Royko’s “Mary and Joe, Chicago Style”



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


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?


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


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.

A Tree Dies in Chicago


This is Chicago. Where the cold grey October rain pounds streets soaked in blood. We kill people here. And we do it a lot. Giggling babies in their beds snuffed out by stray bullets pinging through the walls. Tired old working men on their front stoops taking a well deserved rest, slapped down by a 12 year old with no clue till this moment that firing an assault rifle ain’t like T.V. The old man’s blood dripping down the front porch steps he’d kept painted now for 40 years.

This is Chicago where a cloud like a tired and angry October sky is slapping the city into the darkest horror of them all: the belief that all this killing happens somewhere else. That it’s not in my neighborhood. Not my problem. It is something that just happens to those other kinds of people. The killing is somewhere on the other side of a wall that some slick talking bully says he will build for us. Selling protection the same way it’s always been sold. “Gimme some cash Mister Store Keep. Gimme some cash or maybe just vote for me and your store won’t burn down”

This is Chicago where the killing and the blood and rain all stream together with a river of talk. So what am I doing, being sad about a tree?

There it is on the right. It’s twin tree in our yard on the left. A pair of towering Christmas trees all year long. Pine needle protection. Home base to an ongoing chattering, busy, buzzy bird song that would always be there to welcome us home. Migratory birds to mark the changing of the seasons. Once a flock of Chicago’s famed Wild Canaries fluttered in for a visit. Darting yellow sparkles doing the business of joy.

Presiding over all this like gentle monarchs was the mourning dove couple we named Patrick and Louisa. Keeping watch across our fourteen years and still counting in the house. Their home was the tree, their descendants carrying on forward. Their ancestors going back to another Chicago. The house is over 100 years old. The tree was there for a good many of those years. As was the spirit of the mourning doves. Patrick and Louisa.

Till one day we all came home and the tree was gone.

The neighbor took it down. No clue why. We don’t talk much. And it was his tree. As much as a tree can belong to anyone. I can’t believe the tree was ready to die.

The list of bigger problems than the disappearing tree is too long to count. But the void. The shivering grey emptiness where the tree used to be—that strikes a familiar chord. It’s the same sick feeling in your stomach that you get when you hear that the blood street killing in Chicago is someone else’s problem. Someone else’s fault.

It’s all the same void.

There is a void now where the connection between the people used to be.

We still cry for babies or dying trees. But only in our neighborhood. Only in our yard.

Make no mistake, Chicago has never lacked for stone cold brutal segregation. Whether it’s rolling out expressways that divide neighborhoods, building towers that stack the vulnerable on top of each other, redlining like Papa Trump or a million moments of a child learning the hard way that there are just streets upon which you just do not walk. Our sins have never been far away.

But the October wind this year carries a sickly sweet cold emptiness. The tree is gone. The killing goes on. The wind blows empty. The void grows wider. Deeper. That which connects us grows empty.

Empty like the intersection of Damen and Addison, just a few blocks away. Anastasia Kondrasheva, 23 and full of smiling, young life. Riding her bike to work at the Harken Health Center up in Edgewater. Her work as a Health Coach.

The traffic light changes. The truck makes a right turn. The driver doesn’t see the bicyclist. The young girl dies.

The driver, physically unhurt but devastated by what just happened, is put in the ambulance and taken for treatment of an emotional wound that might never heal. The news goes out, at the Harken Health Center, where there is a work family, to friends and family, to the bicycling community, to all of Chicago. A memorial service is organized, and here we get a hint of what it will take to fill our common void, a service is organized for the corner of Damen and Addison, by people who never even knew Anastasia.

Three hundred people came to that service Friday night. The Chicago Police quietly diverting traffic while neighbors kneeled put down flowers and cried in the streetlight shadows. A “Ghost Bike,” placed on the corner. Ghost bikes are painted white bicycles that serve to memorialize a spot where a bicyclist has died. Where maybe the void grew wider for those who chose to think, “What does the accident have to do with me?”

