MAY 25, 2012 5:04PM

Back to the Garden

Rate: 20 Flag


We’re still here, at Walker’s Restaurant.

Oh, the building is gone. As are most of our neighbors. Tucked back across Irving Park Road, you’ll find traces of the Selig Polyscope Corporation—a 200-acre movie studio and lot. Traces of the studio still remain…an archway. A building that once housed lights and stage props and costumes. A crumbling water tower that once loomed over the lots where Mister L. Frank Baum himself would tell the stories of his Wizard of Oz.


That’s when he wasn’t sharing the better parts of the Oz story at a hearty midday meal here with us. Or warming our dining room and tavern in the evenings, with further tales of Dorothy. Speaking while candlelight flickered on red-checked table cloths and winter winds swirled up snows, as darkness fell.


Quite a talker, that Mr. Baum.

Now, it’s a bit easier to find out about him than it is to find anything about Angela and I.


Someone made another movie about Mr. Baum’s Wizard, long after Mr. Selig and his Polyscope machine operation moved west to California. In the other Wizard movie, a young lady from Minnesota once known as Francis Gumm sang a song called Somewhere Over The Rainbow, and no one ever forgot the way she sang that song. So it’s a lot easier to find out about Frances Gumm,  Judy Garland to most of us, than it is to find out about our restaurant.


But you can still find Walkers Restaurant. Even though we’re in no books, no movies or song. You can still find Walkers Restaurant.


You might begin to find us in much the same way Mr. Baum would have us all find Oz. At the end of a meal, chairs pushed back from the tables, the room turning dark, only the sound of the story and the wind. Listen hard. Close your eyes. Concentrate. . . .


And here we are. You’ve found Walkers.

Here’s how you know: it’s because you can still smell the fresh oregano from Angela’s garden. Just a trace, but it’s there. It’s that moment just after the warm summer rain. Just afterwards, for a moment, you think it’s your imagination. But it gets stronger, first the oregano, then basil. Then comes the sun-blessed warmth of the tomatoes. Like life’s abundance itself can take this bursting red juicy form and you can hold it all, right in the palm of your hand.


You begin to see it all  as if you too were in the restaurant.


She would farm the tiny, green, smiling herbs like da Vinci would draw his preliminary sketches. She’d blend the tomatoes and the herbs into sauces that tasted as if warm rain and summer sun had wrapped a hand around the wooden stirring spoon. The pasta spread out rolled and cut every morning on her table in a white-floured haze. The sausage came from the Lincoln Avenue shops to the east of us. The leafy greens picked from gardens just outside our back door. And the bread? As if heaven was something fresh you could break a piece off of and made even better, as you reached for the creamery butter.


She started every day like da Vinci. She finished with a meal that was the Mona Lisa smile.


For years, before the restaurant, it was just the two of us.


We lived east of Mr. Selig’s Movie Studio. A tiny white house near the factories that lined the railroad chugging celery from our neighbors’ farms down to Chicago, six miles south.


Both Angela and I worked at the stately bank that anchored the corner of Lincoln and Grace. We were safe.


But with time the celery farms got smaller, the honkytonks along Clark Street got louder, and the money that began flowing into our corner of the world, the money started taking a narrower route. Working at the bank meant we could see it more clearly than most.


Chicago was bursting out in every direction. The land became more and more valuable. And those who owned the land, those few, began to get very wealthy. Oh, there were the factory owners. They made choir robes and trumpets and drum mallets here. And there was Dr. Abbott. His idea of making medicine into a tablet made him a tidy profit. There were some world-shakers.


But there was a 1% then, too – those who owned the houses past which the rivers of money flowed. We saw them at our church every Sunday. We were just the ones counting their money, the couple never blessed with children of our own; they were the ones seemingly blessed with it all, families and wealth, property and status.


As the years passed at the church, in the streets, in the bank, as the money and the people flowed in; that 1% with the money began to speak to us politely, but only when they had to.


The celery farms had shrunk and a city was rising. The newly rich banded together. Whether for protection, out of fear, or simply the natural course of things, there were those on the inside and those on the outside of a new circle of wealth.


We were on the outside. We weren’t poor. But we weren’t rich. What does one do with childless bankers?


Then came the anonymous hate letter from the member of the church. Left on our doorstep in darkness. Anonymous only till the next business day, as the author used her full real name. Not the name most knew her by. But the name on her bank account. Available to any banker.


