Chapter 4 – The Man I Know as Miles
My dad loved to go for walks in the woods near our house. “Getting miles” is what he referred to the activity as. “I’m gonna go get a couple miles,” he’d say just after his morning shower, with his keys in his hand, ready to head out the door. Then when he’d stop in the house several times throughout the day, he’d report to whoever he saw how many miles he’d already racked up while also letting you know he wasn’t yet done for the day. “I got four-and-a-half miles in. I’m gonna eat my lunch and then go back for a few more.” And then at the end of the day, if I’d see him at home when he was eating his dinner after coming back from the bar, he’d give me the grand total. “I got seven miles in today.” Or, “I got nine miles today.” Or, if he didn’t do as good as he would’ve liked, he’d look at me as if I was a disappointed parent and he was a kid who’d just batted a baseball through a neighbor’s window and shamefully report that, “I only got two miles in today.”
“Hey man,” I’d say. “Two miles are better than no miles.”
“I guess,” he’d shrug, his core belief being that too many miles were never enough miles.
Now, I don’t know when this all started, but for at least five years, getting miles over in the Bunker Hill Forest Preserve became the backbone of my dad’s day-to-day. In fact, it came to play such a big role in his life that I ended up just referring to him as Miles. Believe it or not, the name actually caught on with my mom and siblings as well. Rain or shine, Miles was always out there. He’d even be out there in the most extreme of weather conditions, like when the temperature dropped to twenty below zero here in Chicago a couple winters ago. “I was even out there getting miles during the polar vortex,” he liked to brag. “I was the only one out there too.” And my mom’d always retort, “You were the only one out there because you’re the only one crazy enough to think it’s a good idea to go walking when it’s twenty below zero outside!”
It might be hard for anyone who didn’t know my dad as well as we did to understand that this guy we called Miles and Dan/Dad were fundamentally two different people. My dad, the guy I remember from growing up, the guy my mom married, was cool. He was a cool guy. He was a smart, confident, handsome, patient, fun, funny guy that all his window washing customers adored and fellow firemen respected and even looked up to. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where along the line we lost this guy in his battle with anxiety, depression, alcoholism and an addiction to what we as a society view as super-safe, legally-prescribed anti-depressant/anti-anxiety medications, but he’d been gone for a long time. It was a gradual thing, I think – a painful thing to observe happening over the years to the person I idolized most in the world. Not to say I disliked Miles. It’s just that Miles wasn’t my dad. At best he was just – as mean as it sounds – a caricature of my dad, an inferior version of the man he used to be that needed to be taken care of and looked after.
A lot of my dad’s window washing customers and people he’d meet in the woods liked Miles because even though not as sharp as he once was, he was still a nice-enough guy. I personally liked Miles because he was entertaining – all the dumb shit he’d say and do gave me a ton of material to laugh about with my brother – but it was impossible to have any sort of real relationship with the guy. Conversations with Miles were all one-sided. Whereas it could be fun to listen to him talk about his day the way it’s sometimes fun to listen to a kindergartner talk about their day at school, if you expected any sort of response from Miles when tryin to talk to him about anything important regarding your own life, or when my mom’d try to talk to him about the bills or anything having to do with responsibility…well, you’re settin yourself up for major disappointment. We each had our moments when we arrived at the painful conclusion that Dad was completely gone, but none’d been more quotable or blatantly clear than the time my sister’d been sittin with Miles at the dinner table, pouring her heart out to him about all the stuff that’d been goin on in her life at the time. As she talked, he impatiently listened, looking like he was havin a hard time containing what he wanted to say. When she finished sharing with him these intimate pieces of her life, Miles looked his daughter right in the eye and said with a childlike naivety that, “I saw a possum in the woods today.”
Miles lived in his own little world where he, of course, was the protagonist always out there braving the conditions and slaying dragons on his quest to bring back a freshly wrangled set of highly coveted miles to his kingdom where they’d be flaunted in front of his loyal subjects, expecting only our praise in return. In addition to filling us in on his total mileage from the day, he’d also be sure to tell us about all the strange mythical creatures he’d encountered while out on his epic journeys.
“I saw Anorexic Girl in the woods today,” he’d report while eating his daily chicken sandwich for lunch from Nicks Drive-In on Harlem. Or, “Crooked Guy was out there again today.” Or my all-time favorite, “I saw the Rival Guys out there again today. They were all sittin around that picnic bench again with their shirts off, throwin their empty beer cans all over the ground. I hate those fuckin jagoffs.”
