After a long day of street photography, I just wanted some good pizza with a dear partner in crime and life before taking the train home. I didn’t expect to meet an international legend. I also did not know I would be moved, encouraged, and touched by the legend. But that is what happened.
The last six months have been exhausting. Physically, emotionally, and financially I have been running on fumes and hanging on by a thread. It has been an arduous road and will continue to be. There is a positive turn around the bend that will ease some burdens. This season has been a time of growth and introspection as to who I am and what matters in this life. I found in recent months I have been struggling in my photography. For the first time since 1983 I found it hard to enjoy and love it. I needed a reset and went back to basics.
I took a short train ride to the Chicago Loop armed with a 24 year old Canon SLR and 3 rolls of film. I not only found my groove, but I pushed the limits. I was fully present seeking and anticipating decisive moments. Ice skaters, couples, friends, and families were captured moments frozen in time. Angles, composition, and more were used delightfully. Using film I could not look at a backscreen to see what I got. Everything was intentional and every time I pressed the shutter, that was one less frame unlike the virtually unlimited photos you can take with a memory card.
I put over five miles on my feet. I was dehydrated and hungry as the light of day began to fade. So it was time to eat. My traveling companion offered some pizza. I had never had pizza at Chicago’s Pizano’s Pizza. That, and so much more, was about to change.
When entering Pizano’s the question was asked that made me wonder if I was going to eat fast food at the train station. “Do you have a reservation?” The answer was, of course, no. Seated in a small table located between the kitchen, a restroom, and a post, I was delighted to have a seat as the smells of garlic and marinara permeated the air with a warmth that only a good Italian pizza place in Chicago can bring.
The menu was barely glanced at. The order was going to be a thin crust cheese and sausage pizza, garlic bread, and a coke. All we needed now was a server to facilitate that request to the line.
While we waited for a server I took in the sights, sounds, and smells of the restaurant. I could not help but notice the most vibrant and energetic waiter I have ever seen. His engagement with his tables and his energy was a stark contrast to his visible age and bad hip. His banter was authentic and as he moved from table to table he effortlessly picked up his conversations where he left off. He knew their names, he knew where to pick up the conversation as if he never left the table. Everyone mattered and not one beat was missed with beverage refills and attending to the details of being a server.
Then he went to our table and I was instantly sucked into the authentic world of Uncle Chach, one of the most legendary waiters on the internet.
His conversation and questions about my camera and family along with his stories of the women who raised him and the places he has been took me into a space of wonder where I was talking to an old friend I have met for the first time.
After we ordered he went to his other tables basking in the human connection as only he could. Every so often he would glance my way knowing I was watching his every move and enjoying every kind and gregarious word. I was watching a master class in human connection. An artist in the craft of conversation.
He went over to my table and used his pen to write the following on the paper tablecloth: “The Chach Chicago”. He smiled and said, “Look that up on your phone, you’ll know who I am.” And with that he was off to another table talking talking to two newlyweds enjoying their honeymoon in Chicago. Me? I was about to go down a rabbit hole of wonder.
By the time he came back to the table with a can of coke and an empty glass, my head was spinning. Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Facebook, TripAdvisor, various blogs and news articles featured this man! When he brought my coke, I had just finished reading the Urban Dictionary definition of this celebrity waiter in Chicago. He has been working tables and touching lives for over 40 years at Pizano’s!
I asked him how much of this he has read. “None of it! I know it’s there. But I have to be me. There is only one of me and everyone else is taken.”
Throughout the meal he did his thing at all the other tables and kept coming to mine to continue where we left off swapping stories. At one point the newlyweds wanted a selfie with Uncle Chach and he pipes in, “Pat over there is a professional photographer, you are in for great pictures of us.” He handed me their iPhone and I fired off several pics of various angles of the three of them. This was one of two times I would take pictures of him with his new friends he made that night.
Then came the moment. He found a lull in the action and he came over to me and spoke in a quieter tone. “Don’t ever give up. I can see the survivor and the pain in you. You ever feel like giving up again, I’m your Uncle Chach now. You come to me. But I can see you’re gonna make it. I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t think it and if I didn’t see it. ” We broke the ice to a deeper level and spoke of some things not for this column. Two men spoke honestly about life, pain, loss, and authenticity. I had to bite my lower lip a little to not choke up in a pizza place. In three or four minutes I had one of the most intimate and present conversations I have had in a long time.
