Remembering “Then Came Bronson”

2017-05-10

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A Tribute to Actor Michael Parks

Maybe it’s the rain in Chicago tonight that makes it so easy to wash away the years since I rode that gloriously empty Pacific shoreline. Felt the power, heard the roar of that bike as we sailed across the sand of salt spray dreams. Maybe it’s the rain that I could have once outrun. Maybe once I could even have outrun the night. Careening up from the sand and shore and on to some adventure road, riding the forest darkness to an all night joint with red vinyl seats on gleaming silver stools and a midnight cup of coffee by a girl with eyes like laughter and suddenly I could write like Jimmy Webb; I could see the words on the page . . .

“Ran away from home when I was seventeen
To be with you on the California Coast”

Maybe it’s rain that makes the memory of Michael Parks so alive. Course that was just his real name. On TV he was Jim Bronson. The show was “Then Came Bronson.” It lasted about a minute and a half. But that was enough. Because when he’d be Jim Bronson, I was too. I could even be a writer like Jimmy Webb.

I was Bronson. Roger was just my real name. Jim Bronson lived a Woody Guthrie life, roaming and rambling across diamond deserts. When I would ride my bike to some faraway western paradise like Evanston (the suburb next to mine) I was really Bronson riding alongside rushing cold mountain streams.

Bronson would always have some sort of good versus evil trial to overcome each time he hopped off that bike. But whatever it was, I’d solve it with a cool guy shrug. Then there would be, just like Jimmy Webb’s song.

Drinking margaritas all night in the old cantina
Out on the California coast,

Then, before I hopped back on the cycle, off to follow that long lonesome highway, bound for the mountains and the plaines; there would be those long, soulful looks between me and the girl and the wild imaginings of what happened off camera. And I’d write like I would remember that moment forever, write like I was Jimmy Webb AND Jim Bronson.

We never really made it baby
But we came pretty close
Adios
Adios
Miss the blood red sunset
But I miss you the most.
Adios.

So long Michael Parks.
And thank you for those golden moments. When I got to be Bronson too.

Talking Health Care

2017-05-05

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“23 million people. That’s like three Chicago’s! All of them loosing health care.

“Oh no,” said the guy in the grey raincoat, blending into the Friday morning windy drizzle rush hour throng walking east on Randolph in downtown Chicago. “That 23 million. That’s just the libs counting. And you know how they count. George Soros probably made up that number. It can’t be that bad.”

“I don’t know. Sounds pretty bad. They took away pretty much everything. If you get sick. You’re screwed.”

“Oh don’t worry. It can’t be that bad. It’ll cost less. And you still have pre-existing condition coverage,” said the grey raincoat guy.

“Actually that’s a lie. They lie a lot now. Oh, and they cut Medicaid too.”

“Hmm. That’s not what they said on Fox. But either way, everything will be fine.”

“How do you know? There is nothing anywhere that says how much this will cost.”

“You know,” said grey raincoat, “I gotta tell you what I really think. And I wouldn’t say this to anybody cause you know, it’s not politically correct, but I think that if these people want the insurance, they should have to pay for it.”

Walking behind these two, I heard grey raincoat say “These people should have to pay for it” and I thought about how easy it would be to sucker punch grey raincoat in the kidneys. Sucker punch him hard. So it hurt. How good it would feel to watch him fold down to the sidewalk and stop talking. Because if he didn’t know that we were all ‘these people,’ if he didn’t see this wasn’t about politics—this was about stepping on the throats of the vulnerable and playing with their very lives, this was about pure power. And it he didn’t know that then how would I explain it?

But then I remembered another Dialogue. My favorite song. Starts out, with one guy, guy named Terry Kath, singing,

“Are you optimistic bout the way that things are going?

And then another voice answers,

“No, I never, never think of it at all.”

And the song gave me strength for the fight to come.

