Michael Carwile: April 2010 Archives

Old World Charm

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A restaurant recommendation:

5734 W. Cermak Road
Cicero, IL 60804

It might be fudging it a bit, for the purposes of this blog, but I'm sure if you'd measure the shoulders in Cicero you'd find them at least as big as Chicago's. Besides, the restaurant is within walking distance from the end of the Pink Line.

We went as a group on Saturday, seven of us, having studied abroad together in Vienna in the fall. Now in the spring and squarely in the American Midwest we were craving schnitzel. Klas is not quite the dining room at the Hotel Sacher and not quite the Gasthof up the street from our student residence in Leopoldstadt, in fact it might bristle at the comparisons. The sign out front advertises "Bohemian and American cuisine." Czechoslovakia was four years independent from Vienna when the restaurant opened, a Czech restaurant in a town chock full of Czechs. Eighty-eight years on, it preserves some of that old world charm in a much changed world.

The facade is a mock half-timbered village, with peaked roofs of different heights and even a turret. Inside are suits of armor, wood-carvings, fancy chandeliers, lace, stained glass, and taxidermy. It's probably the closest thing to Habsburg Mitteleuropa we could hope to find this side of the Atlantic.

And we got our wiener schnitzel. And a plate of schnitzel at Klas, at $12.95, comes not just with a veal cutlet but also a choice of two sides, soup and dessert. And so along with our wiener schnitzel we had our goulash soup, our sauerkraut, our bread dumplings, and our strudel. Tall, dark Czech beer flowed liberally to wash it all down.

After eating, and moreover after recovering from eating, we gave the rest of the restaurant a look. The place is huge - in addition to the main dining room there's a bar, a beer garden, and at least three private banquet halls, done up as a hunting lodge, dance hall, or baroque palace. There must have been a time when the restaurant was just packed, but that was not the case on a Saturday afternoon in 2010. Next time you're having a Czech wedding, a Czech family reunion, or a Czech charity banquet, make sure to check this place out.


Windy City Pro Wrestling

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You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life
See that girl, watch that scene, diggin' the dancing queen

Yes, ABBA was playing over the loudspeaker in this warehouse gym in southeasternmost Chicago, where 102nd Street and Avenue O dead-end into the Calumet River, seven blocks upstream from the drawbridge Jake and Elwood jumped in a second-hand police car. "You are the dancing queen, young and sweet, only seventeen," sang the Nordic popstars to the posters of muscly, half-naked men that lined the walls, to the racks of free weights and the machines pushed up against them to make room for the coming attraction, to the maybe forty people gathered there that Saturday night, sitting in steel folding chairs three rows deep, waiting on the men in masks and tights who soon would punch and kick and execute high-flying body slams off the ropes. But the stars were still getting ready off stage, so it was left to Björn, Benny, Anna and Frida to warm up the crowd at Windy City Pro-Wrestling's tenth annual Lee Sanders Memorial Tournament.


The musical selection, it turns out, wasn't nearly as inappropriate to the setting as it seemed to me then, as I sat imagining extreme acts of violence feeding the blood lust of a raging crowd. I was feeling rather out of my element, by eight miles and a world, in a shadowy region known to me only through the stories of a high school friend. This is a guy who seeks out this stuff in church basements, VWF halls, and crumbling arenas across New Jersey, the capital of indy wrestling, I'm told, and from him I'd heard of "bring you own weapon" matches in backyards in Delaware, where wrestlers hit each other over the head with fluorescent tubes, and that the Necro Butcher, that guy with a staple gun from The Wrestler, staples people in real life too. My personal experience with pro wrestling consisted entirely of video games at a neighbor's house in the 90s, and those fans, let me tell you, those pixels went wild.

These fans, though, they didn't quite seem the type. Windy City Pro Wrestling's fanbase evidently crosses ethnic and generational lines; the event drew families with small children, teenagers out on a Saturday night, older couples, men in white beards, a girl even came in leading her grandmother by the arm. They all mingled before the match, exchanging hellos, in an atmosphere about as tense as any junior varsity sporting event. Then the music died down, a smoke machine started up, and the white bearded man sitting in front of me got up in front of the crowd and with a microphone intoned: "Some of you may know me as Santa Claus."

