Monday, July 28, 2008

Hidden Treasures

The other night Jo suggested that we get together with a couple of friends for lunch next weekend. The mention of them sparked a thought in my usually idle bean. You see, our friends, (to protect their anonymity, we'll call Jim and Rhonda) own and operate a pizza place. In itself that's not very unusual but, what is unusual is that their place has no identity outside of the town where it lies. Now, don't get me wrong, everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) that lives or ever has lived in or around their town knows and loves their pizza.
To make things even more interesting, the little "shop" isn't in town but a mile or two from downtown and has no sign or any other indication that it even exists. They don't deliver, you can't eat in, but ask anyone in the area and they can recite the phone number without giving it a thought. I could tell you what road it is on and defy you to find it although it sits only a few feet off the road in plain site. Anyway the thought of their "mystery pizza place" reminded me of a number of similar places that I had run across in the past. Unfortunately most of them fell into the evil grasp of success which eventually choked them to death. (or at least altered the quality and flavors that made them special originally) Some of my earliest recollections of such places were in downtown Chicago. There was "Sasha's" which you entered through an alley just a block off "The Magnificent Mile". Once inside you were greeted by pure elegance and gourmet food. Sasha's was noted for it's exquisite soups. A few blocks away, on Rush Street, mostly known for it's night clubs and bars, two more real treasures were nestled among the dozens of bars. The first one was simply called "The Shrimp House" and that's what it was, simply a shrimp house. It looked like a little house and it sold shrimp. Another two blocks north was, at least in my mind, the jewel of Rush Street, "The Bon Ton" which from the street resembled a little pastry shop. Once inside, you were met face to face with a display case filled with eclairs, napoleon slices and an assortment of cookies and other sugary delights. That was cool but no surprise for a place that looked like a pastry shop. The surprise was a few steps beyond the display case where there were six or seven small tables filled with "in-the-know" patrons feasting away on Kabobs and Goulash. That was pretty much the menu. Lamb or beef Kabobs or Hungarian Goulash with Spatzel. The good part was that while you waited for a table you could munch away on some of the pastries. Getting hungry? Let's head three or four blocks west. What a difference a few blocks can make. We just left the magnificence of Michigan Avenue and the glitz of Rush Street for the gloom of north Clark Street. The street is dark by comparison to it's eastern neighbors, the bars, restaurants and chic shops are replaced by nondescript store fronts and seedy hotels. The area falls just short of a "Skid Row" designation. A small neon sign in the window of one of the store fronts flickers, and a group of fairly well-dressed folks form a line along the dimly lit street. This is the home of "Ding Ho", a small (eight or ten four seat tables at the most) Chinese restaurant serving some of the best food in the area. Like The Bon Ton, you brought your own beer, wine or liquor. Glasses and openers were provided. On any given night you would probably run across artists, photographers, writers and musicians some of which were pretty famous some were just hungry. On most evenings you might notice a shadowy bearded figure at a corner table chop sticks in one hand and a pen in the other. A sketch pad shared the small table with eggrolls and some other steaming dishes. A closer look determines that the bearded diner was Shel Silvertein, the cartoonist, songwriter, kid's book creator, who ate there anytime he was in Chicago. Hey, I'm getting off track. I could go on and on about places like these in Chicago. Back in those days (the 50s and 60s) you could go from neighborhood to neighborhood a discover some kind of hidden eatery. Usually the were related to the ethnicity of the neighborhood and only known to those living in the area. But, let's get back to the truly hidden places, like my friends pizza place. I think the phenomenon more common in small town locations. Back in the 50s and 60s a lot of what are now suburbs of Chicago were actually small towns. Two such places immediately come to mind. They were both in Palatine, Illinois (which is were Jo and her family moved in the 50s). At that time once you left the municipal area you were out in the "country". Right on the edge of town was medium sized two-story house. Nothing special but if you watched it for a while you would notice people going in and coming out in twenty minutes or so with kind of a satisfied look on their faces. Aha! A house of pleasure. Upon closer investigation I discovered that it certainly was a house of pleasure. That pleasure being one of the best hamburgers that you'll ever chomp into. I later found out that the place was called Brandts. Not a big surprise considering the family that ran the place were named Brandt. They lived upstairs and had a small bar and a few tables downstairs and only served burgers. As the area grew and Palatine became a large suburb rather than a small Brandt's secret got out and as it became a "hep" place for the growing yuppy population the menu also grew expanding to steaks, salads and seafood. I'm not sure if it's still there but the last time I drove by I did see that progress had reared it ugly head. A small neon sign that read "Brandts" was in one of the first floor windows, a neon beer sign (imported) glowed in another and quite a few BMWs and Volvos were parked outside. A mile or two west on the highway was, what could have been a distant relative to Jim and Rhonda's place. This was Charlotte's. Charlotte's sold pizza and lots of it. Unlike J and R's it was fairly large and had eat-in capabilities. But like J and R's it had no signage and you could pass by without being aware that it even existed. I'm not an expert about the place but JoAnne grew up with Charlotte's and a little drop of drool forms at the corner of her mouth when I mention it. I may have been there once with Jo not too long before it fell to either the wreckers ball or a stray match. I guess I've run on long enough. Hopefully I may have caused you to remember similar places in your past. Right now I'm getting a little hungry. Too bad I don't know J and R's secret phone number. I guess I'll have to run down to Brandt's for a burger.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Just Stuff

