Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Jamie Sensei

On a cold, rainy night, a placid calm can be found 36 stories above the ground.

There, in a carpeted room at the top of a Lake Shore Dr. highrise in the Kenwood neighborhood, far above a sea of lights expanding southwards, eight men and women dressed in white robes sit on their knees, waiting for Jamie Sensei to take the floor.

A thin woman with dark hair and a soft smile, Jamie walks to the middle of the makeshift mat set out for this evening’s event. She, too, wears a white robe, though a dark blue skirt goes along with it. “I’ve never trained in a penthouse before,” she says to the group. “I’ve never been in a penthouse before, so much as trained as one.”

Jamie turns to face an alter set up by the window. It’s made up of a photograph of an old, Japanese man with a beard named Morihei Ueshiba; a framed sign with a couple of Japanese characters; flowers; and two long, wooden rods. Jamie kneels to the ground and bows to it. The men and women in white robes follow her lead. She then turns around and bows to them, and they to her.

Over the next hour or so, Jamie leads the group in stretches and mock fighting moves. The participants swivel their hips; they hold one another in pairs, stretching towards and away from their partners; they practice light punching and slowly falling to the mat.

When Jamie demonstrates a new move, perhaps gently twisting a volunteer’s arm, or— gently— throwing the person to the ground, she explains to the group what she’s doing in a conversational tone. At one point, as the participants hold a stretching position, she counts out one, two, three, four— and then the Hebrew equivalent, ehad, shtaim, shalosh, arba, hamesh

All the while, about a dozen spectators sit on chairs around the perimeter of the mat, watching.

When it’s all said and done, Jamie Sensei bows once again to the group, and they again to her. Then everyone heads over to the room next door to watch a couple of videos.

The first opens with the sound of a bell, while white letters on a black background read, “Spiritually, there are no strangers and no borders. Morihei Ueshiba, Founder of Aikido.” In the next scene, people in white robes grab, pull, and twist one another in slow motion.

“My name is Jamie Zimron, and I’ve been training in aikido for over 30 years,” says a thin woman with dark hair and a soft smile. “I’m Jewish, and I’m a dual American-Israeli citizen.”

“It was, to me, the most natural thing to try to bring Israelis and Palestinians together through Aikido, the art of peace,” she continues, speaking smoothly enough to get your attention and determinedly enough to keep it. “Where we actually grab each other’s wrists and hands and move our bodies around together in a way that’s seeking a harmonious resolution of conflict. And that harmonious feeling is very transformative.”

Soon, the camera zooms out on a grassy median in the middle of a street. On a sign there, Greek letters sit atop the words, “Welcome to Nicosia.” Then, among a montage of outdoors shots, another sign— this time near a checkpoint manned by men in military fatigues— reads, “International Aikido Seminar Nicosia, Cyprus.”

After some more footage of people in white robes dragging partners down to a blue mat, a string of snippets shows men and women clinking glasses around big, white tables, or doing a comedy routine on a stage with a microphone, or singing while snaking together in a long dance line around a ballroom.

“Several people said, ‘This has got to be the first time ever that such an event took place,’” says one of the narrators of the video, which lasts just ten minutes. “People who otherwise, at the outset of this seminar, openly expressed that they hated each other.”

In the second film, one of the first images is a title screen. “Middle East Salaam Shalom Aikido Peace,” it reads. “Sensei Jamie Zimron, Co-Founder.”

A slide show set to music unfolds over the next seven minutes. “Pray for the peace of Israel… pray for the peace of all the world…,” sings a chorus in harmony. “Shalom, shalomshalu shalom Yerushalayim…”

As the music continues on, up pops photo after photo of people. Jewish and Muslim, young and old; on a mat or off, women with hair covered or uncovered. Most of them are smiling. Captions at the bottom of the screen indicate the places: Cyprus, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan.

In one of the final images, a split screen shows two pictures. On the left, a woman stands on a mat, holding her right arm out in front of her and her left arm back, bent at the elbow. On the right, a tall, thin man with a graying beard and black skullcap stands with his hands clasped in front of him, his eyes looking down. Both wear a white robe.

Jamie Zimron grew up in Milwaukee in the 1960’s. At the age of 17, she had had enough of high school and took off for the one place that her parents considered acceptable for their Jewish daughter to go to: Israel.

There, she lived on a kibbutz— a communal settlement where residents share chores— learning Hebrew for four hours a day and farming for four hours a day, six days a week. She fell in love with the country.

In the 1990’s, after she had officially taken up residency there, she had what she considers a life-changing moment. She was walking in the French Hill neighborhood of northeastern Jerusalem one day with a friend, “and the person said, ‘Well, you know, this is occupied territory.’ And I said, ‘What? This is Hebrew University. This is Israel.’ They said, ‘No, it’s occupied territory.’ And I just did a double, quadruple take, and— it’s like I woke up or something. Something just hit me.”

The incident motivated her to start reading about the history of the area from a Palestinian perspective. She knew about the Jewish ideal of returning to the Chosen People’s homeland. But for the first time, she was learning about how that affected Muslim residents there. The experience gave birth to a wish to foster peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

At right, Jamie Zimron. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

By this time, Zimron had taken another significant turn in life, too. Having grown up with no exposure to martial arts, she began in 1975 to explore aikido, the Japanese practice of peace-minded self-defense. “When I first saw aikido,” she recalls, “I heard that the teacher spoke in metaphors of nature— and moved like a flowing river. And the atmosphere in class was cooperative and harmonious, just like the art itself.”

Yet she remained skeptical.

“I went to see for myself, cynically,” she continues, “and I found out it was absolutely true and more.”

In 1987, Jamie Sensei— sensei is Japanese for, among other things, teacher— began to introduce aikido to the then-Soviet Union, in the hopes of strengthening Soviet-American relations. By the time the 90’s came around, and she had her epiphany of purpose, she found it only logical to try use the martial art to counter stereotypes and misconceptions in her own part of the world.

It didn’t hurt that Zimron had a background as a psychologist and self-proclaimed healer.

She traveled to the West Bank and to Gaza. Seeing how the people there lived “just so opened my eyes,” she remembers. After Israel and Jordan signed their peace treaty in 1994, an idea came to her: “Salaam shalom aikido.” Salaam and shalom are the Arabic and Hebrew words, respectively, for peace.

She would create a program to bring Israelis and Palestinians together to train. The idea, of course, was that the benefits would ripple out from there, back into the participants’ communities.

To what degree that’s happened so far is unclear. But this is: Aiki Extensions— an organization that brings aikido training and skills to nontraditional venues such as psychotherapy, business, and sports— supports the Mideast Aikido Project, which includes the Salaam Shalom Aikido Initiative. The initiative, now five years old, has a core group of people working just outside of Ramallah, in the West Bank, and has another program at an orphanage in Bethlehem.

Zimron— whose work has already brought her to the West Bank, Jordan, Russia, Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus— hopes to start another training program in the city of Tulkaram, in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, she’s also helped facilitate the PeaceCamp initiative, another part of the Mideast Aikido Project, which funds trips for Israeli and Palestinian children to America for summer camp.

“This is really my passion, this project,” she says, a strength to her words. “This brings it all together for me. It’s really where I want to put my energy.”