 

 

 

That Chuck Berry Song In Your Head

2017-03-18

From the last time Chuck Berry played Chicago. Five, six years ago. . . .
———————————————–
When Chuck Berry, 84, collapsed from unknown causes on stage Saturday night in Chicago, the concert venue was not some glitzy down town tourist trap.

Berry slumped over his keyboards at the Congress Theater. A 2,900 seat, faded architectural gem originally built in the 1920’s as a golden movie palace. The Congress sits on Milwaukee Avenue. Twenty-one blocks northwest of the center of Chicago. Once an unpaved Indian Trail from Chicago to Milwaukee, along which all sorts of flim flam fast buck artists plied their trade alongside hard working people who got up before dark most mornings and did their jobs.

Not all that long ago, there were more Polish people clustered on and around Milwaukee Avenue than there were in most Polish cities. The potential next Mayor of Chicago lives in a condo off Milwaukee Avenue while he waits for his rented house to be empty. And the outposts of the arts, galleries, places where people read poetry dot the urban landscape in tiny storefronts with rhymes of what’s edgy, new and the next big thing.

So the place where the great rock and roller put his head down is a vibrant, alive avenue where people live close to each other, where they go to work, make art and dream big. A place with a history.

Berry was checked out in an ambulance. They he came back on stage and tried again.

He came back on stage and tried again.

The crowd had mostly emptied out, but Chuck Berry came back on stage and tried again.

And just as he did that, somewhere, hurling out in the farthest regions of space, way beyond any known galaxy—the well known story goes—the space capsule sent from our planet out to the heavens in about 1960; that space capsule reached its destination.

The people of that faraway planet opened it up, saw everything we had stuffed inside. The holy texts of the world’s great religions, some equations scribbled by Einstein, a Picasso, a volume of Romeo and Juliet, a Bach Cantata, a Vonnegut book, Keith Jarrett and Duke Ellington recorded, penicillin and the polio vaccine.

There was more. There were items that showcased us at our best.

But the last item was a plastic disc. An old 45 rpm record. Our brothers and sisters, being way beyond us, immediately knew how to make sound come from this “45.” It was a Chuck Berry record.

And those people from that faraway planet listened. Then they wrote a 4 word reply. Stuffed it in the capsule and sent it hurtling out to find us.

It should be here any moment.

What was their four-word response?

Send more Chuck Berry.

After Trump

2017-03-12

The carrots, scrawny and dirt cased, began to sprout in the makeshift garden between the two abandoned buildings just west of what had once been Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. It was 60 degrees. Bright warm sun and the middle of February. There were no real seasons anymore. It could be snowing one day and tropical breezes the next.

Truth Minister Bannon had assured all of us who remained after the waters started rising sometime around the middle of last year, 2019, that fluctuations in temperature were part of the natural cycles of nature. He had the research. He knew the data. There was no other data.

But we had nothing to fear. The Leader would provide. Everything was fine.

Our garden in Chicago was on a lot at the intersection of what used to be Clark and LaSalle Streets. At the other end of LaSalle was the boarded up tower once known as the Board of Trade. The once faceless statue of the Roman goddess Ceres gazing out over the deserted canyon of skyscrapers that had once been Chicago’s financial district. The occasional movement of a wolf, a rabbit or a homeless family scanned from the high tech cameras beaming out from the face now painted on Ceres. The eyes were those of Culture Minister Ivanka.

The cameras protected us. Because there was, of course, always danger. So we had the cameras and the guns for protection.

The new shore of Lake Michigan had risen about a quarter mile to Clark Street. I don’t know how long that took. Time gets blurry and confusing for me now. There were days and weeks of endless rain. Icebergs the size of small towns drifting down from the north, Lake Michigan becoming a rushing river, hollowing out homes and roads and sweeping away whole towns.

Infrastructure Minister Cheney said she had it all under control. Contracts were soon to be awarded. Garden land would be available till the construction got started. The new social safety net was the left over patches of soil.

And on the other side of the world, the Leader of Leaders nodded in approval at the American spirit for rebuilding, after we had culled the herd. His laughter echoing in the golden halls of the Kremlin.

