Saturday, January 24, 2015

Long Distance Dad

Driven by opportunity and a powerful desire to see my kids I spent Thursday and Thursday night in Chicago, where both my children live. I both miss being an everyday parent and enjoy not being one at the same time. Is that possible? I saw them both at Christmas. I used a Chicago annual meeting of an outfit I’m still part of to ask for an invitation to spend the night with my son. After I accomplished that, I arranged to buy dinner for he and my daughter, along with her boyfriend. Never hard to do.

My kids have taught me much about the city. They’ve lived all over it seems, changing apartments, neighborhoods, roommates, jobs, and interests. I’ve followed every change, learning everything I could about each as if that would be their last, and in the process discovered more than I ever imagined of what Chicago truly represents, and how life looks to young people these days. I did, after all, grow on a dairy farm outside a town of (then) 800, and go to college 15 miles away in a town named Normal. Both my kids and I have travelled the world, and I feel fortunate we’ve ended up relatively close. Their lives now are refreshingly different from mine.

It is special I think, the love we give and get from our kids, and the love they have for each other. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It gives me purpose and hope even though my kids need little from their Mom and I any longer.

At the meeting, just off Michigan Avenue overlooking the river and Navy Pier, glitzy and upscale, I encountered a Dave in the Shack reader who liked my story of the cows killed on the road. I was just talking to a writer the other day who said “you can’t assume because you hear little from your readers that they don’t appreciate what you convey to them.” I hear not a peep from her on the internet. She lives a city life, has for a long time perhaps, and yet she was able to identify with my boyhood tale about death, grief, and the connection between fathers and sons. It made me feel good. I’m glad she told me.

The organization she and I have been a part of for so long, she as a staff member and me as a volunteer, has grown to be large and very much changed. I feel it’s growing past me somehow; new staff, new initiatives, new models of doing business. I hope they are able to convey to new staff the sense of mission that has made the place so valuable and special for my old friend and I. She does too. You travel a long distance, have a five minute conversation with a colleague you respect and admire, and somehow it all feels worth it.

I parked my car as I have for years with the doorman at the Sheraton who keeps it out of the parking garage and off the rates, putting the money in his pocket I think. It works well for both of us. It felt a little like Groundhog’s day-same time of day, same doorman in the same hat, the same Buick, the walk to the building where the meeting was held last year. The wind off the river, cold like last year on this same week in January, and me wearing the same brown trench coat. Turns out that was the only thing that stayed the same.

I’d come early to have breakfast with my son. He’s between jobs and free during the day. My daughter is working nights and was sleeping. He lives between Pilsen and Little Village in a neighborhood I never knew existed called “Heart of Chicago.” Chicago neighborhoods-do they change names, are they kept secret? Years ago when he was at UIC he started in Pilsen, went to Wicker Park, then Humboldt Park, finished school in Europe, returned to Chicago to live in Palmer Square, which was new to me. Now Heart of Chicago. He thinks he’ll stay on the South Side. I hope so. I think it suits him.

My daughter lived in Logan Square, then Avondale, then Pilsen, and in an odd twist of fate found herself with the opportunity to occupy the same apartment my son had once leased in Humboldt Park and promptly took it. A McClure has leased that old place, charming and cheap, for close to six years. The twists and turns of life fascinate me.

Back to breakfast. I arrived about 8:00 after encountering amazingly little traffic on 55. After a pot of coffee and inspection of the food and goodies his Mom sent, we began to deliberate on the first meal of the day. My son eats more than his share of Mexican food and wanted something different. With the Waffle House experience still resonating in my memory as well as my taste buds I was leaning towards the Steak and Egger on Cermak on the way from Pilsen to Chinatown.

“Dad,” my son said shaking his head. “It’s a twenty four hour place. People only go there when it’s really late. I’ve only been there between midnight and four a.m.. I don’t think I want to see it in the day light. It’s not nearly as good as a Waffle House, trust me.”

“OK, how about something entirely different? “

“We could do Dim Sum. The coffee won’t be good.”

“Dim Sum it is. We’ve had plenty of coffee. We’ll switch to tea.” I could already see the little plates, the steamed dumplings in bamboo baskets, containing rare delicacies that make up the Chinese version of Tapas, Spanish small plates.

