At Walker’s Restaurant


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 Judy Garland than it is 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 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.

I heard the words, from here between the cracks of time where Angela and I are walking now, I heard the words, “This is a business where everything goes through the back door, not the front.”

In time, the 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. 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 catch just a trace of oregano on the wind.

You can follow Angela dancing across our kitchen.

And you can know we were here.

2 Responses to “At Walker’s Restaurant”

  1. Ted Schneider Says:

    Roger,

    Your writing transports the reader to “times gone by”. You can smell the food, see the characters, feel their plight and visualize their world. It is amazing how things change as time gobbles up what once was – from physical buildings, to people’s livelihoods.

    Ted

  2. Paulhaider74 Says:

    Roger, this is as wonderful as ever, and I love the imagery.

    Paul Haider, Chicago

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