Hanging Out in Rockford: Thanksgiving in the greatest country on the face of the Earth

I arise early on Thanksgiving Day. I am going to have company tonight, and I want to prepare. I do the money from the busy night before. Someone told me it was supposed to be the busiest bar night of the year. Well, it was busy, but we’ve had a lot of nights busier; all in all, not bad, busier than last year. I trundle down to the coffee pot and the safe and think about how Mike Reilly used to say that is what gets you—the monotony—doing the same things every day without a break. I open the safe for the more-than-300th time this year. I close out the credit card machine for the same.

The money goes easily; evidently, none of the help was on drugs. Then, I am hungry. I haven’t eaten since noon the previous day. I have a plan for this: Pepe at Tortacos Soto had mentioned to me a few days before they were going to be open on the holiday. I decide to drive the Villager since it is cold out. If it were nicer, I would have walked—it’s only a couple of blocks from my apartment above the Irish Rose.

When I get there (around 10 a.m.), I am the only customer. I stop in the little market next door to get a Rockford Register Star and notice it weighs about 2 pounds. Most of the weight is advertising supplements for the stores on the east side. I ask Pepe if I can see a menu, since there is no pozole, menudo or conssomé, the usual weekend staples. I want to order the pork, but he says they are no longer doing it. I leave my breakfast up to his discretion. The only thing I tell him is I want some scrambled eggs and beans with whatever he brings me. I settle back to read the paper.

But Pepe feels like talking. So talk we do. Sometimes I have to ask him to repeat slowly what he is saying, because of his accent. Pepe is from Cuba, his wife Rosa is from Mexico. They have one of the strongest Mexican-based restaurant businesses in the city. By that I mean most of their customers are Mexican. This is where you can get Mexican food without condescension to American tastes. In my opinion, it is one of the best restaurants in the city. Pepe tried to open a Cuban restaurant on Broadway, but he was forced to close when it wasn’t working out economically. There evidently wasn’t a big market for Cuban food in Rockford yet. Now, he works at a factory and just helps out at Rosa’s restaurant on the weekends.

He asks how I think the mayor is doing with downtown, and I say I think Larry Morrissey is making progress. There are a lot of new things coming down the pike, too numerous to catalog here. Pepe seems pleased by this. He knows the mayor and contributed to his fund-raising events. We both agree Larry is a really good person and that we think he will succeed.

When the subject switches to the whole country, Pepe says he thinks the United States will be in trouble if it elects another president like George W. Bush. I quietly nod my assent, but I tell him I predicted Bush’s second term wouldn’t be such a bad thing because it will substantially change politics in the United States for some years to come. He has been such a total failure, it will open people’s eyes to the whole fallacy of the neo-con thing. What we didn’t learn in Vietnam will now be reinforced by this travesty. Maybe the United States will finally grow up.

We talk about going places. I ask him where he goes to visit in Mexico when he goes to see Rosa’s family. We talk about different parts of Mexico. He seems surprised to learn I have been to Mexico more than a dozen times. I tell him I existed for years without papers. Pepe is an American citizen. I tell him I would like to see Cuba, and that I think our policy about American citizens not being able to go there is stupid. He remarks that it would be easy for me now that I have an Irish passport, and that going anywhere will be easier with a passport that is not from the United States. He’s right, except for coming home. I leave my unread Register Star lying on the table. Not much of a loss; I would rather talk with Pepe.

Back in my little apartment, I switch on CNN (for some unknown reason) and see video of people knocking each other down at some godforsaken Wal-Mart somewhere or another. The commentators are full of news about “Black Friday” and how much money people are going to spend on Christmas. (Where did that stupid name come from, and how do we get rid of it? All the crappy press has seized upon this ignorant phrase. In checking among the people I know, no one ever heard it before this year. Let’s hope it doesn’t stick. Like “millennium bug,” it should go down in infamy.) Then, they show some of the things the people are knocking each other down for, some sort of tickle-me doll and some other crap that all will be broken before the first month of the new year is over.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are available on his Web site, IrishRoseRockford.com. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 2005, issue

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