I guess that I'm getting a little lax with my blogging. It just seems like time is zooming by lately. The sad part is that I'm not keeping very busy although I don't seem to have time for much stuff.
Because of a extremely fertile growing season the yard is in constant need of attention. I've done a little (very little) of the yard work but kept things pretty well under control by supervising the highly skilled "Yard Maintenance Crew" (Jo). Unlike so many of the surrounding areas, we do need to water the flower garden regularly. It's a small price to pay to have a yard filled with lovely flowers verses the devastation of the recent flooding. I did join a group from our church a few weekends ago to assist members of a church, St Johns in Avoca, clean up (rip out) their basement which had, at one point, contained almost six feet of water. (At one point the entire town was under about two feet of flood water) It was really refreshing to see a group of strangers pitching in to help those in need. Almost without a word, everyone took a position, cheerfully dug (literally) in and went about their tasks. In about four hours the basement was stripped, the remaining water and sludge was being pumped out and the workers, many were strangers earlier but had become friends by noon, joined each other in a different kind of digging. Digging into a "pot luck" lunch provided by church members as well as by some of the volunteers. For a short time that Saturday morning the joy of fellowship overshadowed the sadness of the situation. After that experience, I find myself feeling thankful that I'm part of this caring community and a little more secure knowing I'm part of that same community.
On a lighter note, last Sunday we joined in a completely different kind of fellowship. JoAnne and I joined Sally and Uncas as their new dachshund puppy, Sammy, met, for the first time, his "cousins" Tina and Snoopy, Derek and Jeanna's dachshunds. We picked a neutral site at a State Park in Minnesota for the meeting. The older dogs accepted Sammy and tolerated his constant nagging to play a little more. All went well as the exuberant puppy wore himself out while the humans just relaxed watching (and photographing) the animal antics. I took some videos that will probably only be shared with close relatives (Grandmas). After the pixels settle I'll swipe a pic or two from Jo or Sally to post here.
Today I want to include a couple of random photos from the past week.

The Fertile Ground.
Top Left: Yard Maintenance Crew at work.
Top Right: Plants are so eager to take root that they can't wait for soil bags to be opened.
Bottom Left: Area is so fertile that flowers even grow out of concrete.
Bottom Right: Even our neighbors have a dog growing out of their driveway.

Work Day at St Johns, Avoca, Wisconsin.

View from Bluffs State Park where doggie play date took place.

One of those scenes that I usually pass up and regret later.
This time, I turned around, went back and shot a few photos
of these two couples fishing on the Mississippi backwaters.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Summer Warning

Yesterday morning, before our Sunday service began, our Pastor, made an astonishing announcement. Actually it was a warning which should be heeded by all midwesterners, especially those living in small towns. His warning was simple and straight forward, "please remember to lock your cars in the parking lot". Then he went on to remind us that this time of year there is a serious outbreak of vandalism. People, usually friends, neighbors and even relatives, engage in a practice so hideous that I hesitate to put it in writing. I try to keep my blogs "G" rated but this has to be an exception. Are the kids away from the monitor? Okay, here it is. ZUCCHINI! Every year about this time the killer vines spring to life and start bearing their fruit. And, the owners of these vines, who, once again, under estimated the production capacity of the few seeds that they scattered along the edge of their charming little gardens, find themselves up to their squash laden elbows with these shiny green tubes. Right around mid-harvest the gardeners' alter-egos kick in. That normally sweet, quiet little old lady down the street becomes a sneaky, conniving, bearer of tubular tidings. She, and her cohorts can be seen armed with bulging bags roaming the streets trying car doors, dropping bags on porches and even convincing little kids to take a bag home to their mommies. Coworkers drop off plain brown bags on your desk. Some send them to you in interoffice mail and FDS is considering starting a service where zucchini is incorporated into floral bouquets. There is probably no single fruit or vegetable (actually it qualifies as a fruit but is used as a vegetable?) with so many uses, most of which are edible. If you were to type "Zucchini" into Goggle you would find over five hundred twenty-two billion recipes for it. And that's not counting the ones for leftovers. So, consider yourself warned. And remember that right behind zucchini season is the string bean and the dreaded tomato invasion.

