By Mike Sula
Every morning Wendell walks across California Avenue and takes stock of the damage done to the 300-square-foot parcel of Horner Park that he rules with a green fist. Cursing those who tear through his realm with no regard for its beauty and order, the work behind its creation, and the effort of maintaining it, he strides through the Bradford pears, American barberries, and sugar maples, railing against every broken branch and shred of garbage left in the enemy's wake. He collects bottles, cans, and scraps of hamburger wrappers, repairs torn limbs and flattened flowers, and secures the uprooted stakes that support his young trees. He will never accept the diapers he frequently finds discarded under the bushes, as if fussing mothers seek out this sylvan setting to tend their young--then desecrate it.
"They wanna trash everything," he says. "That's the way the people are. They don't give an s-h-i-t." Once last night's wounds are bandaged, Wendell--"just Wendell"--spends most of the day and early evening watering, trimming, planting, pruning, and planning. He's often in shirtsleeves and dress shoes.
Growing on the park's western edge, one block north of Irving Park Road, between a chestnut grove and a parking lot, Wendell's arboretum is a blooming oasis set against a desert of ball fields. From any of the thousands of cars that every day drift up and down California past the stop sign at Belle Plaine, it would seem an anomalous green blur--if not for the white trellis, flanked by two young rosebushes, that announces the loving care of someone not employed by the Park District.
This trellis and many of the young, densely plotted trees and flowering bushes are surrounded by sections of chicken wire fencing. Other trees are supported by wood stakes set in the earth and bound to their trunks by pieces of wire coat hanger insulated by lengths of garden hose. The center of this plot is a patch of ground, roped off by clothesline, where more roses bloom around a large, branching weed with a knotty, fibrous stalk. A pair of blueberry bushes struggle from the dirt in one corner of the patch, and strawberry plants send out runners among the tangles of grass growing with abandon here.
More trees and flowering shrubs are scattered toward the back end of Wendell's fiefdom, where a hand-lettered cardboard sign reads, "Keep out of roped area. Thank-you." Wendell calls this marked-off spot the bird sanctuary, and it's dominated by a trio of bushes, dripping with candy apple red berries that he hopes will help sustain some of the park's avian inhabitants through the approaching winter. The area, with its thick carpet of dandelion greens, is also meant to protect Wendell's crab and McIntosh apple trees, his Queen Elizabeth roses, and seven spruce trees.
For all of Wendell's vigilance--the rope, the sign, his near omnipresence in the park--the bird sanctuary is the scene of an almost weekly incursion, during which his otherwise thriving pink and white dahlias invariably get trampled. The culprits might be errant soccer balls or roaming canines, but he strongly suspects it's the "two-legged" dogs who sneaked in this spring when his guard was down and planted a cherry tomato seedling. By late summer the unstaked plant had sprawled over the rope, and Wendell, who professes to "hate that cherry shit," regularly threatened to tear out the invader and put a stop to the mysterious harvest. But he'd no sooner kill a living plant than he'd let Park District workers in to mow the grass. Same thing, he'd argue.
"There's an awful lot of work in this fucking place," he says. "It never stops. The end rope over there with the new seedlings? Some bastard stepped in there three or four times. It must be done at night. They just come in here and trash it right away. You gotta cut your own grass. You gotta buy dirt. You gotta buy fertilizer. It's kind of stupid in a way. That era disappeared 20 years ago--doing something for nothing, for other people."
Horner Park was dedicated in 1956 on the former site of a brick factory and a garbage dump, but Wendell says this particular piece of it was still a mess almost four years ago when he moved into the building across the street. Pipes stuck up from the bare earth and garbage barrels overflowed with trash from rowdy volleyball players who thought nothing of dropping their trousers in plain view and urinating when they needed to make room for more beer.
Wendell, who was born and raised in the country and knows how to bring life from land, had a series of meetings with 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell and Horner Park supervisor Terry Sweeney. He wanted to create a park within the park--turning up the bad earth and planting grass and trees. "Jesus, they welcomed me with open arms," he recalls. But there was the question of who would pay for the plan. "I said 'You let me worry about it. It's an eyesore. I just live across the street and I'll fix it up.'"
With his own money, Wendell hired a few homeless guys who live in the park, and began to dig. "I went down about 13 inches," he says. "It was concrete, just like the sidewalk you walk on. Chunks this big underneath. I didn't want to tear up the ground and move it, so I got a big sledgehammer and put some goggles on and busted that shit off. That's how bad it was. Then they had flattened garbage cans, the old-time ones--crushed, you know, and thrown in there. And bricks. A lot of red bricks and all kinds of cans and bottles and stuff over there where I got the rope. You go down that far and all you're gonna get is little stones, like a gravel pit." The Park District spared him a few piles of dirt, but Wendell bought about seven cubic yards of soil, trucked it in, and leveled off the dirt volleyball court and filled in the spaces left after he'd torn large clay ridges out of the ground.
