to live in the Greek Nursing Home in Wheeling. Spiros began to think that now might be a good time to go back home to Santorini. After all, he had a nice nest egg in savings and soon he would be getting Social Security A couple of Mexican guys had made him an offer to buy the place for a taco joint. Each day he daydreamed more and more about the sights and smells of the island. In his heart of hearts, he knew that only in Santorini’s volcanic ash soil he could achieve his lifelong dream of growing the world’s perfect tomato.

 

Advertisements

Start Shooting

 

 

Charlie Newton’s second novel, Start Shooting, is a story of childhood sweethearts, who after twenty-nine years apart, reunite in a labyrinth of intrigues in modern-day Chicago. Bobby Vargas, the good cop in the novel and his actress girlfriend, Arleen Brennan, fend off bad cops, most prominently Bobby’s brother Ruben, Mexican gangbangers, a rogue CIA agent, Japanese viral terrorists and a psycho Vietnamese orphan who are out to get them.

Bobby, a son of Mexican immigrants, and Arleen, the daughter of Irish immigrants, grew up in the tough neighborhood of Four Corners, around Eighteenth and Laflin.  Arleen had a twin sister, Colleen, who was brutally raped and murdered when she was thirteen. A young black gangbanger was convicted of the crime and executed. Twenty-nine years later a newspaper reporter decides to reinvestigate the case and Bobby Vargas’ name surfaces as a prime suspect. A spate of current sexual abuse charges are suddenly filed against Bobby, who for seventeen years on the force had nothing but exemplary behavior.

Arleen, returning to Chicago from Los Angeles where she tried an acting career, suddenly gets a chance to audition as Blanche DuBois in a major Chicago production of A Streetcar Named Desire. This looms as her big chance of stardom. The audition is arranged through Bobby’s brother Ruben who asks her to do a few favors that put both her and Bobby in harm’s way.

The plot of the novel is complex and slow revealing. Chicago is rebidding to win the 2016 Olympics bid, after Rio opted out. Tokyo remains Chicago’s sole competitor, yet ironically a Japanese corporation has emerged as the major financial supporter of the Windy City’s bid.

In the end, the disparate elements of the novel gel together and leave the reader with a satisfying conclusion. A 9/11 type of disaster is averted in Chicago through the efforts of Bobby and Arleen, who ultimately are fated to remain together, both finding their own personal redemptions.

Newton writes like a guy who knows the streets of Chicago. He understands the city’s greatness as well as its insidious underbelly, that fascinating dichotomy that makes Chicago such a great source for storytelling.

 

 

The Lexington Hotel

 

Patricia Porter led a group of us from the city up the dilapidated stairwell to the fifth floor of the Lexington Hotel, located at Michigan and Cermak, where she showed the rooms of a suite that Al Capone occupied from 1928 to 1932. It was hard to imagine Scarface and his cronies relaxing and doing business in these same rooms amidst the cracked walls and ceilings now surrounding us.

Pat’s organization, the Sunbow Foundation, had recently bought the hotel with funds received mainly from the city of Chicago to train minority women in construction skills while rehabbing the decrepit hotel in the process. The Jane Byrne administration had originally hoped to house an International Women’s Museum and Research Center at the hotel as part the 1992 Chicago’s Fair, commemorating the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery voyage from Spain to the Americas.

I first met Pat in the summer of 1981 when she visited me in my office at the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training. A tall, imposing woman wearing work boots and overalls, she came unannounced and plopped herself into an empty chair in my cubicle.   She related to me a story that an aide to Mayor Byrne told her that my office was going to be giving her a $500,000 contract with federal job training funds. She said to me that I was the guy that City Hall told her to see to make that happen.

The only problem was nobody at Byrne’s office told my boss who claimed he knew nothing about it. But Pat had made up her mind not to leave the office she had a finalized contract commitment. She sat in my cubicle for five hours, waiting with inordinate patience, staring at me and the walls, before the official communication came from Byrne’s office authorizing the contract for the Sunbow Foundation.

At first, Sunbow began doing small rehab projects at a South Side YWCA and a battered women’s shelter. Several building trades unions bought into the program, providing carpenters and masons as instructors for the trainees. These unions made Sunbow part of their pre-apprenticeship programs, and the women trainees hoped eventually to become fully apprenticed carpenters and masons. Sunbow had some initial success, and then it began rehabbing parts of the Lexington.

When Mayor Harold Washington got elected in 1983, his administration acceded to the wishes of neighborhood groups that believed that city funds allocated to the 1992 World’s Fair should be rechanneled for more needed services and programs in the communities. Chicago pulled out, allowing Seville, Spain, to host the Fair. However Mayor Washington was committed to Sunbow’s program and authorized an increase in funding for the organization that allowed it to purchase the Lexington in 1985.