It had all happened very fast. The old American State Department hollowed out. No one worked there anymore. The phones rang in empty offices and no one answered. The Leader smiled, put some ketchup on his well-done steak and thought, “I have made evil government go away.”

After the State Department went Poof! . . . and vanished, it wasn’t long before the food chain across the American continent started crumbling. Disease ran rampant as the last traces of those attempting to control the safety of what we ate and drank closed up the darkened government offices.

Oh there was still safe food. For some. And those who had the safe food, holed up in the gated communities across the American wasteland, munched along and told each other on Truth Minister Bannon’s approved web sites, “Hey, I worked for what I have! No one gave me anything. These people with nothing? They need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps!” Lots of talk about bootstraps.

And the Leader of Leaders laughed louder at the success of Truth Minister Bannon’s message that the way to make everyone fed, safe, warm and healthy was to make the rich richer. That laughter bouncing across the planet as Leader of Leaders said to his head nodding entourage, “And there are still those fools who believe that’s true! No wonder they crumbled!”

I don’t remember much, but I can still remember, that day when I believed there would be no time after Trump. When I believed this was the way it would be forever.

I had just finished my daily scribbles. That’s what I called it, that time every day when I’d just write. I knew no one would ever read it. But there was something that made me need to remember what it was like before the deluge. Before Trump.

I wrote. I hid the scrawling in a green wooden shed where the 10 of us, once strangers but now a family, lived out back of the garden. And I set out to make my rounds walking the empty streets of what once was Chicago shouting “Sharpen your knives! Sharpen your knives!” That’s how I brought in what little money I contributed to the survival of the 10 of us. I sharpened knives.

Because after Trump, everyone needed sharp knives.

I remember pushing my creaking two-wheeled cart back to the garden and hearing the news. Truth Minister Bannon had just tweeted out the message that there would be no more Medicaid. No more Medicare. No more rules and regulations to limit the profits of the health industry. The work was done. Health care was where it should be: available only to those who could pay.

The herd had been set to be culled. The laughter of the Leader of Leaders could be heard in the background as the video of the announcement by Truth Minister bounced off every corner of the world.

Health care? Gone. America as that shining city on the hill? Gone. In the strangled cry of the spirits of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and all those who had first dreamed up the American experiment, came the booming voice of the Leader shouting out “Make America Great Again” as the Leader of Leaders laughed in the Russian snows at the folly of us all.

On that day when we thought life before the Leaders was gone, I remember a moment.

I remember all 10 us just sat down on the floor of that green shed next to the rusted garden tools. No one spoke. Then one of us whispered, “No.” And it became a chant, “No,no,no,no.” Like some ancient rhythm of the waters. “No,no,no,no.”

Silence. Then one of us said, “That old oven? That still works, right? And we still have that gas line, right?” I answered, “Yes.”

“Then I’m going to make some chocolate chip cookies,” she said.

One of the women went outside and snaked a new electrical circuit into the shed. Checked that the gas main was secure. Fired up the oven and soon the smell of chocolate chip cookie scent swirled around the shed, fighting back the coming night.

Somehow, someone had found an old vinyl recording of the song, “Before the Deluge.” So we had music. Jackson Browne singing about men who forged the earth’s beauty into power.

The smell of those chocolate chip cookies. The warmth of the shed as snow started to fall on that night after the 60-degree day. Browne singing about how there were those who believed they were meant to live after the deluge.

And as the music grew louder, as the 10 of us sang together, the chocolate chip cookies came out of the oven and were passed around our circle.
Like sweet tasting chocolate messages of hope.

That had somehow come alive!

Chocolate messages of hope come alive.

Obama When No One Is Watching—from 2009

2017-01-10

new-picture-1

Malia Obama probably wasn’t sure if her Dad would make it home from work to watch her soccer game this past Friday night.

He’s been pretty busy lately. But her Mom and her little sister would be there.

