Ramblin' Man | Our Town | Chicago Reader

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Ramblin' Man

From the sublime to the ridiculous to the supermarket and back.

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The wife's been up all night, coughing, drinking Robitussin, I got a headache, and that's the kind of week it's been, one week too many of winter, one week too long feeling sick, dark, and depressed. As much as anything, that's why I decide to take a walk up to International Foods. I shop as often as I can, just to get out of the house.

They warn you about this when you retire, say you'll get bored, as if even the best job in the world doesn't get boring. Not that any job I ever had could be called the best job in the world. Today, at least, the sun is out. I don't even need a coat or a hat. I walk west on Diversey, and I see that our new alderman has kept at least one of her campaign promises. She's taken down all her Vote for Vilma Colom signs--and she's taken down the other guy's as well. Maybe this bodes well for the future of our neighborhood. But then again, maybe I'm just looking for something to put a positive spin on a lousy week.

Just before I reach Milwaukee Avenue, I come upon a guy who seems to be digging out the sewer. Wow, Vilma works fast. One day after the election and we're getting our sewers cleaned. Then I see it's just one guy. The city would have sent an entire crew. This must be just one more crazy Logan Square resident trying to right the world on his own. He's got a long-handled scooper that looks like it's been designed with sewer scooping in mind, and he's bringing up a bunch of really vile black muck that I, being a curious sort, close in on for a better look.

Naturally I get sucked into a conversation. "I'm looking for a gold medallion," he says. "Some Puerto Ricans jumped me, and it went rolling down the sewer." He dips his scooper down into the sewer and comes up with another blob of muck. No medallion. "I know it's in here," he says confidently. He's a little guy, no telling how old he is, but he sure isn't young. He has a ponytail. And old clothes, but who wouldn't wear old clothes while mucking around in a Chicago sewer? I wonder if I should talk to this guy, but this being Chicago, if you stop and talk to any stranger, sooner or later he's going to ask you for money.

"Hope you find it," I say, and I'm on to International Foods.

International Foods is not an easy store to describe. Imagine a Treasure Island. Imagine a slick, clean Jewel that just opened up in some wealthy suburb. Now imagine the opposite. Imagine bad floor, old shelves, weak lighting, narrow aisles, butchers who speak something that sounds like Greek. In other words, imagine a supermarket the overly fastidious would not enter.

It would be their loss, of course. Not that there's anything fancy inside International Foods, or even anything very international, except for those people speaking Greek. But the prices are good here, and you can get things you won't find at the Jewel or Dominick's. Example: International Foods has fresh sliced liver. Try getting that at the Jewel, where liver comes frozen in a block hard as a brick. Granted, nobody eats organ meat anymore, but it's nice to know there's still a place where grandma can get it fresh.

What I have in mind is this chicken soup I'm making for supper. I start planning supper around 11 in the morning, gives me something to think about during the day. I already have the chicken, but the vegetable bin ran dry last night. Chicken soup, the way I make it, needs carrots, celery, onions, garlic, noodles, and lots of herbs.

The produce at International Foods is not, how to put this diplomatically, very attractively displayed. They have these shelves, they throw the stuff on them. Hey, this is Logan Square, what more do you want? One of those sprinkling systems like they have up in Skokie? Special lighting to make everything look better than it really is? High prices? Last week at Dominick's I saw lettuce going for $2.50 a head. Blame it on California and its stupid weather. That's all they've been talking about on television for the last week.

To my surprise, International Foods has the stuff for $1.39. Looks a little brown around the edges, but it's still lettuce. What am I supposed to do, stop eating salad just because California can't take better care of its weather?

Suddenly I'm talking to the guy who runs the produce department. Or works for it. I can't quite figure out which. He's neat and clean and friendly and he's old enough to remember the old days, but not so old that, like me, he has to retire. But most of all he's what I call a regular northwest side white guy. In other words, the first thing out of his mouth is--"Look at that, $2.50 for a head of fucking lettuce?" He picks up a head of the fancy stuff, the kind without the brown around the edges.

"That's not so bad," I tell him. "You should see what they're asking for it up at the Jewel."

