They were no ordinary tamales, these corn-husked things sold by a street vendor on Chicago’s South Side. Not to me. To him, I think, they were just little details in a multi-faceted life of good work, good folk, and good food.
I’m not even sure what to call him anymore. He was always Mr. Gleason. It’s only since he died that I’ve ever called him Pat. Mr. Gleason, now, means his sons—Marty and Tony.
Pat Gleason did actual work with actual people. He was a public defender in the big city. The word defender was right in his job title. He wasn’t like other kids’ dads.
That’s not true, though. Not really. He was a coach and a funny guy, a barbecuing joker and heavy drinker, like mortal dads. But it was all tinged with this strange sense that he had just come from something loud and important in a high-ceilinged courtroom filled with serious people. I imagined him coming home, pouring himself a scotch, and climbing out of his shoulder holster. Of course he didn’t carry a gun, he was a lawyer, but he had the aura of a man who was armed, whose work came with something serious that had to be fastened on to do the job and, more to the point, taken off to reenter civilian life.
By day, he was talking with murderers and lawgivers. By night, he talked with his sons’ friends, joked and danced with his wife, and cooked tamales for guests at his dinner table. Illogically, he let do-nothing layabouts like teenaged me sit at that table. It didn’t make sense at the time, why a real person (and an adult, to boot) would share his tamales with just some schmuck his sons were hanging out with.
These tamales? They were the real thing. They were fat corn caterpillars huddled in green papery husks, the size of a baton. The cornmeal sheath was soft but solid, holding together like an idea. The meat inside was a rich carnitas, confident in its shape but politely yielding. Where mundane tamales would go to mush under the fork, these transformed into perfect medallions of golden masa and spicy pork. I imagine Pat buying them from some street-cart shaman, some mestizo medicine man with a secret recipe, who rolled them up like scrolls and winked at the spirits nodding along over his shoulder.
Pat said they were from a great street vendor on the South Side. I pictured them meeting like a detective and his wise contact. This was Pat’s beat—interesting people with astonishing foods.
I don’t remember who was sitting next to me. I don’t remember what we talked about. I remember the tamales.
Why had Pat shared with me his magic tamales? Who the hell was I to deserve to be let in on this mystic secret from the big city? Why had I been chosen?
To this day, I meditate on it. Sometimes I think I was merely witness to wisdom, glimpsing Pat’s recipe for ordinary happiness—eating good food and being a mensch. Sometimes, when I need to, I think that Pat saw something in me, with his defender’s insight, that I can’t see in myself—something that said, “Give the kid a tamale.” Something that said I was worthy to sit at his real-person table and eat his insider’s food. I was an initiate into the mystery of the secret tamale.
I keep an eye out for rare tamales now. I chase that dinner like it was a ghost. I look out for secret oracular eateries where I might find food good enough to summon up the spirit of Pat Gleason, where we might drink to his wisdom and his mystery. Where we can find something so good that we can bring it back to him and say, “Pat, you’ve got to try this.” Sometimes we find those places. But never have I had such good tamales.
Given the responses from my family (and secret editing committee) I felt that Will’s post needed his own picture. Will will one day write Pat’s biography.