We hadn’t been to Chinatown in a long time. My wife and I would take the kids there after a day in Chicago, before we got back on 55 for the drive back to Ottawa, parking in the lot off Archer and walking South of Cermak under the arch into the heart of one of the tightest communities in Chicago.

“There’s a good place,” my son went on, “in the little plaza they built North of Cermak.”

“Not the old part?” I said, hankering to repeat our steps, him now in his late twenties, which we’d walked, hand in hand, when he was less than ten.

“No.” My kids are not as sentimental as I. That helps me grow.

We went to Cai, an upstairs place at 2200 S. Archer. It’s big inside, lots of windows, good light. They have the big round tables with giant lazy Susans to handle all the dishes. We wished we’d brought six or so friends. They put us at a little four chair table near the back. Because we were early it wasn’t crowded.

Dim Sum menus have pictures that sometimes help but often don’t. My son leans towards vegetables so we stuck with meatless dishes except those we couldn’t resist. We ordered a seaweed salad, bean curd dishes, curried cuttlefish dumplings, bok choi wrapped in nearly transparent rice noodles with something else very tasty. Something with scallops. My son did most of the ordering. I eat, and enjoy, almost anything. Well, actually anything. Everything he ordered was delicious, as it always seems to me to be.

When it all arrived, filling the table, it seemed impossible we would eat it all. But we did. We ate slow, talked much, and drank plenty of tea. We had a lot to discuss: the importance of feeling a connection to your work, respect for your employer, how much salary actually matters, the amount of trade off between principle and reimbursement that can be accepted, should be tolerated, can be tolerated. Pride came up, as did integrity, along with equally important subjects such as rent, groceries, utilities, school loans, and unemployment benefits. It was a working breakfast geared to the future. We’re good for each other, my son and I, at least I think so. We make each other laugh, think differently, and see things in new light. I love being with my kids.

As we were ready to leave the place was filling up. Because my son has no car, relying solely on a bicycle, we made use of the Buick to go to Hyde Park where we both had always wanted to visit the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago. The U of C was jammed with cars, and it was hellishly hard to find a parking place. As a result we were given the chance to walk through the campus having parked far away. It’s a beautiful old place. When we entered the distinguished stone building that houses a collection of some of the most ancient man made things on earth a sort of hush fell over us. As we walked further into the wood paneled rooms we went back in time, way before Christ, when people came out of Africa to inhabit Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers, in what is now Iraq, and took to building cities, creating art, unknowingly leaving traces of their lives for others to find, piece together, and ponder all these many years later.

We saw this impressive bit of sculpture taking up most of a giant room. It is a Lamassu, a human headed winged bull, which must have been pretty important in its day. It is believed to have occupied the throne room of one King Sargon III, ruler of Assyria in 745-715 B.C. in the town of Khorasbad, the remains of which are now in Northern Iraq. Of course it’s all gone now: King Sargon, Assyria, Khorasbad, the significance of the Lamassu, the whole deal. We looked at it for quite a while. It’s hard to know how to take a giant human headed winged bull weighing 400 tons from so long ago. We hardly knew what to say.

“So what was going on before this do you think?” my son asked. “Before ancient people were sculpting giant larger than life figures for filthy rich kings?”

“Well, for a long time people didn’t build towns. They were nomadic, living in tents and following animals around. First wild animals they hunted, then the sheep and goats they owned.” It’s an extremely shortened farm kid interpretation of the evolution of man and civilization, but it’s mine.

“It must have been a bitch, being nomadic.”

“Yeah, you had to carry all your shit with you.” We paused.

“I’d guess sculptures done by the nomadic folks was a lot smaller.”

“Yeah, quite a bit,” he answered. “Pocket sized most likely.”

We started to giggle. The giggles turned into laughs. We had to walk away from one another. The woman hired to keep order in the museum looked at us and smiled.

We saw tools and ivory figurines uncovered in Nubia, now Sudan. We saw giant marble horse heads from the hundred 100 column palace in Persia, now Iran. We saw sarcophagi taken out of Egypt, still Egypt. Such a currently troubled region with such a glorious past. We never stop to think of their past, do we? We focus only on how they now threaten us. I hope they remember their past. And I hope both of us can somehow keep everything in perspective.

