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Waiting for Homesick

A Dispatch From the Fare Wars

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It's 10:30 in the morning, and traffic to O'Hare is crawling like a crippled centipede. I blame half-price airfares. All the fliers are breeding all these drivers. Every day, airport spokespersons announce a new attendance record at O'Hare. Has advertising alone ever attracted so many? I remember "Illinois-- You Put Me in a Happy State." No problem getting to the airport after that one. I remember "Calling Me Home--Chicago." "Ditka," rasped Dick Butkus, choking back tears of emotion. "Butkus," Ditka returned, smiling. If you didn't know football you'd think he was cursing the guy--"What'd he say? Butt-kiss?"

I should have taken the train. Both planes I'm meeting are due in 20 minutes and all the garages at O'Hare are full. I find a spot outside, about half a mile from the United terminal.

I don't really mind the hike, but one of the people I'm picking up is at least 80 years old. The other guy is my age, in his mid-30s. Lyle could walk from O'Hare to the Loop if he had to. But I'm a little worried about Homesick James.

Homesick James is one of the oldest blues musicians around. I don't know how old exactly, but it's tough to know anything exactly about Homesick. He first played in Chicago during the 20s. He played for Capone. He taught Elmore James how to play guitar. He taught Lyle how to play guitar. He also made a living as a metal finisher. And Homesick wouldn't be flying in today if it wasn't for Lyle.

Besides playing guitar, Lyle has a job as a caretaker on an estate near Rye, New York. He lives rent-free in one of the few--if not the only--Frank Lloyd Wright detached garages in the entire northeast. He shares it with two dogs, three cats, and three cars. Though he lives with the rich, he's not getting rich doing odd jobs around the mansion. But he could afford a full-price ticket to Chicago--or two half-price ones. When the fare wars heated up he decided to bring Homesick home for a visit too.

Lyle hasn't seen Homesick since the two of them shared an apartment next door to me on Southport. I've seen Lyle both times he's come back to visit, but I haven't seen Homesick since he moved. That was four years ago.

They're scheduled to arrive at the same time. Lyle is coming in from White Plains, New York; Homesick started out in Nashville. There have been some problems with his ticket. Still, Lyle said everything had been straightened out. I check the arrivals board. It's 11:35, Lyle's flight is due in right on schedule, at 11:45. Homesick's flight has been canceled.

I go to Lyle's gate and get in line to talk to the ticket agent. A short woman who looks to be in her 70s lines up behind me, and I let her go ahead. There's no need to rush. She thanks me very much. "I've been here since ten last night." She looks remarkably fresh. The clerk is in a hurry. The plane is taxiing to the gate. It takes just a few seconds for him to add two more hours to her waiting time. Walking off, she doesn't look so fresh anymore.

I quickly tell the clerk that I'm not here to board a plane, I'm looking to pick up someone whose flight has been canceled. What do I do now? "Where did the flight originate and what's the passenger's last name?" he asks. "That's a tough one," I say. "Try James, Homesick, and then try Homesick James. Flying in from Nashville." He doesn't bat an eye; he hits a few buttons. "Nope, nobody by any of those names. I've got to go," he calls as he sprints for the gate.

Lyle is wearing a guitar strapped over each shoulder and a Bulls cap. He takes off the cap when he sees me. "Are these uncool in Chicago?" "No," I tell him, "but that buzz cut ought to get you some attention." He's shaved his head, and with the uneven fuzz that's grown back he looks like he's on a furlough from an institution. Lyle asks, "Like it?" and I tell him it looks cool.

We go to ask an agent about Homesick, and though she's already surrounded by people clamoring for her attention, for some reason she takes Lyle first. Lyle knows Homesick's traveling name: William Henderson. She says Homesick has been rerouted through Milwaukee; his plane is due in an hour.

Nothing to do but go get Lyle's bags. One of the guitars Lyle's carrying is for Homesick. Down in Florida someone stole Homesick's guitar, and he's been without ever since. "I've got one of his old ones, but I'm keeping that," Lyle says.

