Memories of my decade in Normal Heights came stumbling back when I received the following email from my old friend Hank, who still lives there:
“Yo, I want to apologize for my rant yesterday. I just had a meltdown. First this job I applied to and interviewed for twice (killer job in Old Town) hired somebody else. So being the little whiner I am, I cruised up to the market to get some brews. Im leaving the place in broad daylight when these two little gangbanger wannabe jackasses pull a knife and tell me to give them my money and my bag! I f-cking lost it! I hit the kid over the head with my bag containing a Mickeys 40 oz., while screaming, ‘You f-cking losers, can’t even rob a guy with a gun?! Go home and show your parents the knot on your head and tell them it’s their fault! Come back, you forgot the bag!’ I totally lost it, dude, how was nobody seeing what was going on? And if they were, why did they not intervene? F-cking world.”
That’s Hank, and that’s Normal Heights and how I remember it — or certainly part of it. But someone did intervene for me in Normal Heights once, though I wasnt under attack from other people.
I was out walking our dog, Alex, a rambunctious, 75-pound pit bull/German shepherd/Lab mix. Rambunctious is being generous. Mostly, she was out of control and required a steel-toothed choke collar on her walks (which in retrospect, with the help of many guilt-inducing programs on Animal Planet, I realize wasn’t helping).
That day we were walking south on Mansfield, north of Adams, when I saw at the end of the block a loose pit bull, a real pit bull, not a hybrid mixed nut like ours. A big brindle pit, with dangling testicles the size of grade-A jumbo eggs. He had one of those intimidating giant heads that looked like a blacksmith could use it for an anvil. This was a hard, mean dog, I could tell right away. I froze. So did the pit. Our eyes locked. Alex was too busy smelling a pile of crap on a lawn to notice the other dog yet. I thought about walking away hurriedly, before she could see the pit, but I was afraid the other dog would run up behind us if I turned my back. Then my savior intervened.
“I can’t believe that goddamn dog is out again, said a bearded young man in tie-dye who was exiting his decrepit VW van at the curb. “Sorry about that. The guy who owns him is just a worthless idiot. Won’t pay to fix his own fence.”
Alex now saw the pit and tried to run at the dog, the steel-toothed collar biting into her neck and holding her back. But she didnt let up; it was like trying to restrain a horse. The pit flinched, looked ready to charge toward us. Alex reared up again.
“You think you could walk us back to the corner,” I asked the tie-dye guy, “and warn me if the dog is coming at us?”
“You bet, glad to, he said. I have an axe handle in the back, lemme grab it.”
He armed himself with his lumber and escorted us to the end of the block, walking backward. I practically had to drag my wired and wild dog. Our bodyguard slapped the axe handle against his palm, as the pit followed us at a steadily decreasing distance.
“I almost hope that dog gives me a reason, he said. “I’m so goddamn tired of dealing with this.”
We made it to the corner, and I thanked him. He turned and ran at the pit bull, cursing at him to go home, swinging his axe handle like a madman. And the pit ran away, tail between its legs, out of sight.
So Good Samaritans do exist, Hank. You’ve been one to me. Hell, even I was a Good Samaritan more than once in Normal Heights. Just ask Ted the Peanut Man, if he’s still with us.
∗ ∗ ∗
My wife and I refer to him as the Peanut Man because it was ten pounds of the nuts in his overstuffed backpack that brought him down one afternoon. Left him on his peanut-bulging spine, helpless as a flipped turtle, in the middle of our neighbor’s yard.
Everyone who lived on that stretch of 34th Street, between Meade and Monroe, was used to finding things on their lawn — condoms from hookers and their tricks, malt-liquor bottles, garbage, dog sh*t, weeds. But finding an actual person stranded on his back was a new one. Always a new one in Normal Heights, you could count on that.
According to my elderly neighbor Vic, who witnessed it from a seat on his porch, this gentleman was walking slowly and unsteadily when the weight of his backpack proved too much. He staggered a bit, then fell back onto the lawn.
Vic said, “His name is Ted.”
From the ground, Ted meekly lifted a hand in joking acknowledgment: that’s me.
He looked to be in his 50s but was probably younger, very pale, his complexion dry and blistered, and he was thin, emaciated really, in a way that suggested a wasting disease. AIDS came to mind.
I asked him what happened.
“They were having a sale…on peanuts…at Rite-Aid,” he struggled to say, out of breath and weak as I lifted him into a sitting position. “So I thought I’d…take advantage of it…and load up.”
“Peanuts? That’s whats in your backpack?”
I removed the backpack from around his shoulders.
“Ten pounds,” he said.
I paused, trying not to laugh.
“How far do you still have to go?” I asked.
“About a…mile maybe. Or two. I don’t know. I live in North Park.”
