For a while, some old friends from college-- Tim, Dan, my late friend Mark, sometimes Darin, and of course I-- had a tradition of getting together on the odd weeknight and having a libation. We'd take turns picking the venue. I'm hoping we get back to this tradition.
One time, when Dan got to pick the venue, he chose Gannon's, a pub a friend of his owns. This suited me fine, because it is a five minute walk from my home (the bloggers that went to the blogger get-together at Feed The Beast may recall that it's across the street from that establishment)
When I got there, Dan and Mark were there already, and had ensconced themselves in the seats that faced the front of the tavern, looking onto Lincoln Avenue. I sat down with my back to the door, and a while later, Tim showed up.
As happens when four old friends get together, old times get talked about. Mark, Dan and I had shared an apartment in Wrigleyville in 1988-89 that was the center of the universe for the group we had gone to school with at Eastern Illinois University in the early to mid eighties, most of whom had graduated by then. We were a two-minute walk (or crawl) from the Cabaret Metro, the Gingerman, the Wrigleyville Tap and had a habit of having a party every month or so.
Whenver Mark and Dan got to tippling and talking, their conversations always ended up gravitating to the antics of a guy named Brian Potrafka. He was a legend at Eastern. He'd appear at open mike nights with his sheaf of beat-style poetry. He'd continue until he got booed and heckled off the stage. One year, Dan and Mark colluded to get me a birthday present; it seems that Mr. Potrafka had managed to publish a collection of his poems, "Small and Wrong." They'd found it at a bookstore in Wicker Park. It's now one of my treasured possessions (pictured at the top of the post).
To punish them, I declared a "Twenty Days of Potrafka," emailing them poems I'd trancribed from the book. In actuality, I think I made it only three days. To give you an idea of what we're talking about, let me give you some titles of poems in the now-legendary "Small and Wrong Collection":
"Up Like A Bottlerocket Down Like a Stick"
"In A Cashless Future, Robots Will Cook Dinner"
"Serious Phone Empathy"
"A Tape, A Joint Or Some Money"
Those are titles that I chose knowing that my kids read my blog. Some are R-rated.
That evening, as always seemed to happen, Dan and Mark started remininiscing about the antics of Potrafka. Here was the problem-- I'd heard about this guy for twenty years and had never met him. He ran in the same social circles I had; he went to the same mid-sized midwestern college I had; we hung in the same bars in college. And yet, I'd never met him. I sometimes suspected that he was an outrageous fictional character that Mark and the Elk had made up.
As I sat there listening to the Elk and Mark once again spin their tale of the Legend of Brian Potrafka, I saw them stop mid-sentence and drop their jaws. They turned toward one another with stunned looks and both exclaimed "No!"
"That couldn't be him!
"I swear to GOD, that must have been him!
They jumped up from their seats and ran to the door and stopped a guy walking by, and talked to him for a few minutes. They walked in, shaking their heads.
Brian Potrafka had walked right past the bar. Right when they'd been talking about him.
He lived right near me, as it turned out. He'd been walking to the Jewel's grocery store next door to the tavern to pick up a few items. Dan and Mark had secured a promise from him that he'd stop by on his way back so they could buy him a beer.
When they came back in, we talked for a few minutes about the impossibility that this guy, in a city of 3 million people, was walking by the place we were gathered, just as we were talking about him. For my part, I was excited to finally meet this wild man that I'd heard about for two decades.
Brian finished his shopping and joined us for a beer. As we talked to him, I was stunned; this guy was astonishingly quiet, calm and normal. And he seemed like a very sweet person. After twenty years of hearing about him, I was expecting Hunter S. Thompson, Keith Richards and Norman Mailer wrapped up into one. He reminded me more of a middle-aged high school social studies teacher.
Some time later, when I thought about that night, I thought about my luck in life. I'd picked a school, Eastern Illinois University, because I could transfer to University of Illinois from there. I'd decided to stay, getting my Bachelor's and then Master's degrees there. I'd met Mark, Dan and Tim there. Somehow I hadn't met Brian Potrafka while he and I were both there but it made a better story meeting him twenty years later. Brian had published at least one book of poetry in the meantime. And had generated a thousand tales. He, the artist, was Dan and Mark's muse, ironically. It was an incredible coincidence that Potrafka had been walking by that night, but then, was that much more a stroke of chance and luck than me running into three kindred spirits,and lifetime friends, Dan, Tim and Mark, in the middle of the damned cornfields in central Illinois?