Lyle's going to stay with me, but Homesick's not. "Where's Homesick staying?" "At Rosa's." "The club?" "Yeah, out on Armitage. You can take him there, right?"

It's easy to find Lyle's bags, they're held closed with heavy cord tied around them like ribbon. He pays a dollar for a luggage cart and loads it up with bags and guitars. "Man," he marvels, "you can walk out of here with anybody's bags."

Homesick's Milwaukee flight is due in half an hour. We split up duties, I sit at the baggage claim with Lyle's stuff, and he goes to the gate. I grab a seat, just edging out some tourists. I examine Lyle's baggage. I check out the shoes of the man sitting next to me. He removes them. He's wearing brown silk socks.

An hour later Lyle returns. Without Homesick.

"They say he'll be on the next plane," Lyle says.

"How long do they say that will be?"

"They say it'll be another hour."

"Yeah, right."

Lyle says he spotted a hot dog stand near a security checkpoint. He'll go get us a couple of real Chicago dogs. He says he's missed them. I don't know how real they'll be.

I have an idea. "Why don't we just leave 20 bucks with a ticket agent so Homesick can take a cab?" Lyle doesn't like my idea. I think of my grandfather, who wasn't even strong enough to travel when he was Homesick's age. I'm a louse.

I wait by the security check while Lyle goes for dogs. I amuse myself looking at TV screens showing the insides of luggage passing by on the conveyor belt. I can't tell what any of it is. Hundreds of bags pass before my eyes. Lyle returns with dogs and Cokes. We sit next to a scrawny potted tree in a corner. There's a bird in the tree.

I point out the bird to Lyle, "How'd that get in here?"

"Looks like a sparrow," he says. "That's the nicest thing I've seen in Chicago yet."

"You haven't been in Chicago yet," I remind him.

"Rosemont then. Do you think that's United's mascot?"

"If it is, then these must be the friendly skies."

"Or the friendly confines."

I bite into breakfast. I have to admit it's pretty good. I ask about Homesick. "How come he's staying at Rosa's? I know it's a club, but I didn't think they had rooms."

Lyle chews and nods. "Rosa's his wife. He stays with her whenever he comes back to town."

"Yeah? What's he doing living in Nashville?"

Lyle shakes his head. "I don't know. Homesick lives wherever he wants to live. After he moved out of my place he went to Atlanta. Then he was in Florida. I only just caught up with him myself, and that's only because Rosa sent me a flier."

I ponder that: maybe that's why he's called Homesick. "Where's he from originally?" I ask.

"Puerto Rico."

Those old-time blues players are always from the south. They're not considered "authentic" unless they are. There are plenty of younger blues musicians from Europe, where blues is more popular than here. There's a blues singer from Germany named Hans Theessink who calls himself the "Euroblues Man." I've heard his album, and though I'd expected lines on it like "I'fe gott der blues," it was pretty good. But Homesick is the first Puerto Rican blues player I've ever heard of.

"He's an incredible cook, too. He always used to make these great stews. But he's not only Puerto Rican." Lyle leans close to my ear and whispers, "He's Jewish."

"Get out!"

"No, man, it's true. He always used to tell me, 'Lyle, these goyim don't understand us.'"

"You don't have to be Jewish to talk about the goyim."

"A lot of people from the islands are Jewish. Homesick says he got some condemnation for it when he was younger, so he doesn't tell most people."

I'll ask him myself. If he ever arrives.

Both me and Lyle are Jewish. There's a big German restaurant across the street from my house that blares Bavarian drinking songs and martial music to the whole neighborhood through outdoor speakers. When Lyle lived next door, we often discussed taking direct action against the place. Though he isn't religious, Lyle gets a bit militant about his Jewish background at times.

"Yeah," Lyle continues, "he's black, Puerto Rican, and Jewish, and he's got a reputation for being difficult. That's probably one reason why he doesn't get the credit he deserves. He was one of the first people to play blues on the north side of Chicago, but hardly anybody knows that either. And the way he plays! He's got a time sense that's unlike anybody else. That's what makes him so hard to play with."

After a pause I agree, "He does have a difficult time sense."

