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Backstreet Ballers

To find the most dedicated Chicago Cubs 
fans, you have to leave the stadium

Illustration Graham Roumieu

“Sooner or later, somebody’s gonna pull one to left-center,” predicts Rich Buhrke, a wiry 63-year-old in a Chicago Cubs cap. He grabs his baseball glove and jogs back to his preferred spot near the corner of West Waveland and North Kenmore avenues, just outside the walls of Wrigley Field, and waits for a home run to sail over the red brick cornice above.

Buhrke has been roaming Wrigley’s shadows as a “ballhawk” for 50 straight seasons, one of a rotating cast of 10 or so characters who chase balls that clear the bleachers, something that seems to happen less and less often.

“It’s not the team philosophy to hit the three-run homer anymore,” laments the mustachioed Moe Mullins, 58, who started ballhawking at the age of eight and has a collection of more than 5,200 baseballs. His usual spot is between two oak trees on Waveland. “Your Sosas and McGwires are gone. And it’s a shame.”

Ballhawks arrange their work shifts around games and study weather forecasts for hints on wind speed and direction. In exchange, they tend to acquire amazing collections of memorabilia. Buhrke’s stash includes a ball hit by Willie Mays, and Mullins sold a Sammy Sosa homer on eBay for, well, a lot.

So far tonight’s game is a throwback to power: six home runs, including a fourth-inning grand slam to left-center and onward to West Waveland. It floats near Mullins’ oak trees, but Dave Davison—the youngest and fastest ballhawk—streaks by and snags the ball in midair. All’s fair in the world of the ballhawk. The fans looking down from the bleachers above roar at Davison’s athleticism.

As the ecstatic crowd pours out of Wrigley (the Cubs, who are flirting with .500 ball, won 9–5), two middle-aged guys walk up to Davison and ask where the ball landed. “It didn’t land,” he responds proudly. “I caught it.” 


Périgord, France
Siren song

As birthday gifts go, the 
Château des Milandes was pretty sweet. Though a fixer-upper, the 15th century pile on a hillside in southwest France, which Angélique de Saint-Exupéry’s parents bestowed upon her when she turned 25, had real promise. In the eight years since, she has planted 4,000 box hedges, replaced sections of the roof and made the interior over into a museum celebrating the legacy of chanteuse Josephine Baker—known in France as simply La Baker—who lived here from 1947 to 1969.

The château is where the performer located her “World Village.” Before Madonna or Angelina or even Mia Farrow, Baker became a tabloid sensation by adopting a “rainbow tribe” of 12 children, each of a different nationality.

On a balmy morning in June, 41 years after Baker 
lost the deed to the property and vowed never again to sing in France, Saint-Exupéry regales a group of visitors with tales of the diva’s life (admission to the property runs eight euros), as an older man lingers nearby. This turns out to be Akio Bouillon, Baker’s eldest son, a Korean orphan adopted in 1954. Bouillon turns up randomly a few times a year, just to chat 
with visitors. He prefers not to enter, however, because the memories of times that were at first wonderful and then not so good are simply too intense.

Inside, visitors move through rooms displaying Baker’s sparkly frocks, her scandalous banana skirt and her famous bathroom, inspired by a Lanvin perfume bottle. A few of them peer closely at a photo of Baker at Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington. They follow Saint-Exupéry into the kitchen, where a penniless Baker barricaded herself in a futile attempt to avoid eviction, an incident Bouillon, 16 at the time, prefers not to relive.

“We used to end the tour here,” says Saint-Exupéry, “but it was too sad.” Now the finale is a dining room with a grand piano. A wax figure of a young, glamorous Baker presides over a table set for 12. Photos on the piano include one of Saint-Exupéry on her wedding day at the château. “We destroyed the parquet,” she recalls with a laugh. “So much dancing!”

“Josephine wouldn’t have minded,” someone says.


Off The Wall

One warm summer morning on a quiet street in East Berlin, a tall, bespectacled Russian muralist named Dmitri Vrubel stands in front of a section of the Berlin Wall, surveying an expanse of fresh whitewash. He’s here to repaint a famed piece of graffiti that has graced this stretch of concrete for years. Around him stand a handful of fellow artists who, like him, decorated the once-forbidden east side of the wall in the autumn of 1989, during the German reunification. They are part of a preservationist movement seeking to repair a structure they once cursed.

Since the first days of Reunification, which became official 19 years ago next month, the Berlin Wall has been systematically dismantled by a euphoric populace, not to mention hammer-wielding tourists and souvenir collectors. Chunks of the graffiti-covered concrete turned up in museums, private art collections and on eBay.

