Star For a Ghost Town (Southeast New Mexico)

Star For A Ghost Town (Southeast New Mexico)On the drive to Los Angeles last year we went south to Texas and then west, hugging the Mexico border as often as not– mostly on Routes 20 and 10.

I wanted to see  first-hand the Minutemen goofs “helping” the border patrol do their jobs.  It was an education.  We traveled through town after town of abandoned homes, foreclosure notices from West Texas to California and back, and all anyone gave a fuck about was people sneaking over the border.  Banks and unscrupulous mortgage brokers were busy creating a whole new culture of middle class homeless people and all these people cared about was watching the border.  It is an ongoing masterstroke of misdirection on behalf of the government and the banks.  They bamboozled a body politic into thinking a guy trying to sneak over the border in hopes of cutting grass for a living was responsible for their economic plight.  They were also selling the terrorist-sneaking-in-through-Mexico wolf-tickets the Right is so fond of.  To this day, they’ve caught exactly zero terrorists this way.  In fact, the preferred terrorist route of entry seems to be the Canadian border.  Still nothing sells like fear.

Around southeat New Mexico we got hungry.  It was around 9 o’clock at night and we saw a billboard for Huggy’s BBQ and a number for the exit.  Never wanting to miss a good plate of Tex-Mex Barb-B-Que, we pulled off and went looking for this place.  It was a small town with a post office; a few residential blocks and a one-block downtown that was completely abandoned…houses empty with the front-door hanging open, no lights of any kind, not even streetlights; abandoned cars that had been vandalized for parts, but not a soul in sight.  It was eerie as hell.  I thought out loud, “This is how Stephen King novels start.”  We turned around and went back to the highway and had a discussion about how this place got that way.  It seemed completely contrary to the time we lived in.  The further west we went, the more ghost towns we came across; like the whole town, en masse, had just upped and left.  I thought, “It’s the mortgage crisis. . .which seems somewhat plausible.  But  for a whole town?”

I shouldn’t have been so surprised.  Lots of small towns lost their charters and their populations with the collapse of the housing market and some of the banks.

I’d just never seen it before.

The trip was great for me.  I got to look hard at the American landscape, the West, the expanses of howling emptiness somehow teeming with life.  I loved looking at the land; the high dessert, the mountains, the Petrified Forest. . .places that look other-worldly and are yet, wholly American.  It occurred to me that the American West is worth every song or story ever written about it.

Through Arizona I saw roadrunners, snakes and coyotes dead in the road, rock, cactus and merciless distance, and landscape for the resilient and the strong.

Where Route 10 hugs the border, yahoos with side-arms park their SUVs and blabber on walkie-talkies to each other while the border patrol zooms back and forth.  They give not a fuck how fast you drive.  You can bury the needle along 10.  They’re only interested in Mexicans.  They speak endlessly about narco-terrorists and Mexican mafias, knowing full well those guys mostly stay south of the border where the cops are easier to pay off and the laws far more malleable.  The Americans they sell dope and pot to seem to be an after-thought.  It is the poor they don’t want immigrating; the guys who will wind up in Chicago or New York or California, washing dishes that seem to piss-off your Minutemen goofs the most.

It seems our country needs to blame someone else at every critical juncture.  Economy tanked?  Blame immigrants.  Empower boobs like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly to give voice to your anger over having an African-American president and people of color desperate to immigrate their way out of austerity.  These scape-goats are as good as any, and it will play at the ugly end of the populist pool.  But don’t blame the banks or the runaway corruption of the real estate business which managed to profit whether people paid or defaulted on their mortgages.  Whatever you do, subscribe to the new American ethos of, “It’s somebody else’s fault.”

It’s a new year tomorrow.  A good resolution for our country would be to find our better selves as a nation.  A republic begins with us.  Sack-up, be active in your community.  Ghandi was a smart guy for a fellow who walked around in a toga.  He entreated our better selves to “be the change you wish to see in the world.”  On that note. . .

Happy New Year.

Published in: on December 31, 2010 at 3:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Star for Western Avenue

Star For Western AvenueAs any good auto thief or auto parts thief can tell you, Western Avenue is home to the Midnight Auto, the night and day marketplace for hot cars and parts (now mostly just parts) in the city of Chicago.  Western is also the longest continuous street in the city.  It is not like Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles; one of those stretches of road that goes from the Out-house to the Penthouse and back.  Western pretty much goes from the out house to the dog house. . .not so many penthouses.

