“I won’t go in there, Rudy.”

“Come on, I buy you a nice chicken.”

“Rudy, if I want a chicken for dinner, I’ll go to the Jewel and buy one that’s killed and cleaned.”

“It’s fresher this way.”

“Forget it. I can’t watch them kill a chicken. I can’t even stand to buy live lobster. What am I talking about? I couldn’t afford lobster alive or dead. But if I could, I wouldn’t buy a live one.”

“All right then, I buy you a nice Hungarian sausage.”

“Yeah, fine.”

Rudy pulled his old Pontiac off Lincoln onto a side street to park. Harrison pulled his hat down further on his neck to ready himself for the cold outside the car. He stepped out of the car into a puddle—it looked like snow, but was slush floating on water. He cursed and then, as if on a tightrope, followed Rudy, placing one food in front of the other in the narrow footpath through the snow.

Rudy opened the door to the butcher shop and Harry’s glasses fogged. It was three o’clock Saturday afternoon and the shop was jammed. The butchers milled about behind the counter, calling numbers, speaking Polish to one customer, German to another, Croatian to the next. Rudy stood next to the display case where the sausages he wanted pressed against the glass. Hungarian hand grenades, Rita called them, partly because of how hot they were, and because of what they did to her when she ate them.

There were seven or eight customers ahead of them. Harry’s eyes wandered until they settled on the little man next to him, his friend, Rudy. He couldn’t help but wonder what a mismatched pair they must have looked to be. Harry was close to six feet tall; Rudy barely five. Harry was slender, almost gangly; Rudy had a chest like a barrel and a belly like a blowfish, with arms and legs so short they seemed to belong to another body—his size was no indication of his strength, Harry knew, for he had once seen Rudy carry a refrigerator on his back up five flights of stairs. Harry had light brown hair and a face that would have been nondescript except for the sour expression he wore; Rudy was ruddy-faced and dark-haired with almond, Slavic eyes and cherubic dimples.

The man behind the counter called a number and stepped forward with a joke in Magyar. The butcher smiled, Rudy belly-laughed.

“Harry, you want some of this, too?”

“No, that’s OK.”

“Take it, my little brother.”

“Rudy . . .” It was too late. The meat was wrapped and in the sack.

Rudy and Harry left the shop and skated back to Rudy’s beater. Another car had pulled in tightly behind them, but Rudy had no qualms about braille parallel parking. He backed up until he heard the firm clash of bumper on bumper, pulled forward against the car in front, butted into the car behind, forward and he was out.

They drove back to Wolcott. Rudy’s wife watched out the window for them and as soon as they were in the alley behind the building she had the door open and was screaming in Hungarian.

“She wants me to take the kid for a walk so she can sit down and smoke a cigarette. I see you, my friend. You tell me tomorrow how much I owe you.”

Rita had already finished her rounds at the hospital when Harry got home. Her sister, Maritza, was there, and some other woman, probably another nurse from Ravenswood Hospital, and the three of them were sitting around the table exchanging Spanish girl talk—something about rubbing grease on a pregnant belly to avoid stretch marks. So who was pregnant? Girl talk.

Qué tal, Harry honey?”


Harry walked past them through the living room and into the bedroom to undress for the shower. His hair in the mirror was speckled with paint, his nostrils were caked with plaster dust. He blew out the dust, turned on the shower, and lay down to let the warm water drum across his chest. He was almost asleep when Rita came to bang on the door.

“Hurry up, honey. Martiza she gotta use the john.”

The hot water had almost run out anyway and there was no sense falling asleep only to wake up when the cold water surged through. He turned off the shower, dried quickly, wrapped a towel around himself, and opened the door. His sister-in-law pushed past him.

“Look out, gringo. I gotta go.”

He though of dropping the towel and mooning her, but she wouldn’t understand, and it would only get him in trouble with Rita.

“Rita, wake me up for dinner. Y no olvides. I don’t care how much I fight it. Wake me up.”

