Friday, October 26, 2007

Memories waft out of the squat, narrow building and 53rd & Kenwood, teasing the senses of those who used to eat in the lobby here. Or at least buy their food and run. For here, on the site of what is now a dry cleaners, there once stood Harold's Chicken Shack.

Harold's was a take-out joint, open as late as 2 A.M. to sate those with alcohol-fueled munchies or provide a nocturnal cholesterol fix. Though my own jaunts to Harold's tended to occur long before the midnight hour, the scene there was always the same: steamed-up windows, hungry customers crowding a tunnel-shaped waiting area, a weatherbeaten wooden price list perched below a security camera. And at the end of this gauntlet sat the bulletproof glass partition with a bank teller's slot and a carousel through which customers would pay for and retrieve their grease-soaked feast.

At Harold's, the food was cheap, but the atmosphere was priceless.

There's a Harold's Chicken Shack in every Chicago neighborhood--provided you live on the South Side. Somehow Harold's urban ambience never traveled to the North Side. Maybe the neon signage that featured an axe-wielding chef chasing a chicken never caught on north of Madison Street, the city's north-south dividing line. Sure, we'ere the Hog Butchers to the World, but the hog-butchers and the meat-eaters don't always share the same neighborhood. But hungry college students go where their wallets lead them.

Queueing up for 'cue

First stop on the Harold's experience is the teller window, where you bark your order through the money slot at the cashier sitting an inch-thick sheet of plexiglass away. Then you slide your cash through the convex slot, retrieve your number, and wait for your number to be bellowed through the crowd.

When your lucky numer was up, you ambled up to the carousel to see your steaming hot chicken perched atop french fries and awaiting its ritual drenching in sauce. "What's on your regular half?" the lady behind the glass would blurt out, and you would request salt, pepper, barbecue sauce and hot sauce, or some permutation of the above. Some of the old-timers asked for ketchup.

When your order was ready, the staff wrapped it in Harold's distinctive green-and-white bags which, conveniently, listed the locations of their other 40-odd stores across Chicago. One loyal customer and dorm-rat vowed to visit each one of the stores and proudly post the store's bag on his dormitory wall.

Most of the dorms were four or five blocks away from Harold's, but some mix of thermodynamics and hungry anticipation kept the tasty bird hot even during wintertime jaunts back to the dorms. Even if you didn't eat Harold's that night, you could tell if someone else on your floor had, as the smoky scent of Harold's sauce drifted through the halls.

Oh, and the feast itself: a fried half-chicken sat atop greasy french fries, liberally doused with sauce and then topped with Wonder Bread cost all of five bucks. White meat aficionados ordered either a white half (four pieces of white meat) or a white sandwich with a breast and wing. Sometimes I even ordered livers.

Since those halcyon days, Harold's has moved down 53rd Street to a larger location that actually offers seating, but the bulletproof glass remains. I've eaten at the new store a few times, but still I wander by the old site on Kenwood and peer through the window. Hangers and a pants-presser have replaced the deep-frying vats and plexiglass, but if you listen closely, you can still hear the echoes of "What's on your white half?" bounding about the narrow space.

If only those grease-stained walls could talk...



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