The flow of the kids moving the ball down the field, under the lights of a chilly night in October. The families chatting on the sidelines. The starlight glow of downtown Chicago rising up from the north.

Malia Obama at mid field shouts “Mom!” And the smile, grace, and presence of the woman whose eyes never once leave her daughter—no matter who else she speaks to, waves back and sends a radiant smile.

In that one wave and smile, you see hope come alive before your very eyes.

Then just a few minutes after eight; something like a shift in earth’s gravity occurs. To the casual observer, nothing in this scene has changed. That pull of the earth’s power must have been imagined.

The true city dweller will feel it first, before they even see it.

Blink your eyes and they appear. Ringing the shadows of this soccer field are people with guns. Serious people with guns. Like oak trees that move. The phrase, “Not on my watch” flashes through your head.

You have to look hard to make sure they are even there.

You never really see a gun.

You’re not even sure they are moving: but when you blink your eyes, somehow their positions have changed. Something about the way they just appear calms your breathing. Instinctively you know: these are the good guys.

With that feeling of true safety in your very soul; you remember the real secret at the heart of the city:— that the city is just a million small town kids soccer game scenes strung together.

So the kids laugh and kick the soccer ball.

Then some guy in a blue cap walks out of the gym next door. Hands in his pocket, face down, by himself. He walks over to Malia’s Mom, who has 3 conversations going on simultaneously with folks on the sidelines. The quiet guy in the blue cap puts his arm around Malia’s Mom. Shakes hands with a couple of the people. Talks with Malia’s Mom for a minute or two.

Then a small miracle occurs.

The quiet guy in the blue cap who nobody in the crowd of families really paid all that much attention two; scrunches down so he his face to face with Malia’s little sister Sasha. He lifts up the brim on the cap. And then, standing 15 feet behind Sasha you see what she’s seeing up close.

You see that smile. That smile that rings with the very power and the glory of the city lights behind it.

That smile now almost ready to take its place in American history.

You can’t hear, and are happy not to hear, what he’s saying to his youngest daughter.

But you do hear her start to giggle.

Then the father takes the daughter’s hand. The younger daughter. The one who is not in the game. The one who by all rights and purposes and measures any of us know at this time in our history—was destined not to get a lot of attention tonight.

They move back in the shadows, behind the sideline crowd. Seen only by that quiet show of force here to keep them absolutely safe.

Then the miracle: they have a footrace.

While the game is still going on. Just the two of them. Sasha and her Dad take off together, both running at full speed, as fast and then faster then either of them could ever imagine. Sasha laughing, and laughing at the finish line. Her Dad swoops down and picks her up.

Then that smile. This time only for his daughter. No one else was looking. It was just for her.

His youngest daughter’s giggle. It’s the music of his promise to make sure that everyone’s included

And This past Friday night in Chicago: Malia Obama’s team won the game.

********
From “Finding Work When There Are No Jobs” Copyright Think Different Press. Chicago, IL. Reprinted with permission of the author.

M.M. & J.D. at the Cape Cod Room

2017-01-03

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Chances are that if you were sitting at the bar at the Cape Cod Room in Chicago’s Drake Hotel that night in 1954, and the laughing young couple next to you started in on the tradition of carving their initials in the bar, you would have known whom they were. The initials might not have rung a bell. But you would have known their names.

All sorts of royalty would pass through The Cape Cod Room before it ended its 83 year old run this past weekend. There were real life Princesses and kings, show biz luminaries, politicians and sporting legends. From Sinatra to Ronald Reagan to Michael Jordan, Sophia Loren and Aretha Franklin to Elizabeth Taylor and Julie Andrews and Chicago’s Cusack family.

The Cape Cod Room drew the famous and infamous. Frank Nitti, who came after Al Capone, even had an office in The Drake for awhile. So you know that Nitti had to have dined at the Cape Cod Room.

