Thirty years ago, Peregrine falcons were among the most endangered of species. DDT and other pesticides did near-irreparable damage to their population. Luckily, the Cornell breeding project, conservation-minded falconers, and the the government joined forces in a “perfect storm” of protective measures to save the Peregrine.
It was also discovered that this falcon adapted beautifully to the urban landscape. They nest in the tall buildings all over the city and are fairly surrounded by an endless supply of pigeons to feast upon.
I watched this first hand one day. I was walking across Daley Plaza when I saw an explosion of feathers about fifty feet over my head. It looked like a pillow had exploded. The luckless pigeon dropped to the plaza and the Peregrine had spread her wings over her kill and proceeded to chow down on some squab. Pedestrians gave her a wide berth; some stopped to watch quietly, grateful they’d not been born a pigeon. I noticed all of the other pigeons got the fuck out of the plaza in a big hurry and nobody got within 20 feet of her while she ate.
What had happened was the falcon spotted her dinner and dove from about seven or eight hundred feet at a speed of 165 miles per hour and hit this poor bastard with her breast bone. The rock dove never knew what hit him. It would be like the gods dropping a boxcar on you.
I’m glad there are peregrines in Chicago. They are damn-near a perfect symbol for our city, in their beauty and cruelty. Chicago is that kind of city; you can hang on the cross, or you can pound in the nails.
The Union Stockyards have been closed since 1971. The century of suffering, human and animal, still bears much historical currency. We are still thought of in literature as “hog butcher of the world.” Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle brought great change in the meat packing industry. Until this great novel, nobody inspected the meat we ate. Six months after The Jungle was published, the U.S.D.A. started inspecting the slaughterhouses and the meat being issued by them. It was a grimy, filthy business. The Armours and Swifts built threadbare shanty-towns for their workers–mostly Czechs, Polish and Ukrainians– and the conditions were so unsanitary, that workers often brought home blood-borne diseases on their clothing and skin. There were no wash stations or showers. At one point the infant mortality rate was so high, one out of three children did not live until his first birthday.
It was a cruel life imposed upon generations of immigrants, all the while building great fortunes for the Armours and Swifts. I write this because I realize this has always been a city of great cruelty…to people, to animals, and somebody always profited from this suffering. It’s a little late in the game to be surprised by this, yet still, I am. This piece is called “The Prize Bull.’ It’s based on a pinata I saw when I was about 7 years old.
Every Sunday, I waited patiently while my father read the comics. I would not get them until he was finished. When he’d flip the section over to read the back page, I’d get a peek at what I’d been waiting for all week–Dick Tracy…the Sunday color comics. I loved Dick Tracy. His creator, Chester Gould, lavished much attention on the villains, as if their evil-doing were manifested into their very physicality.
Flat-Top, The Mole, Prune-Face…they were a gallery of grotesques unlike anything else in newspaper comics. Dick Tracy dispensed justice with a Calvinist zeal, shooting bad guys through the head electrocuting them. It was an immensely violent comic for a family newspaper.
As a kid, I drew Dick Tracy obsessively, as well as the villains. I also got to meet Mr. Gould when I was a kid and he was kind and told me to stay away from hippies and long-haired no-goodniks. I told him I would and was sworn in as a crime-stopper. So I got that going for me. . .
This will be in the new show in the spring. There were five deaths from gunfire in our city this weekend, and no small amount of violence perpetuated by drunken assholes “celebrating” St. Patrick’s Day.I guess Chicago has always had ice-cold killers, and is a city of immense cruelty. You don’t want to believe it, or at least, I don’t. But it is a mean city, and after midnight, there is absolutely no mercy here at all.
Anybody who loved roiling and thrashing punk rock loved this place. People bitched that it was a shithole. It smelled bad, the bathrooms were gross, it was grungy. Well, it was rock and roll–it was supposed to be dangerous and grimy. It was also, and still is, a perfectly serviceable bowling alley. I will always love this place.