Friday, July 11, 2008

A Noncub Fan

As if being a Cub fan isn't trying enough, I entered a different kind of fandom. (Ha spellcheck) Last weekend, JoAnne decided that the bathroom fan, that hasn't worked for the fifteen or so years that we've lived here, should be replaced. Being the handy guy that I am, I headed off to our not so near-by Menards store. Nothing to it (I thought) just take down the old one, attach a couple of wires, tighten a few screws, Voila! and we would be properly exhausted. Good game plan but, the easiest part was turning off the electricity and unscrewing the light bulb. Seems that the unit was installed first and the bathroom was built around it. Well let's take a look at the instruction for the new one. Now it's starting to look a little more complicated. I looked at the old installation, then back at the shiny new pieces, then back to the instructions, then off to the local lumber yard looking for a real handyman. There was no one handy at the time so we admired the hole in the bathroom ceiling for a couple more days. In an effort to do something busy looking while Jo mowed, weeded, watered and pruned our yard and the surrounding neighborhood, I tampered with the old fan unit which had accumulated, at least, a half of a century of dust and grim. I scraped and brushed and vacuumed until something resembling a little motor with a fan attached appeared out of the pile of debris. I plugged it in to an outlet and slowly the little blades started lurching into action. "Holy Crap!" it was working. I immediately (actually the next day) ran to the bathroom and after a few oops and oh ____s, I had reinstalled the old unit. Now the real test, flip the switch. Yes! It was working and only a little less noisy than the fans at Wrigley Field. Maybe if I put a Cubs' Banner in the bathroom, noise won't be too annoying.

I promised pictures of Hosta Heaven.
Here's Hosta
(Not really our yard but very similar)
Actually Dubuque Botanical Garden

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Summer Time

At last, it looks like summer is here to stay. Hot and humid with thunderstorm watches and warnings. I'm finally learning the difference between a watch and a warning as well as which siren means fire and which one means tornado (a handy thing to know in either case. Like most towns around us, we have a complete volunteer fire department so the siren is the ultimate call to arms, so to speak). We have survived the stormy season so far. Although, I did experience some large hail the other day. Hardly worth talking about, only the size of a nickel. Can't even buy penny candy with anything the size of a nickel. Other communities around here got Quarter sized and some golf ball sized. Now, that's worth something. (Do you know how much golf balls are going for these days?) Besides the half-tree loss that I mentioned a couple of blogs ago, the only weather related setbacks were a couple of clogged gutters. Not nearly as dramatic as Sally and Uncas' tree bearing gutters. (Also mentioned a few blogs back) Speaking of clogging, I recently attained the Email address of another old friend. The reason that clogging reminded me of that old friend, Barb, who was a freelance writing partner, a client and a friend, is that she married a real "Doer", Trey, who flies (both planes and the fishing kind), and anytime the occasion arises, dons his kilts and blows a mean bagpipe. Being the ever devoted wife, Barb has joined Trey in his many endeavors which brings me back to clogging. I could say that the sound of my clogged gutters resembled that of a poorly tuned bag of air. But that's not it. But consider this, Barb and Trey, a handsome couple I may add, wearing kilts with the pipes (drum I believe in Barb's case) hung from one shoulder a creel over the other, both wearing bright tartan kilts and olive drab rubber waders striding across the tarmac to their waiting biplane, leather helmets and goggles in place and white scarfs blowing in the breeze. Now that's clogging if I've ever seen it. In all fairness to Barb and Trey, I do envy many of their endeavors (Not counting bag piping) and I am hoping to renew our friendship through, at least, the internet. All in all the internet has been a wonderful tool in rekindling a number of old friendships and hopefully many more in the future. So far I've remet (I love to throw in words like this to rile up my spell check) a friend that I grew up with, both physically and professionally, a couple of good friends who influenced me so much with their photographic talents, and a kid who became such a close friend that was considered part of the family. It has also allowed me to keep in touch with family and friends across the nation, a thing that is so enjoyable in my elderlyness (Take that spellcheck!)

A quick pic of yours truly with Mom on her 96th birthday fighting over bag of popcorn!
(She's a lot stronger than she looks)

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Cubs turn 50

The Cubs' bats finally woke up last night. With a 9 to 2 win over the Giants they reached their fiftieth victory for the year. The win could be due, in part, to the fine dining in San Francisco although on a recent trip to that city, I could not find one restaurant that served a decent plate of Rice-o-Roni. After grieving through 4 straight loses I finally got a chance to fly my "W" flag today. Hopefully I can leave it up for a few more days. Speaking of the Cubs. A couple of days ago during one of my many day dream periods, I wondered why the Cubs keep being so hard on me. It's not bad enough that they haven't won a World series in a hundred years but, must they constantly mess with me with nearly unpronounceable players' names. I no sooner master Nomar Garciaparra and they trade him. Then at last we had guys with names that we could, not only say, but spell. We got names like Lee, Soto, Lilly, Wood and Ward. But, then they bring in Kosuke Fukudome, Jose Eleazar Ascanio, Aramis Nin Ramirez and two silent "T" guys Fontenot and Theriot. Fortunately I did get a pronunciation education at a game earlier this year from a nine year seated directly behind my right ear (that's the good one). He not only knew every players' name but he knew the correct pronuniation which he repeated over and over and over and over and over again during each player's entire at bat in a shrill and squeeky little voice that could crack the caramel off your Cracker Jack. Well, I have to hit the couch for a little afternoon nap so I can stay awake for another victory tonight. These Left Coast games are real killers not starting until after 9 pm and lasting until close to midnight.
I'll leave you with a quote that I ran across the other day.
"Programming today is a race between software engineers striving to build bigger and better idiot-proof programs, and the Universe trying to produce bigger and better idiots. So far, the Universe is winning."

Couldn't resist getting a little arty with the pic!