That first year he planted white Dutch clover and grass--millet, Kentucky blue, and another kind he's forgotten--and waited to see where it would come up and where he'd have to fertilize and reseed. He planted a few bushes but mainly concerned himself with flattening the ground.
In the winter he designed and built the arched rose trellis in his basement with nothing but a straight saw, hammer, and nails. He doubled up the crosspieces in the arch for sturdiness and nailed crosspieces to the bottom too, to be buried in the ground to anchor the trellis once he'd planted it. "One guy come and he told me, 'Jeez. You're gonna leave the arbor out here all winter? They'll steal it from you.' I says, 'I don't think so. I live right here.'"
Most of the trees and bushes growing today were planted in the second season, hauled in in Wendell's blue El Camino. The fir, crab apple, honeysuckle, the two white-blossomed roses of Sharon, and the purple barberries were all arranged according to a master plan. "I had in my mind all what I had to put in here," he says. "You had to contrast the color, you understand? You can't just have one place where you have a few colors and the other side's all green. You have to rotate colors."
Wendell, who has a keen sense of thrift, bought most of his plants at greenhouses or Home Depot, always with a sharp eye for bargains but never at the expense of quality. He figures he's spent thousands of dollars on the park, which only adds to his outrage at the public's failure to appreciate it.
Lazy cops, irresponsible parents, sloppy park workers, and football players cutting through on the way to practice all stoke his wrath. But Horner Park is popular with dogs whose owners often turn them loose to gambol across the field, and this pastime particularly galls Wendell. "It's hard to develop a nice plant and have it looking beautiful and presentable when you've got the damn dogs here," he says. "People don't care. They see a bush like this and they let the two dogs urinate on the wire. Or they bring a dog in to urinate on the flower bed. I don't understand that. When I asked the woman, I says, 'I see you brought your dog in to urinate on the flowers.' She says, 'Oh, I got no time for this,' and kept on going. I told her, 'Listen, let this be the last time I see you in here with that dog doing any vandalism in this park. This is city property.'" The chicken wire is Wendell's first line of defense against dog piss.
Marauding children, with their habit of breaking branches, cheese him off even more and he claims to have committed some frightening acts of vengeance. "I caught a nine-year-old out here," he says darkly. "Weighed about 110. Little lardass doing some shit out here. There was three or four of them, watching him. When I caught that asshole I told them, 'You fellas are out here? You watch this kid do this shit work?' I says, 'He ain't gonna do it again.' I took his big lardass over to a pile of dogshit and I put his head down in there and I hit him three or four times good. Cocksucker was spitting shit, crying, running down the street. I never seen nobody looking for him either."
Then there's the strange-looking flowering vine that crawls up the fence surrounding one of the Colorado spruce trees. Wendell claims it's poison ivy. It came up on its own, but he leaves it alone. "Let the little kids play with that," he says. "That's the reason I left it there."
It doesn't take long to see that Wendell is a wild man living in a foreign wilderness. "I realize I'm in a different world here," he says. His spine is remarkably straight for a fellow his age (which he doesn't give) and for the kind of work he's done in his lifetime (which he's also cagey about at times). But his hands are scarred by purple scratches and bites from his roommate--an orphaned raccoon named Fuzzy--and his head is full of fond but frequently violent memories of life on his family's cattle ranch in Michigan.
In the mid-20s, a few years before Wendell was born, his father, Chandler Wendell, a Chicago real estate broker and banker, decided to scotch his life in the city. He traded some property for a 3,000-acre ranch in Michigan's Pere Marquette River valley, 20 miles east of Lake Michigan, with the thought of opening a summer resort. The land was remote but not inaccessible, nine miles northeast of the little town of Walkerville, a short train ride from the port at Ludington, and a 75-mile drive north from Grand Rapids.
Wendell still has a brochure that beckons visitors to the pristine splendor of the Chandler Wendell Ranch. "Among the wooded hills and deep ravines of the ranch, one may ride every day through different trails and natural bridle paths," it reads. "It has an irresistible lure to all lovers of the wilds who enjoy horse-back riding, hiking, bathing and fishing amid the beauties of nature. Here are warm sunny days and cool nights with invigorating breezes, fragrant with the scent of pine, spruce, cedar and hemlock.
"In this region are many beautiful lakes, streams and natural springs, where fish, deer and fur-bearing animals abound. In the woods and thickets are partridges, pheasants and quail. It is a favorite rendezvous for fishermen, hunters and trappers."
Accompanying the idyllic photographs populated by horseback riders, livestock, and a rack of enormous bass caught in the ranch's lake, are testimonials from former guests, most of them from Chicago, gushing about the soothing natural surroundings, the exceptional accommodations in the three ranch houses, and the delicious meals that Wendell's mother cooked. Rates were $25 a week and included use of the stable horses and tennis court as well as "dancing every Wednesday and Saturday evenings in an open dancing pavillion, seven miles distant from the ranch."
