One afternoon I was sitting outside of a coffeeshop on Division drinking Hibiscus tea and reading a book titled “Adventures in The Skin Trade” when a man who looked to be about 70 leaned over and said, “Is that a sex book? It looks like a sex book.”
I laughed awkwardly, looked at the cover which had a beer bottle with someone’s pinky inside the neck of it, and said, “No! It's Dylan Thomas and it's kind of boring.”
"So, you like to read books?"
I nodded, wondering where this was going.
"I ask because they say the average American reads two books a year, if that. Probably less now with all this computer nonsense."
I turned that comment over in my head for a minute. He was probably right. Nobody reads books anymore. It was a depressing thought.
"You know Nelson Algren, the famous writer? He used to live down the street. He always wrote about Ashland and Division. Him and Simone De Beauvoir, you ever heard of her?"
I looked at him in surprise. “what? ...she used to hang out in Wicker Park?”
He nodded. “Oh sure…they had a secret affair.” He said somebody found all their love letters in the attic of that walk up flat on Evergreen.“ Johnny Depp paid millions of dollars for them. Wouldn’t be surprised if he makes a picture film.”
Love letters. I had written a few in my time. If only people wrote more letters these days.
He then asked me what I went to school for. I sheepishly said, “Screenwriting” as if that even counted. I had dropped out of two colleges.
"Ahh! So you are a screenwriter then?"
"Well, no. I am a horrible screenwriter. I don't have any ideas. I work in the music industry."
His face lit up. “Music!!”
He waved his arm up and down the street and asked if I knew who Clyde “Red” Foley was. I had no idea.
"He was a famous cowboy. Used to walk up and down Division St. with his guitar, playing outside of bars. People would throw money in his cowboy hat. At one time he was more famous than Johnny Cash."
Cowboys on Division Street?
"There were all kinds of musicians in this neighborhood, busking on the streets. Polka bands galore. Between Ashland and Damen there were 72 bars and all of’em had music and dancing."
He looked at my legs and said “You look like a dancer.” Did I like to dance?
I shook my head and admitted I wasn’t much of a dancer.
"Me, I was always good at two things. Dancing and stealing cars."
He became very serious. “Look at my face. What nationality do you think I am?”
I stared at him dead on. He had heavy lidded blue eyes, wrinkled skin sagged down his face, a prominent nose. His black and gray thinning hair was slicked back.
He clapped his hands together. “Yes! Everyone says I look like DeNiro. I’m older so I say he looks like me.” He winked.
"Growing up, everyone wanted me to become a gangster. Back then it had a different meaning. I knew all the men in the mob, we all went to church together. All the Italians hung out together. When I was 17 they took me to Las Vegas. You know who was there?"
"Frank Sinatra and Harry Belafonte. They ran with all those mobster guys. Ole Frankie shook my hand and said, ‘I better keep an eye on this fella.’ And the women around them, the most beautiful women in the entire world."
"So, did you ever become a mobster?" I asked.
He waved his hand. “Naa. I became a history teacher. Taught at the University of Chicago for forty years. But me and my buddies, we knew how to steal cars. That’s how you’d get the ladies. You’d have a brand new convertible to drive them around in. Take them to the drive in movies.”
He asked me if I’d ever heard of the 12 inch rule. I shook my head again. Who was this guy?
"This one time I was at a Catholic school dance…sixteen years old I was. And I saw the prettiest girl in the room. Dark hair, chocolate eyes. And the nuns, they enforced the 12-inch rule at all the dances. We could dance with girls but they would hold up a ruler between us to make sure there was space between our bodies. Said boys would get ‘too excited.’"
He chuckled to himself. “Well, I drove up to the dance in a fancy new automobile, me and my friends, flasks in our suit jackets, our hair slicked back. Our father’s cologne on our necks. There was a live band with a sax and an accordion. Everyone played the accordion, the Mcdonald’s on Damen and Chicago used to be an Accordion school.
"Anyway, I saw this girl with the brown hair and we danced. She had the prettiest smile and she blushed the whole time. At the end of the dance I said ‘Listen, let me give you my telephone number.’ I didn’t think anything of it."
He paused and looked me in the eye. “You ever heard of a man named The Big Tuna?”
"You never saw The Godfather? Well this guy was the real deal. After the dance, my buddies crowded me and said, ‘TELL ME YOU DIDN’T GET THAT GIRL’S TELEPHONE NUMBER!’
I said, ‘Why, of course I did, gave her mine too.’ I was rather proud of myself.
That was when they told me she was the daughter of Big Tuna. HUGE guy in the mob. Boy, was I scared."
"So did anything happen?"
He held up three fingers.
"Three weeks went by and I had almost forgotten all about it. We were all in front of the candy store when a black Cadillac pulled up. A man in sunglasses and a suit stepped out, said, ‘Who is VICTORIO?’ Boy, my hand was shaking but I raised it and said, ‘That’s me.’"
So that was his name. Finally, I knew. Victorio paused to drink his coffee. I noticed everyone around us at the coffeeshop was pretending not to be listening. “Was he Big Tuna?”
He nodded. “Big Tuna held up the piece of paper I had given to the brown haired girl and said, ‘This your telephone number?’ He had to ask me twice before I finally whimpered an answer.
I told him I never intended to call her. I said I would never talk to her again. Boy, was I sweating.
He walked right up to me, all my buddies around me frozen, and he got real close to my face and said, ‘I know your parents, good family. I see them everysunday in church. You leave my daughter alone.’
Then he reached into his breast pocket and handed me a card and walked away. On the card was an address with the name Lucy.. He said I had one free hour."
I was confused. “So who was Lucy?”
The man let out a grin from ear to ear and laughed. “She was the most famous prostitute in Chicago and lemme tell you, I was a virgin! She told me something I’ll never forget…”
"Oh yeah, what was that?"
"Kiss as many women as you can but NEVER fall in love."
We both laughed. It was an incredible story. Maybe that prostitute had a point. I realized we had been talking for over an hour and it was starting to get dark outside. I stood up, saying I had to go.
He asked me my name and shook my hand.
"On your way home, take Humboldt Boulevard."
"Why is that?"
"Frank Baum, guy who wrote The Wizard of Oz… he used to live there. Humboldt Boulveard back then was lined with yellow lamps and rumor has it that it is the real yellow brick road.”
"Yeah, sure." I said.
He shook my hand again as I packed up my book and we exchanged goodbyes.
I rode my bike home half expecting to see cowboys with guitars, accordion players, quarreling famous writers-slash-lovers and yellow brick roads.
Instead, all I saw were people juggling shopping bags and baby strollers and cell phones and I saw bars with burgers and beers and windows blocked with flat screen tvs.
I guess it really is surprising we can even get through two books a year these days.*