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!

Trump Empties Out Chicago


dow moonStreetlight spilling down through the basement window, splayed out on the polished wooden bar and framing the forearm stamped with the faded boxy lettering that marked the ancient man forever a 13-year-old boy out of Auschwitz Birkenau.

He’d been dead for years. Uncle Sol. So why was I not surprised to see him here today? In the bar. Here in Pilsen. Why now? On my last trip to Damek’s tavern.

Spring rains and winds blanketing Chicago, the winds blowing so much harder and constantly every day now that President Leader Trump had sent out the word that we humans have nothing to do with the changes in the climate. That word came the very first week of the presidency.

And there were successive Words that were broadcast from Leader Trump pretty much every week since then.

The White House now The Gold House. China calling in our debt and taking over the US Treasury. Leader Trump assuring us what a great triumph that was. Think of the tax payer dollars saved by getting rid of a bureaucracy like the U.S. Treasury.

Leader Trump would protect us. Leader Trump would help us keep the bad guys out. There were good things that happened in these first 100 Days. The “both sides do it” false equivalencies, the liberal/conservative split had gone. There was no more pretending that both parties had their problems. Because now there was only Leader Trump. And we saved time. Much easier to act when there is no need for consensus.

Course it would be hard to leave Chicago. But Leader Trump knew best. Didn’t he? And besides, no one had stopped me on this one last visit to Damek’s.

Lots had changed since the last time I’d been in Damek’s. But I needed one more visit. Not much in a life where you can say, “I want to do that one more time” and be certain it will happen.

But why was Uncle Solly here? Sitting ramrod straight, looking forward. Saying nothing. As if I wasn’t even there. “Hey Solly! So good to see you!’ But he didn’t turn. Didn’t answer.

And with the empty streets outside, no music inside, only the stale beer disinfectant smell of the bar for company,

The great migration of Chicago’s Mexican community back to Mexico before The Wall got built had left the Pilsen neighborhood with empty streets, washed out colors and a smell of burning rubber where once chilies and onions, chicken and chorizo wrapped in golden tortillas could make you forget your name.

So as the color and music drained out of Pilsen, the ghosts of the old neighborhood had come back. The hard working Czechs. Damek’s Bar. Where working families would go to the corner and get their bucket of beer every Friday night.

Chicago is a city of ghosts built upon generations of con men and women, dreamers and drifters, poets and power mongers. And as you dig down through all that, each back alley big shot and Lake Shore Drive swell left behind, you are reminded again of Algren, writing, “Once you’ve become a part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another.”

So I had a decision to make. The “Welcoming Centers” were going up all over the country. There was one not so far from this bar on the far southwest side. A safe place, Leader Trump told us in a Word. This safe place is for Muslims. It was just till we got things figured out. Nothing permanent. Just a place to keep folks safe.

And the next safe place was for Italians. My wife was Italian. So she’d have to go.

That meant we had to decide. Did we leave Chicago or did we stay and let ourselves be separated? We had bought the tickets to Banff. We had our boat and were ready to row. But still… Was there any other choice?

Maybe there was some way to fight this. To let us stay home.

And that’s when I heard it. Uncle Solly. Staring at his spirit, he turned towards me as if there was an actual physical force staring hard, opened his mouth and said two words:

“Never again.”


Will the Lincoln Park Pirates Sail?


My entire adult life, they’ve been “stealing” cars across Chicago and then ransoming them back to the owners. Legally.

Or you could see it as “providing a towing service.”

A few years back, they slipped into the lot behind the unemployment office as I was standing in line inside. While I waited in that endless line, they jacked up my 10-year-old Accord and slithered on back to their razor-wire compound where they waited for me to take the $25 cab ride and then pay them the $200 to get my car back.

And I was not at the unemployment office on a social call.

But there was that one time, so long ago, when my pal Eddie and I got them. It was after this sleet gray, snowy night prowling the Lincoln Avenue bars looking for any kind of warmth.

Come closing time, stumbling out into the night to Eddie’s dirty yellow Datsun, parked legally because we knew where those legal spots were, we found his car was gone.

We knew Lincoln Towing had nabbed us. No one else would take that car. So off we walked to their compound which was then about a mile west on Fullerton Avenue.

