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Alter Ego on Michigan Avenue

This is a true story.

I grew up in Chicago up until I was about 11 years old. Growing up in the southside of Chicago was kinda tough. I wasn’t a big kid, a mix of Italian and Brazilian with curly hair. The odds were stacked pretty high against me in the mainly Polish and Irish middle-class neighborhood of Bridgeport.

From what I hear, it’s no longer that kind of neighborhood anymore. Rather, it’s been gentrified pretty good on account of a recent real estate boom consisting mainly of yuppies and young families moving back into the city from the suburbs.

No matter how much I tried to blend into the background, I always happened to be the target of most bullies at the catholic school I went to, as well as the playground. This made me for a shy, and rather timid kid. Confidence wasn’t my strong suit in the least.

In the last couple of years that we lived in Chicago, I found myself going with my dad to a club he belonged to over in the northside of the city. It was the Brazilian Club of Chicago. The membership as I remember it consisted of mainly Brazilian businessmen and expatriates that now called Chicago home. He was really active in the club, and even became president of the club when I was about nine. Apparently they were involved in all kinds of community-related activities and sponsored a soccer team in a city-wide league. None of that mattered to me though. What I found I enjoyed most as far as the club went was playing pool with my dad against other teams and beating the crap out of them. For awhile there, my dad and I were unbeatable at the billiard table. Can’t remember how many tournaments we won at the clubhouse. It used to actually piss alot of the other players off because a guy and his eight or nine year old son were so damn unbeatable, but that’s how it was.

Anyway, this did wonders to my confidence level, needless to say, and it was sorely needed. And how I looked forward to our weekly trips to the clubhouse to destroy yet another bunch of opponents. My dad attributed my exceptional pool playing to my height which put me at a perfect eye-level with the table, and my ability to focus and learn fast. I’m sure my height had something to do with it, because my pool playing sucks nowadays.

As I said, my dad was eventually voted president of the club. The club sponsored several major events in the city every year, with the biggest one being an annual “Carnaval in Rio” dinner party that was held each year at a major downtown hotel ballroom. This event coincided with the actual Carnaval event in Rio, and featured the best in Brazilian food, drink, music and dancing that Chicago had to offer. It was often attended by city dignitaries and celebrities visiting the city. Mayor Daley (Richard J) attended quite a few of them while my dad was with the club, I remember seeing them in pictures together.

The preparation for the event was always an exciting time. All the members and committees worked overtime to get it all together. The days leading up to the event, which usually happened on a saturday night were always tense and exciting around our house.

So when I was nine, my dad was president of the club. As president, he spearheaded the preparations for the Carnaval event at the location where it was going to be held. This particular year, it was held at the Sheraton Chicago on Michigan Avenue, at their Grand Ballroom. This event was destined to be the club’s biggest yet. They had sold over 1500 tickets, had a full big-band, and several samba schools signed on for entertainment. I remember my dad being pretty wound up and excited the whole day of the event. That morning, I asked him if I can go with him to the hotel to watch the setting up, and of course to see if I can help. Generously, Pop said “Sure”, with a caveat that I don’t get in the way, and if I make trouble he would make me wait in the car the whole day until he was done. With my solemn vow not to make trouble, I grabbed my coat and jumped in the car.

Back then, going downtown was always really exciting for me. Even though we were only about a 15 minute drive from downtown on the expressway, it was like an entirely other planet than Bridgeport. I always loved riding in the car downtown, along Lake Shore Drive, and State Street, past the Field Museum, and the Police Headquarters, and of course, Michigan Avenue. It’s hard to believe that I haven’t been back to Chicago in much more than a decade, but I still remember my love for downtown as if I was just there, strolling down State Street, just yesterday.

So the event rollout was in full swing. Decorations were going up, the bandstand was getting set up and nets containing thousands of balloons were being raised to the roof (for the big climax of the party I’m sure). There were literally a hundred people working on getting the stage set up, caterers setting up tables, and basically a beehive of activity. As a kid, I was overwhelmed at the amount of preparation that was going into this thing. I had never seen anything like it at that scale. Probably still haven’t.

Well despite all the overwhelming cacophony, and the hustle and bustle going on. I actually found myself getting a little bored hanging around the ballroom. It was about then that I asked Pop if I can take a walk around the hotel, which was pretty massive. Pop was really preoccupied at the time, telling several people what to do at one time, and just sort of looked at me and said, “Ok, but don’t get lost or make any trouble”, and went back to what he was doing with his minions. With the greenlight to proceed (I probably would have gone anyway even if he told me no, I’m sure), I was off to roam the halls of the Sheraton.

Again, this place was pretty huge. About 30 stories of hallways, banquet rooms, gyms, rooftop pool area, and other places to roam. I found myself getting a kick of just running down the halls full speed, and using the end wall of the hallway to smack myself to a complete stop. Hey, I was nine, it didn’t take much to amuse myself.