A few sections of this 96-mile-long symbol of totalitarian brutality remain, however. And now Vrubel and 117 other artists, known as the Artists Initiative East Side Gallery, have taken up the task of repairing one such section, which featured Vrubel’s most famous work, now an emblem of the fall of the Soviet Empire. Called the “Bruderkuss,” it depicted bushy-browed Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev planting a Communist smooch on the lips of his East German counterpart, Erich Honecker. For years, teenagers wore T-shirts featuring the “brother kiss” and tacked it to dorm room walls, even as the original artwork faded and peeled.

They’ve begun repairs just in time, says Kani Alavi, an Iranian-born artist who heads the Initiative. “If the city hadn’t finally agreed to do something,” he says, “the wall would have just fallen over.”


Jalpa, Mexico
Let us Bray

On a dusty soccer field ringed by mountains and elephant-eared cacti, a small burro does a sort of striptease, its pajama pants slowly slipping off its hindquarters as it parades in front of 300 spectators huddled under tents, parasols and mesquite trees. A burro in pajamas is not a common sight in Mexico. But then, neither is one in a wedding dress. Nor one in black go-go boots.

Which is why fans turn up each year in the poor pueblo of Jalpa, just outside San Miguel de Allende, for the annual Burro Festival.

“Burros are such an integral part of campo life in Mexico,” notes Sara Tylosky, codirector of FINO, a local nonprofit, as she giggles at a reluctant pageant participant that has to be pushed across the field. FINO sponsors the event to raise money for the classes in English and leadership it offers the children of Jalpa. “A few years ago, one of our volunteers saw Best in Show”—the dog show mockumentary—“and thought it would be fun to have a contest with kids and their dressed-up burros.”

This year, 20 children have given their family beasts a new burden of sorts, wrapping multicolored beads around stout necks, poking holes in straw hats to accommodate floppy ears and slipping stockings over spindly legs. Each child entering the pageant receives a different bilingual book from a local bookstore; each burro gets a bushel of carrots and an award, such as Most Elegant, Best Tail and Least Stubborn. This year’s Best in Show prize—decided by audience applause—goes to third-grader Guadalupe Parades Anaya and his burro Gofi, who sports a floral skirt, a long braided wig, thick blue eyeshadow and black construction paper eyelashes that render its huge brown eyes unimaginably soulful. Guadalupe is awarded a pair of walkie-talkies; Gofi gets braying rights.

After the pageant, the locals treat visitors to a meal of gorditas, carnitas, enchiladas and chicharones. “This is the best,” says Larry Castriotta, an American realtor who, like the other guests, paid $28 to attend. “The burros are hysterical.”

Though she didn’t win, fourth-grader Leticia Paredes Mendoza smiles broadly as she pulls her bridal-clad burro toward the mariachi band. “I love having all these people in our town. It’s like the biggest wedding ever.”


Brooklyn, New York
Sweet and Low

The four members of Alash Ensemble, a traditional throat-singing group from the Russian republic of Tuva, have seen a lot in their global travels. They’ve played a private concert for Vladimir Putin, recorded with banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck and appeared on Late Show with David Letterman. But nothing seems to have prepared them for a sight that greets them on their recent trip to New York: Williamsburg hipsters. “I tried to explain what they are, but I failed,” says Sean Quirk, Alash’s American-born manager and interpreter. “The Tuvans were like, ‘Are they a gang?’”

The ensemble is in Brooklyn to play a gig at Zebulon, a cozy bar off Bedford Avenue. During sound-check, Quirk, who sports granny glasses and a reddish ponytail, explains the nuances of xöömei, as throat-singing is known. By enhancing overtones present in ordinary vocalizations, a xöömei singer produces multiple pitches simultaneously. The eerie sounds are said to imitate nature as experienced on the Tuvan steppe: The low-pitched drone called kargyraa evokes the lowing of a yak, while sygyt, a shrill whistle, resembles the wailing of the wind.

A former bike messenger from Wisconsin, Quirk is the foremost Western practitioner of xöömei. In 2003, he moved to Tuva on a Fulbright fellowship, and he became a member of the national orchestra, married a local woman and started a family. Life in a former Soviet province influenced by the nomadic culture of nearby Mongolia has required some adjustment. “I had to learn little things, like never shake hands with somebody through a doorway,” he says, “and big things, like when I invited some people to my house for a drink and three days later they’re still there.”

As Quirk finishes speaking, band members appear onstage in silken costumes and take up their instruments, which resemble lutes topped by wooden horse heads. As they play to a packed house, Quirk passes a bucket around for donations. “Siberia’s a long way from here,” he says.


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