Picture this: It is 1985. The Newsom Reunion members at the time –my husband’s side of the family, consisted of the six siblings, their spouses, children, and his mother , his father having passed away several years before. This entourage began to meet for reunions in the early 70s, the first one being held in Canada. We try to stay away from anyone’s home town so they do not have too much of a burden, but the majority of the reunions end up being near Xenia, where all the siblings grew up. In the mid 80s the reunion was growing. Several of us had had more kids since the first reunion so now we were a band of approximately thirty people. This year Wayne’s sister who lived in illinois was hosting. Although she did not live in Chicago she chose that as the venue. So we all packed up the kids, got in the cars or hopped on a plane and made the pilgrimage from California, Peoria, Michigan and Ohio.
To cue you in on family dynamics there are four sisters three of them public school teachers, one a registered nurse, two brothers, one an executive at Caterpiller, and one in facilities management at a college. The sisters are the oldest, the boys came rather late. Everyone had a spouse at the time, although we have lost several brothers-in-law since, mostly to death but one to divorce, and all but one of us had at least two kids.
The reunions are always fun with sightseeing, shopping, generally hanging out together and a significant amount of adult beverages in the evening. There is always a hospitality suite at whatever hotel we are occupying and there are planned activities, anything from picnics to museum visits to swimming. There is always an adults only dinner on the Saturday evening, when the oldest nieces are dragooned into taking care of the children who have their own dinner. The adults only dinner is a dress-up affair held at a local restaurant.
The Chicago reunion was no exception. It was actually going to be a bit more fun than usual since we had the aquarium and the wonderful Field Museum and the lake itself within walking distance of McCormick Place where we were all staying. The Saturday dinner, planned by my then brother-in-law C ( he did not endure in that capacity) was to be at a local landmark restaurant called Catfish Digby’s. The buzz about the restaurant, mostly from C, was that it was an historic restaurant with fantastic soul food, primarily, as the name would imply, great catfish, but also great chicken and sides. It was, we were assured a beacon for tourists to visit and although it was in a less than upscale neighborhood it was de rigeur for the beautiful people to slum it to soak up the great fried local color. There was some trepidation amongst the ranks at the caveat that the neighborhood was not that marvelous, but, we were adventurers we told ourselves and not snobs by any means. We could fit in with any kind of people, we were skilled like that. Besides, we had been promised not only that the food was worth it but there had been hints that we were more likely to run into some celebrities than some winos.
So we delivered our children to the nieces’ (Rhonda and Linda), tender care, retired to our rooms to get gussied up for the night out on the town. C had arranged a hotel van to take us to the neighborhood since he did not “want us to have to drive.” Some eyebrows were raised as we wondered if his concern about us driving was due to convenience or fear that our cars would not be safe in the neighborhood. At seven o’clock we all gathered in the hotel lobby, boarded the van and were whisked the seven or so blocks to the restaurant. The men all had on suits and ties, the women all had on cocktail dresses and heels. There were quite a few diamond sparkling ear lobes and necks in the group.
The first sign that all was not well was when we arrived at the restaurant and were greeted by cacophonous barking from across the street. The barking was coming from some impressive looking large dogs that appeared to be German Shepard/Rottweiler mixes that were charging an eight-foot high chain-link fence. The razor-wire topped fence was surrounding a facility that appeared to sell hubcaps, at least there were dozens of them hanging from the fence. I began to suspect that C’s definition of a “not so good neighborhood” and mine might be slightly different.
We dismounted from the van, most of us shooting apprehensive glances at the dogs and the fence and the razor wire and the hubcaps and entered the restaurant. We were immediately greeted and ushered to a room upstairs, which actually had a very good view of the dogs and the fence and the razor wire and the hubcaps since it was in the front of the building. We settled in and began to order, or to attempt to. Nearly everything we selected,we were told , they were out of. They were also out of butter. This was seen at first as a rather promising happenstance. If they were out of so many things this early in the evening the place must be truly popular , which meant we were in for a treat. Alas, that was far from the truth. The food, when it came was as dismal as the surroundings. My chicken tasted oddly chemical as if it had been marinated in Pine Sol before it was fried. The other diners expressed equal dismay with their entrees. C was very apologetic and told us he had not had this type of experience during past visits.
We finished rather quickly since virtually nobody ate much of his or her meal and C went to call for the van to return to get us. This was before the cell phone era so he had to use the house phone downstairs to make the call. C was a probation officer and had the demeanor of a man used to dealing with problem people when interacting with strangers. He returned to the group and told us the van would be there in ten minutes. We all took the ten minutes to freshen up, use the restroom, fix our lipstick, etc., and then we all gathered in the front of the establishment to await our white hotel chariot. We waited and waited, serenaded by the canine chorus across the street that indicated their fervent desire to eat us with or without butter. After about 25 minutes we got the idea that there had been a miscommunication with the hotel concerning the van. Although the upper floors of the hotel were, barely, visible from the restaurant because it was so tall, it was still rather a hike away, especially considering our shoes, wraps or lack thereof, and particularly our neighborhood.
We put our heads together and decided if we stayed in a tight group we could make it back on foot. The alternative was to continue to stand in front of the restaurant across from the hubcap lot as it got progressively later and less populated. None of us wanted to appear to be babies, afraid to walk in the neighborhood and taking a cab would be sissy. So we decided to call a cab for Wayne’s elderly mother and send her with our brother-in-law H who had had a recent heart attack back to the hotel. When the cab arrived several of the party decided to try keep them company but were prevented from doing so by the rest of us. Everyone was in this together and nobody was getting a ride, free or fared but those who had to have one for health reasons. We felt a tad bit better when C announced that he was, as usual, packing. At least we thought, if we are attacked he can shoot a couple of rounds in the air and scare them off, or failing that shoot them!
We began the Trail of Fears walk ( apologies to my Native readers) and trudged past dark doorways with denizens sleeping, a group of men clustered around a tin drum with a fire in it to ward off the breeze from the lake and an impressive amount of debris, human and otherwise. About halfway into the trip C was seized with fury and announced he was going to run ahead and get the van driver to come get us or he was going to “shoot him in the ass.” Before we could respond he took off running, taking his gun and our only hope of protection with him.
Now were were left in an area with very little light and no obvious police presence and no C and no gun and no van. We packed together a bit tighter, threw glances around a bit more and plodded on. We could not go very fast dressed as we were and it was too cold and the ground too dirty to take off our shoes and make a run for it. Besides which I was the baby of the group by quite a bit at age 37, so none of us could be described as being in Olympic sprint shape. I was about to suggest singing to keep our spirits up when, lo and behold a white van with the McCormick Place logo on it came into view, traveling at a good clip. I could only hope that C was not holding the gun on the driver. When the van screeched to a halt next to our grateful party he was in the front seat, but he did not have his gun out, although as he helped us into the van he did keep muttering about having threatened to shoot him and that he still might for not picking us up and “ruining our evening.”
The relieved party reconvened in the hospitality suite, ordered some room service and had a good laugh at our adventure. Included in the jesting discussion was the determination to eschew colorful places to dine in the future unless we were all packing!