The Lexington had been built in 1892 to accommodate the many visitors expected to flock to the South Side to visit the Columbian Exposition. President Benjamin Harrison stayed there while visiting the Exposition. For several decades, the Lexington maintained its reputation as one of the more stylish hotels south of downtown. The Depression and the gradual decline of the neighborhood took its toll on the Lexington. In 1938 the hotel changed its name to the New Michigan Hotel, but the downward slide continued for the next four decades. It basically became a dangerous transient flophouse, housing prostitutes and drug-dealers. I remember the down and outers hanging out around the place when I ate regularly at Mama Batt’s, a Jewish restaurant-deli that leased retail space on the ground level, when I worked for the County in an office a block away from the hotel.  Eventually, the hotel closed its doors to the public in 1980.

Sunbow’s work on the Lexington proceeded at a snail’s pace. Federal job training dollars were being cut significantly in the second term of President Reagan’s administration, and Sunbow was barely able to stay afloat financially. Pat Porter somehow made contact with the television personality Geraldo Rivera in 1986 and convinced him that there was a good chance that Al Capone had kept a sealed vault full of money in the basement of the Lexington. Pat secured a lucrative consulting contract from Geraldo. Millions watched his TV show as the vault was opened, revealing nothing but a Stop sign and a couple of empty gin bottles.

Sunbow dissolved in 1987 due to lack of funding. The Lexington Hotel was demolished in 1996. The McCormick Place Convention complex now extends across the street of the site of the old hotel. Tens of thousands of conventioneers now pass the site each year, unaware they are perhaps in the shadow of Al Capone’s ghost.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bubbie Gussie

 

I slid in the sawdust that sprinkled the floor of the St. Louis Fish Market on Lawrence Avenue in Albany Park. I waited patiently for my grandmother, Gussie Schlan, who we in our family affectionately called “Bubbie.” She stood staring at the rows of stacked fish that lay over beds of ice, lifeless, yet eyes bulging in their heads.  Soon Bubbie would select the whitefish, carp and pike that met her scrupulous standards for the ingredients of the fabled gefilte fish that she prepared each Passover for our Seder dinner.

Obtaining my driver’s license that winter of 1961, I frequently chauffeured Bubbie around so she could do her errands. It was convenient as my parents and I lived across the street from her on Lunt Avenue in the West Rogers Park neighborhood. After Zadie David had passed away several years before, my sister Anne stayed with Bubbie for a few months. Bubbie then remained alone in the apartment on California Avenue which was above Bernie Joseph’s grocery store and Joe Stone’s barber shop. She did have occasional lady roommates over the years, but none of them lasted for very long.

Although the roommates that she had were all very nice ladies, the truth must be told that Bubbie had her own idiosyncrasies which made it difficult for an outsider to live with her. Her family could do no wrong, but Bubbie had the propensity find flaws in others. I remember her describing one roommate and her family in descriptive Yinglish as “a bunch of meshuggeners.” After listening to another roommate tell what I thought to be a poignant story, Bubbie whispered to me “I can’t stand her mishegoss.” These Yiddish words were referring to elements of craziness in both people and things.

Bubbie never learned to read, write and speak English properly. She arrived in the States as a young woman from her home in Lithuania in 1910, several years after Zadie had come here to find work first. It was Zadie, and eventually their children, my mother Ilene, my uncles, Julie and Jerry, who had to navigate English-speaking Chicago for her in making decisions, both major and minor. Later in her life Bubbie confessed to her granddaughter, my cousin Harriet, that her only regret in life was that she couldn’t learn English better, and perhaps she should have enrolled in an English class or two and maybe advance her education in other ways as well.

She was your consummate Jewish grandmother who lavished her grandchildren with love and affection. We kids looked forward to what we called a “Bubbie Gussie kiss,” a warm and wet smack on our cheeks that seemed to last a minute or so. She had a smile that seemed to make the room glow and a laugh that caught our attention and made us laugh as well.

Another distinguishing feature of Bubbie was the flair she had when she went out to what she called “a fancy occasion.” Putting on her lipstick, rouge and mascara, in the prelude to going out, was a major project. When Uncle Julie won a mink stole in a raffle, he gave it to Bubbie as a gift. She seemed to wear it quite often, expanding the definition of “a fancy occasion” to a walk in the park.

Bubbie took great pride in being an American. She didn’t have a written record of her birth, so the family celebrated her birthday on the 4th of July. She always voted in elections, usually with the generous assistance of our Democratic precinct captain. She had a fit when I grew my first beard, saying that it reminded her of the men who lived in the shtetl in a past world. I had to shave it off immediately.