Standing at the bulletproof glass window of Lincoln Towing, an assortment of firearms mounted on the wall, the really scary woman sitting at the desk inside snarled “$200 boys.”

And that’s when Eddie started playing dumb. Slow motion, looks of confusion, looks of total bewilderment on our faces — I picked up on the game quick — we started turning every pocket we each had inside out. Except the ones that had our wallets. Shrugging our shoulders, we each took off our boots, felt around inside them looking for spare change, pounded them on the steel counter. All this while the line behind us got longer and longer, eventually spilling out on to the railroad tracks that still crossed Fullerton. After what seemed like 10 minutes, we finally located our wallets, paid her, and were buzzed in to get the battered yellow Datsun.

Eddie starts the car, the razor-wire fence starts to rise in front of us, and just as we get the car under the raised fence, Eddie grins, says, “Watch this,” and when we have the car in perfect position to block any access in or out, Eddie kills the engine. Scary lady up in the booth above us starts screaming and raising her arms, motioning us to get the damn car moving. But of course we can’t hear her through the bulletproof glass. So we put our hands behind our ears. “What? Huh???” Shrugging our shoulders, we raise the hood. Now cars on both sides are honking. Two guys with chains in one hand and holstered very visible handguns under leather vests, approach and say, “Problem here?”

“We can’t get the car started! Don’t know what’s wrong!”

By this time, cars and tow trucks were slowing down traffic on Fullerton.

One of the leather vest guys starts swinging his chain and says, “Why don’t you boys try again. Or we can pick your car up and move it? Course it would be a shame if we slipped and dropped it on your heads.”

So we tried again and this time the car started.

Lincoln Towing. Steve Goodman even wrote a song about them. “Lincoln Park Pirates.” They’ve been around forever. And now a coalition that includes Alderman Ameya Pawar is working to control and maybe even close them down. There are Chicagoans who believe that could never happen. No one has ever done it before. Many have tried.

Will this time be different?

I’d say yes. Time for these pirates to sail.


Photo Credit: Mark Schipper. DNA/Info.


Stumbling on a Dance



Alongside the rolled silver steel splash of a bandstand in Millennium Park Chicago at lunchtime and it is 55 degrees on a February Friday. Warm wild breezes blowing like Louis Armstrong laughing. Looking down on the stage, I catch this one silver sliver of a memory.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra dressed in rehearsal jeans, shorts, summewear and just taken a break. The couple at center stage were holding hands. Laughing. He was silver haired and a red checked shirt. She had a smile that even from 200 yards away could make spring shine even brighter. I had no idea what they were rehearsing. Then, the orchestra still on break, a trumpet pipes up with this story:

Stars shining bright above you

Night breezes seem to whisper “I love you”

Birds singing in a sycamore tree

Dream a little dream of me

 That couple turns towards each other, he might have even done a little bow, and they begin a soft, swaying dance of spring.

Stars fading but I linger on dear

Still craving your kiss

I’m longing to linger till dawn dear

Just saying this.

 From 1931. Andre, Schwandt and Kahn’s “Dream a Little Dream for Me” delivered in solo golden brass joy.

Just a tiny passing instant. Still there. From all those years ago.

That time I was out on a lunch hour walk, and suddenly stumbled dreaming on Studs Terkel and Renee Fleming dancing.

Just like today.


Photo Credit:




“When the Women Took Charge”



It’s been eight years now. But. . .

around the time Brenda died, an entire section of a street collapsed just north of church. An underground water main burst, the concrete crumbled, the trees and cars and fire hydrants started sinking into the earth, water gushed out in torrents into the 10 below wind chill winter night flooding the world: as if the ground itself was gone and there was no place left to walk.

That collapse of the very earth, that literal shaking of the foundations, didn’t even begin to paint the picture of what it felt like to lose her. Because this is Brenda.

Comforting words of faith sat dimly lit on the sides of the frigid waters of the street where there was no place to walk. The words weren’t kicking in this time. Dim lights on the sidelines just not taking hold. Because this was Brenda.

In this past week of sleepless nights and drifting minds since she died, sometimes I’d be doing something like driving down the street and just for a second I’d have to force myself to focus on things like, the steering wheel, the turn signal or the brake. Not really sure, I’d be thinking, if I could find the words to describe this loss. Even if I could, why would I have the audacity to say them out loud or write them down?