The first time I’d heard of these so-called “jagoffs,” Miles didn’t yet refer to them as “the Rival Guys.” In the early days, he’d just come home and describe a scene that, judging by how often I’d hear it, was developing into a regular occurrence.
“That big group of fat guys with the long hair were out there drinkin in the woods again today. There was like ten of ‘em. And they all had their shirts off. A few of the guys were tossin bags and all the others were sittin at that picnic bench. And they’re all drinkin and yellin and throwin all their beer cans all over the place.”
“Don’t any of those guys have jobs?” I’d ask. “How’re they always out there gettin loaded every day?”
“I dunno. They show up in this Chevy van or truck or somethin that has a license plate that says ‘RIVAL’ on it. I don’t know what they do,” he’d say before repeating himself, “but they’re always out there drinkin and throwin their beer cans all over the place.”
“Maybe they leave the cans out on the ground because they know a homeless guy that comes around to collect ‘em and it’s easier for him to pick ‘em off the ground than it is to pick ‘em out a garbage can that might have raccoons in it. That’s what the Kan Man in Milwaukee used to have us do for him around our house in college.”
“Yeah, I dunno,” he’d say. “But they’re these fat guys with long hair and they always got their shirts off and they’re always drinkin and…”
I’d sigh and wait for him to finish repeating himself. Knowing any question I asked would lead to Miles saying the same thing over and over as if I didn’t catch the gist the first couple times around, I’d break the repeat-loop with a light dose of teasing.
“You like those guys,” I’d say. “You wanna party with those guys.”
“Pfff… Yeah, okay.”
“Yeah, I think you’re jealous of their party and when you walk by ‘em every day, you wish they’d invite you over to take your shirt off and join ‘em for a beer.”
“Nah,” he’d conclude, having lost the need to repeat himself another time, “I hate those fuckin jagoffs.”
A typical trip to Bunker Hill would start with Miles driving his truck over to the Caldwell entrance right across from Tonty Avenue. From there – once he’d entered the premises – he’d continue driving along in the parking lot for a little bit until coming across the first building on the left which were the restrooms in front of which he’d always park. Even though everyone knows that backing in to parking spots in these woods around here is what gay guys do as a signal to let other gay guys know they’re lookin for anonymous sex, Miles would often back in because his neck was fucked-up and he had a hard time seein what was behind him and didn’t wanna accidentally run anyone over when eventually leaving the woods. So, from that area near the restrooms where he more likely than not’d backed into a spot, he’d walk the trail south and over to the intersection of Devon and Caldwell which was about a mile then turn around and walk back to his truck which is another mile. In between each of these two-mile trips to the woods, Miles would attend to other aspects of his OCD routine like smoking strategic cigarettes throughout the day, stopping home to check the voicemail on our landline for calls from window/gutter customers, picking up and consuming his chicken sandwich and chocolate shake from Nick’s Drive-In on Harlem and, among other things, making his daily stop at the BP gas station on Milwaukee just north of Howard where he’d top off his tank, pick up a pack of smokes and donate his daily dollar to whatever type of kids charity they sponsor over there. Ideally, on a day that we weren’t working, he’d do his route from the bathrooms by Tonty down to Caldwell and Devon at least two-and-a-half times for a total of five miles. On ambitious days, he’d more than double that. On days we were working, his mileage varied. Regardless of whether or not we worked on any given day, however, in the evening Miles needed to stop off at a bar from where he’d get his “couple beers” and from where he’d bring home his dinner – usually either chicken wings or his second chicken sandwich of the day.
For years, Miles’s watering hole of choice’d been this place called Iron Horse Ale House on Northwest Highway. He called it “The Horse” for short. Even when he’d fallen off that roof in 2018 and was in the hospital and wasn’t too sure where he was or how he got there, he kept tryin to rip out his IVs and get up from his bed to go to the bar. The doctor reported to my family that, “He was very agitated and kept repeating that he needed to go to some place called Iron Horse.” Miles never really told me too much about his experience at this bar. The only thing he’d ever really mention – though he’d mention it quite a bit – was whether or not “that jagoff Kenny Pallister” was in the bar. “He thinks he owns the place,” Miles would say. “He puts his feet up and is always throwin his limes behind the bar.”
“Whattaya mean by that?” I asked. “He’s like…drunkenly throwing limes at the bartenders?”
“Nah. When he’s done with the limes in his beer, he tries to throw ‘em in the garbage behind the bar but he always misses and the bartenders have to pick ‘em up,” he explained. “And he’s always talkin about himself like he’s so important. I just wanna say, ‘I don’t give a fuck about your stupid little fishing trips, Kenny. Just leave me the fuck alone and let me drink my beer.’”
