Azul

Azul

All over the west and south sides of Chicago there are still live poultry shops. It only now occurs to me that I’ve never actually been in one. Americans are particularly squeamish this way– we never want to look the creature we’re about to slaughter in the eye. We’d rather see it fried with some biscuits and gravy on a plate, or in nugget form in a small styrofoam box; or even better, chopped up with a bunch of vegetables in some soup. We’re not much for the blood and the feathers and the screeching death that comes along with butchering poultry.

A number of people in the city have begun to keep chickens in their yards in Ukrainian Village they raise their own eggs and I have to admit it is kind of heartening to see a plump chicken or two walking the alleyways. You want to warn them that: feral cats, large rats, raccoons, and now coyotes also now walk these alleys, and would gladly feast on them; but then you notice these are some big-assed chickens and when you get right up close and look them in the eye?  You see all of the madness in the world.These chickens are Chicago chickens and they just might be able to hold their own.

Years ago, when I first opened my studio on Damen Avenue, there was a small bodega a few doors down from me. The older Puerto Rican guy who ran it made change out of his pocket, rather than the cash register. The store was badly stocked, open when it  wanted to and closed at odd hours. We struck up a friendship by virtue of being neighbors and sometimes having to look out for the same goofs who would run in and grab stuff when you weren’t looking. We were also the only Sox fans in that part of town. I liked him, He had thick bifocals and a sad smile and spoke the kind of English that one speaks when they learn it first in Chicago. He referred to the alderman as “our guy” with a roll of his eyes.
I only knew him as “Popi.” One day, I noticed these Polaroids taped to the side of his antique cash register. They were all pictures of roosters…more specifically, fighting cocks. He told me, that in Puerto Rico, he’d raised many champion birds. He said where he came from people weren’t  hypocrites about things like cockfighting. He’d tell me, “You gringos get all weepy about  two chickens fucking each other up WHILE you eat your McNuggets.” He had a point.
He also, once in a while, would stop me in my tracks when this line of conversation occurred. He would ask me if we cared as much about people as we did about the chickens. “There you go– white people will wring their hands over cockfighting, where each bird has a fifty-fifty shot at coming out alive. But kids in this city are blowing each others’ heads off for dime bags and where are your tears for them?”
Bucktown changed and the bodega is long gone, as is Popi and his backyard full of fighting cocks. There were a few of them that were beautiful in a wild, mad, kind way. Rubio, a starkly black, long-plumed bird with a blood-red head. Pinto, a speckled mess with sharp thorny spurs, and Azul who. Popi explained. was a rare blue-faced gamecock who he’d paid better than a grand for back home. He fed them only prime feed and fought them in Indiana, he explained, “with a bunch of white guys who look like a dumber version of you.” It was nice to know that somewhere out there there is a dumber version of me.
I guess what has changed about Bucktown the most is the absence of people like Popi and the fact that I used to walk my neighborhood and sometimes hear three or four different languages being spoken in the length of a couple of city blocks.
Now there is a Marc Jacobs store and restaurants that people blather on about on Yelp! all the time. I’m old enough to know that this isn’t bad or good–that change is the human experience. I don’t miss the days when you had to look over your shoulder in this neighborhood, though. Judging from the gun violence you STILL kind of have to.  I do realize that in very short order, it is a different city. That for all of the technology that was supposed to connect us, it feels like we are more alone. For all of the cameras and crime-prevention gestures and feel-good documentaries, we are still apt to maim and kill each other.
It has always been a cruel city– it is our history; Steel, slaughter, railroads,and bootleggers made the cash register ring, and this was the only music anybody with any power danced to.
Popi was right. We’re still killing each other in Chicago over dime bags, and still wringing our hands over smaller cruelties. Everything has changed, and everything remains the same.
Published in: on May 13, 2014 at 5:47 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , , ,

The City Bird

The City Bird (etching)

Published in: on May 5, 2014 at 6:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

Lunch Drawing #35: Ice Bird

Lunch Drawing #35: Ice Bird

About 10 years ago, a few days before Xmas, I spotted one of these birds right outside of Marshall Fields downtown,on top of a mailbox. The birders reading this will shake their heads. This bird at that time would have no business being there,or damn near anywhere south of the Arctic Circle. I was astonished. It could not be a mistake; no other bird looks like this one. I looked around and realized, I had nobody to tell. Cell phones (or at least mine)didn’t have cameras yet. So I just stared at it.