I did not want a selfie with him. I wanted his portrait. I checked the battery level on my Canon and thought about how many shots I had left. I looked at the lighting and contemplated what shutter speed I would need to be at in the restaurant. My Canon would be hand held with the 50mm lens wide open. No speedlight on me, no tripod, ASA 100 in a dimly lit space. This would not be one for the record books, but I chose my spot and knowing I had 2 shots and a steady hand to get this to work.
As he came with a box for the leftovers I asked if I could take his portrait. He said, “That’s not something I do. I will take pictures with people but that’s not something I do.” I respect whatever perspective subjects want and do not want. Without a missing a beat I just said, “I get it, but man, thank you for tonight.” A few moments later I was packing my leftovers and my camera and he came up to me and said, “Let’s do it!” I told him I would keep it as mine and not share. “No Pat, you do what you want with it, You have Uncle Chach’s blessing!
He walked over to a different spot than what I had in mind. This was going to be challenging. But I had just been given a unique honor. Chach gathered himself up and I gave him a simple countdown. I was not going to coach him, position him, or do anything that was going to lesson his authenticity. Chach will be Chach. Like my street photography, this is capturing the authentic and not controlling the narrative. I thought about the settings as I counted down. I thought of the picture I wanted to take and what I wanted it to say. I took a deep breath and took my two shots.
We shook hands as he promised to light a candle in memory of my mother, I promised to light one for his Uncle Fernando.
As I left I wondered, is this who he has always been? Was there an evolution to be the amazing and unforgettable human he is that has turned serving tables into an artform that has made him a celebrity?
Perhaps, like me, one day he snapped and developed.
All I know is I needed him that night. I just didn’t know it.
I had a bit of a walk to the train and thought I had plenty of time. I took a leisurely stroll. A few blocks later I glanced at my watch. I stared at it realizing I had less time than I thought. If I missed that train I would be waiting 2 hours for another one.
On the train ride to Union Station I had an episode of double vision and vertigo that almost sidelined the entire day. But something inside of me was different.
I sprinted the last half mile to Union Station. I cannot remember the last time I have sprinted. The knees had no pain in this moment and the back felt strong. There was the air in my lungs in a long sprint that I’ve not done since my 20’s. I felt alive and there was not fear, there was determination and exhilaration.
As I bolted down the escalators into Union Station I glanced at a clock, I was gonna make my train. I grabbed the rail by the train door and swung up with 6 minutes to spare. I unslung my camera bag and landed into a seat with my lungs screaming, heart racing, and I was aware of sweat on my brow and running down my back.
I never felt better. I did not have to develop my film to know had nailed a few. I did not have to worry in this moment about tomorrow. The fact I have less days ahead of me than behind me in this life did not weigh heavily. Be here now was not a goal, it was my present reality. More than anything else, The Chach taught me that we are never alone and we have to be authentic and share kindness.
When I got home I lit a candle for my mom and Chach’s uncle Fenando. Then I went to my darkroom with joy and passion restored. I am also further inspired to continue this life of authenticity and touching lives while dispensing with pretense.
Pat Green Snaps is the end of an era and a return to the basics. Since 2004 I have been a columnist in print and online spaces in one form or another. For five years my last gig was with Patheos. When we decided to go separate ways 5 years of my bi-line disappeared without an archive offered.
In the last few years some aspects of professional portrait photography had taken the love of the craft from me. Writing and photography are my passions and my lifelines.
Pat Green Snaps will be the theme of the blog and upcoming print Zines as I step away from most for hire photography. No editors, no deadlines, no customers traumatizing children to be perfect. Just images, reflections, and the occasional art gallery show. Just us sharing images and stories together. Passion and authenticity. I could not think of a better way to kick this off with the story of Chach to set the tone.
Coming soon will be a print zine documentary about two Chicago based women motorcycle clubs and their sprit as they fight for reproductive rights and equality.
If you wish to support this project, feel free to become a Patreon or give me a modest tip.
And if you do want to spend time in my studio. If you are a dreamer with a vision and I like the scope of the project, we can do something. Let’s Talk.