Chapter 22 – Scattering Dad
I’d say that outta all the calls we received from my dad’s old friends in the few days after his death, the most interesting and meaningful one had been from this guy named Fitz who grew up with my dad around Our Lady of Victory Parish in the Jeff Park area of the city. Fitz was a huge Doors fan and named his 16-inch softball team The Soft Parade after the band’s fourth studio album released in 1969, and my dad played with him on that team for about twenty-five years. The guy has the gift of gab. Everything he was sayin on the phone and the way he said it – his intonation, his timing – made listenin to him way more of a treat than the chore it’d been when fielding a lot of the other calls we received during this time from old buddies of my dad who decided to get blackout drunk before dialing us up. A lot of those calls felt like, “Why do I hafta sit here and listen to this shit? Like, grow the fuck up and call us back when you’re sober, you fuckin jagoff.” But with Fitz it wasn’t like that. Even though he and my dad probably hadn’t seen one another in about ten or fifteen years, the guy somehow managed to make me feel more connected to my dad. Like, I don’t even remember Fitz having told us any specific stories that evening as my family and I sat crowded around the cordless phone in our living room with his voice on speaker, it was more like he was painting a picture of how my dad fit into his idea of the neighborhood in which they’d spent their youth together. He said that, “Everyone we grew up with knew that if you were goin down Laramie and you looked into the alley behind Agatite – it didn’t matter what season of the year it was – you’d see Danny out there dribblin a basketball and shootin hoops. He was literally out there every single day in that alley. And it was because of that, we started callin it Lal’s Al.” Thanks to that conversation, the alley behind the 2-flat where my dad grew up – “Lal’s Al” – was added to the list of places where we decided to scatter our portion of the old man’s ashes.
None of us were really in too big a hurry to carry out this task. In fact, everyone was thoroughly exhausted from the whirlwind week of Dad’s sudden death and funeral service, and nobody felt ready to deal with that sort of goodbye until about a month or so after the fact. I think it was a weekday. My mom wasn’t nannying for the kids during the summer, my sister was on a leave of absence from work, and I think my brother took the day off just for the occasion. And since I was runnin my dad’s window business and was in control of makin my own schedule, I just didn’t set up any work for that day. We planned on starting our route where my dad started off his life – in his old neighborhood, the one that Fitz was talkin about in such detail on the phone that one night. We were gonna sprinkle a little bit of him in Lal’s Al, a little of him out in left field at Jefferson Park where he’d played all those years on the Parade, and also scatter some of him on the softball field and basketball court at Wilson Park which is where he’d always talked about hangin out with all his buddies while growin up. We then planned on headin over to the Bunker Hill woods and scattering his ashes all along the route he’d walked every day over there for the past five or so years, and then planned on ending the day up in Wisconsin at Assembly Park along Lake Delavan where he’d vacationed with his family every summer as a kid. My mom and sister also planned on savin some to take with ‘em on their next trip to Florida to sprinkle around the condo where we’d spent every Easter back when I was a kid. My idea to bring some of the ashes into Nick’s Drive-In where my dad’d gotten his lunch and dinner every day for the past two years and toss ‘em onto the grills behind the counter and into people’s food while they were eating was unfortunately not approved by the rest of my family.
Not long after turning right from Northwest Highway onto Milwaukee Avenue on our drive from Edison Park to Jefferson Park, there’s a restaurant on the right side of the road called the Gale Street Inn. We’d picked up food from there a good amount of times in my day and had even dined-in there once or twice for special occasions over the past few years. They got pretty good food there, but this ain’t fuckin Yelp, so that’s not the reason I’m mentioning the place here. I’m mentioning it because, for me, every time I’d ever been riding in the truck with dad and entering his old neighborhood, it was always the first location he’d point out that had some sort of historical personal significance for him. He’d say…
“Did I ever tell you about the time when I was a teenager and my dad sent me to go pick up his dinner from Gale Street Inn? He handed me some cash and told me to drive his car over here. And I said, ‘But Dad, I don’t know how to drive a stick shift.’ And he said, ‘Well, today you’re gonna learn.’ And he also told me he threw a few extra bucks in there so I could sit at the bar and have a couple beers while I was waitin for his order. And I said, ‘But Dad, I’m not twenty-one.’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry, they’ll serve ya.’ So I got in the car and put it into gear and – oh fuck – you shoulda seen me tryin to drive that thing. I was stoppin and goin the whole time, grindin the shit outta all the gears. Beep! Beep! Cars honkin and people yellin behind me. I had no idea what the fuck I was doin.”