He lay down on the bed and closed his eyes to run his usual test pattern through his head: What the hell was he doing in a six-flat on Wolcott? His family was as American as they come, and here he was, living in a world where English usually filtered through an accent. WASP kids from Wilmette with college educations were meant to work at the Mercantile Exchange or in law offices in the Standard Oil Building. What was he? A goddamn janitor, and an assistant janitor at that.

When Harry went to college, his father insisted he study business administration. “Bullshit,” was Harry’s response. He liked literature, learned Spanish easily, and thought he’d like to teach it some day. And even in the mid-70s, professors filled you full of the crap that money meant nothing, and a life of educated abstinence from the material corruption of your parents was the ideal. So he bought into it and studied Spanish and what had it done for him? Well, it got him a good wife. Rita was the best: she looked after his physical and emotional well-being, made good money, didn’t complain.

They married right out of school and went off to live with her relatives in Santurce, Puerto Rico. Harry found a modest job teaching English at the YMCA and Rita worked in a local hospital. Life had no problems. They had perfect weather, and the relatives, Rita’s aunt and uncle, were happy to have them stay as long as they wanted. But after two years, Harry’s parents felt it was time for him to move back to Chicago and get a real job, and Rita’s parents and sisters thought she should return, too. So, even though it was February, the year’s darkest, coldest month, they left what they had in Puerto Rico and flew home.

Harry thought it would be easy getting a teaching job in the Chicago area with his Spanish and his experience teaching English as a second language. But he wasn’t certified, and outside of the public schools there just weren’t any openings. After a few months of looking he lost interest altogether and started spending the days down at the lake watching the waves beat against the ice on the beach.

Rita had a job in a week, thank God, and they found this three-bedroom apartment on Wolcott for 220 a month. Sure, they’d rather live in Lincoln Park, but who could afford it? And this was closer to Rita’s family and Ravenswood was a block away and she could walk to work.

Rudy owned the building—and five or six others. He’d see Harry hanging around every day and ask him if he wanted to work a few hours. Finally he got so bored and so tired of depending on Rita for spending money that he took Rudy up on it.

So it was two years now, two years of stinking garbage in the summertime and snow shoveling and furnace problems in the winter. But it sounded worse than it really was. They did more driving around than working usually, and sometimes Rudy paid Harry just to keep him company. And living on the street like they were all day could be exciting. Still, it wasn’t what he, his wife, or his family thought he should be doing. He hated to run into friends from high school or college and tell them what he did for a living.

Running the years through his head, Harry fell asleep. When he opened his eyes it was morning. Rita was already gone—she worked an early shift on Sundays. She had probably tried to wake him for dinner and he had probably refused to get up. He didn’t remember anything now, but that was usually the way those things went.

He tried to go back to sleep. Was that the dog scratching at the door to go out? He had to get up before the dog peed on the floor and Lord knows he cleaned up enough shit and pee during the day on the job. He had to get up anyway—Rudy would already be waiting for him in the restaurant on Montrose, drinking his fifth cup of coffee. He threw on his long johns and then his coveralls. On Sunday they did the garbage in Rudy’s building on Lawrence, and it looked like two inches of fresh snow had fallen that would have to be shoveled.

At a quarter to seven, Rudy was being served breakfast in the corner restaurant: two eggs, a thick slice of ham, a grilled tomato, a toasted hard roll.

“Sit down, my little brother, and eat.”

“Just give me coffee first. Jesus, Rudy, how can you eat tomato in the morning?”

“You lucky, my friend. I’m want to eat a feta cheese omelet, but I know you think it smell like somebody pu’ up.”

They sat quietly, Harry staring out at the snow, Rudy folding and refolding the sports section of the Sun-Times.

“So Rudy, what are we doing today? Shoveling?”

“Later. First we do plumbing.”

Harry liked to play plumber with Rudy. It meant going up to Skokie and snaking out some little old lady’s pipes, eating cookies and drinking coffee, and watching Rudy crawl around under the sink. They finished breakfast and threw on their coats. It was the coldest moment of the day for Harry. The walk from home to the restaurant was always executed in a stupor and he could barely feel his feet, let alone the cold. After dinking the restaurant coffee (it must have had the same pH as lemon juice), he was in caffeine nirvana—so on edge he could feel his hair grow. It was freezing now and he felt it.