"He's been like a second father to me.

"I'd better get going, he's due in ten minutes," Lyle says with a start. The bird chirps from the potted tree. Security does nothing. He returns alone five minutes later.

"Now he's on American, but he's due in at the same time." We hurry to Terminal Three, where I stake out a spot at the baggage claim.

Groups of people continue to arrive from all over the country--Saint Louis and San Jose, Cleveland and Albuquerque, but nobody from Milwaukee. Homesick's flight is 20 minutes late. What if he isn't on this flight? What if they had to hold the flight to accommodate him? I'm thinking about my grandfather again. Years ago, my grandfather was kicked off a highway for driving too slow. He always used to answer people who wanted him to speed up (like me and my mother) by saying "I ain't in no hurry." Then he'd go even slower. Homesick James is not my grandfather. But I'm betting right now that he's going to be tired and cantankerous when he gets here.

And here he is. Keeping pace with Lyle, walking fast with a jerky gait, arms flailing excitedly. He's wearing high-heeled shoes, a brown fedora, thick black-rimmed glasses, and a three-piece suit unrumpled from his trip. We clasp hands.

"Goofa seea--lon tye!"

"Excuse me?"

He's got islands and a few other land masses in his accent. Eighty-some-odd years traveling all over the world, he sounds like the Tower of Babel. He also sounds a little like my grandfather when he took his teeth out. I think he remembers me. He remembers my wife was pregnant when he left. He remembers that she cut some upholstery for Lyle's car, a 1965 red Impala convertible. Fake fur; tiger stripe. He remembers the print.

He's talking about things that I've forgotten, and I haven't gone anywhere.

"Oh, I remember everything," he says. Clear as tiger stripe.

"That's right," Lyle seconds, "Homesick remembers everything, and he plans way ahead." He pats Homesick on the back. "What do you want to do now, you rascal, you?"

Homesick guffaws and throws his arms around Lyle, rubbing Lyle's hair, saying "This is my baby," and then some more that I can't make out. But Lyle understands just fine. He grabs a bag off the carousel.

I tell them to meet me upstairs at arrivals. At least it'll give them something to do while I go get the car. It's two terminals farther away than when I arrived. When I finally get it, I have to circle the airport three times to get to arrivals. I keep missing the ramp. It's four o'clock, almost rush hour.

I offer Homesick the front seat, but he wants the back. He's saying something about Milwaukee. Then he says something about Johnny Taylor, whose song is playing on the radio. Then he says something about Johnny Shines. I don't know Shines from shinola. I get about every fifth word.

I yell back, "Are you really Jewish?"

"Awwww," he says, admonishing Lyle. "You told him. Yeah, yeah, I'm Jewish."

He's real all right. Lyle and Homesick keep hugging each other over the seats. Homesick tells me he's 88 years old. He seems younger. He leans forward to ask, "You speak Hebrew?"

I don't. He says a few things that sound like it. Traffic from the airport is light. When we get to Rosa's there's plenty of parking. While Homesick rings the bell, Lyle sidles over to me, confiding, "I went to his 79th birthday party and that was only five years ago."

Rosa is a pleasant woman much younger than 88. She offers us Cokes from the bar. She complains happily to Homesick in a heavy Italian accent, "I don't know you coming, I get no phone call. All day wait, no call. Phone line down from the storm." Her son Tony steps out of a door behind the stage and ambles over to greet Homesick in an accent almost as thick as his mother's. He calls him Daddy. Rosa asks Homesick how he likes Nashville. Homesick says he can't stand it. "Te pe'le tok fonny, allti say--'Howdy!'"

"Oh my God!" Rosa responds.

I ask her if she would move down there. She looks at me like I'm crazy.

"Hey," she says peevishly, "I got a business to run."

Lyle and I say good-bye to Homesick and go outside. My car is the only one left on the block, and there's a ticket stuck on the windshield. I remember "Calling Me Home--Chicago" again. "Calling me home" is a euphemism for dying and going to heaven. I wonder if they give out parking tickets there.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jeffrey Felshman.

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