The Sad Music of Change (A Songbird for Nick the Greek)

The Sad Music of Chance (Songbird for Nick the Greek)Nicholas Dandolos (Nick the Greek) was a professional gambler and high-roller of legendary repute in the ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s.  Rumor has it, he once broke the house in Vegas in the early ’50s.  He is also the subject of a marvelous novel by the great Chicago novelist, Harry Mark Petrakis, whose Greektown-set novels illuminate that community for the rest of the city.

Dandolos was fearless.  He is said to have won and lost over 500 million dollars in his lifetime, only to die in near destitution in Gardena, California in 1966.

He was born in Crete to wealthy parents in 1883.  At 18, he moved to Chicago and pretty much cleaned up at the racetrack.  He was a flamboyant and charming guy whose legend quickly grew until he was nearly as big an attraction at casinos as the headliners who entertained the swells were.

Petrakis’ novel, Nick the Greek, was published in 1978 and is a marvelous read.  It chronicles the life of a man who went from rags to riches some 70 times; always with good humor and charm.  At one point, after a marathon poker match, lasting some 5 months and down a couple million, Nick told his opponent (a man some 24 years his junior), “Mr. Moss, I have to let you go.”  Such was the good humor of Nick the Greek.

As a kid I was a caddy, which was where I first learned how to gamble.  And Jesus, did we gamble; on cards, Ruts (a mutant form of miniature golf, played in the caddy yard on a stone parking lot), football, baseball,  Pins, (where you bet on whomever’s golfer gets on the green first), how far you could piss, pitching quarters…you name it.  No game in the caddy shack was without a gambling component.  And it was a good thing; you learned how to hold your mud when you were down, how to win graciously,  how to lose like a gentleman. . .or not.  You learned a lot about who you were in relation to other guys; how to compete, how to bluff, how to stand, how to protect yourself, how to strut.

There were always assholes; the guys who won or lost badly, the braggarts and whiners, the badmouth guys, who were soon enough separated out from the elite gamblers who’d not make time for them or give them a seat at their game.

There was no small amount of social Darwinism in the rituals of  caddy shack games of chance.  It was frowned upon but tolerated.  And in these games of chance we found out a little more each day, who we were going to be in the world.

Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 12:06 am  Leave a Comment  
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Songbird for Nelson Algren

Songbird for Nelson Algren

I’ve made more than a few tributes to  the great Chicago writer Nelson Algren.  His shadow looms large over how I see the city.  Algren, of course, is the steely realist who will not let us bullshit ourselves about who we are.  He is also the soft heart who  is full of the gambler’s optimism about who we could be.  He was a master of the gray; the good in the bad and the bad in the good.  He also leavened his often sad and tragic stories with wry humor.  He is also aware of Chicago’s propensity for eating its own.  He often remarked that Chicago could not “love you back” and went to his grave believing this.

Once a year I re-read Chicago: City on the Make and marvel at its sprawling and adventurous storytelling.  It still moves like a freight-train.  It is still a bitter pill and a love letter at the same time.  It is one of the primary texts of my lifetime.

Over the last year, making the hobo pieces, I reacquainted myself with some of the great novels of the Depression and just after: Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited, Algren’s Somebody in Boots, and Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.  It occurred to me that for all of the poverty in our country, there was certainly no poverty of the imagination or spirit among artists.  This awful period goaded a great many of our finest artists into their most challenging work.  It kind of went across all disciplines: books, paintings, poems, music and dance.  Artists went the length to speak to the condition of their world; they seemed to have a stake in their communities.  Not the least of them was Nelson Algren.  He wrote of the despair of the drug addict 20 years before  Burroughs became a junkie cult-hero mining the same subject.  Algren was always ahead of the cultural curve; one of those who could see five miles down the road.

