Sound the Conga

Hotel Congress bids farewell to its last resident, Vince Szuda.

A life so marginal, a presence so unforgettable. Vince Szuda was a character, a funny, funny character, and he died two weekends ago in his room at the Hotel Congress, at age 84. Of natural causes, no doubt.

His cousin back in LaSalle, Ill., is making the arrangements for burial, and I guess he's taking the body back to the land of Lincoln. Vince doesn't have any blood relatives left in the world besides that cousin. But the Hotel Congress was his home and we were his family, we, the changing cast of characters who worked there for the last 35 years of his life, which is how long he lived there. Although he was only one of half a dozen elderly residents I knew when I started at the hotel, he survived all the others by at least a decade. He was the last one to permanently check out.

Back when I was managing the hotel (I retired in 1999 after 15 years) I thought many times that the world needed to hear about Vince. Now that he has left us I have strengthened my resolve to tell you who he was.

Vince could have been drawn by a cartoonist. His curving spine and large head had the effect of a question mark. He had very big ears, almost floppy, a shuffling walk and large splayed feet, triple-E width, I found out when I helped him buy shoes one year. And when I bought him a shirt for his birthday this year, I had a hard time finding such a big neck with short 14-and-a-half-inch sleeves. But he had kind eyes behind his thick glasses, and the trademark suspenders seemed to hold everything together, and I can see him now, hard of hearing, taking his pipe out of his mouth, leaning in and asking me "Huh?" It's a struggle to explain the feeling of love this old man conjures up in me, but he had a sweetness that caused not just me but all of us who lived around him to treasure his presence.

And his presence was as solid and dependable as the brick and mortar building through which he moved slowly about. There was a room then that we used to call the "old kitchen," which had been a large restaurant kitchen 70 years ago to serve the elegant and formal dining room that occupied what is now the Club and the Taproom. Anyway, back in 1986 or so, we pulled out the antique gas stoves and hood, and that room became the major garbage routing center for the hotel and bar, and that room also became the Domain of Vince, St. Vince, Protector of the Garbage, Master Recycler, and the only person who could possibly sort through anywhere from four to 14 cans of big, wet, messy garbage every day, seven days a week. Not because I asked him to do it, no, because he was compelled to do it. It kept him busy, occupied, fit, which the old man liked, and yes, because he might find a treasure.

You see, Vince was a treasure hunter, and in the course of his hunting he would discover many things that might again be useful, including a phenomenal amount of recyclables: aluminum, glass (by color), cardboard, newspapers and magazines, plastic cups, rubber bands, bits of string or rope, any key, paper clip or pen (even if it didn't write now he'd put it point down in a cup until the last drop was ready and you could maybe dot an "i" before you threw it out all over again), and beyond that any item that glittered (there was sometimes money!) or anything that was cute or religious.

In fact, Vince probably reduced the garbage by at least half by the time he was done pulling things out. I started bringing some things home to throw them away, just to be sure that I wouldn't see them again.

When business was good I had to hire him an assistant, and I also had to pay to have a lot of the recyclables carted away (whatever happened to that city recycling program for businesses?). But I knew it was the right thing to do, and the garbage became his life. He labored for free, although he paid the same low $80 a month rate on his room all those years.

It is the end of an era, the passing of the last resident of the venerable old hotel. He touched a lot of lives there, from the people who worked in the club, to the people in the restaurant, and the housekeepers who worked upstairs. And everyone who crossed paths with Vince tangled with him at some point, because he was a codger with a dedication to his routine, and he gave you no choice but to cooperate with that routine. He kept on going with great determination as old age brought on more ailments. "I got sinitis, bronchitis and arthritis" he used to say, and he suffered glaucoma, deafness and other hardships as well.

We shall miss Vince, and I, for one, hope he becomes an instant ghost. If your consciousness is clear, maybe you'll still see him at the hotel, checking the pay phone for change, or taking apart the booths in the club looking for dropped dollars from the barflies, or shining his flashlight on the floor behind the bar looking for the tips that didn't make it when they were thrown into that big brass pot in the Taproom.

He's a kind spirit. Just tell him it's time to take a good rest.

MaryAnn Brazil is writing a book about Hotel Congress.
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