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)  
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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)  
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Star for the Night Radio

Star for the Night Radio
For about a decade, I had a job working in radio.  Not really a career, as I was only full time for about a year, mostly I reviewed horror and crime movies with my pal, Buzz Kilman and did various fill-in jobs for other hosts when they were on vacation or otherwise absent.  For a long time I really enjoyed it.  It was getting paid to fuck off and have a good time.  WLUP paid for my movies and then paid me to talk about them.  It was great.  Buzz and I had the same taste in films; we loved horror movies and action movies and slowly I found out we just loved movies.  In the beginning, we only reviewed horror films and action films–our kind of movies–but as our show grew more popular we were forced to review shit like When Harry met Sally and other “chick flicks” and found that our show was good, maybe even better, when we didn’t want to see the movies.  Siskel and Ebert we were not. Actually, we  enjoyed extolling the virtues of splatter films that those fine men abhorred.  We loved a good “quality kill;” an exploding head a la Scanners, or a protruding pineal gland, like in Basket Case.  We were kind of the anti-critics and we never confused movies with real life like many of the bone-headed censors do.  I’ve never thought life much imitated art, but quite the contrary.  It was a fun job.  I always thought one could do amazing stuff with radio as a medium if  the right imaginations were involved.  Not that I ever did any.

Regrettably, most of the radio I was involved in besides Drive-In Reviews was standard run-of-the-mill FM drivel that did nothing to distinguish itself.  It is one of my great regrets that I squandered this opportunity.  Especially in light of what others have done with it.
Studs Terkel dignified the medium for 50 years.  Ira Glass reinvented radio as real-life theater with This American Life and every day Terri Gross delivers illuminating interviews and intelligent perspective on Fresh Air.  I feel like I could have done more with the opportunity I had.

I quit in 1997, over a decade ago and remarkably, people still recognize my voice from “The Loop.”  I quit after I noticed the mean-spirited shows coming on and beginning to hold sway over this country.  Not that we at the Loop were gentle; we could be thoughtlessly cruel, and I regret what part I had in this as well.  Sadly, I was not above this.  Were there targets deserving of this pillory?  Mostly. . .yeah.  I still don’t  feel bad about the merciless pounding Penn Jillette and I issued to a “radio psychic” one night who had it coming and decided to take on Penn.  Mr. Jillette pounded the snot out of this guy but good.  He was one of those “cold readers” whom sad and lonely people would call with real life problems that required real professional help and not fakery.  Any number of these folks sounded like they could’ve benefitted from a psychiatric professional or medical help, and the “psychic” quacks can do real damage in this setting.

After I quit, I more or less stopped listening to the radio, other than NPR in the morning and news radio once in a while.  I mostly listen to music.  When I’d tune in once in a while, I was appalled at the level of hate radio; the Limbaughs, Becks, O’Reillys, Savages and a whole bunch on Air America as well.  Left or right–it was vicious.  Talk radio had become the worst neighborhood in our country.

Radio seems to thrive on instilling fear of each other into the atmosphere.  In my drives across country I’ve heard the most racist, anti-semitic, homophobic crap on the planet, the religious stations of the South and Southwest being among the worst of them.  These folks scare the holy dog-shit out of me.  There are times when I stare at the radio and I suppose this is the desired result.

There are other times when I listen to the classical station late at night and they’ll be playing Chopin nocturnes or Mahler or, on occasion, a furious storm of Shostkovich, and the radio is a great balm to the end of a hard day.  On Monday nights I listen to my pal Tom Marker’s Blues Breakers and the radio takes me to humid places where I can smell BarBQ and sweet tea.  Marker is a student of the blues and nothing escapes his notice; one of those great radio DJs that loves what they do, like the great Dick Buckley, Johnny Mars and Herb Kent, The Cool Gent.  Those voices I remain grateful for; out there like ether, in the night  air.

Published in: on January 30, 2011 at 11:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Star for the Eternal City

Star for the Eternal CityChicago is never more beautiful or dangerous than it is at night.

The workman-like, bustling, hurly-burly like endless hustle of daylight becomes a fleet and sleek animal at night.
Dressed in lights and stars, come-hither reds, yellows, and greens, the dirty carpet sky leans back and reveals a skyline of glittering skyscrapers like gangsters dressed in diamonds.

It whispers,”We’re bigger than you” and “There are more of us than there are of you” and still, “We’ve already won.”
On occasion, I ride the Chicago Avenue bus from downtown to Damen Avenue and this ride is always a miracle of languages and sights,  if not smells.