During one of my treks through a hallway just off the office floor of the hotel, I got to a service elevator, whose door started to crack open. Not knowing whether it was going up or down, I positioned myself to enter it, and see where it would take me. When the door opened wide, I could not believe my eyes.

There were two kids in the elevator facing me. I noticed that one of the kids was about my height, had my color and kind of curly hair, and well, looked almost EXACTLY like me. Same nose, same eyes, same chin, even the same kind of mouth, it was very bizarre. The kid who was with him, who I found out not much later was his younger brother, caught on to the resemblance about as quickly as I did. For the next minute or so, he basically ended up volleying his eyes from his brother over to me, back to him, back to me, until he probably got dizzy.

For a couple of seconds, I thought I was looking into a mirror. It was that much of a shocking resemblance. The other kid, my doppelganger, didn’t appear to be too fazed by any of this. If he was, he sure didn’t let on. He basically looked at me, and said, “Hey, this is a service elevator, and my dad is the controller of this hotel”. “So?” I responded, and he looked at me for a minute, realizing that I wasn’t at all intimidated. By this time, the elevator doors started to close to move on. As they did, the doppelganger said, “So, get on!”. With that queue, I jumped in between the doors, and caught a ride.

He turned and looked into the mirror, first looking at me, and then looking at himself. Then he turned to me, and said “I’m John, this is my brother Kevin”. I introduced myself back, shaking hands.

“So Tony, what the hell are you doing here?”

“My dad’s working in the main ballroom.”

“Oh yeah, that carnival thing?”

“Carnaval…” I corrected him.

“Cool, where do ya live?”

“Southside, Bridgeport. You?”

“We live here in the hotel on the top floor, under the penthouse, my dad’s the controller here”.

I thought that was about the most awesome thing I’d ever heard. To live in a hotel?? Wow, I thought. You’d never get bored, ever. There’s a zillion places you can go in a place like this.

After exchanging initial personal data, John asked me if I wanted to play. Of course, I told him yes. “Ok, follow me”. And with that, he and his brother took off running down the hallway, not even waiting for me to catch up. It took every breath I had to keep them within eyesight and see what doorway they turned in to.

When I got there, I found myself in an arcade room. There were several pinball machines, table hockey games and other diversions. Wow, I thought… and you can play here free, all you want? “Yup,” John said back.

We started at the Evel Knievel pinball machine, and worked our way to the 3d racing game. This was well before the video age, so the games were not nearly as cool as the ones that are out now of course. But for 1973, it was plenty cool.

After a good hour or so of playing, Kevin said the obvious. “You guys really look alike you know”. And with that, we all laughed with relief. Particularly myself, because I was sure by that point that I was just going crazy with the resemblance I saw. After a hearty laugh, and what turned out to be a hellacious round of play-boxing, which might have actually started getting a little rough, we took a break, gasping for breath.

“You know, we ought to see what our dads think of us looking so much alike”, John said, matter of factly.

“You think so? Maybe we should try to play a trick on them like they always do when people are lookalikes on tv. You know, like that one episode of the brady bunch where Peter meets his lookalike?”

With that, John looked at me with what must have been his devious face, and said, “Yeeahhhh!”

My dad was down at the ballroom, still barking orders and basically coordinating where some tables were supposed to go. John, Kevin and I huddled behind a platform to make our plan. First, let’s change shirts. I took off my faux-rugby shirt, and handed it to John, and he took off his clingy long-sleeve shirt with a zipper front. Ok, so now I had to prep John on what to say.

“First of all, call him Pop”, I coached him. “We’re supposed to pick up my sister from a friend’s house on the way home, so ask him what time we’re supposed to get Judy.” John nodded, as if he was taking mental notes.

“Then, ask him what time we’re supposed to have lunch. It’s supposed to be 1 o’clock, but say 2 o’clock, so he has to correct you. He always looks at me when he corrects me.”

“Got it,” Johnny said. “Oh, one more thing, talk lower than you normally do. Your voice is deeper and a little bit scratchier than mine, he might pick up on that.”

And with a final “ok” and what I thought might have been an eye-roll, Johnny crawled out one entrance door that was behind the platform we were hiding at. Kevin and I watched him head out the door and walk down the hall over to the main entrance doors of the ballroom, where Pop was standing, with clipboard in hand.

“Hi Pop”, John said, playing me. My dad was engrossed in something he was jotting on his clipboard, but looked at John/me for a long second. “Hey, where’ve you been?” he asked.

