Conversations in Chicago

| December 10th, 2010

Site Note: The Picks Contest is located one post below.  I’m leaving this one up top because I like it.  Go down and drop in your picks for this week.  Only four weeks remaining and a wide-open race to get into the Fantasy Playoffs.

One of the things I’ve deeply enjoyed about the success of this silly little blog is that it has made me exponentially more interesting to the day-to-day folks I meet in and around Chicago on my visits each year.  (I should add, to be fair, saying you work for the Tribune is not always met with enthusiastic applause.)  To prove the point, last night a lovely couple named Bob & Carol (& Ted & Alice) took time out from their Pizano’s pizza (the best I’ve had in the city) and told me in rich detail their story of attending Ron Santo’s wake.  They told me of the hundreds lined up on a frigid, snowy evening.  They told me of tears in the eyes of folks who never met the man.  They told me of the kind of dedication and passion that has caused me over the years to adopt Chicago as not only my beloved sports city but my second home. 

I didn’t start the conversation with Bob.  My scarf did.  In early 2007, as the Super Bowl approached, my friend Kathleen knitted me an orange scarf that I believe she intended to be worn by a giraffe.  If stretched out to its full length, it could wrap entirely around that silly bean in Millennium Park.  Bob didn’t initially tell me he’d recently suffered a stroke but I could tell by the sound of his voice and the movements of his mouth that he had.  I could tell speaking was not easy for him, physically or emotionally.  He asked anyway, “Are you a Bears fan?”

“How did you know that?” I asked, knowing my Bears gloves were hidden away in the inside pocket of the brown writer’s coat I bought because I’d seen Arthur Miller wearing a similar one in a photograph of him and Marilyn Monroe. 

“Your scarf is orange.”

And so began two hours of intermittent dialogue between myself and the lovely Bob & Carol – who coincidentally (though I’ve stopped believing in coincidence) have two children currently living in Hoboken, NJ.  It was only ‘intermittent’ because a Pizano’s pizza is not something you can devour while speaking and for the sake of politeness we refrained from spitting bits of onions and sausage on each other.  We talked Lovie Smith and Jerry Angelo.  We talked the Cubs and Sox adding the two best lefty power hitters on the market in Carlos Pena and Adam Dunn.  We talked about a Bulls team with a tremendous future and a Blackhawks team with a thrilling past.  (I stayed mostly silent during the hockey bits.)

But then the conversation changed.  
“I had a stroke recently,” Bob said as I noticed Carol deliberately turn her head away from the conversation.  Bob had told me he was seventy-two years old and couples that age tend to refrain from revealing too much to complete strangers.  I guess it took an hour for me to cross the stranger threshold into the land of the now-interesting dinner companion.  Carol would speak quite loudly to me throughout the night but would lean in to Bob and whisper things like “Don’t have another whiskey.  Have a beer” and “I’m worried you’re eating so much cheese.”  Carol was a sweet woman, concerned for the health of the man she adored, but she was a terrible whisperer.  Everyone in the joint could hear what she was saying.

“I’m sorry to hear that.  My grandfather had a stroke a few years ago.”  This was a lie.  A stupid, unnecessary lie.  I guess I wanted this guy to realize I was comfortable with his voice.  Comfortable with his situation.  Comfortable with him.  I’m glad he didn’t ask a follow up to my lie because I had no interest in inventing anything else.

“But I have to say, ” he continued.  “when I couldn’t speak for months, I don’t know what I would have done without sports.  When I woke up I read the sports writers and every night I watched the Cubs and I was talking in my head to both of them.  I’m glad to see someone your age will keep things going.”  Any one of the thousands of young folks who have taken the craft of sportswriting to the internet could have been sitting on that stool.  Any one of the thousands of us who believe sports are more than gossip-mongering and pop culture references.  But it was me sitting next to Bob.  And I sure was glad.

I finished my Old Style, asked the bartender to wrap up my last slab of Rudy’s Special (no mushrooms) and started the half-hour process of wrapping the extra long scarf around my neck.  Carol handed me a bar napkin and a pen and asked if I would write down my name for her.  “Would you like me email?”

“We don’t have a computer.  Well we did but it broke.”

I smiled.  A big, old smile.  I’d be nothing without computers but sometimes it makes me happy when people don’t have one.  I wrote down my name and my email anyway.  Then I wrote down the name of a hot dog place in Clifton, NJ called Rutt’s Hut – the greatest on the planet – and told Bob and Carol to send their kids there.  I shook hands with them both and turned to leave.  “Wow.  This was some night,” Bob said.  He meant it.  And in that second I realized he was right.   It was some night. 

I canceled my plan to head up State to Rossi’s and went back to my hotel.  It would be unfair to pressure a bar to try and top that.  Why would I want to?  I walked the blisteringly cold block and a half, only one thought in my mind.  How can you beat Chicago?