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Laura, a long, pressed blond hair, blue eyed daughter of a Rhode Island expert on arcane forms of venereal disease, was a “friend.” What that meant, back as closing days of 1960’s stretched on to early 1980’s, was that you put word “friend” in quotes. And then you’d say, “No, really. We are really just friends.”
I was totally infatuated with her in that way that often keeps young people at “friend” stage. Infatuated in that way that should somebody have told me she liked to put baby kittens in sacks and twirl them around her head (which looking back might not have been all that far from truth) ; but if somebody had told me that, I would have made up a reason why that was OK. So a visit from Laura was a big deal.
And seeing that Punnett’s house was small, I volunteered to sleep on floor. Right next to my bed, which I of course would give to Laura.
That sleeping arrangement of course never happened. Thanks to Mr. Punnett. I remember his greeting Laura though as if she were absolute royalty. All through visit he was as nice, Mrs. Punnett might say, “he was “as nice as pie.” No one could have been nicer. But of course there were rules.
In Fellowship Hall in basement of church, I had been given word that one big rule was to stay out of kitchen. “It gets too crazy in there.” I was told.
So as I bend down to peer through serving counters and in to kitchen, I just have one question. “Kathy, I ask, I’m watching alley outside tonight, but it’s pretty quiet. Anything I can help you with here?”
“Sure,” says Kathy, who is running show with Chuck. “We might be short a server. Hang on a second; we’re almost ready to go.”
And as I watch, I see kind of operation that comes when every silver cylinder of a gleaming clean machine is firing full speed ahead. An operation run so well that you know just by looking that work had been started long before this second in time.
Mary Beth had mapped this out on level of an executive chef. There was a structure and an order here. Kathy and Chuck were perfect people to make this machine run, pulling this wonderful meal out of ovens –smells permeating place making long gone souls of German founders smile and say “Ahhhh!”
Geoff and Ruth making service line work, joining in and now four of them, Kathy, Chuck, Geoff and Ruth were like some sort of small orchestra just humming along. The plates presented like art, out through service counter.
Trudi and crew now serving good stuff. The warmth of this food just reverberating off walls in same dignified way that man in alley’s whistling Misty had blended in to music of rain.
The service now done, and meal now in crescendo; everyone was eating.
I went back outside in soft rain to make my rounds again. No stray souls in alley or yards. No one on front steps along Damen.
Turning corner in front of church. Sitting in front seat, passenger side, of car, door open his legs splayed out in gutter, sun glasses and a pork pie hat in rain.Staring up a tree branch and mumbling.
If Erroll Garner had been man back in alley smiling---the man in passenger seat of white station wagon with an Oklahoma license plate was Thelonius Monk. And he looked just as serious and angry.
So I said to Monk. “You eat yet?”
And he answered in a mumble on an accent that said Caribbean more than it said Oklahoma.
“I am looking at branches of tree.”
Then he starts a diatribe where no one word seemed to have a relationship to one that came before. At least none that I could hear. At one point I break in to monologue and say, “You are welcome in church!” and he answers with an indigent, West Indies anger, “I am not a shoemaker!”
Chuck comes out to take a quick break and greets man with immediate respect and honor of street. The kind of greeting where words don’t even matter. A greeting that says, “I know you are there. And I am offering respect.”
But man keeps rambling. We listen and nod for a moment or two, then say, we have to get back in side.
The Caribbean Thelonius now clear in his angry words, “Wait! Come back! Don’t go!” And Chuck answers as a matter of fact. “We got work here. I’m sorry. We don’t have time for this.”
And as Chuck and I walked back inside, he says, “That’s a lot of rum he’s had tonight. Maybe rock cocaine.” Shaking his head. “Out of control. Too bad.”
I remembered once being out of control. It was autumn. A midnight bus bound for Chicago pulling up to tiny station at fringe of old Beloit Wisconsin. A crumbling Beloit Corporation factory belching third shift smoke and noise.
Across that 90 mile stretch of what was then mostly starlit open farmland till electric lights of O’Hare heralded coming of big city. No rock cocaine. But there was an awful lot of cheap cold Huber beer subsumed that night and I had done my share. Rolling into old Randolph street bus station, a seedy bright neon 2:00 am. Then up on to El Train for rumbling trip up to Linden street station. In shadow of Bahai Temple. Near lake in Wilmette.
It was now 3:30 in morning. No one up but me. And there were no trains or buses that went any further. I had no real way to get home on my own.
So at 3:30 in morning---I woke up every Punnett in house with that phone call. They knew who it was. Mr. Punnett of course said it was OK for Spencer to get in car, come get me.
And bring me home.
Now back outside church in soft rain on Damen, Mark—from Church—walks up.
“Hey, how’s it going?” I ask. “What are you doing here tonight?”
‘Oh, I just thought I’d stop by, see how things were going.”
And as greater family who had all sat down to eat this holy meal together tonight drift out on to street and off by foot or bus, lovely sounds of Ruth’s piano drift out too. All of us so well fed in so many ways.
Mark and I stand and just chat. About everything and nothing.
Back in alley, Erroll Garner’s notes of “Misty” still sound even as rain slows down.
A small gust of wind blows church door closed and it automatically locks.
“Uh oh. I say. How will we get back in?”
“Don’t worry,” says Mark.
“We have a key.”
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