Saturday, December 10, 2011


She was probably the most frail looking person I ever met. Had to be 90 pounds max. Her skin was like tissue paper and I could see the blue blood coursing through the veins on the backs of her bony hands. Every time she moved it seemed as if none of the parts were working correctly, so the slight hunchback almost seemed necessary to complete the image.

While we sat in her Edgebrook kitchen and talked, she made me coffee in one of those great old percolators with the glass bubble on top of the lid. I'm sure it's just my imagination, but for some reason her coffee tasted better than other people's coffee.

Pinky out was a must because she served the brew in these delicate little cups made of porcelain so thin you could see through it. The whole house was just great. The appliances were all 1950s stuff. Gas stove. Refrigerator was actually rounded on top, and the freezer door was a half-oval. The kitchen table had that stainless steel banding around the edge, and that gray speckle on white linoleum top. I love joints like that. Remind me of my yoot.

I'm sure she figured me for another young, aggressive, got-no-time for smalltalk salesman, because every time she started to get off point, ...replacing her windows, ...she tsk tsk tsked at herself and asked "what were we talking about?"

It was likely my camping experience that did the trick in loosening her up. When the regular gurgling of the coffee pot, and the aroma of that ambrosia reached us at the kitchen table she looked across the room as if planning a 5 minute production.

I told her I'd get it, and before she could warn me I was back at the table with the coffee pot in hand. With one finger on top of the little glass gurgle bubble, just like with my camping coffee pot, I poured her a cup, and then filled my own.

Why did that make her suddenly seem to relax? I didn't get the impression that she was overly nervous up to that point, but she almost seemed like she wanted to hurry things along for my sake.

"Just like my camping percolator. Why is it that coffee tastes better out of these things?"

"Anticipation. You smell the coffee before you drink it. Your taste buds know coffee is on the way. Like leaves on the trees turning up before a rainstorm."

And people wonder why I like the old timers so much.

Cubs fan. I love when the little old ladies are sports fans. Having grown up a Cub fan, and not yet having bailed on that moribund outfit, we had plenty to rehash. I told her of watching from the bleachers as Will Clark and the Giants destroyed the Cubs 11-3 at Wrigley in the 1989 NLCS. She remembered practically every inning. She also thought Will Clark was quite handsome. Not Mark Grace though. She thought Grace looked like a "dandy." (Apparently a dandy was what guys my age called a "pretty boy.")

She was absolutely terrific. Knew stats and players from when I was a little guy. When I told her that Billy Williams was my all-time favorite Cub she seemed quite pleased, and we both agreed that Roberto Clemente had been someone special. For some untold reason, she hated Leo Durocher with a passion, which I found humorous.

As is often the case, I had a hard time getting back on point myself. The old man was back at the office, and he wanted to go home. Couldn't do that while I was out yapping up baseball with Ruth, but tough shit I figured. We sat and talked about everything except windows for about a half hour until at one point she looked out the patio door....

"I really must replace these windows. It's going to be a cold winter," she said with way too much certainty. She motioned out the door. "Look."

There, standing at the edge of her patio, near where the shrubs separate it from the yard, was a squirrel.

"What? The squirrel?"

"Yes. Look at how fat he is."

She was right. That squirrel was so fucking fat that his little legs barely reached the ground. An absolute porker. I'm serious, that squirrel was almost perfectly round.  Picture Veruca Salt after the blueberry incident. A good wind would have sent it rolling across the concrete like a beach ball.

"What does that have to do with a cold winter?"

I wish I could describe the look she gave me. Sort of a mixture of pity and surprise. Whereas most guys in my position might have written her off as a senile old bird, I could just tell she was onto something with this ridiculously fat squirrel. 

"It's only November, and he's ready."

"You think he can tell how cold the winter is going to be in advance?"

"Of course he can Michael. He lives out there."

It's been about 15 years since I had that discussion with Ruth, and ever since then I've paid special attention to the squirrels.

One nice development in that time has been the apparent migration to Park Ridge of the black squirrels of Evanston.  About 20 years earlier, I'd moved from Naperville to Evanston so I could live near my then-girlfriend, who was attending Northwestern. We, uh...sorry Mr. Madden, ..I lived in a studio apartment at the corner of Maple Ave and Dempster Street. One of those great 1920s courtyard buildings with huge radiators, high ceilings, and the little blue and white hexagonal bathroom tiles.

There was an old guy who lived in a garden apartment who'd walk around the neighborhood, using a cane for assistance. One morning, right after I moved in, I noticed him standing in front of the building making a toot toot toot toot sound. After a minute or so, I saw a squirrel approach the old dodger. A black squirrel. I'd never seen a black squirrel before.

"Hey honey, we have black squirrels."

And then, the squirrel ran right up the old guy's cane, and in one motion took the nut that he had been offering in the same hand that held the cane handle. I shit you not.

"Hey honey. The black squirrels are trained to do tricks."

Now that's 31 years ago, and in the interim I've gotten my own apartment again. No more roommates. It's this great old 1920s building in Park Ridge, with big radiators, high ceilings, and those little hexagonal white and blue bathroom tiles.....

Where was I? Oh yeah, the squirrels...

Within the last 5 years or so, our town has attracted these black squirrels. Never used to see them anyplace except the North Shore, but now they're here. So I've been watching them too, looking to see how fat they get before winter, like my friend Ruth taught me.

You can usually tell around Thanksgiving. They start looking a little puffy around Halloween, and if they stay about that same size we're probably looking at an average winter vis a vis how shitty and snowy and miserably gray it gets from December to March.

Now, this morning, it's cold. Unusually cold for December 10th. High teens overnight, and 20s during the day today. It's supposed to warm back up tomorrow, and stay in the 30s and maybe even the low 40s through the beginning of next week.

I usually vary my route to work, so as I left my apartment to drive the two miles to my office today, I decided on Wisner St. That's the street Hillary Rodham used to live on. Wisner and Elm. Nice house.

Just north of there, a block south of Sibley, I noticed one of these black squirrels approaching a large oak tree. Now he was a good 75 feet away so I couldn't at first ascertain his level of rotundity. He didn't seem to be laboring to move, and yet when he reached the base of the oak he didn't just run up the trunk like the Evanston squirrel had done with the old guy's cane. He paused.

By that point I was close enough to see him clearly. I'm not sure exactly how he had gotten across the yard to be honest about it. Up close, I could barely differentiate between his head and his torso. The only way I knew which end was which was the tail, which was twitching as he attempted to crane his neck and look up the tree. Fat ass squirrel. Puffy. Like Costanza in the big down jacket.

I don't know what the absurdly fat black squirrel did about that tree this morning, as I had to get to work. But, it's clearly going to be a cold Chicago winter this year.

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