north siders

Words and photography: Colin Barnicle


Game Three. NLDS. Chicago: A city is never one thing. It can be good or bad, right or wrong. It changes from day to day and year to year, but in Chicago the consistency of failure is historic. Over a century removed from the last World Series, you have to wonder why the fans keep coming to Wrigley Field.
It’s personal. Cubs fans are direct and open, as if you’re standing next to them at a family barbecue, Budweiser in hand, flipping bratwursts. They accept you into the brotherhood of misery. All the missed calls, botched plays, collapses and defeats, a singular and personal representation of their own lives played out on the field, permeating the idea that if something had just gone differently, if they had a bit of luck, a little help, they could have been champs.
So, they’re in Wrigleyville for the first home playoff game since 2003, loving a team that has never loved them back, because this is their team, this is their life. In the end, they are the city they love. It’s never one thing. It’s never one story.

bartman seat

Aisle 4, Row 8, Seat 113. The fan arrives, he looks around, glares down the line. He can’t believe it. He glances back at the people around him. “Is this it?” he says. He takes out his phone and looks it up. Shit. Yup. This is it. The seat Steve Bartman sat in when he reached over the railing and knocked the ball from Cubs leftfielder Moises Alou on October 14, 2003. The Cubs had a 3-0 lead and were five outs from clinching the pennant. Five outs until they went to the World Series for the first time since the atom bomb dropped. And then, they weren’t.
Bartman didn’t walk the next batter. He didn’t give up the lead. He didn’t lose the next game. But this is the city where they blew up that very ball, collected the pieces and put it on display at Harry Caray’s restaurant like a botched science experiment. A team with a billy goat curse needed a scapegoat and there was Steve sitting with his black headphones, glasses, and a glazed look like the kid at lunch without a table. He was escorted out and never came back, but it’s still here—shit, yup, this is it—just like any other seat in Wrigley with the occupant looking for that most elusive exorcism of superstition: victory.

the bleacher preacher

Jerry Pritikin stands on Addison and Clark flicking the small fan atop his safari hat. He never takes the hat off. He just flicks it until a gust of wind blows up the street and spins it for him. He smiles and shuffles the five cardboard signs in his hands. “Harry Caray said I was the best,” he quips, “said I was the best fan of them all.” A man in full werewolf costume paws Jerry’s back. He shrugs him away. This is his corner. This is his story.
“It was 1987. Called me the Bleacher Preacher. I’d be in the stands anointing new fans.” He raises his hand in the sign of the cross. “In the name of the father, Bill Veeck Sr., in the name of the son, Bill Veeck Jr., and in the name of the Holy Ghost of Charlie Grimm, I dub you a Cubs fan.” The smile recedes back into his lined face.
He shuffles over to the park entrance. He looks up. “My father took me to my first game in 1945.” He stops as if forgetting something and shuffles through his signs. “They made the series that year and I begged him to take me to a game but he said, ‘Next time, when you’re older.’” He finds one, multicolored, straight lined, artwork by any other name. He holds it up. “They never made it back and I’ve been out here ever since.”

sweets and buttons

 Marilyn Kuebler wants to know if you want some sweets. Her bag is filled with them. “I moved here with my husband in 1959 from Michigan. He was taking a welding class and we never went back,” she says. She tilts her head down and the buttons lining the top of her hat gleam from the flickering bulb above her chair. She points her delicate finger to one of them, skin like paper mache, fingernails cut neat and clean. “Can you see the Blackhawks button? It's one of my favorites."
Marilyn has worked at Wrigley for 10 years. She sits on the walkway above the third-base bleachers and tells you if you’re going the right way or the wrong way. “Usually my daughter drops me off at Gate K,” she sighs, “but not today. It’s too crazy today.” She says the whole city is a little crazy today. She has just one more question. “Do you like Chicago?” And before there’s an answer, Marilyn smiles and says, “I love Chicago.”

mr. inside

“Yah, I retired this past Friday,” Moe Mullins says and leans back in his chair. The game hums from the car radio behind him. It mingles with the cigar smoke and smell of fried onions blowing down the street. It’s a block party and Moe’s the king. “My wife made me go apple-picking Saturday because she knew I’d be here the rest of the weekend.”
Here is down on Waveland Avenue with the rest of the ballhawks. They stand along the crosswalk on Kenmore Avenue, eyes fixated to the heavens. Grown men staring up at the blue buzz of the park lights waiting for a homer to careen over the left field fence. Moe’s usually up there, in the bleachers. It’s where he caught Sosa’s 62nd home run in 1998, had it knocked out of his hand, took the guy to court and lost. “It’s too expensive to be in there tonight,” he says. So he’s here, sitting while the rest stand.
He watches a few kids run up to a shopping cart filled with baseballs gleaned from the big boppers during batting practice. They take one out and start playing catch. The radio announcer’s voice pulls taut, “A deep fly to left.” The crowd growls from within. The Hawks swarm toward the bleachers. Moe stands and punches the pocket of his Rawlings. The radio dies down. The ball is caught at the wall. Moe runs his fingers over the stitching of his glove and looks at the kids. “Here we go,” Mr. Inside says and motions for a catch. It’s the bottom of the seventh here on Waveland and there’s still time to toss the pearl, still time to be king, still time for one more summer day.

engine 78

The engine backs in whirling red and blue, shuts down, and stops. The firefighter at the wheel bounds out, jacket unbuttoned, cap still in the cab and says, “Who’s in?” The lieutenant doesn’t take his eyes from the screen. “Cahill,” he says, “still six to four.”
They’re huddled around a small TV next to the golden pole. A few cops are in the back sipping coffee with their feet up on the counter, batons pointed down, guns on hips. “Cahill?” the firefighter asks.
“Yah, this guy,” the lieutenant says and points to the screen without explanation. 
A fan wanders through the open door to take a picture, check the score. He stands in front of the TV. “Hey,” says a firefighter sitting on a chair, “you own that television?” The fan looks around a little bewildered. The firefighter doesn’t say anything more. The fan walks away from the engine house and into the crowd. There’s no explanation needed. For guys who have seen it all, they’ve never seen this. The golden rule applies here—get out of a firefighter’s way and let him do his job.
The ninth rushes by and whirls upward in joy and sound. The Cubbies win, the “W” is raised and Engine 78 goes back to work.