"Ah," he says. "They don't give a fuck about people. Can you believe it? I paid $2.10 for this stuff. They must have picked it before the flood. I should have bought everything they had." He goes on to explain how the lettuce is picked and the stem part is sealed off with some kind of acid before the whole thing is wrapped in cellophane, and how the cheap stuff that I've picked out for myself is something he calls "naked lettuce," meaning he buys it by the crate and wraps it himself and some of it may have gotten wet but it's still good and if I don't think so just bring it back, but I don't really need lettuce to make a salad--here's mustard greens, gives a nice peppery taste, and there's endive, and hell, you can use cabbage or spinach, so who needs their fucking lettuce? And he's just warming up.

Maybe he's bored. Like I say, sooner or later all jobs get boring, and a guy just wants to talk. From the lettuce he's on to his life history, or at least the produce part of it. I try a few questions, maybe I can learn something. But questions don't really work with a genuine northwest side white guy like this, not when he gets going. Suddenly he's talking about the union, and sure, he was a union steward, and like every union steward I've ever known, he has his war stories about the bosses who tried to get rid of him, not here at International Foods of course, this all happened long ago. And there was a little red-headed guy who tried to plant garlic in his coat pocket and get him fired, and there was a lawyer who came down from Milwaukee, and there was an out-of-court settlement, and if you think this story has an end you don't know northwest side white guys who used to be union stewards. He's still talking when I pack up my produce and head toward the checkout line.

So I'm feeling a little guilty as I walk toward home on Diversey. When the hell is the weather going to change so I can go fishing? Crossing Milwaukee Avenue, I start wondering if the guy who's looking for his medallion is still there, and I take my eye off the traffic just long enough to almost get hit by a low fast car driven by some kid with a black mustache. One more step and he breaks both my legs. Then I'll never get this celery and carrots home and--oh jeez, I forgot the carrots and damned if I mean to go back and hear more about the union!

Sure enough, the guy is still digging for his medallion. Soon as I come even with him, I see that he's added a couple of bushels of muck to the gunk he's already scooped out. "Haven't found it yet," I say. Not a question, that would be stupid, just a comment.

"I will," he says. He's a cheerful cuss, considering how he's spending the afternoon.

"How long's it been down there?" I ask.

"Oh, about three months."

"Three months! It could be anywhere."

"No sir," he says. "I talked to the city and that hole catches everything. And when the water rises then it goes out the sewer, but the stuff at the bottom stays until the city cleans it out every couple of years." The way he describes it is it's like the trap at the bottom of your sink, and if that isn't right, you can blame him, not me, 'cause I'm not climbing down to check.

It seems the city has already dug out the next sewer down the block for him, but it was the wrong sewer. The muggers hit him so hard they must have scrambled his memory. But then he went to the Police Department and asked if they would check their report and the report said the incident took place here, right next to the furniture store. But the city said, sorry, we dug out one sewer for you, that's as far as we go. You're welcome to try on your own so long as you put everything back.

I imagine this guy putting all that muck back when he's finished. Tomorrow I'll have to walk up this way and see if he actually did.

"1,800 dollars," he says. "That medallion cost me 1,800 dollars. Wouldn't you dig for that?"

"1,800 dollars! You could buy a computer for 1,800 bucks! You could get one of those new Pentium chips!" Obviously he doesn't know what I'm talking about.

"Those kids must have seen me when I bought it," he says.

"You mean you just bought it that day?"

"Yeah, at that little jewelry store around the corner." He must mean Wernikoff's. They have good stuff, but I never knew they had stuff that good. "It was a religious medal, had a picture of Saint Joseph on it. It was still in the box when they grabbed me. They knocked me on the ground and I saw that thing pop out and it rolled right into the sewer. Then these kids ran off."

I look into this guy's face. He's another northwest side white guy, ponytail and all, and he's got a really battered face, like an ex-boxer. I wonder if the muggers did that to him, assuming there really were muggers, or if it was always like that. I wonder who in hell would ever think Saint Joseph was a lucky saint.

Well, I'm not going to sit here all afternoon and watch this guy sift through the mud. The way I see it, he's not going to find that medallion no matter how long he digs, but with me around his chances get even worse.

"Well, I hope you find it," I say.

"I will," he says with all the confidence in the world. "I will. You better believe I will."

So the next morning when I go out for the paper, I walk back up to that sewer. Would anyone in his right mind really shovel all that muck back in? Enquiring minds want to know.

And the street is clean, just as if he'd scrubbed it down. I look into the sewer, and there's the muck, right back where it came from. What I'll never know is whether that $1,800 gold medallion is still down there beneath it.

But the lettuce turned out to be just fine.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Randy Tunnell.

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