Thanksgiving Still Alone

2017-11-22

Green Boats of Healing

I could do Thanksgiving alone. Lots of people do that.

Hanging up the phone, I could barely remember why she cancelled. Something about “needing space.” But I was already getting ready to be a frozen turkey dinner tough guy. Remembering, from experience, that a shirttail doesn’t work when you pull the hot tin tray from the oven.

There really wasn’t anyone to call. It was Wednesday. Thanksgiving was tomorrow. I had already begged off on invitations from my two aunts because I had expected an out of town guest. And it wasn’t like I had a phone book full of friends to call. Or even a scrap from the corner of a phone book page.

This was back when people used phone books. A different time. Back when Chicago was a grid of streets and alleys colored only in history and shades of gray. Especially in the slippery shadow winds of November. Not like today when rainbow flowers spill out of the dividers between lanes of traffic and thousands upon thousands of trees have been planted.

Back then. The very late 1970’s. Chicago was no longer the brooding black, railroad cross road muscle of manufacturing soot. The air had lightened to gray. There was a woman Mayor. A tough Irish lady named Jane Byrne had electrified the city by actually winning. Instead of stacking the souls of poor people straight up into the sky in housing projects, she was going to go spend a week in a project. Cabrini Green. Just over the line that marked where I felt safe to walk. I didn’t know what I thought about her moving in to Cabrini Green for a week or however long it was. But I knew it was different. There was a sense that something was just about to happen in Chicago.

Late that Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving, more than anything the city felt deserted. As if all the people had somehow been sucked into airplanes, like the one she would not be on, and blown out to Grandmother’s houses over a million different rivers and woods.

Best way to make sure I was ready for my coming Thanksgiving alone was to go for a walk. Having come from a family of walkers, I pretty much believed that going for walk was the way one got ready for anything.

So in the early grey glowing twilight long ago, I set out into the empty streets and sidewalks, rounding first the school where I was a special education teacher. It had only been a few hours since we had closed up the education shop early. But people need touchstones when they walk and back then the school was mine. The school was one of the beating hearts of a neighborhood called Uptown. Back then, there were also streets in that neighborhood that were best not walked by all. But I had learned those streets trailing the guy who had hired me to be a teacher. His name was Pat. He started the school up in the late sixties himself. He started it as what was then called a “Free School.” But as the neighborhood and the needs changed over the years, it became a special ed school. The thing I loved about a classroom of 25 kids, teaching all subjects, was that in special ed it was all about the kid first—and not the subject. So if a kid started bouncing a basketball in the middle of social studies, I could coax the dribbler into a game of catch and then lead us all back to social studies as the ball flew back and forth. I didn’t have to worry so much about rules.

Most important was that school didn’t end at the walls of the classroom. Sometimes when kids didn’t or couldn’t show up in the morning, I’d follow Pat east on Montrose Avenue, turn left at Beacon, run to the back of a building while Pat started ringing doorbells. And then as the kids came rushing out the back door, I’d corral them and we’d all trudge back to the school.

But on that long ago day before Thanksgiving as I walked east on Montrose, crossed Clark Street and looked north into those very same streets, even they seemed somehow deserted. As if a lonely tumbleweed could go blowing through. No sign of any of my kids.

Still not dark, I wasn’t yet ready to hole up alone for the holiday in my little yellow kitchen with the round table. So I kept walking towards the lake.

When all else fails. Keep walking towards the water.

Walking alone would be good practice for being alone. I was still glad I hadn’t attached myself to some gathering or another. The only thing worse than being alone was being alone in a crowd.

But I could do Thanksgiving alone. Lots of people do that.

There was plenty of beer, football games, food I didn’t know how to cook. Frozen dinners that were no problem. This was back in the time when a person could hum songs with lyrics like, “I have my books, and my poetry to protect me. I am shielded in my armor.” And those were brand new thoughts.

Still walking, almost to the Lake, I turned right on inner Lake Shore Drive. And that’s when I saw him.

As the last of that grey light was just about to fall, I saw the bright red and white checked shirt, like a walking beacon of light, underneath the open gray raincoat. Walking alone. Just like me.

It was Studs Terkel. Of course I knew who it was. Every single person in Chicago would know who it was. I had grown up in a house where Studs Terkel was always on the radio. I had to say something. We were the only people on the street. I had to say something. And besides, even though I had never actually spoken to him, I now actually had a real, honest to goodness connection. I took a deep breath.

“Good afternoon or evening Mr. Terkel.”

“Well good afternoon young fella. What brings you out on to these streets today?”

“Oh just walking.” I told him my name and said. “I’m a teacher. I work at the Southern School. Pat hired me. I saw you come in once for a Board Meeting, but we never met.”

