A report from Ale81 Inn field correspondent Ford Wenty
A bizarre start to a Thursday evening. Chicago, southwest, undisclosed location. Cold as fuck. I sat in the back seat of some ubiquitous crossover of unknown manufacture, what passes for a sedan with four doors and a hatchback. I am there with a couple of local associates of a sometime associate of my own, Javier. We were suspended there in that ugliest grey, the urban ranges of frozen slush making furrows of every street and avenue. The vehicle sat idling, lights off , spewing the sweet monoxide fume and forming an ozone with the bitterly frigid air. We were in an alleyway, between garages and facing toward the backside of the homes lining the street before us.
What the fuck am I doing here? Will I be asked to aid in the disposal of a corpse? Or worse? It had been three or four years since I had been to the city. Chicago, for all of it’s charm and character, is the sort of town I have chosen to avoid. If Chicago were a woman it would be Stockard Channing. You stare at her for a while, she bats her lashes or purses those pouty lips and you start to say to yourself ” hey, she’s kinda hot!” Then she turns her head and you see her from a different angle and…..ah, hell no! Surely some of you will understand this.
At an hour no later than 7:30 in the evening the wind chills were at a steady -25, with gusts occasionally whipping to a -40. Why at this hour, under these types of conditions? Surely I would be better off in my warm suite in Burr Ridge, with a bottle of Jamesons and several grams of fluffy bud. Alas, these are the sacrifices one makes for their art.
Our wheel man was introduced and aside from a brief grunt uttered at that occasion let not another sound escape his lips for the duration of our travels. For this reason I had completely forgotten his name. The lead man was inside one of these houses on this block, a safe house. Benno Santomauro, a Brazilian by birth, had been Javier’s agent for the Chicago market for nigh on twenty years. Benno is fond of blades and has the scars to prove it. Not a man to be trifled with.
I was certain that I had already been seated in that alley for no less than 30 minutes. It briefly occurred to me that I should inquire of our driver how much longer, but given his demonstrative lack of or aversion to verbal skills these thoughts were quickly abandoned. I really had no reason to be concerned. My itinerary was such that I had some number of days to linger in the windy city before making the long trek back to the compound. My insertion into this situation was entirely coincidental: call it a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I had been enticed to this odd pilgrimage at the behest of an old colleague, someone with whom I had not worked in nearly twenty years and had not spoken to in nearly a decade. The gentleman is some years my senior and I was actually surprised to learn that he was still active in business. He is a living ghost from a past life when I walked and breathed among them: the screwheads who are convinced themselves and are eternally trying to convince others that they are in charge. They know the skinny and thus that is simply how things will be done. It is truly remarkable what one can learn about these people when left free to move in their midst. One need only carry the external trappings of their identity while remaining nondescript. It helps if you speak their language, of course. There is no need to be fluent, a conversational knowledge of banality will suffice for most situations. My old colleague is not one of them, though he has chosen to continue playing in their charade. Aside from his grating, northeastern accent he is almost a normal human being.
Chuck’s forte over the years had been in the field of material handling. The MHI (Material Handling Institute), for some unfathomable reason, has for years set their annual Expo in February on an alternating schedule between the two known garden spots of McCormick Place in Chicago and Cobo Hall in Detroit. The odd numbered years take them to Chicago. As I have already detailed to some limited degree above, to know Chicago in February is to know winter for the bitch she really is. Nonetheless, after having gone through such a circuitous route to locate me, I was practically obliged to make the trek and attend once the invitation was offered. It was only by my mention of this trip in passing to Javier that I was further invited to attend this, some small part of his business concerns in the Chicagoland market. It had been made my understanding that once our business here was concluded I was to be entrusted with a package that I was to take to the compound. Javier’s instructions were, as ever, concise, clear and wanting for any extraneous details. We both like conducting business on a need to know basis: the only thing you need to know is whether the job is felonious, or only vaguely criminal in nature.