People shoving by me in the bustle of Xmas shopping. . .there was a guy dressed like a Dickens elf pimping hot chestnuts about 20 feet away, and this bird. . .staring around. I wanted to be able to stop the whole city in its tracks and point him out; shout at the top of my lungs, “There is a snow bunting in the middle of downtown Chicago! This is really fucking RARE! Christ, go buy a lottery ticket. This is a sign!!!”
Still, nobody knew it, except me and the bird. And not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought of that bird. That maybe it is my grandmother. . .a visitation of sorts, or my father, or the many dead friends, or more likely, just a lost bird that crossed paths with the right guy who needed to be reminded of life’s magic and circumstance. What Paul Auster once called, “The Music of Chance.”

Maybe it was that.

Published in: on January 29, 2014 at 9:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

Lunch Drawing #34: Chicago Sapsucker

Lunch Drawing #34: Chicago SapsuckerThere was an event the other night at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park, just north of the Zoo. It was in celebration of the publication of my friend Joel Greenberg’s fascinating natural history account of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, A FEATHERED RIVER ACROSS THE SKY. It is a remarkable book about the squandering and wholesale slaughter of a single species.

In 1840, there was a description of a single flock of passenger pigeons so huge and in such great volume, it took three days for this one flock to fly over. The estimate is something like three billion birds. So many that the sky was darkened; a phenomenon reported on many other migratory paths as well. It is almost unfathomable that these birds would ever NOT be in the world. A scant fifty years later, they were gone. The last one, “Martha,” died in captivity in a Cincinnati Zoo; having never flown or even been in the wild. It is almost impossible to believe that this hearty species, a bird that could swallow acorns whole, could be wiped out in such short order.

There were “pigeon shoots” where, for days on end, yahoos with birdshot would blow them out of the sky and lure them to blinds and blast them at will, with no bag limit. One could kill as many as one could carry. They were often thrown to their pigs as a cheap food source and served in restaurants as squab.
The only grace note the extinction of the passenger pigeon affords us, is that the idea of the conservation of endangered species came to the forefront. The idea that the bounty of species this country was so blessed with might NOT be endless.

Greenberg’s book is a detective story, cautionary tale, and natural history of a species we decimated perhaps because its outsized appetites were too much like our own.  This book is every bit as vital as Rachel Carson’s, “SILENT SPRING.”

A couple of years ago, while my friend, the painter Jenny Scobel was in town, we ran across what we thought was a dead bird in the street. We stopped and Jenny went out to pick it up. It was a beautiful bird that looked to be some kind of woodpecker. While holding the bird, she jumped for a second as she realized the legs and wings were beginning to move, and then the eyes opened. Not only was the bird not dead, but the plucky little bastard wanted to fight. She wasn’t quite up to flying yet, as we’d put her on the ground and she just kind of hopped as though drunk. It seemed she was still in shock. After bringing her back to my studio, a consultation with a bird guide helped identify her as a yellow-bellied sapsucker, which actually is related to woodpeckers.

What amazed me is just how beautiful this bird was. The reds and yellows and black and white and ochres really knocked me out. I’d never held a songbird before, and had not ever realized how fragile and tough they are at the same time.

Our best guess is that she’d flown into a windshield and knocked herself out and she was by no means ready to re-enter the wild yet. She’d have been easy pickings for some cat (fucking cats) or coyote.
We found a bird rescue operation and within 30 minutes, a humorless woman with a bird bag walked through the door and gently placed the wounded bird in the bird-sack. She eyed us suspiciously, I assured her that the bird hadn’t bounced off of our windshield, and she gave me a suspect look and wordlessly left the studio. I guess all of her excess personality and compassion is reserved for her feathered friends.

This encounter made me serious start looking at birds again. I’ve been fascinated with them since childhood and I rigged some bird feeders in the back yard. Every morning is a miracle. Sometimes 30 different species of songbirds show up at my feeder–sparrows, juncos, blackbirds, finches of every kind and here and there, the odd warbler, as well as cardinals. I don’t know what it is about them that makes me so happy, gives me such peace and fills me with such wonder. Perhaps it is the idea that nature isn’t something a hundred miles away; that it surrounds us and makes city life more bearable and beautiful and wondrous–and it doesn’t cost you a thing.

Emily Dickinson once wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers.”

For a woman who didn’t get out much, she knew her stuff. I’m betting she had a bird-feeder.

Published in: on January 25, 2014 at 5:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

Lunch Drawing: Talking to Drunk Girls

Lunch Drawing: Talking to Drunk Girls

This is another of my “Lunch Drawings.” It came from an encounter with some drunk girls at Black Dog, the greatest gelato place in Chicago. These young women were shit-faced and trying to eat gelato and play with my dog, Chooch. Chooch ate their gelato and they giggled until one of them puked like a firehose.

I held her hair so she wouldn’t zuke in it, then they cried and told each other they loved each other and they loved me for not letting their friend puke in her own hair. There was some puke on my shoes but it was no big deal. I felt bad for her; I can remember many a night this also afflicted me.