Until 1870, Western was the western border of the city limits.  Western used to be home to Riverview, the much storied amusement park that was torn down in 1967  to make way for a police station.   In its later years, Riverview had an unseamly reputation.  It was full of beatniks, sailors and kids who were to become known as hippies.  Older friends of mine tell me it was a good place to buy pot, and  maybe the last place where one could play Skee-Ball, a poor man’s version of bowling.

Every transit line in the city crosses Western; the Blue Line twice, as well as the Green, Orange, Pink and Brown lines.  Hardwired into the DNA of this street is the whole idea of transportation.  Western once hosted the longest streetcar line in the world.  Green Hornet streetcars zipped up and down Western until the mid ’50s.  My father took this streetcar to school and back.  So much for that bullshit about him walking five miles to school. . .in the snow. . .uphill.  You get the idea.

Western is a working class street, dangerous as hell and, for the longest time, didn’t even have bike lanes.  If you’re going to speed, this is the street to do it on.  In fact, if you are going to run pedestrians over, this is the street to do it on.  If you are going to sideswipe pickups full of junk and pass on the right-hand side; this is the street to do it on.  Western Avenue is a kill-or-be-killed automotive proposition.  It ain’t  for  pussies.

Lane Tech is on Western.  It used to be the biggest high school in the country.  Years ago it taught high school students the trades; plumbing, auto-body work, sheet metal and the rudiments of construction.  A great many of the tradesmen I’ve hired over the years were graduates of Lane Tech.

Between 103rd and around 115th Street once a year Western used to be host to a bacchanal of drunken louts known as the “Southside Irish Parade,” where my people, the Irish, as well as several other, mostly white citizens and suburbanites, would get snot-flying drunk and puke in your front yard.  (To my friends of color, know that these are the white people we never put on the brochures.)  The city shit-canned the Southside Irish Parade a couple of years back to many howls of indignation and ballyhoo  from your professional Irish types.  It seems to me the St. Patrick’s Day parade that occurs downtown, and welcomes everyone, is sufficient.

It is an avenue of pissed-off people going to and from work.  There is nothing leisurely about Western Avenue.  It is the Mud and the Blood and the Beer.  The working-class 500, with a little roller derby thrown in for good measure. The people speeding this 26.5 miles of Chicago’s gut?  They’re busy dying, eight hours at time. . .40 hours a week. . .’til death do us part.

It is the very picture of what Nelson Algren referred to as “Hustler’s Land.”  Grime and shining lights in equal measure.  An avenue with one foot in the gutter and the other dancing on a star.

When I was a kid, I was enthralled by all of the used car lots and their endless neon sequential lights that blinked a semaphore of promise and cash and deals.  I thought of them as palaces of some kind.  The OK used car lot with it’ spires of tiny white-hot bulbs. . .the Cars-For-Less streams of pointy red, yellow, green and blue triangular flags.  When I hear the term “primary colors,” well, these are mine.

To this day, Western is where you go when you want a used car and always, buried in their iconography or right upfront, there is a star.
The stars are a promise of something on this street; something better, something sexy, something closer to the top; something nearer to the heart of the American dream.

Published in: on December 24, 2010 at 12:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Gypsy Star

The Gypsy Star

In conversation a few weeks ago, a friend of mine made a remark about “fucking gypsies.”  I was a little surprised and he elaborated, “Hey, they’ve more than earned every negative and ugly stereotype ever perpetuated about them.”   I was a little shocked.  This man is NOT a bigot, quite to the contrary.

He explained that all of his encounters with gypsies were negative and that they were a culture of thieves–a wandering people.
I had been thinking about the treatment of gypsies I’d witnessed in Istanbul, where they were not even allowed inside the Grand Bazaar.  Of course they controlled the commerce outside of it, where they sold knock-offs of everything from Adidas tube-socks to Don Ed Hardy T-Shirts, luggage, candy, black market caviar; you name it.  I’d mentioned it to Ali, the guy driving us around and he said, “Do not, under any circumstance, talk to the gypsies.  They’ll swarm you and pick your pocket.”  Though they certainly were practitioners of aggressive marketing; nobody swarmed me or pick-pocketed me.  They mostly said, “Big Man, I got leather. . .your size.  I got socks for big feet!”

One was certainly aware the gypsies were there.  One guy cracked me up by telling me, “Get your deals out here.  The Turks and Russians will fuck you until you are dead.  TOO expensive, my friend!”  While they were all over you,  they were no worse than the shills inside of the Grand Bazaar who will chase you down the aisles to persuade you into a sale.