Another twenty minutes or so elapsed when Benno’s hulking parka could be seen leaning into the wind, determinedly progressing up the alley toward us. He closed the distance rather quickly from the moment I had first spotted him and I was briefly startled when he opened the door opposite of me and climbed into the back. The brief gust that entered in that instant was bone numbing. Benno whipped back the fur lined hood of his parka. “Jesus fucking christ it’s cold out there! Give us a cigarette, will ya Ford?” I happily obliged with a Dunhill Blue – an extravagance I permit myself on the road – and joined him for a smoke. I gave Benno a few minutes to fully recover from the arctic before engaging any conversation.
“You, uh…get everything taken care of in there?”
Benno drew deeply on his cigarette and replied as exhaling smoke through his nostrils. “Yuh! It’s all good…” he paused, clearly meaning to continue as he fumbled to draw his zipper down, ” I got something for ya here Ford. Javi told ya you’d have a package to take back with ya, right?”
“Yeah, sure he did.”
From within that parka came a box, 12 x 20 and about 3″ deep, wrapped up in brown parcel paper. “Well here it is. I wouldn’t open it in public, if ya know what I mean.” He smiled as he dropped the box in my lap. “That’s 22 ounces, all vacuum sealed. That’s what took so long, sorry.”
It is a rare day indeed when fortune so smiles upon a body. Nearly a pound and a half of Presidential Cheese dropped in your lap. Benno continued grinning, in the dim light from the dashboard eerily resembling Pacino’s Scarface.
“So ya wanna know what this is about?”
” Do I need to?”
” No, not really.”
“Good. Then no.”
“That’s good because I have no clue. I thought maybe you knew. My instructions were to pick up and prepare the package here and leave it with you.”
“Well now that I know what it is, friend, I know as much as you do.”
Javi knew me well enough to know that I would likely be able to put it all together. If and when he should decide that I needed to know more he would tell me. This visit was a favor, not a social call. Within this network it has been my experience that it is best not to grow too acquainted. The less you know the better.
The ride out to Burr Ridge from that alleyway was reasonably brief, my drop off and exit as unceremonious as our initial meeting. I was left the next couple of days in relative peace at my suite. An ample supply of whiskey and bud, the warm succor of the bar at a local tavern, The Wolf’s Head. The only thing missing from my old habit was the absence of The Dome Family Restaurant for my breakfast. I was to discover the sad news of the establishment’s closure and subsequent demolition of it’s iconic structure. Their potato pancakes were always exquisite.
The Dome had been run for two generations by a Greek family. Great people. They actually lived down in the city, one of the sisters was a long time neighbor of former Chicago Mayor Dick Daley (that’s little Dick, of course, not the old man). For as much as I would miss their food and their company, the end of The Dome was at once a bittersweet and familiar tale. They did not end for a want of business. There were ample numbers who frequented their tables daily. It ended simply because whatever monetary reward remained in it was no longer enough to compensate the ever waning desire to do it any more. Like my own one time career. I could have gone on, like my friend Chuck, and continued making more and more money. I had enough to do what I wanted to do. When you have enough to do what you want you no longer “have to”. Most of our lives are consumed with have to. My good friends at The Dome, like I, had decided to cash in their chips and leave the table. Our desires to play the game were fully sated.
On Sunday late morning I drove in to Midway to pick up Chuck from his arrival, in from Boston. The highway was both bare and barren, a frozen ribbon, salt glazed and indifferent. The mercury had climbed to near freezing and the low sun over Lake Michigan emitted a blinding glare. It was a bright morning, one for which you give thanks that you hadn’t drank tequila or vodka the night before. It was the kind of tantalizing winter sunlight that causes cravings for orange juice, with or without the liquor.
Chuck and I had coordinated pick ups like this numerous times over the years that we traveled within the same circles. Our sense of timing had not dulled in the least after years of absence. Chuck was out there in clear view at the Northwest arrivals. Tan trench coat, Bear Bryant hat, hard shelled briefcase and one roll behind carry-on bag. Aside from a few more greys protruding from under the hat he looked pretty much the same. He still wore the uniform. I wheeled up right next and rolled down the passenger window.
“Hey mister! You know where a guy can go find a good time in this town?” He leaned down to look in the vehicle. He couldn’t hide the momentary shock on his face, but recovered quickly.
“Ford!? Christ it is you!” He opened the rear passenger door and dropped his bags in and resumed upon climbing into the front seat. ” I had such a time tracking you down I wasn’t sure you would show. Don’t you even carry a fuckin’ phone anymore?”