“Over by the pool deck, playing with some kids I met,” he said as plainly as he could. “Say Pop, when are we supposed to pick up Judy on the way home?” My dad looked at him again, with the expression that something was off, but he couldn’t pinpoint it. Maybe it was because said “Say Pop”, which I never do. After about 10 seconds of silence and staring at John dead-on, he shrugged mildly and said “uh… four o’clock, but I may have to call your mom and tell her we might be a little late getting her. I still have alot to do here before we can go home”.

“Ok, Pop, are we still having lunch at 2 o’clock?” He asked. Kevin and I were still behind the platform, within earshot but perfectly hidden. We were barely able to hold in our laughter. The expressions on my dad’s face were some that I will never ever forget. I think he subconsciously knew that he was being the subject of a joke, but no matter what he did, he couldn’t figure out what it was. He smirked at John, saying something like “So what’s up? What are you up to?” John, was trying very hard to stay in character, and not crack up. I could see his eyes twitching. “What do you mean, Pop? I just wanted to see what was goin’ on, that’s all, so you knew I was ok.” He covered nicely. “So about lunch??” My dad, resigned to the situation, and remembering that he had a bunch of things to deal with, looked at him and said, “let’s eat at 1 o’clock. We’ll go to the McDonald’s across the street ok?”

“Ok Pop, I’ll be back then”. And with that, John turned tail and started walking towards the door to get out of the room before he totally loses it. Kevin and I crept out the door behind the platform and met up with John in the hallway, laughing our asses off. John was in tears holding back his laughter as he hung a left out the door. It was classic. We laughed for what must have been 20 minutes non-stop. Every once in awhile during the session, one of us would catch our breath enough to recall what we thought was the funniest moment of the whole thing, only to laugh ourselves into headache-level pain again.

After that episode, we went down to the employee cafeteria, and had milkshakes. Still recovering from what had to be the biggest coup either of us had ever pulled off. After a couple of minutes and slurps from his shake, John got rather serious.

“Ok, now we need to get ready for you to deal with MY dad, heh-heh-heh”. John’s devious look had returned.

“So how do you want to do this?” I asked.

“He’s at his office right now, he’s always there on Saturday morning to do his weekend stuff”. He said, as if he was working up a plan. “But he doesn’t like it when I go to his office, he always gets mad”. He kept thinking.

“Ah, ok. I’ll call him and tell him that I left my apartment key in the apartment, and ask him if I can get his so we can get in. That will work. So after I call, you’ll get on the service elevator that goes to the office floor, and then walk over to his office.”

“Ok, then what?” I asked.

“Then, you’ll just walk through the front office, and head to the door on the left, that’s my dad’s office. Give a quick knock, and stick your head in the door. Call him ‘Dad’. Then just ask him for the apartment key. When he gives it to you, tell him that you’ll bring it right back to him after you let yourself in.”

“Ok, sounds good”.

We then went up to a house phone, and John dialed his dad’s extension.

“Hi dad, Kevin and I were in the arcade playing…”

“Yeah, ok… Dad, I left my key in the apartment. We’re locked out…”

“No, don’t call a security guard, I’m just downstairs, I can run up and get your key…”

“I know you’re busy, but it will only take a couple of minutes…”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll bring them right back to you, I know…”

“Ok, bye.”

“All set, you’re on.” John said, noting somewhat how his shirt looked on me, it was just a little big.

“Let’s grab that elevator, we’ll come in behind you after my dad comes to the door.”

“Ok, got it.” We got in the elevator.

We got off at the office floor, and John pointed in the direction I needed to go. They waited in the elevator until I was well clear of it, to keep from being seen, and in the event that his dad was outside of his office for some reason.

I saw the glass door that said “Sheraton Hotel, General Offices”. I pulled on the handle, and saw it was unlocked, and sauntered in. The office was huge, it looked kinda like a newsroom. There were several dozen desks in one big open room, all unoccupied because of the weekend. I saw the door all the way at the back of the big office room, and to the left, as John told me. I walked past what seemed like an endless row of desks until I got to the door. The lights were on inside, and the door was slightly ajar. I knocked, waited a second and peeked in. About that same second, I heard John and Kevin shuffling in behind me a few desks behind.

“Hi Dad, got that key?” He was on the phone, so he held his hand up as if to shush me while he finished the call. I stood there, trying to be natural, and in character. I spoke a bit deeper than I usually do to match John’s voice, but it felt like I was just doing a really bad James Earl Jones imitation.

“Ok, thanks. I’ll talk to you Monday…” John’s dad hung up. He was sitting behind a huge, very impressive-looking desk. There were files and papers all around him on the desk. “Johnny, you gotta stop forgetting your key, ok? Wear it around your neck if you have to.” He said to me, rather sternly, looking at me rather strangely. “Hey, what’s the matter with you, you sick or something? You look a little thin.” Right then, I figured out the main fundamental difference in how we looked, John was a few pounds heavier than me. Not much, but enough to be noticeable by his dad. “Uh, no, I feel ok, why Dad?” I’m desperately trying to not crack up and blow my cover.