Or maybe the Ghost Bike could start us down another path. Prompt us to strengthen the connections between us. Offer up a set of guiding principals to help us fill the void where the tree, the young woman, where all of us touched by the ripples of the emptiness live our lives. Riding in on the ghost bike come five principles, like lights on the handlebars, to guide us on our common way:

1.Tell your story. Channel the power of every person’s story. Never write a policy, make a plan or spend a dime unless you can name a person you will serve. Bring back the time when words mattered. Stories build highways and food pantries. Jobs and schools. Temples, mosques and churches.

2.Add Music. Find what flows between the facts. The fit. If you’re going to curb violence, let the whole orchestra play.

3.Communitize. Make community a verb.

4.Solve a mystery. Honor the space where that tree grew even if you don’t know why it’s gone. For young Anastasia, figure out how to make bicycling safer.
5.Practice Stewardship. Take care of something larger than yourself.

At the corner of Addison and Damen, in the drizzling rains of October, the spokesperson for Anastasia’s family said “This is everybody’s problem.”

Looking out my window to the gaping space where the tree used to be, I wonder how many believe that the killing rippling out to every corner of Chicago is everybody’s problem.

I wonder if there is even one single person who will read the five principles, and ask the questions:

What if this were a path to the belief that the violence is everyone’s problem?

What if we all saw ourselves standing in that river of blood?

Lake Street Dive Plays Chicago


You’ve never heard of Lake Street Dive? Drummer Mike Calabrese describes what they were aiming for in their music as “the Beatles and Motown had a party.”

But if you were part of the crowd last night as this Brooklyn based foursome lit up the Chicago Theater with their New England Conservatory of Music trained talent and road smarts, you’d swear that the likes of Charles Mingus, Dusty Springfield, Max Roach, Clifford Brown, Etta James, the Kinks, the Jackson Five and a bunch of Muscle Shoals sidemen were also going wild at that party.

And that’s before Freddie Mercury showed up for the encore and Lake Street Dive took one of his classics, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’—a song most musicians would not even attempt—and made it seem easy. Made it their own while not letting anyone forget Freddie for a moment.

Talk about Lake Street Drive and obvious place to start is lead singer Rachel Price. The phrase “force of nature” comes to mind. She’s where your eyes go first when the lights come up. She’s all over the stage, pumping her arms like a speed walker as she sings with a smiling earthy power and range that could electrify a small city. You remember that one time decades ago, seeing Janis Joplin, you think of Ella Fitzgerald.

Then you take a breath and this bass line that would make McCartney smile rises up. You hear echoes of James Jamerson, the unaccredited bass player in most every Motown classic. You hear bassist Bridget Kearney doing what the real greats of the instrument do—making it their own. Her range, precision, intelligence and pure muscle propels every melody. You wonder if she does hand exercises. Because anybody who can play the upright bass like that could probably crack a coconut in her hand without blinking an eye.

As you marvel at Kearney’s strength, a stage guy enters with a giant plastic blow up horse. Named “Steve.” Clearly, these are not musicians who take themselves too seriously. Their new CD is called “Side Pony.” The theme is being happy with who you are when you are just a little bit different than the crowd. Like Steve the plastic horse.

As Steve makes his exit and the band starts up again, you flash on the thought, who corralled that brass section in Nashville and hid them on a stage in Chicago? So you look again and yeah. No one is hiding. That’s one guy playing the trumpet. Mike Olson. When he’s not playing the guitar and the trumpet both in one song, he’s got a sound like a full brass section at the top of their game. The re-occurring thought through the evening was “I can’t believe there are only four people up there. When those four sing and play together it sounds like there are a dozen people on the stage.”

Not only a dozen people playing, but playing together. You watch Mike Calabrese, drums set up front to the right and facing center of the stage where he can make eye contact with his three partners. Calabrese plays the role of band leader with a rhythmic presence so strong that he doesn’t have to say a thing. He’s just making sure there is discipline to the enormous talent of his partners.

He plays the role of stage leader with his presence and his drums. Not the boss. The leader. There’s a difference. And it’s perhaps a key to what makes this quartet so extraordinary.

There is no one star here. They are all four so immensely talented that together they can be even greater than the sum of their parts.

You think about that for a moment. Imagining a world where it wasn’t about who’s in charge. A world where everyone could do what they do best. Share their talent. Share the energy that comes from that. Like the song says, “Rock the side pony!” Sing about what makes you different.

