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.