You don’t doubt it.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Underground Music

If you happened to stroll by the Oak St. Beach-Michigan Ave. underpass yesterday afternoon, you’d have heard a delightful sound beckoning you to follow it to its source. When you did, you’d come upon two men standing in the middle of the tunnel dressed in thin shirts, jeans, and sneakers. Amidst the cream-colored walls and paint peeling from the ceiling, Trent Santomastago and Ryan Burnett played a flute and alto saxophone to the tune of canonical duets by Georg Philipp Telemann, a German composer in the 17th and 18th centuries.

“We tried playing on Michigan Ave.,” said Santomastago, 37, who has a thin face sporting a scruffy beard and mustache. “The acoustics are better here.”

“We have the advantage here of it reverberating,” explained Burnett, 25, of the music. “It’s a very pleasant sort of sound.”

He wasn’t the only one who thought so. Among the tourists and the residents, the runners and the bikers, the couples and the groups and the lone passersby, one or more people would occasionally stop to listen. Most at least turned their heads as they passed.

There was the guy on the bicycle who stopped and asked permission to take a photograph of them— and proceeded to shoot several. There was the woman on her cell phone, pushing a boy in a stroller, who stopped before reaching the men, pushed the stroller towards the opposite wall, and proceeded to crouch down to speak to the boy while looking at the musicians. There was the man who stopped to deposit some cash into the music case laid open on the cement ground, only to be followed immediately by another man and then another.

There were, too, the couple that found themselves so engrossed in their conversation that they passed within feet of Santomastago and Burnett without seeming to notice them. And the woman for whom an animated cell phone conversation was more interesting than the sound of classical baroque music beneath the median of Lake Shore Dr.

This is, after all, a big city.

Yet reports of the decline in popularity of classical music seem not to hold here. “We do some modern stuff for fun,” said Santomastago, who, like Burnett, speaks softly. “But it doesn’t get the reception that this does.”

Trent Santomastogo and Ryan Burnett. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Nestled between the wall and a couple of music stands, the duo bounced slightly as they played. Santomastago tapped his right foot in time with the music, which seemed to cascade out of the instruments and float down the tunnel. Neither had an imposing demeanor; when a woman applauded at the end of a piece, Burnett simply nodded slightly and muttered a week “Thank you.”

The two first met while in college at Northeastern Illinois University. Both had been playing their instruments since elementary school. These days, they continue to take private lessons while occasionally playing professionally. Coming out to the underpass two or three times a week is “a nice way to get some practice in and make a few bucks doing it,” according to Santomastago. (Never mind the occasional loud motorcycle passing overhead or the intermittent stench of bacteria that wafts by as a person passes.)

As for money, the two had to shell out a hundred dollars apiece for city permits to play music in a public place. But, says Santomastago, “We’ve made it back and then some.”

Santomastago and Burnett may have stood out from those around them when they played yesterday afternoon, but in one way, they fit right in: Behind them, propped up against the wall, were their bikes, ready to take the men away when the music ended.

Santomastago and Burnett play "Allegro Spirittoso Minuet," by Georg Philipp Telemann

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Biking to Milwaukee (with Some Help from Metra)

The idea was simple. Inspired by a recent long-distance bike ride, I would push myself to bike all the way from Chicago to Milwaukee. I eagerly looked up the distance online: About 90 miles.

Forget that.

Then I remembered that Metra allows you to put your bike on the train— and the Union Pacific North Line goes as far north as Kenosha, Wis., just over the state line. From there, I estimated from looking at a map, it would be just 30 to 35 miles to Milwaukee. Definitely doable in a day. Plus, riding up on a Saturday could set the stage for a nice weekend getaway in Wisconsin, offering the chance to explore communities and other local attractions along the shoreline, followed by an evening and part of the next day in Milwaukee.

The trip was set.

Under a bright sun, I arrive at the Clybourn Metra station, at Ashland and Armitage Avenues, in time for the 10:43 a.m. train. When it arrives, I secure my bike to a row of fold-up seats with a bungee cable, one of the requirements for bringing your bike on board. Because it’s Saturday, I take advantage of Metra’s weekend fare, five dollars for unlimited rides on its network (although I’ll be taking Amtrak back down tomorrow, five dollars is less than the price of a one-way ticket to Kenosha).

After a pleasant trip through the northern suburbs of Chicago, we arrive in Kenosha at around 12:15 p.m. I’ve figured that by keeping an average pace of about 10 miles per hour, including stops, I’ll arrive in Milwaukee in time for dinner.

As I set off from the Metra station on my bike, I feel a sense of freedom. Ahhh… the open road.

Downtown Kenosha. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Wisconsin’s fourth-largest city, Kenosha is perhaps best known for its factory outlet stores. But those are at least a couple of miles inland, and my plan today is to stay as close to the lake as I can, both for the scenery and to keep the route to Milwaukee as direct as possible.

Not far from the Metra station, I stop to get a glimpse of a Kenosha streetcar. One of five refurbished vehicles that date back to 1951, the streetcar makes a 1.7-mile loop through the downtown area. The green-and-white car is photogenic (and the fare is only 25 cents), but I pass on taking a ride, opting instead to bike over to the waterfront. There, I come upon HarborMarket, an outdoor market along 2nd Ave. between 54th and 56th Streets, where vendors under white tents sell food, art, toys, and raffle tickets.

After browsing for a bit and purchasing a bottle of water (important in the mid-day heat), I stop briefly next door in the Kenosha Public Museum. Having opened in 1937 in a large restored post office building, the museum hosts exhibits on natural history and fine and decorative arts.

Continuing north, I head up 6th and then 7th Ave., passing local businesses, including a bike shop and The Coffee Pot, a coffee shop with outdoor seating next to a wall with a mural of greenery. It’s a cute setting, but I’m too eager to make progress to stop for lunch now. A little farther north, any thought of food has left my mind when I come upon a beautiful, expansive view of Lake Michigan from Pennoyer Park.

Unfortunately, there’s no one lakefront path all the way from Kenosha to Milwaukee. The best you can do is combine lakeside paths, inland trails, and roads. My goal this trip is to have as scenic of a ride as possible, and I’m pleasantly surprised to find before me the Pike Bike Trail, a path that heads up alongside the lake.

Soon, the path empties out onto a road at the edge of the campus of Carthage College. Because it keeps to the lake, I decide then to take state Highway 32, a four-lane road (now reduced to two lanes because of construction). But before long, I’m tired of riding over sand because of the construction, and I decide to head west for a more bike-friendly route— the Pike Bike Trail again, now a gravel-covered path that lies where tracks of the old Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad used to run.

Although it’s three-quarters of a mile inland from the lake, the mostly-straight trail makes for an easy ride, with trees and farmland on either side and the sound of birds chirping in the air. At 1st St., I pass from Kenosha Country into Racine County (the name of the path changes here to North Shore Trail), and in a little less than half an hour of biking, I’ve reached the village of Elmwood Park, just south of Racine. There, I leave the bike path for local streets, finally sitting down at around 3 p.m. to a pizza burger at Reflections, a family-style restaurant. Wanting to keep the break short, I soon head off again, zigzagging along the local roads of Racine towards the lake.

A bluff in General John J. Pershing Park offers a good view of the water. The sight of the lake during this ride soothes, if not inspires, me. Here, boaters and even a jet-skier are out. A little further north, a cluster of boats sits in Racine’s harbor; nearby, on a plaza adjacent to Festival Park, children in street clothes run through fountains.