It was the meals that undid the Chandler Wendell Ranch. Continuous intensive cooking proved to be too much work for Alice Wendell--a court reporter in her former life--whose kitchen workers kept quitting on her once she'd trained them. After a few years, Wendell's father shut down the resort and tried his hand at cattle ranching. "He read up on everything," says Wendell. "And he had a couple of neighbors that lived three or four miles away had pretty sound advice for him. From what you know, you gain from their knowledge, then you can have a pretty clear picture of what goes on."
Though born to city folk, Wendell and his younger brother Forrester grew up country, and didn't have to learn how to live it from books. He can still tell you how to castrate calves, breed a registered bull to the right heifer, birth piglets, pickle cucumbers, thrash beans, run a fence line, and stop cow bloat. "They get a stomach full of alfalfa, then drink water, they blow up and die," he explains. "Stomach goes up around its back. We've had partial bloat but always used to take an ice pick and go right in along near the spine and put a little hole in. Psssssssss! Boy that air stinks like hell. Your underwear will go up your back like a window shade."
Wendell's main chore when school was out was to take the cattle out to pasture, an all-day job that sometimes took him so far afield he'd have to spend the night outside. Much of the land surrounding the ranch was owned by the state and available to anyone for grazing. It was also populated by a number of squatters--"river rats"--some of whom Wendell was friendly with. He made a daily stop at the camp of a German man and his American Indian wife. Every week Wendell would present her with a bouquet of flowers and she'd fill his pockets with fig bars and dried fruit she received from welfare.
One day while he was out herding, Wendell caught wind of an awful smell. He tied up his horse and he and his dog Bowser followed their noses to where someone had killed a doe and butchered her hindquarters for meat. He discovered the doe's fawn curled up in a nearby hollowed log, covered with flies and nearly dead. He wrapped the animal in a piece of burlap and took it home, where his mother fed it a milk solution from a baby bottle and nursed it back to health. "He had little spikes coming out of his head," says Wendell. "A little buck. One of the hired men named him Badger and we put a little bell on him. At four o'clock in the morning, four sharp, he would take his foot and hit the door four or five times hard to let everybody know he was hungry. I could put carrots in my pocket and he'd follow me around and eat them. But for the garden he wasn't so good. We had a five-foot fence, and that little bugger could just walk real slow and all of a sudden you'd look and he'd be on the inside of the fence. He'd get into a lot of trouble [but] there was usually somebody there."
One day the farmhands took the day off and the family went to the county fair. "It was the first time nobody was there, and the next morning mother says, 'I didn't hear the bell. What happened to him?' And then one of the hired men went down to check to see if the beans were ready to harvest. He found the little bell there with the antlers. Somebody just walked up to him and cut his throat and took him. That hurts. He's like one of the family, you know."
Though the ranch kept the family well fed, many of their neighbors weren't so fortunate. Some, in fact, were desperate, often going to heroic lengths to keep food on the table. He tells of one neighbor who, after hearing some dogs chase deer off the Wendell's property, grabbed a butcher knife from his kitchen and sprinted 50 yards through the snow to the river. The dogs "were getting louder and louder, and he knew where the deer crossing was," says Wendell. "Just as soon as he got to the riverbank--here they come--four of them. The bank is 20 feet up from the water, and he dove in there and got ahold of it when it hit the water and they both went under. Somehow he got on the backside--away from the antlers, you understand? And he got him in the heart and got him through the neck. I'm surprised he didn't get himself with that butcher knife. I was surprised the deer didn't rip his guts out with his antlers. A lot of people didn't even believe that fucking story, but I was over there and I seen the deer. When you're starving to death you'll be doing some things that normally a person wouldn't even dare to do to you, you understand?"
To hear Wendell tell it, you'd think people in the country got by more often by outfoxing their neighbors. "They lie awake at nights trying to figure out how to screw somebody out of something," he says. One morning a neighbor came to Wendell's father and claimed the cattle had broken through the fence in the night and eaten the man's potato patch. Wendell's father apologized and allowed him to pick out a steer. Later he heard from other neighbors that the man's plants had burned up in the hot, dry summer and he'd cut the Wendells' fence and let the cows in.
Some of those neighbors were just plain mean, spiteful, and given to sabotage. "They only had the lake about three or four years," says Wendell. "Four o'clock one morning, somebody set a couple or three sticks of dynamite right in the center of the dam and blew it up. They couldn't fish there and they didn't want anybody else to fish in there. That's the way the people are."
With animals, fruits, and vegetables in abundance, it was natural that this kind of treachery always struck at a farmer's ability to produce food. Chickens, turkeys, and eggs disappeared in the night, drifters hired at harvesttime absconded with huge portions of the yield, and roving packs of half-wild dogs harassed grazing flocks of sheep. But people did what they had to do to survive. Wendell knew a family that invited the schoolteacher to dinner, not mentioning until after the meal that he'd just eaten the puppy he'd given them a few weeks before. Wendell also was acquainted with some river rats partial to trapping and eating skunk. He never partook of any himself. "Do I look like a half-breed? Skunks don't like themselves."