I told them to stay away from the sweet shit… that if they started out drinking vodka, bourbon, and beer, then goddamit. they should stick with vodka, bourbon, and beer. I told them it was the appletinis that fucked their night up, and that NO male wants to knock boots with anyone who would pour apple juice into perfectly good vodka. Most men would sooner go home with a girl with a nose wart. They thanked me.

Published in: on September 17, 2013 at 12:02 am  Comments (3)  
Tags: , , ,

The November Garden

autumn

It happens after you are on the other side of Fifty–a reckoning; the moment comes to you when you know without reservation that there is more behind you than ahead of you. Every autumn becomes a requisite paring down of colors and leaves and daylight.

There is a tree on my street that every year, for about a week, turns to yellow fire, and when the wind blows through it, right before dusk, you’d swear it was alive. You’d think it was connected to something ancient and if it could speak it would whisper a foreign language nobody speaks anymore.  Nature has this way with us; its own atavistic identifiers that move us for reasons we cannot always explain.

For me, there is always something sad about horse chestnuts when their spines fall off and they lay on the ground with craters like a decayed planet. It is nature, exacting its price, making mortal shells of once-robust and colorful structures.

I wouldn’t want to live anywhere but here in Chicago for autumn. The color change and the activity at my bird feeder changes incrementally every day and I’m able to sit on my back porch first thing in the morning and watch each moment become more amber, more laden with regret, and more relentlessly lovely. You don’t want to miss a minute of it.

Published in: on August 9, 2013 at 5:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,

Thank You

thankyou

There is a lot of grace in the exchanging of gratitude. I always wonder whom to thank for the birds, the stars, the sound of my kids laughing, the tree on my street. . .one that every autumn, without fail, turns into this luminous yellow fire, leaf by leaf and for the cool collection of ’70s funk and slow jams on my iPod.

I try not to measure this world by what I don’t have and be grateful for what I do have. Sometimes people will ask me where I want to “take my career” next. The truth is, right here is fine. If you’d have told me 30 years ago that on this day I would have six of my etchings hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago in the same show with David Hockney and Robert Rauschenberg, Alex Katz, and Picasso, I wouldn’t have believed you. It didn’t seem possible. But I got here.

And here is just fine.

A lot of you helped me along the way, and I hope I thanked you. And if I didn’t, then I’m doing it now.

The show is called, “The Artist and the Poet.”

I haven’t gone to see it yet, truth be told I never thought I’d get to hang in this amazing institution in my lifetime–or deathtime for that matter.

Chances are when I roll up on my pieces, I don’t know what will happen. There is a good chance I will bitch-up and start crying. There is also the very good chance I’ll find my effort wanting. Whatever happens, I want to be ready for it.

But for over 30 years I’ve been doing this for a life.

It isn’t a “living,” it’s a life.  And if you’re reading this, chances are, in some way, you helped me get here.  Thank you for walking the miles with me.

Published in: on February 3, 2013 at 12:02 am  Comments (4)  
Tags: ,

Three Aces

threeaces

One of the best things about Three Aces on Taylor Street is the number of bike clubs that visit and co-exist happily. It’s that kind of joint. It’s a bar where even people who can’t drink anymore can find a comfort level.

Half-Fast, the Boozefighters, the Southside clubs and many others stop in from time to time because it’s motorcycle friendly. The truth is, it is everybody-friendly (unless you’re a chooch). . .unless you’re a mental midget who doesn’t act right.

I’m amazed at the variety of people Three Aces attracts, and I know why.

Anthony Potenzo.

There is no better front of the house guy anywhere. This place has always been what he wanted and he relishes it. I never met a guy more happy to go to work. He is the Toots Shor of Taylor street.

In the summer, the patio is wide open and it is a study in urban sociology– aldermen, models, bikers, actors, tattoo artists, tradesmen, gearheads, writers, and people from the neighborhood mingle and laugh and drink, and for a time, the whole hurting world is on the other side of the fence.

I love this place.

 

Published in: on January 15, 2013 at 11:42 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , , ,

Hells Angels

hellsangelschicago

“It’s like this; every baseball player wants to be a Yankee, and every biker wants to be a Hell’s Angel. . .” – Steve Earle

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter–bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”

Stephen Crane
From The Black Riders

There is a dense mythology that surrounds the Hells Angels. They are mythic–they are barbarians, pirates of the road, killers, bangers and bastards. They are are all of these things, and none of these things at once. The Hells Angels are a beast unto themselves.

One can watch Gimme Shelter and be rightly horrified by the actions of the California Angels, and then one can pull alongside the double-file, miles-long line of Harley Davidsons packed with toys for kids every year and, oddly, be touched by the actions of the Hells Angels. A woman I know in London recently wrote me and said that where she lived, the Angels were more likely involved in charity works than any real criminality. They are the most well-known of motorcycle clubs; the first to be designated as an”outlaw motorcycle gang” by the American Motorcycle Association.

