Tonight in Port Arthur



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

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

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

Nobody sang pain like she did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dad Fights a Fire



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeannie Always Came In Singing


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

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

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

And this was just the part where she said hello.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s when it happened.

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

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

Jeannie always came in singing

Spiderman at the Best Greek Diner


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

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

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

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

“Hey Spiderman!”

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

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

Spiderman talks to heroes.

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

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

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

His heroes are still there.

Remembering “Then Came Bronson”


th 2

A Tribute to Actor Michael Parks

Maybe it’s the rain in Chicago tonight that makes it so easy to wash away the years since I rode that gloriously empty Pacific shoreline. Felt the power, heard the roar of that bike as we sailed across the sand of salt spray dreams. Maybe it’s the rain that I could have once outrun. Maybe once I could even have outrun the night. Careening up from the sand and shore and on to some adventure road, riding the forest darkness to an all night joint with red vinyl seats on gleaming silver stools and a midnight cup of coffee by a girl with eyes like laughter and suddenly I could write like Jimmy Webb; I could see the words on the page . . .

“Ran away from home when I was seventeen
To be with you on the California Coast”

Maybe it’s rain that makes the memory of Michael Parks so alive. Course that was just his real name. On TV he was Jim Bronson. The show was “Then Came Bronson.” It lasted about a minute and a half. But that was enough. Because when he’d be Jim Bronson, I was too. I could even be a writer like Jimmy Webb.

I was Bronson. Roger was just my real name. Jim Bronson lived a Woody Guthrie life, roaming and rambling across diamond deserts. When I would ride my bike to some faraway western paradise like Evanston (the suburb next to mine) I was really Bronson riding alongside rushing cold mountain streams.

Bronson would always have some sort of good versus evil trial to overcome each time he hopped off that bike. But whatever it was, I’d solve it with a cool guy shrug. Then there would be, just like Jimmy Webb’s song.

Drinking margaritas all night in the old cantina
Out on the California coast,

Then, before I hopped back on the cycle, off to follow that long lonesome highway, bound for the mountains and the plaines; there would be those long, soulful looks between me and the girl and the wild imaginings of what happened off camera. And I’d write like I would remember that moment forever, write like I was Jimmy Webb AND Jim Bronson.

We never really made it baby
But we came pretty close
Miss the blood red sunset
But I miss you the most.

So long Michael Parks.
And thank you for those golden moments. When I got to be Bronson too.

Talking Health Care


dow moon

“23 million people. That’s like three Chicago’s! All of them loosing health care.

“Oh no,” said the guy in the grey raincoat, blending into the Friday morning windy drizzle rush hour throng walking east on Randolph in downtown Chicago. “That 23 million. That’s just the libs counting. And you know how they count. George Soros probably made up that number. It can’t be that bad.”

“I don’t know. Sounds pretty bad. They took away pretty much everything. If you get sick. You’re screwed.”

“Oh don’t worry. It can’t be that bad. It’ll cost less. And you still have pre-existing condition coverage,” said the grey raincoat guy.

“Actually that’s a lie. They lie a lot now. Oh, and they cut Medicaid too.”

“Hmm. That’s not what they said on Fox. But either way, everything will be fine.”

“How do you know? There is nothing anywhere that says how much this will cost.”

“You know,” said grey raincoat, “I gotta tell you what I really think. And I wouldn’t say this to anybody cause you know, it’s not politically correct, but I think that if these people want the insurance, they should have to pay for it.”

Walking behind these two, I heard grey raincoat say “These people should have to pay for it” and I thought about how easy it would be to sucker punch grey raincoat in the kidneys. Sucker punch him hard. So it hurt. How good it would feel to watch him fold down to the sidewalk and stop talking. Because if he didn’t know that we were all ‘these people,’ if he didn’t see this wasn’t about politics—this was about stepping on the throats of the vulnerable and playing with their very lives, this was about pure power. And it he didn’t know that then how would I explain it?

But then I remembered another Dialogue. My favorite song. Starts out, with one guy, guy named Terry Kath, singing,

“Are you optimistic bout the way that things are going?

And then another voice answers,

“No, I never, never think of it at all.”

And the song gave me strength for the fight to come.