Which come to think of it is the perfect character to emcee a professional wrestling tournament.

It's fashionable among pointy-headed academics, I think, to call professional wrestling a morality play, and while that seems a bit condescending it's totally true. The fans knew exactly which wrestlers to cheer and which to boo, and every match encapsulated a neat moral lesson. Well, except for the first one. The first two wrestlers to enter the ring were little guys: tiny, taut V-Factor without an once of fat on his body against fresh-faced Barry Ryte, without a smidgen of muscle definition. V-Factor manhandled Ryte and the only moral of the story, if there was one, was that muscle wins.

Now when I say manhandle... The fighting was really hammy. Wrestlers would punch a foot from their opponent's face and stomp the mat for sound effects. Or body slam a foot from the other guy's body. Or stomp a foot from the other guy's crotch. This last move drew a roar from the crowd, in part I think, from its obvious fakeness. The fans knew when to cheer and when to boo just as the wrestlers knew when the throw a punch and when to recoil - there was remarkably little real anger in the air that night; the passion of the crowd was as much a part of the act as the action in the ring.

The acting was hammier still. The second match pitted a pious Irishman against a demonic Italian. You could tell the latter was evil incarnate by the black eye make-up streaking down his cheeks, his heavy strut, and the gruff voice he affected in great lines like, "I'm going to... punch you... in the... FACE!". He began the match by snatching at the crucifix the Irishman wore around his neck and trying to strangle him in the midst of his pre-match prayer. But the Irishman eventually prevailed: faith beats satanism.

Next came the Stoic versus the Whiner. One wrestler kept stopping the match and pulling over the ref to complain that his opponent was pulling his hair. The opponent, himself bald, stood their biding his time, and whenever the match resumed, he'd resume his pummeling, eventually beating the whiner into the mat. The match that followed featured the Hotshot up against the Old School. First a young guy ran out, waving his arms to pump up the crowd - you knew something was off when the crowd only responded with boos and jeers. He was followed into the ring by an older, bulkier but somewhat flabbier opponent, and the crowd cheered, even as a couple of toughs, one in a leather jacket and shades, one bare-chested in a studded dog collar, took to the stage and momentarily derailed the competition. "I'm the baddest guy in town," said the dominant of the pair, spelling out what was already obvious from his costume. He introduced himself as a retired wrestler who'd come back to put together the baddest team in town -- big, burly Mike Anthony was his hand-picked successor. Mike Anthony was also held the distinction of the first wrestler there to produce the sound of flesh-on-flesh contact -- by slapping his opponent in the chest. And maybe because of that slap Mike Anthony, champion of the old school, beat the hotshot upstart who had the nerve to challenge the established order.

The final match of the night came down to V-Factor versus Mike Anthony. It was a long one, containing some pretty impressive acrobatic work, but in the end, V-Factor came out on top. And the crowd? Well, it didn't go wild. They clapped, yes, they cheered, they stood from their seats (which had the whole time remained seats -- Chekhov's gun gone unfired) But even as V-Factor climbed the ropes, spread his arms, and kissed and the sky, the air the place felt much the same as it had before the three count. There was none of that release that floods an arena after the tension of the big game. No one had been holding their breath, no one's knuckles had gone white, no one had stared transfixed, waiting for that final call. There was no tension to release in the first place, community theater isn't tense.

The event was brought to an end by Mrs. Sanders, climbing into the ring to present the trophy to a triumphant V-Factor. Her husband had wrestled with WCPW in his day, and ultimately, unsuccessfully, with cancer. Now the Lee Sanders Tournament was held in his memory and its proceeds given towards his family. "I'd like to thank all the wrestles who performed tonight," Mrs. Sanders said, "They gave it one hundred and ten percent." I don't know where everyone dispersed to after the tournament, but from 7:30 to 9:30 that Saturday night, friends and families of the East Side of Chicago had enjoyed an evening of good, clean wrestling fun. And so had I. I am so going to Battle of the Belts in May.