Any reporting or historical information regarding the Angels is bound to be rife with errors and half-truths–even the stories they’ve written about themselves; in fact, especially the stories they’ve written about themselves. they’ve always known not to rat themselves out with inflated braggadocio and to protect themselves from the man.

When they thought Hunter S. Thompson resorted to a little too much embroidering in his fascinating, if flawed, Hells Angels, they warned him. When it persisted, they stomped the shit out of him. The Angels felt like Thompson fictionalized and revealed a bit too much.

Honor. Respect. Loyalty. These are the code words of the Angels, and to be deficient in any one of these traits disqualifies you from the possibility of membership among their number.

The Hells Angels are named for a Bomber squad in WWII some of the original members came from. A bunch of Air Force combat veterans returned from the war only to find themselves without jobs in the aviation field for which they’d been trained. It seems, in many cases, the returning vets’ hearing loss was a mitigating factor in their inability to any longer perform these jobs. Some, disillusioned by this, bought big American motorcycles and leather boots and made nomadic runs between San Bernadino and Oakland in search of day jobs and fun.  The only motorcycle club that pre-dates the Angels is the Booze Fighters, another group of Air Force vets who wanted little to do with the Angels, whom they sensed were a different, more outlaw, breed.

The Booze Fighters are whom the gang in The Wild Ones are based upon, particularly Lee Marvin’s role, “Chino,” who is based on a real-life biker named Wino Willie. After The Wild Ones, both the Angels and the Boozefighters became legendary presences in Southern California, spawning a culture of non-conformity that inspired everyone from other bike clubs to the beatniks.

The leader of the Hells Angels, for as long as I’ve been alive and aware of them, has been Sonny Barger. Barger, a native of Modesto, California, with a long history of delinquency has been the leader of the Angels since 1957. He has remarkable charisma and is resolutely patriotic. Barger once wrote then-President Nixon a letter informing him of the Angels willingness to go and “finish” the Viet Nam war for America. He and fifty Hells Angels.

He also tangled with anti-war protesters, whom he despised for their lack of patriotism. There are some very telling Sonny Barger quotes. Here are a few of them:

“Treat me good, I’ll treat you better; treat me bad, I’ll treat you worse.”

“The greatest thing that I have learned is probably the simplest thing any of us can learn: I am who I am.”

“My most basic credo is: I never said freedom was cheap. And it ain’t. Never will be .It’s been the highest priced and most precious commodity in my life.”

(Referring to Keith Richards during the Altamont Concert in December 1969.) “I stood next to him and stuck my pistol into his side and told him to start playing his guitar or he was dead.”

“If I ever get too old to ride my motorcycle and have pretty girls, I’d rather just rob a bank and go back to prison.”

It is also a credit to Barger’s stewardship of the Angels that he has led them effectively through their decades-long blood feud with the Outlaws, a motorcycle gang formed right here in Illinois in 1936. The Outlaws, for years, did all they could to keep the Angels from opening a Chicago chapter, which inevitably happened in 1994, despite the Outlaws’ president, at the time, blowing up their clubhouse on Grand Avenue. The Angels came here, patched-over the Hells Henchmen and there has been a Chicago chapter of the Angels ever since.

It is very hard to know what to believe of the Hells Angels. Those who hate them will tell you they are savages and animals. Those who revere them will tell you they are the last generation of American men who truly own themselves. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I do know the the Angels are the original  “One-Percenters”–the one percent that doesn’t fit in and doesn’t care to and, in this cookie-cutter world of conformity, there is no small amount of grace in that.

I’ve known a few Angels over the years, or I should say, I’ve met a few. Except to each other, maybe,they are unknowable. They remain our nomads. . .a culture of men who wish to belong to nothing except themselves and each other.

Published in: on December 26, 2012 at 9:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,

Chicago Mermaid

 

As proud as I am of my Irish heritage, I will admit that we believe in some pretty goofy shit.

We are fishermen from way back and believe in any number of aquatic phantasms–nymphs, Jenny-Linds, Selkies, sea serpents and many other manifestations of floating apparitions.

Mermaids are the killers though. They are beautiful and imperiled, and many a Mick dipshit has dove overboard to “save” one clinging to a rock only to find that by the time he gets to her after fighting off a rolling sea.she actually looks like Don Knotts with tits.

I decided to make a Chicago Mermaid, a blues girl. Who wouldn’t do you like that. Who wouldn’t hide her beauty.  No. . .she would save you with the blues in shades of blue and green and velvety black.

This one too, is for my pal and fellow Mick, John Manion.