Downtown Racine. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Rather than seek out the North Shore Trail again, I decide to try once more to keep to the lakefront. Turning north on Main St., I come upon a succession of local stores and eateries, as well as the Racine Art Museum, whose collection of over 3,000 objects consists of contemporary works on different media; pieces dating to the 1930’s; and works on paper, paintings, and sculptures.

Main St. continues on over a drawbridge, which offers a view of moored boats off to either side, and then for some three more miles— passing right next to the Racine Zoo, which claims its own beach on Lake Michigan. A series of turns then takes me further north into Racine County, through areas with houses close enough together to resemble suburbia interspersed with open spaces that make for a rural feel. I don’t think I’ve ever passed so many signs for garage sales in a single day, and I stop at one to browse, walking off with a few pens for 25 cents.

Around a quarter to 6, I cross into Milwaukee County. Less than 45 minutes later, I’ve made it into Grant Park, a 381-acre park perched on Lake Michigan in the city of South Milwaukee. Riding through the lakefront greenery, I feel a renewed eagerness. I’m in the home stretch.

The trail I’ve stumbled onto leads through a thick cluster of trees with a ravine down below, providing the most dramatic change of scenery this trip. At some point, if I haven’t already, I make it onto the Oak Leaf Trail, part of the Milwaukee County Park System that continues along the lakefront all the way to the city of Milwaukee. I head up through Warnimont Park and Sheridan Park; past a game of volleyball; past people having a picnic on a patch of grass above the lake. Finally, shortly before 7 p.m., I glimpse a faint outline of the Milwaukee skyline in the distance.

Approaching the Milwaukee city limits. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Another mile or so, and I reach the city. Unfortunately, there’s no way to keep to the lakefront beyond the Cupertino neighborhood, as Interstate 794 monopolizes the waterfront for some two miles. Instead, trail signs guide me through local streets. Being on roads hardly matters, though, so revitalized am I to be so close to the end.

I snake through industrial neighborhoods, advancing up Bay St., then 1st St., then across the Water St. Bridge into the Historic Third Ward district. Around 7:30, I stop at the intersection of Water St. and Milwaukee Ave.

To my left, I spot a Borders bookstore sign beyond the Wisconsin Ave. Bridge. I recognize the sight.

I’m in downtown Milwaukee!

Yes, I’ve been here before. Only this time, I think with a mixture of joy and disbelief, I’ve arrived by bike.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Help the Animals. Please?

“Info to help the animals?” the girl in the green dress nudges passersby.

“Info to help the animals?”

Her voice is light and high-pitched, a gentle supplication among a cacophony of noise— el trains rumbling above, bus air brakes wheezing behind, cell phone conversations coming into and out of earshot.

“Info to help the animals?”

In a Runyonland-esque scene, they pass her left and right, go into the el station and out, get onto buses and off. Perhaps one out of every four takes one of her pamphlets, which outline cruel practices used in slaughterhouses. Of those that don’t, maybe only half acknowledge her.

The woman walking a little dog with poofy, white fur— she takes one. The man in the white, button-down shirt and black pants takes one, too, his lips turned into a tight smile. The man in the cowboy hat and the guy in a Pace suburban bus shirt do, as well.

The evening sky is slightly overcast, here in the thick of rush hour, as Jenny Lawson and three others ply the sea of passing commuters on Fullerton Ave. for receptive hands. A native of South Bend, Ind., Jenny has come to Chicago for the summer before her senior year of college at Earlham College. She’s taken on a three-month internship at Mercy for Animals, a vegan advocacy organization, where she works on a campaign to get Dunkin’ Donuts to offer soy milk.

“The most hundred-percent foolproof way of preventing suffering is by eliminating animal products from your diet,” she insists. “That’s basically what we really advocate.” Indeed, Jenny is herself vegan, though it's surprising to learn that while she grew up among cats and dogs, she didn’t live on a farm.

“Info to help the animals?”

Dong-dong. “Doors closing.”

A woman smiles slightly as she refuses a pamphlet. Another declines with barely a nod. A guy with a big, brown dog approaches with his hand up. “No solicitations, please,” he cuts in to her spiel (short spiel).

How does she deal with being ignored outright by some people? “Just suck it up,” she says with a laugh. “It’s not fun. I mean of course it doesn’t feel good, but it happens a lot, and I expect it.”

A man with a colorful T-shirt walks into the el station. “Oh, God,” Jenny remarks. “‘Too much pork for just one fork,’” she reads from his T-shirt.

“I’m not even gonna’ ask,” she giggles.

Jenny and Leslie, the other girl manning the sidewalk in front of the el station, occasionally walk over to a suitcase laid on the ground against a wall. There, they replenish their stock of pamphlets. The leafleting, as Leslie has called it on her Vegan Chicago Web page, was called for 5:30 p.m.; it will end when all 200 pamphlets are gone.

“Chickens are kept in small cages about, maybe, like, six to seven birds on a size of a six-by-eleven piece of paper,” Jenny explains about some egg farms. “So, they’re all in there, and they debeak them— like, they cut off the tip of their beak— because chickens have, like, the pecking order to create a hierarchy, you know— like in the group of chickens. And so if they didn’t debeak them, they would kill each other.”

What about organic farms?

“I don’t think the words ‘humane’ and ‘slaughter’ go together. I think they’re kind of contradicting.”

They come and they go, here and there, heading up to Kimball or Linden Ave., over to Sheffield or Lincoln Ave., or perhaps down the street to Chicago’s Dog House, which sells 22 varieties of hot dogs, including smoked alligator.

How does Jenny keep her stamina up?

“I don’t know,” she laughs. Actually, she’s really tired.

“It just has to get done, so you just keep goin’.”

Another polite smile and wave in rejecting a pamphlet. Another squeal of bus brakes. And another plea— and yet another— to help the animals.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

An Incredible Journey, Part III

The first time they met, Stewart was playing a gig in a pub. She liked his music— or maybe she liked him— enough to invite him to play at her 40th birthday party. He accepted.

At the end of the engagement, she told him she looked forward to having him play at her 80th birthday party.

Stewart found the comment odd, but he said nothing about it.

Some weeks later, she showed up in the audience at another gig. There, she presented him with an album of pictures from her party. Little captions accompanied the photos, along with her declaration from before: She looked forward to having him at her 80th birthday party.

Stewart found the photo album odd, too. But again, he said nothing.

Nearly two years went by. During that time, he saw her in the audience at a couple of performances, but he didn’t think much about it.

Then, in 2008, he was playing a gig in Hamburg when she showed up again. This time, she said she happened to be in town for a conference on Asperger syndrome, a disorder from which her son suffered.

After the performance, she asked him out to dinner. She was married, and in any case, he wasn’t interested in her that way. But he said yes. Said yes as one person being friendly to another.

A week later, the woman asked Stewart over dinner if he would be interested in accompanying her son to school. It would be a job; the woman hoped Stewart could keep her son on track with his studies.

He said he would think about it.

Three days after that, he got a call on his cell phone. It was the woman’s husband.

You called my son an idiot in public!, the man bellowed. You blabbed it in the pub! Stay away from my son and my wife!

Stewart was shocked. He had never done any such things.