Then a few blocks after that, as Milwaukee Avenue continues running southeast, it cuts across West Lawrence Avenue. And here Dad would normally ask, “Did I ever tell you about the time back when I was a kid and I was walkin here at this intersection – it was sometime during the winter – and I had this snowball in my hand that I’d been packin for a while and one of those delivery trucks without a door on the side, one of those UPS trucks or somethin like that, had been drivin past and I threw my snowball at it and I nailed the driver? Yeah, I hit that fucker square in the face and he slammed on the brakes, ditched his truck on the side of the road and started runnin after me. I don’t even know if he shut the engine off. I just saw him comin after me and I took off runnin. Thankfully I got away,” he said. “Cuz If that guy caught me, he woulda fuckin killed me. No doubt about it. I got him right in the face.”
And then on days when he was on a roll, as we kept drivin along down Milwaukee, he’d continue firing off all the little details. He’d say, “Up here on the right is Wilson Park where I passed many hours of my misspent youth, playin basketball and drinkin beers with the guys. We also used to play in this flag football league on Sunday mornings during our late teens and early twenties. Guys called it the hangover league. In the huddle when we’d be callin plays, everyone always stunk like booze from the night before. I actually broke my nose one time playin in one of those games. And there on the left is Chris’s Billiards where they filmed a few scenes from The Color of Money with Paul Newman – pretty good movie, but my favorite of his is Cool Hand Luke. And then also on the left past Engine 108 there is Wilson Avenue where we’d turn in to take you guys to my buddy Larry’s block party every Fourth of July back when he was still alive. Then of course, Sunnyside here on the right is where you turn in to get to OLV where I went to grammar school and, from there – to get to the house where I grew up in – you’d make a left on Laramie then a left on Agatite. You can’t get to my house here offa Milwaukee cuz Agatite’s a one-way street running east, ya know? Oh, and there’s Lucky Grill. I took you guys there a few times when you were little. It’s your typical greasy spoon. They got good breakfast there. And up here is where Swoboda’s drugstore used to be. My mom would send me over there when I was a little kid and give me money to go pick somethin up for her and I’d walk over there and get it and then I’d spend all the leftover change on candy and eat it all real quick then go back home and give her her stuff and she’d say, ‘Where’s my change?’ And I’d shrug and say, ‘I dunno.’
“And then up here is where the old bowling alley used to be before it burnt down. Sometimes during the summer we’d hang out there and bowl all day. We had the lanes to ourselves. During the day, the only employee there was this old black guy named,” – apologies for interrupting the flow of the story here. I can’t for the life of me remember this guy’s name right now even though I’d heard my dad say it dozens of times over the years. I wanna say it’s Jasper, but don’t know for sure. Anyway… “And we’d show up and pay for one game and then So-and-So would be on the other side of the alley polishing the lanes and we’d sneak behind the counter and push the button to reset our lane so we could bowl another round for free. Old So-and-So knew what we were up to, but he didn’t mind. He just liked that we were stayin offa the streets and outta trouble.”
