Saturday, September 26, 2015

Last Night at the Metro

From this day to the ending of the world
…we in it shall be remembered…We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
~ from Henry V (1599) by William Shakespeare

It has been many years since I routinely rode the commuter train from my hamlet into the city of wide shoulders known as Chicago, but earlier this summer I did again for a special reason. Me and Smith (my cane) got on the rails so that we could be there one last time to celebrate and mourn the passing of the Metro Deli and Bar in Union Station where I had so many happy times.

The first time I went into the Metro was while I was working very late and waiting on a train.  This is the first time I met Roben, the bartender, who I didn’t realize at the time would become such a good friend in the future.  There was a lot going on in those days.  At the time I was working for a large consulting firm and with the collapse of Enron, and then their accountancy, I would work sometimes until 9:00 in the evening trying to play an advantage for my group, trying to gain clients and talent.  I did a lot of profiling and proposals and sometimes even spent the night on a cot in my office. A great respite became going into the Metro to have a pre-train nightcap and chat with Roben. I studied English and Psychology in college and she was highly literary as well.  Some nights I was the only one in the bar so we could talk books and make jokes that only we understood.  Some nights there was a guy there who I later learned everyone referred to as Tequila Johnny.  He was a very young but brilliant mathematician who would play pool and do bird calls when he wanted liquor. John had lots of personal problems. Nevertheless, I liked him and I used to talk to him a lot as we rode the train home together.  A classic case of “A Brilliant Mind.”

Later on after my work died down a bit, I would go into the Metro to visit Roben and write in my notebook to unwind before going home to a loving albeit chaotic house with many children all around. One night two guys, bankers, were sitting next to me. I was eavesdropping, because that is what you do as a writer, and they asked, “You’re not writing about us, are you?”  I said “No, but you’re having an interesting conversation.”  They laughed and that is how I met Adelphia and Green Bay Ray (who always wears the colors of his team).  We talked a bit and after that I was always invited into their conversation, which I appreciated.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the band of brothers first came together and became so tight. I think it was two instances. One was the overdose death of Tequila Johnny who we all loved and all thought was finally on the right path. The other was 9/11 when we couldn’t get out of the city, huddled together and watched the news on the multiple TV screens.  For some reason after both of those incidents we gravitated to each other and drew others in.  Over time, years, we became a band of brothers that took over a corner of the bar and couldn’t go home without being together and sharing a beer before we got on the train.  Now we are inseparable. We all have lunch together, go to baseball games, hold annual barbeques, and go on trips together. We have shared weddings, births, christenings, and funerals as a pack. 

We are an eclectic group but essentially a “mutt collection.”   Those in our crowd are construction workers, county clerks, lawyers, bank employees, printers, engineers, IT executives and salesmen. Some of us are white, Latino, and black. One of the nice things about our group is that no one really pays attention to that kind of stuff or what we do. It’s always about who we really are.

Lest you think we are exclusively a boys club there are plenty of girls (Kim, Melissa, Julianne…) that have been brave enough to join the band.  One of my favorite stories is about One-Eyed Jack. He is a highly cynical, angry guy and cantankerous as all hell. He literally does have only one eye. The other is milky blue. One of the girls that infiltrated our band was a lonely and sometimes miserable girl named Terri.  She worked hard, lived alone and was trying to take care of her mother who was starting to fail. One night in the Metro she met One-Eyed Jack. I don’t know how it all went down, what happened between them, but I must say it was one of the most fun weddings I ever went to and they’re still going.  They were even written up in the Chicago Tribune as part of a story on coincidental love stories.  Love seeing them every Christmas when we do the ceremonial wearing of the silly hats.

Not every moment in the Metro was easy. There was a man there that came in every day named Donny.  Donny did not like me. In fact, he hated me, but I didn’t know why.  I kept trying to talk to him but he would say things like “If you talk to me again I will poke your eyes out.”  Donny was a six foot four, heavy guy of Russian descent that lived in Cicero with his mother and looked like a very sketchy Mr. Clean.  I didn’t press.  One day though Donny came in with a bag. It was filled with what looked liked magazines.  I took a chance and asked him what they were. He grunted and said “On Tuesdays I buy comic books.”  I like comic books too so I asked to look at them. We started talking about comics and my eyes were safe thereafter. My favorite images of Big Donny are when he let us dress him up as a reindeer at Christmas; him dancing with a small flower girl at Jack and Terri’s wedding, and him begging me to stay with him at the Metro. I always said I have to go at 6 and he would cock an eyebrow and say, “Come on, T.S., why not 6 and ½?” I grew to love Big Donny very much. My wife was also enamored by him because they shared a dance at the wedding. It was probably one of the saddest days of my life when I received the call that his mother found him dead in his bed. There was no memorial, no funeral. I didn’t know what to do, so I sent his Mom a nice note of remembrance and a comic book.

I made a lot of great and unexpected friends at the Metro.  Roben and Jess; Timmy, who together we used do random improv pretending we were Sean Connery and Michael Caine; Mojica, the mayor of the bar; Moose, the old railroad man;  Palooka Paulie who always talks like he lives in the forties; Lougheran, who I served as best man at his wedding; Green Bay Ray, a very kind and generous man; Curtis, who hosts the annual BBQ; Craig, who I go to a lot of Cubs games with and I trust more than anyone, and so many others...  
The thing is that you have to always keep your mind open to meeting new friends even in strange places because you never know where they might turn up, and how they will become a part of the fabric of your being. I’ll miss the Metro but I’m not going to miss the friends I made there because they will always be my unexpected stranger train friends and I know they will always be there with me. After fourteen years, they’re more like family.

“Strangers are just friends I haven’t yet met. “  ~ Irish Proverb