Songs From His Great Grandmother

2018-05-28


Here’s Grand Nephew James! His Mom and Great Grandmother–my Mom. And some music that lives on. Honoring peace worldwide.

Miles Davis. Still Here

2018-05-26


He’s here. On his birthday. Miles Davis plays, Just listen. You’ll hear. Like honey golden brass poetry. Trumpeting tones beyond the spectrum of human possibility. Caressing the night with his horn.

Today green leaves of summer heat settled into Chicago. Neighborhood streets blissfully empty and still. Festivals and baseball games melting on into the night. Miles Davis telling stories of aching tenderness and dizzying hope and sadness and rage.

With the first hot summer night in Chicago comes the predictions of how many children will be shot down and die. Scarce comfort in the fact that the number is steadily shrinking. While the Bully in Chief stokes the fires with the dog whistle racism burning in the corners where there is no music.

But then all at once, a middle aged couple walking down their street right behind the Trader Joe’s at the beginning of evening, a cop standing and scanning the crowd at Millennium Park in the center of the city, a youngster walking through Garfield Park on the west side and a smiling old couple from Bronzeville, remembering the time they saw Miles play Chicago; they all hear from an unseen radio, the street corner symphony of Miles Davis on the horn.

All of them hearing Miles play the horn.
As if the music had answers.
As if the music had hope,

Noel Safe and Strong

2018-05-10

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When Noel died Monday, in Wales, the sun splashed orange, red and green tulips lining Michigan Avenue here in Chicago seemed to droop, lose their brilliance and cower back from the sun. And if you were to have even the smallest dollop of faith, you could smell the red roses, planted by Noel, alongside the red brick neighborhood church where I remember Noel sitting behind a table of used books that I immediately started straightening for sales, while Noel looked on amused, eyes twinkling, as I had the thought, here is a person that will always make a difference. Here is person who first makes me want to be like him; then even before I ‘ve finished that short thought, makes me glad to be who I am. Tough, like a rugby player tough. Smart like an architect. Funny and kind. He lived lives that spanned continents. I remember a line he once told me, “I got my ‘Dear John’ letter laying in the malaria ward in Southern Rhodesia. But I went. I went to her wedding.” Noel had stories. A rich, long life. And a laugh that echoes still in the flowers of Chicago where just one of those lives was spent.

I remember Noel and Fritz, a fellow elder of the church, engaging in spirited laughing discussions over coffee after church. Their respective Welsh and Swiss accents as think as ancient stone walls. Both understanding about ½ of what the other said (each would later ask me for a translation) but what was so wonderful was that it did not matter what they said! What mattered was that we were all together. What mattered was the joy.

In the very last sermon, the Pastor gave to the church, he told the story of going to a restaurant supply warehouse, at the beginning of his time at the church, to buy pots and pans for the church kitchen. Upon entering the warehouse, they realized the pots and pans were on a shelf at least 50 feet high. No one was around to help. So the pastor went off to find help. And when he got back, there was Noel, at age 70, laughing and hanging on to the very top shelf, 50 feet in the air, well in reach of those pots and pans. The pastor remembering thinking, “Oh my God. My first month on the job and I’m gonna be responsible for killing a member of my church!”
But of course Noel made the climb and landed safe and strong.

Telling us all to carry on.

One of the Pages Was “Hill Street Blues”

2018-04-02


David Milch, my friend Bill tells the story, would make everybody in the class at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop stone cold crazy. Everybody else would sweat their hearts out in the reams of fiction they’d bring to class taught by the Vonneguts, the Algrens, the John Irvings  or whoever the professor was that term. But not Milch. Milch would effortlessly toss a page or two together that would knock everybody out of their chairs.

One of those pages was the premise, the beginning of “Hill Street Blues.”

Milch took the premise to Steven Bochco who made it into something that was new to television. “Hill Street Blues.”

And when Bochco died this weekend at an all too young 74, I thought first about the rain. All the important stuff on Hill Street happened in the rain.
Me, Bugs, Larry and Stiggs would be sitting around my kitchen table, drinking beer, every Thursday night, listening for the rain to come as we watched Hill Street Blues. All of us, young guys, figuring out who we were and where we were all going and Hill Street Blues—characters, plots, themes and stories so richly drawn that they stayed with us. Even now. After all these years. Even now I thank Steven Bochco for what I learned from those stories.

And how I am still listening for the rain.

Chris Kennedy in the Elevator

2018-03-18

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You’re in an elevator in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. The doors gliding open and with a smile as authentic and bright as the sun, Chris Kennedy gets on and says, ‘Hello!’

