#851: For the Chuckles

November 17th, 2017

Occasionally the chattering teens let the sound of football break through.

The football was on TV, the teens were on plastic chairs pushed beneath the two-tops Tetrised into the restaurant. The usual corner pizza place contrivances were there — heat-lamp rack for the slices, illustrations of fat Italians in chef hats on 3/4 of the walls.

People shoved in and people shoved out, slices in hands. Only the teens, the football and a middle-aged man working a crossword puzzle from a barstool along the storefront window were permanent fixtures.

Eventually the man got up and went back to the kitchen. Eventually one of the teen couples left, saying goodbye to the other one on the way out. All that was left was one teen couple, an anxious-looking blonde woman standing behind the register and hundreds of photos of Hegewisch Chuckles.

Along the outer wall, circling the storefront window were photos of and trophies for the Little League teams the pizza place sponsored. Smiling girls’ and boys’ faces going back decades, an odd team here or there named for an MLB crew — the Diamondbacks, for instance — but the bulk of the teams year after year had been named the Chuckles.

The anxious-looking woman behind the register didn’t know why they were called the Chuckles. They just always had been. She never played on it when she was a kid, and seemed confused that I asked. She’d only been working there for a year. And no grape pop, but they did have orange.

The business strips down Brandon and Baltimore are tidy and homey, with a 50-50 shot of a business being shuttered. A Little League toss away from the Indiana border, Hegewisch is a South Side neighborhood writers go to in hopes of feeling cute. Locked between I-94, Wolf Lake and the Calumet River, it has the feel of a small Illinois town, separate by miles and light years from the decrepitude then glitter to the north.

The feel of a small town includes the shuttered businesses. It includes the teens walking for a slice then sauntering off for places to kiss each other. The feel of a small town includes the fact about half the people I saw wandering about and half the characters in this little drama so far were people of color. Two were coming clad in wicking gear from a November bike ride on precision-honed performance bicycles that cost more than a mortgage payment. This is a small town 2017. No one’s naive. No one’s folksy.

Yet the Chuckles tug strings. Decades of smiling faces, smiling at no more than putting on a kid-sized uniform and cracking a ball with a bat. It’s tempting to call it cute or parochial, but if that’s a folksy affectation, what else is? Pizza? Awkward teenage dates? Finishing a crossword puzzle to the sounds of football and the intermittent hiss and pop of the radiator running beneath the storefront window?

The pizza place serves slices because they always have. They’ve always sponsored exactly one Little League team a year and they’ve almost always called them the Chuckles, even if no one on shift remembers why. That’s what is in Hegewisch, as real as a half-shuttered main strip and breathing Indiana air.

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