They trudged out to the car, and goddamn if, as always, he didn’t have to move a half a dozen tools and kid toys from the front seat before he could sit down. And as usual, Rudy didn’t have the exact tool he needed and left Harry to shiver in the car while he went inside for it.

After ten minutes, Rudy came back out with the biggest wrench Harry had ever seen.

“What the hell is that for?”

“I show you when you need it.”

Rudy started the car and they sat until the engine stopped moaning and the heat blew from the dashboard ducts. Then, instead of point the car west toward the expressway that would take them to Skokie, Rudy drove to Clark Street and turned north.

“Where we going?”

“My friend, Mr. Morton, he got a building at Winthrop and Bryn Mawr and the shower don’t work.”

“Nice neighborhood Mr. Morton lives in,”

“Shit, he don’t live there. He don’t even go there.”

“He’s smarter than we are then.”

“That’s why I bring you. You think I go there alone?”

“Well, thanks.”

Mr. Morton’s building was a paint-peeled four-plus-one with half the windows boarded up. Rudy found a place to park down the street next to the hydrant. They pulled the tools out from the backseat and climbed over the drifts toward the building. There was nobody on the street—a bad sign. City folk get nervous when there’s no one around.

The entrance hall wasn’t much warmer than outside, and not much less windy. The wallpaper was stripped from two of the walls and replaced with gang signatures. Someone had broken the lightbulb off at the socket overhead—the naked filament protruded from a glass crown. Rudy pressed a buzzer.

Five minutes later a black-haired lady came to the door carrying a baby. Through the door she called, “What you want?”

“We want Stanislas. We come to fix the pipe.”


Another five minutes passed before a blond man came to the door carrying a child with a frightened expression. The man opened the door with a cold stare.

Rudy addressed him in Polish and the two talked for a moment until Stanislas smiled. The ice was broken, the door swung wide, and Rudy and Harry entered the building.

Rudy and Stan chatted as they walked to a basement apartment. Harry hadn’t the slightest idea what they were talking about. He wondered if Rudy’s Polish was as bad as his English. Didn’t anybody speak English anymore?

Stan knocked on a door. A tall, young black man answered in a bathrobe.

“What is it?” the voice was huskily suspicious.

“The man come to fix the shower.”

“Just a minute.” And the door closed.

Rudy turned to Stan and in a voice loud enough to be heard out on the street, let alone through the closed apartment door, asked, “Lotta schwartzes here?”

“Too many,” answered Stan.

“This used to be a nice neighborhood,” continued Rudy. “Now nothing but animals.”

The man in the apartment opened the door to Rudy’s pronouncement. He glared and Harry felt his own face go red; Rudy didn’t blink. The black man stepped aside and led them across a tiny vestibule to the bathroom.

The apartment was dark and smelled of stale food and insecticide. The bathroom had no window and the only light came from the bare bulb on the ceiling. Underwear hung from the towel racks and the rod that should have supported a shower curtain. Roach carcasses were crushed into the linoleum. Dirt in the corners jutted an inch or two out onto the floor.

Rudy planted both feet in the bathtub. Mud ran from his work shoes. He handed a big wrench to Harry.

“You use this and I fix the water.”

“What do I do with it?”

“Stand there. Lotta animals here. Anyone come and look at you funny, you hit him in the face with the wrench.”

And as if what he had said were perfectly normal, Rudy knelt down in the tub to disassemble the shower spigot. He pried the dial off the wall and used his screwdriver to scrape out the black soap scum that ringed the hole. He took a larger screwdriver from the tool kit and laid its blade against the water pipe that showed through the hole in the wall. He reached for a hammer.

“Rudy, you’re not going to bang on the pipe, are you? It’s eight o’clock, Sunday morning—someone’ll kill us.”

