Heaven knows why I remembered this the other day but there it was. Gather ’round, and I shall tell you about the time a man named Python made me calf’s head soup.
It was 2003. I was living with my friend Will on Winona and Broadway, working as a brunch waitress on the weekends and trying to get my freelance writing career off the ground. I was at the Green Mill poetry slam every week, doing high school poetry gigs here and there, and basically hustling, as 24-year-olds do, to make ends meet while trying my best to have some fun. I managed the first thing okay and boy did I nail the second part. I was a wild child that year, for better and (mostly) worse.
At the restaurant, I worked with Norma. One part Rizzo from Grease, two parts Anita from West Side Story, twice my age and fond of Misty ultra-slim cigarettes when she took her break, Norma was the best part of my job. I adored her. (I wrote a poem some years later about her and the mischief we would make when we went out on the town.) One Sunday, Norma and I finished our shift and met back up at a bar around the corner from my place. The Lakeview Lounge closed years ago, but it was a tiny, crummy, hole-in-the-wall staple in Uptown for many decades. There was a minuscule stage behind the bar where — and I say this with love — crusty burn-outs — would play Lynard Skynard while they sipped warm Michelob and chain-smoked Camel hard pack cigarettes. Because of course in 2003 in Chicago, you could still smoke in bars. Heck, maybe the Lakeview closed down after the smoking ban went into effect. That place was 10% furniture and people, 15% alcohol and 75% pure cigarette smoke, both fresh and stale. Without any smoke, maybe it just ceased to exist.
Anyway, that night, the bartender brought over a round of drinks. “From the gentleman over there,” he said. The bartender’s beard was scruffy but not in a sexy, scruffy-bearded bartender way; it was just scary. He jerked his thumb over to a man sitting at the far end of the bar nursing what Norma and I would learn was a generous shot of Jameson’s and a Budweiser back. The man was forty-something, we guessed and wearing a fisherman’s jacket that may or may not have contained fishing lures and/or bait.
Norma and I raised our glasses to thank the man; he raised his glass back. And because that was how things at the Lakeview Lounge worked (and that’s how these things work everywhere, I suppose, if certain conditions are right) over the course of the night, Norma and I got to know Python. His name really was Python. He was from Transylvania — as in Transylvania, Romania — and he was a world-famous pinball designer. Only in Chicago, baby, and maybe only if you hang out with me. Unusual things do tend to happen in my life; hanging out with a celebrity pinball designer from the place where Dracula was supposed to be from could be considered unusual, right?
I liked Python. He was funny, strange, and a real b.s’er, kinda like me back then. He was also the most talented illustrator I had ever met and he really was famous in the pinball/early video game world; if you remember the arcade game Joust — the one with the knights on ostriches — then you know Python. He was one of the lead artists on that game and many other famous ones that gamer geeks admire a great deal. He hung out at the Lakeview and Norma and I (sort of) hung out at the Lakeview and so over the course of the next few months, I got to know him and he would draw little drawings for me. We became friends and talked about art and politics. He told me about the horrors of living under communism; I recited poems for him, which he loved. He never tried to take advantage of me and even though he was much older than I was, I was never creeped out by him. In the spring, he asked me if I wanted to spend the weekend at his ranch in Michigan and I said I’d love to go.
This is the sort of thing, by the way, that makes me feel okay about not having children. I mean, how did my mother survive me literally saying following sentence: “Hi, Mom! I’m going to spend the weekend in Michigan with a guy twice my age from Transylvania. His name is Python. His accent is really terrific. He designs pinball games. See ya!”
But the weekend was great. Python was a real outdoorsman, so I got to shoot a bunch of guns. I ate bacon straight from the smokehouse he built on the property. There may have been live chickens, but it was a long time ago, now. And on Saturday morning, Python asked me if I had ever had calf’s head soup. I said that no, I had not had the pleasure. He got very excited and said that he happened to have a calf’s head handy, so dinner was settled. I felt very scared for the first time that weekend but I helped chop carrots and celery, anyway.
I would learn later that calf’s head soup is also called mock turtle soup and that it’s not so crazy to eat if you live in certain parts of the world (e.g., Romania) or if you were fancy and lived at any point during the Victorian-era in England or the U.S. when it was all the rage among the upper crust. All I knew at the time is that there were chunks of a dang cow head boiling in broth all afternoon and that the clock was ticking: I was going to have to eat the stuff at some point and eat it, I did — and more than just the head meat, too. You see, Python insisted I eat one of the eyes.
“Oh, that’s okay, haha,” I said, feigning an eyeball allergy. But he wouldn’t let me off the hook.
“It’s the best part of the animal,” he said, holding the thing up on a spoon. “Just eat it, Mary. It’s so good for you! You will feel like Supergirl! More Supergirl than you already are.”
I can be brave when I want to be. So I did it. I ate the eyeball. And wouldn’t you know it: I felt like Supergirl. It was all the phosphorous. And yes, it was really, really gross. It was like a hard-boiled egg except that IT WAS AN EYEBALL.
I’m sorry to say that Python died a few years ago. I can’t remember how I learned of his death; we hadn’t been in touch in a long time. He had cancer. An article I read told about how all his friends and fans from the pinball and illustration world rallied around him to raise money for his medical bills. I hope he felt all that love when he was sick.
Remember me, Python? That poet girl? I’ve come a long way. Thanks for the snack.
All I can say is “your poor mother”
Such an awesome story…even if I gagged!
What Lori said.
I remember that bar from when I lived nearby (1970’s) but never met such a, uh, colorful character there.
I think you are very brave to eat the eyeball! I really don’t think I could do it. I love your stories!
Lisa Gainey Floyd
Oh Mary, I don’t know how your sweet mother did it. Wait, yes I do. My mother had to deal too. And then, I with my children. It’s amazing when we look back at our youth and think about all the crazy, senseless stuff we did.
Those wonderful, magic, crazy days when in our youth we occasionally walked the high wire. You never feel so alive again. Life usually makes us grow up and become responsible adults but the memories stay.
Cheers to your adventure, eyeball and all.
a long time ago, when snowed in at a ski resort, a couple of friends and I had dinner with two architects who had marvelous stories of their travels. They had recently returned from Afghanistan. They had been feted (not fetid) by important people and one of the delicacies was sheep’s head soup which had eyeballs in it. They were told the eyeballs were the best part so they felt they had to eat some. When asked how they tasted one of them said he had no idea. He had swallowed them whole.
I hadn’t thought of that in years. It was around 1963.
I read the autobiography of General Schwartzkoff. His dad was in the Middle East on assignment. They were guests at a dinner which featured an animal of the region. Maybe goat, and as his son, the young man was honored by being offered the eyeball. He told his dad he couldn’t eat that. His dad told him, “yes you will!” He did. And he lived to tell about it! There are just some honors in this world I can live without.
I am not brave enough or ever been hungry enough to eat that. I could change to vegan really really quickly