Jim Siergey: RIP MAD

September 16th, 2021

I recently learned that someone I grew up with had passed away. Yet another reminder that I have reached the “thinning of the herd” stage of life.

I did not know Mike from childhood but I met him in high school and we hung out even beyond that, which is why I say we grew up together. There’s a lot of growing up happening in those years.

He had a tendency to be loud and brash in a very offbeat way. He was also very creative in an offbeat way. I guess you could say he was offbeat.

He wished his name was Archibald Marmaduke so that his nickname would be Arch Duke. Instead his given initials spelled out MAD which was a fitting monogram for him.

In gym class he tore off the sleeve of his maroon Morton East gym shirt and pulled it over his face like Mort from the Bazooka Joe comics, calling himself The Masked Marauder as he wildly ran around the gym and climbed ropes like a methamphetamined Tarzan. Most of my friends, including me, had weirdness cruising through our veins so Mike, with his unbridled sense of madness, fit in perfectly.

By senior year we were cutting classes and hanging out on the third floor of our high school which housed Morton Junior College. There was a Smoker Room there where we could blend in and puff on ciggies while watching a blurry TV up on a corner wall.

We were faux-greasers but soon after graduation we slithered into hippiedom where six million more stories lie. Mike was the first of us to get his own apartment so a group of us hung out in his various cribs during our psychedelic years.

Mike was a musician and played bass in a few groups. He also created odd objets d’ arte such as attaching a faucet and handle to the broken handle of his umbrella, making a mobile out of the dead insects that collected in his window jambs, building a strobe light out of a coffee can and creating an “Electric Painting”which was a storm window upon which he painted psychedelic designs, encased it in a wooden frame and strung blinking Italian lights behind it. In the dark it was quite a trip, man. One day it fell over and broke so he created an exact duplicate.

He had an obsessive streak in him. Looking back I think he may have also been bi-polar because he could be manic-crazy and an awful lot of fun to be with while other times so low and bitter you wouldn’t want to be in the same neighborhood as him.

I have written a few Mike stories in some Third City posts which displayed his craziness much clearer than I am doing here. He “crashed” for a while in the apartment I shared with my wife and two kids, he lived in his van for a while and once camped out in another friend’s apartment in a tent that he erected in the dining room.

As the years went by our paths separated and we lost touch. Then, a few years ago we reconnected again. I don’t remember how but I’m betting the internet played a part.

We had a phone conversation, exchanged a few emails but mostly we conversed through “Word With Friends”, a Scrabble-like word game that one could play on the computer. Mike was a “Words with Friends” fiend. He said he was usually playing two or three games at a time with different people.

Mike was not what one would call an “intellectual”. He didn’t go in for book-learning and schooling and such but he was a smart guy. He was good at games. He was an expert chess player, cribbage player (for a period of time there a small group of us who feverishly played cribbage) and as it turned out, very good at “Words with Friends”.

I consider myself a good Scrabble player so our “Words with Friends” matches were like heavy weight fights. One would strike a blow with a 55 point word and the other would follow with a 64 pointer and on and on. We would kibitz one another via texts during the bouts and it was great fun.

Then we drifted apart from that and several months passed without any contact. It was on Facebook that I learned of his passing, one week exactly after his 72nd birthday where I had emailed him birthday greetings. I knew he had health problems but we never spoke of that stuff in depth.

Still, when death comes, whether expected or not, it is always a shock. So long, Mike, may the triple word plays keep coming your way.

Editor’s note: Jim’s last post for The Third City was Showboatin’…

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August 25th, 2021

It was the last day of a weeklong vacation, and I was feeling really groovy hanging around a lake in MAGA land.

Yes, way up north in Michigan. It seemed like there were big ol’ Trump flags—“take back America in 2024”—everywhere I looked.

But I was cool and calm. Taking a break from politics. Wasn’t talking Trump or Biden, even if asked.

You might say I was going undercover—a lefty hiding out in MAGAVILLE. Except it’s really hard going undercover in MAGAVILLE when you’re the only one wearing a mask at the grocery store. And all the conversation stops when you walk in. Like you’re the stranger walking through the swinging doors of a saloon, and the piano player stops playing, and the conversation ends, and all the other cowboys slowly look you over as they quietly reach for their guns.

Not that anyone pulled out a gun on me.

Anyway, we were sitting at a table on a patio, overlooking a lovely lake, with Billie, an old friend. And she saw Dunkin, an acquaintance. And she said: damn, I gotta at least say hello.

And I said: look out, he’s really conservative.

And she said: don’t worry, I won’t talk politics.

And I watched her walk over to Dunkin. And she smiled really sweet and said hello. And he said: I haven’t seen you in years, what are you up to?

And she said: I got a job as a tenants-rights lawyer. 

And he said: well, I hope you’re not going to be one of those lawyers who represents deadbeats who don’t pay their bills.

And just like that—bam—my groovy vibe ended. And I returned to the reality that you can’t escape, no matter how hard you try. As I came face-to-face with the inescapable realization that no matter how nice you try to be, no matter how inoffensive, no matter how hard you try not to talk politics or raise challenging topics . . .

MAGA will always feel free to be a jag.

And it hit me. Liberals are always bending over backwards to be nice, and MAGA doesn’t care.