“Nothing else I can do. Lotta junk in the pipe. Rust. I hit, it comes loose, maybe.”

He struck the screwdriver, bouncing it into the pipe with an echoing clang. He hammered. The noise on the pipe was god-awful, and the early Sunday morning hour made the echo all the more resounding.

From the other room: “What the fuck you doing? My old lady trying to sleep.”

“You want water, mister, first you get noise.”

“Rudy, you crazy? Don’t talk like that.” Harry was beginning to sweat but was afraid to take off his parka in case he had to make a run for it.

“This used to be a nice neighborhood, Harry. Now nothing but animals.” And Rudy slipped back into loud Polish for Stan’s benefit. Harry was relieved at least that if they were bad-mouthing the people in the neighborhood, maybe they wouldn’t be understood.

Rudy’s vibes solo lasted ten minutes and brought six angry calls from adjacent apartments, but finally a trickle of brown water leaked from the showerhead. Rudy swung the hammer harder. Stan’s wife came in and whispered something in his ear. He laughed.

“Somebody call a cop. They shoot each other here, nobody call a cop. They call a cop ’cause you fix a pipe.”

Stan, Rudy, and Harry walked out into the hall to meet the police. They passed the glowering tenant standing between the vestibule and the main room of the apartment. From there Harry could see his old lady sitting up in bed, pulling sheets up to her neck. Stan and Rudy were still laughing. Two gray-haired, full-bellied, leather-jacketed cops came down the hall from the stairway, hands on guns in holsters.

“Jesus it stinks in here. Somebody die?”

“What you want?” asked Stan.

“We got a complaint about noise. Somebody said there’s drunks banging on the pipes.”

“No drunks here. We fix the water. This my building.”

“Shit. They called us for that?”

“I don’t call you. Somebody inna apartment.”

The police wrote out their report and left. Harry picked up the tools and helped Rudy put them back in the pouch. The water was running.

“Three more apartment,” called Stan. Harry’s heart sank. Maybe he wasn’t going to live through the day after all. He followed Stan and Rudy into the elevator and up to the fourth floor. Rudy told Harry he could wait in the lobby if he wanted to. No way.

“This one Puerto Rican,” said Stan as he put the key in the lock. He opened the door. There was nothing in the apartment but a bare mattress against the wall and the young apartment tenant was asleep on it. He jumped up and screamed in Spanish when the three strangers entered.

“We come to fix the pipe.”

“You tell him in Mexican, Harry. He don’t understand.”

“I understand fine. Don’t you knock first?”

“You want I should wait all day?” Stan led them to the bathroom—it was as bare as the rest of the apartment with nothing but roaches, some alive and scurrying through cracks in the tile, other flat and dry and dead on the floor.

“Look how these Mexicans live.”

“Rudy, he’s not Mexican, he’s Puerto Rican, and he’s just a kid.”

“Puerto Rican, Mexican, they all live like this.” He paused a moment. “Except your wife family . . .”

Harry cut him off, “Let’s fix the goddamn pipe and get out of here.”

The water was running after 15 minutes of hammering and Rudy’s lament about the demise of the neighborhood. They packed the tools again.

Qué se vayan a la mierda,” the young fellow called as they left.

“What he say, Harry?”

“Nothing. That’s ‘good-bye’ in Spanish.”

Stan took them down to the third floor. “This last one a schwartz, too.”

“You don’t have four?”

“The other lady, she hear the noise and she say she don’t want we come in her apartment.”

“She don’t want water, she don’t get it.” The two of them laughed. Harry wanted to go home.

A slight black woman answered the door on the third floor wearing only a nightgown, and without a word she turned and walked back to her bed, also a bare mattress on the floor. Two naked children stood and stared wide-eyed at Rudy, Stan, and Harry.

“Those her kids?” Rudy asked.

“Her sister’s kids, she say. I don’t know. I think she lie ’cause she got no husband.”

“The neighborhood, Stan.”

“I know. Look, you finish here. The boss he send your check. My wife want me home. She don’t want me inna apartment. She think they gonna stab me.”