All those famous people. Spectacular food. In an unpretentious room built for soul soothing warmth on the coldest winter night. But none of that’s the real story of the place. Of course all that matters. But it’s not what gives a place an 83 year old run, and truth told, could have kept the place going for another 83 years with just a little more long term thinking. Hunker down to the core of this softly lit, warm oasis next to a looming Lake Michigan and you’ll find what’s true here is the same thing that’s true about any truly great element of Chicago. It’s that Chicago, above all else, is a crossroads.

A crossroads.

And anything can happen at a crossroads. When you put down roots and decide to stay—like the Cape Cod Room did for all those years, then sooner or later the world will pass by your door. As will your neighbor.

Pass by or stay. Richer or poorer. But certainly more alive in the world and in spirit. At a crossroads all things are possible.

Because here at the crossroads, you, me, anyone of us can sit down at the bar right next to that young couple, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio.

Their marriage lasted less than a year. But the love went on. When she died, he was the one who made the funeral arrangements. And then for 20 years, every single week, he sent flowers to her grave.

The initials MM and JD were still there carved in the bar this past weekend.

Because at a crossroads . . . anything can happen.

Even that which lasts, as Algren would say, “for keeps.”

Photo Credit: Trip Advisor

Royko’s “Mary and Joe, Chicago Style”

2016-12-24

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Mary and Joe were flat broke when they got off the bus in Chicago. They didn’t know anybody and she was expecting a baby.

They went to a cheap hotel. But the clerk jerked his thumb at the door when they couldn’t show a day’s rent in advance.

They walked the streets until they saw a police station. The desk sergeant said they couldn’t sleep in a cell, but he told them how to get to a welfare office.

A man there said they couldn’t get regular assistance because they hadn’t been Illinois residents long enough. But he gave them the address of the emergency welfare office on the West Side.

It was a two-mile walk up Madison Street. Someone gave them a card with a number on it and they sat down on a bench, stared at the peeling green paint and waited for their number to be called.

Two hours later, a caseworker motioned them forward, took out blank forms and asked questions: Any relatives? Any means of getting money? Any assets?

Joe said he owned a donkey. The caseworker told him not to get smart or he’d be thrown out. Joe said he was sorry.

The caseworker finished the forms and said they were entitled to emergency CTA fare to County Hospital because of Mary’s condition. And he told Joe to go to an Urban Progress Center for occupational guidance.
Joe thanked him and they took a bus to the hospital. A guard told them to wait on a bench. They waited two hours, and then Mary got pains and they took her away. Someone told Joe to come back tomorrow.

He went outside and asked a stranger on the street for directions to an Urban Progress Center. The stranger hit Joe on the head and took his overcoat. Joe was still lying there when a paddy wagon came along so they pinched him for being drunk on the street.

Mary had a baby boy during the night. She didn’t know it, but three foreign-looking men in strange, colorful robes came to the hospital asking about her and the baby. A guard took them for hippies and called the police. They found odd spices on the men so the narcotics detail took them downtown for further questioning.

The next day Mary awoke in a crowded ward. She asked for Joe. Instead, a representative of the Planned Parenthood Committee came by to give her a lecture on birth control.

Next, a social worker came for her case history. She asked Mary who the father was. Mary answered and the social worker ran for the nurse. The nurse questioned her and Mary answered. The nurse stared at her and ran for the doctor. The doctor wrote “Postpartum delusion” on her chart.

An ambulance took Mary to the Cook County Mental Health Clinic the next morning. A psychiatrist asked her questions and pursed his lips at the answers.

A hearing was held and a magistrate committed her to the Chicago State Hospital.

Joe got out of the House of Corrections a couple of days later and went to the County Hospital for Mary. They told him she was at Chicago State and the baby had been placed in a foster home by the state Department of Children and Family Services.

When Joe got to Chicago State, a doctor told him what Mary had said about the baby’s birth. Joe said Mary was telling the truth. They put Joe in a ward at the other end of the hospital.

Meanwhile, the three strangely dressed foreign-looking men were released after the narcotics detail could find no laws prohibiting the possession of myrrh and frankincense. They returned to the hospital and were taken for civil rights demonstrators. They were held in the County Jail on $100,000 bond.