I dropped my son off back in at his place. That evening he would ride his bike to a not for profit agency in Pilsen where he would serve as a volunteer tax preparer helping low income folks gain money though the filing process. He has a degree in Economics and speaks fluent Spanish, and wants to put both to constructive use. I headed North in the Buick.

After my meeting I went back South, meandering through Bridgeport. We had dinner reservations for four at 7:30 and I needed to kill some time. I find it hard to go to Chicago and not have a hot dog. I picked a little take out shack, sitting diagonally at the corner of Archer and Lock called Hamburger Heaven. There was a single row of stools inside the screen door, a window, a grill, and that was the extent of Hamburger Heaven. Mostly it was takeout and delivery. Rib eye sandwiches, hamburgers, gyros, cheeseburgers, hand cut French fries, and of course Chicago hot dogs. I had one as a sort of an early appetizer. I was disappointed. It didn’t come in a poppy seed bun, they skipped the celery salt I believe, and there were none of the little green sport peppers. Maybe it was the Bridgeport version.

I ate my dog at a leisurely pace inside the stand where I found and read copies of the Sun Times and the Chicago Reader, both shadows of their former selves, evolving I suppose as everything does. It was the Fiction Edition of the Reader, but very short fiction and fairly unremarkable. A Sun Times columnist covered recent statements by Rickey Hendon, former South Side state representative who is it appears not going to be indicted after all by the feds in relation to having his hand in the shady awards of state youth service grants. In this article Rickey was talking about the need to defeat both Rahm Emmanuel and black Chicago alderman who supported him in the CPS building closures and other actions he sees as slights to the black community. I’ve always been fascinated by guys like Rickey for their ability to get elected or stay around and involved even when not in one office or another. Rickey knows how to get attention with his statements. His zinger for this article? “Chicago’s black community needs an enema!” Chicago politicians are way different than downstate. “Go ahead, flush the toilet!” Rickey advises his community.

After getting directions from the Hamburger Heaven delivery guy I made it to the Duck Inn, a new place in Bridgeport on the river at the corner of Eleanor and Loomis, 2701 S. Eleanor to be exact. Eleanor is a short street, that doesn’t intersect with Archer or 31st. To get there concentrate on Loomis. “If you’re coming from the south and go over the river you’ve gone too far,” I was told. Delivery guys know their neighborhood.

The Duck Inn, as the story goes and the old pictures in the place confirm, was a family owned place called the Gem Bar that goes back to 1937. It’s now being run by the Rockit Ranch people, who own a small stable of restaurants in Chicago. It was reviewed in the Chicago Reader edition I was reading. A Bridgeport chef named Kevin Hickey manages it.

The call it a gastro pub. I arrived at 7:00 and had a seat at the bar. It was too dark to read, so I ordered a whiskey. Yeah, you’re right, I would have had a whiskey if the light was blindingly bright. They didn’t have a list, being open for just a month, and it was too dark to read the labels on the back bar so I had a conversation with the bartender. I find these places have the nicest help you can imagine. This young man, tattoos and small white plugs in his ear lobes, really wanted me to have a nice experience. I believe that sincerely. Remembers when the help was surly or simply indifferent? That’s over, especially at the Duck Inn.

“Do you have Bushmills?”

“No we don’t. I’m sorry. We should. I hear good things about Bushmills.”

“What do you have?”

“Well we’re continuing to build our selection. Right now we have all the Wild Turkey products. And we have a really good Yamazaki single malt Scotch.”

“Japanese Scotch?” I’d had it. A good friend gave me a bottle for my retirement. It is good. I went on.

“You know, it may taste like Scotch. But technically, if it’s not made in Scotland, you would have to just call it Japanese.”

“Yeah, you’re right. I know that but I keep saying it because people tell me it tastes like Scotch. Nobody knows what Japanese tastes like.”

“What’s Wild Turkey making that’s good these days?”

“The one I sell the most of is 101. It has some rye in it and while it’s hot it finishes pretty smooth. People seem to really like. It’s kind of peppery and a little sweet. I don’t drink a lot of whiskey myself but the people I’m pouring it for say very good things about it.”