He lived in my neighborhood when he lived here; actually about five blocks  from where I live right now.  What is resonant for me is that some of my neighbors  could have walked right out of The Man with the Golden Arm or The Neon Wilderness.  There are still no shortage of the walking wounded in this part of town.  There  is also the city he remembered; Polish, Ukrainian, Slavic, Jewish, and Italian and Irish–a city of tribes and bone-deep grudges.  It is also the city where he gambled away most of what he made in his lifetime. Cards, horses, fights, ballgames, you name it, he bet on it.  He would often joke to friends, “A gambler’s money has no home.”

When I walk down Chicago Avenue, my favorite street in the city, if I squint my eyes right around the old Goldblatt’s building, I feel like there is still a whiff of Algren in this town.  When I hear soul music from a window or polka music. . . when I see the old Ukrainian lady on her porch in her housecoat smoking and surveying the street or the Old Style sign with “Zimne Pivo” under it, I realize they’ve not been able to gentrify Algren out of this part of town.  His shadow is still here and still large.

This one is for him.

Published in: on February 17, 2010 at 12:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Bruised Village

The Bruised VillageI live in Ukrainian village in Chicago.  A great many of my neighbors don’t even speak English.  They like being among themselves. They are suspicious, clannish, and at times, paranoid and unfriendly.  This doesn’t surprise me.  A great many of my neighbors are from the Ukraine and lived under harsh totalitarian regimes, under a czar or a dictator.  Many of them are old enough to remember the scourge of communism in their lives.  They don’t much like strangers; this is Chicago, a city of tribes and bone-deep grudges.

My neighbors have begun to thaw a bit.  One lady brought me a sack of beets from her garden and, noticing that I had several bird feeders in my yard, told me the secret to attracting hummingbirds–red flowers and sugar-water.  She told me that only she had hummingbirds in this neighborhood even though the city “is lousy with them– you have to know how to attract them.”

My other neighbor, the old Ukrainian lady, gives me the evil eye and pretends to dislike me more than she actually does.  She calls me Mr. Big Shot and follows me when I walk Chooch (my mutt) to make sure I clean up after him.  I also think she just wants someone to talk to as well.  She calls my work, “crazy-man pictures,” but she always asks me about them.  She also walks her old biddy friends by my place and points saying, “Famous big shot artist lives here; four doors from me.”

There are gorgeous gardens in my neighborhood.  My neighbors work hard on these and from my back porch, it is a different city. . . explosions of color from yard to yard and giant sunflowers in some of them.  There are also all manner of tulips and roses, columbine and wandering vine, weeping cherry and plum trees.  It is an amazing thing to see in late spring and summer.  It occurs to me that this is how people who have lived hardscrabble lives add beauty to their world.

They come from hard places in the world and now they are free and they guard that freedom with alacrity and a fierce sense of boundary.

In Chicago, property is the cornerstone of what one has in the world and in my neighborhood it is relished and lovingly adorned.  My neighbors are under siege by people like me who move in and don’t understand the contract that they silently have with one another.  Don’t play your music loud.  Don’t have big parties.  Don’t let your kids or dog run wild.  Don’t let your dog shit on my lawn–or my tree-lawn.  If you have an old person next door, you shovel their walk and if there is a blackout, you look in on them.  If you see an old lady struggling with her groceries, you carry them for her.  And when she makes you a cup of tea for your kindness, you sit your ass down and drink it and listen to her while she explains things to you.  Who knows; you might learn how to attract hummingbirds.  Know that you are talking to someone who comes from a hard place in the world where there wasn’t much to trust.

Shut up and listen, Mr. Big Shot.

This one is called “The Bruised Village”  It is the hobo symbol for “Go.”