Years ago, there were a whole building of gypsies next door to my studio on Damen and these folks were thieves.  The men beat on the women and the guys would surreptitiously sneak mountain bikes and 10-speeds that they’d spent the day stealing, into their building at night.  I’d called the cops on them many times over the four years they lived there, mostly for domestic violence.  If I heard the women screaming, I’d call the police.  I am not one to call the heat, (this is always a last resort for me ) but the beating of these women. . .some of them quite young. . .was beyond the pale.

One night, one of the younger mothers in their group bummed a cigarette off of me and smoked it outside for a moment’s respite.  I’d seen her with her kids many times.  She was about 25 and had three small kids and in another life she could have been beautiful.  At this young age she already had wrinkles and crows feet and she just looked tired all the time.  I’d see her standing outside once in a while, in her near-beauty, just trying to catch her breath between the needs and yelling of her children and from the beatings her husband inflicted upon her.  She would never press charges, and the asshole would be back the next day.  This was the last man I ever hit.

One day I’d called the cops after hearing a particularly desperate sounding howl from the building.  Sure enough, the cops came and took the young woman away and the husband who had bloodied her lip and blackened her eye.  It got back to him that I had been the one to call the cops and a few days later he came walking up screaming, “cocksucker” and a bunch of other crap at me and then he started poking me on my shoulder.  I’m okay until someone lays hands on me; then it’s over.  Before I could think, I hit him in the eye, he went down and when he tried to get up I hit him again, this time, much harder, and he stayed down .  The other gypsies came out screaming at me and dragging him away and told me they were calling the cops.  I went in and had a cigarette and called my lawyer and told him that in the next ten minutes I fully expected to be arrested and to meet me at Belmont and Western with bail.
I realized after about an hour, the cops weren’t coming.  Still, I never felt good about it.  It felt like an ugly kind of failure.  Over the next few days I’d see this man’s children eye me warily going in and out of their building and I could tell what they were thinking.  This is the man who beat my father.

As bad as I felt, I never apologized and I continued to call the cops when I heard the inevitable violence erupting next door.  The young mother continued to walk by with new bruises and black eyes and I felt like some people get their hell here on earth.  From time to time, she’d still bum smokes off of me, tearing the filter off and quietly smoking.  Once in a while dispensing a nod or a quiet “thank you.”  I asked her once why didn’t she leave and she said, “We don’t run away from our family.”  I explained to her that she should not have to endure the beatings, and she said in her gypsy wedding she’d promised to obey her husband.

I never pressed it any further and one night they moved out, having stiffed the landlord and leaving no word as to where they were going.

I’m still offended at the treatment of gypsies that I witnessed in Istanbul.  I don’t believe it is ever acceptable to treat any group of people in a dehumanizing way . Gypsies are definitely enigmatic and mysterious and like the rest of us, all too human.  Still, I think of that woman who was my neighbor and her duty to a lousy life that literally bruised her every day.  This one is for her.

Published in: on December 21, 2010 at 4:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Star For The Aviator

Star For the AviatorNothing scares me like flying.  Whenever I board a plane, images of flaming balls of carnage go through my mental highlight reel until I convince myself that I’m on the bus. That’s right. . .the bus.  I pretend I’m on the Damen bus and everyone just smells a little better.   I pretend I can turn around and see the lady who spits in her purse, who rides the Damen bus most days and the guy who tries to sell me  gold chains.  Thirty-five thousand feet up in the air, I’m a pussy.  Every bump, knock and change in altitude freaks me out.

I was captivated last year by the pilot who put down a plane in the Hudson without crashing it.  Captain Sullenburger, or “Sully,” as every media  dick-pin labled him.  It was an incredible feat that could’ve gone way wrong if not for Captain Sullenberger’s able and composed professionalism and skill-set.

In the days following this event, he was, reluctantly, interviewed many times and he seemed like a quietly dignified man who was not used to the spotlight or idiotic questions.  The worst of these interviews was by  Katie Couric who asked Captain Sullenburger if he “prayed while the plane was going down.”  The captain very evenly replied that he was busy trying to land a plane in water and didn’t have time for praying.  I’ll never forget the look he gave Katie Couric as she lamely tried to amp-up an already remarkable story.

Fighter pilots always fascinated me as a kid.  It combined flying a plane and trying not to get shot out of the sky. The great Chicago photographer, Art Shay, flew several missions in WWII with Captain Jimmy Stewart, the actor. . .and bonafide war hero.  I cannot imagine flying in a sky full of schrapnel, flying bullets and tracers.  Those men were and are special.

