Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski is not the kind of man who lives in the past. He's happiest while working on motorcycles in the garage of his house in Berwyn, where he lives with his wife and two children, or working as a counselor for high school students with disabilities in the west suburbs. "It's very strange, but I don't like remembering things," he says over a beer in a tavern in the working-class Mexican-American neighborhood of Pilsen in southwest Chicago, where he grew up. "I would much rather live right now."
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It's Galaviz-Budziszewski's distaste for nostalgia, in fact, that makes "Painted Cities," his debut collection of short stories about his youth in Pilsen, so remarkable. The book is the product of an extended (if reluctant and therefore heroic) act of memory, a recovery and sifting through of often painful scenes of a community plagued by poverty and gang violence but redeemed, at least partly, by intense friendships, family ties and the inextinguishable hope for better days ahead.
In the stories, whose characters, settings and plots often closely mirror actual people, places and events from the author's early life — "there's more truth than fiction in this book," he admits — a mother and her young son take refuge beneath a table in the basement of a Catholic church while a shootout at a cotillion rages all around them. A boy named Jesse, a stand-in for the author, spends a summer hanging out with a friend on the roof of an old pirogi factory, throwing rocks and building a makeshift house; later, the friend — modeled on young Alexai's real-life friend, Julio — becomes a gang member and is killed in a drive-by shooting.
Crowds of kids on neighboring blocks compete with each other to see which of them can make the fire hydrants shoot higher into the air in summer. A brother and sister pan for gold and gems — actually rocks and jagged bits of colored glass from broken bottles — as visions of wealth and security illuminate their dreams. Lovers' spats are settled with deadly force, while turf wars between street gangs leave a trail of corpses. And yet the church remains a powerful, if sometimes hypocritical, presence; intricate street murals materialize overnight like miracles; and friends have each other's backs, right or wrong.
Once, a gang member — a Satan's Disciple from the nearby Heart of Chicago neighborhood — came to Alexai's house looking for his pal Julio from the pirogi factory. An ongoing argument between them was escalating. "If you have a problem with Julio," Alexai said in his best John Wayne voice, "you have a problem with me."
The young man walked away and that was that. For the moment.
"When I first started writing stories, I was terrified of writing about Pilsen," the author recalls now, sipping a beer at Harbee Liquor & Tavern on 18th Street, three blocks down from the house on May Street whose upper floor his family rented until he was 7. "I didn't want to deal with it in the slightest, because it was hard to sit and write and bring back those emotions, which are not always bright and cheerful — feelings about the deaths of friends, things like that. It was scary. But the more I wrote, the more I felt better and more confident writing about this world than inventing two characters and developing a platform for them — making (stuff) up, basically. Thinking about Pilsen is so emotional for me, but I realized that tapping into those feelings brings out better stories, and it just happens that this is where it's at for me, in terms of emotion."
The son of a Polish-American father and a Mexican-American mother, Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski, 41, grew up with the nickname "Ali," given to him by his father, Jan Budziszewski, after winning a bet on the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974. By then, Pilsen had shifted from a predominantly Polish and Jewish neighborhood to an almost all-Latino one; even though he spoke fluent Spanish, Alexai's Polish name and bicultural family made him stand out. "I didn't feel like I fit in," he admits now, but this wasn't a bad thing, at least for the purposes of the writer he became; his partial outsider status allowed him to see Pilsen from the perspective of a slight distance.
When Alexai was 7, his family moved two miles west to what is now known as Heart of Chicago, though at the time it was still mostly referred to as Pilsen. But he continued to attend schools in Pilsen proper, usually sprinting for eight minutes in both directions to avoid run-ins with various gangs — including the Latin Counts, the Disciples, the Bishops and the Almighty Ambrose — whose turfs lay in between. (While Alexai was in grammar school, people spoke in hushed tones of the most ruthless gang of all, the Villa Lobos, who in fact were largely disbanded by then, which only served to burnish their legendary status.)
Violent death was a nearly everyday occurrence in the neighborhood. "I saw a guy get shot right in front of me, right around the corner from our house," Galaviz-Budziszewski recalls. "I've seen people get stabbed. I've seen ice-cream vendors get attacked for their money. That's a tough thing to witness as a 7-year-old, knowing you can't do anything about it. And that stuff happened on a pretty regular basis — enough that you knew this place was bad. You knew you'd escaped the Grim Reaper when the bullets flew past, or when bottles were thrown at your car."