I saw The Orwells and Sleater Kinney here. Every time I went to the Fireside I felt like I was easily twenty years too old to be there, and I’d look around and realize I wasn’t the only geezer there. This place was a uniquely American venue, a bedrock of Chicago music history– grease, sweat , blood, and spit–the very stuff of rock and roll.
I had the honor of doing the cover for the great Frank Catalano’s new cd, God’s Gonna Cut You Down. He is joined by the great Jimmy Chamberlin. These are “essential sides.”
More and more the Albert Camus quote about artists taking a long and arduous journey to rediscover the one or two images that first opened their heart; feels true to me. As a kid. I loved signs, and Chicago was full of them. I also memorized the ones in Villa Park and Lombard as a way of navigating. I loved the Cock Robin sign because of the rainbow cones you could get there– three neon-bright square scoops of sherbet. I also loved their burgers, which is not to say that they were good. They weren’t. they were buffalo-pucks, but as a kid, I ate all manner of garbage happily.
One of the things I loved in Tokyo was all of the packaging of candy, snacks, flair, popsicles, you name it. There were all kinds of signs and messages therein. Even today, I can tell what kind of neighborhood I’m in anywhere in the world just by the signs.
The Drive on Los Angeles’ Sunset Boulevard from the Pacific to downtown LA takes you through every American circumstance and appetite, from the penthouse to the outhouse and back. One minute you’re driving through tony Bel-Air, and very soon you’re among the walking wounded of East LA. This drive is amazing at night, when Los Angeles looks like a fleet, sleek animal decked out in lights. I get what people love about it. On that majestic ride, everything looks possible.
Needless to say there were no Cock Robin burger joints in LA. They have Rick’s In-and-Out Burger, which is way better and also has an iconic sign.
People who’ve had near death experiences will always tell you “your life flashes before your eyes” or some such jive. In truth, they are not all the way wrong. You find yourself revisiting places, situations, and circumstances that are familiar, kind of like a deja vu thing, but more resonant because it is something from your life, if this makes any sense.
I saw the Cock Robin sign, the side of my house from childhood where my mother grew lily of the valley, and my sister’s rabbits, among other things. They felt like missives from a childhood, waving good-bye.
Somebody sent me a picture of this bird on Facebook. I believe its proper name is a “Silver Eared Maltesia,” which sounds like a medication you take for the clap. One often sees these birds in the Asian bird markets, where they are sold tethered to sticks as cage birds–a stupid and cruel practice which I wish would cease. In fact, I wish all trafficking in exotic birds would be outlawed. I’ve never understood the instinct of people who would cage a creature meant to fly. It seems contrary to the creature itself, and identifies a deep and abiding cruelty.
When I was a kid, there was less disposable income around. Instead of throwing out a worn pair of shoes, people got them repaired, re-soled and re-shaped, and had the heels re-built. There was a shop in the Greyhound Bus depot downtown that had, on any given day, what looked like dozens upon dozens of shoes in various states of repair, a couple of guys working diligently, and a curious, older guy who smelled like a Beefeater martini jaw-boning the customers and making change.
He would look at me and say, “Kid, do you know what they call a man who makes shoes?” and I’d say ,”A Cobbler?”, and he’d say, “That’s right, but what do you call the guys who repair his shitty work?” I told him I didn’t know and he told me, “Why, you call us anything but late for supper.”
All of the guys in the shop would crack up and I’d pretend to laugh, not quite understanding the joke. I was about 11 and my dad would get his wing-tips repaired here from time to time.
The place was full of old shoe repair signs and I never forgot this one.
An older man rolled a baseball to a troublesome little kid at a country club one day. The older man, his skin touched by a half a century of playing the boys game in sunlight, was Ernie Banks and the boy was my son—and he still has the ball.