“Ah a teacher!” he smiled in the deep warm gravel of a voice I had only heard on the radio. And if Pat hired you, you must also be a good teacher. Pat’s in my book “Working” you know.”

“Yes sir. I know. My copy of the book is very well read. And thank you sir. I guess I’m learning. Schools over for the holiday now. Kind of empty out here.”

“Ah,” said Studs Terkel. “Empty? No. Keep listening. It’s not empty at all. Especially for a young teacher. You just keep listening young man. You just keep listening.”

The exchange took 5 seconds. It was more years ago than I care to count.

But I can tell you that even after all these years I still remember how good that frozen turkey dinner tasted.

And how not for one moment that Thanksgiving did I feel alone.

“Bent Dead In Beloit”

2017-11-19


Finishing Bent Dead in Beloit is like finishing a slice of pizza that makes you first think you are in oregano and tomato sauce heaven.

Then something happens.

With eyes closed and smiles of sausage and mushroom dreams, you remember why you are so full. You didn’t have a slice. There was a whole pizza pie here.

Bent Dead in Beloit is the whole pizza pie. It’s flat out entertaining. Infused with an ironic affection for the people and the place of the story. You read this book and you find yourself entertained by a character eating tater tots. In this book, there is a cat who is more interesting than most humans in most other books. In this book, there are plot twists you won’t see coming. You read this book and you appreciate the fact than you are in the hands of a master craftsman.

But what makes the book go from slice to full pizza pie is something more. The author, a distinguished professor of English, has spent a lifetime surrounded by literary giants. He’s guided countless young minds to answer questions like “What was Wallace Stevens talking about?’ Or exclamations like “Oh, that’s what Hemingway meant!”

I was one of those young minds. Joined in community with other lovers of literature. Wanting to be a writer. I really didn’t know what that meant. But I knew I wanted it.

I remember, not long after leaving Beloit College, sitting at the grave of Thomas Wolfe in Asheville North Carolina and thinking, “with writers this magnificent, why bother? Hasn’t everything worth saying already been said? Who am I to presume I can write?”

Those questions came back to me reading this book.

Because running just under the surface of this quiet, fun detective story were some very true messages on friendship, on deception, fantasy and what it means to be part of a community.

There is no instruction book to life. But if you’re a writer or a reader, you are a member of a larger community.

And if what you write is true, not factual, but true, if someone reads it and listens to your story; then I have my answer to the questions posed at Wolfe’s grave. We in community keep telling and listening to stories because that’s who we are. That’s our community. At our best, we can all tell and listen to stories that matter.

Professor McBride has spent a lifetime in our community.

In Bent Dead in Beloit, it shows.

Patriotic Songs

2017-11-09

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On the first cold, gray November day between the up and the down escalators in the Food Court of the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago, there is an empty space where the sign to enroll in the Affordable Care Act used to hang. Beneath the sign, behind the table sat two people. Navigators. They helped people sign up for a chance, first chance, maybe only chance to be healthy. Now that’s all gone. The pretense that we are one nation under God, cracked like a mirror with a gaudy cold frame. Healthy is a privilege. Not a right. The sneering dog whistle message underneath it all. Even when spoken in soft, baffled tones is “I got mine. Why can’t you get yours?”

I sit down to eat, a little New Orleans Chicken and Rice. And a Marine Choir lifts up disciplined voices in “God Bless America.” Instinctually, I look up from my Kindle and my chicken, poised to swell with quiet pride. But then I catch a glimpse of the bare space where the ACA Sign up table used to be. Yes I know it’s not gone, but its been maimed. Just like the man right outside in the cold, bent at the waist, styrofoam cup shaking like a death rattle rhythm. It’s been maimed.

The Marine Choir sings of mountains. But I can hear other songs rising. And I silently cheer.

The love for the song rising up and out by that transgender victory in the Virginia State House. By the loss of that guy in New Jersey who wondered if a woman would be home from the historic Woman’s March in time to fix dinner. And then thought that was OK.

I silently cheer for the new Mayor of Helena, Montana. The Liberian refugee. The governor’s of Virginia and New Jersey.

The pride in country starts to come back. If only for a moment. I silently cheer thinking about other songs and poems, other winter days, like the one about when Woody Guthrie moved into the Beach Haven Apartments in Brooklyn owned by slumlord Fred Trump.

In the empty space where health care was once for everyone. Not just the rich. In that space, I hear echoes of Woody through the ages.
Getting stronger through the songs. I can hear those songs.

And the pride starts to grow again. One nation. One people.
One pride in the music.
One quiet, strong cheer for the songs.

Cubs Across the Years

2017-10-19

You think it’s just about a baseball game?