The resemblance to his father, shot and killed when Chris was five, is so strong that you’re momentarily disoriented by the thought, “Why is Bobby Kennedy getting on the elevator with me in 1998?” But there is friendly warmth and a curiosity in Chris Kennedy’s eyes that puts you at immediate ease. Your company leases space in the Mart. Chris manages the building, which was once the largest commercial building in the world when it was bought by his family. You say something about how much fun and distracting it is to stare out the window of your office and watch the bridges over the Chicago River rise to let the masts of the sailboats go by. He laughs and agrees, says its one of the things he likes best about the place.

The elevator stops on four and as the doors open he asks your name, you tell him and he offers his hand and says, “I’m Chris. Pleasure to meet you.” We shake hands and wave as the elevator doors glide shut.

Twenty some years later, he’s running for Governor of Illinois. Busy guy. But he still had time to attend my aunt’s funeral this past long, sad summer. My Uncle had once worked for Chris’s Uncle Ted a long, long time ago. That he came by to pay his respect for my Aunt, a force of nature in her own right, meant a lot.

Now Chris is running for Governor of Illinois. Some say Illinois has gone past the point of being fixable. Illinois governors often end up in jail. Sometimes for just trying to steal stuff.

I get that the system is broken in a million different ways. That there is no perfect candidate. That it’s all about the money.

But I also remember a speech Chris’s Dad gave in Indianapolis from the back of a flatbed truck on the night Martin Luther King was shot and killed. It’s said that because of this speech, Indianapolis was the only major American city spared from the fires and rage that consumed the country that night.

I think about Bobby Kennedy’s speech –reprinted below–in Indianapolis. Marvel at how he said so much with so few words. I wonder how far the apple fell from the tree. And I believe; not far at all.

The speech follows.
____________________________________________________
Robert Kennedy
April 4th, 1968
Indianapolis, Indiana

“I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort.

In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.

For those of you who are black–considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible–you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization–black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.

Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.

So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that’s true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love–a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.

We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we’ve had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.
Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”

Three Winter Dreams

2018-03-02

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One

Something big and unnamable is coming. Like a train through a dark snowy night letting loose with a whistle that shakes the foundations of the whole forest. You don’t know what it is, but it’s coming.

You don’t know where you are. You do not remember where you live. Your feet crunch the snow. The stinging wet drops scrape your face. You are invisible to random strangers passing quickly in the blinding storm. In an unknown city, you are reduced to being only two wide frightened eyes. A parent pulls a kid close to stay out of your path. You pass a small house with an open window, you think about the insanity of keeping a window open in this storm. But from that window, cranked up really loudly and mixing with the snow, you hear music and a lyric:

Now the first days are the hardest days,
Don’t you worry anymore.

The moment you hear that music, a battered blue Plymouth, windshield wipers slapping down the snow, ambles easily over to the curb right next to you. The window cranks down, the warmth rolls out. He smiles and says, “Hey, good to see you back in town.”

“Bus just came in. Rough storm, huh?” you say.

“Well, I’m glad you made it. Got everything you need? I’m on my way downtown. Can I pick anything up for you?”

“No, no, I’m fine. I can run over to the store and pick up some soup, bread, and peanut butter for dinner.”

“OK,” he says. “Well, then we’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Thanks, John.”

“You bet!”

The snow lets up. You’re safe.

Two

New Year’s Day, just after sunrise. Around you, acres of a snowy city park are empty. Hum of traffic rumbling on the road called Lake Shore Drive that traces the line of the giant Lake Michigan’s icy shoreline. Last night you and your pal caught the midnight show at a place called the Earl of Old Town.

Stomping your feet to keep them warm, outside in the line to get inside. Then tables jammed together, this tiny little place. The stage a few slabs of plywood six inches high above the floor. The performer is a wild, grinning elfin bundle of energetic joy—railing on that guitar until even the memory of cold is gone, he makes that room so hot.

He sings:

Would you like to learn to dance?
Well I can teach you that …

His wife is at the table in front of yours. All the tables so close they touch.

I hear him sing:

And all the towns and people seem
To pass into a bad dream
The old steel rail, it ain’t heard the news
The conductor hears its song again
The passengers will please refrain
This train’s got the disappearing railroad blues

As his joy found its way into even the most frigidly cold corners of the Chicago winter night while his time with us on earth was winding down ferociously fast, his wife turned around and said to my pal and me:

“Could you guys please pass the salt?”

So my pal and I could proudly remind each other, tromping happily through the snowy fields of Lincoln Park after the concert, that we got to be on salt-passing terms with the wife of that singer of joy.

Three

Again something unnamable coming. This time something very, very good is just about to happen.

From the snowy fields you step inside the conservatory.