“Are you sure? There’s something different about you.” He looked inquisitively, trying to figure it out. I’m thinking at this point that his dad is going to figure it out and that will blow everything, but somehow, I kept my cool. He even stood up from his desk chair to give me a closer look. I was barely in the door, and would not move any closer.

After a good minute of silence and study, he grinned and said, “ok, must be my imagination then…”. He reached into his pocket and threw me a small key ring. “Bring it right back, you hear me? And stay out of the kitchen, the restaurant manager is still not happy about what happened last week”. I found myself grinning on the brink of laughter to an incident that I knew absolutely nothing about. “Ok P… Dad…” I almost blew it.

“I gotta go get Kevin now, I’ll be back in a few minutes.” I stepped back out of the door, and shut it. I walked for a few rows of desks, because I was sure that he was looking at me leaving, cracking up. John and Kevin were waiting by the front door, already laughing hysterically. I pushed them both out the door, and we all fell to the floor, dying.

“Oh my god, you almost blew it Tony! I heard you slip up! Wa ha ha ha!” John was absolutely hysterical, and in tears. Kevin could barely breathe, he was now writhing in the middle of the main hallway, gasping for air. All I could think of at the time, was how I glad I was this was a weekend, because the floor was totally isolated. I slumped against a wall, now sweating profusely. For a minute, I really did think I was going to pass out. I have not laughed that hard ever.

We went up to John and Kevin’s apartment. Still laughing up a storm. John broke out some sodas from the fridge and we celebrated the amazing coup we had pulled off on our dads. We watched Saturday tv, and played some games to kill a couple of hours as we came down our laughing high. It was then that I noticed that it was about 1, and I had to run down to meet my dad for lunch.

“Hey guys, I have to go meet my dad for lunch, do you think I should tell him what we did?”

“No!” John said, “don’t… when you guys get back, maybe we can do something else to them! I’ll think about it, just come back up here when you’re done. Use the service elevator.”

“Ok then, come up with something good.” I grinned sinisterly at the two, and left.

I got out of the elevator, and started walking towards the ballroom where I knew Pop was at. I was just walking in, when I felt a tug on my arm. Huh? I thought. It was a hotel security guard.

“John, your dad’s got us all looking for you. He said you still have his keys, and he needs them to lock up his office. You need to come with me now.” He said, sternly. I was speechless, because I didn’t know what to say. “Ummm… I’m not… I mean… it’s not…” Uh-oh…

About that time, Pop saw me and the security guard and walked up to us. “What’s going on here? Tony, what did you do now?” He was quickly getting mad at me, this was about to blow up big in my face.

“Pop, wait… he… I mean… I…” I just didn’t know what to say. Hey, I was NINE.

The security guard then said “Sir, this boy’s name is John. He’s the son of the hotel’s controller. I need to bring him up there now, if you’ll excuse me.”

At that second, my dad realized that it was mistaken identity, and also realized what the joke was when I/John was down there earlier. He gave a hearty laugh.

“Umph, no… this one’s mine. His name is Tony. I think he just looks alot like John. Now, don’t you, Tony?”

I smiled beet red at the notion. Not knowing whether to laugh or not. The security guard gave me a second look, and said “My lord, you really do look like John!” My dad and the guard laughed in unison. He then apologized and walked off after I told him the “real” John was upstairs in the apartment, still shaking his head in disbelief.

Pop and I crossed the street to go to the McDonalds. I told him the whole story about how I met John, and the respective practical joke we pulled on his dad as well. He laughed like I’d never seen him laugh. And over our big macs, we just kept laughing. He had truly been fooled, by a couple of nine-year-olds.

After lunch, I went back up to hang out with John and Kevin a couple more hours. Apparently the security guard went and told his dad what had ensued. He ran up the apartment and called John on it. They also got a good laugh out of it, as Kevin and John were still recovering from the big laugh-off when I had gotten there. The jig was up, but we had gotten ours.

We exchanged phone numbers, but as things often go, we never got in touch or saw each other again. Even though we lived in the same city, we were still “worlds” apart.

As we were driving home that afternoon in my dad’s Ford Galaxy, Pop said,

“Well, one thing for sure, neither of us will be forgetting about what happened today anytime soon. I have a feeling we’ll be laughing about this for a very long time.”

To this day, I wonder if John, Kevin and his dad ever tell this story the way I do and Pop did when he was alive. I sometimes think how funny it would be to encounter him again after all these years to reminisce about that moment in time when we were both nine years old. Hey, stranger things have happened.

After picking up Judy, we got back home to the southside, with me feeling just a little bit more confident and less timid than I was when we left that morning.

And the Carnaval event was a huge success.

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