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Picnic in Upton Park
Picnic in Upton Park

Picnic in Upton Park


Long ago and far away…

When you work and live downtown, getting to trees, grass and greenery is like a trip to the country. The Down and Outer’s Saturday morning destination was meeting Peter and Katrina for a picnic in a wooded park halfway between where they lived. Saturday mornings for Angie was like the other Down and Outers; watching cartoons, but also helping her mother with the housework, so she wouldn’t be coming along.

After meeting for coffee and jokes, Ray, Stash and Joey walked to the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company Supermarket.

The three shook their outstretched hands and simultaneously chanted as the automatic doors opened.

‘Magic eyyyyye!’

Wandering through the aisles with a shopping trolley, they agreed the coffee they drank was never as good as the smell of the coffee grinders in the aisle of the A&P featuring their brands of Eight O’Clock, Red Circle and Hearty Bokar. The latter must’ve been the coffee really enjoyed by the white bearded man who appeared on the can of Hills Bros. wearing the yellow dress, white turban and pointy-toed slippers. He no doubt started his day with a cup of strong coffee on his way to attack the Foreign Legion fort.

They purchased packets of Oscar Mayer bologna and salami; for the trio still owned their Oscar Mayer Wiener Whistles and boasted of having seen the Wienermobile on its promotional visits. They also bought sliced cheese, two jars of different types of pickles, a six-pack of soft drinks, a jar of mustard, a large loaf of Butternut bread, a giant box of Jays Potato Chips and three 3 Musketeers candy bars to tide them over. Split three ways, it was a most economical lunch. Joey brought some needed utensils.

They swapped quips with the cashier as the cash register loudly made what sounded like the impressive drum rolls from the 20th Century Fox fanfare.

‘I have to go to the post office to buy some stamps.’

‘Sure, Joey. We’re running early, so there’s no hurry.’

Being early was Ray’s Way. There always was the unexpected, not having to beat the clock and the fun of having time to kill with friends.

The impressive grey post office building was located further up Genesee Street at the bottom of Julian Street, a steep tree-lined hill that featured a house where the God of Illinois, Abraham Lincoln had once slept. As they waited, Ray and Stash examined the Federal Government’s Wanted Dead or Alive posters as if they were bounty hunter Steve McQueen with their eyes on the rewards.

Julian Street, with the post office on one side and the mysterious Masonic Temple on the other was downtown’s beginning or end. North of Julian, Genesee became a pleasant quiet tree-lined street of Victorian homes and the YWCA ending at their destination of Upton Park. The overcast morning had given way to blue skies as they paused and unhurriedly enjoyed their candy bars.

‘Ray, Ray…you look pensive to-day…’

‘Stash…when’s the last time you’ve been on a picnic?’

‘Ohhhhh…’, Stash’s eyes showed he was recalling his past, ‘Back in grade school towards the end of the school year.’

‘Dad took Mom and me on picnics, and once a year our church has one’, Joey added.

‘I was like you too, until my wife decided to have one. When things didn’t go her way, she really got mad. You never expected something you thought so easy and relaxing could be such a big deal.’

‘You think Katrina will pull that?’

‘No, I’m just curious…I’m wondering if she’s going to formally announce that she snagged Peter.’

As he had once been married, Ray was regarded as the fountain of knowledge about all women by every male at Rico’s. The single males for how to get into marriage and what it was really like, and for those who were married like Rico, and knew what it was really like, how to get out of it without paying any alimony. The latter regarded Ray like the smart one who wins the first bet from the crooked gambler luring him in to bet more, then escaping with his winnings before the deck was stacked and he was taken. Ray divorced prior to their having children.

Peter often asked Rico if marriage was as bad as Ray said it was. Rico replied that sometimes it was worse, but sometimes it was wonderful. Marriage was a house of cards, with money as the winds, occasionally there’d be unexpected hurricanes…

‘I don’t think Peter can afford to get married on his Civil Service salary.’

‘Maybe they’ll both work at their jobs, Ray. I’ve read a few people are doing that nowadays…man, if that ever catches on, rents and housing prices will shoot to the moon!’

‘That’s bulldust, Stash!’, snapped Ray. ‘The reason women get married is, so they don’t have to work again; just sit in some house like a slug in a shell whilst her husband works himself to death. Then when he’s just got his head above water, she wants a bigger house…Remember the end of Picnic where Rosalind Russell snags Arthur O’Connell and lords it up over the other schoolteachers?’

‘Well…a picnic is an unusual thing to be invited to…’, Stash contemplated.

‘Katrina’s sweet…’,

Joey once more hit the nail on the head. She was genuinely pleasant, kind and gentle towards everyone and made them feel better; unlike the girls they knew in school who looked and sounded sweet, but everyone found out the hard way they never were, for they accomplished the opposite.