A moment ago the Cubs journey to win it all just got stopped cold. And I remember back when we were young guys, my friend Larry and I in a late September, near empty Wrigley Field watching Andre Dawson throw a man out at the plate from the right field wall, his throw like a supersonic rainbow and I thought “There it is. There’s our World Series. Pretty cool. Right?

If you think it’s just about a baseball game, then walk through last night’s game. The team, scratched, limping, bleeding somehow came together and they won. Forget stats and money and marketing malarkey. See that game and you see heart. Beyond words. Just heart.

This was my Grandfather’s team. So of course it’s mine too. The love spans the generations.

We can listen to the Steve Goodman song, and dig down a bit now to know that we’re not losers anymore. We all won the World series last year and this year we were still standing in October when pretty much everyone else was sitting down. We can listen to the song and hear the rhythm of the game across the years. Another spring. The summer nights on the radio. The dancing autumn lights of October.

And the liberating revelation that our world needs so deeply now: just because you won, does not mean that I lost.

Tonight in Port Arthur

2017-08-30

joplin-janis-memorial

Port Arthur Texas? They had giant oil rigs. And it was her hometown. That’s all I knew about the place back then

I was a kid, sneaking through the lush, dark snapping bushes that surrounded an outdoor concert venue north of Chicago because she’d be singing that night. And I’d heard things about the way she sang. Tonight backed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. And they were hometown guys. So we knew there’d be some reason to be there. We didn’t know that it would be her.

Then she began to sing. And the world shook. Not having the words at 16, I shook too. This wasn’t just the blues or rock and roll. This, I learned across the decades, was a set of songs that told the story of pain. And because she could sing about that pain, she could somehow capture and hold it and make you believe you’d be strong again.

Nobody sang pain like she did.

Touching what’s most terrifying, bleeding red raw and alone.

Janis found what hurt most. Like tonight. In Port Arthur. As the water rose to the top of the cots set up in the evacuation center. As Houston wept. As the country got quiet.

As the first responders, the neighbors, the military, the cops, firemen and all those who do helicopter rescues from roof tops at night in the rain; as they all left us dazzled.

As our common connection to this national tragedy rose to the surface. As the water kept coming, as the years of recovery ahead flashed in the empty moments of waiting that make up so much of survival, as the water rose in Port Arthur—that home town woman faced off against our common pain.

And when I listed to her tonight, I hoped they were listening in her hometown, in Port Arthur.

I hoped they heard her music standing up to all that pain

Dad Fights a Fire

2017-08-22

Glenarvon

That red dirt, green woods, wet summer smell. As if Wolfe’s soft, stone smile of an angel had come back to offer up a friendly nod and say “Good morning. Got a story here for you.”

Again that red dirt smell. And I’m no longer trudging, shoulders slumped, down my city street to work.

That smell and I am suddenly bright eyed and curious young and strong, just kicking up sunshine. Laughing. Walking the farm with my Dad. Who would have turned ninety today.

We were walking on the day after the forest fire. He was telling me what happened. How the woods in the far corner of my Grandfather’s farm had just started to burn.

The men all went off to fight the fire. My Dad joining his half brothers. My Uncles, they had all grown up on the farm. Dad grew up just outside that big Yankee City in Illinois. What did he know about fighting a fire? Firemen fought fires. Dad went downtown to an office every day.

But of course Dad was going. He had to go do his part. That’s who he was. Whether the fire would turn out to be a raging inferno toppling trees. Or maybe more like a matchstick that singed a little grass, Dad would go. He was really, really good at simply doing what was right.

So he went and came back.
Dad always came back.

This time drenched in the grey ashes and hard, hot work of putting out the flames. Dad was laughing with the rest of the men. That laughter that comes after the fear is gone.

They all stripped off their blackened shirts and jumped in the swimming pool. You could almost see the steam rise from the water, they all carried so much heat.

There was yelling and stories and laughter. So much laughter. Now that the fire was gone.

So when that red dirt smell came this morning, back in Chicago. I knew where it came from. That was Dad. The guy who went off that day to fight the fire. To go do his part. To do the right thing. And to then come home.

And to make all of us who came after him so quietly proud.

Jeannie Always Came In Singing

2017-07-20

I knew she’d be there. The church service had started. The congregation had risen, turned to the correct page in the hymnal, lifted their voices to sing and just then the doors to the sanctuary opened, Jeannie, smiling as always came in singing. Didn’t need a hymnal. She already knew the words and the music. Jeannie came in singing. Found her place in the pew. And the most ancient of hymns became new.

Being greeted by Jeannie was like having one’s own private symphony. My Dad was her big brother. Family stories describe Jeannie as being somewhat like her mother. A grandmother gone before I arrived. Grandmother Edith, my Dad would tell me, didn’t see very well. So when she’d walk down the street, she’d sing out a “Hello!” to everyone she encountered. Jeannie greeted the world with that same joyous hello. But with Jeannie, ‘hello’ was just a start.