By luck, Joe and Mary met on the hospital grounds. They decided to tell the doctors what they wanted to hear. The next day they were declared sane and were released.

When they applied for custody of Mary’s baby, however, they were told it was necessary for them to first establish a proper residence, earn a proper income and create a suitable environment.

They applied at the Urban Progress Center for training under the Manpower Development Program. Joe said he was good at working with wood. He was assigned to a computer data-processing class. Mary said she’d gladly do domestic work. She was assigned to a course in key-punch operating. Both got $20-a-week stipends.

Several months later they finished the training. Joe got a job in a gas station and Mary went to work as a waitress.

They saved their money and hired a lawyer. Another custody hearing was held and several days later the baby was ordered returned to them.

Reunited finally, they got back to their two-room flat and met the landlord on the steps. He told them Urban Renewal had ordered the building torn down. The City Relocation Bureau would get them another place.

They packed, dressed the baby and hurried to the Greyhound bus station.
Joe asked the ticket man when the next bus was leaving.

“Where to?” the ticket man asked.

“Anywhere,” Joe said, “as long as it is right now.”

He gave Joe three tickets and in five minutes they were on a bus heading for southern Illinois–the area known as “Little Egypt.”

Just as the bus pulled out, the three strangely dressed men ran into the station. But they were too late. The bus was gone.

So they started hiking down U.S. 66. But at last report they were pinched on suspicion of being foreigners in illegal possession of gold.

Here’s What I Learned From Him

2016-12-01

Green Boats of Healing

Just heard he died today. I don’t know if he ever saw the story he inspired and I put in my book. I’m guessing that he did not. So I’ll put it here now. In tribute. With respect to his family. His friends. All of us who learned from him.

“Eating Our Desert First”
From Finding Work When There Are No Jobs.

He can’t speak Greek. So the second I got the Greek email from him, I picked up the phone and called.

“Why did you send me an email in Greek?”

“What are you talking about, Roger?”

“I just got an email from you. It was to me and a bunch of other people. It was in Greek.”

“Wait a minute. I didn’t send you an email. I’m not even on my computer.”

“Well, you better go look. Maybe it’s identity theft. Somebody is sending emails from your account. That could be serious!”

He started to laugh. I knew the laugh well. Countless days through almost a decade of building a business. In books they’d call him a mentor. In real life, you’d call him, oh I don’t know, I’ll use the name Paul. If I were to use the word mentor, he’d probably say something like, “What the fuck is a mentor?”

He kept laughing. But I was thinking. Can’t be too careful about privacy. Lots of people have been hurt by internet piracy. Millions of dollars stolen. This was serious. Why was he laughing?

“Let’s see here,” he said as he sat down at his computer. I might have heard a grandkid in the background. It was the cocktail hour. I do know the sound of a Manhattan swirling over the ice. “Look at this,” he said. There’s a message that went out that I didn’t send. Hmm. How about that.”

As he looked through his email I remembered that day in the big hotel ballroom. Somewhere in Florida, or maybe Dallas. Big trade show convention rooms all look the same. We were standing at the double doors in the back. Three or four hundred watching the Power Point presentation up in front. The guy in charge of getting all our customers was there in the back with us. My job was to keep those customers. Paul was the boss. In our march across the country to make sure our software replaced our competitors’ we were up against a company literally 10 times our size.

By the time we were done, at the end of the nineties, we had taken 75% of the market. That’s from starting with zero. Thousands and thousands of customers. We hung on to about 96% of them too.

But back in that big hotel meeting room, back when we were just starting, I remember what happened when those double doors opened up and wheeled in on two hand trucks came all the trade secret training and product specifications of our competitors. All of it. Totally confidential information that belonged to our competitor.

I looked at the boxes. Looked at him. I said, “What do you want me to do?”

Never will I forget what happened next. He looked at me. Looked at the boxes. Looked at me again and said, “Get ‘em out of here. Don’t even open a box. I don’t want to win that way.”