“That’s funny,” I said. “But I don’t get it, man… Why do you sit there listenin to this guy if you don’t wanna hear his bullshit?”
“I don’t wanna listen to the guy, but he’s always buyin me beers and then comes and sits by me and starts talkin about how good he is at puttin out fires. ‘Yeah okay, Kenny,’ I say. Guy’s never been in a fire in his life. I just drink my three or four beers real fast so I don’t hafta listen to him anymore and can get the fuck outta there. I hate that fuckin jagoff. I like it better when he’s not there.”
Not too long after his fall and without explanation, Miles stopped frequenting the Iron Horse. His new haunt became Charlotte’s at the intersection of Austin and Gunnison which is kind of a dive bar that’s owned by an older Polish lady who employs a buncha young Eastern European girls whose T&A hangin out skimpy dresses as they prance around behind the bar is no doubt the milkshake that brings all the boys to the yard. As’d been the case at Iron Horse with his list of complaints centered around that jagoff Kenny Pallister, Miles also had a standard set of grievances against Charlotte’s that he’d come home and tell me about.
“They never have the Cubs game on any of the TVs there. The bartenders like watchin that Food Network all the time and I hafta ask ‘em to change the channel for me. And sometimes I can’t even ask ‘em to change the channel because there’s a buncha drunk Polish guys watchin soccer games on all the TVs. And sometimes those Polish guys put a buncha money in the jukebox and blast all this loud Polish music. One time, I had to wait half-an-hour for my songs to play because one of those Polish dudes put on ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.’”
“That’s not a Polish song.”
“Yeah, I know. But it was one of the Polish guys that put it on.”
“Well,” I’d say, “it’s a Polish bar, isn’t it? Why do you go there every single day if you always feel like the odd man out?”
“It’s not all Polish dudes,” he’d switch from complaining to getting defensive the second this essential part of his daily routine was called into question. “And some of those Polish guys are alright. One guy knows I like watching the Cubs games and when he sees me come in, he tells the bartender to put the Cubs game on for me. And he says in his thick accent, ‘I wanna buy a beer for Don.’ That’s how he says my name. He says it like ‘Don.’ I can’t always understand what he’s sayin, but he’s a nice guy.”
In front of our house, one small six-foot length of the sidewalk leading to the backyard’d been gettin shittier and more cracked with each passing year. My mom called a buncha different contractors tryin to get someone out to fix it but couldn’t find anyone willing to take on such a small job. She mentioned it to Miles one day and he said that he knows this guy named Garrity – one of the non-Polish guys from the bar he’d previously alluded to – who does cement work. He produced the guy’s business card from his wallet and my mom gave him a ring. He said he’d be out real soon to have a look at the job and give her a price.
I don’t know how many days this was after she’d called, but one afternoon I was home by myself and sitting in the kitchen when I caught a glimpse of some movement out front through our glass front door. So I walk up to the door, pull the white lace curtain to the side and peer outward. There was some middle-aged Irish-looking guy near where the busted-up sidewalk is. “Must be that guy from the bar that Mom called,” I figured. In that moment, the guy turned around and started walking back toward the street. Where the private sidewalk leading up to our house ends and meets perpendicularly with the city sidewalk that runs up and down the block, there’s a little step there. And this guy somehow didn’t see that step at all. When he walked off it, his whole body fell forward and, unable to get his arms up in time, he smashed face-first into the ground.
“What the hell?” I thought to myself. “It’s two in the afternoon. Could this guy be wasted already?”
After several moments of just layin there in the prone position, I watched the guy climb back to his feet. He lurched toward his vehicle, got in, started it up and drove away. Later that day when I saw my mom, I told her what I’d seen. We figured that bein buddies with Miles and bein a regular at that loser bar were both pretty good indicators that the man may very well’ve been fall-down drunk in the middle of the day while doin an estimate at our house. Instead of pursuing him, she decided to wait a couple days to see if the guy’d call her back with a price like he said he would. The days passed and we never heard back from the guy. Mom decided to keep searching and ended up finding someone who said he’d be willing to do the job. The guy took care of it right away and it looked good. Miles was furious that she didn’t use his guy from the bar and did a bit of yelling, but seemingly forgot about it immediately after, and the Garrity concrete fellow was never mentioned again.
One day Miles came home from Charlotte’s and set his dinner down on the kitchen table.
“That group of fat guys with the long hair that’re always drinkin in the woods came into the bar today,” he said.