In time compressed to fractions of seconds, Jeannie’s hellos would wash over you like an orchestra building up to burst into the chorus of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy.’ The music of her greeting in rainbow colors. A joy that left words far behind and spiraled up in harmony, in rhythm and song into places only music goes.

And this was just the part where she said hello.

When she greeted my Dad—they didn’t get to see each other all that often—they’d stop right in front of each other, toss back their heads, taking in the very full measure of each other, their smiles would unfold like golden summer mornings, and there’d be an almost primal humming of joy from Jeannie, exploding into a shared laughter from the both of them. This was a brother and a sister who could make the heavens sing with the sound of their greeting.

Jeannie, Uncle Don and Paul, Elinor and Blake, arrived in Chicago back around the same time I finished school and settled down to start growing up. Their screened in front porch became, through the years, a center of my world too.

Whatever the heartache, there was always that front porch. Living and dying. Becoming part of the fabric of the city. Love found, fumbled, lost then finally found for keeps. Across the golden summers, promising springs and orange and red splendored autumns; there was always that front porch. On that front porch, when Jeannie came in singing, everyone—and there are countless numbers of us who sat on that porch– everyone swirling in the Haider orbit had a touchstone to come home to, gather strength and go out and face the world again. Don’s laughter echoing down the shady street. Jeannie smiling, eyes bright, adding to whatever story was being told by anyone, making sure that the important parts would never be lost.

Don had worked for Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, served as Chicago’s Budget Director, then Professor at Northwestern, and became one of Chicago’s most respected voices. The go-to guy when you wanted integrity, intelligence and honesty.

Jeannie’s job was, in the words of the poet Mary Oliver, “loving the world.” And no one ever did it better.

When your job is loving the world, what you do, is of course important. But tasks, titles or labels pale in the face of who you are. When your job is loving the world, you can somehow connect your healing heart and soaring soul to that which is inevitable, that which is eternal. That eternal song that plays just when you need it the most.

Like just the other day. We had stopped by the house to check in with Don. A bunch of us on that front porch. Telling stories. Remembering.

And that’s when it happened.

Don was telling the story. There was a lot of laughter. He had just about arrived at the best part of the story; when a shaft of sunbeams opened up from behind the clouds, and straight on direct into Don’s face. All of us saw it. His face lit up as if warmed by the light of ten thousand suns. All of us there that day saw it. And if you had been on that porch any other day, you know that you’d see that sunlight, feel that warmth as well as we did. Jeannie still loving the world.

Anther hymn, another story, another memory. That pain of missing her alongside of the warmth of that sun on your face too. Listen hard. She’s singing.

Jeannie always came in singing

Spiderman at the Best Greek Diner

2017-07-04

sam-george-s-restaurantSpiderman’s bright eyes and blonde crew cut just above the tables. Mom and Dad right behind him. When it’s breakfast at S&G’s, the smell of bacon and coffee and skillet meals like art and you’re hungry because everything is good. It’s after the rush, a quiet summer holiday morning, Spiderman drawing smiles from every table. Mom and Dad are regulars, Johnny motions to the back room and tells Mom and Dad to sit anywhere they want. Everyone is welcome at the S&G. Hospitality as natural as breathing.

Spiderman scanning the room after he settles on the pancakes. He locks into the round table in the corner and starts pulling on Dad’s sleeve. At the table, four young members of Chicago’s Finest, fresh faced young guys fueling up for a day that could include literally anything. You wonder how many years since these officers were Spiderman’s age. And it’s not all that many.

Dad finally relents; Spiderman pulls his facemask over his head. Now in full dress Spiderman uniform. Sharp like the creases in the young cops blue short sleeve shirts.

Approaching the table, the four cops all put down their forks and coffee cups. Smiles beaming like summer morning suns.

“Hey Spiderman!”

“We’re glad you’re here Spiderman! You gonna help us today?” Which draws a vigorous nod from Spiderman. Each of the cops reaches out to fist bump Spiderman.

At that table, unlocked if only for a moment, what it’s gonna take to get through the shift, through the danger, the temptations, through cleaning up what the rest of can do when we are at our absolute worst. Through running towards the horror when the rest of us pause or run the other way. At that table is the moment  that starts the wisdom of the streets.

Spiderman talks to heroes.

The cops, and anyone who cares to listen, hear the start of a summer day, like Springsteen sang, they hear “The fireworks are hailing over Little Eden tonight” and of course nod with someday weary smiles when Springsteen sings,

“The cops finally busted Madame Marie
For telling fortunes better than they do.”

Spiderman takes Dad’s hand, walking back to the table, looks over his shoulder.

His heroes are still there.

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.