I could be a grandfather, as incomprehensible as that seems to me, though I recognized the actuality of my age when I had lunch last month in Chicago with a high school friend, someone I hadn’t seen in years, or decades, to be more precise. We picked up mid-sentence as if it was yesterday, not paying particular attention to how long ago it had been since we sat in the same English class our junior year of high school.
Actually, it was our English teacher who was responsible, if inadvertently, for putting me in a situation where I was sitting at a table with my former classmate, Guy Nickson, who now owns a couple restaurants in Chicago, while I run a weekly newspaper in the Bronx. A couple years ago I happened to meet our English teacher, Mr. Duffy, for pizza in northern New Jersey, not far from the George Washington Bridge, and two towns away from where Guy and I grew up. I don’t know why I was surprised, but I was, when Mr. Duffy acknowledged he only remembered two other students in the same graduating class as me. Of course, Mr. Duffy’s teaching career spanned some 40 years at the same school before he retired, so one can imagine how many students with whom he interacted. One person he obviously remembered was Guy, which made sense, especially since Guy was interested in drama and acting, and Mr. Duffy directed the plays at our school. The other person Mr. Duffy recalled was our friend, Guy’s and mine, named Tim, known by the self-moniker, Dr. Timm. Tim also acted in plays directed by Mr. Duffy, and was on the football team, forced to play under pressure from his father, an FBI agent, of all things, with the highlight of Tim’s gridiron career being rushing for an extra point conversion while tripping on mescaline.
Over pizza that day, Mr. Duffy asked me about Tim, whose whereabouts I knew nothing about except that he had lived in San Francisco for a while after college — little did I know Guy lived with him there at one point — and then became a disc jockey of some sort in Missoula, Montana when we were in our mid-twenties. I also didn’t have any idea what Guy had been up to, or where he might be. Mr. Duffy was vague, admitting he hadn’t talked with Guy in years, but he’d heard Guy was running a restaurant in Chicago, though he didn’t know its name. Fortunately, that was all I needed. I was able to track Guy down and called him at his restaurant. I was in Chicago for a writers’ conference in 2009 when we first talked on the phone after so many years, and I learned Guy was a solid citizen, a family man, married with children, no longer on the fringe of the protest movement circa Vietnam days, but we weren’t able to meet until I happened to be back in Chicago earlier this year for another writers’ conference. I arrived in Chicago two days early for the annual AWP (Associated Writers and Writing Programs) Conference, with the specific intention of going to Wishbone Restaurant and meeting up with Guy, which I did.
I took a cab from the Palmer House Hotel to the restaurant located on Washington Boulevard in the West Loop, though Guy’s regular spot is the Wishbone Restaurant on the Northside on Lincoln Avenue. On the drive over, I thought how strange it seemed that Guy was a restaurant owner, though he’s a personable and intelligent fellow, and no doubt would be better capable of running such an enterprise than I ever would. Based on how we were viewed by our peers in high school, however, I suspect Guy was the one likely expected to become a writer, while most probably thought I would be dead before the age of thirty, the victim of a foolish accident or mishap, most likely related to drinking not wisely but all too well.
As Guy and I talked over lunch, billed as Southern Reconstruction food, “southern food for a Yankee’s taste,” I was happy for him as I viewed the mid-day crowd, generally pleased and animated, mixed, black and white together, laughing in an atmosphere of camaraderie, a natural feeling within the restaurant where one could feel comfortable and safe, and at least for the moment, removed from whatever reality problems might be besieging one in the wider world outside. Friendly, that’s the best word to use, a friendly place, where hospitality was the order of the day.
I don’t have to spend much time describing Wishbone; scores of articles have been published about it, many such articles framed and adorning the restaurant’s wall on the way past a bar toward the restrooms. One by Lori Waxman in the Chicago Tribune, about art and restaurants, says that at Wishbone there are “many fine paintings of chicken and cabbages. Coleslaw, blackened chicken and eggs every which way feature prominently on the menu, and there’s nothing like seeing the source of what one eats presented in visually arresting fashion while one gobbles it up.”
And Tim Hartford of Hartford Design, a graphic design and visual branding practice based in Chicago, states, Wishbone was “a fun client,” and went on, “The food is great and the restaurant has an eccentric vibe with somewhat surreal paintings provided by their mom,” the “their” referring to Guy and his younger brother Joel, a real bona fide chef, who started working at a soul food restaurant in New Jersey at the age of 16, before gravitating to apprentice at some fine French restaurants across the river in New York City — Quo Vadis, La Tulipe, and the 21 Club, to name a few — though the family roots all lead to their mother’s original home in North Carolina.