The exact wording of the secret letter, not important. But the message was clear. You’re different. You don’t belong. Get out.


And it was that letter that led us to what would become our restaurant. Because the first thing that we did when we got the letter was go walking. We loved to walk Grace and Byron Streets, over by the movie studio. We saw the lot across Irving Park Road. We both knew it instantly. It was as if that land had a shaft of surprise sunlight all its own. Angela could cook like an angel. I could keep the front of the house. The workers from the movie studio and the quarry just down Western Road would come. It would be like a neighborhood for families of all shapes and sizes. No one would go hungry here.


We would call it Walkers. Everyone thought that was our name, but it wasn’t. We called in Walkers because that’s what we did whenever we had a few free moments.


Back then, there were no restaurants. There was the Buckthorn Tavern, west of us, on Elston Avenue. But the restaurant was different. It wasn’t just a stop along the way. It was a place to rest. To restore.


The beating heart of our place was the kitchen. Open to the dining room, our guests, our community, could see Angela dancing her way into making meals from her families ancient home on the rocky island of Sicily. Our guests, German and Irish, sharing food from a distant world as if the meal itself was a kind of grace. With ballet-like precision, she would present the food as if it were some kind of art, a framed restoration for a weary working soul.


And perhaps I made a few of our guests laugh. Told a story or two. Not like Mister Baum; but I sometimes held my own.


When the restaurant was full, when that smell of oregano would flower in the room and light the faces around each of our 24 tables, it felt holy.


When we filled the very souls of our friends on cold winter nights, those were times of true joy. When we could feed a hungry traveler, sometimes one who had no money that was fine by us, too.


We stayed on for years after the movie studio went west and the quarry closed, replaced by a television station. Long past the time when the Lutheran Seminary on Clark Street was torn down and they put up a baseball park they eventually called Wrigley Field.


The restaurant stayed open even past our time, mine and Angela’s.


Somehow the ownership fell into the hands of a family that was prominent at that old church we had left to find our new one, our Walker’s Restaurant. I never understood how the ownership change really came about.

I was never very good with numbers. Perhaps that’s why we were never of the moneyed class. All I know is that lawyers were involved, the restaurant stayed open, but no one came to dine there anymore. It became a gray room with just a few light bulbs. A bare electric cord and a light bulb hung from an open wound in the ceiling. A tired old man sitting by himself behind a cash register, reading a newspaper. He’d look up when a stray person would enter, scowl, and the person would go looking for sustenance elsewhere.

 In time, the tired man and what had been our place was gone. There’s a Mobil Gas Station where our Walker’s once stood.


But Angela and I, we’re still here. Walking along between the cracks of time. Our story is told in the book of Isaiah. So I guess we found our church after all.


My people will live in a peaceful neighborhood

In safe houses, in quiet gardens. 

The forest of your pride will be clear-cut,

The city showing off your power leveled.

You will enjoy a blessed life,

Planting well-watered fields and gardens


The restaurant was our garden.

If you’re hungry, if you’re in the neighborhood and wait for that singular moment just after the rain, you can still catch just a trace of oregano on the wind.

You can follow Angela dancing across our kitchen.and

And you can know we were here.


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Wonderfully evocative of time, place and food. That isn't the el you hear, that's my stomach rumbling. R
I felt like I could taste the meal and the thing is, it's a true story, somewhere.
C.G., this brings tears to my eyes. you've really stepped it up here lately. All your work is so very finely crafted, even better than I recalled it being from before I took a break from OS for a time.
Really lovely work, my friend.
I love this : "We were on the outside. We weren’t poor. But we weren’t rich. What does one do with childless bankers?" So poetic and full of pathos!
Love all of it. Music choice: superb!
It's what you you said to me earlier, it makes me want to BE there. Here is how I got there with your writing : " She’d blend the tomatoes and the herbs into sauces that tasted as if warm rain and summer sun had wrapped a hand around the wooden stirring spoon." I LOVE the smell of oregano, basil, and tomatoes. The ARE summer. Thanks for this delicious Proustian Remembrance of Things Past. Not trying to be snooty or elitist, I just know he was right about how smell brings back a whole world.

So are peaches. They are summer. The roadsides here in Austin are dotted with canopies of folks from Fredericksburg selling peaches. I will buy some this Memorial Weekend and tell you about them later.

