SOUTH SHORE — When we arrived at Rainbow Beach a retired guy with a Bridgeport accent immediately, without even saying hello, interrupted to ask for a favor.
“I’m looking for a pretty lady …” he said to the gal holding the camera, pausing for just long enough to get a laugh without being creepy, “to pull the winning raffle ticket.”
She obliged, and as things turned out, the retired guy turned out to be one of the winners. And later, he slid the girl with the camera a few bucks as a tribute.
Immediately, I knew the guy who tipped me off was right — the Rainbow Beach handball courts attract some real Chicago characters.
“I really describe this as a poor man’s country club,” said Tom Allen, a former North Side alderman who retired to become a Cook County judge.
“Instead of going to a country club golfing four days a week and going into the clubhouse and having drinks, which most people can’t afford, we come out here. … Play as much as you want. Swim in Lake Michigan. Cool off. Throw up a grill. Socialize a little bit. This is Chicago.”
The courts at 77th and the Lake were packed with neighborhood guys dripping in sweat with working man’s hands and forearms of steel.
Bob Adrowski’s "friendly" handshake nearly crushed my hand.
“It’s phenomenal to come down here,” he said. “It’s an awesome game and there’s people from every walk of life.”
Judge Allen, who’s been playing at Rainbow Beach for about eight years, points out a sweaty guy with a gray ponytail, Jimmy Quattrochi.
“He helps take care of the place,” Allen says. “Does all the cooking. He’s been coming here for a long time. And boy is he a character.”
Ol’ Jimmy says he loves the beach courts, maybe more than he loves anything.
After being introduced to “3-wall” at Rainbow Beach in 1983, Quattrochi says, “I had two divorces because I’d rather play handball than go home.”
He laughed, but I couldn’t be sure he was joking.
The guys at Rainbow Beach take their handball very seriously. A banner hanging on the wall lists the names of a couple dozen national champions and three U.S. Handball Association Hall of Famers.
Handball is a lot like racquetball except, of course, there’s no racquet. And when you play outdoors there’s no back wall, which makes the game tricky.
And if you want to play “3-wall,” as the outdoor game is called, in Chicago you have to go to Rainbow Beach. The concrete courts have been there for 50 years.
Last weekend, Rainbow Beach handball regulars — Quattrochi and a clan of mostly sweaty, sometimes shirtless older gents — helped run a weekend Illinois Handball Association tournament.
They fired up the grill, loaded the cooler with cold drinks, lounged in the shade and waited to hear if they scored the winning raffle ticket while taking in the action.
If you didn’t look too closely, you’d mistake the tourney for a family picnic.
But make no mistake the guys — and a couple gals — were there to compete, hard.
On Saturday, more than 15 of the top handball players in the country came to play, including three who call Rainbow Beach their home court, hall of famer Dave Dohman among them.
Dohman, 57, grew up down the street from the courts at 7531 S. Coles St.
The guy’s right hand is one big callus — developed on his way to winning 29 national singles and doubles titles.
Math teacher Meghan Mehilos, one of two ladies playing in the tourney, was a four-time collegiate champion at Lake Forest College and 9-time national champion on the pro-handball circuit.
And Floyd Waters Jr., who grew up playing at Rainbow Beach, is the only African-American player from Illinois to win a national championship.
“This is home for me,” Waters said. “I grew up here. It’s a family here. Most of the guys you been knowing for 30, 40 years.”
It’s a place where everybody fits in, Quattrochi says.
“We have judges. We have crooks. We have who knows playing here,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what you do for a living once you walk on those courts, everyone is even.”
“What about playing against Judge Allen?” I ask.
“He cheats ‘cause he’s a judge … he can get away with it,” Quattrochi says.
He laughed, but I couldn’t tell if he was joking.