Tuesday, October 27, 2015

One night in Chicago. Long ago.

When I was 20, just before my senior year in college, my parents moved from New York to Chicago, and it was decided, against my will, that I would go with them.

My first order of business upon arriving in the City of Broad Shoulders was to find a summer job. To that end I bought a copy of the Chicago Tribune and went through the want ads. I quickly found two jobs that were close to my parents' apartment and required neither skills nor brain-power.

One was a clerk in a newsstand at a near north side hotel. The other, the one I got, was a cashier at a prominent liquor store, across the street from a whore house, on Rush Street, just north of the loop.

My first weeks at Bragno's, I worked the night shift, from 4PM till midnight and I quickly got an education. There were the daily bottles who would come in every day for their 86-proof sustenance and a bit of cashierial conversation.  There were the parking lot attendants who would, every night, buy another pint or half-pint of Hennessy or Remy Martin, to warm themselves through the Chicago chill. There were the cops, glomming a free case of Old Style beer, and the hookers buying a bottle or two for medicinal purposes.

I took it all in. It was, as they say, all in a day's work.

One evening, I suppose around seven or eight, the shop was quiet and I was sitting behind the counter reading a book. I heard the front door bells tinkle and then a booming voice.

"What are you reading, young man?"

It was Orson Welles.

I was reading something Snopesy by Faulkner, "The Sound and the Fury," maybe.

"Faulkner," I replied, showing him the paperback.

"A lightweight! A misbegotten fool. A dabbler in words. A nothing. A non-entity. Wasting your time in the fourth greatest city in the world, a city of Lucullan excess, a sybarite's dream, and you, a miserable little clerk, working on your hands and knees, with the audacity, no, the TEMERITY to read the the second-rate ramblings of a second-rate mind."

I put the book under the cash drawer and stood up.

"Young man," he roared. "I would like a steak. Rare. Smothered in onions and mushrooms, two baked potatoes dripping, no oozing with butter, and a bottle of your finest port.

"A simpering simpleton. A pusillanimous profferer or putrid prose. A plodder. A nodder. A dodder. The idiot that tells the tale."

"Mr. Welles," I stammered, "I can help you with the port, but this is a liquor store. Not a steak house."

He looked deflated, crushed. He scanned the premises.

"So it is, boy! A steak, bring me my meat and some mutton, a big shank of mutton."

He left cradling like a baby four bottles of port.

"I will be back with funds," he shouted. "But for now, I bid you farewell."

I never saw him again.

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