Published in: on February 13, 2010 at 11:07 pm  Comments (3)  

Ueno Park Red Bird

Ueno Park Red Bird

I was thinking of my friends in New Orleans as I made this piece, the beads and ornamentation, the echo of Lafcadio Hearn who left New Orleans to live in Tokyo, find much alike in those places.  Some of my collectors have whined that the Japanese things have been too decorative and too pretty.  Maybe there is something to that…who knows.  Myself, I feel like they are good representations of the Tokyo I experienced, as elegant and ornamental as that place may be.  I love the graphic sensibility of Japanese comics and graphic art; the more, more, more of it.  If it is not for you, well, this is what makes a horserace, and I give not a fuck.

New Orleans is also like this ñ color and shapes and sweat and nature all commingled into a lovely kind of sweet gumbo for the eyes.  I’m especially happy for my other city in the wake of the SAINTS . . . BOO YAH!!!!!!  It is the indication that this holy place is back.  My friends from NOLA texted, called and e-mailed their collective joy from all parts of the city yesterday, and I was overjoyed and over the moon for them.  I also made a neat pile of cash on the game ñ the Saints being 6-point dogs.  I’m betting more than one bookie lost his shirt yesterday.

I go to places like New Orleans, Tokyo and New York for sanity, for the joy and the mysterious poetry of those streets.  It is odd how I feel at home on the streets of New Orleans and Tokyo, and like a foreigner on the streets of Chicago lately.  At times there seems to be this untethering of my belonging to this city.  The desire to wander is more and more part of my work and make-up.  I have been the dutiful son to Chicago; I feel like I have done my bit here and I want to put the rest of the world in my work and see it with my own eyes.

I enjoyed performing This Train so much because I feel like it was a fair look at this place.  I love and hate this city, and I’ll always need it, it is my home.  But I also feel tremendously at home in New York and New Orleans, Tokyo and Austin.  You couldn’t give me other places, but these ones I dearly treasure.  This spring I’ll go to Prague and Istanbul, and I hope I love those cities as much.

In Ueno Park in Tokyo, all manner of gorgeous songbirds can be found and actually heard.  It is a magical place.  See it before you shuffle off of this planet.  You’ll thank me.

Published in: on February 11, 2010 at 10:18 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Red Rain

The Red Rain

I just finished my run of performances of This Train. It was fun to be back on a stage again and also edifying to learn more about the hobo alphabet†and make more of these pieces.  I learned that this alphabet also existed in Europe, especially Sweden and that the symbolism was not all that different from ours here in America.

It was interesting performing a show about this.  A great percentage of the audience didn’t know much, or anything, about the hobo alphabet and the show wound up being about a lot more than just that.  It, in the end, is about finding a home, or leaving one and trying to make another.  The piece wound up being an emotional experience in that I used all that I’ve learned in the last two or three years about homelessness, poverty and hunger, and discovered none of us are as inoculated from this subject as we would like to think.

In my show I talked a lot about the homeless guys in my neighborhood here on Damen and what I’ve learned from and about them.  These lessons have been in turn funny, heartbreaking, joyous and unfathomably sad. I’ve also learned that the common man is about as fragile as a nail.  Some of these women and men have had to be tough sons-of-bitches to survive living on these streets.  This city can be cruel beyond measure, and often is.

This last city election I couldn’t bring myself to vote for all of the Rotarian promises and catch phrases don’t mean a fucking thing to me anymore.  We live in a city of dispossession and hunger. The Greater Chicago Food Depository feeds more and more people every day.  I feel that food should be considered a human right.

The other day, the night before the election of the latest round of dipshits and moral cowards, nowhere was the issue of the hunger of our fellow citizens even discussed.  Fuck.  Are they blind?  Do they not see the men and women panhandling at the bottom of the off-ramps?  Walking the streets, hungry and filthy, and sleeping under the expressway?  Why aren’t these citizens part of the conversation regarding what needs to change in our country?

I’m not voting for anyone who doesn’t include the poor in the bigger picture.  I’ve got your vote, Fucko . . . swinging.

This piece is called The Red Rain.  It means, “Food, but not money, can be found here.”

Published in: on February 5, 2010 at 10:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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