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.

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.