Stan left them in the bathroom. Rudy began his litany about the animals in the neighborhood. Harry clutched the wrench, though now he felt more disgust for Stan and Rudy and the roaches on the floor than fear for his life. Rudy’s banging could bring only a trickle from the shower. He put away the tools.

“That’s good enough for the schwartzes.”

As they walked out to the car, Rudy announced that they still had time to shovel the snow and dump the garbage in Greek Uptown.

“Look Rudy, I don’t feel so good. I’ll shovel the snow at home, but can we do the garbage tomorrow?”

“Whatever you say.”

Harry opened his eyes to Monday morning. He hated working on Mondays most of all. Rita was off and they could always use Monday to catch up on lost time. Why hadn’t he finished the work on Sunday? Because Rudy had scared the hell out of him with his big mouth and old-world-Chicago outlook on minorities is why. He rolled out of bed. Goddamn, it wasn’t any warmer than yesterday. He looked outside to another three inches of snow. He pushed the dog out the back door but the dog just stood there on the porch, shivering and barking to come back in.

“God, it’s so cold today even the dog won’t go outside. Rudy, I hate your guts.”

Rudy was at the corner restaurant eating a feta cheese omelet.

“I thought I finish ‘fore you come. You want some, or you wanna pu’ up?”

“I’ll pu’ up, thank you. Just let me drink some coffee.”

“You gotta eat, my friend. Give him coupla egg.”

“Where we going today?”

“Like you say, we do a little snow shovel, little garbage. We go see the Greeks.”

Garbage duty in Greek Uptown wasn’t too bad. Rudy’s building up there off Lawrence was a courtyard building, only the courtyard was in the back away from the street. It was four floors high and the tenants placed their trash in cans on the back porches. Rudy and Harry would roll the big red garbage hoppers from the alley to a point just beneath the porches, climb the stairs, and throw the garbage down from above into the hoppers. There was something very satisfying about dropping a full bag of garbage down four flights into a steel box. Glass broke, bags exploded, liquid flew everywhere.

There was an awful lot of garbage today since they had missed the usual Sunday trip. By the time they got down to the second floor, one hopper was already full and Rudy was standing on the other one tamping down the newspapers and grapefruit rinds, bottles and beer cans. A few bags thrown from the third floor had missed, but cleaning up in the snow was easy—all you had to do was shovel up the snow beneath the mess. And it was too cold to smell bad.

They had almost finished when a door opened on the second floor. A woman called out in a thick Greek accent, “Rudy, you fix my switch?”

“Oh shit, Harry. You finish the garbage and then come right up to help me. I gotta fix her switch and I hope her husband’s home. She’s crazy lady.”

Not three minutes later Harry hadn’t finished the second floor when Rudy opened the door of the crazy lady’s apartment, yelled, “Harry come help buddy,” and then disappeared back into the building.

Harry dropped the bag he was holding, wiped his gloves on the snow on the porch, and went and knocked at the door of the apartment. A woman came to the door; she looked awfully young to have earned the title “crazy.” And her attire was hardly going to turn Harry away—she wore a baby-doll negligee, sheer, barely enough to cover her ample attributes. In fact, the negligee was transparent, a Frederick’s of Hollywood number if ever there was one. She was built well enough to wear it, too. Harry tried hard to be polite and not look, but hell, if anyone was showing and there was that much to see, why not look?

“Where’s Rudy?” he stuttered.

“In there.” She pointed through the living room toward a bedroom. Sure enough, there was Rudy, on his knees with a screwdriver working on the wall light switch and sweating like it’s a hundred degrees and August. Rudy turned to the woman. “Honey, you get us some coffee.” She left immediately for the kitchen.

“Jesus, Rudy, what the fuck you doing?”

“I’m scared I’m going to get my ass killed is what I’m doing. Why you think I called you up here? You know her husband? That big Greek don’t speak no English. If he come home and find me in his bedroom with his wife’s muff hanging out, he kill me. And she know it—she want her husband jealous and he move out of here. With you here maybe she don’t try nothing. You follow me?”

