So this medium-sized black bear walks into a bar (Lyle’s Dugout, just behind the ballpark, on 17th) and the bartender asks, “What’ll you have?”, and the bear, Lucien, orders a shot of blackberry brandy and a Hamm’s beer chaser. They get to talking, the bear and Rod, the bartender. Small talk at first, sports mostly. It depresses Lucien, who is upset about teams named for animals, particularly The Bears. The Cubs. He hates Chicago anyway, especially since a cop once roused him when he was trying to hibernate in an underground parking garage down near the Art Institute. “You’ll never catch me in that town again,” says the bear, “at least not in autumn.”
Rod sympathizes, being a Packer fan, but warns under his breath that his boss was born and raised in the Big Windy, and will tolerate no talk against it, no matter your species. “He threw out a lion just the other day for a remark about Mayor Daley. Hmmm . . . I dunno which Mayor Daley.”
“Well, I’d better drink up and get out then,” says Lucien, but Rod explains that Lyle’s in the back room, doing his books, and couldn’t hear over the music anyway (a polka, In Heaven There is No Beer, by Frankie Yankovic). He returns to polishing a few glasses and the bear moodily nurses what remains of his draft. Eventually, he asks for another round and says, “Tell me Rod, your people came from where? Poland maybe, Germany, the Czech Republic?”
“Oh, ya. Danzig, or Gdansk, or whatever the latest bunch in power decides to call it.”
“And you can speak the language?”
“No. Hell no. A dozen words, maybe. My grampa and gramma, they came over and they could speak a coupla languages, but no English. And then my pa, he wanted nothing to do with the old ways. The war and all. Nope – of course, I can cuss and ask for a few kindsa food – but that’s about it.”
“Yes. And you’ve got kids?”
“Five; mostly grown. And two grandkids already. Here, I got pictures.”
“Any of the kids know the language at all?”
“Just my daughter, Katrin. She learned in college, and then went to the old country for a semester. Looked up some family. There’s a lotta books . . .”
“That’s just it,” Lucien sighs deeply, as bears will, “there are a lot of books. Yours is a written language, rich in literature. You can skip a couple of generations and your kids can just go back to it any time they want. Learn it in college. Get credit, even.
“A bear, on the other hand, has only an oral tradition with which to connect. In this part of the world, we too felt the pressure to fit in. A lot of us chose not to be jailed in game preserves. Eventually, we stopped telling the old stories in the old language, and now there’s almost no one left who can teach our children, and many want to learn, want to say ‘I Am a Bear!’, but haven’t the words. A sad thing, and like you and your father, I am partly to blame. For too long, I tried to deny my Ursine nature, my very Bearness.
“Ah, but I gotta go,” says Lucien, standing to leave after a long pause, “baamaa pii.”
“Ya, later,” answers Rod, wiping another glass, “do widzenia.”
~ Ralph Murre