It’s like a zoo for plants. A tropical rainforest of green, moist ferns; trees’ winding branches under a clear glass bubble that keeps the snow and the winter and everything else outside. You’ve stepped from ten degrees of snowy cold into eighty degrees of steamy jungle vines.

Traveling deeper into the warmth, you find yourself knocking on the door of a kitchen. She opens the door and smiles; the smell of chocolate-chip cookies floats out. You hear:

I’m in love, I’m in love, but it’s easy to see.
Just what’s the matter with me.

Searching for love … could this be her?

*******************************

From Finding Work When There Are No Jobs
Copyright 2013. Think Different Press. Chicago, IL

Remembering Haiti

2018-01-13


Years from now, the sad eyed young woman in an orange dress, wrapped up against the Chicago cold in a blue goose down coat steps outside the Haitian Community Center and begins to walk to the water.

Every year the quiet ceremony remembering Earthquake Day, January 12, 2010, seems to get larger. 15,000 Haitians called Chicago home back in 2010. Thousands more do now.

In the Rogers Park neighborhood, where she lives, blocks from the Center, the huddled frozen souls of the day are are just beginning to fill the streets, the rising winter sun laughing at warmth. The woman offers up a tiny smile wondering if the tropical sun of the first 14 years of her life had warmed her bones enough to make it through all the rest of her coming winters.

Somewhere she remembers fragments of that day in 2010. The sweet, acid smell of death in the rubble of the streets. The pleading of the dogs. The piercing eyes of the rats. How she always seemed to be thirsty.

Seeing the giant ships steaming into the harbor. And then the clatter and confusion of all the different languages. Fire trucks that said Fairfax County Virginia, the honey toned drawl of the women and men inside. The sharp staccato voices of search and rescue crews with NEW YORK stenciled on the back of their shirts, a nurse wearing a blue baseball cap with a red C, just like Sammy Sosa, barking out orders in tones as flat as the mid western plains she had ridden through in the bus that brought her to this land of dancing snow.

Truth told, she’d often giggle when the snow came. Something about the snow she just didn’t quite believe,

If you were to ask her right that moment how she got here? How she made it when so many thousands did not? She’d never be able to answer. Because she really didn’t know. So much of the months that followed after the day in 2010 being blank. So much she didn’t know.

As she walked down to the water, the icy steam from the giant Lake Michigan rising on that future January 12, she remembered her Grandmother back in 2010.

First the earth began to tremble, the beams of the old hotel came down crashing, her grandmother trapped, her ancient Caribbean eyes still strong looking head on into the very soul of the little girl gripped in fear and saying to the child: “Always remember child, you were loved. Always remember you were loved.”

Now at the shore of the Lake. Back to her present time. She brushes snow off the bench and sits down. Today she will not be at work. Today her kids will have a substitute teacher.

A teacher. How can a woman with so many holes in her memory be a teacher?

The answer is that the drawings from the kids on her refrigerator at home, the notes from parents, and the smiles on the kids face when they come into her room in the morning, little kid sighs of safety, all of those things tell the story of what kind of teacher she’s become.

Her, a woman who still can’t remember so much.

A blast of icy wind swirls down across the beach from the north, and she digs out of her pocket a journal and a golden pen. She remembers the music played at the ceremony. Strange music. Not Haitian at all. A piece called Cavatina. But something happened when she heard it. Something shifted inside.

She looks at the pen, puts it to paper, remembers the music and begins to write. She begins to tell her story.

“My grandmother’s name was Elizabeth.  

She wore a ring speckled with real gold.

And sometimes after dinner, we’d be sitting out on the porch,

I’d hear the sound of the wind in the palm trees—and she’d let me take a turn

wearing that ring.”

 

Excerpted from Finding Work When There Are No Jobs 2013. Think Different Press. Chicago, Ill.

Those Cornerstone People

2018-01-06

Those cornerstone people of your life. Do they ever really pass?

Today is a sparkling. sunny cold Saturday afternoon. Stepping inside the Women and Children First Bookstore in Chicago and the presence of my Aunt Jean, who passed this past year comes filling the room with her own smiling sounds of delight. You can hear her applauding to be back here in this room full of books and curiosity and conversation. She is having simultaneous conversations with everyone in the room. The music is Otis Redding singing “Change Is Gonna Come.” He belts out “I was born buy the river, in a little tent. And just like that river. . . “

And I remember when I did the reading of “Finding Work When There Are No Jobs” at this store.

After a day of massive publicity, including a TV appearance. And maybe 9 or 10 people showed up. But one of them was a woman who said she really liked the book, but couldn’t afford it. So Jeannie stepped in and bought it for her. That’s Jeannie. Then back to today. Jeannie back in her bookstore. The sun shining like hope. The books like a rainbow of possibility. Right this moment. Here and now with Jeanie’s presence. Talking books.