It is widely known that I have not ever been a Cubs fan. But staring out of this window in a hospital room, baseball seems a million miles away right now and winter has decided to add to its cruel toll our greatest baseball player. Even if you were not a Cubs fan, you were an Ernie Banks fan, because Ernie embodied the very thing that Sox fans claim to hate the Cubs fans for: He loved the game. Let’s play two.
All Ernie Banks needed was the crack of a bat, the sound of a ball being caught and daylight forever, like to be drunk on.
One can be sure that Mr. Banks was subjected to no small amount of racial invective, stone-stupid bigotry and ignorance. The miraculous thing about this gracious man is that if it bothered him, he never wore it. He had a saying once in a while he would just share with friends, “Fools is fools is fools.” He learned to laugh at ignorance rather than carry it. One of his closest friends was Buck O’Neill. O’Neill found Banks playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues flush with talent in the late 1940s early fifties. By this time, O’Neill had been doing some scouting, mostly for the Chicago Cubs. Banks was a natural who could hit, could field and had such cool composure that whenever anybody yelled an ugly remark, he smiled at them. It wasn’t a “Tom” smile; it was a smile carved from ice that carried the promise, “You’re next. Pitch me inside, I’ll take you downtown. Pitch me unhittable balls, I will step outside the box and hit back at you twice as hard… I am in this game, too.”
He is perhaps the greatest player to never wear a World Series ring. And, even that was not enough to evince anything like the idea of “tragedy” from Mr. Cub. He was lucky every morning he woke up and got to play ball.
In later years, Ernie tried his hands at a myriad of things. Car dealership, various other businesses, only to find out what he was best at was being Ernie Banks so he served on boards, built boys clubs and was a vocal advocate for the community. Mr Banks raised a lot of money for a lot of organizations and always dapperly dressed with a smile on his face.
The 1960s brought the horrors of two Kennedy assassinations, the murders of Dr. Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers, the Vietnam war and a palpable sense of rebellion among major league athletes, particularly athletes of color. Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Roberto Clemente and others all had political agendas to raise and bring forward and all of them honorable. Not so Ernie Banks; he played baseball. He also played on maybe the greatest team to never win the World Series.
A great many athletes tried to pressure Banks into adopting their politics and being more vociferous. Ernie wanted to play baseball. It did not however keep him from being active in the community, along with athletes like Jesse Owens and Sugar Ray Robinson. Where there was a cause, there was Ernie Banks. Ernie aligned himself with the old guard, men who believed in the promise of America and did not feel the need to be radicalized. The younger athletes viewed the old guard as the “square guard” and that their lack of appetite for “revolution” amounted to “Tomism.” Robinson, Banks and Owens bristled at this notion. All three men were veterans (Banks served during the Korean War) and endured the worst racial intolerance that the late 1940s, fifties and sixties had to offer. Through it all, whenever Ernie Banks heard an untoward remark or the “n word,” he would crouch at shortstop or first base and throw a punch into his glove, break out a smile and hold his face to the sun. And, baseball filled him with light.
Also, three weeks ago I had chest pains which led me to the emergency room and a quadruple bypass. Me and my family have been deeply touched and moved by the outpouring of mail, email, good wishes, prayers and support from all of you. I will write more about this in the coming weeks but I am grateful beyond words.
This drawing has its genesis in remembering ditching high school and going downtown to hang around the bus station, where you could buy cigarettes, fuck-books, and rolling papers. It was at the corner of Clark and Randolph and it was a pungent, down-at-the-heels, way station for transients and those down on their luck, forced to ride the dog. Old people would sit in their chairs and pay to watch television, 15 minutes at a time.
Homeless people would do the same thing, except pretend to watch television, catching a few nods. This place is where questions about “class” in America began to take sharper focus for me. This drawing is about remembering that place. I miss it. Every time I hear Steve Earle sing ‘Continental Trailways Blues‘ or think about Denis Johnson’s brilliant novel, Angels, this place comes alive in my memory.