Wendell was never much of a hunter. Squirrels, partridges, sure--but he loved to catch sight of the deer and pheasants in their element, and he let them be. He has, however, eaten adventurously in his time, having sampled squirrel, muskrat, turtle, rattlesnake, and, on a dare, nightcrawlers, which taste sandy. "Earthworms will kill you if you eat too many," he says.
And he knows how to cook a raccoon, something he reminds Fuzzy of whenever he thinks the little bugger steps out of line. "Raccoon's a little greasy," he says. "You gotta soak 'em in saltwater overnight. Takes the hair off. And if you want to you can stuff 'em. Whatever you think you want to put in there, like sage, celery, bread, add a few raisins or put some nuts in. Coon don't care. He's going in belly-up. We have our napkins on with the knife and fork, waiting for the oven to cook it."
If there's one thing Wendell craves from the country it's fresh milk, still warm from the cow, which has little in common with the pasteurized, chemical-laced stuff you get in the city. "I put it right in my mouth," he says. "I can nurse out of an udder just as fast as a calf can on the other side. But I got in trouble once. When I first started, the calf was one day old but the milk was rich. The milk has to be real rich the first four or five days, so the calf would be able to move his bowels. I thought to myself, 'You son of a gun.' BAHHHHH. He looked at me and wagged his tail. And he started on one side and I started on the other side. But I had to watch myself because if he wants to bump--if they don't get milk fast enough they bump the udder, you know. When they butt up they can cut your damn face with their fucking teeth.
"So I got in trouble. It was like a physic. The milk was too rich. Jeez, I was in bad shape for a couple days. Then I wised up. I knew what happened. I didn't tell the folks but they were kind of curious. Awww, all people in the country do that at one time or another. If you would have a mouthful of that fresh milk, you wouldn't drink that shit from the store." The cow didn't seem to mind either. "You get nice animals if you treat them right."
If all this makes city folk squeamish, he's got news for them. Whether they know it or not, he says, everyone's eaten rattlesnake and everyone's eaten horse meat. "It's in all your meats in the city." During World War II, he recalls, the hired men gathered 15 or 20 of the ranch's horses together and when he asked what was happening he was told, "You ask too many questions." He goes on, "So the next morning I only seen a couple of them. The trucks came at night with winches. They'd hit them in the head and then hoist them up in the truck."
Wendell was in his teens when his mother decided to chase a dream of her own. "To tell the truth, I don't think mother ever liked it," he says. "She said once in a while she was sad because we went to the ranch. She put up with it, but it was hard as hell for her." Alice really wanted to be a candy maker, so the family packed up, left the ranch in the care of the hands, and moved to New York City. While his mother went to school, Wendell got a job with Western Union, which he warrants took some time to get used to. "Tips stink," he says. "You get a nickel or a dime. And I got lost a couple times." The family spent a year and a half in the city, but Wendell's mother had to put off her new career when the war started. The family returned to Michigan, and Wendell and Forrester got draft deferments as farm help.
In 1951 the family left the ranch for good and moved back to Chicago, where Alice opened Wendell Candies on North Michigan Avenue and a production facility on Howard Street. Wendell worked behind the counter in the store and liked it all right, but "it's better for a girl to be back there," he says. "They like a nice chubby girl with good looks and good expensive perfume on." Wendell Candies lasted just a few years before high rents shut it down.
By then Wendell was in his mid-20s, and the city demanded a big adjustment by a lifelong country boy. "It's altogether different," he says. "You get lost for a couple years until you get your bearings. It's like being in jail for a few years. You're not out in the open spaces."
On a brilliant early August afternoon, a middle-aged woman, her young daughter and mother, and their Chihuahua linger on the edge of the bird sanctuary admiring the plants and casting shy glances at Wendell.
Wendell, who used to be a cardplayer and who sometimes ran games of his own, is explaining some schemes less honest dealers use to stack the deck. One was to give the clerk at a corner store a cut, so when the cardplayers wanted a fresh deck he'd be sure to sell them the one that had been marked to the dealer's specifications.
When Wendell notices the trio he stops himself and calls out to them. "Hello! How are you? Would you like to be shown around here?" He leads them through, naming every plant in the garden and telling them how the place came to be. The woman translates into Spanish for her mother--also a gardener--and tells Wendell many times that his work is beautiful. "It's very, very nice," she says. "You know when I noticed this? This year. And I come to this park every summer. I usually come for my walks. This is when I noticed it." Wendell tells her that her dog is cute.
"Well I just thought I'd give you a tour and enlighten you as to what's going on here," he says. They thank him and drift off. "See?" he says. "They were really afraid to say anything until I spoke to them." He thinks on it for a bit then adds, "Those were some nice people."