Turns out we did win, without opening those boxes. When we were done with the job, at the end of the nineties, he left the company and made it possible for me to leave as well. Possible enough for me to go start my own company. To know the pressure and the relief of making payroll myself.

Then he went on to some other businesses. Operated the same way he did the day he told me to get rid of those boxes. Worked hard. Did everything he was supposed to do to have a calm, financially secure retirement. Always working to win the right way.

Then the recession. In these times of hardship for everyone, he lost all of it. No complaints. Didn’t ask anybody for anything. Did nothing wrong. He lost it all.

So when I called him up worried that somebody could steal his identity on his computer, he just started laughing and said, “Roger, after what we’ve gone through? If somebody wants to mess with my computer? I’d tell ‘em to have a great day. I got nothing left to steal.”

Then I started laughing too and said “Good point.”

“It’s really,” he answered, “something that makes you kind of stronger, believe it or not. I ain’t saying it’s good. It ain’t good. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. In fact it’s pretty bad. But when it comes to things like somebody messing with my computer? I don’t worry about stuff like that. I tell ‘em, have a great day.”

He talked about his kids and grandkids. Taking care of his mother-in-law. The new place they were moving into. His wife was over at the new place with painters. Asked in detail about what I was doing.

I asked how his wife was doing.

He said, “Well, you know we were talking about it the other day. We have a lot of memories. A lot of memories. The kids, the grandkids, the family. She said to me, “You know Paul, I guess we just got to eat our dessert first.”

I was quiet. Then I repeated it. “‘You got to eat your dessert first.’ I don’t think I’ve ever heard it said better than that.”

“”Hmm” he answered. I asked, “I really like that line. “’You got to have your dessert first.’ That might be true of a whole lot of people. Do you mind if I write about this?”

“Go ahead Roger,” he laughed. “Have a great day.”

The Ghost of Wrigley Field?

2016-10-28

Am I the ghost of Wrigley Field? That echo of distant laughter you can almost grab on to before everything goes icy dark? Is that me?

Perhaps it would be best for you to decide. It is October again. When there is always more than what you see.

But where are my manners? I am Pastor John. And I walk.
Across the years, across the decades, I walk this patch of land, these celery farms and swamps near the shores of Lake Michigan. Before me, the Winnebago, Ottawa, and Miami people stopped here on their trails to better times. After me, when the man from Switzerland, Conrad Sulzer, built a home and settled in to stay, because he knew all about snowy winter winds, back when they named this the township of Lakeview, laid out the streets and lit the night with gas lamps, I was here too.

And I am still here now.

With wide rushing streets like concrete streams. Waveland Avenue and Sheffield, Addison and Clark Street. Mr. Weeghman’s baseball stadium, now cradling 42,000 swaying souls instead of the 14,000 in shirt, suit coat and tie gentlemen cheering on the home team. The home team then was the Chicago Whales. Then the Chicago Cubs moved from their original field on the west side of the city and in 1920, this green grass, white line diamond on the middle of the gritty gray city that was growing like a mushroom, became Cubs Park. And then in 1927, it became Wrigley Field.

But I jump ahead of my story. I’ve always done that. I suppose it started when the neighborhood children started calling me “Pastor Whatsnext.”

And I’ve been walking this land since long before there was even a glimmer of a thought in Mr. Charles Weeghman’s mind that there should be a baseball stadium here in the township of Lakeview, in what they now call Chicago.

Long before that frozen February ground was broken for what later became Wrigley Field, I was here on the very same land where the ballpark would be built.

In Chicago, everyone comes from somewhere else. I was born in a cherry blossom summer. A house my father built. We farmed endless acres of cherries right up to where the trail took a dip just past Fish Creek Wisconsin and down to the Bay Shore. They tell me I passed crawling and went straight to walking. So I walked our land, helping my father build and repair, wrapped in the scent of those cherry blossoms, the fruit like tiny, perfect red pearls from above.