“What!?” I spat, unable to process the information I’d just received. “Hold on a minute. Lemme get this straight… The guys who you see in the woods every day and always come home and talk about have now just shown up at the very same bar you go to every day?”
“Yeah,” he said.
To me it felt like worlds were colliding – like some sort of Jetsons-Meet-the-Flintstones crossover episode or some shit like that.
“Yeah,” he continued matter-of-factly, “the one guy came up to me and said, ‘Hey man, you’re that guy walkin in the woods every day!’”
“No he didn’t.”
“Yeah, he did. He’s got this real raspy voice and he’s wearin all black clothes and then with his long hair he says, ‘That’s awesome man. Lemme buy you a shot.’ So I told that asshole, ‘I don’t drink shots.’ So then he says, ‘Lemme buy you a beer then,” and I say, ‘Okay, fine.’ And he buys me a beer and he starts talkin to me about his band.”
“He’s in a band?”
“Yeah, Rival is his band’s name. Like his license plate.”
“Ah, okay. Makes sense now.”
“Yeah. And he puts a buncha heavy metal music on the jukebox and him and the other guys are playin air guitar or whatever and he’s sittin next to me and he says, ‘Lemme tell you about my band, man. I wanna show you some pictures of my band.’ And I just wanna tell the guy, ‘I don’t give a fuck about your band. Just get the fuck away from me and let me drink my beer.’”
“Why’d you let him buy you a beer if you didn’t wanna talk to the guy?”
“Ehh, I dunno. So he takes out his phone and he says, ‘I don’t know how to work this thing. My wife knows how to work it. She’s the one who puts all the pictures on it.’ So he gets this Mexican guy who’s always in the bar to figure out how to work his phone for him. And he’s showin me all these pictures and sayin, ‘That’s us playin at this bar’ and ‘That’s us playin at that bar’ and I just wanna tell the guy that I don’t give a fuck where your band plays. Just leave me alone and let me drink my beer.”
“How long did this go on for?” I asked.
“He had a couple beers and a couple shots then the other guy said, ‘Let’s go. We gotta get to the other bar.’ And then he looks at me and says to me, ‘Hey man, we gotta go to the other bar now, man,’ and I say, ‘Yeah okay.’ I don’t give a fuck where you guys go. Just leave me the fuck alone.”
“And so then they left?”
“Yeah, then they left… But the guy came in and sat right next to me and said, ‘Lemme buy you a shot, man.’ And told him I don’t drink shots. And he says, ‘Hey man, did you know I play in a band? Lemme show you some photos.’ And he couldn’t work his phone cuz his wife knows how to work it and then this Mexican guy…”
Miles proceeded to repeat slightly different versions of the same story at least ten times over while eating his dinner from the bar. And from that day on, every time he saw the Rival Guys in the woods, the one guy who sat next to him in the bar would always greet him. “Hey Dan!” he’d yell from afar in his raspy voice. “Come have a beer with us!” he’d add, just as I’d previously teased. And incredibly, one time Miles actually heeded this call. He actually went over there and sat down at the picnic bench with these guys he supposedly couldn’t stand.
“But why?” I asked. “Why would you go over and sit with a group of guys you don’t like and are always complaining about?”
“Ehh, I dunno. He said in his raspy voice, ‘Come on, Dan! Come and have a beer with us!’ And I didn’t want to. I just wanted to get my miles. But then he says, ‘Our one buddy over here’s a fireman. You should come talk to him about fire stuff.’ So I say okay and go over there and sit down but I don’t wanna have a beer and I say to the one guy who I’ve never seen before in my life, ‘So, you’re on the job, huh?’ He says ‘yeah.’ I ask him what house. He tells me. And then I didn’t say anything else. I just wanted to get back to my miles.”
“I don’t get it, man,” I shook my head. “I don’t get why you wouldn’t just say no and then go get your miles. You don’t owe those guys anything. Seriously, why go over there?”
“I dunno. The guy said, ‘Come have a beer, Dan. We got this fireman here you might wanna talk to.’ And they’re all sittin around that picnic bench with their shirts off, throwin their beer cans all over the place. And so I ask the guy what firehouse he’s at and he tells me but then I got nothin else to say and I’m stuck there listenin to these guys and watchin ‘em throw their beer cans on the ground like a buncha fuckin sluggos. I dunno. I hate those fuckin jagoffs.”
Of course, the Rival Guys weren’t the only thing Miles hated about the woods.