“I’ll try it.”

“Neat or on the rocks?”

“On the rocks.”

“Want a chaser? A water back?”

“I’ll have a water.”
He brought me a big pour in a rocks glass with a single huge square ice cube. He was right about the whiskey. So far the Duck Inn was very enjoyable. The place was filling up and people were ordering food at the bar. They serve a beef and duck hot dog made on the premises and tamales with duck confit and foie gras that I didn’t try. I should have passed on the dog at Hamburger Heaven. The bar food looked wonderful, and the looks on the faces of those eating them confirmed my suspicion that they were.

My son arrived first, complete with the good gloves and balaclava he wears on his bike. He rides all winter. He claims he gets around faster than people in cars. When you see him zipping down the street, little red light blinking at night, you believe it. He’s a picture of health. I ordered him a whiskey like mine.

“How was the volunteering?”

“Great. I helped a single mother, four kids, clerk at Target, get the earned income tax credit. Made a huge difference for her and her family.“

“Did you use your Spanish?”

“Yeah. She was much more comfortable speaking Spanish. She asked a lot of questions. I felt good about it. Although it’s busy in there they let us spend enough time with the tax filers to really understand their situation and get the best result for them. I like it a lot.”

I’m proud of him for doing it. I think he may be headed in a new direction.

My daughter and her boyfriend arrived right on time and we took our table. My daughter has a food science degree from University of Illinois and was hired early on at the newly opened Lagunitas Brewery on the south side. She works in quality control and is learning a lot about brewing. She just went over to the third shift and is trying to adjust to the hours. Even though she had just woken up she looked so nice. She and her brother had a lot to talk about. I sat back and just enjoyed the interaction. I love to watch them with each other. The have wonderful smiles. We ordered the foie gras appetizer, which came with little English muffins. It was delicious.

These places sell, and young kids these days buy, exotic beers and ales-some as much as $10 a glass. I imagine in Mayor Daley’s day, Richard J. not Richie, they drank shots of Kessler’s and Old Style, maybe Old Thompson and Schlitz, for less than a buck at the Gem Bar. They’d go crazy seeing these prices. But that’s what you get at a gastro pub, whatever that is. I can’t even tell you what beer I had with my meal there are so many choices. Scores, hundreds of craft beers, so many they are running out of names. I haven’t found a bad one yet.

Three of us had the brisket, served with a ribbon of pasta stuffed with a horseradish ricotta filling. Beside those were dark green stalks of steamed rapini. Puddled on the plate was a light sauce flavored with a hint of red wine. Brisket is hard to cook well. This was outstanding.

My daughter’s boyfriend had pressed seared chicken with thick chicken heart gravy, pickled Brussels sprouts, and creamed butternut squash. We ate pretty well, then ordered desserts and coffees. One dessert was a bourbon apple brown betty with parsnip ice cream. Who in the hell would even think of making ice cream with parsnips? It was out of this world as was the toffee pudding with rum cream sauce. Thank god for Master Card.

The server, with bright yellow plugs in his earlobes a little bigger than the bartender’s, and even more tattoos, practically begged for us to fill out the feedback card. There was nothing bad to say about anything. They kept the water glasses filled, gave us extra English muffins for the appetizer, and answered all our questions. One of the best things about eating at these new joints, in addition to wonderful creative food and drinks, is the great service. How do you not tip these kids big?

We all went back to my son’s apartment and talked more. He beat both cars back on his bike and had coffee on the stove when we walked in. It’s amazing. We talked more and then my daughter had to get to work. It was a great night. I knew when I told my wife about it she would be jealous. I was right.

The next morning I took my son grocery shopping, sort of a parental ritual I insist on doing. We went to Trader Joe’s so I could scout out the reasonably priced coffee not available in Ottawa and he could stock up on the staples he buys there. As a bonus I found a Paso Robles Zinfandel wine for less than $10. It’s a hike on a bike to Trader Joe’s from the South Side, and harder yet to pack it all home. So again we made good use of the Buick.

I got back to Ottawa mid day and took an immediate nap in the recliner. It’s good to get out of the routine and great to be with my kids. I miss them again already, but its good knowing firsthand they are good without me. I hope to get back again soon.

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