I’m lying in bed last night, a big comfy queen-sized bed, with a bathroom down the hall, and no campers, and no bugs, with my girlfriend lying beside me, and all I can do is roll around restlessly, thinking of camp. Damn Heldman. Ah well…so it goes. But no time to lay in bed this morning, as I’m meeting my dad for lunch at C.J.’s.
I decide to head home first, as I didn’t get a chance to stop home last night, and I drive through downtown Evanston just to see the sights. As usual, any return to Evanston after an absence of more than a month brings with it the surprise of seeing the new store fronts that have popped up; it seems one can’t leave here anymore for any extended period of time with the expectation that everything will be the same upon return…and indeed the biggest change is to the old McDonalds that sat for so many years across from the library and next door to the Orrington Hotel. It closed some time ago, six months, maybe even a year, so it was just a question of “when,” but here I am, driving past it, and it dawns on me that the question I should have been asking all along about that space was “what,” as in what would replace the first Illinois McDonalds I ever had the pleasure to dine at? And the answer, to my disgust, is something called “Narra,” some high profile Euro-trash atmospheric dung pit of a restaurant that probably serves a lot of tiny finger foods that are, of course, not eaten with fingers, but rather with tiny utensils carved out of bamboo, and sir, if it wouldn’t be too much to ask, can you kindly remove your “baseball cap” when walking by our windows? It’s bad for business. Thank you, and please feel free to frequent us again here at Narra.
The other trendy new eyesore in downtown Evanston sits in place of the old Sherman Restaurant, an old diner that sat quietly and respectfully at the corner of Sherman and Clark for as long as I can remember. This place is called “Cosi,” which, if you’re scoring at home, gives Evanston two new restaurants with two syllable European names in a three block radius. I pass through downtown Evanston, and rather than going up to Green Bay, I turn right at Ridge, take Ridge to Central, and then take Central west so that I can pass by Dyche Stadium and Mustards. Fortunately those two landmarks are still around, so I breathe a bit easier and carry on with my drive home.
It’s nice arriving back. When I turn onto our block there’s that feeling that I never really left, the same exact feeling I get when I drive up Villa Road for the first time of the summer. I turn into our driveway, nearly clipping the trees as always, and then I park and go in, seeing a few changes here that I like. A new screen door, one that opens and closes very easily, and a new lock in the front door, one that doesn’t require massive amounts of key jiggling and angling. The door opens, and there’s Killarney, trotting up to see me, followed by my dad.
“Hey! Welcome home!”
“Thanks Pop. Good to see you. Good to be back. Lunch?”
“I’m ready. Let me just run upstairs and get my keys.”
I pet Killarney a bit, and then I walk into the TV room, where the newspaper is laid out. There’s a bit of a blurb about Grossman at the top of the front section, directing me to turn to the Sports page, and when I do I see the huge picture of Rex sitting on the turf, holding his ankle, his season all but over. “DEJA THROUGH” reads the headline in big bold letters. While it is clearly referring to Grossman’s season, one gets a feeling that it is also cryptically referring to the Bears’ season, as so much of our confidence seemed to be riding on our quarterback, a man who has played in a total of six NFL games, with moderate success. And yet, I like Grossman. I think that he is the right quarterback for this team. I see a leader, something I didn’t see in Cade McNown, and I am encouraged by the rumor that the Packers had Grossman pegged as the man who would replace Favre, when and if the Green Bay legend ever actually retires. But so it goes with Chicago sports…hot prospects that never pan out, great young players who are shipped to other teams before turning into Hall of Famers, team saviors that get cut down by injury, future heroes that show glimpses of greatness only to disappoint, again and again and again. And the worst part of all? The cycle is so small, we have to experience it every five years or so. From McNown to Grossman, from Maddux to Wood, from Elton Brand to, dare I say, Eddy Curry. Get excited sports fans, because the wait is over. I’ve just sat down with (young, promising athlete) and I can tell you without a doubt, that he is the player who will lead (Chicago sports team) to greatness over the next decade. Don’t worry yourselves, Chicago, because this is the one. Clear some space in the record books. Go out and buy the jersey. I have a feeling this guy will be around for a long, long time…
We get to C.J. Arthur’s, and as we walk up, I have the sudden realization that this is my first time eating there since the shooting. I begin looking at the sidewalk, at the tables by the curb that sit so peacefully, at the windowpane. This is where it happened, on a day that probably looked a lot like today. You wouldn’t know it if you didn’t already know it, as the hostess is very happy and there are no signs of memoriam or anything else like that, nothing that suggests that a woman was shot to death while enjoying her lunch not two months ago, but it’s in my head as we go in. We take a seat by the window, and I feel uneasy, so I slide over to the seat against the wall. Then I’m settled. The place looks great, and it’s nice to be back at home in the confines of something that I consider “normal.” C.J.’s is still C.J.’s, not Narra or Cosi or anything else that I don’t understand, and when our waitress comes by we’re delighted to see that it’s Sondra. She says hello, asks about “the other two,” and we tell her that Mom is at a baby shower and Mike went back to school.