Wendell believes that nice people in the park are the exception and that most resent his presence. When he first started, he heard that the volleyball players were angry because they'd lost a place to play. When he finally got some plants in the ground, a few park workers told him people were complaining because the rest of the park didn't look as beautiful and well kept. He says his neighbors don't like him either. They think he attracts winos to the neighborhood, because he knows by name the ones who live in the park, gives them handouts, and occasionally hires them to help him with his work. He pays $5 an hour.
"I don't ask anyone to like me," he says. "There's a lot of people around here don't give a shit about me. You gotta use a little psychology with parents that have children. But after you confront them twice, they resent anything you say after that. I don't mess around with the people. There's a number of people that just look at you. I say 'Good morning.' I know they don't like me, but to me that don't make a difference. The hell with friends. They won't do you any good. The only true friends you got are your mother and father."
For all his complaints, Wendell says the vandalism has diminished this year. This, he believes, is in part due to the more psychological approach he's taken to defending his territory. "You'd think the people would catch on and stay out of here, but they don't give a damn," he says. "First they kick the ball in here. Then they jump in and try to keep it away from the other guy. They're the ones that want to ruin everything. I told myself if I see something like that I don't say anything. Because if I mouth off at one, then they'll just trash it. They know I see them in there. They realize in the beginning they have no business in there and by a fellow not saying anything that gives them something to think about."
The truth is, Wendell is plenty cordial to people. He has a number of friends he's met in the park, and he's hard-pressed to admit it but he's grateful when someone expresses an interest in what he's doing. Although he considers the question, "What are you doing?" a pretty stupid one, anyone who asks nicely will be offered a free tour of the premises and briefed on everything from park history to tree training. Anyone who passes though receives a hearty greeting.
"I'm kind of more courteous to all the people," he says. "I say, 'Good morning. How are you?' Some of the elderly Spanish women, they come in and want to know what different things are. I take them through. When you go out of your way to explain things, I think word gets around, 'Hey, he's not such a bad guy after all.' I've seen people stop with three or four children. They get out and walk through, but they know that the kids are gonna make a little mischief here so they go elsewhere. Which I appreciate, you understand?
"There was one old gentleman, he was about 70. One day about a month ago he comes over and he says to me, 'I remember this place,' he says. 'I wouldn't believe what I see now. Could I give you $5?' I said, 'No sir. Thank you. I appreciate it. That makes me feel good,' I says. You understand? He looked like he couldn't take care of himself. It's just the idea that someone appreciates what you've done, you understand?"
Wendell, raised as he was, is prone to impulsive acts of charity, but even these cause him trouble. "These people around here, they don't like me because I give the deadbeats a handout once in a while," he says. "The neighbors say I bring them all over here, these park-hotel people. Once in a while one of the bums will try to get in the buildings. They're sons of b's, all right. Sometimes I'll see three or four of them out there and I see them putting change together to get something. I'll put a couple cucumbers in a bag and a head of lettuce and an apple and a couple bananas. I'll take it out there and give it to them so they don't go to bed hungry. Doing a good deed--maybe the Lord'll kind of smile on you once in a while," he says. "You're not just a horse's ass looking out for yourself all the time."
Lynda Grabowski has never seen Wendell's work in the park though they've been friends for decades. For the last 15 years she's been staying at the Mid America Care Center in Uptown. She lives with a number of ailments that stem from a basketball injury she suffered in college in 1979 and were exacerbated by a fall. She's been bedridden or in a wheelchair ever since.
She was a young girl when her family moved to Wendell's old block in Wrigleyville. At the time he was working for a company that manufactured industrial pressure gauges and moonlighting at a bar called Irv's at Southport and Irving Park. She remembers that she used to play her recorder on her front step and Wendell would drop by to chat. She became a regular at the bar, often stopping in for a Pepsi, and they stayed in touch even after she went to school in Missouri to study psychology.
After she graduated in 1982, Grabowski returned to the neighborhood, but her health worsened. "I would always cry because I couldn't walk on my own," she says. "He was always trying to make me laugh and make my condition not as serious as it was." When she entered the hospital, Grabowski says, Wendell never forgot her and he's been visiting her regularly ever since. "Christmas, birthday, anytime during the month, he would come. And he never came empty-handed. He would bring me candy, expensive rings, books, magazines, cards, always something. He just spent money on me like anything and I never asked for anything. All I showed him was love." Grabowski says Wendell brings gifts for other residents too; coats, and televisions, and radios that he's picked up at thrift stores.
She calls him "Lucky" because as long as she's known him everyone's called him that. But she isn't sure where the handle comes from. In fact, there's much about his biography she doesn't know. As talkative as he can be about his life in the country, he's just as chary about the 49 years he's lived in Chicago.