He immediately called up the woman and told her he didn’t appreciate the nasty call from her husband. He added that he wasn’t interested in accompanying her son to school anymore, and that she should leave him alone.

A couple weeks later, Stewart played a private party in a small town. On his Web site, he listed the name of the town, but not the exact address.

Just the same, the woman showed up.

She asked him to come back to her hotel. She wanted to talk. She said she had gotten him his own room.

Stewart declined. He said that he wasn’t attracted to her, and in any case, since she was married, he wouldn’t do such a thing.

She pleaded with him— begged him— to come. Made a scene in front of everyone at the party. Eventually, he relented.

At the hotel, they sat in her room, talking. Talked about her life; her marriage, her son, her depression.

Stewart finally asked for his room key. The woman confessed that she hadn’t gotten him a room. Instead, they stayed in her room all night— again just talking.

A few days later, Stewart flew to the Dominican Republic. His cousin was getting married, and he was to play at the wedding.

After five days on the island, he visited the U.S. before returning to Germany. When he arrived in New Jersey, he turned on his cell phone to find his voice mail full and his phone filled with text messages. All of the messages were from the woman.

Stewart deleted them all.

He called the woman to tell her that he didn’t want to hear from her again. That if he did, he would call the police.

A minute later, he received another text message: “Stewart, I will kill you.”

Meanwhile, back in Germany, the woman had gotten off a plane from a trip of her own. An unusual entourage awaited her at the gangway: Her husband, mother, and father, and two police officers.

When she arrived, the officers took a look at her. Deciding she was okay, they then left.

Once they had walked around the corner, the woman swung at her 80-year-old mother. Her father intervened in time to prevent the blow.

When Stewart himself returned to Germany, he immediately headed to the airport police to file a complaint. When he explained the situation to an officer, the man laughed at him. You? Afraid of a woman?, he chortled.

The next few months went downhill from there.

The first lawyer Stewart consulted laughed at him, too. He tried another lawyer, but that one wouldn’t take the case, so he moved on to a third.

During that time, Stewart learned things, too. He learned that when the woman coincidentally showed up at the pub he was playing during the Asperger conference, it was no coincidence. She had tracked him down through the performance schedule on his Web site. She hadn’t come from a conference, either; she was staying at a pain clinic for supposed back pain (no doctor ever found anything wrong with her back) and took a 150-dollar taxi ride from there to the pub.

Stewart learned that the woman found his private party in that small town by, again, consulting his Web site, but this time— lacking an address— she combed the area until she heard live music.

Stewart also learned that, completely unbeknownst to him at the time, the woman had followed him to the Dominican Republic. After taking a 15-hour flight, she searched for him all over the island country. She went so far as to plaster in hotels “wanted” posters with a picture of him from her 40th birthday party.

When that didn’t work, she told the authorities that Stewart had stolen her purse. She said he was a drug courier. Told the police she wanted to ride with them so that she could be there while they performed a cavity search on him.

The police waiting for her at the airport in Germany? After a trip of her own? The trip was to the Dominican Republic, and it was the woman’s mother who summoned the police. By then, she knew of her daughter’s threat to kill him, and she wanted to press charges. She wanted Stewart to press charges, too.

Which he did.

His court date was set for October. In the weeks leading up to it, the woman’s husband called Stewart often, taunting him by saying, She means what she says! She says she wants to kill you; you better look out! You better stay away!

In the end, he did stay away— from the courtroom. While his lawyer showed up, Stewart didn’t want to give the woman the time of day, didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of seeing him. His lawyer told the judge simply that Stewart was working then.

It turned out to be a strategic error. German law holds that when you file for a restraining order and don’t show up in court, you get a restraining order placed against you, too.

And so, from that day on, not only could the woman not go near him, but he also couldn’t go near her.

Not that that bothered him.

This past January, 17 years after flying to Germany for a four-month European vacation, Stewart returned to make his life once again in the U.S.

He left because of the woman, yes; of course. But it wasn’t just the woman. It was women— the lack of romance in his life in Germany. It was the physical sickness he had come to feel there. It was for a real estate venture back here that had gone sour when a worsening economy made for more tenants not paying rent. (He wanted to be here with his partner to unload the property.)

There is, unfortunately, one thing for which Stewart did not come back: His dad.

He passed away in 1994.

It can not be said here exactly where Stewart is living now— just as his last name can not be revealed— since that woman is still living freely in Germany. Suffice it to say that he got himself an apartment and continues to make new friends. Continues to date, too, hoping to find that special woman for more than friendship.

These days, Stuart shuttles back and forth between the U.S. and Germany, where he now only plays private parties, so that his whereabouts aren’t publicized. Oh, and he got a job teaching music here in the U.S., too.

A funny thing about how he got the teaching job: While touring the school where he was interviewing, he happened to cross paths with two teachers. “Stu!” they cried out when they spotted him.

The two women were former students of his at Banner Day Camp in Lake Forest.

Upon their recommendation, Stewart was hired on the spot.

There’s a line in “Forest Gump” that Stewart, now 49, thinks back to. “I don’t know if we each have a destiny,” says Gump, “or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it’s both.”

Stewart thinks so, too.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

An Incredible Journey, Part II

As the plane touched down at Frankfurt Airport, Stewart felt agitated. He was tired. So tired. With all the excitement of the trip, he hadn’t slept in the last 48 hours.

When his traveling companion asked him a question as simple as where Stewart had put his bag, Stewart snapped at the guy.

He had to lie down.

They arrived at their hostel at 10 a.m., only to find it was closed until 1 p.m. for cleaning. So, Stewart grabbed his backpack and guitar and headed around the corner to a pizza place.

As he stood in line waiting to place his order, a woman behind him tapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, can you play that?” she asked with an Irish accent, pointing to the guitar.

No, he felt like growling at her, I just carried it all the way from America… rghrghr…

Yes, he said.

She and her boyfriend had just opened an Irish pub around the corner, the woman explained. The musician who was supposed to play tomorrow night was sick; could Stewart come by tomorrow afternoon to play for the bartender? If the bartender liked him, he could have the gig.

Stewart thought about it.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’ll be there.”

When he caught up with his friend later, he shared the news. The two were supposed to leave Germany together the next morning for… well, for anywhere. But this changed things.

His friend didn’t want to stay in Berlin. So, the next day, he took off with a guy from New Zealand who was staying at the hostel, leaving Stewart on his own.

At 2 o’clock that afternoon, Stewart arrived at the Shamrock Irish Pub. He stood in front of the bar with his guitar and began to play “We Gotta Get out of this Place,” by the Animals, while the bartender, himself a musician from Northern Ireland, stood by watching.

“Stop!” cried out the bartender just ten seconds into the song.

“Was it that bad that I can’t even finish?” asked Stewart.

“It was all right,” said the bartender. “Can you play tonight?”

Stewart returned to the Shamrock that evening. A diverse crowd of American soldiers, Germans, people from all over the world packed into the large, dimly lit room. Stewart played 30 songs for them, all that he knew, among three sets.

Between songs, people cheered. Stewart wasn’t used to that kind of reaction in the U.S. When he walked around the room between sets with a hat in his hand (a green, felt top hat— a gag provided by the bar), the customers threw money into it. He wasn’t used to getting tips this way, either. Back home, there was just a tip jar.