Lake Street Dive has their own very distinct and grandly crafted sound. They know where they came from. They have fun.

And if you listen to them, you will too.

The Dancer’s Knife Fight


IMG_20150801_121358574_HDR (1)The Dancer is recovering. I’m hovering. Her apple-sized cyst, wound around a major nerve, arteries, neck muscles, pretty much everything on the road from the brain to the rest of the body; the cyst is gone.

“We saved the nerve,” said Dr. Samant, still in his scrubs as he walked towards me in the waiting room after the uncountable hours of surgery had passed. My certainty, and I am certain of very few things, that this guy was the best, borne out in his smile has he sipped a well deserved Diet Coke on the hottest day of the year and told me what he had done and what that meant for the Dancer, That she still had her smile, still had movement of her left arm, that recovery and physical therapy time was different for everyone but that she was strong.

That night in the hospital room she played Bach for the healing. I left late in a steamy summer thunderstorm roar and came back a few hours later while she was watching the ferocious sun rise over Lake Michigan. An almost full day battling back the same clusterf— ck of administrative nonsense also known as our health care system that had made this a seven month journey from the time the mass in her neck had started setting off alarm bells. A health care system on its way to being fixed—but still needing work. Held together in real life by heroes also called “Nurses” –Andi, Michelle and Margaret–who kept amazing us with their care.

And now home. I hover, she rests, our thanks are overwhelming. God motioning to a Doctor named Scanlon, a surgeon who saved my life at age 13 and now with us in spirit, God saying—I hear all those prayers. Watch this one please. So thanks to those who prayed for the Dancer, Dennis, Suzie, Becky. Maria’s Mom and Dad, my Mom and spirit of my Dad—who I know was watching, our siblings and friends who sent good wishes,my buddy Bruce who made checking in a regular thing, the gorgeous flowers from family in Indianapolis, Cassandre for keeping us fed and fed wonderfully.

This morning we drove for coffee, (going for walks still a goal) wishing we could see Carly at Asado, but still being grateful we could go anywhere. Hesitating, and a little bit worried, about someone staring at the bandages where the drain was or the new scar, so we got a line ready just in case. The Dancer would point at her neck, nod knowingly and say,

“Knife fight. And you should see the other guy.”

Some Bright Morning in Lake Woebegone


imagesGarrison Keillor does his last Prairie Home Companion tonight. And across the great American landscape, circled around the 3.5 million radios in homes and cars, you just might sense a fading of the light as Keillor’s Lake Woebegone, the town that time forgot, goes dark.

Until, of course, the seasons change.

That’s when Keillor, called by some “our Mark Twain,” was at his summer wind spectacular best. When the seasons changed, he’d get recharged and the stories would tumble out in pictures so powerful you could feel the autumn leaves crunch beneath your boots. You could listen in as a snow woman and snowman spoke, you could be in the basement of the church, at the Sidetrack Tap or in on the planning of the big July 4th celebration.

And yeah. I know. If you’d never been to Lake Woebegone, all the references in the world wouldn’t draw you in, wouldn’t let you feel that dimming of the American light when Keillor steps away from the microphone, wouldn’t let you feel it in your very bones.

But if you listened over these past 40 some years. If you loved all the traditions like we did. If when you heard, “my sweet old someone, coming through the door” and then shouted out loud, “everybody’s here!,” if you were part of this family, you’ll miss it hard.

Till of course you read one of Keillor’s books, till you remember that you were part of that town, or even till you hear a song like this one. And you hear Keillor saying “It’s spring! It’s spring!”

And then some bright morning. . . .

Van Gogh’s Boots


VAN-GOGH-Boots-with-Laces-1886Look hard at Van Gogh’s painting of the boots and you begin to breathe in his weary leather sadness from across the centuries.

Boots on a walk through time.

The boots are pausing for a moment in the dimly lit gallery of the Art Institute of Chicago on a late Friday afternoon in spring. The crowds are a low background hum. There is only the sweat and leather of the boots breathing.

Like two sorrow-drenched soldiers resting side by side.

