Friday, September 11, 2009

Good Fortune - I Doubt It

On July 3, 1981 the crew of the Valiant sailed out of Burnham Park Harbor (Chicago) with a destination of Michigan City, Indiana.

We had slept on board the night before so that we could get an early morning start. The Captain had set the departure time at 7am (give or take 15 seconds – the Captain has always believed in punctuality). We didn’t want to be standing on the dock at 7:02 waving farewell to the crew as they headed toward the mouth of the harbor and onto Lake Michigan (as I’d seen this happen before).

At first I didn’t understand why we were going to Michigan City for the Fourth of July; Chicago had a far better fireworks display. I had found, in the past, that it was unwise to question the Captain about matters such as this. Later that day I found out from my cousin (The Admiral) that the Captain (who would turn 40 years old on the Fourth) feared a surprise party and wanted to get out of town.

The Captain plotted (manually with a chart) and then set the course for Michigan City. There was a moderate breeze from the Northwest and it was predicted that we would get there in about 7 hours.

About half way there (mid-lake) the wind died and we were just moving with the waves. It was like being in the doldrums of the Sargasso Sea, but without the seaweed. The Captain said that we would wait a while before turning on the engines and that it was a good time to have lunch. As we ate, a swarm of flies descended on us. This was the middle of the lake, where did they come from? It seems that they had been on a board that was floating in the water near the boat.

The flies were not going for our food, they were going for us. We only had two fly swatters and by the time you would zap one fly; two more would take its place. The Captain turned on the engine (this was a drastic measure, as the Captain did not like to waste fuel)! These flies were biting us like the abominable Wisconsin Deer Fly (People from Chicago call them Kamikaze Flies; they have a 5 inch wingspan and dive right at you).

In a short time we had left the Sargasso Sea, the wind picked up and we were able to kill or get most of the flies off of the boat. It was smooth sailing for the rest of the trip to Michigan City and a good time was had by all. End of story.

But, it’s not the end of this Blog.

During my life I have been attacked by about every flying insect that is known to mankind (I believe the tsetse fly is the exception). I think that these insects innately know that if they come near me, I will attempt to kill them. So like the Kamikaze Deer Flies of Wisconsin, they will tempt the fates by attacking me first.

Although it has been a rainy spring and summer, I have yet to see a mosquito. The avian population and the small reptiles that inhabit our yard must be performing their primary function; insect elimination. I can put up with the squawking birds, croaking frogs and chirping lizards as long as they do their jobs by ridding me of the flying insect population.

Earlier this summer we were besieged by sand flies; these are sneaky little (about a sixteenth of an inch long) blood suckers that you do not see landing on you and biting you. They will leave a welt the size of a mosquito bite that itches like hell.

Next came the invasion of the Gnats. I don’t believe that they bite, but they do have a tendency to fly up your nose and into your eyes (and mouth, if open). This lasted for about a week; the birds and reptile probably finally heard me cursing them for not ridding me of the plague.

Last week, while my daughter was in Maryland, it was my assigned task to take care of the dogs (they need to be walked several times per day). On one of my care giving journeys I noticed a rather large group of flying insects attacking a flower bearing shrub in the back yard. They were butterflies. As far as I know butterflies do not bite humans.

As I neared the shrub, one of them flew directly at me and landed on the left sleeve of my shirt. I was walking one of the dogs at the time and therefore moving. This was of no concern to the butterfly. In fact he moved to my chest about an inch above my hearth. Don’t think for one minute that I didn’t consider smashing the thing before he moved on; I did. It shortly left to join the others in his group, which probably saved his life.

After walking the dogs I called a friend who has a large butterfly collection adorning the walls of his Rec-room. I told him the story and described the butterfly and he said that he had one of those things on his wall. I then asked him what its name is. He sez “How the hell should I know, I just buy them for decoration purposes.” Then he tells me that in some cultures, a butterfly landing on you is considered to be the harbinger of good fortune. These must be the same cultures that believe a bird defecating on you is good luck.

We’ll see!

The Beach Bum

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Friday, September 04, 2009

Potato Chips?

In my last conversation with my friend Slow Eddie, about his tour of the old neighborhood, he mentioned that the old Pizzeria where we hung out on Fridays and Saturdays was still there and still doing business. He had thought about taking the grand kids into the restaurant, but after seeing the patrons he decided that it was not a good idea and decided to stop at the Home Run Inn on 31st Street instead.

The name of the restaurant was the Del Campo Pizzeria and it is located on the corner of Cermak (22nd Street) and Troy. It was about 6 blocks from our high school and less than three blocks away from Eddie’s childhood home and about 6 blocks away from mine.

We would go there after a Friday afternoon Football or Baseball games and for Saturday night get-togethers. The pizza was very good but did not compare with the Home Run Inn’s pizza. But the Home Run Inn was more than a mile and a half away from my house and an even farther distance for most of my other High School friends.

My Dad would get our pizzas (and pizza was never considered to be a dinner food – although I would argue that it contained all five essential food groups) from a Pizzeria two blocks away from our home. It was a thin New York style pizza but it didn’t have the cracker crust which I preferred.

It was owned by two brothers that had emigrated from Italy to New York City in the early 1940’s. They lived in Brooklyn and both went to work for a local Pizzeria; one as a busboy and the other as a kitchen clean-up man. The younger brother was the busboy.