Though the ruse did its job: He got 100 dollars in tips on top of the roughly 100 dollars the pub paid him.

With the performance such a success, the owners invited him back to play the next night. And the next night after that.

On that third night, however, his luck ran out. In the middle of a set, the bartender suddenly told him to stop playing, because police officers had arrived. Unbeknownst to Stewart, the pub didn’t have a license for live music.

His stint there was over.

Heartbroken, he returned to the hostel. Three nights of his dream, of getting paid to do what he loved— it was all over now.

As he sat in the hostel brooding, and talking to other guests, the proprietor of the place called out over the PA system, “Stewart!” It was a phone call.

Stewart was shocked. Who knew he was there? Not even his family knew he was there.

He walked to the front desk and took the phone. “Stewart,” said the man at the other end of the line, “what are you doing for the next month or so?”

It was one of the patrons at the Shamrock. He found out where Stewart was staying from the owners of the place.

Turned out the man managed seven Irish pubs throughout Germany.

And would Stewart be interested in playing for him?

Have I died and gone to heaven, or what?!, Stewart thought. He was just a “hobby musician”; not good enough to play professionally. He didn’t even have enough songs, just the ten he repeated.

“Well, let me check my schedule,” he told the man, wanting to sound professional.


He felt elated. Here he was, barely off the plane from America, and in his mind, he had stepped into the rabbit hole.

So began the touring. He started in Frankfurt, then moved on to the German state of Saarland, and then Saarbrücken. He pushed himself to learn new songs every day.

A week into his travels, he was performing in the small town of Sankt Ingbert, near the border with France, when a man approached him.

“Where do you live?” the man asked in broken English.

“Well, nowhere,” Stewart replied.

“No!” shot back the man, in a burly voice. “You live with me now!”

It so happened that the man was a German soldier who spent most of his time out of town for training, leaving his apartment empty. The American musician he had just seen perform was to be his tenant— free of charge.

Stewart was almost speechless at the offer.

Indeed, he accepted, taking up residence on the living room couch that very night.

A week of traveling turned into a month, and a month turned into two-and-a-half months. All the while, Stewart remained in Germany, never making good use of the Eurail train pass he had bought for traveling throughout Europe.

When mid-February came around, it was time to return home— well, for as much as it could be considered home— to Madison, Wisconsin. He had reached the end of his four-month vacation.

Well… sort of.

When he arrived in Madison, Stewart headed to the nursing home where his father was living. When he got there, what he saw saddened him: His dad was asleep in a chair in the dining room, drooling and wearing a soiled adult diaper.

Stewart put out his hand. His father took it. The two walked around the grounds for a while, talking.

Stewart saw indications that his dad’s Parkinson’s had progressed. His speech had worsened, and talking was more difficult now. In any case, without his son there, he didn’t talk to anyone around him. He looked and sounded as if he had aged tremendously over the past four months.

Sorry, Stewart told his dad. I got a job in Germany. I’m going back.

Go, said his dad.

Though he couldn’t be sure, Stewart suspected that his father understood that this was a dream come true. That his dad wanted him to live his own life; certainly not stay back on his account.

Stewart’s father was a selfless man that way.

Maybe his dad was even living vicariously through him.

After two weeks back in the U.S., visiting with his dad more or less every day, Stewart got on a plane and went back to Germany. Returned to his new life, whatever it was. All he knew then was that he had a place to live— or rather, a place to use as a home base as he toured— and income from doing something he lived.

At the same time, Stewart saw the situation as a fluke. The gigs couldn’t last forever, he thought, so he booked as many as he could early on.

He played for weeks. Weeks turned into months. Gigs turned into more gigs, along with offers to play at private parties.

Two years had gone by when he found himself one day in 1993 playing an outdoor festival for the opening of a music store. There, he started talking to a German woman. Stewart was now 33; the woman was 23. He thought she was cute.

He asked her out, but she just said eventuell— “maybe.” She had a boyfriend.

Two months later, she no longer did.

He moved in with her right away.

Later that year, Stewart had another fortuitous encounter. A man who had hired him to play his 40th birthday party— someone who worked for the Finanzamt, the German equivalent of the IRS— told Stewart to apply for residency in Germany. That way, the man said, he could have medical insurance from the government. Plus, as a musician, he would be able to deduct essentially all of his expenses from his tax returns, since most everything he bought contributed to his image on stage. (Or so the theory went.)

Up until then, Stewart had been working under the table. What with the transient nature of playing gigs all over the place, he wasn’t concerned about the authorities’ pursuing him. But medical insurance sounded appealing, as did being able to make so many deductions.

A few days later, Stewart submitted an application to his local branch of the Federal Foreign Office. In return, he received a stamp that allowed him to live and work in Germany for one year. A year later, having paid his taxes and not having committed any crimes, he got another stamp valid for two years. After that, he got another two-year stamp.

Then, in 1998, with five years of residency and taxes under his belt, Stewart finally secured a life-long green card. He now had all the rights of a German citizen except the ability to vote.

Not bad, this new life in Europe. Here he was, seven years after coming back, doing what he loved, getting paid to do what he loved, and even traveling to other countries in Europe to perform.

Not bad.

Except for the part that was: His relationship with his girlfriend.

In 1999, after seven years, it broke apart. The truth was, it had been breaking apart for a long time. Stewart traveled a lot for his gigs, and that caused problems for her. She had a hot temper, and that caused problems for Stewart. They had even broken up a couple of times before.

Then, too, there was another issue. One day, as Stewart was standing over the sink in the bathroom, brushing his teeth, his girlfriend walked in and asked him bluntly, “Are you going to stay true to me?”

The question socked him. He stood there, silently— one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand.

He thought back to his ex-girlfriend in America. To his high school sweetheart, a woman he wanted to trust but who had let him down again and again and again. That experience had hurt him so much.

Now, here was another girlfriend asking if he would be faithful.

How did he know she would be?

One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand. As he mind spun, Stewart remained silent.

His girlfriend turned on her heels and stormed out of the bathroom, slamming the door behind her.

After the breakup, Stewart wandered around. He followed the philosophy of an Irish friend of his: Gig as much as you can, because when you do, the place you’re playing will provide you with a hotel room or a musician’s room. A musician’s room was just what it sounds like, a small room provided to visiting musicians for an overnight stay.

Only, these places were pigsties— disgusting, horrible places not fit for humans. On the other hand, they were free. Stewart would bring his own sheets and hope that the creepy-crawly creatures wouldn’t get to him during the night.

Stewart continued gigging and traveling for several years. But over time, he grew increasingly unhappy. After his German girlfriend, he had no significant romantic relationships. He dated a lot, but he just didn’t feel compatible with any of the women he met.

Then, too, he began feeling physically ill, as if a weight were pressing on his shoulders.

Then his life really a took a turn. It would start, simply enough, at a gig in October 2006, a gig like so many others he had done.

Little did he know then that that would be the start of a series of bizarre, scary events that would alter the course of his life. 

Click here for part III

Thursday, June 11, 2009

An Incredible Journey, Part I

Stewart (he doesn't want his last name used in this article, for reasons that will become clear later) grew up in suburban Glenview in the 1960’s and ’70’s as a typical Glenview kid in the 1960’s and ’70’s might. He attended Wilmette public schools until high school; moved on to New Trier West (now the school’s freshman campus) after that. Upon graduating, he enrolled at Northern Illinois University.