Wendell, who was named Chandler after his father, will admit that "Lucky" comes from Lockwood, which his mother started calling him, after a friend of hers, when he was ten years old. Today his brother Forrester lives in Florida with his wife, who is dying from emphysema, and Wendell's parents are buried in Forest Home Cemetery. He grooms the family plot himself, pruning the rosebushes he planted and cutting the grass, because he says the cemetery workers are careless and break off pieces of the tombstones with their mowers.
He was married once, for about a year and a half, to a Puerto Rican woman who had a little girl of her own. She was the sister of a friend he worked with in the bar. They took a trip to the island once so Wendell could meet her mother and bet on cockfights, but it seems she didn't share Wendell's sense of economy and they broke up. "The less I think about that the better," he says.
Wendell's frugality seems never to have cramped his style as a betting man. Aside from the cockfights and the horse races he's put money on, he used to run card games out of hotel rooms with a bunch of old-timers he says aren't around anymore. He played a lot of hands, too. "I had a guy next to me," he says. "He had a straight hard flush. I had a king flush. He bet a dollar and I just called him. I said, 'All I got is a king-high straight.' He says, 'You son of a bitch. How can you play that tight?' 'Oh,' I says. 'I'm not here to throw money away.' Hot damn, he almost pulled his hair out."
Wendell's played cards in some pretty filthy, even dangerous places, he says. And he's done business with some rough characters too. But those are things, he says, "not to be talked about."
One day in mid-September, Wendell sits on a bench in the park discussing squirrels with James Hill, aka "the Indian," who is savoring the last few sips of a pint of Wild Irish Rose. Hill and a few buddies live in a tent in the thin strip of woods by the river, and he occasionally works for Wendell. The squirrels have begun burying their nuts for the winter and Hill tells him that he recently spotted a bunch of baby squirrels at the bottom of a tree. Someone, he reckons, beat them to death.
"They kill them!" fumes Wendell. "They kill them with sticks and stones! Listen, you can't have nothing. Nothing!" He broods for a moment. "Well, you gotta pray for them."
"They're not gonna come back though," observes Hill.
"Pray for the ones that are here. If you see a real fat one, pray he'll come into your tent."
"So I can hug him and kiss him?"
"Now what would you be doing with a fat squirrel coming into your tepee over there? You'd put him on the hot plate. You ever eat squirrels?"
"No," says Hill. "I heard about them, but I don't want nothing to do with them." The Indian, who is in fact a Menominee hailing from the tribe's reservation northwest of Green Bay, is unfamiliar with the pleasures of wild game, but the conversation puts him in mind of Wendell's pet raccoon, and he inquires after Fuzzy's health.
"If he gets through to Christmas," says Wendell, "he'll be an awful lucky raccoon, because he's nice and fat now. You know what could happen, don't you?"
"He'll have a heart attack from eating too much?" guesses Hill.
Wendell guffaws and slaps his knee like a hungry giant. "I'll eat the bastard if he's nice and plump!"
"Really? Not really."
"If I decide to do that I'll roast him or put him on the barbecue. I'll season him, make some stuffing, and I'll give you dinner."
"I don't want no wild raccoon."
"Awww, shit!" says Wendell, slapping his hands together. "I could call it muskrat or anything and you'd hit that plate just like that!"
Wendell caught Fuzzy with his own two hands one rainy day around the first of May. One of the park hoboes told him he'd just seen a mother raccoon get hit by a car, and Wendell spotted her two babies on California in front of the garden. One ran behind a building while the other crouched in the middle of the street; he watched as two cars drove over it, straddling it between their wheels. Wendell, who was wearing his leather work gloves, chased it off the street and got a hold of it just as it scrambled up a tree trunk. It was only about five inches long, but it put up a vicious struggle before he contained it in a wood-framed chicken wire cage, which--for mysterious reasons--he was already storing in his basement.
Figuring the raccoon would never survive on its own, Wendell named it and put it on a steady diet of Alpo with gravy, apples, oranges, mangoes, and bananas--and Cat Chow "to keep his urinary tract good." He has a hell of an appetite, says Wendell, and he can tear though a banana faster than you can.
But as young as Fuzzy was, it hasn't been an easy adjustment for him, and Wendell marvels at what a mean, ornery son of a b he is. His strong cologne necessitates frequent cage cleanings--three times a day--and this is usually when he turns on Wendell. "You get out the papers and he thinks you're playing with him," he says. "He sees the paper come and rrrrrrrr, he tears it and throws it behind his ass. And if I got a hand in there--I usually have a glove on--then he stands up just like a woodchuck. And if you go toward him he wants to get higher and higher. So when I get tired of his shenanigans I get a ruler and I'll get in and whop his ass a couple times. He knows I'm coming after him when I pick up the edge of the cage. Then he closes his eyes. He holds his eyes so you can't get at his face. Then if he thinks I'm gonna whop his ass again, he'll roll over on his back and want to fight. That's how they protect themselves."