A late afternoon gray winter sky enveloping all of us, I let myself into the church. Standing alone in front of the alter she had taken care of for so very, very long, I thought again about the audacity of even talking about her and what she brought to our community.

Then I heard her voice.

In those same strong, clipped Welsh, British tones I heard her say: “Don’t be ridiculous, Roger.” Say your piece. Say it clearly. Say it with faith for all. Then be done with it!!”

As I heard her voice, I closed my eyes and I could see her. Smiling eyes of wisdom and God’s love. A twinkle, then a laugh. Right there. In the pews about ½ way to the back. I could see her sitting there. There she was!

I have never known such a leader.

She’d bristle at the word leader, I am sure. But I’d say it anyway and that part she would like. I remember the time I caused some ripples in the church by partnering with a local group of another faith to let them rent a part of our building. Brenda called me one night to get to the body of all this. She did things directly. She hadn’t liked what she’d heard in the arguments around this dispute.

I will never forget Brenda saying to me about half way through the 90-minute conversation: “All right, Roger. I can’t believe I’m changing my mind, but you’re right.” At a church meeting we had a week or so later, Brenda got up to speak in favor of the partnership. Her husband Noel, in one of his most brilliant moments – and there have been a lot of them – kicked the ball into the net by standing up, simply reading our Church’s Welcome statement, printed weekly in our bulletin, and then sitting down without saying another word.

The moments come pouring in: Brenda in their basement rec room, holding court myself and a few other folks, Noel walks up grinning, gives her a crisp military salute and says “Permission to speak!”

Because this is Brenda. I remember her leadership, her command, but I mostly remember a lot of laughter. A lot of laughter.

Just last Sunday, I sought her out coming into church. My wife was down with a cold and wouldn’t be able to be there that morning to hear Brenda speak. So I passed along my wife’s deepest apologies.

Brenda replied, “Missing my talk is not important. How she’s feeling is important. I’m coming over after church to see how she is!” So that – because this is Brenda – was that.

When she got up to speak, this always elegant, true lady got behind the podium, reached up to pull down the microphone, fumbled with it a moment and said “I’m just a little girl.” Our temporary Pastor jumped up instantaneously ready to step up and help her. But before the Pastor took two steps, Brenda had of course fixed it on her own.

No one knew that this would be her last message to her community.

She spoke of her childhood. Her village back in Wales. Then she began talk of coming age at in the early days of World War II. She paused for a moment to remember and then she said,

“Then all the men left, so the women took charge.”

Imagine all she summed up with that one line.

Her message last week truly was a miracle. I’m sure as I remember it again and again through the years, I will be as fed with the spirit as I was just the first time I heard it. . It was as if she had opened history’s gate and let gently flow a history of faith down from little village churches in the mountains of Wales to the flat bustling streets of Chicago. She made our history blend in with everyone’s history. Brenda gently reminded us that like everything else in the greater story of those who have faith, all of this has happened before. She told us that the church, her community, had been there for her.

In leaving that gathering, that morning, I remember feeling a head held high strength in walking behind her. She told all of us, she told me, that we could weather any storm. She told us we’d be fine. She told us not to worry.

Forty-eight hours later she was gone.

In celebrating her life and moving quickly and efficiently—as she would have wanted—to heal from the body blow this faith community has taken in loosing this force of a woman who kept us all strong, I can imagine an almost endless soothing rushing stream of Brenda stories. Years from now, children not yet born will see that the holiday decorations that new hands unpack from an old wooden crate every Christmas, they will hear stories of Brenda.

Then here is what will happen through the years:

In the room built by Brenda and Noel right off the front of this church, a Pastor will pause before walking out to lead the community. She will take a drink of water from the faucet in that sink installed by Brenda and Noel. Somehow she will be able to speak of loving a neighbor, as she never has before. Speak of love in a way that every single thirsty soul in the community will hear.

Or a blessed bride and groom will stand and wait to go out to be married exactly as my wife and I did. Lay a hand on the counter. Then they will be blessed with a marriage that is filled with love supreme.

All of this beginning in the room built by Brenda and Noel.