The other day was the anniversary of Pearl Harbor.   A great many survivors of that sad day showed up in Hawaii to remember their fellow sailors and soldiers that perished that awful day.  I always think of my father on that day, the fathers of many of my friends, my uncles and the few million other 18-year-olds who went to the Pacific and Europe and saved the world.  Guys who, in some cases, had never owned an automobile, flying fighter planes and enduring some of the highest casualty rates in the history of warfare.  I think of those people a bit more now.

I hear veterans and soldiers say, “Freedom isn’t free.”  Now I know what this statement means.  It isn’t empty rhetoric.  I’ve been able to live a life, free to say and do what I want, because a lot of other  people paid the price.  When you see one of those old guys with the V.F.W. hats or pins, thank him, or her, for your freedom.

I never go to the Air and Water Show on Chicago’s lakefront every year.  I always have a sick feeling something could go wrong.  The Blue Angels are amazing airmen and hearing those fighter jets out doing drills over the lake is awe-inspiring, but it still  gives me the willies.  Every once in a while the news will have video from an air-show gone bad (usually wing-walkers or prop-job acrobats) and there is, preserved on video, the inevitable ball of flame and emergency vehicles rushing toward the carnage.  No thanks.

Some years ago, I visited the outer-banks of North Carolina and went to Kitty Hawk, where manned flight started roughly a century ago.  It is just sand and water. . .not much else; and overhead, all day long, jumbo jets zip back and forth, criss-crossing the sky.  It is then you realize what a hurry the world has been in getting from there to here. . . to and from. . . and at Kitty Hawk, there are a hundred years of echoes.

Published in: on December 11, 2010 at 12:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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Star For The Naked City

Every night at 2 in the morning, the old man cable station, WE, plays an old Naked City rerun.  I barely remember this show because the reruns were old before I was born.  It is a crime drama full of old New Work actors, mostly old stage pros and young upstarts from Stella Adler’s or Lee Strasberg’s classes.  It is kind of a treat to see the young Redford, Duvall, Ed Asner (with hair), as well as Lee Marvin, Burt Reynolds, Ed Nelson, Richard Anderson, and the  recently deceased Leslie Neilsen,  all chewing up the scenery and method acting their asses off.  Some of this work is truly cringe-worthy and some of it is great, like everything.

The real star of this show is New York City and the 1950, an era of cheap optimism that this show tries valiantly to tamp down.  They addressed real issues on Naked City; addiction and its root causes, the parallel realities of racism, poverty, criminality and hopelessness, and what these things all have to do with each other.  It was pretty raw realism considering when it was made.  I’m always amazed at the ambition of these scripts and the generous helpings of violence.  And the violence is always ugly and cowardly no matter who is dispensing it.  It was an interesting show where the people looked like real people. . . meaning, ugly motherfuckers like me could get work on this show.  The cops looked like cops and the crooks and harlots looked like crooks and harlots.  There was one episode with the young and very beautiful Cloris Leachman, who was really a dish around 1955, playing a real slut, and Bunky, she could sell the boom-boom.  She was dastardly and way fuckable.

I have a great deal of curiosity about the 1950’s; no nostalgia or sentiment.  I was born in 1958.  I have no love for “the good old days: when institutional racism was law and conformity ruled the day.  People have often told me the think my pieces are nostalgic. I cringe when I hear that.  I am in no way sentimental.  I am interested in history , and these scraps, matchbooks, wrappers and other paper arcana are evidence of how our culture communicated visually.  Do I love Chicago?  Yes.  And I hate it as well; particularly the cheap boosterism that masquerades as civic pride.  About a year ago, this city was willing to go buns-up to get the Olympics.  A bullshit caper that would have made a few developers a lot of money and possibly bankrupted the city itself.  If you don’t believe this, go ask Atlanta and Los Angeles, two cities that are still paying off their Olympic debts.  This proposition was also being bandied about as something that would bring jobs.  Horseshit.  Iit would create a bunch of lousy-paying service industry jobs that would be temporary.  A few thousand Chicagoans would get to pimp Slurpees to the tourists and then three weeks later, they’d be out of that job.  I mention this because of the way cities tend to think of themselves.  We never hear them trumpet the quality of their citizens’ educations or quality of life.  It is about the big events–the Olympics, Millenium Park (which I actually like), Taste of Chicago, where dip-shits from Des Moines come into town, get shit-faced and leave a river of puke from the lake to the Metra station.  This shit is big business here.  If you want to get the power crowd’s attention here, tell them you’re thinking about bringing a convention here and watch how fast they pull their cheeks apart.