Published in: on October 15, 2012 at 5:27 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , ,

Every Radio In America

Every Radio in America

Thinking about summer; when one sometimes walks down the street at night and every radio in the world is tuned to the same song. . .magic like that and the Chicago sky and all of its sparkling jewelry. . .

Published in: on July 18, 2012 at 8:00 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , , ,

Wint-O-Green Moth (for Etta James)

Wint-O-Green Moth (for Etta James)“All the good ones die or get murdered.  Jesus: murdered.  Martin Luther King: murdered.  John F.Kennedy:  murdered.  John Lennon: murdered.  Malcom X: murdered.
Ronald Reagan? WOUNDED.”–The late, great Bill Hicks on fate.The great Etta James has died. Her baby face and angel’s voice are gone.

The Sun came up.  The mail got delivered and life goes on, but the world is at least one shade more gray.  If her soaring, soulful rendering of “I’d Rather Go Blind” doesn’t break your heart, well. . .you don’t have one.  If  “At Last” doesn’t bring a sad, mournful smile to your face, then you’ve never been in love.

Miss Etta was the real thing. You know it when you hear it. It freezes you in your tracks and makes you stare at the radio. She was only like herself.

Jamesetta Hawkins faced no small amount of turmoil in her 73 years; addiction, obesity, poverty and finally Alzheimer’s and leukemia.  None of it could dim the thousand-watt smile or the spine-tingling contralto.  If one believed in the music of angels, Etta James was their evidence.

Winter has finally showed up in earnest in Chicago.  Nine inches of snow fell and again my fellow Chicagoans are running around with sparks shooting out of their asses, acting as if they’ve never seen the stuff before–driving like retards, putting all manner of shit in the streets in the name of “dibs” wherein, because you shoveled your own car out.  You now take over ownership of that part of the street; a basic “fuck you” to your fellow citizens and taxpayers.

Myself? I LOVE when people put out folding chairs.  I always need folding chairs.  Some of them even put out step stools which, as an artist, I’m always in need of.  I do like when guys with service industry trucks just run this shit over.  Was that your Lego table?  Sorry. Maybe you shouldn’t put shit in the street, asshole.It’s also fun to watch the Ukrainians swing shovels at each other.  Shoveling your walk in my neighborhood is a big deal.  I have my assistants or a couple of wine-soaked Mexican dudes shovel mine and the old Ukrainian ladies down the street a few houses…some of the Ukie’s get pissed at me.

“Why you not shovel your own fucking stoop, Meester Beegshot?  Why somebody else walking your dog and cutting your grass?  You too good for this jobs, huh?” I get this shit from Uli, who has lived here for 30 years and always shoveled his own walk.

I tell him he is right; I’m way to good to be shoveling snow out there with the cabbage-eaters.  Hell, somebody might see me and think I’m. . .Ukrainian!!!!

He laughs and tells me I’d have to have a bigger dick to be Ukrainian.  That the Irish.  . .”They are hung like fucking CASHEWS.  Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.”

Uli is a funny motherfucker who is also not fond of people leaving stuff in the middle of the street.  On occasion he knocks back six or seven shots of Stoli and grabs his aluminum baseball bat and lays waste to some of the crap left out to preserve parking spots.  It is funny as hell because he shouts and swears while he is having batting practice and nobody tries to stop him.I don’t shovel snow for one reason.  Every year, the first time it snows heavily, all over the nation, there are 50-year old guys, red as a monkey’s ass, face-down in snow drifts, dead like a fucking hammer from massive heart attacks.

No thanks, Bunky.I want to die like my grandfather, peacefully, in his sleep. . . not screaming in terror, like his passengers.

It always fascinates me at the reaction.  This is Chicago.  We get an assload of snow every year, but people still drive like morons the first snow of every year.  Without fail, a senior citizen T-bones somebody at a stop street, or drives up on the sidewalk and kills some poor asshole from East Bumfuck, because they confused the brake for the accelerator.  Inevitably kids go “skeeching,” which is when you gab onto the bumper of a CTA or a school bus and slide down the street with it.  This, actually, requires real balls.  I’ve never done it.  There are a myriad of ways to wind up fucked-up or dead from skeeching.

When I was in high school, there was a kid named Tony Rogles who was the most fearless skeecher I ever knew.  He’d mosey up behind the bus and grab on, riding it a quarter mile until it intersected a really busy intersection, where the pavement had been plowed and therefore no good for skeeching.  I remember he’d go skeeching by as I walked to the corner to hitchhike home. He’s have this crazy smile and a Kool hanging out the corner of his mouth.  I don’t remember another thing about Tony Rogles except this.

On winter days, he looked into the icy face winter–and spit in its mouth.