Christmas Moment #2

2017-12-23

Danny Ray Suitcase perched on the balls of his feet. 3rd bench on the left in Millennium Park off Michigan Avenue in Chicago just before sunrise on a coming cold morning.

All the benches empty except for Danny Ray, his 5 battered suitcases and whoever it is he’s speaking to that the rest of us can’t see. Flushed red face and distended gut hint at some kind of medical malaise that will never be treated. Some kind of pain that will never be soothed.

Danny Ray’s bench is in the shadow of the giant city Christmas tree. The park itself rivaling any city park in the world. Visitors from across the globe. All with their own street corner symphony. Laughing children, bright eyed lovers—her arm hooked through his—and the elders who walk remembering when this treasured park used to be a swampy railroad yard. The place where a train called ‘The City of New Orleans’ would pull into Chicago chock full of dreams not all that different than those of the teenagers looking up for a moment from their phones at a giant silver sculpture named ‘Cloudgate’ that everybody calls ‘The Bean.’
It’s cold, so people don’t stay in the park like they do in other times, they’ll toss lunchtime trash in the bins and keep walking while Danny leaves his suitcases and rummages the bin for food. The swelling of the crowds from Christmas builds through the day.

Four blocks west in the lobby of the Daley Court Building fronting Picasso’s gift to the city; a south side choir is signing about Jesus with a power and a beat that shakes the foundations of all the big buildings.

While in the plaza a German Market has popped up and you can smell the bratwurst and onions, taste the hot chocolate or hot apple cider walk past the sales of all the Christmas ornaments and scarves Aunt Martha would love.

Night coming all too soon. The shoppers and workers departing. Danny starts to rope together his suitcases. Security in the park. They don’t pay him no mind in the light of day. They barely see him. But it’s a different story at night. Packed up now as night settles in, Danny heads out to Michigan Avenue and touches one of the white, concrete barriers that now ring most public gathering places and keep them safe from people who want to drive cars with bombs into crowds.
Danny starts traipsing north. Checking garbage bins as he goes. Still having that conversation with himself. Where he sleeps will depend on what he finds, on who is near and how well he can make himself invisible. He’s been on the streets for two years now. He’s been in the shelters. But sometimes he forgets where they are. He remembers one that had knives. Lots of knives. And so he only goes to shelters if he can find one without the knives. One where they won’t call him crazy.

Danny rolls across Randolph Street, hears Jimmy the Bird crying, “Hey brother? Got a dollar you can spare?” Jimmy sees Danny and says, “Hey my crazy talking friend, Mister Suitcase man. I got me a pizza! I mean it is hot, it is sausage and it is untouched. And this being Christmas my brother? You and I gonna chow down on this thick crust baby with pleasure!”

So Jimmy and Danny set out walking north then east to a patch of concrete under Lake Shore Drive where Danny would sleep that night.
“Merry Christmas my brother,” Jimmy says to Danny Ray Suitcase.

Jimmy puts the pizza box on the concrete, opens it up, and what happened next in the 30 degree cold under that highway in Chicago with only headlights for stars is something I really can’t explain.

What happed next was that the pizza was still warm. Cheese melted, steam rising warm. “What the. . . .” Jimmy stares wide eyed at the pizza but doesn’t’ finish. The smell of that pizza was so all consuming that he just has to take a bite. Then Danny Ray does too.

And just for that one Christmas moment, Danny Ray Suitcase smiles.

Christmas Moment #1

2017-12-21

The bicycle mangled into a pretzel splayed out across Southport Avenue just in front of the Jewel Foods Store. The rider on his back on the ground. Tucked into an emergency blanket trying to raise his head from the concrete. Young guy. Dizzy. The sirens wailing in the distance. Cars slowing down from both directions. Because standing guard over this kid there is this cop. He is directing the cars with the beams of his flashlight. Slowing then guiding cars from both directions. Away from the kid on his back in the street. The cop setting a pace, a rhythm with the beam of his light. No big thing, he’d tell anyone who’d ask. This is what he does every day. Till you look at his face for just one real holiday moment and you see it. You see the cop look at the kid on the street. Between every single car he’s directed to glide safely by. And you see the look the cop gives the kid. The look that says this is my watch. And while you are here, while you are in my charge, there will be nothing that will hurt you. You will be safe. You will be just fine.

And what happens next is that all the larger troubles of our common world, just for a moment fade away. The fire on the flames of divisiveness, the poisoning of our planet under emergency blankets of denial and flat out lies, and the cruelty to the most vulnerable among us in our self righteous sneer of “I got mine. Why can’t you get yours?”—-it all just fades.

As that one cop guards his charge, all those larger troubles fade for just a moment and just for that one golden moment . . . you hope.