“WHERE’S THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE?”
“LEONE PARK BEACH”
“WHERE’S THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE???”
“LEONE PARK BEACH!!!”
As a child this was my summer mantra. You see, I went to junior lifeguard camp every day on beach called Leone located in the neighborhood of Rogers Park, Chicago (aka: the center of the universe). This was quite possibly the most chaotic period of my life. Leone Park Beach is where I encountered some of the weirdest people in my entire life. Madness ensued on the daily, and I was just along for the ride.
To provide you with some background: Rogers Park is one of the most culturally and economically diverse neighborhoods in America. The Jr. Lifeguard camp is actually like a national program or something, mostly for people who live on actual oceans, however Leone was part of an off-shoot of that program that included the beaches of Lake Michigan in Chicago.
The camp itself was actually very physically demanding…we ran two miles everyday, swam long distances in the lake, rowed boats, paddle-boarded…I basically reached my peak physical fitness at age 8 and have been on a downward slope ever since. The lunches they provided us with were absolutely atrocious, and as a result, by the end of the summer I had the body fat percentage (and overall appearance) of a preying mantis.
Speaking of the terrible free lunches: I honestly don’t even know how/if these were FDA approved. Most days the lunches consisted of sandwiches with flesh-colored “meat” and a side of “salad” made up of those paper-shredder remains they have the audacity to call “lettuce” and roughly 1/10th of a tomato cut up into suspiciously perfect squares. They came in little brown boxes and were dished out like prison food. The camp director wrote our name down on a list to make sure nobody took two — which is absolutely insane since nobody in their right mind would do such a thing.
The lunches were so terrible that most of the older campers chose to go to the Citgo gas-station and Subway that were across the street. This was a pretty big deal because the street we had to cross to get to the other side was borderline apocalyptic. Every year some idiot kid would get hit by a car…nothing fatal, but let’s just say that more than a few bones were broken in pursuit of a foot-long. Nothing says “good-old fashioned summer fun” like getting hit by a car, am I right or am I right? My mom FORBADE me and my siblings from crossing that street. As a result I developed a strange glorification of Subway sandwiches and gas-station finds; these were the forbidden fruits of my childhood. Even now I still find myself continually shocked every time I re-find out that Subway is actually an extremely shitty “restaurant”.
We’d sit with our blah sandwiches and watch other kids eat goldfish and chips and SubwayeatfreshTM and little Debbie balls of lard and every other diabetes-inducing snack which we so desperately wanted. We were so hard-up for food that one time someone dropped a Zebra Cake on the ground, then someone else accidentally stepped on it, then someone else who happened to be my brother made the executive decision to eat it anyways. The image of the foot-print indented zebra cake is burned in my memory forever…probably because I wanted it just as badly as he did. I remember that one kid walked around with a battered cardboard and begged for money in order to buy himself a honey bun…These were desperate times.
On happy days the ice cream bikes would arrive just in time for lunch (like ice cream trucks except on bikes — for the economical-minded entrepreneur). I remember that one of the ice cream men only had five fingers…total. This was scary but not scary enough to stop us from getting some ice cream. Some days I would scrape up enough money to indulge in this heavenly treat, although I’m not really sure where this money came from since I had no allowance and my only source of income was the reapings from my first communion. But even this small fortune was heavily rationed by my mother. There were some legends tossed around about cousins of mine that had spent the entirety of their first communion money on Subway sandwiches and ice cream…I don’t doubt that these rumors were exaggerated but even so, I cannot blame my spendthrift comrades for choosing to opt out of the “food” they served us for lunch.
Let it be known that there was actually one variety of the boxed lunch that was good. To be fair, the standards for “good” here were set extremely low. Nonetheless a grand total of TWO times every summer we got the “good” lunches which consisted of something they called pizza. It was not really pizza at all but we liked it. It was basically an economical version of the lunchables pizza; if you can strain your brain enough to imagine an even MORE economical version of “pizza” then the kind that lunchables produces. Basically, it was three mini pita pockets, a packet of ketchup disguised as pizza sauce, and those white, grinded-up bits of plastic forks that we pretend is cheese. Nonetheless: Pizza Day was practically a religious holiday. Subway stock actually went down on pizza day — true story (disclaimer: not at all true whatsoever).
[To Be Continued]