I remember that taking Bubbie shopping was quite an experience. She seemed to have brought the shtetl market place mentality to the New World. Every marked price on an item seemed too high for her and she generally let the merchant know about it. When given a chance, she loved bargaining over an item.

Bubbie loved playing cards. Although she enjoyed playing kalooki, poker was her game of choice. She played mostly with her Yiddish speaking lady friends, although every now and then a man was let in the game. The stakes were penny ante with nickel raises, but the games were nevertheless highly intense. Bubbie always appeared completely focused on the game and could not be distracted until its conclusion.

When Uncle Julie and Uncle Jerry opened their business on the Southeast Side of Chicago, they settled their families in that area. Since ours was a tightly-knit family, and although they lived on the other side of the city, Bubbie expected, and received, a telephone call from both of them each day of the week. They always told her what they ate that day. Sunday was reserved as a day when the family would get together with her. She even took a holiday from card playing that day.

In addition to Anne and me, who were the children of Ilene and her husband, our father, Jack, Bubbie’s other grandchildren were Harriet and Lester, the children of Uncle Julie and Aunt Ethel, and Jill and Lee, the children of Uncle Jerry and Aunt Ro. Bubbie had an unique and loving relationship with each of us. When she passed away in 1975, we six cousins were sitting together around the table at the shiva exchanging Bubbie stories. We soon discovered that it seemed as if each of us felt favorite grandchild status from Bubbie. She had that gift to make us all feel loved in her very special way.

Forever in Our Hearts

Mr. Katz usually took Howie and me to the Buffalo Ice Cream Parlor on Irving Park and Pulaski after we saw the Blackhawks play at the Stadium. We loved Buffalo’s with its delicious homemade ice cream and candies, and its wooden booths surrounded by a menagerie of stuffed animals. Howie always had a hot fudge sundae, and I usually stuffed myself with two scoops of strawberry ice cream and a couple of chocolate-covered cherries.

Although the Mighty Hawks finished in third place during that 1960-61 season, they were dominant in the playoffs, winning their first Stanley Cup in twenty-three years. Howie Katz was an incredibly enthusiastic Blackhawks fan and his dad must have taken us to at least twenty games that season, including two games of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Detroit Red Wings. Despite my parents’ protestations, Mr. Katz always paid my way.

Howie was my best friend since the fourth grade of elementary school when we moved into the West Rogers Park neighborhood in 1955. A sweet and kind boy, Howie suffered from cystic fibrosis, a disease that he would eventually die from at the age of twenty. Cystic fibrosis causes mucus to block the airways in the lungs, often leading to bacterial infections. Mucus also clogs the pancreas, frequently leading to abnormal digestion and malnutrition. Even today, with all the advances of modern medicine, fifty-five percent of those born with cystic fibrosis die before the age of eighteen. Howie was extremely thin, and every now and then a kid would make an insensitive comment about his skinny arms and legs.

Following sports was Howie’s passion, especially cheering for his favorite teams, the Cubs and Blackhawks. He could answer almost any trivia question, past or present, about both teams. He had team pennants and posters hanging on the walls of his bedroom. A signed Ernie Banks baseball and a signed Stan Mikita hockey stick also adorned the room.

The cystic fibrosis didn’t seem to slow him down too much until his senior year of high school. He was home a lot, using his ventilators more frequently. Despite missing quite a few school days, Howie was diligent in completing his course work and managed to attend his graduation ceremony in June, 1963.

After graduation, Howie enrolled in several courses at Mayfair Junior College that fall. He truly wanted to be an accountant, and he did complete a year’s worth of courses. Then, in late 1964 and early 1965, his disease was getting worse and he had to be hospitalized several times.  Things took another turn for the worse that spring, and Howie passed away in June, a few weeks after his twentieth birthday.

At the shiva, Mrs. Katz held my hand for nearly an hour, thanking me for being such a good friend to her beloved son. Mr. Katz, who came to the States as a refugee from Nazi Germany, sat quietly and stoically in his grief. Emotionally I still had not processed the reality that my best friend had died.

Howie was buried in West Lawn cemetery, where today he rests beside his parents. Whenever I visit my parents’ graves at West Lawn, I visit Howie’s grave and place a small rock on his tombstone that has the inscription “forever in our hearts” written on it.

 

 

 

Bohemian National Cemetery

It was mid-December, 2011, and a dusting of snow coated the gravestones as Jerry and I entered the Bohemian National Cemetery through a beautiful gothic gate. My friend Jerry Schenwar and I enjoy visiting Chicagoland cemeteries. We are not morbid, but we are curious. We find the markers, memorials and mausoleums of these cemeteries to be of great historic interest.