“Coffee,” she called up from the kitchen. Harry went out for a cup; Rudy said he’d be in when he finished the switch.

The woman sat Harry down at the kitchen table and poured him a cup of coffee. The kitchen was so cramped there was barely room for a table and it had to butt up against the counter on one side.

“You want sugar?”

“No thanks.”

“OK, I get you some.” And she reached for the cabinet above Harry’s head.

“Don’t get up. I don’t need any . . .” But she wasn’t listening to Harry and stretched up for the cabinet. Her belly pressed against the table, her right breast hovered through the transparent gown just inches from Harry’s face. He could feel the blushing warmth rising from his neck and spreading to his cheeks.

Suddenly the back door flew open. The woman jumped away from the table. Silhouetted in the doorway was a dark, curly-headed man at least six-three. He threw off his parka and let out a torrent of Greek invectives.

Greek always bothered Harry because it sounded so much like Spanish to him and he felt he should understand it, but strain as he would, he couldn’t make out a word. Following this observation was the thought that someone about to have his brains beat in couldn’t spend time thinking about such inanities.

The woman jumped between the two men, and Harry could tell by her tone of voice, and the look on her husband’s face, that she was not advancing his cause. But he didn’t understand a word. Didn’t anybody speak English anymore?

The man threw his wife into the doorway and unleashed a roundhouse punch with his left fist that connected soundly to Harry’s cheek. Harry fell against the counter, stunned. The Greek followed him and grabbed him by the collar with his right hand, pausing only for another stream of unintelligible invective before cocking back for another crack at Harry’s face.

The Greek had gotten no more than three words out when Rudy flew through the kitchen door screaming in a language that could have been Greek and could have been Hungarian for all Harry could tell. He grabbed the Greek’s cocked arm with both hands and pulled the man backwards. Then one of his two-foot-long legs shot out to join the sole of his boot with the Greek’s knee. The big man went down without a word.

As the Greek lay writhing on the floor, clutching his knee, his wife stood chewing her fingers, clearly afraid that Rudy would hit her, too.

“Take your husband to the hospital,” said Rudy. “I break his knee.”

And with that he began opening and closing drawers like he lived there, muttering under his breath. He found what he was looking for in a drawer by the refrigerator: a box of freezer bags.

“Let’s go, my brother. We go home now.” He turned to the woman. “You lucky I don’t throw you ass out of here. Next time you want I fix something, you make sure your husband home and you cover you tits.”

Harry shook all the way out to the car. The sting in his cheek was turning to a dull throb. Rudy bent down by the sidewalk to scoop snow in the plastic bag. “You put this on you face. Your wife she shit when she see you, you face so red.”

On the way home in the car Harry kept his eyes closed. He should have hit the guy back. Instead he had stood there and listened to the man swear at him in Greek. Crazy.

Rudy’s wife was taking out the garbage when they pulled into the garage behind their own building. She looked at Harry’s purple face, her jaw dropped, and she began to chatter in Magyar.

“Speak English, for Crissake,” shouted Rudy.

“Yeah, dammit, speak English,” Harry thought. If the Greek spoke English maybe he wouldn’t have an ice bag on his face. The eye was swollen shut already. He was afraid to go into the apartment and face Rita. He pulled himself up the back stairs one step at a time, watching his feet with each step. He was so dizzy he thought he’d fall. He opened the door. Rita was standing in the kitchen. She screamed when she saw him.

Ave María purísima! Qué te pasó?

“I walked into a door. I’ll be alright.”

“I’m taking you to the hospital.”

Harry said nothing, but he imagined himself sitting in the emergency room at Ravenswood Hospital in a chair right next to the Greek with his broken knee. He dragged himself to the bedroom to lie down. Rita picked up the phone and dialed her sister and asked her to pick them up in the car and take them to the hospital. The singsong Spanish seeped under the closed bedroom door where Harry lay trying to block everything out of his throbbing head. He was repeating to himself out loud now, “Doesn’t anybody speak English anymore?”