Wendell was hoping to tame Fuzzy to the point where he could leash him and have him act as a sort of watchcoon in the park. "He thinks he's packing a gun," he says. "That's the kind of friend I got. If I could get him to mind a little better, I could bring him out here--that would deter some of these curs. Jeez, that bastard gets ahold of one of them, he'd rip his guts out."
One August afternoon Wendell brings Fuzzy outside in a cat carrier and sets him down behind the chicken wire surrounding the rose arbor. This is the first time Fuzzy has been out in almost four months, and so he takes his time, nosing the air outside the cage and pawing at the unfamiliar grass until Wendell can coax him out. "C'mere, Fuzzy, Fuzzy, Fuzzy," he sings softly, offering his hand. "It's all new to him. C'mere, Fuzz. C'mon Fuzzy."
When the raccoon does emerge it is cautiously, ponderously, waddling his stout Alpo-fed frame back and forth within the enclosure, sniffing everything he can put his nose to. Soon he's galloping from end to end, putting his paws on the fence and peeking over the edge. He's tearing the petals from a red rose when a very plump, deeply tanned man wearing nothing but running shorts and a yarmulke rushes over with his dog.
"Is that yours?" he asks. "Oh, he's beautiful."
"He's big and fat," agrees Wendell.
"Awww, he's nice. We saw one once in Budlong Woods. Hi, sweetie!" The man's equally corpulent Labrador cringes when Fuzzy throws down a challenge through the fence, arching his back and bristling his fur. "It's OK, honey," the man assures the raccoon. "She won't bother you. Oh, honey. C'mon, we're not gonna bother the little baby." The man drags his dog back as Fuzzy lunges against the fence. "Hi sweetie."
"You can't trust those buggers," cautions Wendell.
"It's a wild raccoon?" asks the man.
"Oh, from a baby. They ran over the mother and I took him."
"Awww. But you two still bonded, right?"
"Yeah, but he'll bite you."
"Well, I'm sure he probably will at times," says the man, and wanders off.
Three weeks later, Wendell brings Fuzzy out again. This time the coon is less tentative about leaving the cage, and he's grown appreciably in size. Wendell thinks he'll get twice as big as he is now, which would match him favorably to a keg of beer. Fuzzy allows Wendell to stroke his back briefly, then snaps at the hand before rolling over on his back, batting the air with his paws. Wendell calls over a mother and her toddler and invites the boy to take a closer look. Fuzzy clambers on top of the cat carrier to get a whiff of the woman's outstretched hand but he loses his balance and tumbles to the grass. The boy is wide-eyed and mesmerized, and bellows when his mother says it's time to go.
Wendell's landlady is outside trimming the hedges, and before long she walks over, cradling her tiny dog to her chest. "Hi Wendell," she says. "You got a new pet."
"Have you seen him?" he asks.
"No, that's why I ask you." She watches silently for a moment. "A raccoon."
"I got him when they ran over the mother right here."
"Really." Wendell suggests she put her dog down to see what happens but she holds on to the squirming animal. "You are going to give it to the zoo or something?"
"I don't know what I'm gonna do with him."
"Because they can keep it at the zoo."
"I gotta feed him some walnuts and acorns to get him used to that," explains Wendell. "You can't put him out here. He'd starve to death."
"He's big now," she says.
"He's getting there," he agrees.
"I think the best thing to do is to give it away, give it to the zoo. Then they can show it to the people."
"They have a temper," answers Wendell. "He's gonna be a big one."
"So that's why," she says, "you need to give it away."
"One guy says he has one. He lives out in Woodstock. He's got a collar and a band around his waist. He says, 'I take him up in the park just like they do with the dogs.'"
"Yeah, but even if they are nice they are dangerous. They are very nice animals, but when they are mad they are dangerous."
"They never hurt anything," says Wendell, and tells a long story about coon hunting in Michigan.
"OK, Wendell," she sighs. "I am leaving. I wanted to see your new pet. OK, I see you."
"All right. Say hello to Jose."
Wendell uses the front room of his apartment as an office, and the floor is carpeted with papers and magazines. Fuzzy's cage sits on a stand by the window overlooking California Avenue and the park. Wendell has braced it against the wall with a length of wood and a vacuum cleaner, because Fuzzy figured out how to topple the cage by pushing his paws through the chicken wire and against the wall. A five-inch baby coon might have had some room to maneuver inside, but Fuzzy is almost half as big as his cage now, and before long he'll have trouble turning around. There are spots on the cage where he chewed through the wire that Wendell has mended with pieces of coat hanger.
One of the first things people seem to want to know about Fuzzy is when Wendell plans to let the animal go. But he doesn't think the raccoon would make it in the wild. "I think the little guy would starve to death," he says. "He wouldn't know what acorns were or anything." Wendell knows Fuzzy's time is coming though. His odor is so strong that the only way to keep him inside through the winter would be to leave the windows open, and his strength is such that he breaks out of his cage about once a week.