‘…but I hope this morning will be something worth missing cartoons for.’

‘Saturday morning’s a funny time to have a picnic’, Stash wondered, ‘usually they’re on Sunday afternoons when there’s nothing else to do…’

‘And this picnic is actually before lunchtime…’, Ray reflected.

What began as a ramble to a pleasant diversion now became a journey to an intriguing mystery.

They met and shook hands with Peter at the end of Genesee Street that was the beginning of Upton Park.

‘You’ve brought your own food.’

‘Sure, we didn’t know what was going on…what is going on, Peter?’

‘Follow me and pretend we’re going on a holiday excursion.’

‘Hooray’, cheered Stash. We’re going on a vacuous vaguecation!’

Peter led them past the park’s Gothic cottage towards the wooded ravine that meandered into Lake Michigan.

Katrina rose; on the grass sat three other women sitting around a large blanket.

‘Ray, Stash, Joey? This is Karen, Betty and Connie; they are nurses at Victory Memorial Hospital. The girls are working the afternoon shift today, so we are having a morning picnic.’

As the ladies didn’t stand, the males sat down facing them. Ray felt like he was in front of a jury.

Katrina explained their occupations but didn’t say that Joey only worked part time.

Karen was the first to speak,

‘How much money do you make, Ray?’

‘How much money do you make?’

‘Not enough.’

‘Same here.’

‘Then why are you wasting my time?’

‘If you want money so bad, why don’t you go after a doctor?’

‘All the doctors are married, and all the interns are only looking for girls from rich families to pay for opening their practices.’

‘Then why don’t you find an accountant? You two would have a lot in common.’

‘I want a man who makes lots of money, not counts it for other people.’

‘Next time go to a picnic with a bank robber. I’ll show you their pictures at the post office, and you can always turn them in for the reward.’

‘A face like yours belongs on a wanted poster, Ray. If I were you and I had a price on my head, I’d take it.’

One of us is wanted…too bad it’s not you; you’re so greedy you’d turn yourself in.’

‘My, it is a lovely morning!’, Katrina smiled.

Peter broke out laughing.

As Ray and Karen stared each other down, Katrina spoke,

‘Betty, Stash used to work in Washington D.C..’

‘Why do they call you Stash?’, smiled Betty.

‘Because he’s really a garbageman’, cracked Karen.

‘That’s why Katrina wants us to take you out’, Stash replied.

Karen glared at Stash; Ray guffawed.

‘It’s short for Stan.’

‘You’ll have to explain that one to me.’

‘We will begin eating, the boys brought their own food’, smiled Katrina.

‘What kind of sandwiches do you have, Stash?’, Betty asked.

Baloney down, ach ach ach ach!’

‘What are you, a retard?’, smirked Karen.

‘That’s Popeye!’

‘Same thing.’

‘Only communists and teachers don’t like Popeye!’

‘Popeye’s for little kids!’

‘Who do you like, Lucretia Borgia?’

Joey stared blankly…

‘She’s Victor Borge’s mother, Joey’, Betty explained as she made the finger sign and vocal sounds of Vic’s audio pronunciation of an exclamation mark.

Stash chortled; Betty had potential

Karen continued with Ray,

Kate says you were married.’


‘Do you think you and your wife will ever get back together?’


‘Are you looking to get married again?’


‘Then why did you show up here?’

‘I was invited to a picnic, not a matchmaking matrimonial agency…May I be excused?’

‘Maybe you picked the wrong girl, Ray’, Connie remarked.

‘I thought she was the right girl at the time…but my problem was marriage, not her. Marriage is a stacked deck where the man always loses…if he remains a man. I got out before it was too late.’

‘You got the goodies and ran away, Georgie Porgie’, Karen sneered, 'Are you going home now to sit by yourself?’

‘It’s too late for cartoons, I’ll probably go to the Shoot-O-Rama with my .45.’

‘I hate guns.’

‘You look like the poisoning type.’

‘I knew she went for Lucretia Borgia’, smiled Stash. He began singing a modified version of the Cinderella Work Song,

Every time, she'd find a minute,

That's the time that she’d begin it,

Cantarella, cantarella, cantarella!’

Karen scowled, Betty cackled, Connie, Joey and Katrina looked blankly.

‘The Sforza’s were way worse than the Borgias’, Betty pronounced.

‘Those were the fun parts of the Renaissance they never talked about at school.’

Betty and Stash smiled at each other with their eyes.

Katrina chirped,

‘Joey works in the same legal firm that his father did.’

Stash cracked,

‘Karen, the only single lawyers are the ones who murdered their wives.’

‘…and got off the hook because they were widowers’, quipped Betty.