Two years into college, though, he had a problem: He had to declare a major. He didn’t know which to choose, and the decision was too much for him. He had difficulty making big decisions like that.

Instead of deciding, Stewart dropped out of college. He got a job working at the Greyhound station in Northbrook. Moved back in with his parents.

Here, it must be said that there’s a girl in this story, too. A girl Stewart had met in high school. The girl of his high school romance.

In 1982, when Stewart had been working at the Greyhound station for two years, this girl was studying at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Stewart missed her. So, he did what any typical 22-year-old guy who’s in love would do: He joined her.

When he arrived in Madison, he wanted to enroll in the university to continue his studies. Only, he couldn’t get in-state tuition until he had lived there for a year. So, he did that. Worked for a whole year in a store that sold children’s corrective shoes. When the state of Wisconsin finally considered him a resident— or, more to the point, considered him eligible for reduced tuition— he started classes.

So, there was the girl, the reason he came to Madison. There was the university, where he could continue his education. But there was still the issue of what to major in.

He wanted to be a dietician, so he started out pursuing food science. When he took a chemistry class, though, he found it too fast-paced; too competitive, what with all the pre-med students. No, the stress of hard science wasn’t for him.

Rather, he thought to himself: The hell with that. I’m going to do what my dad did. I’m going to become a teacher.

Oh, yes— his dad. His dad plays a role in this story, too.

Stewart’s mother had had a hysterectomy to remove cancerous ovaries in 1973. Unfortunately, she succumbed to the cancer in 1985. After his wife’s death, Stewart’s dad moved into a so-called retirement hotel.

One day, Stewart got a call from an administrator there. It seemed his dad had called for an ambulance on three occasions. That was a problem.

The calls weren’t made without reason. You see, Stewart’s dad had Parkinson’s’ disease. The Parkinson’s caused him to fall face down on his bed multiple times. Hence, the calls to 911.

The problem was that ambulances scared the elderly people there (or so said the administrator). The calls couldn’t continue. Stewart’s dad would have to leave.

What was Stewart to do? Would could he do? Only one thing: Bring his dad up to Madison to live with him in the dorm.

And it worked. Stewart's father, then 62 (he was forced to retire at 60), became one of the guys. Everyone liked him. No one asked him to leave. He would nod off in front of the communal television— the only man in the place over 30, let alone 62— and no one said anything.

He stayed there until the following May, when Stewart graduated.

Yes; after five years of classes between two schools in two states, Stewart finally graduated college with a degree in elementary education.

Now he was set with that.

But not with the girl.

She had broken up with him.

And so, after graduation, Stewart and his dad moved to Evanston, where they lived while Stewart worked during the day at Banner Day Camp up in Lake Forest. It was a job that Stewart, then 26, had taken on every summer since he was 17. He worked his way up from counselor to counselor-and-bus driver to musical director.

Ah, yes— music. Music was something Stewart liked. A lot.

He would lead songs for groups of campers. He played guitar, performed for the whole camp at the yearly Bannerama festival. When it rained, he would spend the whole day singing.

Yes, Stewart really liked music.

As the summer of 1986 wound down, he didn’t have a job lined up for the fall. Then, on the last day of camp, he received a call from an official at Milwaukee Public Schools. He had gotten a job teaching eighth grade math and science.

For the next three years, Stewart and his dad lived in Milwaukee. Halfway into that time, Stewart reconciled with his girlfriend. At the end of it, he quit his job. He was going back to Madison.

With his father, of course.

Stewart was now 29. He had been with this girl on and off for 12 years, almost half his life. He had moved to Madison for her not once, but now twice, this time leaving behind a job he enjoyed.

Four months after he arrived, she broke up with him again.

It was the same story— the same story over and over. She would cheat on him; he would take her back. She would cheat on him again; he would take her back again. He thought it cruel, her doing whatever she wanted, knowing that she could, because Stewart would always take her back. (He always did.)

Only, this breakup was different. It would be their last.

Soon after, she married another man.

A man she had been seeing in secret.

Stewart stayed in Madison for two more years, doing substitute teaching. But he was distraught. The breakup was traumatic; very traumatic. He enjoyed teaching, and he loved taking care of his dad. But this… this was too much.

He knew he needed to make a change in his life. A big change.

In the summer of 1991, one would take shape.

Now 31, Stewart was back at Banner Day Camp teaching music. (It was a job he had taken on every summer since he was 17.) One day in the middle of the camp season, he was participating in the daily singing session that took place before campers boarded their buses for home. As the children were gathering, he took the microphone on a whim.

“Is there any staff member interested in joining me on a tour through Europe?” he said.

The idea had been stirring in him for a little while. Stewart was burned out. He felt he was getting old before his time. He thought a vacation in Europe would make him a better teacher; would make for some interesting stories to tell his students when he got back.

Stewart's moves from 1981 to 1992. (Click here for a more detailed map.)    

He also had never traveled outside the U.S. before. Europe’s different cultures, different currencies (at the time), different languages— all of that appealed to him.

So, Europe it would be.

And why not have a travel partner? That would make the trip more fun.

From the crowd, one of the counselors approached Stewart. It was a guy in his early 20’s. Yes, he said, he’d be interested in going. In fact, he also was thinking of making a tour through Europe.

And so it was that at the end of the camp season, Stewart put his dad into a nursing home, gathered his guitar and some other belongings, and boarded a plane to Frankfurt, Germany.

Only, the trip wouldn’t go quite as expected.

Not at all.

Click here for part II

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Rage against the machine

Note to Readers: Life in Chicago articles are generally "family friendly." This story, however, contains some mild profanity.

In the farcical Second City musical “Rod Blagojevich Superstar,” now playing at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, the ex-governor’s character sings an enjoyably humorous song called, “Scrapper from the Northwest Side.” As he courts his future wife and gets ingratiated into the Chicago Democratic Machine, Blagojevich sings about being “a scrappy kind of guy.”

The same could be said of Sam Wolfson.

Wolfson is co-owner of String-A-Strand, a bead store in Lincoln Square. These days, a passerby to the store would see something unusual taped to the inside of the front window: Seven pieces of paper— two with String-a-Strand letterhead, the rest plain white— with black, hand-written text scrawled across them.

The text (brace yourself— it’s a bit long) reads as follows:









It took Wolfson only a week to write this out.

“I have never been politically active,” he insists. “But this one got to me.”

Sam Wolfson, a delicately punchy man of 72 (“21,” he quipped, when first asked his age), has washed-out gray hair, slightly wrinkled skin, and a goatee. He speaks in a raspy voice and has a tendency to gesticulate with his hands when he talks about this.

Sam Wolfson behind the counter at String-a-Strand. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

The this, of course, is the privatization of the city’s parking meters. Last September, Chicago’s City Council approved a plan to lease the 36,000 meters to a private operator for 75 years in exchange for $1.15 billion. Mayor Daley has argued that this was an important move to bring the cash-strapped city some income. Just about everyone else seems to feel differently.

Parking rates have increased, in some cases dramatically, and erroneous tickets have been issued, due to broken (or full) meters or inaccurate signage. There’s been public outcry, too, over the process leading to the decision, which was opaque to the public. As a result, drivers have boycotted feeding meters, boycotted parking at meters, and even resorted to vandalism.

