Happy Hour at the Baja Beach Club

They were my glasses from college. For some reason—call it flamboyance or idiocy—I got them in frames of red gel, like Sally Jesse Raphael—and the prescription was possibly three years out of date. Underneath the right frame, the side of my face was swollen like an egg was lodged just a centimeter or so below the skin. My eye was bruised to a bizarre rainbow of black, blue, purple, red and yellow, like a piece of rotten meat attached to my skull. My lower lip was split enough that it hurt to smile. I had this perpetual headache on the left side of my brain. People avoided me on the street. I was a mess. But the glasses? They were the insult to my injurious face.

The summer of 1989, I was a recent college graduate, a self-imposed transplant to the City of Chicago, and a kid living in my truck. When it got late, I’d park my truck somewhere in the city and practice my trumpet in the back or read with a flashlight.

That July, I found myself getting cleaned up in a local White Hen Pantry bathroom, putting on the least wrinkled and smelly clothes I had, and heading over to the Baja Beach Club on Illinois and McClurg. At Happy Hour, you could show an ID, sign an email to a list, and be granted access to the limited buffet for two hours between 5 and 7 p.m. They even threw in two drink tickets.

I’d go in, saunter to the bar and use a drink ticket to get a beer and some water. I’d load up a couple of plates of chicken fingers, cheese, crackers, broccoli flowers with ranch, rolls and fruit. I’d sit and nibble at the food and casually stuff the less wet stuff in my jacket pockets to take back to the truck with me.

It was there I met Sidney. Sidney was pretty much in the same straits as I was, had also figured out the bounty that was the Baja Beach Club, and could clean up reasonably well. He also carried a briefcase (which he surreptitiously filled with goodies by a 2-to-1 ratio in comparison to my jacket pockets). Sidney and I recognized the tiny club we were members of and started hanging out, swapping stories and eating crappy but free food.

He was from Missouri. His cousin lived on the Southside (the real Southside, past 75th Street) and had invited him to come to Chicago to get a job. Except that by the time Sidney had made it here, his cousin was incarcerated for something and Sidney was on his own. One night, about two weeks into our newfound companionship, Sidney asked for a ride to a place he was staying. “Sure!” I said. To say anything else would’ve been rude, right?

I suppose I should’ve had some sort of Spidey-Sense when he saw my trumpet—it was out of the case, under a blanket—and he started asking if he could hold it and how much did I pay for it and why didn’t I get it pawned? Not me, though. Trusting to point of outright lunacy, it didn’t even occur to me what would happen once we got hopelessly lost on Western Avenue about as far south as I had been so far.

We pulled over and he grabbed my trumpet and started to bolt out of the truck. Not knowing what else to do, I grabbed his leg and held on for life. He dragged me across to the passenger seat, kicking at me as hard as he could. He tossed the trumpet to the sidewalk where it made a clang and turned and started beating me with his fists. He cracked my glasses in half and they flew off my face. Still, I wouldn’t let go of his leg. I felt something around my eye pop and my head got incredibly warm, hot even. My capacity to get pummeled is pretty vast but about a minute more of this and I was done for.

“Hey! Let that boy go!” I heard a voice yell out. I thought she was yelling at me. Sidney stopped hitting me and, in fact, stopped kicking at me, too. Across the street was a man and his daughter. She was yelling at Sidney. She ran across the street, grabbed my trumpet and stood defiantly in front of Sidney.

“Leave that white boy alone,” she said with an authority that was a decade or two from being earned. Sidney looked over at the father, saw the man start to cross the street and finally wrenched his foot loose from me. He ran the opposite direction.

The girl approached me, handed back my horn. “We saw the whole thing. Are you okay?"

I don’t remembered what I said but her father walked up behind her and said, “He’s still conscious after that beating? I think he’ll be fine.” And they turned and walked away.

The bruises faded and my lip healed in a couple of weeks. It took me until October to get new glasses, though.

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