Karen’s mood broke with her laughter, everyone felt better.

‘Do nurses take the same hypocritic oath that Doctor’s do?

Karen went for Joey,

‘That’s Hippocratic oath, stupid!’

Joey turned to Karen and coldly responded,

The physician pledges to prescribe only beneficial treatments, according to his or her abilities and judgment; to refrain from causing harm or hurt; and to live an exemplary personal and professional life…you don’t sound like you took that oath, Karen.’

Karen was speechless, Betty wasn’t…

‘Things haven’t been going Karen’s way…when you’re a nurse they mostly don’t…’

The Down and Outers nodded in understanding.

‘We stick up for each other too’, said Ray.

‘Yes, we promise to uphold the Hippocratic oath, to do no harm, practice discretion and be dedicated to our work as nurses…and I love Popeye. Olive Oyl can always depend on him to get her out of trouble, no matter how big or bad it is.’

‘You’re a nice lady, Connie.’

‘Thank you, Joey, I think you’re nice too.’

The boys made their sandwiches, the girls had their own, wrapped in brown wax paper. Connie asked Joey if he could make her a bologna sandwich, Betty asked Stash the same and they swapped sandwiches. Everyone chatted about a variety of pleasant things except for Karen and Ray who attempted to outstare each other like two dogs fighting over a bone. All ate their sandwiches and shared the potato chips and drinks.

Time seemed to stand still, as it always did around the ravines that seemed to be the blood vessels of their city. Being in proximity to the ravines was like embracing forever; it was only later when you looked at your watch or the position of the sun in the sky that you realised that time had elapsed after all…

‘I’ve had enough!’, shouted Karen as she rose.

All the women pointed and made noises.

Katrina broke the news as politely as she could,

‘Karen…you have sat in dog waste…’

‘Like attracts like’, Ray grinned.

Karen loudly and loquaciously lashed Ray like a Drill Sergeant.

‘Why don’t you introduce me to your friend, Ray…’

There was Angie, wearing a very nasty expression,

‘Joey’s mother said where you were…’, her voice was the calm before the storm…

Karen shouted,

‘You should’ve told me your wife was with you!’

‘She’s not my wife!’

‘And he’s not your husband!’

Angie went after Karen; both slapping and hair pulling.

One hundred dollars!

Angie and Karen ceased fighting to look at Ray, for he had spoken the magic words.

Katrina jumped in to explain her invitation, ending with Karen’s tragedy.

Joey provided the answer,

‘Let’s go to the North Star Theatre. Mrs. Starr will let you inside to clean your skirt.’

‘Our sailor man to the rescue!’, Connie proudly smiled.

‘I’m in the Navy Reserve…and my Dad was in the Illinois Naval Militia!’

‘My Dad was in the Navy too’, Connie beamed.

All were touched as she softly sang, I Hear a Dream from Gulliver’s Travels as they walked out of the park. Angie and Karen seemed soothed.

They walked up red-bricked Gillette Street with its archway of Dutch Elm trees, happily chatting two by twos, like Noah’s Ark. A short way behind the happy couples was the silence of the smouldering Angie and Karen flanking an impassive Ray.

They arrived at the right time. The Saturday Afternoon matinee was not due to start for some time, and Mrs. Starr, Katrina and Angie successfully fussed over Karen’s skirt in the Ladies Room with mixtures of soap, detergent, vinegar and baking soda, resolving the shituation to everyone’s satisfaction.

Outside Joey and Stash were in cheerful conversation with Connie and Betty. Peter talked to Ray.

‘Katrina’s been jealous of how much fun you guys were having together; she thought we were going to break up so I could join you full time. I told her I never would leave her, and she was as much a part of the gang as I was. As she knew a nurse who had two friends, she had the bright idea…’

‘Well, two out of three isn’t bad…’

Sadly, there wasn’t time for the nurses to see the matinee, Angie apologised to Karen, Karen accepted and thanked her for her help with her skirt.

The gang walked up North Avenue to their nurses’ quarters. There were shouts and whistles from a passing tangerine-coloured streetcar containing some of Rico’s regulars looking out the windows at the procession. There’d be tales to tell later!

It was time not to say goodbye, but ‘see you later’. Joey and Stash would be having dinner dates and a show at the North Star on the girl’s next evening off!

To everyone’s surprise Karen suddenly hugged Angie and whispered in her ear,

‘Don’t let him go.’

Only Angie heard her voice; she nodded and returned the hug.

The gang watched as the nurses entered their building.

‘There’s the streetcar! We can catch it to the North Star afternoon matinee!’

‘It’s a date, Peter!’, smiled Angie.


Author Notes: Happy Valentine's Day!

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7 Feb, 2024
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