Fish Creek made me into a walker and that made me curious.

So my father understood when letters from his brother in New York City, read around the fireplace one snowy winter night, spoke of the green fields of Mr. Olmstead’s Central Park. Grassland, trees and trails not all that different from the land that surrounded our cherry orchard. But this Central Park was planned and sprang up in the middle of the coal dust, yelling, throngs of people and buildings, this constant river of people and noise. Peace in the middle of chaos. That’s what Central Park sounded like. So I went. A steamer across the Lake Michigan. Walking and a train ride chugging into New York City. I saw the Park. Watched the sun touch the grass. And on Sunday afternoons, I saw the men play this game in an open field. Smack this ball with a giant stick. No limits to how far could travel. No boundaries of time. Just running around a diamond while everyone cheered and clapped. And there was something in the game. Something in the full-throated joy of touching each side of the diamond that was instantly familiar. It was as if the joy in the game had always been there.

And I remembered that joy on my trip home when the steam ship docked in Chicago. The Chicago River was even wilder than the streets of New York. Slower but deeper. Dirty and loud and brimming with eyes of men that were always asking, “Where’s mine?”

It was October. A day not all that different from today. The golden, orange, red autumn leaves whirling in a warm wind that still had undertones of a coming winter. I set out on the walk north from the river to Lakeview where my uncle was a Supervisor in Mr. Abbott’s pill company. My uncle and aunt had a tiny cottage just east of The Lutheran Theological Seminary, at the corner of Addison and Clark Street. The Seminary buffeting the music and the noise of the drinking bursting out of the bars on Clark Street.

I remember walking up Addison, and seeing my aunt and uncle sitting on their front porch. Seeing them stand, the expression of sorrow on their faces, and the song in my head was one of Mr. Stephen Foster’s. I heard, “Hard times come again no more” as if the song was a gift to prepare me for what was to come. And then they told me. During my time in New York, my father had passed. They told me it had been quick. They told me that not for an instant did he complain. They told me he was not alone. My mother was there with him. And before he had gone, he had bought her a small house in town so she would be among friends. He sold the farm. And finally, he had a message for me. They said he was smiling when he said his message to me was “Keep walking.”

That evening, after dinner, I walked thru the grounds of the Seminary. The noise of the Clark Street bars floating over the Biblical Studies. The children of the neighborhood running aimless in the streets and across the grounds of the Seminary.

It was a week of those after dinner walks that I began to feel it well up inside like one of Mr. Foster’s songs. I had what they said was a calling. I would stay at the seminary. I would become a Pastor. I’m not sure why. I had a trip up north to make sure my mother was safely ensconced in her new home in town. But then I came back. Turns out I was to keep walking, but the walking would all be on a small piece of land.

In the seminary, it was hard to read with that Clark Street noise. I knew the noise would eventually win and the seminary would be no more. But my eyes were on those children. Aimless and ragged. They needed something more than words. So it seemed only natural that I would introduce that same game of baseball I had watched in Central Park.

The parents first thought it strange. A young man studies to be a minister only to go playing a child’s game with a stick and a ball. The parents would tell their kids, “What’s next!”

The kids picked up the phrase. Mimicking the exasperated tone of their parents they’d call out “Hey Pastor Whatsnext!”

Then someone would take that stick, smack that ball up high into the heavens, where it might, where it could, go on forever.

And that’s when I’d smile, laugh, clap my hands and cheer.
The kids would watch me, they’d cheer too as the batter ran the diamond, the ball went on forever, and finally that cheer went on forever.

And if you listen hard at Wrigley Field; you can hear us cheering even now. The kids and I. Back where there used to be a seminary. But now stands Wrigley Field.

Am I the ghost of Wrigley Field? You decide.

She Took A Chance

2016-10-15

roger-and-maria-2
October 15. We picked the wedding date cause it was smack dab in the middle of our favorite month. Got married at a pot luck ceremony in the basement of what was then our church.
There was a lot of music.

There still is.