That Chuck Berry Song In Your Head


From the last time Chuck Berry played Chicago. Five, six years ago. . . .
When Chuck Berry, 84, collapsed from unknown causes on stage Saturday night in Chicago, the concert venue was not some glitzy down town tourist trap.

Berry slumped over his keyboards at the Congress Theater. A 2,900 seat, faded architectural gem originally built in the 1920’s as a golden movie palace. The Congress sits on Milwaukee Avenue. Twenty-one blocks northwest of the center of Chicago. Once an unpaved Indian Trail from Chicago to Milwaukee, along which all sorts of flim flam fast buck artists plied their trade alongside hard working people who got up before dark most mornings and did their jobs.

Not all that long ago, there were more Polish people clustered on and around Milwaukee Avenue than there were in most Polish cities. The potential next Mayor of Chicago lives in a condo off Milwaukee Avenue while he waits for his rented house to be empty. And the outposts of the arts, galleries, places where people read poetry dot the urban landscape in tiny storefronts with rhymes of what’s edgy, new and the next big thing.

So the place where the great rock and roller put his head down is a vibrant, alive avenue where people live close to each other, where they go to work, make art and dream big. A place with a history.

Berry was checked out in an ambulance. They he came back on stage and tried again.

He came back on stage and tried again.

The crowd had mostly emptied out, but Chuck Berry came back on stage and tried again.

And just as he did that, somewhere, hurling out in the farthest regions of space, way beyond any known galaxy—the well known story goes—the space capsule sent from our planet out to the heavens in about 1960; that space capsule reached its destination.

The people of that faraway planet opened it up, saw everything we had stuffed inside. The holy texts of the world’s great religions, some equations scribbled by Einstein, a Picasso, a volume of Romeo and Juliet, a Bach Cantata, a Vonnegut book, Keith Jarrett and Duke Ellington recorded, penicillin and the polio vaccine.

There was more. There were items that showcased us at our best.

But the last item was a plastic disc. An old 45 rpm record. Our brothers and sisters, being way beyond us, immediately knew how to make sound come from this “45.” It was a Chuck Berry record.

And those people from that faraway planet listened. Then they wrote a 4 word reply. Stuffed it in the capsule and sent it hurtling out to find us.

It should be here any moment.

What was their four-word response?

Send more Chuck Berry.

After Trump


The carrots, scrawny and dirt cased, began to sprout in the makeshift garden between the two abandoned buildings just west of what had once been Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. It was 60 degrees. Bright warm sun and the middle of February. There were no real seasons anymore. It could be snowing one day and tropical breezes the next.

Truth Minister Bannon had assured all of us who remained after the waters started rising sometime around the middle of last year, 2019, that fluctuations in temperature were part of the natural cycles of nature. He had the research. He knew the data. There was no other data.

But we had nothing to fear. The Leader would provide. Everything was fine.

Our garden in Chicago was on a lot at the intersection of what used to be Clark and LaSalle Streets. At the other end of LaSalle was the boarded up tower once known as the Board of Trade. The once faceless statue of the Roman goddess Ceres gazing out over the deserted canyon of skyscrapers that had once been Chicago’s financial district. The occasional movement of a wolf, a rabbit or a homeless family scanned from the high tech cameras beaming out from the face now painted on Ceres. The eyes were those of Culture Minister Ivanka.

The cameras protected us. Because there was, of course, always danger. So we had the cameras and the guns for protection.

The new shore of Lake Michigan had risen about a quarter mile to Clark Street. I don’t know how long that took. Time gets blurry and confusing for me now. There were days and weeks of endless rain. Icebergs the size of small towns drifting down from the north, Lake Michigan becoming a rushing river, hollowing out homes and roads and sweeping away whole towns.

Infrastructure Minister Cheney said she had it all under control. Contracts were soon to be awarded. Garden land would be available till the construction got started. The new social safety net was the left over patches of soil.

And on the other side of the world, the Leader of Leaders nodded in approval at the American spirit for rebuilding, after we had culled the herd. His laughter echoing in the golden halls of the Kremlin.

It had all happened very fast. The old American State Department hollowed out. No one worked there anymore. The phones rang in empty offices and no one answered. The Leader smiled, put some ketchup on his well-done steak and thought, “I have made evil government go away.”

After the State Department went Poof! . . . and vanished, it wasn’t long before the food chain across the American continent started crumbling. Disease ran rampant as the last traces of those attempting to control the safety of what we ate and drank closed up the darkened government offices.