One man— who, ironically, doesn’t drive— put up signs.

“Hundreds have came in,” says Wolfson of his paper diatribe. “Hundreds have agreed with me one hundred percent.”

Wolfson, who grew up on the West Side of Chicago, has owned his own business ever since he was 18. First, he worked concessions for a guy at Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park. Eventually, he bought the guy out, and he continued with the work until 1971. Then he got into the bead business.

He’s even opening a new place in Lincoln Park, a gourmet hot dog restaurant. Once it gets approval from the Department of Public Health, his son will manage it.

Though Wilson doesn’t drive to work— his wife drops him off, or he’ll take the bus— he’s still felt the brunt of the parking meter changes. “My wife and me went to Wildfire last week for dinner,” he recalls. “Three dollars for an hour and 25 minutes. Now, Wildfire is crowded; we like our steaks. We go in there, takes you a half an hour to get our food. A-ga-a-ga-a-ga-a-he”— he motions with his hands, as if scarfing down food.

“Fast, you get out there so you don’t get a 50-dollar ticket.”

It riles him up that you have to get up by 8 a.m. on a Sunday to feed the meter. It riles him up that now, if you park at a meter, you barely have time to see a full-length movie. But what really riles him up is the “crooks.”

Aka: the politicians.

“Al Capone was a piker compared to Daley and his crooked politicians in City Hall,” he declares. “At least with Al Capone you knew what you were getting!”

As for more-recent times, “Every governor we had the last— I mean, Ryan’s in jail, and BLA-go-vich [his pronunciation] is selling the seats. But Daley’s getting away with this crap. All of his henchmen get caught, but Daley doesn’t know anything about it. He’s so crooked, it’s uncanny.

“Every term, all his friends get convicted. But this son-of-a-bitch— ‘What? I didn’t know anything about it!’ That’s his whole philosophy. ‘I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know anything about it.’ I mean, even with the trucking scandal, he got away with it. Everybody else went down the tubes.”

The storefront. Wolfson's signs are at right. (Click on photo to enlarge.)
Wolfson has worked in beads for the last 39 years, manning the store at its current location for the past seven. He says that with the meter privatization, he’s seen ticket-writers out on the block in front of his store at 8 a.m., when meter hours come into effect. He’s even seen three ticket-writers at once.

“Everybody,” he insists, agrees with his signs, which went up in the window in February. “Everyone. They look at it, they come in, they say ‘one hundred percent.’ A lot of them are fed up.”

As for Mayor Daley, “They gotta’ vote him out of office. I don’t care how big of a machine it is. […] He’s a elected official, not a damn dictator, if that’s who he wants to be. I mean, he tore up the airport; he sold the damn tollways. But this is ridiculous. This is just a rip-off on the people that wanna’ come to Chicago from out of town, have a nice dinner, see a play.”

“Let me tell you,” he continues. “If I was 50 years younger, I would run for damn mayor. I would just go up and down the street to get the 35,000 signatures.”

He pauses.

“Well, not 50 years younger. Maybe 40.”

Right now, like the archetypal Cubs fan, Wolfson’s looking ahead to next year.

“If 5,000 people see that,” he says of the signs, “they’ll tell 5,000 people. Those 5,000 people…

“We’ll get ’em out of office.”

The anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has.”

If Wolfson and his signs can build up the momentum, we may just see a revolution.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Un burrito muy grande

Inside the Tribune Tower, an old journalistic maxim on the wall reads, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

In the front window of La Bamba, a Mexican fast-food restaurant on Halsted St. at Wrightwood Ave., a neon sign says, “BURRITOS AS BIG AS YOUR HEAD.”

I thought I’d check it out.

“¡Hola, amigo! ¿Cómo estás?” says Francisco, a short, thin man wearing a “La Bamba” baseball cap, as I approach the counter.

“Yo no hablo español,” I reply slowly. “Yo hablo francés y inglés.” (“I don’t speak Spanish. I speak French and English.”)

With that established— and after an another attempt by Francisco and his co-worker behind the counter, Juan, to get me to speak more Spanish— I soon come to the point.

“The sign outside says, ‘Burritos as big as your head.’ I want to try one.”

“What kind you want?” asks Francisco. He goes through the list of meats they offer, stopping at chicken. “The chicken is very good,” he encourages me.

“You sold me.”

La Bamba, 2557 N. Halsted St. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

He hands me a Styrofoam cup to fill with water from a nearby dispenser. I do so and take a seat at one of the Formica-topped tables with wooden benches.

I’ve barely been seated a couple of minutes, or so it seems, when Juan walks over with my plate.

“Holy cow!” I exclaim. “Woooooah.”

There, on a piece of wax paper, next to two little plastic cups of salsa, lies a behemoth of a burrito. A pale-grayish/cream-colored tortilla with brown spots has been wrapped around a filling that’s probably three inches in diameter.

As for the length of the burrito… Lacking a ruler, I use my hands to measure the width of my head. Then I compare that to the burrito.

It’s at least a good inch longer than my head is wide.

I can’t believe it.

I start to cut into the thing towards one end. It feels like I’m a doctor struggling to make an incision.

Then I cut lengthwise down the middle, since it would be practically impossible to eat the whole width of the slice at once.

I take a taste.


Tasty. Rich.

There are beans, chicken, tomato, onion, and lettuce. There’s cheese in there somewhere, too, though I can’t taste it yet.

“Everything is prepared in the day,” explains Francisco, who wears something of a bashful smile and speaks good, though halting, English. “Everything is fresh.”

He shows me a package of extra-large, flat, corn tortillas that the restaurant (part of a chain) has used to encase its, errr, flagship product ever since opening 18 years ago.

“Hello,” says a woman who’s just walked in, as I return to try to make more progress against my formidable opponent.

“¡Hola, señorita!” replies Francisco. “How are you?”

“Fine,” she says.

“How can I help you, señorita?”

She orders a beef taco and then takes the table right behind mine.

I turn around. “Had you ever been to this restaurant before?” I ask.

“Yeah, a couple times,” she responds, smiling.

“Have you ever had their burrito?”


“It really is as big as your head,” I assure her.

As I continue eating, the hot salsa I’ve been adding gets to be too much. To counteract the spice, I order a horchata, a sweet rice drink (or so I’ve been told in the past).

“Small, medium, or large?” asks Francisco.

“Small,” I say.

The cup is ten inches tall.

I begin to drink the milky, brownish-white liquid. Delicious! It tastes like liquid rice pudding with cinnamon.

I’ve gotten through about half of the burrito when I ask Francisco to wrap up the rest for me.

The contender. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

“How many people who order a Super Burrito actually finish it?” I ask him. (Super Burrito simply refers to the largest size, the one I’ve ordered; there are also small and medium varieties.)

He thinks for a moment.

“This one guy, he come in every Sunday,” he says. “He order three Super Burritos.”


“He’s big guy,” he adds, gesturing to the side with his hands.

Three Super Burritos in one sitting— now there is someone I should profile.

After saying good-bye to Francisco and Juan, I walk out of the restaurant with tomorrow’s lunch in hand.

As for fact-checking La Bamba’s advertising slogan… the information’s solid.

I checked it out.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Paulina is Next. Bead Store on the Left at Paulina.

Looking for beads?