By simply placing their hand on that counter, somehow, someway in that place where faith is made real, they will feel the words of the great theologian Paul Tillich, they will know and maybe even hear a voice saying

“You are accepted! You are accepted by that which is greater than you and the name of which you do not know. Do not seek for anything, do not do anything, do not intend for anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.” Believer, questioners, questioning believers. All of us.

That’s what we do here. We welcome.

No matter where on life’s sometimes weary and often joyous journey they are right now, they will touch that counter, walk out to the front of a loving community of faith, No matter who they are. They will be accepted.

They will be welcomed and told we are glad they are here.

We can do that here. Those who come after us can do it too.

Because Brenda showed us how.
Excerpted from “Finding Work When There Are No Jobs” Copyright 2013 Think Different Press. Chicago, IL

Up On the Roof


“Hey, look! Something tiny and green is growing in the tar!”

Popping my head through the open trap door to the roof. Pausing just for a moment before hoisting myself up. You, sprawled on your stomach in cutoffs and an old University of Wisconsin t-shirt of mine that you slept in a lot, peering over the side of the faded red blanket and staring at something green and tiny that I could barely see.

“So, mold is exciting to you?”

You flip over on your back, and stick our your tongue, “More exciting than you!” Then you smile big and hold open your arms. Coming to you, I exhale for the first time that day.

“So? Tell me, tell me, tell me! How was your day?” you ask with a wide-eyed urgency and full expectation that the answer will include, at the least, a Shakespearean legend.


That’s how it was. Up on that roof, where the only demands on us came from the mysteries of uncountable stars. Everything was possible. Starlit love right now, a golden path of endless tomorrows to come.

We were four floors up. An old red brick apartment building on the corner of Webster and Racine, on the north side of Chicago. Back when old Italian guys still sat on the street in front of corner grocery stores. Vic’s Sub shop across the street. The local tavern. Quiet neon. Down the block, you could get burritos and tacos homemade in the back of a Mexican market. Walk a few blocks south to Armitage and there was Romanos Italian Ice, those chunks of sweet sour lemon telling every story you would need to about a warm and windy summer night. We even had a storefront bookstore for awhile.

You and I, handholding young, had the roof.

There were five of us who rented the top two floors. Somehow the rambling big white house near the campus in Wisconsin had morphed into the Chicago apartment with the tall ceilings, huge windows letting in artist’s light, and access to the roof. I remember none of the details on exactly how that happened. Did I sign something? Pack a moving box? No clue.

The five of us were one couple, one almost couple, and me. Andy and Marissa were the couple. Andy was slight, funny, quick and most likely would do something someday that would mean lots of money. I guessed a lawyer. Marissa’s father was a famous political guy, something no one would ever guess by knowing her and her friendly, down to earth ways. Zak and Lucy, they were the almost couple. Both artists. Zak’s bedroom was the entire top floor. Unfinished. Unheated. Even in Chicago winters, unheated. His bed hung by four silver chains from the rafters, swinging in the drafts.

I was the odd man. A special ed teacher in a flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, jeans and gym shoes. Part-time job at the bookstore, because Andy knew a guy. Eating breakfast at The Athenian Room, 2 eggs, bacon, toast and coffee for $1.99.

You? Almost didn’t recognize you, that first time I saw you in that loud, smoky place across from Wrigley Field. What you saw in me that first time, it must have been some sort of miracle. Because we were not the picture of a couple. You were an Old Town condo, designer business suit, the right shoes, cigarette-smoking girl who would say things like “I’m in finance,” to the barrage of wannabe-your-boyfriends; watching them run in the other direction, towards the girls who didn’t already have their number.

How did we happen? You told me you were in finance. I snorted derisively and said “Really, I’m in futures.” You laughed and that was it.

It didn’t take us long to discover the roof. The other two couples were never all that interested, so we almost never had visitors. Just us and the stars. The sun would drop in the western sky and the orange glow of simmering twilight would rise, blending with the city lights and in tune with the distant hue and cry of other people’s lives, so far down below. We’d lay on our backs, you talking through your day, popping up to swing around and ramp up the story, because a day was not complete for you until you talked it through.

In the night glow of the city, on the roof, just us, hidden from any other human eyes, the wild music of our love heard only by those stars, where I imagine the song echoes still.

On the roof’s the only place I know.

Where you just have to wish, to make it so.


