Rest in Power, Kettle

A small obituary for a neighborhood figure

A neighbor of ours died this morning—one of those people I’ve seen around for years, chatted with many times, but never really knew. If you lived in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood any time in the past thirty-five years, you probably knew him, too: Croslene Kettle, fisherman, chef, Oasis barfly, Jamaican immigrant, local That Guy. I first encountered him cleaning fish in the now-defunct Morseland parking lot, circa 2005. I started talking to him some years after that, after I became an Oasis barfly. He had an accent that never thinned out, and he reeked of weed most of the time, which I know especially well because he was a hugger. Since we moved back last month, he’s been harassing us about bringing Murray to see him—“Where is my dog? You don’t bring me my dog!”—so I hope he caught a glimpse of Murray in the park last Sunday, when we caught a glimpse of Kettle but didn’t stop to say hi.

My friend Jill took that picture of Kettle’s fishing poles, left on the pier after the ambulance took him away this morning, “lights on but no sirens.”

We have a jar of his jerk sauce in the fridge, thrust upon me about a week ago at the O. Moments later, Al furtively thrust some cash upon Kettle, and we all pretended it was an exchange of friendly gifts, rather than a transaction. The sauce is good—he made me stick my finger in and taste it, then took that bottle back and gave me a new one. Since then, Al has not been keen on eating Kettle’s home-bottled jerk sauce, citing quality control issues. But jerk sauce is basically its own preservative, right? And now we’ve got one of the last jars.

The news is still coming mostly in rumor form as I write this, but what’s confirmed is that Kettle—an islander who had swum from that beach and fished from that pier since 1982—was pulled out of the lake Tuesday morning. The theory is that he had a heart attack while swimming. He was 64ish—too young, but not really—and he lived hard, only partly by choice. He never had money, didn’t always have shelter. He drank until he was told to go home. He was a Black man and an immigrant in this country. I can guess at other factors that might have contributed, but that’s plenty. Add the shocking cold of a Great Lake that’s only seen a couple of days over 70 degrees recently, and it’s more than enough.

In 2013, filmmaker Taniel Kilajian made a short documentary about Kettle and a few other men who routinely congregate around the pier where he died. In the film, Kettle does just what he did: yells at people, mostly amiably, about fishing, the government, weed quality, the price of cigarettes, and some things I can’t make out. He talks about how much he loves that pier, how nobody—especially not some young upstart—knows it like he does. He looks like he might throw a punch over it. He is not altogether hinged.

But about five minutes in, he explains his personal philosophy. “Fishing, drink some beer, smoke a cigarette, have fun with friends, smoke some weed… Everything good, man. We’ve got to cherish life. Don’t worry about death. Worry about living.”

“Bullshit!” calls out one of the other… pierflies? A friendly—for now—argument ensues, and the group is nearly unanimous that yes, one should fear death. Also that Kettle is full of shit.

“Why would you worry about death?” demands Kettle. “When you’re dead, you’re dead! Tink about living! When death come, you cannot change that.”

And then they all quit yelling at each other for a minute, because there’s a fish on the line.