"Side Streets" is loosely based on the story behind this park.… (Veronica Wilson / )
I never knew what frijoles are. I didn't know how they smell. I had no idea that the scent can be the one that welcomes you home.
That was before I went to Pilsen, before I met Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski and before I read his book, "Painted Cities," released Tuesday.
The book takes an intimate look at life growing up in Pilsen, just south of the Loop, where murals adorn the walls and that smell of frijoles and other fried foods tell Galaviz-Budziszewski he has returned home.
"Painted Cities" transported me to a street corner where a young Galaviz-Budziszewski and his sister pretended to pan for gold in the runoff from a fire hydrant. I saw the view from the top of a pierogi factory, where he and a friend would throw rocks. I watched the late-night runs with his father to see buildings burn down.
"I think it's probably 90 percent true," Galaviz-Budziszewski, 41, said of his collection of short stories as we met on a frigid February morning for a trip around Pilsen, the neighborhood that shaped him.
Appropriately, 1817 S. May St. is our first stop -- Galaviz-Budziszewski's first home. The building has the same green awning and the paint on the door is peeling, but as we drive up he tells me, "Oh man, I miss that stoop." At the same time, he said, revisiting the place he used to call home is "probably more sad than it is fun. I'm always surprised that I grew up here. It seems so desperate."
Amid his memories of youthful hijinks, Galaviz-Budziszewski weaves tales of danger -- gang shootings, drug overdoses and arson.
"The violence was very real. Enough that you had to know where you need to walk," Galaviz-Budziszewski said. "Nothing was a sudden decision. You had to know what corner was not one you wanted to walk by, which corner would take your head off if you walked by."
We visited a few places that illustrated this point.
There was Guadalupe Reyes Park, affectionately renamed Boogie Park after a man who was killed trying to bring gangs together. "Side Streets," one of the stories in "Painted Cities," is loosely based on that event.
We then turned down a storefront-filled stretch of 18th Street just northeast of Harrison Park. It's an area Galaviz-Budziszewski tried to avoid as a youngster.
"This was a stretch, right by the park, where the gangs of that side of Pilsen would always fight ... I never wanted to get caught in the middle of it," he said.
The gangs that ran the neighborhood were a constant presence in Galaviz-Budziszewski's life, and he was forced to find a balance.
"I think the kids that I knew, you had to have a lot of confidence to not fall into those little ruts," he said of avoiding a violent path. He credits his family with keeping on the right track.
Both of Galaviz-Budziszewski's parents worked for social service agencies, and their unique perspective on Pilsen's gang life provided an advantage for their son.
"People would come over for parties and there were leaders of the Ambrose [gang] over at our house," he said. "My father was hanging out with them, not a lot, but there was an appreciation of them in that sense, just as people."
Galaviz-Budziszewski moved to nearby Heart of Chicago when he was 6, and left the area entirely for college at about 20. Today, he's a dad in Berwyn, where he lives with his wife, two children and a German Shepherd. He drives his Ford Freestyle to work in La Grange, where he's a counselor for students with disabilities, helping to find them jobs after high school. It's a life he once considered a different world.
"The scene has changed quite a bit -- the new buildings, the Hipster crowd -- but two things remain," Galaviz-Budziszewski later said via email. "That damn smell of manteca [lard] cooking and the sense of community, the attitude of community."
Controlling his emotions when revisiting these spots, either during our conversation or in his writing, is difficult, he said.
"Every single day that's the biggest struggle, because it can take a story where it just doesn't need to go," he said. "I'm always afraid of accessing too much of it, which makes it hard to read."
At first, Galaviz-Budziszewski wasn't even aware his stories had been sent to a publisher -- a friend passed them on to McSweeney's. It wasn't until the collection was put together that he realized the neighborhood itself had become a character.
"I don't think that that was anything planned out in stories," he said. "Once I read them all together, it was amazing that Pilsen is just a real, living, breathing thing."
We parted ways for the day, and I strolled around Pilsen to get my bearings in the neighborhood. Standing on a street corner, I inhaled a delicious smell -- a little garlicky, definitely greasy. "Must be those frijoles," I thought.
Veronica Wilson is a RedEye special contributor.
Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski, in conversation with Adam Levin
7 p.m. Wednesday, The Book Cellar (4736-38 N Lincoln Ave. 773-293-2665)