“And you’re really walking the whole way?” This guy looked in no shape to walk more than a block or two, much less several miles with a half-ton of goobers weighing him down.
“I thought I could make it. I really love peanuts.” He said this last line as if knowing how ridiculous it sounded.
“I guess you do,” I said. “Next time you might want to take a cab.”
“I can’t afford it. And the bus…it’s just not an easy trip.”
I knew what he meant, having taken the bus a lot as a kid. Sometimes, it was quicker going 12 miles than 2, depending on the routes. I offered to give him a ride home, which he accepted with a thank you.
In the car, his breathing seemed to steady and calm. We chatted a bit, mostly about how the sale was too good to pass up; it was enough peanuts for more than a month, at a fraction of the cost. And he really believed he could make it.
“But I don’t think I realized how far it was. Almost dropping dead in someone’s front yard might be a clue.”
I liked Ted and wanted to tell him to call me whenever he needed a ride, but just then we pulled into the parking lot of a dirty-stucco 1960s North Park apartment complex (Three Palms, Palm Gardens, Palmolive, something with a palm in the name). As I came to a stop, I noticed four or five tough-looking young black guys working on a couple of cars. Now, I’m a good liberal, I even have blood relatives who are black, but these guys were daunting, tall and ripped, with (whether they knew it or not) strangely cold expressions. “Pants on the ground” and angry times ten, or so it seemed. Two of them wore blue bandannas, which my honky instinct immediately associated with the Crips. In other words, I was a scared little white boy.
Ted’s apartment was on the third floor, and I knew I’d have to help him up the stairs, but for a moment, I was afraid to get out of the car. At that point, the crew working on their cars realized who my passenger was, and they approached, smiling and waving, looking relieved to see him.
Ted looked at me. “Thank you again, and God bless. I can get out on my own.”
He opened the door, but the biggest guy in the crew, who had some seriously tight cornrows, jumped to help him out.
“Damn, we were worried about you, Mr. T,” the guy said as he eased Ted from the car. “You can’t be wandering away like that, you scare the hell out of us.”
“You ain’t strong enough yet, Mr. T,” said another guy. “You gotta be more careful.”
“We don’t wanna lose you,” said another.
“I’m sorry,” said Ted. “I just had to get my peanuts.”
“I told you I’d give you a ride. You only had to wait a few hours.”
The big guy walked around and shook my hand through the now-open window.
“Thank you so much for helping him out. We were worried sick. I’m Andre, by the way.”
I introduced myself and told him the story of how Ted ended up on Vic’s lawn. Andre responded with a chuckle, both amused and unsurprised, then walked away to affectionately chide Ted, their beloved Mr. T. Andre and his friends helped Ted up the stairs to his top-floor apartment. It would be a long, slow, joyful climb.
∗ ∗ ∗
Shortly before we moved out of Normal Heights, I was rudely awakened at dawn, barely dawn, by mariachi music so blaringly loud I could not understand how it could be real, so loud I couldn’t hear my wife next to me in bed asking…something. I didn’t know whose stereo was blasting it, or how any stereo could, but I was going to find out.
I put on robe and shoes and walked out onto the empty street. How was nobody else out tracking the racket, the way I was? Helen Keller couldnt have slept through this. I looked around for any sign of where this seizure-grade fiesta of noise was coming from. Then, suddenly, the song ended.
Silence. What a relief.
Out from a house across and up the street came an older Hispanic man, the father of the odd family who lived there. I say odd, because once he moved in with wife and two kids and grandma, he proceeded to build an addition onto the back of the house, and this addition looked like an airplane hangar. Shaped like a long box, it was easily twice the size of the original house. I could never figure out what they might be using it for or what was going on in there.
“Excuse me, was that your music?” I asked politely.
He gave me a playful grin. “Oh, yes, but don’t worry, they’re almost done.”
“Can you maybe turn it down a little? It’s kind of loud.”
“It’s Grandma’s birthday, and she loves the mariachi music.”
“But it’s a little too early, don’t you think?”
“We had to surprise her on her birthday. It’s Grandma!”
I wondered how Granny didn’t drop dead from a heart attack, being awakened like this. But Dad went back to the house and closed the door, and as he did, boom, the mariachi music started again, blaring a new tune.
I stood there and thought about what he’d said. Don’t worry, they’re almost done.
They. As in people.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, the song ended. And like something out of Three Amigos — or a silent-movie comedy — the front door of the hangar-house opened and out rushed an entire ten-piece mariachi band in full dress, spangled sombreros as big as umbrellas, toting their shiny instruments. Within seconds, and with an almost choreographed precision, they all piled into a primer-gray van and drove away. Sputtered away, actually.
And that was that. ¡Feliz cumpleaños, abuela! Unfriggingbelievable.
Yes, there was always something new in Normal Heights. Only in Normal Heights.
Keep your head up, Hank.