I do still carry a phone, but there are few who know this. My contact list totals six, and one of those is a veterinarian ER for my hound, Matthau. ” Nah, Chuck. Don’t have any use for that fuckin’ thing anymore. You all set there? I figure we roll out to the Wolf’s Head for lunch. It’s Sunday….prime rib on Sunday.”
“Well ya sold me, brother! That sounds great! So what the fuck ya been doin’, Ford?”
“Not much, really, Chuck. I dabble a little in pharmaceuticals and green technology. That’s about it.” There was some truth to be found in those words. It was not a total fabrication. Chuck was going to remain professional. He played the straight man.
” Huh. How’d ya get into that? Making any money at it?”
“Oh, I’m compensated. It’s not really about money any more.”
“Right! I gotcha! You’re one of those crypto-currency guys now, huh?”
” Yeah, I guess you could say that, Chuck. Honestly? I don’t get out much any more.”
“Yeah…well, ya look like you lost a shit ton of weight! You okay? I heard some rumors you were sick and then….”
” I was sick, Chuck. Very sick. But I’m okay now. I’ve found a solid therapy regimen. It keeps the nation safe for life, liberty and the pursuit of debauchery.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
I dug inside my coat and lifted the remains of a deck of Dunhill Blue. ” Ya still like the cancer sticks Chuck? I got some good ones…”
Chuck’s eyes lit up. ” Sure! I’ll take one of those!” He reached eagerly to catch one as I let it spill from the foil liner.
We both lit up and rode in silence for a few minutes of traffic congestion encountered while navigating back to 55 south. As we hit the southbound on ramp from Cicero I switched on the radio to ZZ Top’s Nationwide. In between puffs from his cigarette Chuck recited a litany of mutual colleagues and their current doings, or in some few instances, their passing. He would probably wait until over lunch to query further into my activities and whereabouts. Most of these people were of little or no interest to me during my career, when we were contemporaries. It made it so much easier to really not give a fuck about them now. Chuck, of course, was different. Deep down, at his core, Chuck is a sick fuck just like me.
Chuck had been a senior at Temple in ’76. He’d made the poor judgement of throwing in with a group of bikers in the distribution of “bootleg sopors”, the poor man’s alternative to the parent narcotic “disco biscuit”, or quallude. The last time he went to meet up with these guys he found all of them together – shot full of holes, all of the drugs and money gone. After that Chuck was scared straight. Mostly.
Through the course of the nineties Chuck and I had collaborated on a number of projects throughout the Great Lakes. Each of us were respected in our craft and each known to eschew socializing after hours. The fields in which we labored were, and to a large degree I suspect still are, male dominated. Thus, socializing among most of our peers was essentially the same as a frat party, but with better booze and more money. For any who still feel any urge to explore this area I offer this bit of advice: every titty bar on the planet is the same. Save your money. Those girls will figure out something.
This reticence to belong to the club fell upon Chuck as a matter of age, I suspect. In my case it was a matter of having other business to tend to. Whatever our respective reasons, Chuck and I shared a number of quiet dinners together, trying to find anything other than business to talk about. We were each careful not to expose too much personal detail, yet over the course of several years we each had recounted a lively volume of the misadventures of our ill spent youths. He never presented with any and I never offered, but we each could reasonably claim our lifetime marijuana consumption to be measured in bales. There was also the matter of our mutual fondness for Jameson triple distilled Irish whiskey. Of all of my former colleagues Chuck is one of a very few whom I could also consider a friend. At the very worst it was at least safe to say that we are sympatico.
” I first took ill in 2010, Chuck. Kinda sick for about three months. Then really sick. For almost a year. I sold out my shares, formed another smaller company and went to just consulting, part time. Mostly from home.”
The sign said the Tri-state was 6 miles to go. I decided to light another Dunhill, extended another to Chuck who declined. He had a mildly frightened expression. I noticed he really needed his eyebrows trimmed.
“Fucked around with that for about a year then I was recruited to a corporate job. Still kept the side business, saw the corporate gig go through three ownership changes in four years. After the last one I was done. Since then I have only been working at being off the map.”
“So you’re not in business?”