Thank you, CG. Rated for warmth and fragrance.
Outstanding writing... and Cab Calloway to boot! Who could ask for more?
Chicago,I can totally connect with your story and the macaroni on your image looks like one of my every day meals.Excellent writing,thank you for sharing,you brought so memories back to me,feelings.Rated.
Such beautiful words, I feel as if I could leave me door and stroll a few blocks and have dinner with you at Walker's Restaurant.
rated with love
I love stories where makes all the differnce.
Hey Gerald---C'mon down! Lots to eat here!

Scanner--The movie studio was a real place. It was the site where the first Wizard of Oz movies were filmed. The prompt for this came from an "Everyblock" comment (a site that gives neighborhood news) about a restaurant on that corner that never seemed to have any customers. No one knew what happened to the place. So I filled in the rest with an actual true story. A whole lot of truth in this one.

Hi PW--I was graced by the world's best editor on this.

Hi Kate! Thanks!

Pandora--I can taste those peaches right now!

Hey Frank! Let me pour you some red!

jmac--Yaay! Thanks for remembering CC!

SS--That is a picture of one of my everyday meals too!

RP--Come on in! Dinner is just being served and there is a house red you will love!
Beautiful post. I came by because someone recommended this post at Readers' Picks.
I swear to g-d, Studs would LOVE this! My highest compliment to you and totally true. Of course I was mesmerized, swept along on your words, beside you all the way. You just continue to amaze.
You are a mesmerizing writer Roger. I seriously did not want to believe the tag fiction.
For this has such a ring of truth.
Thank you.
You continue to inspire me, and many others, I am sure.
What a wonderful, feeling story written in poetic language. Your words are ripe and the telling is Homeric. Very well done. Congrats.
Thanks Algis!

Kosher--I'm really looking forward to reading READERS PICKS. You guys have pulled OS back from the cliff. Thank you!

Sally--We just sent the final manuscript for "I Am Your Neighbor: The Stories of Chicago's Common Pantry" into the publisher. The book will be released Sept 28. 100% of the sales will go to the Common Pantry. My co-author David Brown put this on Facebook last night. And Studs is thanked in very specific detail right up front.
So thank you for bringing him up!

Suzy--Thanks! The fiction tag is actually a stretch. We don't own a restaurant and its not 1905---everything else is pretty much true. Mr. Baum did tell his Oz stories at that movie studio.

Richard--I'm a huge fan of your work. So I appreciate that a lot. Glad you are writing on OS.
Roger, you tell ghost stories like nobody else. No ghostbusters needed here!
You write like a Celery Farmer.

You serve dinner at your house.

I invite hungry seagulls, possums,
sea dogs, seals, Bessie, lobsters,
shallots, scallops, and porcupine.
I bring a few swallows. They eat.
They eat mosquitoes. Bring cat.
Cat may eat the lame red mule.
I just had the Spring`Fiddleheads.
They are the early growth. Yummy.
The Fiddleheads seem so `Potent.
You best stay home after eating.
If not? Carry rolls of batt-tissue.

Possum? Porpoise? Buy a bunch.
Buy 'Charmin' Pink. It no scratchy.

You invite eaters to scoot-up close.
No use tablecloth to blow your nose.
Never sit under the linen dinner table.
Canadians get nervous. Americans burp.
Americans can have great eating manners.
Canada cooks love `Chicago Guy.
Love the enticing ambiance you've created by using all five senses to evoke curiosity. The way in which you've described the olfactory process is fantastic and reminiscient.
A dash of Purple Prose ain't never hurt anybody. ;)
Matt---Of course if Harold Ramis or Murray wanted to drop by, that would be cool!

Art---Thank you! For anybody reading this, who doesn't already know,Art is considered by many (me included) as the Poet Laureate of OS. A visit from Art is a real gift.

Belinda--You sent me to Wikipedia to look up purple prose. I was thinking like harlequin romance. . .but I got it! And agree!
A great read. Woven like tapestry.
Thanks for this mesmerizing post. I'm inspired to cook something special today.
Hey Stacey--Good to "see' you. Thanks for coming by!

Cynthia--Excellent! I was hoping somebody would say that. And I might have to ask my wife, who is the cook in this, to read this again. . . .
Fell in here this morning, I was sort of walking by and followed the scent of good writing.
Thanks Damon. Have been so down about my writing lately that I even deleted a piece last night after spending 1/2 a day on it. So I appreciate this comment more than you can imagine.