Lock myself out, the first time in 20 years
Am I becoming my parents, losing my memory
Bit by bit like the drip from an unforgettable icicle
Outside of the house I grew up in.
I wait for the locksmith on the back steps.
A cardinal stops on along the driveway
I see my Mom who grew up near St. Louis
Until the man arrives with his box of magical tools
The man says it will not take long and begins to chip away
The cardinal, she flies way into a winter without snow
I complain about the wood that falls onto the floor
The man says those are the consequences
Suddenly I am in my house and nothing has changed
Christmas cards as futile as the newspapers I have yet to read
I find extra keys hanging from a Florida flamingo souvenir
Maybe they open the door to a new light.
And every winter I think of the abundant outdoor flower stands in rainy Seattle, San Francisco and New York City that illuminate the day and your thoughts.
The older I get, the more I appreciate flowers. For the last couple years of her life I would bring my Mom a small bouquet of fresh flowers for my weekly Sunday visit.
That made my Dad happy. As a middle-aged man he planted dozens of roses in our backyard.
Since my parents passed away this spring between the blossoms of promise, I’m compelled to pay something forward.
I started thinking about this a couple weeks ago while walking around Santiago, Chile. I visited diverse neighborhoods where people were happy and peaceful. Yes, it was summer but I sensed a more pure and passionate happy than I’ve seen in recent Chicago summers.
Flowers were everywhere–except at the Colo-Colo soccer game attended. They slowed people down. Flowers lived between the romantic lines of a Pablo Neruda poem. I was inspired and wondered what would happen if, when I returned to Chicago, I would just order flowers to give to someone once week. Sometimes for a reason, other times for no reason at all.
But if I started offering flowers to strangers in Chicago I’d probably be tagged with a restraining order. Let’s see what happens.
I’ve always noticed the weekly fresh flowers behind the bar at The Matchbox, 770 N. Milwaukee Ave. The tiny bar is my neighborhood Chicago tavern. The flowers have been delivered every Thursday afternoon since I’ve been going there, which is about 15 years now. I called Matchbox manager Colleen Bush to find out the history of the flowers.
Colleen will always have a place in my heart because she shares her Dec. 10 birthday with my Mom. She also loves to tell the story about my parents devotion, the one where they drove their car together at the end of their lives. Mom had macular degeneration so Dad provided the eyes. Dad had a bum knee, so Mom took the pedal and brake.
Nothing got in their way.
The Matchbox flowers are delivered from Anthony Gowder Designs, 2616 W. North Ave.
“We’ve been doing that for 18 years now,” Gowder said in a Dec. 10 interview. “We opened our business right around the corner (from the Matchbox) at Chicago Avenue near Racine. We would go over there after work and that’s how we met (owners) Dave and Jackie. They mentioned they wanted flowers as part of their place. We’ve always had a free reign to do what we want. The Matchbox is a cool Chicago haunt as opposed to the trendy places that come and go.”
Matchbox owners David and Jackie Gevercer operate Casa Jacqueline, an intimate Bed & Breakfast in Tulum, Mexico. In an e-mail David Gevercer wrote, “The flower tradition started as far back as The Gare St. Lazare (his 1980s Lincoln Park restaurant) where we rescued flowers from conventions I can’t think of any establishment I have managed that didn’t use fresh flowers. Just watch people’s expressions when they see fresh flowers, especially in taverns.”
“The Matchbox flowers originally came from across the street. The ‘White Tower’ building had a florist in it in 1995. When they closed in 1997, we spoke to Anthony.” Bush said, “He makes beautiful arrangements and its always nice stuff, not carnations. Its always seasonal. I don’t know of any bars like ours who do this, but fancy bars, sure. People always ask us, ‘Who brought you the flowers?’ ‘Is it your birthday?’ ‘Where are they from?’ They come every Thursday between 2 and 5 and it’s usually the delivery dude.”
Gowder does not know of any other Chicago bars that offer fresh flowers on a weekly basis. “Bar-restaurants do flowers, but the tend to be more upscale downtown places,” he said. “For Dave and Jackie it was part of the culture of the Matchbox, its own rhythm. They allowed us to put in the weirdest and most unusual blossoms. There’s been everything from hanging heliconia to fabulous orchids. I never thought about the amount of time we put in flowers there until just now.
“They’re obviously our longest standing customer. We take advantage of what we find on the market and what they might dig. Because they’ve been with us so long we always have them at the top of our head when we’re shopping for product: ‘What are we going to ship to the Matchbox this week?’ There’s a service charge and its the same price they’ve always paid. We just like doing it.”
Gowder doesn’t visit the Matchbox as much as he used to.
“I’m over 50 and I’m one of those guys who started the rhythm of life a little later,” he said. “I met my dream girl way past my twenties and now we have a six year old and 10 year old daughter. And we still drive a business every day trying to make this something special.”
Flowers have the power to uplift anyone. Get off my lawn! and get into my flower bed. You learn to be aggressive living in Chicago. Here is a way to stop and smell the……No, I won’t go there. Gowder agreed with my premise that Chicago needs more public flowers–but then he is in the flower business.
“Actually we’re in the process of launching a retail operation,” Gowder said. Anthony Gowder Designs occupies the first two floors of a loft building in what I thought was Humboldt Park, but is now the “WOW” neighborhood (West of Western). Gowder said, We’ve done special events and social galas. We’ve gotten several large weddings from the clientele that goes to the Matchbox because they’re not pretentious and they just let the evening go by. Flowers should be part of our everyday living.”
