Speaking English, chapter one:

Back then, you used to worry about getting mugged in that neighborhood. Now you have to worry about getting run down by a $1200 baby stroller pushed by some yuppie hopped up on Starbucks Coffee.

          My brother-in-law Pauly kept telling me it was going to happen, that the neighborhood was going to get better, but I didn’t believe him. He had this little bungalow about a mile west of where Sofi and I lived on Chicago’s North Side.

          “I’m tellin’ ya, the neighborhood’s changing,” he told me then.

          “The only thing that’s going to change around here is the condition of your car—and for the worst—especially if you park it on the street,” I answered. “Take a picture of your hub caps so you’ll have something to remember them by, because they’re going to be gone.”

          He held onto his upscale fantasy even on the day we stood looking at the gang graffiti on his garage door, those big triangular letters favored by the Nort’Side Latin Locos street gang, though I could never make out what they said. As far as I was concerned, that was proof that things were in decline. He was boiling mad, but he wasn’t going to let it change his rosy outlook. In fact, he set out that very moment to clean things up with a little de facto community cleansing.  I walked the alleys with him for half the afternoon until he found some skinny 20-year-old with Nort’Side tattooed on his back beneath the straps of his wife-beater T-shirt.

          Pauly grabbed the kid by the arm and said, “I don’t like what you wrote on my garage door, and if it happens again, I’m gonna be looking for you.”

          The kid stuttered in protest.

          “I didn’t do it,” he said.

          Pauly rolled his eyes, turned to me and said, “He says he didn’t do it.” Then he shook the kid and said,    “You don’t understand. “If it happens again I’m going to come looking for you.”

          “But I didn’t do it,” the kid insisted. Pauly shook him harder. “I think he’s hard of hearing,” he said to me. Then to the kid: “You still don’t understand,” he said without raising his voice. “If it happens again, I’m going to come looking for YOU!”

          When he was angry, Pauly had an air about him that you didn’t want to breathe in, lest you burn your lungs. The kid obviously felt it. He still spat defiantly on the alley bricks to save face when Pauly let him go. But Pauly never had to paint over any more letters on his garage door  

          And damn, if the neighborhood didn’t change. Pauly’s little house is worth a half million now, and I wish I’d bought the one next door, like he tried to make me. I joke that he’s hardly even Italian anymore, what with all those rich and fancy folks-- “gentrified,” they call them--all around him. Now, if he were a soft drink he’d be “Dago Lite,” another sparkling yuppie water with just the slightest hint of Italian flavor.

          But Italian nonetheless: He used to joke about all the Dagos in the old neighborhood with their big Cadillacs parked in front of their shitty little houses, as if he were so much less provincial. Now he’s got a Land Rover parked in front of his shitty little house.

          Sofi and I had been married for what?--eight?--years when the accident happened. We’d known each other about two years before that. I was in grad school when we met, and she has always seemed a breath of serenity to me. And I’ve always loved her name: Esperanza Sofía Delgadillo. Esperanza means “hope” in Spanish, and that is what she has always been for me, my hope and my reality. But it’s a big name to carry around and a mouthful to say, so everyone has always called her Sofi.  She was a Chicago girl, sort of, born in Puerto Peñasco, a raggedy little beach town on the Gulf of California in the Mexican state of Sonora, just an hour south of Arizona. She came to Chicago as a child with her parents. Her father started a well known chain of Mexican restaurants called Humberto’s, and he did well enough to send her to the University of the Midwest to study nursing, and that’s where we met.      

          I came from the East Coast, and I really didn’t want to go back there, so I won’t bore you with that part of my life. I tend to ramble on as it is, Lord knows, and I’ve got enough to tell you without it. Anyway, when Sofi got her RN, I dropped out of the doctoral program in Spanish lit at Midwestern U. and traveled with her to Mexico to live with her grandparents for a year, and that was just fine with me. Then Sofi got homesick for her parents and we moved to Chicago, found an apartment and a job for Sofi at Ravenswood Hospital which was so close that she could walk there if the weather wasn’t too ugly.