Published in: on January 21, 2012 at 4:31 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: ,

The Hobo Smelt

The Hobo Smelt

At the end of March and in early April of every year, the smelts of Lake Michigan decide to kill themselves.  The little fish haul ass from the deeper parts of this treacherous lake and head for the shore.  On the way, they spawn, which means they bust one more nut on their way off this mortal coil.

For a great many generations, working class, immigrant Chicagoans were ready for them. Polish, Greek, Irish, Mexican, Ukrainian and Italians waited on Montrose Harbor and other docks lining the lake with fine mesh smelt nets full of nylon loops in which the smelt would oblige the hungry immigrant by voluntarily hanging themselves.

Every April in Greektown there was a special “smelt plate” featuring a dozen or so of the slimy fuckers, deep-fried and infused with garlic.  There are people who swear by these.  I watched Steve Earle gobble down a plate of these a decade ago and he was truly grateful.

“I love smelts, man.  Greeks make the best ones.”

I reminded him that they caught these in Lake Michigan; the beaches of which were once in a while closed because of “fecal grease balls.”  He just shook his head and said, ” Oh man, quit being a girl.  All of the hoo-ha cooks OUT.  Are you that big of a pussy that you won’t eat a fish out of Lake Michigan?”

I told him I wouldn’t eat Uma Thurman if she came out of Lake Michigan.

My friends Donnie Madia and Paul Kahan own a few wonderful restaurants in Chicago.  Madia is the restauranteur and works the front of the house at Chicago’s Blackbird and Publican; and Kahan is the James Beard Award-winning chef whose food is as much a meditation on American working people’s culinary history, as it is a reinvention of dishes we thought we knew, such as bacon, oysters and pork.  He is as much anthropoligist and historian as he is chef.

One night at their fine pork and oyster house-cum-Belgian beer hall, Publican, the always dapper Madia brought me and my daughter an elegant plate with two very hearty smelt on it.  I was amazed.  I’d never seen such robust examples of the Lake Michigan garbage fish.  they were plump, shiny and meaty as hell.  Madia assured me they were from Lake Michigan and Paul Kahan backed him up .

“The Lake has really come back,  T,” Donnie assured me, “Not every part of Lake Michigan is like. . .ya know. . .Indiana”, he said with a furtive glance over his shoulder.

These were the best smelt I’d ever eaten and, of course, they were–Paul Kahan had made them.  You could toss him a road-killed dachshund  wrapped in a moldy jockstrap and he’d find a way to turn it into haute cuisine.  Hell, one night he fed me duck hearts and I’d have crawled through broken glass for more of them.

For years, smelting was one of those Chicago phenomenons that transcended tribal boundaries.  The Mexicans fished right next to the Ukrainians and Greeks and Blacks.  Everyone was thrilled at each other’s haul.  Cans of Old Style and Schlitz got passed around and inevitably someone would cook up a bunch of smelt in buckets with coals and smear them on Italian bread, or in tortillas with chopped onions and tomatoes.  And you just ate the little bastards–bones and all.  It was a people’s celebration of the coming spring and the new warmth in the air.  One of those ephemeral and regional joys that happened every year without any great expectation or complicated definition.

My father would walk me from one end of a dock to the other and tell me to close my eyes and see how many different languages I could hear.  At the end of the dock he’d point out the North Star and explain to me how the captains of sea vessels would “box the compass” around it.  And under the dock, the smelt were a whir of silvery light. . .indecipherable as the tails of comets.

It is remembering things like this that allow me to hold out hope for this city.  Those moments when we are not at perpetual odds with each other. . .those instances of  community that bind us as  a species instead of a mere collection of ethnic collectives. . . those moments when we look out over that magnificent shimmering lake. . .we all see the same waves, bathed in  the light of our city.

Published in: on February 23, 2011 at 12:01 am  Comments (2)  
Tags:

Star For the Yellow Cabs

Star for the Yellow CabsIn mayoral politics, Chicago has a fascinating ongoing narrative.

When I was born, we had a Mayor Daley.  When I graduated grade school, we had a Mayor Daley.
When our country’s bicentennial occurred, we had a Mayor Daley.  The day I got married–19 years ago–we had a Mayor Daley.  I am now 52 years old and guess what?

We still have a Mayor Daley.

Not for much longer though.  Unlike his father, Richard M. Daley has chosen not to die in office.  If you’d have asked me a year ago, I’d have told you that the son, like the father, would have gone out on his shield.

I have complicated feelings for the father and the son; among them, a feeling of great debt, because of both of these men, this city still stands tall among the world’s great cities.  In the 60’s, when Detroit, Cleveland and all of the other rust belt cities were abandoned by their middle class and falling into disrepair and despair, Chicago did not.  We had our period of furious “white flight,” but Daley senior did not lose the industrial and manufacturing base those cities did.  Daley did not lose his city.  He attracted jobs and built and built and built.  Chicago expanded ever outward and upward. While others shrunk and ran for cover, Daley built skyscrapers, bridges, highways and schools.  There were always jobs to be had in Chicago.

