It’s Labor Day, the last day many of these taut bodies will blade and bike past the stone-and-cement shelter just south of the North Ave. Beach, but the chessmen don’t care.
The chessmen will talk and joke and look at girls when one king falls, but until then, all the men sit alike, legs crossed, staring at their boards.
Some are old and play savvy, experienced games. The young play sharp and to the quick. Some of the chessmen bear the trappings of the rich — a Polo shirt, expensive sunglasses perched on head. Some look homeless and very well might be.
Young black play against old white. A hippie-looking kid wearing a bandanna plays speed against an archetypal prep. Beside them, two old men in baseball caps play a slow, nuanced game.
The white one with the Eastern European accent and the floral shirt sips from a cup of coffee. The black one smokes a cigar. Their baseball caps are both dark blue.
A few men just watch the others. They’re picking up moves while waiting for their own games.
A drunk man yells at beach-bound picnickers walking by with a cooler. “You going for a beer run? You going for a beer run? Bring some back,” he yells before returning to the cigarette he’s trying to roll. He’s one of the homeless-looking chessmen, a big, ruddy beard and stretched-out clothes.
I hadn’t noticed before how much the stone-and-cement bandshell had been designed for chess. Grids of 64 had been inlaid into the concrete benches, I knew. But today was when I first saw the carved mural of nobles and religious, empresses, emperors, castles and serfs.
In other word, knights, bishops, queens, kings, rooks and pawns.
The bandshell itself is flanked by granite statues of a king and a queen. I had never noticed that before — I had always mistaken the statues for blandly Art Deco center-poles for the round bench around.
I’m sitting at the king now. The game I had been watching — the black man and the white man in blue baseball caps — broke up. The black man (playing white) outflanked the white man (playing black). The result was a briefly bitter exchange about rooks before the loser toddled off with a Russian friend.
The black man turned to me.
“You play?” he asked, breaking that all-important fourth wall keeping me from my narrative.
“Naah,” I replied. “Just watching.”
He turned away. I became like the pretty girls and bikers and families enjoying Labor Day’s last fling along the lake. I wasn’t part of the game, so I was of no interest.
I pushed, walking up to him in hopes of striking up a conversation.
“How long do you guys keep coming out here?” I asked.
“Until it gets cold, man. Until it gets cold,” he said, looking out at the lake or, more importantly, away from me.
I wasn’t part of the game. I was intruding. I left to write these lines in the shade of the king.
Summer is over. Each day, it will get colder and colder as, one by one, the chessmen fall from the board.
Written Labor Day, 2009