          I’d been an English teacher in Mexico, and for a year I taught Spanish at the Catholic school at the end of our block, but it bored me, and I started writing freelance stories for this local rag called The Chicago Tattler, which was run by a rat bastard named Mick Headly--though his employees usually called him Dick Headly. He had dropped out of college to start up the paper as an anti-Vietnam rant. But of course, as these things usually go, by the time I met him he’d already turned into one of the very people he started the paper to protest against. Even as he professed allegiance to the proto-typical common man he referred to as “Joe Six-Pack,” he liked to brag about his Corvette, his condo in Aspen and his Malibu beach house. I mostly wrote for him long enough to get clips to present to real magazines and then launched a run of adventure-travel stories in Canada, Europe, the U.S. West and South America, but I’m getting ahead of myself. I thought I was something, and maybe I was. It left some marks on me, so to speak: matching craters on my shoulder, front and back, where the bullet passed through, and a nasty scar on my leg from the surgeries I needed to knit the bones back together. Now and then I still wake up in the middle of the night, sit straight up, startled, thinking I’m in a hut in the Amazon again and wondering who in the hell is the woman in bed with me. Then I realize it’s only Sofi, sweet, sweet Sofi, and after a while, when my heart stops pounding, I fall back to sleep.

          My recollection of every conversation in those days seems like it’s strained through a foreign accent. Sofi’s parents only spoke Spanish, and Sofi’s English had an enchanting Latin lilt, though otherwise, she spoke it perfectly—or maybe better than perfect since I loved her accent. I had a bunch of names back then: Pauly called me “Mikey.” Sofi called me “Miggy,” which was short for “Miguelito” which is what everyone called me in grad school. When she was in a joking mood, she called me “Guero,” which sounds like “Where-oh,” a Mexican word meaning “Blondie”; the Mexicans used guero to refer to light-haired Mexicans or Anglos in general, kind of like when the Blacks used to call us “Whitey,” except without the edge or the intended insult. Rudy, whom I worked for, called me “Mischa” or “Mischa-batchi,” the latter part added for respect. But Rudy’s three-year-old son, who drew hard lines between his father’s Hungarian friends and his English-speaking friends, would say, “That’s no batchi, that’s Mike.”

          Rudy was the janitor in our big apartment building, a little boiler-chested trickster, five-four and 165 pounds at most, a guy who never seemed to give a straight answer to any question. He worked a building down the block, owned another up in Ravenswood, and took care of a couple more in Greek Uptown that were owned by his aunt. He could do carpentry, plumbing, painting, electrical work and who knew what else. When his wife, Nadia, went into labor with their second child, the baby came so quickly that they didn’t have time to get to the hospital, so Rudy, the ultimate handyman, delivered it in his bathtub, cut the cord with a kitchen knife and took care of everything.

          But his judgment was sometimes seriously fucked-up, even though he never seemed to get in trouble. He was always starting arguments with cashiers at the hardware store, and each time, he’d get them so flustered that he’d walk away with $20 change for an item he’d paid for with a ten-dollar bill.

          We were riding in his old Pontiac once and he gave the finger to some tough guy who’d just cut him off. The tough started chasing us, and when he pulled up alongside, Rudy took his son’s toy cowboy gun off the front seat and pointed it out the window.

          I squished down in the passenger seat waiting to die, but the tough guy was just as scared. He hit the gas and spun away, right as a police officer put on his party lights and pulled Rudy over. The cop jumped out of the car, drew his own gun and pointed it with two hands as he did a crouching Groucho-Marx walk up to the driver’s side window. Rudy was unfazed, and when the cop saw that it was just a cap gun, he started laughing and let Rudy off without so much as a ticket. If it were you or me, we’d be hauled off to the slammer, but Rudy had a charm about him.

          It never really made sense to me that I ended up working for Rudy, given how different we were and what different backgrounds we came from.

          I’d recovered physically from the “accident,” but I still couldn’t get my head in gear to do much more than walk the dog down Clark Street and watch people slip on the ice. We had a big snowfall that winter, and I was unexplainably seized with the desire to do something strenuous after months of lying around, so I asked Rudy if I could help shovel the snow.

          “You push that like you grew up onna farm,” he told me. “Lotta city boys they don’t even know how to use a shovel.”

          Well, OK, I mean, how hard is it to use a snow shovel? But, whatever.  Then Rudy asked if I wanted to help him now and then. And I didn’t, really.

          One evening about a week later, there was a knock at my back door, and it was Rudy. Simon, the dog barked, then when he saw Rudy, he licked his hand and then pushed by him and scrambled down the steps to take a long leak against a telephone pole in the alley. Technically, I wasn’t supposed to have a dog, but Rudy seemed to ignore that fact at first.

          “Whatch his name?” he asked.