I learned Guy helped direct the former Randolph Street Gallery, one of the most influential experimental art spaces in Chicago, before he opened Wishbone in 1990 with Joel, and youngest brother, Greg, whom I remember, with identification, as a little kid tearing wildly around the basement of the Nicksons’ house, a block south of where my family lived on the corner of Maple Street and Dana Place.
Guy describes himself as “a writer in remission” and he came to the restaurant business by way of theater, film, and a variety of not-for-profit organizations. He graduated from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and then earned an MFA from NYU’s film school, moving on from there to co-found the Popular Theater in San Francisco. On the Wishbone web site, http://www.wishbonechicago.com/, Guy’s bio states, “Freelance writing, translation, and a few arrests for demonstrations round out his itinerant resume,” though he admits he has never been a waiter.
Sitting with Guy, it wasn’t so important what we talked about, as the feeling of knowing I was with a close friend, a sympathetic ally, despite not seeing each other for such a long, long time. I first met Guy when my parents tricked me, for my own good, into entering a private boys’ school in Englewood in the middle of seventh grade. I was the new kid, and I was less than thrilled being part of what I perceived at the time as a Social Register bastion high up on a hill far away from the regular kids with whom I had gone through grade school, played Little League with and against, and dreamed of one day being a wide receiver for Notre Dame during our backyard touch football games where it was difficult to get enough guys to play the two days a week when many attended Hebrew School.
Guy and I were pretty different, and I suspect good manners, natural empathy, and conceptual curiosity, along with the common experience of where we found ourselves at the age of twelve, were reasons we became friends. I was athletic, playing a lot of organized baseball, until drinking became more and more of a personal sport, taking up way too much time, with devastating results, while Guy was considered more cerebral, and artistic, an intellectual in training, gentle instead of arrogant, until he did indeed become regarded as one of the scholastic elite at the school. Our friendship started in fourth period study hall, an alien concept to me until I arrived at the Boys’ School. Guy and I sat next to each other in the study hall, and we were in the same science class right after, one taught by a rotund little man who seemed as wide as he was tall, and reminded me of a nasty Swiss watchmaker, one who wasn’t neutral, and one who most likely collaborated with the enemy. It should come as no surprise how much I dreaded that class, whereas for Guy, I suspect, it was just another class, different subject, but one in which he did well, though, like myself, English was preferable, even somewhat enjoyable — in my case, because I didn’t hate it, and in Guy’s because he was interested in writing, as well as drama and then eventually film.
And now here he was, co-owner of restaurants in Chicago, popular restaurants, restaurants which during my week in Chicago at the AWP Conference when I asked local folks about Wishbone, most were aware of its existence, with many actually knowing the name Guy Nickson. What could we possibly have in common that we got along so well? Our parents, our respective parents, were not easily categorized, hadn’t traveled down familiar, predicable, or commonly recognized paths. I never knew much about Guy’s parents, they seemed remote and mysterious, bohemians occupying a large house in suburban New Jersey. Guy’s father was a poet, and his mother was a talented and highly-regarded painter, nationally known for her oil portraits. And the other day, I happened to chance upon a photo from an edition of the James Joyce Quarterly of Guy’s parents in Zurich in 1949, with Nora Joyce standing in the middle between them.
My parents were both born and raised in Ontario, both sets of my grandparents starting life out on farms in the Canadian countryside. My parents met at the University of Toronto, getting married shortly after graduation, and then moving to New York City, where my father completed medical school, becoming a renowned psychiatrist, one specializing in group and family therapy. Guy and I were both the oldest of the kids in our respective families, which, for good or bad, would not be automatic choices to base characters on for a sit-com in the ’60s or ’70s.
Guy and I were also both dealing with the loss of our fathers, complicated relationships in which there are still many blanks to fill in and complete. My father died of a massive heart attack at the age of 82, in February of 2009, a week or so after I returned from my first trip to Chicago. Guy’s father, the eccentric poet/professor, originally from New Mexico, died this past January, a week after his 95th birthday, and Guy was heading back to New York City the day before I was due to return, to attend “the gathering” to commemorate his father’s life. In the aftermath of his father’s death, Guy said he thought of me and “my attempts to wrestle with the father shadow,” my father, the charismatic psychiatrist, worshipped and adored by so many colleagues and students, whom my relationship with now, looking back, was more confusing than detrimental.
Both our fathers, Guy’s and mine, were probably tough acts to follow, but Guy and I each seem to have managed, developing and maintaining our own identities, perhaps both of us helped in a strange twist of fate by being first born sons. What I do know with certainty is the food at Wishbone is certainly good and I hope to get back there before another thirty years pass.