“I saw those ‘Friends of the Forest’ out there again today,” he’d say. “They were choppin down little trees and burnin a buncha shit, gettin smoke everywhere. So I said to one of the guys – they’re always wearin those stupid fuckin green hats – so I go up to one of ‘em and I say, ‘Why’re you guys killin all those little trees and burning ‘em?’ The guy said cuz it’s a savanna and all the little trees are killin the big ones and to save the big ones they hafta kill the little ones or somethin like that. I say, ‘Yeah, okay, whatever.’ I don’t give a shit. I don’t like those Friends of the Forest too much. Always burnin shit near the path. I don’t like breathin in their smoke when I’m tryin to walk.”
Miles wasn’t a big fan of the crowds either.
“I hate the weekends,” he’d say. Or “I hate it when the weather’s nice. There’s too many people out there. Cab driver picnics and all those bike riders blowin past me all the time. And their little kids ringin their bells at me sayin, ‘On your left, on your left!’ And I’m already all the way over to the right – where do you expect me to go?! Fuck those little kids.”
“Yeah, but Dad,” I’d say, “I don’t think in saying ‘on your left’ that they’re tellin you to get over any farther. I think it’s just a bike-riding courtesy to let walkers know of their presence and that they’re comin through and you should avoid stepping to the left if you don’t wanna get smoked.”
“Yeah, I dunno. It’s not their fault. I know it’s their parents are the ones tellin ‘em to say it. But then they come by sayin, ‘On your left, on your left’ and ringin their stupid little bells at me. But I’m already all the way over to the right. Where do you want me to go?! But then they still say, ‘Ring, ring! On your left! On your left!’ I hate those fuckin kids.”
Although he had a dog named Rusty while growin up – memories of whom he’d always reminisce about fondly – Miles wasn’t too big on dogs.
“I saw Dirty Dave Leahy in the woods again today and he had that dog with him and it was tryin to jump all over me. I said, ‘Get that mutt away from me.’ And Dave said, ‘Oh, he’s a mutt now? I thought you liked him.’”
“What gave him the impression you like his dog?” I asked. “Did you pet him one time errr…what?”
“I dunno,” he said. “He’s alright. He’s a big dog. He’s better than those people I see walkin around the woods with those little ankle nippers. I don’t like those little ankle nippers too much.”
There was an exception to this rule.
“I saw Mike and Judy and little Elvis in the woods today.”
The first time I heard him say this, I asked, “Who the fuck is that?” Turns out it’s this couple – maybe in their mid-fifties or so – that lives over in Wildwood near the woods that’d go walking in there almost every day with their little ankle nipper named Elvis whom my dad apparently took a liking to. According to legend, Judy’d once even asked my dad if he wanted to feed little Elvis a doggy treat. He said “nah” at first, but then Judy said “c’mon” and he ended up following through with it. He liked Mike and Judy. From what I hear, he’d stop and talk to ‘em quite often. As he would with window washing customers of his he’d run into out on the trail. As he would with old fireman buddies whose paths he’d cross that he hadn’t seen in over ten years. As he would with Bob Murray and his wife Katie who he’d see every now and then riding together on a tandem bike. They’d always stop for a bit when they saw Miles and take some time to bullshit with him about how their beloved Cubbies’d been lookin recently.
There were actually a lot of people in the woods that Miles liked and a lot of people that liked him back. One last pair of people worth mentioning whom I’d hear about quite frequently had been “that German guy and his mother.” He liked that German guy and his mother even though the German guy was “a bit of a dorko” and his mother would always yell at my dad to put on some gloves when she saw him walkin without ‘em in the dead of winter. It’s not that his hands wouldn’t get cold, they definitely would – this I know because of how often he’d come home and complain to us about it. And we too would tell him he should wear some gloves. And he’d explain to us that, “I can’t wear gloves because if I have gloves on, I won’t be able to change the songs on my iPod when I’m walking.” We’d say that that’s ridiculous. Just take one glove off each time a song you don’t like comes on then change it and put the glove back on. He’d say, “Nah, that’s okay. I’ll be alright.” And every time he ever used the phrase “I’ll be alright,” it was to be taken as our cue to drop the subject if we didn’t wanna get Miles in a pissy mood. But out in the woods, upon hearing this explanation, that German guy’s mother wouldn’t ever accept such ridiculous logic as a viable excuse for risking frostbite and’d continue bitching at him to put gloves on every single time they saw one another. Although he’d ignore her coaxing and go on his merry way, Miles always came home and – after grumbling about how cold his hands were – reported back to us that the German guy’s mom is a very nice lady.