Time just stops. In the slump shouldered, beaten down rhythm of the resting boots there is every stinging slap suffered by the artist who saw himself as a failure. Never thought he was all that good. Painted his boots and his bedroom and called his own work ‘ridiculous.’

You want to tell the artist, “You were Van Gogh! It’s 100 plus years later. Now the whole world knows that you were Van Gogh. The world knows what that means.”

But the artist himself never knew what that meant. Never knew what he left behind. Never knew that he would still be here now.

Even now. His boots are alive. Come take a look.

Inspired by the soul of the artist, you board the Brown Line overhead train at Randolph just as the evening rush begins and at the next stop Chester gets on, A dusty, hollowed out shell of a man, swirling the grime and sorrow of the streets. The train jumbles north and a circle of space opens up around Chester, then people pull back.

Not just from the smell. His nerves force a twitching of his neck, then his shoulders roll, and then some sort of electric current of nerves shoots through his frame. A never diagnosed nervous disease. Could be Huntington’s chorea. But we’ll never know.

Because now when the emergency room ambulance guys scrape him off the street every 3 or 4 months, there is just a patch up job of whatever is bleeding that day. No real money left in the state of Illinois. Before the current Governor, there might have been a chance for Chester. But not now. He doesn’t have much time. And that’s the chant he rails out loud as the train continues north and people keep backing away. Chester sing-songs the lines, “It is so fine, but I know I don’t got much time.”

Used to be he’d ask for money. Now he’d forgotten that he needs it. Now he just joins in this family of strangers on the train and sing songs his line. “It is so fine but I know I don’t got much time.” And if you were to look at him, really look at him, you’d see he was wearing Van Gogh’s boots today.

Just turning dark, you leave Chester and get off the train at the Addison stop. Walking under the viaduct at Grace Street. It’s beginning to drizzle. But Richie has rolled out his dirty yellow sheet of foam on the sidewalk. Underneath the streetlight. He’ll be sleeping in the cold spring rain tonight. He is bedded in early. When your head is 20 feet from a stop sign, you don’t get a lot of sleep. So you start early.

With Richie, it started with the marriage. She was having way too much fun in the bars and he was staying home. But then came the cancer. Then the recession hit, nobody needed another leadership development trainer—no one really even knew what that meant. So Richie lost his job. The wife, the cancer and the job. Those were Richie’s three. He lost his apartment and next thing you know, he is sleeping on the street. And of course since the new governor’s been in office, there is no money for the homeless.

There are the cruel fantasies, like “Oh, he wants to sleep outside.” There are the shelters, where the screams of the unseen rip the heart out of anyone who tries to get out. Of course since the new governor came, most of them are disappearing too.

So there lies Richie, stretched out on the sidewalk on his foam mat, huddled under the army blanket issued when he served in Afghanistan. You see his shaved head at one end. And, as the drizzle turns to rain, you see sticking out of the blanket at the other end, you see a pair of Van Gogh’s boots.

You wonder if Richie’s crazy nights in the rain were anything like Van Gogh’s nights in the asylum. But what you see is Richie wearing Van Gogh’s boots.

Turning the corner your roof, your safe, warm home in site. Climbing your front porch stairs, the rain now coming down in sheets. Richie huddled under the viaduct, Chester will be riding the trains shaking for the night till he finds a stop where he can curl up in plain site and not be seen. You put the key in your lock, open the door, crossing your threshold you look down and see them. Just for one thunder cracking, lightning flashing moment in time . . . .

On your feet, you are wearing Van Gogh’s boots too.



Celebrating Mom’s Birthday!


MomRogerArizonaIt’s in history books now. And my Mom was there.

A young preacher from South Carolina named Jesse Jackson arrived in Chicago, to see blocks and blocks of brutally burned out buildings on the west and south sides of the city. You could still smell the smoke. It was the aftermath of the killings that ripped hope from the heart of the nation, when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy’s kids lost their fathers.

Long before there was any kind of Rainbow Coalition, or Operation PUSH, there was “Operation Breadbasket.” Formed by Reverend Jackson to get food to starving people; not people starving in a far off place, but right here.

There weren’t a whole lot of volunteers – much less women – from the northern suburbs of Chicago who raised their hands to offer their help. And by help, I don’t mean donations; I mean being there. Filling those boxes. Loading those trucks. Handing out the canned goods.

My Mom was one of those volunteers. Not a lot (pretty much not ANY} affordable housing in our little town. My Mom went to work on that. Summer camps where city kids could breathe fresh air. My Mom was there. Working.

Child of the last depression, as soon as she was old enough to talk, she did; asking her Mother once, “what is heaven and hell?”

Her Mother answering, “Heaven is where we go when we die.”

“But what about hell?” she asked her Mother.

“We don’t believe in hell.”

Mom was not too many generations removed from the red-faced Irish on her Dad’s side and the stand up straight and tall Germans on her Mother’s side. Those who made the long, gut-wrenching trip from the old country; those who enjoyed the drink that came most times at the end of a long working day.

Her father was a lawyer, in years of both feast and famine. I can remember sitting on his lap and snapping his suspenders. His rollicking laughter. His dream of being the guy who repealed Prohibition.

The Cheryl Wheeler lyric floats in here:

Child of changing times
Growing up between the wars
The Fords rolled off the lines
And bars all closed their doors

I can remember another kind of drink. From a silver thermos with a plastic red top for a cup. I’m sitting in the front passenger seat of our family’s VW bus. Mom’s driving. My brother and two sisters are in the back and we’ll be meeting my Dad down south in Virginia for a family vacation. Mom unscrews the top of the thermos, pours some of its contents into the cup and says, “Have some of this.” Coffee with sugar and cream stirred in, that to this day – some 40 years later – still tastes like wonder, like possibility, like…now that you are just about grown up and healthy, you can do anything you want to do.

It wasn’t always like that. My parents tried for five years to have children of their own; they had adoption papers signed at one point.

Then I came along, but from my first breath I was always tired. Low blood cell count. Couldn’t do a sit-up in gym class to save my life.

My Mom was there for that, too.

For the next twelve years she took me to every kind of doctor imaginable, trying to somehow figure out what the heck was wrong with her first kid – and having three more kids in the meantime. All that, and working at jobs that women of that time simply didn’t have. Not many women, especially women with four children, started their own businesses then.

But my Mom did.

My Mom picked up a guitar, partnered up with a woman originally from Louisville, Kentucky, and started performing an historical retrospective of Civil War songs at local gatherings. After her “Women of the Civil War” show came the aptly named “Chicago, Your Bustle Is Showing,” songs from the city’s really early days.

She became the musical director for the local Reform Jewish Temple. The fact that we were not Jewish might have given many women pause.

Not my Mom.

What religion we actually were, was always a pretty interesting question. Because the answer was always “all of them.” My Mom, raised a Catholic, enrolled us in pretty much every mainstream denomination as well as Christian Science. Then when all of us grew up and left home, she got her Doctorate in Religion from Drew University.

Oh…and the career as a therapist? That came before the doctorate. Her Masters degree in Social Work. The doctorate, she said, “was for fun.”

As was her book “Jewish Renewal in America” Then the second book, An Awakening Heart. An historical novel on Moravian women…that one’s still selling today. Add to that a new book on the way.

Like her beloved JS Bach, she was born in March. Most mothers don’t offer advice to their sons like “never listen to anything written after 1800 in the mornings.”

But my Mom did.

And in recalling that advice. . . .

I’m twelve years old…coming down the stairs for breakfast. My Mom and Dad are sitting at the breakfast table. I scoop some eggs out of the pan. Take my one piece of bacon, break off half of my sister’s piece and eat it right away – and a Brandenburg Concerto fills the house. As if there was a musical score to the secrets of life. A complexity born of infinite layers of tone, harmony, rhythm and grace.

That Brandenburg segues into another piece of my musical memory. It’s New Year’s Eve. Everyone’s asleep except my Mom and me. Staying up to listen to the Midnight Special on radio station WFMT. Pete Seeger sings:

My land is a good land
It’s a good land so they say

And finally a third piece of music. This one from church, just last week.

When we’ve been here 10,000 years
Bright shining as the sun
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun

I know lots of songs like those. So do my sisters and brother, so do her grandkids. So will her great-granddaughter and generations to come.

Because my Mom was there.

Happy Birthday Mom!