At the same time, "the sense of community was palpable," he says. "Having friends who had all witnessed the same sort of stuff, it made you stick together. Families were tight. And there were great parties all around the neighborhood, especially on holidays. The Fourth of July was always amazing in Pilsen, and it still is."
Although the downtown Chicago skyline — dominated by the then-new Sears Tower — could be seen from the rooftops and overpasses of Pilsen, Alexai and most of his friends visited the Loop rarely, if ever. "I used to think of it as the Emerald City, off in the distance," he recalls now. "I called it Oz."
Galaviz-Budziszewski made his first sustained forays into Oz to attend Harold Washington College, where two things happened. "One was I realized I didn't want to work for UPS the rest of my life," he says. "The other was that a teacher there found out that I wanted to write stories, and encouraged me to go to the Iowa Writers' Workshop."
The budding author headed west, finishing his undergraduate degree at the University of Iowa before enrolling at its famous writers' workshop, where he began to write the stories that would be collected in "Painted Cities." It was there, for the first time, that he began using his hyphenated surname to include his mother's maiden name, Galaviz. "I thought, 'I'm writing strictly Latino stories, but my name doesn't look in the slightest Latino,'" he says. "So I threw in 'Galaviz' as an homage to my mother and to acknowledge where I came from, which was this biracial, bicultural family."
It was also at the Iowa Writers' Workshop that he formed a close and ultimately fateful friendship with a classmate, Peter Orner, who witnessed firsthand his friend's struggle to embrace Pilsen as the center of his fictional universe.
"As writers, we're always trying to find our subject matter, and then realizing it's right in front of us," says Orner, a San Francisco writer with Chicago roots whose books include the short-story collection "Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge" (2013) and the novel "Love and Shame and Love" (2011), both published by Little, Brown. "I think that Alexai came to realize that Pilsen was the world, and the universality of those stories really transcend the block-by-block reality that he's writing about. Through this weird alchemy of fiction, he creates a mythology of his neighborhood that's much more than a straight-on news report. It takes a great fiction writer to do what he's done."
Over the years, Galaviz-Budziszewski published the Pilsen stories in top literary magazines — including Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, Alaska Quarterly Review, Indiana Review and others — but failed to sell them as a collection. About a year and half ago, however, Orner took matters into his own hands, sending a couple of his friend's stories — without his knowledge — to his friend Dave Eggers, the author of the best-selling "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" (2000) and founder of McSweeney's, an independent publisher based in San Francisco. Eggers, who grew up in Lake Forest, liked the stories and asked for more; the rest was publishing history.
And bringing the project full circle, Orner became editor of the manuscript. "The stories were ready, but we did do a little tinkering," he says. "Alexai's title was 'Heart of Chicago,' and I didn't love that, in part because it sounded so literal. Yes, Alexai's old neighborhood is real, but it's also imagined in the minds of his characters, which gives it this mythical quality that 'Painted Cities' speak to. It also reminded me of one of my favorite books, 'Invisible Cities' by Italo Calvino, which has a different kind of mythical feeling."
Perhaps best of all, Orner says, is Galaviz-Budziszewski's remarkable concision (the book is a compact 180 pages), which conveys so much so quickly. "I love how he's able to establish our emotional connection to his characters in just a few sentences, which would take a lot of writers a lot more pages do. Alexai accomplishes everything he wants to do in a blink of an eye."
Now that the book is published, requiring its author to give public readings, he's careful about which stories to read aloud and which to avoid. Some, such as "Freedom" — about those long-ago events atop the pirogi factory with a boy named Julio — he can hardly bear to read at all, much less in public.
"I really have to be careful about which story I'm picking to read in public, because it's a really emotional, private thing that I feel like I'm sharing," he says. "It makes me a little embarrassed, to be frank, that ' Painted Cities' is published. I mean, I'm proud that it's there, and that people can read what I think Pilsen was like. But a lot of it is way more personal than I ever want to be in real life."
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Twitter: @KevinNance1.
By Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski, McSweeney's, 180 pages, $24