And then there’d be silence for a block or two until we neared Chicago’s original “Six Corners” which is at the intersection of Cicero, Irving and Milwaukee (that’s right you yuppie motherfuckers, get outta my face with that Wicker Park six-corner shit). And there he’d say, “When we were kids, sometimes my siblings and I would walk over here and go inside Sears department store and play hide-and-seek or tag or whatever. We’d run around and hide in the clothes racks and sometimes get yelled at by the workers there. It was pretty fun.” And that was usually the last stop on my dad’s trip down memory lane.
I, of course, thought about and could practically hear my dad’s voice tellin me all these stories as my family and I drove into his old neighborhood to scatter a part of him in these places that’d once-upon-a-time meant so much to him. Although most of these places had nothin to do with us personally and had everything to do with dad’s nostalgic memories that he’d longingly recalled in front of us so many times over the years, my mom actually did have a particularly rough time while visiting Jefferson Park where she hadn’t stepped foot in more than three decades. She said that although she hadn’t thought about those memories in a long time, standin there on that field took her back some forty years beforehand to a time when she and my dad first started dating and she’d sit there watchin his softball games before they all went out for a drink afterwards to one of the neighborhood bars.
I don’t believe this was in our original plan, but before headin up to the woods, after visiting my dad’s neighborhood we decided to head a mile west and stop by our old house on Melvina where I’d lived until I was seven years old. We parked on the south end of the block and made our way on foot up to the north. While walkin past the property, we discreetly threw a few handfuls of my dad onto the lawn where he and I used to spend hours playing catch. As we did so, I was hopin that the current owner hadn’t been lookin out the window because I had the irrational fear that some big angry guy was gonna kick open the front door and yell, “Hey, did you just sprinkle dead guy on my lawn?! Get back here and clean shit that up!” But thankfully there was no such confrontation.
Our last stop in Chicago before headin up to Lake Delavan had been the Bunker Hill forest preserve where my dad liked to get his miles every day. The lot where he’d normally parked was roped off due to covid, so we parked on the other side of Caldwell Avenue on a side street over there called Tonty. We crossed Caldwell and walked the path from there down to where it intersects with Devon and then turned back around, casually shaking ashes outta the jars we’d stored them in here and there along the way. After finishing our lap in the woods, we all piled back into my mom’s Ford Edge and were ready to begin the drive up to Wisconsin, only…only for some reason the car wouldn’t start. It was just a few years old at that point and she took really good care of it, only drivin it locally and gettin the oil changed on time and all that good stuff. Nothin like that’d ever happened before. The engine just wouldn’t turn over. And like, I don’t know shit about cars, so I was at a loss as to what I should be doing, and stepped outta the driver’s seat to let my mom and brother have a look and see if they could find out what was the matter. Neither of ‘em had any luck. But then about ten minutes later, as I casually stood outside the car reminiscing about this one window job I used to do with my dad right across the street from where we’d been parked, my brother was still paging through the owner’s manual and my mom was just about ready to call triple-A to have the car towed to a shop when they decided to try and start it up one last time. It turned right over.
“What’d you do?” I asked. “How’d you fix it?”
“Nothin,” they said. “We just started it up as we normally would.”
“Did the battery light come on?”
“No, no lights are on. It says everything’s normal.”
“Hmm, that’s pretty weird,” I paused for a moment. “Well, should I start drivin up to Delavan, or are we scared the car’s gonna break down on the drive up there, or what? You guys tell me – whattaya thinkin?”
We decided to go on with our day as planned and had no more problems with my mom’s car not startin up that day or any other day since then. Now, before I say anything that might make me come across as one of those fantastical, horoscope-checkin, “I communicate with dead people” typa freaks that seem to be so prevalent in this day and age, let’s be clear about one thing – I ain’t that spiritual of a motherfucker, ya heard me? Like, I don’t believe in supernatural shit and ghosts or anything like that – like, not at all, okay? But when one of my family members suggested that my mom’s car not startin up for those ten or so minutes had been my dad’s way of lettin us know that he was with us that day and was gonna come with us for that ride up to Wisconsin…well, let’s just say I said nothin to negate that theory.