That day I came up to find you staring at the green mold, I had news.

Looking in your eyes with that inner tremble I sometimes got when I thought about not being able to look in your eyes, I said, “I quit. I’m not a teacher anymore. I’m gonna do it. Gonna go corporate. I am sellin’ out, big time.”

“What are you talking about? You didn’t really do that. You’re a teacher!”

“I can do it. I know these things. I’m older than you.”

“Yeah,” you laughed. “And so much more well-adjusted.”

“You know what I make. Teachers never make money. I get some sort of corporate job . . . I don’t know. Think about when we’re really old. Like 50, or something. Who’s gonna have the money, the corporate guy or the teacher? I mean, c’mon, you’re in finance!”

“You’re gonna be what, a solutions consultant? A branding manager . . .”

“Rodeo clown . . .” I said. . .

“ I guess it could be worse, I could be in love with a mime. You don’t have any mime plans do you?”

Which made me laugh, and then you caught it, and we almost forgot what we were talking about.

“Hey,” I said, “Should we all say a prayer for shareholder value?”

“I guess being safe . . . not having to scramble in our golden years. . .I guess that’s not a bad thing, is it?” you said, very quietly. “Maybe a corporate job is what you should do.”

Then you gave me a very long look, punched me in the arm and took my hand. Laying on our backs, on that roof.

Under yesterday’s stars.

Rene Fleming and Yo Yo Ma Stop By


There was about to be a moment. One of those tiny moments one never forgets.

I was out for a head-clearing walk after spending some hours producing some unusually muddy writing. Thinking about how I really didn’t need the Popeye’s Chicken calling me across the street from Lakeview High School. The neighborhood high school.

Suddenly some cars pulled up and a woman popped out with a smile and radiance, which, even from 50 feet away, would make even the most stubborn spring flowers bloom. Here’s her picture.


All thoughts of Popeye’s gone, my eyes 3 times their normal size, next out on the sidewalk was a slight, friendly looking man in a blue shirt, with his sleeves rolled up, who looked like he could be some sort of Ambassador for World Harmony. Somebody that everyone would want to know.

Lakeview is not some elite bastion of the super rich. The late Tom Bosely, Richie Cunningham’s Dad on Happy Days, went to Lakeview. There is a movie called “The Bodyguard” (not the one with Whitney Houston) that was filmed at Lakeview. One of the best movies ever shot in the city. But more than anything else, Lakeview is a neighborhood school. And these two magnetic people were not from the neighborhood. These two belonged to the world.

As the small group surrounding the two made their way inside, I recognized the man. “Hey! That’s Yo Yo Ma!” What’s he doing here??

Walking home, the woman’s identity came to me. That’s Renee Fleming! (Of course I had to confirm that by checking out pictures of Renee Fleming on the Internet for an hour or so.)

Through a collaborative project, courtesy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Lyric Opera, and The Merit School of Music, Fleming, Ma and Damian Woetzel, former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, were at Lakeview simply as a way to connect the arts to the way people live.

That’s it. Nothing more. It wasn’t sponsored by VISA. No political favors were exchanged. Instead, these world-class artists spoke with the kids, sang and played. And they listened. The Poetry Club got up to recite as Yo Yo Ma played Bach. Fleming sang with the choir. As the kids looked on in amazement that a human being could really sing like that.

There was even a moment when, in the auditorium filled with normally leaping and fidgeting teenagers, the crowd of kids went totally still. Turned off all their phones. Because Yo Yo Ma was playing Rachmaninoff.

The kids working on the performing arts knew that there was a chance for a trip downtown to see some sort of performance. But instead these world renowned artists came to them.

In addition to the trip to Lakeview, Fleming and Ma also gave an impromptu concert in the atrium of a downtown office building yesterday. Again, bringing art to the people.

While back up in the neighborhoods, heads still reeling from the visit, more than one young boy or girl had the same thought.

They were thinking, “Someday. Someday, I’m gonna do that too. Someday, when I’m an artist and the world knows my name, I’m gonna remember what happened at my school when Renee Fleming and Yo Yo Ma dropped by. And I’ll go back and visit with some kids.”

Just like Renee Fleming and Yo Yo Ma.

(Originally published in the now gone “Open Salon”. March 2012)