“Not in any traditional sense, Chuck.”
“Haw! What’s that supposed to mean?”
” I’ll tell ya more over lunch, huh?”
We arrived at the Wolf’s Head just before 1:00. The lot wasn’t too filled up yet and by this hour Tom, one of the owners, would be in. We’d be sure to get a good table. We were snow blinded in the lot so when entering it was like immersing one’s self in a cave. From the dim space beyond the original Navy Pier bench in their entryway I heard Tom call out in greeting. As our eyes adjusted I made introductions and we were escorted to a corner booth just steps away from the bar. Within moments two Jamesons, neat, arrived at our table. We weaved through some obligatory small talk: the winter, the NFL, the sales number to hit for Q1 2019. Nothing of any real consequence. When the prime rib arrived I ordered two more Jamesons.
“Chuck, you remember when you were having that headache with the vendor assigned for National Grid? Or what was it then…Niagara Mohawk, right?”
” Ah…yah! That was ages ago….”
“Right, right. I know that, just stick with me here. You had a situation where you had a premium product. You had your market, the user had already embraced the product. The problem was with the buyers. Somebody who didn’t know dick about the product made the decision to award the contract to their pet vendor and the user ended up getting some shit they didn’t ask for.”
“Yeah? That’s what happened alright. That shit happens all the time, Ford. You know that.”
“True. It does indeed.”
“Okay. So what’s your point?”
“I’m explaining what it is I do now, Chuck. In all those years on the road I cultivated many networks for many purposes. The last fifteen years I developed a network completely separate of work, something much more far reaching. I have tapped some people with truly extraordinary talents within their disciplines. It is not a company, more of an alliance I guess you would say, but we all share a common interest. We are able to provide both products and services that are premium. Now when you have a premium product there are two simple rules. One is you get your premium. If no one else is comparable your product commands it. Second is you don’t allow your product to be handled by douchebags who don’t know shit.”
” That’s intriguing, Ford. So what kind of products or services? Why so vague about….” the sudden dawning of realization crept upon him mid sentence. ” Green technology, right?”
“Precisely. I have an associate who is a botanist, one of the finest in his field, but he’s a renegade. He has difficulty obtaining legit work so he free lances. I helped him set up his infrastructure and from time to time I come in to assist in certain situations. I’ve set him up with other parties about the country who are “in country”, they handle the routine legwork. My trip here this week has a dual purpose, there has been a situation develop that requires my attention. This is the first time I’ve left the compound since October or November.”
“Really? So you’re really off the grid now, eh? So what kinda situation, if I can ask?”
“Well that’s the reason I brought up your problem with Mohawk. Very similar situation. We have a proprietary product which was rumored to have landed upon the shelves of certain state dispensaries. None of these are authorized distributors. We do not deal with any state entities. Our local people did some scouting, confirmed the rumor and discovered that there was also an imitation product being touted under the same name as our product. Not our name, mind you, but the one they decided to market it with. So we’ve done the prudent thing. Without identifying ourselves we have bought up all of the inventory they had.”
“I don’t get it, Ford. What does that accomplish?”
“We don’t deal with the state because we choose not to. We’ve already received our money for whatever they had. They got it from someone else who is trying to sell them on a knock off and undercutting our price. With those shelves emptied it will make it easier for me to do my job.”
“I find out where these dispensaries got this product. Then I know who we’re dealing with and what action to recommend. That could be performed by me, or by others, depending on which skill sets are required. We have people with many and varied skill sets.”
“So you’re a dope dealer!?“
“No, Chuck. I am a private contractor who sometimes works with a very talented artisan grower in tending the operational needs of a private and select network.”
“Hmm. Well that sounds good, but how ya s’pose that’s gonna hold up in court?”
“There’s not gonna be any court, Chuck.”
“You sound pretty confident. I don’t know Ford. Sounds to me like you’re skating some thin ice.”
I’d finished what I had to tell. I shrugged at his last remark. We live in different worlds now, Chuck and I. It was good to see him again, but I know it will be the last time. I’d considered maybe smoking him up with some of the Presidential Cheese out in my truck, but Chuck demonstrated that he is fully tamed. I’m done with those people. I’m off to where the wild things are. My apologies to Maurice Sendak.