#312: Cloud’s Italian Beef

April 25th, 2014

I remember him because I put him in a short work of fiction, back when I was into that sort of thing.

He was old and black and borderline delusional. He shuffled when he walked and always had his mouth open as if he was going to say something. It was 10 years ago.

I know it was 10 years ago, because I was interning at Martha Stewart’s PR firm at the time. The Chicago office wasn’t involved in the case, but we watched CNN with rapt attention when she came out of the courthouse, flanked by her family and our boss.

I also know it was 10 years ago because I got Italian beef a lot.

There’s an amazing place for Italian beef on the Near North Side right by the PR firm’s office. The beef is tender and perfectly seasoned, the roll strong enough to hold up against the au jus, the giardiniera fresh and tangy.

It’s an old-fashioned place. Counter. A few tables no one eats at. Walls slathered with autographed headshots of every celeb big or small who has ever poked in the small legend for one of their delicious sandwiches.

I’m not saying the name because I’m about to make them look like assholes.

The short story I later wrote combined the old, borderline delusional man with another homeless person of that era in my life. That one haunted the Borders where I worked the winter before I got the internship.

He smelled worse than any human I have ever smelled, before or since. The air stunk for feet around him. I nicknamed him “Cloud,” a name that never caught on but that I felt terrible for even trying to pin on a person. The Borders homeless man lived in a cloud of human funk.

The short story followed my combination hobo as he wandered the city. He, like the story itself, didn’t really go anywhere, but both had some nice turns of phrase, as I recall. Most was fiction, but one scene was taken from real life, from the real borderline delusional man in that real Italian beef place from a real employee wearing a Pinky and the Brain T-shirt.

The two men working in the sandwich shop could also be described as Italian beef. Hair lacquered with product, tans too heavy and shirts too tight. There was a big one and an identical but slightly shorter one, like when you’re a kid playing with action figures to find two Batmen were built to different scales.

The smaller one (1:10 scale) wore a black T-shirt with Pinky and the Brain on it, the laboratory mice from the “Animaniacs” cartoon who were trying to take over the world. I forget what the 1:9 scale beef man was wearing, but it’s been 10 years and the short story wasn’t to that level of detail.

But I do remember what the taller man said.

“Hey look, it’s your boyfriend,” he said, gesturing with a nod past my sandwich order to the door.

At the glass door, backlit by a lunchtime sun, the old, black, borderline delusional man had shuffled in. His mouth was open, his eyes wide and confused, his hand holding out loose change.

“You know I want him dead as much as you do,” the smaller man said.

That’s one of those moments that sticks with you, a man in a Pinky and the Brain shirt wishing death on another. He faced the old man and started waving him away with both hands, like he was getting a pigeon to shoo.

“No, no. Get the fuck out of here,” the man in the cartoon shirt said.

The old man left and that was it. I combined him with a terrible-smelling man for some mediocre fiction, then waited a decade and wrote this. My sandwich, as I recall, was delicious.

That spring 10 years ago, I did PR for a felon’s firm of choice and bought sandwiches from two assholes. The sandwich men and the old man they wished death to are economically inches apart compared to the millionaire criminal who oozed out of a courthouse with my boss.

I see so many people in the world shiv and crawl for so little success. I’ve seen people treat others like dirt for a title change and an extra week of PTO. I’ve seen labor laws busted and shit dumped in the river just because it’s a tad bit easier.

How little we value our piety. How fast we turn our tricks. How good that sandwich tasted and you bet your ass I went there again and again even after learning to hate the workers. I traded my own piety for Italian beef.

I need to make a correction in this story. I said the sandwich men and the old man “are” economically inches apart compared to the criminal. It should be “were.”

I don’t know the survival rates of borderline delusional old homeless men who clearly aren’t getting help, but it’s been 10 years since a scared, weaselly liberal boy silently paid for a sandwich and swore he would write about this some day.

It’s been 10 years. The man in the Pinky and the Brain shirt probably got his wish.

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