What kind? Semi-precious, glass, or maybe ceramic? They’ve got those. Rare, African beads? They’ve got them, too. How about a light-green, jellybean-shaped Chrysoprase, or a multi-colored millifiori? Yup.

While you’re at it, do you need accessories or tools? Or would you perhaps rather just buy a pre-made piece of jewelry? They can help with all that.

“I would really consider a million,” estimated Ana Pizzaro of the number of beads they have on hand.

A panoply of colors fills Carvan Beads, in West Lakeview. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

The “they” is Caravan Beads, an independent shop in West Lakeview that specializes in retail sale of beads. In 1994, Charlene and Daniel Steele opened the store on Lincoln Ave. just south of Roscoe St. In 1999, when their success outgrew their store, they moved across the street, to their current location. Doing so gave them three times the retail space, as well as private classrooms, where they can help customers who want to assemble their own jewelry.

This afternoon, just after 4 o’clock, Pizzaro and Alex Agudo tended the color-laden store, with necklaces hanging down from bars over long display tables, and walls stocked with tools. Scattered among the wares were instruction sheets for making bracelets with certain kinds of patterns, as well as bead-related magazines and books. Light, instrumental pop music played from speakers.

The store had only a couple of customers, both of whom were browsing. “Our main times are in the mornings. From 11 is normally our rush,” explained Agudo. “As soon as we open, there’s people. And then it dies down from 1 to about 4.” More people, he added, will come in after work.

By Agudo’s estimate, weekdays see an average of 50 customers. On weekends, however, “It’s very chaotic”— especially on Sundays. “Due to our free classes, sometimes we can have up to 100 people,” he said.

The Paulina station on the Brown Line will reopen tomorrow after a year-long closure for renovation. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

But Agudo and Pizzaro are looking forward to tomorrow— and beyond— when they hope business will pick up from what it’s been. That’s because the nearby el station, the Paulina stop on the Brown Line, will reopen tomorrow at 4 a.m. after a yearlong renovation. (This reporter thought of checking out the opening but dismissed the idea in favor of sleep.)

Although the CTA put up ads for local business affected by the station’s closure, Agudo still thinks that having to walk from an adjacent station has inconvenienced customers who come from outside the neighborhood.

“I think it would have been more convenient if the Paulina station would have been open,” he said. He added that the shop attracts customers from out of town, too. “They’re in town for a couple of days. It was easier for them to just do that— to get off there and come across the street.”

To mark the reopening, the store is advertising a 10 percent discount on merchandise during the month of April to customers who show a CTA card. “The train really does dominate a lot in this area,” noted Agudo. “We hope that the fluidity can come even higher with the train opening.”

As customer traffic picked up this afternoon, Allison Weignad came in to look around. A nearby resident, she stops into the store every couple of months to buy beads.

“I just started, when I was bored in the winter, just like making necklaces and stuff,” she said. She had never worked with beads before coming in, but the staff showed her what to buy to make necklaces and earrings.

A display table in Caravan Beads. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

She said she hasn’t yet taken any of the store’s classes, but that she just received a schedule and wants to pursue one at some point.

On Wednesday evenings from 6 to 8, Caravan Beads closes for what it calls “bead therapy,” a time for customers to get free, one-on-one assistance with their bead-making projects. The session also doubles as an opportunity for attendees to socialize.

If Weignad decides to check out the gathering next week, with the newly-opened entrances to the Paulina station funneling people back into the neighborhood, she may have a chance to meet even more fellow bead makers than before.

Not a bad perk of springtime in Chicago.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Note to Readers

Life in Chicago has been on a hiatus since January. Publication of articles will resume this week, and then continue on a bi-monthly (twice a month) basis.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Lost and Found on Lawrence Avenue

The afternoon was cold as I waited for the Lawrence Ave. bus. A thin man with stringy, graying hair kept watch nearby, both of us trying to keep warm as the sun set on a Chicago winter’s day.

Nothing out of the ordinary on this unremarkable stretch of sidewalk— except for a rectangular patch of black and white sitting on a mailbox nearby.

I picked it up. It was a laminated card, with black text in a typewriter font. The text read, “2301 W. Lawrence,” followed by a phone number and then a name: “Ramirez, Evangelina.”

I flipped the card over. There, a familiar sight: the torn, blue-and-yellow ticket of Blockbuster.

“Is that a Blockbuster card?” asked the man with the stringy hair.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“You know you could drop that in the mailbox, and they should deliver it.”

I looked at the card. “Are you sure that that’s the case for this?” I asked after a pause.

“Well, they do it for military ID’s,” he responded, taking the card in his hand and examining it.

“I can call the guy,” I said. (I had it in my head that “Ramirez, Angelina” was a man, whereas Angelina Ramirez almost certainly wasn’t.)

I looked at the address: 2301 W. Lawrence.

“Where are we?” I asked, looking up. A street sign read Ravenswood Ave., 1800 W. 2301 West would be west of here— the direction in which I was going. I had planned to stop in a grocery store, but I wasn’t in a hurry.

“As long as you’re going that way,” the man chimed in.

The bus arrived, and we both boarded. As the man put his fare card in the machine, he turned to me. “You know that’s Blockbuster,” he quipped.

I didn’t. I thought it was Evangelina Ramirez’s home.

Disappointment came over me.

As the man with the stringy hair sat nearby reading a newspaper, he repeated, “As long as you’re going that way.”

I got off the bus at Western Ave. and walked back to Oakley. Indeed, 2301 West turned out to be a store with large windows revealing shelves of video cases.

I walked inside and approached the counter. There, a guy with long, curly hair pulled back into a ponytail was partly turned around, tending to something behind him.

“Hi,” I began when he turned around. “I’ve got a question for you. I found this randomly on a mailbox. Is it possible to get it back to him?” (As I had said, I didn’t quite grasp that “Ramirez, Angelina” was a woman.)

The guy looked at the card.

“On a mailbox?” he asked.


“Let me see.” He turned to his computer and scanned the card. A big block of yellow text blinked on the screen.

“He was last in here a few weeks ago,” the guy announced. (He shared my plight about Angelina Ramirez’s gender.)

“Usually what we do is we cut it up so no one else can use it,” he explained. “Thanks for turning it in. But yeah, we just cut it up, and then we’ll issue a new one when they come in.”

And with that, I felt a mix of satisfaction and disappointment. Satisfaction, because I had helped keep Evangelina Ramirez’s personal information private, even if just in a small way. Disappointment, because I didn’t get to meet her. Didn’t get to surprise her with the card.

But... that was that.

Still, questions remain: How did the card get on the mailbox? And why?

Did Evangelina place it there while emptying the contents of her wallet and then unknowingly leave it behind? Did someone find it on the sidewalk and place it on the mailbox, hoping that the owner would come across it? Or that the postal carrier would find it and deliver it?

As with so many things in life, I’ll probably never know.

Monday, January 12, 2009


Sunday afternoon, the Red Line, Jackson station.

Sean and his nephew Crishawn (the spellings of the names couldn’t be confirmed) draw a crowd of some dozen onlookers as they practice their craft.

Sean doesn’t offer a lot of personal information about either of them, though he does say that Crishawn’s father has died.

When asked by a visitor, “You training him?” Sean replies, “He's training me.”

Not bad— Crishawn’s only three years old.