Bohemian National Cemetery was founded in 1877 by a group of free-thinking Czechs who emigrated from the region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire known as Bohemia. These Czechs, the majority of them with Protestant backgrounds, did not find the Chicago Catholic cemeteries that catered to the mostly Catholic Central and Eastern European immigrants especially welcoming to their burial needs. So they established their own cemetery. Most of the Bohemian community at that time lived in the Pilsen neighborhood on the near South Side, but they took trolleys and later on buses or drove private cars to visit loved ones interred at Bohemian National, located about a dozen miles from Pilsen at Foster and Pulaski (then Crawford) on the North Side.

Walking through the cemetery you see mostly Czech names, like Novak, Dvorak and Novotny on the gravestones. But the grounds and services of Bohemian National are open to all people. In fact, the Indian community is one of the biggest users of the crematorium for its traditional Hindu funeral rites. Bohemian National is operated by a not-for-profit association, independent of the corporation that seems to have a monopoly on most Chicago area cemeteries.

As Jerry and I walked along the cemetery’s paths, we came across the mausoleum of Anton Cermak, the once powerful Chicago mayor who was fatally wounded by an assassin’s bullet meant for President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, while both men were together in Miami, Florida. Later on that year, President Roosevelt, accompanied by the First Lady, laid a wreath at the foot of Cermak’s mausoleum. A photo of that event is prominently featured in the cemetery’s main office.

We also came across an amazing site that gave new meaning to the term “die-hard Cub fan.” Cub fans have created a final resting place for their own at Bohemian National. They erected a stone monument with a painted view of the ivy-colored centerfield wall at Wrigley Field, complete with bleacher seats and scoreboard above it. Burial vaults holding the remains of loyal Cub fans are encased inside the monument. Each vault has a plaque affixed to it with a personalized Cub remembrance such as “I saw Ruth and Gehrig play at Wrigley.” Grandstand seats original to Wrigley Field and permanently removed during a renovation face the front of the monument.

Nearly 150 victims of the Eastland Disaster lie buried at Bohemian National, as many of the passengers on that ill-fated pleasure boat that sank in the Chicago River in 1915 came from Czech families. The Kolar family who rented their house on DeKoven Street to Mrs. O’Leary of Chicago Fire legend is entombed in a large mausoleum.

As we left Bohemian National on that cold Saturday morning, Jerry and I once again realized that a walk through a Chicago cemetery is a walk through Chicago history. Driving home, we wondered what cemetery we would visit next.

Riverview

Bobs

The ceremony had just ended. I was now a high school graduate, Mather 1963. The graduation took place at Lane Tech, since Mather’s auditorium could not accommodate the five hundred graduates and their families and friends. Lane was located at Addison and Western, next door to Riverview, Chicago’s premier amusement park. So after we received congratulations and hugs and kisses from our family members, a bunch of us guys and gals headed over to Riverview to have some fun.

Called Riverview, because the western end of the amusement park fronted the north branch of the Chicago River, it had some of the fastest and most zigzagging roller coasters around, especially the much feared Bobs. My vertigo and weak stomach did not make me a prime candidate for the coasters. What I loved most about Riverview was its carnival-like atmosphere.

The park had an attraction called Aladdin’s Castle, with all kinds of strange mirrors that distorted the shape of your face and body every which way. The Freak Show always seemed to highlight a bearded lady or an armless guy who could deal a deck of cards with his toes. It was all hokey shtick but I was fascinated by it. My favorite carnie game at Riverview was the one where you could throw balls at rapidly moving cardboard ducks. If you knocked down a certain number of these ducks you won a prize, usually something like a stuffed animal or a live parakeet.

Riverview opened in 1904 in a community that was heavily German American. One of its most popular places was the beer garden. The American Nazis, the Bund, had its annual picnics at Riverview in the late 1930s. My Uncle Abe told me that he and some other Jewish teenagers from his Humboldt Park neighborhood would travel up to Riverview and interrupt their picnic by throwing rocks at the Nazis.

By the time that I started coming to Riverview with my family in the early 1950s, it seemed to be frequented mostly by parents and their children and young couples on dates. It was pretty much good clean fun, with the notable exception of the Dunk Tank.  At that particular so-called amusement, white guys were really getting off by hurling fastballs through an opening in a cage, aiming to hit a target that would eject a black guy sitting on a perch into the cold water below.

In the 1960s, with Chicago’s racial tensions mounting, black and white teenagers and sometimes adults had periodic skirmishes at Riverview. Families of all races started to stay away and found other places to spend their entertainment dollars. Riverview began to lose money, and the owner could no longer resist selling it to a developer who wanted to put a shopping center on the site and Riverview closed its gates in 1967.

A decade or so later, Great America opened in Gurnee, a slick corporate version of an amusement park. I only went there twice when my kids were young, and it seemed somewhat sterile and contrived. The times had changed, and the freaks and wonders that had fascinated me at Riverview were now nowhere to be seen.