Oh there was still safe food. For some. And those who had the safe food, holed up in the gated communities across the American wasteland, munched along and told each other on Truth Minister Bannon’s approved web sites, “Hey, I worked for what I have! No one gave me anything. These people with nothing? They need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps!” Lots of talk about bootstraps.

And the Leader of Leaders laughed louder at the success of Truth Minister Bannon’s message that the way to make everyone fed, safe, warm and healthy was to make the rich richer. That laughter bouncing across the planet as Leader of Leaders said to his head nodding entourage, “And there are still those fools who believe that’s true! No wonder they crumbled!”

I don’t remember much, but I can still remember, that day when I believed there would be no time after Trump. When I believed this was the way it would be forever.

I had just finished my daily scribbles. That’s what I called it, that time every day when I’d just write. I knew no one would ever read it. But there was something that made me need to remember what it was like before the deluge. Before Trump.

I wrote. I hid the scrawling in a green wooden shed where the 10 of us, once strangers but now a family, lived out back of the garden. And I set out to make my rounds walking the empty streets of what once was Chicago shouting “Sharpen your knives! Sharpen your knives!” That’s how I brought in what little money I contributed to the survival of the 10 of us. I sharpened knives.

Because after Trump, everyone needed sharp knives.

I remember pushing my creaking two-wheeled cart back to the garden and hearing the news. Truth Minister Bannon had just tweeted out the message that there would be no more Medicaid. No more Medicare. No more rules and regulations to limit the profits of the health industry. The work was done. Health care was where it should be: available only to those who could pay.

The herd had been set to be culled. The laughter of the Leader of Leaders could be heard in the background as the video of the announcement by Truth Minister bounced off every corner of the world.

Health care? Gone. America as that shining city on the hill? Gone. In the strangled cry of the spirits of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and all those who had first dreamed up the American experiment, came the booming voice of the Leader shouting out “Make America Great Again” as the Leader of Leaders laughed in the Russian snows at the folly of us all.

On that day when we thought life before the Leaders was gone, I remember a moment.

I remember all 10 us just sat down on the floor of that green shed next to the rusted garden tools. No one spoke. Then one of us whispered, “No.” And it became a chant, “No,no,no,no.” Like some ancient rhythm of the waters. “No,no,no,no.”

Silence. Then one of us said, “That old oven? That still works, right? And we still have that gas line, right?” I answered, “Yes.”

“Then I’m going to make some chocolate chip cookies,” she said.

One of the women went outside and snaked a new electrical circuit into the shed. Checked that the gas main was secure. Fired up the oven and soon the smell of chocolate chip cookie scent swirled around the shed, fighting back the coming night.

Somehow, someone had found an old vinyl recording of the song, “Before the Deluge.” So we had music. Jackson Browne singing about men who forged the earth’s beauty into power.

The smell of those chocolate chip cookies. The warmth of the shed as snow started to fall on that night after the 60-degree day. Browne singing about how there were those who believed they were meant to live after the deluge.

And as the music grew louder, as the 10 of us sang together, the chocolate chip cookies came out of the oven and were passed around our circle.
Like sweet tasting chocolate messages of hope.

That had somehow come alive!

Chocolate messages of hope come alive.

Obama When No One Is Watching—from 2009



Malia Obama probably wasn’t sure if her Dad would make it home from work to watch her soccer game this past Friday night.

He’s been pretty busy lately. But her Mom and her little sister would be there.

The flow of the kids moving the ball down the field, under the lights of a chilly night in October. The families chatting on the sidelines. The starlight glow of downtown Chicago rising up from the north.

Malia Obama at mid field shouts “Mom!” And the smile, grace, and presence of the woman whose eyes never once leave her daughter—no matter who else she speaks to, waves back and sends a radiant smile.

In that one wave and smile, you see hope come alive before your very eyes.

Then just a few minutes after eight; something like a shift in earth’s gravity occurs. To the casual observer, nothing in this scene has changed. That pull of the earth’s power must have been imagined.

The true city dweller will feel it first, before they even see it.

Blink your eyes and they appear. Ringing the shadows of this soccer field are people with guns. Serious people with guns. Like oak trees that move. The phrase, “Not on my watch” flashes through your head.