One night in early October, Wendell returned home from a friend's farm in Wisconsin and found that Fuzzy had overturned his cage and run amok in the apartment. He'd knocked the radio off the windowsill, torn the toilet paper off the roll, raided Wendell's grass and bird seed supply, dragged his tools across the room, tracked his scat across the floor, and scarfed up nearly an entire bag of Hershey's chocolates. "The son of a b," says Wendell. "When I came in I looked at him, I thought, 'Jeez, it looked like a tornado went through here.' I went in the living room. The little son of a bitch puts his paws up on my leg and goes brrr brrr. That bastard. He's got more balls. That son of a gun put his feet up on me just like a little cur. I felt sorry for him. I was gonna get him between the eyes, but I says, 'Oh, what the hell.'"
Wendell has considered calling in a shelter to take Fuzzy off his hands, but he worries that they'd put him to sleep. "I just saved his life when he was a little fellow," he says. In Illinois it's against the law to take a raccoon from the wild, and Wendell's been told that if he's caught he could be fined up to $500 and lose Fuzzy. He maintains that a lot of people keep raccoons and possums in their houses as pets. But..."If they have to come and take him they have to come and take him."
Wendell's rescued wild animals before, but not always with success. He once found a pair of baby squirrels who'd fallen from their nest. He says he brought them back to health and let them go in the park, but he suspects the a-double-s-h-o-l-e-s's killed them. Years before, he'd come across a pair of baby possums behind a factory and nursed them from a bottle. They grew to a pretty good size, he says, but when they both took sick he couldn't find an animal hospital that would care for them and they died. "I always try to help little animals," he says, recognizing that this kind of service isn't much appreciated anywhere. "In the country the people'd hate you if you had a possum or a raccoon, because they eat chickens, suck eggs, do everything an animal shouldn't do."
Wendell periodically goes back to Michigan for visits but he's put it off this year in part because he doesn't know anyone who can care for Fuzzy in his absence. He doesn't see why a kennel shouldn't take him, but he has yet to ask.
The country still has a strong pull on Wendell but there's nothing left of the Chandler Wendell Ranch--his father sold the place about ten years after the family moved to the city. Wendell never learned what became of it until a few years ago, when an old neighbor wrote him a letter. She'd been hired as a cook by the first owners, who ran it as a camp for deer hunters. After six years it passed on to a real estate agent, who sold it off in parcels, one to a gun club from Muskegon and the others to a succession of people who, having trouble making the payments, cut down and sold off all the timber. When there were no more walnuts, cedars, hemlocks, maples, they tore down the houses and barns and sold the lumber. The thought of it still disgusts him.
About the same time he started planting in Horner Park, Wendell looked into buying the Bessel place, a neighboring farm that he remembered having a 40-acre orchard filled with antique apple varieties. He figured he could get a book on grafting and maybe try to reintroduce some of those old fruits to nurseries. But when he visited the property he discovered that someone had stolen all the fencing and the entire orchard had been cut down and the stumps burned.
As fall sets in, Wendell has a few things to do before he can think about any trips out of town. First he needs to prepare the park for winter. He's wrapped all the young tree trunks to protect them from snow and banked them with a mixture of peat, dirt, and manure. And he continues to surround them with chicken wire. He keeps planting too, in spite of the rapidly turning season. The second week in September he was nosing around a greenhouse on Clark Street and bought a Stanley Blue plum tree, promptly planting it in the northeast corner. "Once I get in those goddamn places I always buy something," he says. "I shouldn't even walk in."
He's also contending with some new vandals in the park, though he admits it's useless to get angry at them. A pair of squirrels have nested in the ginkgo tree that stood in the park long before Wendell showed up. They spend their days busily and fearlessly burying chestnuts and acorns in the soft, naked dirt where he's tried to reseed patches of bad soil where the grass won't grow. "That's their nature," he says. "You can't stop them, as much as I dislike their company around here at nut time." But because squirrels don't remember all their hiding places, Wendell sees them as a blessing in disguise. "That's why if you've got a lot of squirrels around, eventually there'll be a forest." He spots a squirrel in the bird sanctuary. "Look at him sit up there and eat my tomatoes. You'd think he owned the damn place. Look at him sitting up saying, 'This place is mine!' I can't argue with him."
Wendell begins pacing the garden, inspecting his plants and wondering where the summer went. He works most of every day in the park, but not because he wants to. "I spend too much time out here troubleshooting," he says. "Spending money, trying to keep it together. And you lose Saturdays and Sundays because that's when the people are all out and they ruin everything. And here I can't go anywhere because I gotta be stuck right here. There's a thousand things you could be doing. But it takes all your time. You have time for nothing." He stops to get a close look at one of the final blooms of the year, a bloody red, perfectly formed rose. "Hey that's some rose, huh? I'll challenge anyone. That'll beat anyone's rose in the city. Beautiful isn't it? That's the way I grow 'em."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.