          “Simon,” I told him. We pronounced it the Spanish way, and it was a bit of a joke. The chavos, or young Mexican dudes, said “simón” as an emphatic way of saying “yes.” Instead of sí, they said “see-MOAN,” hitting the second syllable hard and dragging it out. In effect it meant “you-betcha” or “yessirree” or “frickin’-A” or something like that, and it fit the dog, because like any Labrador retriever, he was always so enthusiastically ready for anything, whether going to the lake for a swim or taking the garbage bags down the dumpster in the alley. It had been a challenge getting Sofi to accept him at first, because Mexicans from Mexico don’t really understand the concept of having an animal in the house, let alone in an apartment. But I insisted, and eventually, Sofi warmed to him.

          “You know, you lease says no dogs, right?” Rudy said in a conspiratorial voice.  “But I don’t say nothin’, because you my friend and he seem like a nice dog.” He kind of had me over the barrel, and it was his set-up for what he asked next. He had a lot of work to do the next day, and he was willing to pay me to help. The dog raced back upstairs, shivering and ran back into the kitchen.

          Rudy and I stood there on the third-floor landing for a long instant looking around for something to soften the awkwardness of the moment. There was a shiny new BMW parked in the fire lane beneath the stairs and Rudy asked if I knew whose it was.

          “Yeah, it belongs to that jackass in unit 3,” I answered.

          “So he gotta new car,” Rudy snorted. “I told him three times not to park there.”

          I’d had words of my own with the fellow. He’d asked me once to help him carry a couple of air conditioning units down to the basement and said he’d pay me twenty bucks. I guess I looked indigent or something, but I was bored enough to say yes, and then with the chore done, he told me he’d pay later and then never did.         When I told that story to Rudy, he changed subjects.

          There was a monster icicle hanging from the roof above my back porch, as thick around as my leg and probably six feet long. It loomed dangerously over the alley.

          “You know, if that icicle break, it could hurt somebody,” Rudy said.

          I’d left my kitchen broom on the landing outside my door, and without another word, Rudy picked it up and poked at the icicle right where it hung from the rain gutter. It let go with a sliding crack, broke into three chunks and landed with a cymbal crash. When we looked over the railing, the BMW had a bird-bath-sized indentation in the hood and the ice chunks were spread around the front of the car.

          Rudy acted like nothing happened. I didn’t say anything, but I appreciated the outlaw attitude of the gesture, and I decided right then to work for him.

          Later that evening I was having a beer in Pauly’s refinished basement, and when I told him about my decision, Pauly took me to task.

          “All that education and you’re going to be a janitor? What the hell is that all about?” he said.

          Fortunately, I didn’t have to answer. Pauly was sitting on a stool behind his wood-paneled bar, flipping through channels when a soft-porn channel flashed on. His big-screen filled with a soft-focus image of a nude woman cavorting with a muscular man in a sudsy bathtub.

          “Jesus, will you look at that,” he said.

          I looked, and my glasses might have steamed up.

          “Christ, I’d pay money just to see those tits,” Pauly said, squirming on his stool to get a better look. “That guy’s getting paid... to suck them!”

          He rolled his eyes and snorted, “Where the hell was I on career day?”

          My new career was forgotten by Pauly.

          Sofi had nothing bad to say about it because we needed the money and she was so happy I was doing something more productive than hanging out with Simon the dog.

          And so was I. It was better than thinking. And the work was easy.         Every day, I’d shovel snow and vacuum the hallways in the building I lived in and one other, make sure the garbage stayed in the dumpsters and occasionally do painting or other minor repairs. I’d spend every afternoon in the basement of the building down the block, manning the garbage chute and shoveling its contents into the furnace. I’m sure it was illegal to burn trash, but no one really seemed to notice.

          The tenants all seemed to think that the chute went into some forever unseen chasm, perhaps directly into the furnace, and they threw down all sorts of ungodly delights, usually with enough detritus--an envelope maybe--that would betray who the owner was. An attractive young nurse upstairs, for example, dumped a box full of hard-core porn, parts of the text underlined in red as if she had studied it carefully for a college class. An old lady threw out naked photos of her and her boyfriend, and I couldn’t get them into the furnace fast enough.

          I had to stay on my toes: Every now and then I’d have to dive out of the way when I’d hear the angry slide of incoming garbage roaring down the open chute, and I was unable to close the trap door quickly enough. It would hurl against the cinder block wall directly across, shattering bottles, spreading slop and exploding plastic bags, all of which I’d shovel into the furnace, too.

          Mostly Rudy paid me to keep him company, filling me with his half-baked philosophy as we rode around town in his big old Pontiac, breaking language barriers.