You have to look hard to make sure they are even there.

You never really see a gun.

You’re not even sure they are moving: but when you blink your eyes, somehow their positions have changed. Something about the way they just appear calms your breathing. Instinctively you know: these are the good guys.

With that feeling of true safety in your very soul; you remember the real secret at the heart of the city:— that the city is just a million small town kids soccer game scenes strung together.

So the kids laugh and kick the soccer ball.

Then some guy in a blue cap walks out of the gym next door. Hands in his pocket, face down, by himself. He walks over to Malia’s Mom, who has 3 conversations going on simultaneously with folks on the sidelines. The quiet guy in the blue cap puts his arm around Malia’s Mom. Shakes hands with a couple of the people. Talks with Malia’s Mom for a minute or two.

Then a small miracle occurs.

The quiet guy in the blue cap who nobody in the crowd of families really paid all that much attention two; scrunches down so he his face to face with Malia’s little sister Sasha. He lifts up the brim on the cap. And then, standing 15 feet behind Sasha you see what she’s seeing up close.

You see that smile. That smile that rings with the very power and the glory of the city lights behind it.

That smile now almost ready to take its place in American history.

You can’t hear, and are happy not to hear, what he’s saying to his youngest daughter.

But you do hear her start to giggle.

Then the father takes the daughter’s hand. The younger daughter. The one who is not in the game. The one who by all rights and purposes and measures any of us know at this time in our history—was destined not to get a lot of attention tonight.

They move back in the shadows, behind the sideline crowd. Seen only by that quiet show of force here to keep them absolutely safe.

Then the miracle: they have a footrace.

While the game is still going on. Just the two of them. Sasha and her Dad take off together, both running at full speed, as fast and then faster then either of them could ever imagine. Sasha laughing, and laughing at the finish line. Her Dad swoops down and picks her up.

Then that smile. This time only for his daughter. No one else was looking. It was just for her.

His youngest daughter’s giggle. It’s the music of his promise to make sure that everyone’s included

And This past Friday night in Chicago: Malia Obama’s team won the game.

From “Finding Work When There Are No Jobs” Copyright Think Different Press. Chicago, IL. Reprinted with permission of the author.

M.M. & J.D. at the Cape Cod Room


Chances are that if you were sitting at the bar at the Cape Cod Room in Chicago’s Drake Hotel that night in 1954, and the laughing young couple next to you started in on the tradition of carving their initials in the bar, you would have known whom they were. The initials might not have rung a bell. But you would have known their names.

All sorts of royalty would pass through The Cape Cod Room before it ended its 83 year old run this past weekend. There were real life Princesses and kings, show biz luminaries, politicians and sporting legends. From Sinatra to Ronald Reagan to Michael Jordan, Sophia Loren and Aretha Franklin to Elizabeth Taylor and Julie Andrews and Chicago’s Cusack family.

The Cape Cod Room drew the famous and infamous. Frank Nitti, who came after Al Capone, even had an office in The Drake for awhile. So you know that Nitti had to have dined at the Cape Cod Room.

All those famous people. Spectacular food. In an unpretentious room built for soul soothing warmth on the coldest winter night. But none of that’s the real story of the place. Of course all that matters. But it’s not what gives a place an 83 year old run, and truth told, could have kept the place going for another 83 years with just a little more long term thinking. Hunker down to the core of this softly lit, warm oasis next to a looming Lake Michigan and you’ll find what’s true here is the same thing that’s true about any truly great element of Chicago. It’s that Chicago, above all else, is a crossroads.

A crossroads.

And anything can happen at a crossroads. When you put down roots and decide to stay—like the Cape Cod Room did for all those years, then sooner or later the world will pass by your door. As will your neighbor.

Pass by or stay. Richer or poorer. But certainly more alive in the world and in spirit. At a crossroads all things are possible.

Because here at the crossroads, you, me, anyone of us can sit down at the bar right next to that young couple, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio.

Their marriage lasted less than a year. But the love went on. When she died, he was the one who made the funeral arrangements. And then for 20 years, every single week, he sent flowers to her grave.

The initials MM and JD were still there carved in the bar this past weekend.

Because at a crossroads . . . anything can happen.

Even that which lasts, as Algren would say, “for keeps.”

Photo Credit: Trip Advisor