Did he allow corruption?   Almost certainly.  The old man was not interested in money much himself; his Achilles heel was power–and he had an immense amount of it for a city mayor–in fact, enough to hand John F. Kennedy the 1960 election.  It seems some Cook County votes were lost  during the long election night (perhaps as much as a truck full).  Oh, well.  Did the Irish cronies he counted among his supporters do well financially?  You bet;  so did the Polish, Lithuanian, Italian, Jewish, Black and Hispanic supporters.  The old man rewarded loyalty and punished disloyalty.  If one got caught, he disowned them.  There is an old saying in Chicago politics: “Pigs get fat.  Hogs get slaughtered.”

If guys got greedy and subsequently caught, the Old Man fed them to the wolves.  Whatever they did, he let them know that God, and more importantly, Daley, had forgotten them.

He was vain, boisterous, patriotic, modest, vindictive, religious, and loyal as a soldier.  And he loved this city.

Other Chicagoans– African Americans chiefly among them–will tell you he was the embodiment of white institutional racism and they would not be wrong.  He lagged far behind other city mayors as far as equal opportunity initiatives went and a great many of my black friends will tell you they believe the Dan Ryan Expressway was built to keep blacks from coming downtown. Still others will point to his membership in the Hambourgs as a young man, an “athletic club” of Irish young men that was known to have participated in the bloody 1919 race riots on Chicago’s Southside, touched off by the murder of a young black man who’d inadvertently crossed the color line at Rainbow  Beach.  One could easily make the case for Daley the Father’s racial insensitivity.  One would  also have to acknowledge the fact that Daley senior was elected six times carrying all of the African American wards every time.  The evidence suggests that the old man was a racist.  I’ve never been so sure of this.  Did he share the unfocused bigotries of men of his generation?  Almost certainly. And let us remember that the old days were awful and bigoted speech was not only winked at, it was expected and it was institutional.  I make no excuses for the old man, but the key word here is old; the zeitgeist moved faster than he could. . .or would.

Was Daley a better man than his times?  Sadly , no.  Chicago was, and in some ways still is, a bastion of racism.  We are still one of the most segregated cities in the world.  One can also not blame Richard J Daley for this.  This was a city of tribes long before he got here.  We almost always soft-pedal this shit.  We say coded and rote things like, “We’re a city of neighborhoods,” which is Chicagoese for, “Stay the fuck out of mine.”

We are not unlike other places; we want to be with our own.

Under Daley the son, the power was distributed differently.  Every group got its own power franchise of sorts.  The son was and is a brilliant tactician and like the father, woefully easy to underestimate, which is a mistake.  He also must be praised for holding this complex, contrary and vindictive place together for better than two decades.  He is slightly more eloquent than his father, who gave us gems like, “I resent the insinuendoes” and “I’m here to preserve the disorder.”  Nobody ever backed ass-first into a sentence like the old man.

Richard M. Daley also saw this city through its storms.  He also had an ugly temper, losing his shit at press conferences, his whole head turning purple.  I love his freakouts.  There were not a lot of them like his Dad, but some of them were choice.  A constituent threatening to sue the city over the snowfall and Daley junior going mental on the guy, “That’s an Act of God.  Whattya gonna do?  You gonna sue God?  Huh?  Huh, smart guy?  Call your lawyer up and sue God.  Sue  God.  Tell me how that goes for you.”

You can’t make shit like this up.

Suffice to say the son didn’t have to preside over as much tumultuous history as the father did, but he fought his battles–believe that–and he won them all.

I think what you can say of the Daleys, father and son, is that for absolute good and despairingly ill, they are and were men of their corrupt, magnificent and transcendent city.

Published in: on February 18, 2011 at 1:46 am  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , ,

Star for My Black Irish Heart

Star for my Black Irish HeartAlmost every year in Chicago, it’s the same story on St. Patrick’s Day–a bunch of drunken, green-wearing slap-dicks spilling out of bars all over the city and projectile-vomiting foamy green puke on everything in sight.

There is an impression that the Irish are a bunch of happy-go-lucky dipshits with fake brogues and cheery dispositions.  Let us dispense with this myth right now.  There is no darker heart than that of the Irish, Boyo.

We gave the world Whitey Bulger, The Westies, Michael Collins and Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll, as well as Owney Madden and Legs Diamond–not a bunch to fuck around and try to ‘high-five’ with.  They were all poor kids who had to beat, steal and kill their way to a small piece of the world, and they new well that the “luck of the Irish” was a myth and the cruelest of jokes.