The CTA buses lurch along like tired old mutts ambling from one skinny tree to the next.

At night you can see the 5-Stars lit up in neon from the new bar with the old-style signage as well as the endless taco joints and the pink horse of Alcala’a Western Wear.

This is my favorite street in Chicago; one where you are as likely to hear Polish and Ukrainian as you would English.  It is a street about business–small business–nail joints, drugstores, tattoo parlors and cut-rate furniture.

It is  an avenue of tribes.  The Mexican joints are supported by Mexicans; the Polish and Ukrainian, the same.  The influx of hipsters and artist types go to hipster and artist coffee shops and the newer eateries.  Eckardt Park is there. Once a renowned boxing gym, it is now mostly a community center with a beautiful pool and park district programming. The old Goldblatt’s building, long dormant, is now one of the city’s hidden jewels awaiting a new definition.

There is a coffee shop called Lorraine’s where the food is truly shitty and the sign promises “Bitchy Waitresses.”  Only on Chicago Avenue could this be considered a plus.  The Edmar’s grocery store was knocked down in favor of a new Dominick’s, complete with an on-site Starbucks that despite the scorn of the local nose-rings, does a brisk business.
Chicago Avenue is the new and the old city right on top of each other, yet not as mismatched as you would think.  The colors and signage from a half a block away dissolve into a Babel of urban language; urgent, seductive and unstoppable, yet visually comforting if you think of this city as your home.

One of my favorite things to do is to walk my dog down this street late at night.  When I can’t sleep. . .when it is peopled by kids staggering homr from the bars, old guys leaving for work or coming home from 3rd shift jobs, it is an avenue of American stories intersecting at a swift pace and all happening at once.  It seems to be an avenue in a big hurry to get wherever the story takes it next.

My dog, Chooch, goes crazy for the food smells carried up and down Chicago Avenue.  Once in a while, one of the guys from Tacos Veloz comes out and throws him a choice morsel of skirt-steak.  This guy loves my dog because when you give him a treat, he doesn’t just wag his tail, he wags his whole ass.  These guys laugh like hell and toss him another piece of the juicy meat.

I sometimes get the idea walking this avenue that all of the platitudes about the melting pot and the American Dream are all true.  It all kind of works here.  There is no ruling population.  It is a community and everyone has a little piece of the great pursuit of happiness here.  Everyone has his or her task.  This is a working city.  We’re happiest when we’re working like sled-dogs so we can talk about how hard we work and what it means.  In Chicago, work is identity.  We are what we do.  It is how we hold on to our place in this city.  It is our very gravity.

I often hear criticism that I try to be all things Chicago, which is actually not really true, but so be it.  I am continually fascinated by the history that unfurls itself on a daily basis here; hard not to be.  This city is one of the greatest ongoing stories that I know of.  It is also the place that has kept me guessing the most.  There are mornings I wake up and I hate this city for its petty vindictiveness, its thoughtless cruelty, and its empty boosterism.  It’s run by clowns, pygmies, midgets, and chihuahuas and suffers from a lack of self-esteem so pernicious, it pushes its truly talented out of town.

Then there are the mornings I look out the window and one neighbor is helping shovel another’s car out of the snow.  Another is helping an elderly woman navigate the slippery sidewalk to the bus stop.  Still another is helping repatriate someone’s idiot dog who escaped the yard.  It is mornings like this when I feel like we are winning.   The big narratives define a city and the small kindnesses. . .hold it together.

Published in: on January 20, 2011 at 1:34 am  Comments (1)  
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Star for Tuscon – January 8, 2011

Star for TucsonThere was a  time when I regarded the Tea Party as noisy,  but mostly harmless geeks.  With their triangle hats and Jefferson quotes, they reminded me of the same dopes who were in the civil defense league when I was a kid.  A crowd of dolts and dumbbells who were mostly in it for the hats, the walkie-talkies and the opportunity to hold forth like the assholes they watch on TV–Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and other lesser McCarthyites who’d like to tell the rest of us how to be Americans–and have cast themselves as victims since Barack Obama was elected.  You know the types.  They forswear big gub’mint, until their particular industry goes tits-up and they need a bail-out.  They hold the Constitution sacrosanct; but gave not a fuck when the Bush administration shred habeas corpus and the Bill of Rights in the name of Homeland Security.  Where were all the Triangular Hats back then?

When John McCain picked Sarah Palin for his running mate a little over two years ago, I thought it was his way of giving up.  If you look at the tape of the end sputter of the McCain campaign, one could tell this was a guy who really didn’t want the job.  He was always a temperamental fuck.  A guy who honestly resented being asked questions. . .any question.  He was clearly a man far more used to giving orders than having to explain himself or his position.  You see, John McCain, for all of his years as a political animal, thought he was running for CEO of the United States.  He cultivated the skills of an executive and not those of a president.  You can’t fire Congress.  At the end of his campaign, one could tell he was relieved to have lost.

Palin, if you believe all of the subsequent reportage, was a disastrous candidate, unable to stay on message, full of platitudes and had an appalling lack of depth when it came to issues of a global nature.  Her home-spun, golly-gee, small-town dipshit act played with the Republican base.  The culturally conservative South loved Caribou Barbie.  Never mind the howls of protest from her own state colleagues, claiming she wanted to remove books from public libraries she found objectionable.  Sarah Palin was able to take a threadbare ideology and stretch it into some shelf-life.  She parlayed her Gidget-goes-to-Alaska schtick into a now-canceled TV show, in which she takes almost surreal delight in blowing the brains out of Alaska’s native wildlife.  It is odd to see a public official that turned-on by firearms.

She then saw her opportunity with the drool cases in the Tea Party.  This was a huge pool of disaffected, low IQ asshats that could be mined for votes.  Give her credit for being able to read the God, guns, and country zeitgeist.  She saw them coming; the Birthers, the Tea Party and the anti-ommigration crowd, the newly-minted Constitutionalists so infuriated by the idea of a president of color, they’d follow an ideological husk like Palin, no matter how hollow.  It was about then I started to think of the Tea Party and their ilk as something less innocuous.  When one of their number brought a loaded handgun to one of our President’s speeches, I came to the conclusion that these guys were essentially David Duke without the linen.

She used all of the amped up “lock and load” rhetoric, the “Obama wants to kill your Grandpa” scare tactics about Medicaid and Social Security, the ugly anti-immigration bigotry.  She used it so well, Rupert Murdoch made room for her on the FOX network, to help spoon feed the hatred to the yokels, shit-kickers, and stump-jumpers.

I still think the Tea Party is largely comprised of under-acheiving slap-dicks, looking for someone to blame for where they are in the world.  Your basic garden-variety bigots who chafe at the idea of an African American as leader of the free world.  I’d like to think they are mostly harmless.

And then came Saturday.  Senator Gabrielle Giffords, a fairly conservative Democrat, was gunned down and seven others were murdered, including a 9-year old girl, by some nut with a belly and head full of muddled rectitude and hatred.

The Tea Party and Right Wing went in to full-on denial mode, trotting out the “lone-nut” scenario almost immediately, listing every whackjob tract Jared Loughner had ever read  from his MySpace page, including a few of their own.  It should not be lost on us that this is the first assassin with a MySpace page.  Fortunately, also not lost in the furious denials were Palin’s own propaganda with the gun-sights marking political targets, Senator Giffords’ district among them.  If this is an act of an isolated madman, why Senator Giffords?  Why Tucson, Arizona whose own sheriff lamented that his state had become the capital of hate-speech and prejudice?

A year ago , my Publisher and I took a road trip through the American West . Of particular interest to me was New Mexico and Arizona.

These states were at the white-hot center of the debate on immigration. National xenophobe, Lou Dobbs, was frothing at the mouth about the threat of illegal aliens and the Minutemen fools were “helping” the border patrol in what looked like vigilante squads comprised of bigots.  Not long after this, Lou Dobb’s fat ass got canned and there seemed to be some rationality returning to this discussion.  But everywhere we went in those states, it was made clear to us that we were in their America; the culture of the gun.  At a restraunt we stopped at in Tucson, there was a sign at the hostess standthat said: “Please check your firearm before you are seated.”   I honestly thought they were kidding.  The waitress assured me they were not.

Surely there were other places the disaffected, “lone nut” Loughner could have unleashed his fury; places where guns are easy to get and the second amendment is just as revered.

Jared Loughner chose Tucson.  He chose Senator Giffords.  And sadly, he chose seven others as well. And the reason is that this discourse of fear and hatred is in the air in this state, part of its language currency at this moment, fueled by a very focused bigotry and a shitty economy.  The heated-up, anti-government, anti-Obama, anti-immigrant speech took up residence in Mr. Loughner’s tin-foil hat and it rattled around like a BB in a box-car until this fucked-up, pissed-off American decided to make somebody pay.

It is days like Saturday, January 8th, I fear that we have the country we deserve.

Published in: on January 13, 2011 at 12:59 am  Comments (1)  
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Star for a Blue Mosque

Star for a Blue MosquePlaces of worship are an odd  thing for me to like. On the face of it, it would seem unlikely– I am not religious.  I am an atheist.

When you say that world, the average person thinks you believe in nothing, and this could not be further from the truth.  I believe in the ongoing reality of the universe.  That is easy.  It is right there in front of us and all around us.  I believe in medicine, science, poetry, art, physics and evolution.  Again, things that are evident in our daily lives.  I also believe people are basically decent, though some events recently have shaken that faith but good.  The long and short of it is, I believe in humanity and the ability to repair our ills and to look beyond our own selfish needs. . .what people of my parent’s generation called, “brotherhood” and people of my own generation refer to as humanism.

I had a conversation with my friend, John McNaughton today.  The question of, “Is there a god?” is something he and I kick around in almost every conversation we have.  McNaughton has a ferocious intellect.  He is a film director who has made some amazing American fare. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer which, despite its title, was more of an art film that comes unnervingly close to the reality of such people.  Nothing glamorized nor a hint of condescension, it is the raw ether of the real thing.  In almost all of John’s film’s, we are asked, cajoled and sometimes titillated with an ellusive idea–What is evil?

It is something he thinks about as a big picture.  Unlike me, John does not believe people are basically decent.  Let’s just say he takes a dim view of people as a body politic and his evidence is history.  Yet he believes in a god and I don’t.  Our conversation comes down to  John believing that there is something beyond us. . .bigger than us.  I agree with him there; the universe and all of those other things are bigger than us.  These conversations are more than an exercise.  We are grown men past the age of 50.  The names we read in the obituaries are, sometimes, people even younger than us.  Death has definable features.  Where it once lagged long behind us, it now walks hand in hand. My friend, John reads every goddamn thing; Herotodus, Tony Judt, The Economist, Plato, and  Leszek Kolakowski, the Polish intellectual and deconstructor of Marxism.  This is his “light” reading.

As often as we have this conversation, we both can name all of the big houses of worship in Chicago: Holy Name  St. Stanislav’s, The Ba’Hai Temple.  The Mosque Maryham.  Because they are cornerstones of communities.  There was a time when Chicago Catholics didn’t ask you where you lived in the city, but what parish you were in.  Though I no longer consider myself a Catholic, by those around me I will always be considered “culturally Catholic.”  Is Catholicism still present in my life?  As much as I’d love to say I’ve separated myself from it, it’s still there.  My work as an artist definitely is a marker of my early Catholicism.  The center figure with activity surrounding it and a narrative?  Textbook holy car imagery and I come  by it honestly.  Holy cards were a huge part of my life as a child because my father worked in the funeral business.

I remember the holy cards as things the dead left behind.  For the longest time, I carried my father’s in my wallet until it fell apart.

The holy card would have the name of the deceased, the years they lived and some brief prayer.  My father’s had St. Teresa, the little flower.  She was his favorite saint.  Every time he won money in the lottery, he cut the St Teresa Society in for 10 points.

This fall, I went to Istanbul and visited the Blue Mosque.  Its proper name is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque.  They built it in 1609 because the sultan had lost some wars.  He figured he’d better scratch together a legacy and he built the Blue Mosque.  They call it the Blue Mosque because of the over 20,000 Iznik tiles inside; tiles that all have some variation on the tulip contained in them.  It is a woudrous thing to see.  The inside of it is breathtakingly beautiful.  When I saw this place, I actually shook and the hair on my arms stood up.

It is as much a source of pride for Turks as it is for Muslims.  It is a place of worship for Islam and it is  one of the jewels of the Ottoman empire.  I walked through this place thinking about the differences between Islam and everyone else and I  felt that no matter what anyone says, no culture filled with hate could’ve built this thing.

Houses of worship have this effect on me. I want to like the people who go there; the devout, the faithful. those who seek the strength to do good, even as I disagree.  Or maybe because I disagree.  I want to believe the thing beyond us as humans is ourselves, as a collective, trying to achieve Grace.

Published in: on January 6, 2011 at 11:45 pm  Comments (1)  
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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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