I think about shows like the Naked City because there was a kind of realism about them, The city, in this case New York, was realized on a human scale.  They, like us, were boastful to be sure, but their  optimism was tempered with a realization  of the American dream’s trap-doors and fun-house mirrors.  A similar show was filmed here, M-Squad, with Lee Marvin (Lee Marvin!).  At the time, it was thought too grim. . .too realistic. . .a downer.  It too, dealt with social issues like deliquency, racism and criminality.  It didn’t last long, but it wasn’t bad.  I watch it to remember what Chicago looked like a half century ago; to see the lived-in faces and buildings and signs.

It was a portrait of us we’ve tried to forget; one perhaps, too close to the truth.

Published in: on December 6, 2010 at 4:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Boom Star

When I was in grade school, a few times a year, the school would have bomb-drills.  This was in case Russia woke up with a pee-hard and decided to launch some of its missiles.  During the Cuban missile crisis I was in kindergarten and the paranoid teacher was a life-long virgin named Miss Parmely.  (Don’t ask me how I remember this shit; I just do.  I can’t recall my PIN number, but I remember my kindergarten teacher’s name.)  Mrs Parmely was deeply concerned that the Cubans had gone Commie and would not only launch bombs, but they were only 90 miles off of Miami and could attack us by land as well.  She told us they were  “swarthy” people, but could blend in well enough to take us by surprise and kill us.  As you can probably discern, Miss Parmely was wrapped a little too tight, and to be honest, rather swarthy herself.  She told us the Communists were a godless hoard that spent all day thinking up ways to kill Americans.  I asked her, “Why don’t they just use the bombs?” She told me to shut up and that the bombs would never guarantee that they’d get all of us.  She said they’d not be happy until they killed every American man, woman and child–Carthage-style.

Naturally she scared the dog-shit out of us and made us participate in these retarded drills where we stood up, made the sign of the cross and then curled under our desks as if this would save us from an atom bomb.  The kid across from me, Jimmy Smudee, whispered to me “This is for assholes.  If the Commies drop an A-bomb, we’ve had it. Do you think this desk will stop an A-Bomb? Miss Parmely is a fucking mental.” I began to think about it and thought Jimmy Smudee had something there.  Why should I dive under my desk  like  Dickie-Dope if they drop an A-Bomb?  Why die and look like a dick?

From then on, Jimmy Smudee and I refused to get under the desk.  She told us it was just for “practice” and pleaded with us to comply.  I thought, “Yeah, like I need to practice looking like an asshole.”

She went crazy and dragged our asses to the office to the principal who called our mothers and sent us home for the day.  My mother agreed that if we were hit by an atom bomb, we were probably toast, but that I had to listen to my teacher and do what the crazy old bitch wanted, or she would have to tell my father.  That’s all she had to say.  The next time there was a bomb drill I got under the desk.  Miss Parmely still wasn’t satisfied though because I hadn’t made the sign of the cross.  I told her it seemed like a waste of time, seeing as there was a bomb hutling through space about to kill me, and that I’d have plenty of time for that under my desk.  She went mental again and was about to go off on me when she noticed Jimmy Smudee calmly sitting at his desk, not participating in the bomb drill.  She said, “What do you think you’re doing Mr. Smudee?”

And Jimmy Smudee dropped his bomb.

“Fuck you.  If the Commies drop the bomb, we’re all dead, I’m not doing any of this shit.”  And then, for good measure, he threw in, “My dad says you’re a Section-8. He was in a war, with real bombs.”

Miss Parmely went postal.  She grabbed Jimmy by the ear and dragged his ass to the principal where they took turns slapping the shit out of him.

I never saw Jimmy Smudee again.  He got kicked out, but that day he became one of my heroes and in an odd way, still is.

Mrs. Parmely reminds me of the handjobs in our government who try to scare us with their bullshit and then make us easier to control.  She also reminds me of the Glenn Becks and Bill O’Reillys of the world, who try to make us afraid of immigrants and Muslims and anyone else who isn’t “White America.”  The politics of fear are profitable for these creeps.  They grow wealthy and fat off of the spread of bigotry and intolerance.  I’ve cultivated a healthy distrust of government and media lately. I am one of those who would rather see for himself.

The only thing I ever knew about the atom as a kid was the atom bomb.  I didn’t know we were made of them and that the splitting of the atom was the birth of the Nuclear Age.  I always loved the symbol for atomic things though.  It had a kind of  an eternal look about it; the intersecting ovular lines and speeding balls felt infinite.  Like stars.

Published in: on December 2, 2010 at 11:41 pm  Comments (1)  
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