You don’t want the luck of the Irish. Poverty, famine and the oppression of the British Crown are some of the components of this “luck.”  Still, from time to time, our boys managed to get their licks in.

Vincent Coll was an enforcer for both Dutch Schultz and Owney Madden, and both were scared shitless of him.  He was the blackest of the “black Irish,” with dark eyes that never blinked.  Owney Madden, who owned the Cotton Club and the gambling and policy (numbers racket) in Harlem, once asked Coll what it was like to be able to kill a man without so much as a second thought.

Coll looked at him with those unblinking eyes and said “Boyo, it’s like anythin’ really.  A fella’ must love what he does in order to do it well, and I love my work, and I’d do it even if no one ever tossed me a quid.”  It was then Owney’s fear of Coll began in earnest and, over the next few years, tried many times to have Coll murdered.  It wasn’t Madden, but Dutch Schultz’s gang that finally got Mad Dog Coll. . . in a phone booth at 23rd and 8th in New York City, but not before Mr. Coll dispatched at least 50 people off of this mortal coil.

The Irish have been conquered, raped and pillaged by the Spaniards, the English and the Vikings.  Some “luck.”  They still managed to take the language imposed upon them by their conquerors and use it better than they did.  The Irish gave us James Joyce, his secretary Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan and Keats.  We are the best storytellers on the planet.  We endured a famine so atrocious almost a quarter of our countrymen perished while the English raided our surviving potato crops.  Nothing really grows on our boggy pile of rocks (in the North) except grass and potatoes and some scraggy trees.  Our grass is so rich with minerals, we raise the finest thoroughbreds in the world.  Book-making is legal in Ireland and damned near everybody is on the dole.  The best thing though, is that artists pay no taxes.  The place is a knot of contradictions.

We are a combative bunch.  We love our mothers and fear God.  We revere the water and the fairy tales about Selkies and Jenny-Linds.  We believe in luck and are eternal optimists in games of chance.  My father burned at least 10 bucks a day on Lotto tickets and, being a child of the Irish Sweepstakes, always believed he was going to win the big one some day. Three days before he died of skin cancer in 1998, he had me running down to the pharmacy for scratch-offs from the daily game.

We’re full of shit.  We’re the biggest braggarts in the world.  Ours is the sin of Pride.  To this end we produce politicians, especially in my city.  Daley, Burke, Hanrahan, Danaher, Touhy, McGann, Dunne, O’Malley, Durbin, Mell, Finley; these are just a few of the names of politicians who hold or recently held office in Chicago, and I could go on.  They ain’t Swedes.  They are also damn near half of the police force and when I was a kid, they were some brutal motherfuckers.  Some of you are probably old enough to remember the warm embrace the hippies got here in 1968; the tender mercies extended to them in Grant Park while the whole world watched.  In 1996 I ran into a copper I knew at the ’96 Democratic Convention.  He was wearing a T-shirt that read:

“Hi Asshole, I kicked your Dad’s ass 20 years ago — now it’s your turn”

The Irish have a ferocious sense of boundaries.  Reach for mine?   I’ll cut your hand off.  It was either Shakespeare or a Chicago Pol that said,  “Kiss only the hand you cannot sever.”

Still, somehow we have been burdened with this jolly-asshole reputation.

There is a marvelous, overlooked movie from 1981 called, True Confessions. It stars Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall, as well as a host of brilliant Irish American actors like the late Ed Flanders and Kenneth MacMillan, Burgess Meredith and Cyrill Cusack, and the great Charles Durning, in what I think is his best screen role, which is saying a lot.  The movie is based on the great John Gregory Dunne’s novel of the same name and in it, Durning plays Jack Amsterdam, an avaricious, psychotic, dying gangster who is in cahoots with the Catholic Church.  He is the worst kind of hypocrite; a murderer and pimp and corrupter of other men.  He is also the worst kind of Irish; sentimental and blustery with the cheap not-so-charitable boosterism and racist to the core with a murderous temper.

There is a point in this film, at Durning’s daughter’s wedding, where this awful man finds a moment of grace.  The great Durning is standing around glad-handing and shit-talking and all of the sudden, the band starts to play a slow and mournful Irish song.  And Durning, who had to go at least 300 pounds at the time and was about 5 foot 9, starts to dance a traditional Irish jig and he is letter-perfect.  Not just “good for a big man”; hell, good for any man.  One moment he’s Jabba the Hut, the next. . .as fleet and graceful as a Celtic rhyme.  It is a marvelous moment in American movies; a rare moment of beauty from a bad man.

This is the way with us Irish.  We contain great beauty; that which history has not been able to take from us, and we wield it with the best and worst intentions.  Get in the way of our dance in this life, Boyo?  And we’ll knock your dick loose.

Published in: on February 11, 2011 at 6:23 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 309 other followers

%d bloggers like this: