The Homeless Soul Road



I hear Jackson Browne sing, “The road is filled with homeless souls.”

How breathtakingly horrific it must be to grab your kids and just start walking. I think how their feet must hurt.

The choice is death or blisters on your feet.

The stunning loss of human dignity in the hopes of survival. I hear the Jackson Browne song as I’m getting ready to go do Saturday errands, “Now everyone must have some thought, that’s gonna pull them through somehow.” And that’s true. But they also need shoes. And food. These homeless souls on a trail of tears with blisters on their feet.

And I wonder if I’ve “left in for others, to be the one who cares?”

Jobs That Never Die



It’s just her now.

The two of them built the retail business together over 35 years. Now she counts the days since one of the nation’s most prestigious hospitals could not help him and he died.

She counts the days since he’s been gone and when the store is empty she cries.

He was the spine of the business. Back of the house. What it takes to do retail and do it really, really well. That feel for the buying that makes the selling possible. She was front of the house. Those hearty, smiling, hand clapping welcomes, as every guest in the store became a friend of the family. No monotone “Can I help you” here. She instead would greet the stronger with a warm and all encompassing “I’m here for you.”

It’s just her now.

The air conditioning sputters out. Street folks wander in the front door that she always keeps open. One grabs a piece of merchandise out of a customer’s hands and runs. Four hours later the cops come by. I ask some cops on bikes to look in on her.

The retail hours are long. We help with talking through hiring. Maria brings cookies—her bakery ministry. The crushing summer heat eases up for a moment as she rings up a sale and there is just the trace of an autumn wind coming through the open door into the store.

And she keeps going. Terrified she won’t make it, but she keeps the hours, fends off the suppliers he used to control and pours out thanks for those who walk in the store with even the smallest act of kindness.

What makes a job that doesn’t die? First, it’s showing up. It’s carrying on. And she does that in a way that would have made him both proud and relieved.

Second, it’s “practicing stewardship.” Taking care of something larger than one’s self. This little store in the middle of the sprawling, hard and often scary city that always has an open door. Even when it’s closed, it’s open. So a man from some far away country comes in, and buys a soulful amber necklace. And after the sale is done, she says to him, she with the job that will never die, says, “May I give you a crystal?” The man’s face goes puzzled but he says “Sure.” And she unlocks the display and grabs a small handful of golden stones. “Here,” she says, “this is the one I can feel. This one is for you. And today I’m taking this other one for myself. These are Golden Healer quartz. They enhance joy and peace. Hold a Golden Healer to connect with the light of the universe. Golden Healers clear blockages and imbalances for multi-level healing. Its energy is both powerful and soothing.”

The man holds the gift. He’s never believed in this kind of thing. But he is still for a moment and he can feel something. Something different. Something peaceful. He smiles and says “Thank you.”

And in that thanks is the stewardship, the taking care of something larger than her.

In that “thank you” is a job that will never die.

Aretha at Buckingham Fountain



It was hot in Chicago on the day Aretha Franklin died. Probably hot in Detroit as well. And I wondered if maybe on her way to go sing for the angels, Aretha stopped to sit for a moment, and took a rest, at Buckingham Fountain. One of her favorite places in Chicago.

Sometimes she’d go by herself. Sometimes she’d take her grandkids to play by the fountain. Sometimes she’d take a security guard.

Buckingham Fountain. Cradled in the Chicago skyline, water shooting up swirling and soaring just like Aretha did when she sang, Blessed by the rhythms of the gospel, the heat of the blues, the cool tones of jazz, the complexity of opera—the woman could sing anything. I wondered if she sat by that fountain and knew that it was time to go share that singing with all the other voices of angels across all time.

Because when Aretha sang, you didn’t just hear it, you felt it. When Aretha sang, you could feel the gut searing pain and the iron will to overcome. The yearning and the hope and the command and the determination. She gave voice to everyone who listened. When Aretha sang, she told a story.

And when Aretha told a story it was true.

Photo Credit: a

Carl Grapentine’s Gift



It’s so much more than the first voice you hear every workday morning over the past forty some years. This Gift.

Carl Grapentine, morning guy on Chicago’s WFMT is calling it a career. Friday is his last show. Last meeting of the “5:58 Club” called to order with his warm and cheery voice biding all of us rising up from dreams, “Good MORN-ing!” Just before the clock chimes 6:00a.m.

That voice now blended with an earlier generation of WFMT elders. Names like Norm Pelligrini, Marty Robbins, Ray Nordstrand and of course Studs Terkel. WFMT playing classical music with a wink and a smile. Never taking itself too seriously. Bach and Berlioz and Wagner and then Lennon and McCartney on their birthdays of course.

As a Lifetime Listener

I am 10, maybe 11, smelling bacon, breaking off a piece of my sister’s share. My parents sitting at the breakfast table. The darkness outside making the kitchen even warmer, reverberating harmony with the Bach, the mathematical elegance of the Bach as it merges with the poetry of the heavenly stories he’s telling. My Dad with his engineering mind and Mom with her lyrical soul. The Bach reflected in the family across the fields of years. That’s where Carl came from.

And then another family. My own. A smaller family. Where there was always room for Carl at the musical table. Across birthdays and especially holidays. Through all the years. It is unfathomable to imagine a Labor Day or a Christmas without his gift of musical guidance. The emptiness rises up with the question of whether the music will fill the void. You think “Of course it will.” And THAT is when the nature of his even larger gift became clear.

This larger gift was in the way he said goodbye.

He announced the retirement in February. Naming this last Friday in July as this last show. And now for the past few weeks or so, he’s done the math. Counted up the shows past and shows yet to go.

He kept us with him. Every step. Never faltering. In time with the rhythm of the heavenly clock, he showed us a classy, strong way to say goodbye. His gift wasn’t just to bring us the music. That would have been enough. But his gift was even larger. Even deeper.

His larger gift was to sing with us as we all waited for the music to go quiet.

His gift was to show us how to say goodbye.

Goodbye Carl. And thank you. Thank you for everything.

Sweeping on the 4th of July


Where did he get the broom?

Take a few steps off our front porch and walk ½ a block west on Grace Street and you’ll see him. Sprawled out on blankets in a pool of light underneath the viaduct that carries the roaring Metra commuter train up to the northern suburbs where I grew up but never made it back to once the city grabbed hold of my leg and said, “You’re staying here.” Chester the Viaduct guy. Shaved head peaking out of his sidewalk bed in every season. Quiet. Polite. Sometimes talks when there’s no one there to talk to, Nods when you pass but doesn’t ask for anything except maybe to be left alone. He’s there when the snow gets wild. When the rain roars like like some sort of message from the Bible. Don’t know where he spends his days. His blankets and whatever he can’t carry stored in a garbage bag up by the tracks.

Even his new broom.

Turns out the construction under the viaduct, the cracked concrete and the heat raised up an extra cloud of dust and grime. And as we passed on our way to Trader Joe’s for a few last minute July 4rh essentials, there was Chester. Sweeping his floor. Cleaning the house.

Then when we walked back, lugging our groceries he was still at it. Sweeping and dusting. Taking care of his home. While so many across our troubled, angry country dog whistled the racism, feigned their concern, jammed their boot straps and judgments on the throats of the most vulnerable. While so many strove to erase hope with control and deception, I remembered Woody Guthrie and his song, Remembered while Chester swept his floor and Woody’s song echoed through the viaduct, in just one line he gave back the hope.

That line where Woody sang “This land was made for you and me.”

The Wrecking Ball & The Song


The Chicago hospital is gone. Battered by the dangling iron wrecking ball, crushed and carted gone. Till all that remains are the shimmering waves of dirty gray heat, like a south Texas sun beating down right this moment on a converted Walmart store where America now stores children in aisles of shame and empty boxes filled with lost souls and stacked to the ceiling where the fans have stopped moving air and the kids have all cried every tear dry.

The Chicago Hospital, Children’s Memorial, is gone. But my Mom remembers. “You were four. You were very sick. Children’s Memorial was the best. But this was back when they didn’t let parents spend the night. That’s just the way they did things then. We had to leave you there overnight. That was hard.”

The Chicago Hospital is gone. What do I remember? Reaching back as far as I can, I remember sounds of wailing terror on the other sides of the walls. Do I really remember that? Or is it just that I sleep with the white noise of the fan, the air conditioner or humidifier most every night of my life? White noise to block out all the pain. All that white noise and the fact that my parents came back to the first rate medical facility and we went home.

Now home for the refugee children is the camps. Parents that don’t come back. And the classic cry of the abusive husbands of the world, “See what you did? YOU made me beat the children!” goes up as the fingers point.

There is no more denying that it exists. The proof is that the ruling party remains, defends the practice, and lets it go on. They let it go on. So there is no argument this time. No diversion will work. There is only good and evil. And if you have no connection, not a big one or a small one, to the separation of parent and child: put yourself in that Walmart. Breathe in. Smell the terror. Hear the cries. Send a lullaby out to those kids the camps.

The hospital is gone. But the lullaby for those kids and for their parents is in all of our hearts. Stop for a moment. Feel it? You remember. Still not sure? Go read what Laura Bush said. She said it perfectly. Listen for those kids. Sing that song of heart. You know the words.

Sing that hard times come again no more.

Songs From His Great Grandmother


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

Miles Davis. Still Here


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

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

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

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

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

Noel Safe and Strong



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

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

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

Telling us all to carry on.

One of the Pages Was “Hill Street Blues”


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

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

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

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

And how I am still listening for the rain.