“I’ll have a Green River, please.” He gives her his waitress-look. “You know how I like it.”
“Ah yes, with all the syrup.”
“You got it.”
“And Jack, I’ll bring you an R.C.?” It’s a question awaiting confirmation, but I surprise them.
“Actually, I’m fine with just water.”
They look at me, confused.
“It’s enough already with all the pop. Water’s fine.”
Sondra leaves to get our drinks, and I turn to find Dad staring at me.
“Yeah. I don’t know. I was at camp, and I just woke up one day, and I was like ‘It’s enough already,’ and so that’s that. Water. Water’s good.”
Sondra returns with our drinks, and then takes my dad’s order—a C.J. Club with fruit instead of fries—and then looks at me and smiles.
“Cheeseburger, medium, American cheese, no veggies.”
“You got it.”
“At least that hasn’t changed.”
The food is delicious, and it’s nice to have a big cheeseburger that leaves me satisfied. After nine years of eating in Hayward, and particularly after the last nine weeks, I’ve still not found the one burger that I am sure to like every time I sit down. Dad and I have a nice talk, shooting the bull about my summer and filling him in on the second half, everything that went on since our midsummer visit. As we talk, Art ambles over.
“Hey there! Look at this guy. Clean shaven and everything.”
“What’s up Art?”
“Oh boy, the Cubbies are a mess, huh?”
“They’re still in it.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He laughs, placing his hands on the table and leaning in, the way he does.
My dad sips at his Green River, the syrup thick and largely visible in the glass, just like he likes it. He wipes his mouth. “Well, something has to happen. What’s the problem, do you think?”
“Yeah, the pitching,” and he takes another sip of Green River. “These guys just can’t stay healthy. I don’t know why. I mean, it’s baffling. They’ve got better equipment, better doctors, and it’s not like in our day when they had to pitch complete games. They’ve got closers and set-up men and an entire pen that guarantees you won’t pitch past the seventh. What’s with that? Why can’t these guys throw a complete game anymore?”
Art shakes his head. “I know, right? Back in our day, you’d never hear of it.”
“Right. Who ever heard of a guy whose only job is to come out of the pen to face the one lefty in the eighth and then leave? It’s absurd. Do your job all the way through. I mean, did Fergie Jenkins or Ken Holtzman need to be pulled after six innings?”
“Oh,” Art says, rocking at the table, “now those guys were good.”
And off they go.
When we get home, tennis is on. It’s the ATP tournament in Cincinnati, and the match on TV is between Olivier Rochus and top ranked Roger Federer. My dad played tennis at Mather High School in Chicago, and then at Southern Illinois, and he still plays regularly once a week with some friends. His love for the game never really transferred over to me, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve taken more and more pleasure out of watching tennis with him, just to hear his passion for it. Federer is clearly one of his favorite players. He is a young man, a few months older than me, and plays with a precision and ease that makes him interesting to watch. He’s not a pouter like Lleyton Hewitt, and he’s not a power guy like Andy Roddick, though he certainly has a powerful swing. Rather, he relies on highly tuned reflexes and almost perfect placement…he reminds me a bit of Greg Maddux, a guy who “baseball guys” appreciate more than just the average fan does.
“OK, are you watching?” He leans forward on the couch. “Look at this. Look at how he’s got Rochus moving all around the court, and yet he stays almost stationary throughout. He knows exactly where the return is coming, and he basically plays defense, just returning back and forth, real easy, and then he just hits you with it…OH look at that!” The volley goes back and forth, to a point where it seems endless, and then finally there’s a break and Rochus dumps the ball over the net, forcing Federer to charge. He returns the ball, and then Rochus, set back and waiting, strokes it well over Federer’s head, towards the service line. Federer looks doomed, but he chases the ball down, gets his racket on it to prevent it from going out, and then in one motion turns defense into offense and laces the ball down the line for the point. “Did you see how he did that?” my dad continues. “Did you see how he turns defense into offense so easily, and yet so powerfully? And all while being fully in control. He never really looked like he was out of control or off balance or anything. Just a beautiful play. Absolutely beautiful.”