Not many independent flower shops remain in Chicago. My neighborhood floral shop is Marguerite Garden Florists, 2444 W. Chicago. There’s also the long standing Barbara’s Floral & Gift Shop, 753 N. Ashland. I can’t think of any large sidewalk Chicago floral stands in good or bad weather.
Gowder said, “Most Chicagoans have relegated themselves to the supermarkets to get their product. There’s not an awareness in the midwest as to what flowers are about. In New York City, the Korean produce stands always have a huge display of flowers next to them. It is nothing fancy, but there’s a ton of gladiolas, carnations. Birds of Paradise. It just hasn’t come to the middle of the country yet.
“I used to go to the wholesale floral market in New York and you’d see things that would never make it to the midwest like six-foot tall lily branches.
“We’re trying to show what floral art means. What we’re doing at the Matchbox is not just a bucket of mums every week.
“We are florally starved here in Chicago.”
SANTIAGO, Chile—Lavender petals of the jacaranda tree fall on an empty dinner plate in a bistro patio. Two petals float together like feathers in a dream. They land together where you are alone.
Symbolism is pondered for a few minutes but you cannot linger here. There are places to go. On a 2012 visit to Santiago, there was a climb up to the Cerro San Cristobal adorned by the snow-white statue of the Virgen de la Immaculada Concepcion. This time you return to reflect on those you have lost while offering gratitude for all that they gave.
You walk towards the Lastarria neighborhood and head past the rushing Rio Mapocho river and Parque Forestal.
For the last four days young and old people have been sprawled out in the park grass and under lush trees, embracing each other, making out and being in love—for the moment or for years, what does it matter? The park is always quiet. No loud music. You can feel heartbeats.
And you smile.
Travel is being. You open up. You go to a Chilean soccer game with 37,000 crazy locals when the hotel staff says it is not such a safe thing to do. Is passion elevated from the length of the search or from the point of loneliness?
I have never been to neighboring Buenos Aires, Argentina, but I wandered through Bogota’, Colombia a couple times. Because of the fog, damp weather and rolling hills, Bogota’ gets compared to San Francisco. Santiago is cleaner and more modern than Bogota’ in architecture and landscape. Santiago is what would happen if you put bits of contemporary Los Angeles in wine country. I want to stay a bit longer. I do not want to face my first Christmas without my parents.
But home calls like a distant candor.
First there is a final return to the tiny piano bar Don Rodrigo.
The Don Rodrigo is on the first floor of the Hotel Foresta in central Santiago.
The no-frills hotel was built in 1920 and features a slow moving elevator that can hold no more than three people at a time as it chugs up to the seventh floor.
The bar space is a maze of small rooms and dark corners. Wall size mirrors give the illusion something bigger is going on. The bar only seats five people. The romantic aura is like the park in the dark. The summer nights in Santiago are as crisp as mountain air and you feel it in here.
Marco the piano player does not sing but he plays American standards like “My Way” and “Take Five,” the Dave Brubeck experiment in Stereo-phonic sound that now makes me think of Roger Ebert. Marco does not talk and does not play Billy Joel songs.
The bartenders are round and jolly and they wear starched white shirts with black bow ties, just like in Humphrey Bogart movies. Few tourists are seen, and the night desk clerk has no idea who is this Don Rodrigo. But you guess he must be somebody to have a bar named after him.
So you ask the shy woman from Northern Chile to press the bartender on your Don Rodrigo investigation in Spanish. She, too, is a journalist and her smile is like a butterfly unfolding its wings. She is the one who notices the bartender only has three fingers on his right hand.
It goes something like this: Guido Vallejos was the founder-illustrator of Barrabases magazine and owned the 50-seat bar. He was friends with a soccer player named Don Rodrigo, and/or Don could have been a cartoon character in his magazine.
Now, over a couple pisco sours, the woman from Northern Chile and I had fun channeling Bill Murray’s “Lost in Translation'” in hearing the stories of Don Rodrigo.
This behavior later became worrisome when I returned to my hotel to research Guido Vallejos. In 2012 he was sent to prison as part of a child prostitution bust in central Santiago. He was 83 years old! Perhaps this is why no one at the hotel wants to talk about Don Rodrigo.
There is no easy way to transition from that translation except to continue with journalistic flair of The Clinic.
The Clinic is a satirical newspaper in Santiago that also owns and operates a couple of bars and restaurants. It’s like going to a bar called The Onion in the states. The Clinic serves drinks like the Orgasmo Multiple (Johnnie Walker Red, Bailey’s, frambuesa) .
After hearing Dixieland jazz at the Club de Jazz de Santiago (established in 1943, but now part of a fancy shopping mall] we closed down The Clinic in Plaza Nunoa with a couple of mojitos.
We talked about the who, what, when, where, why and how of journalism over an introductory reporting textbook that was sitting on a library shelf next to our table.
We spoke of making every word count, the economy found in every Pablo Neruda poem.
A couple days later I wondered why two lavender petals tumbled through the summer sky. I kept the petals to place in a photo book next to my images of snow capped Chilean mountains, fresh December flowers and dark piano bars. When I am gone, someone may look at that book and think what a special time it must have been.
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