This Pizzeria had no wait staff; you would get a number when you ordered your pizza and they would call the number when your pizza was ready.

Although his job was only to clean the tables and the floor (and restrooms), the younger brother took the initiative to get the pizzas for the customers. He'd say something like “don’t interrupt your conversation; I will bring your pizza to you”. His fetching the pizzas did not interfere with his job and the owners of the Pizzeria appreciated his extra effort. Plus he would usually find nickels or dimes on the tables when he went to clean them. Soon the nickels and dimes turned into quarters and although he was making less money per hour than his brother; he was bringing home a lot more.

I transferred into Cyrus McCormick Elementary School (Chicago) in the third grade. I knew absolutely no one in my class and they didn’t exactly welcome me with open arms. Most of my neighborhood friends, (which I had just met that summer) went to Catholic Schools.

The next fall when I entered the fourth grade there was a new transfer student. Now I was no longer the new kid on the block.

By this time I had become friends with several of my classmates. I was such an affable character that they couldn’t resist my pleasing personality, besides I was bigger and stronger than most of them and I knew how to throw a punch. A fifth grader was picking on one of my new found friends and I decked him (actually it was a sucker punch that was taught to me by my older cousin Bob). I gained the immediate respect from my fellow male classmates (however, my mom was summoned to the school to explain my inexplicable behavior). Fortunately this turned out to be a good move on my part because my friend’s parents owned the candy store across the street from the school and I didn’t get severely disciplined by my parents.

The new student’s name was Giuseppe. On the first day of class our teacher called on him and asked him to introduce himself to his fellow classmates. He said “Ma’am, I go by the name of Joey, I’m Italian but I was born in America.” A harsh silence fell over the classroom; both Joey and our teacher sat down. More silence.

I decided that I liked this kid, so after class I introduced myself to him and we shook hands. He lived about a half block away from the school and I lived two blocks away. When I walked to school in the morning he would be sitting on his stoop waiting for me and we’d walk the last 100 yards to school, every morning, together. After school I would often stop at his house and we would do our homework together. His Mom baked some of the best cookies that I have ever eaten.

One day Joey came to my house after school and one of the local kids, from my block, yelled “Hey George, who is that grease ball that you’re with.” That was the last day that Joey came to my home. Kids can be cruel. But one must consider the fact that I grew up in an extremely bigoted Bohemian/Polish Chicago neighborhood.

One day Joey and I were walking home from school and he continued to walk past his house. I asked him if he was coming to my house. He told me “No, I’m going to see my father at work.” I thought that it must be nice to have your Dad working so close to home.

The next day, at recess, I asked him where his Dad worked. He told me that his Dad and his Uncle ran a Pizza Parlor. He also said that his Dad worked 14 hours a day and he hardly got to see him. He asked me if I would like to meet his Dad and I said sure. He said that we could go there for lunch. I told him “not today” because my Mom would be worried if I didn’t come home for lunch.

After clearing it with my Mom, the next day Joey and I had pizza for lunch. I met his Dad and his Uncle Carlo. After that day Joey and I would go to the Pizzeria for lunch one day per week.

The next year I was invited to their home for the Feast of Saint Joseph (March 19th). It was on a School day so I went home to clean up and change clothes first. I arrived at about 4:30 in the afternoon. When Joey opened the door to let me in I received a blast of some of the most fragrant aromas that I had ever encountered. Joey said that his Mom had been preparing food for 3 days.

Joey’s Dad and Uncle were sitting at the dining room table (which looked like the worlds largest antipasto platter) drinking wine and speaking in Italian. The greeted me in English and welcomed me to their home (Uncle Carlo lived on the second floor of the two-flat house). The sideboard next too the table was covered with an assortment of cookies, cakes and tortes. Uncle Carlo saw the look on my face and said go on and take one. I reached for a round cookie that was full of holes and had powder sugar on top. Carlo said no no those are only for after dinner; try the Pignoli or the Biscotti. I chose the Pignoli.

Joey and I, his two cousins and his brother and sister went into the living room to watch television. I notice Joey’s Mom clearing the food from the table. I said “Mrs. *******, I haven’t eaten yet.”, she laughed and told me that I would eat soon.

I couldn’t believe the amount and varieties of food Joey’s Mother and Aunt brought out of the kitchen, it truly was a feast. There were so many types of pasta including Ravioli and Lasagna, three different sauces (they called them gravies), several meat dishes and one vegetable (actually a mixture of several vegetables).

Uncle Carlo sat at the head of the table (he was the oldest member of the family – the Patrono) and gave the benediction, said a prayer and the talked about family members for 2 or 3 minutes. I didn’t understand a word he said because he was speaking in Italian. Then he sat down and said Mangiare, I knew what that meant.

Joey’s Mother fixed me a basket of food and cookies to take home with me when I left that night. She said “Bringa back the basket.”

After Elementary school Joey and I rarely saw each other. His parents sent him to a Catholic school and I went to a Public High School. But on every March 19th I was there at his house to celebrate St. Joseph’s Day.

Now after this extremely long missive, I suppose you are wondering what this story has to do with the title of this Blog – Potato Chips.

On August 3rd I wrote a blog about snack foods and Potato Chips in particular. Somewhere in that Blog I wrote about Joey’s Dad’s Pizzeria having the best Spumoni that I have ever eaten. Writing that Blog reminded me of my old friend Joey.

The Beach Bum

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