MAGA will say whatever offensive remark pops into their brains. And if you complain, they’ll call you a snowflake. And scoff about political correctness. And accuse you of trying to cancel their culture. As they turn themselves into victims.

Like Alan Dershowitz crying like a baby because Larry David said something nasty to him about  Trump when they recently ran into each other at a country store in Martha’s Vineyard.

Which is so ironic, because MAGA is supposed to be against self victimization. And, hey, Dershowitz, if you don’t like being criticized for representing Trump, don’t represent him. You’ve either got the courage of your convictions or you don’t . . .

By the way, I didn’t actually hear the conversation between Billie and Dunkin. She relayed it to us when she returned to our table.

“What did you tell him when he said that thing about representing deadbeats?” I asked.

“I told him I hoped he woke up tomorrow as a disabled Black woman who’s unemployed, dead broke, and a few months behind on her rent,” she said.

“You did?”

“No. I didn’t. But I was thinking it.”

Like I said—liberals always try to be nice.

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Benny Jay: Summer In The City

August 1st, 2021

Finally got around to seeing Summer of Soul—Questlove’s documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival that took place in the summer of ’69.

Great flick. Loved it in so many ways—the music, the clothes, the crowd, the stage announcer. But the part that resonated most with me was this quirky tangential riff about men on the moon.

Smack dab in the middle of the festival—on July 20, to be exact—man walked on the moon. Neil Armstrong at first. Followed by Buzz Aldrin.

(For ten trivia points, what was the name of the third astronaut who stayed on the spaceship? Don’t look it up.)

Back in ’69, everyone was going ga-ga about that moonwalk—most of them can tell you exactly where they were when Neil Armstrong walked down that ladder.

And yet, I must confess, little old 13-year-old me just didn’t give a damn. Then, as now, I was a bleeding-heart sort. As I saw it, the whole moon-shot thing was a waste of money. Not when we had poverty to end.

And one wonderful thing about Summer of Soul is they interview a whole bunch of people who agree with me. I’m not alone!

(Here’s a hint about that third astronaut: He’s got the same name as an Irish revolutionary, who was played by Liam Neeson in the movie. Don’t look that up either. Man, you guys are always cheating with those cell phones.)

Where was I? Oh, yes, out of touch with my generation . . .

I didn’t even like Woodstock, which also took place in the summer of ’69. Not that I was there. I was definitely not what you would consider rock festival-going material. I was a middle-class kid from Evanston. I’m not thinking about sleeping in a muddy field with a bunch of strangers.

In the summer of ’69, I was much more into baseball. Passionately following the Cubs, who of course, blew a 13-game lead in August and lost to the New York Mets.

As a Cubs fan I’m supposed to hate the ’69 Mets. But as disappointed as I was by the Cubs’ collapse, I didn’t hold it against the Mets. Not their fault Cubs manager Leo Durocher didn’t know how to handle a pitching staff.

Plus, I liked a lot of the Mets players. Like Tommie Agee, who used to play for the White Sox. Don’t get me talking about that trade.

(OK, one more clue about the third astronaut: He has the same last name as the guy who sings “In the Air Tonight.” No phones!)

Back to Woodstock. I think you’ll agree that the artists who performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival (Nina Simone, the Staple Singers, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Mann—to name a few) were way better than the ones who played at Woodstock.

Except Santana. And Hendrix. And Sha Na Na. Always had a soft spot for Sha Na Na. And Sly, who also played at the Harlem festival. You know, maybe Woodstock wasn’t so bad after all.

But a man on the moon? Put it this way—the song’s great, but the actual thing was a waste of money. Just like I’d have told you back in the summer of ’69, if you were around to ask.

Oh, yes—Michael Collins. Aren’t you glad you didn’t look it up?

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Benny Jay: Pandemic Policy

June 19th, 2021

Had one of those Ann Landers moments the other night, when I desperately needed someone to give me instantaneous advice to help me figure out an uncomfortable moment of uncertainty. I’ll set the scene. . .

We’re having a lovely night with old friends, watching basketball and eating pizza. At the end, one guy, heading for the door, turns to me and says, “Great seeing you.” Then he sticks out his hand as if to shake.

There and then I had a decision to make. Do I take the shake—or do I pass?

Confession time. . .

One of my favorite parts of the pandemic—not that there was a lot of competition—was that it temporarily halted the ritual of shaking hands..

More confessions. . . 

I never liked the ritual of shaking hands. It’s because, oh, one last confession. . . 

I’m a bit of a germaphobe. A guy sticks out his hand and I wonder, Where has it been, and has he washed it since it’s been there?

It’s like that classic scene in Jackie Brown, the great Pam Grier movie. Where Max Cherry, the Robert Forster character, exits the bathroom to find Ordell Robbie, the Samuel L. Jackson character, sitting in his office.

Here’s how it reads in Quentin Tarantino’s script:

The bathroom door in Max’s office. We hear a toilet flush behind it. The door opens, and Max Cherry emerges, zipping up his pants, with a TV Guide in his hand. He looks up and stops dead. Ordell’s sitting oh-so-comfortably in the chair in front of Max’s desk.

Ordell: Unh. . . unh. . . unh. . . I didn’t hear you wash your hands.

I know I shouldn’t be associating with the psychopath in the movie, but in that scene, I knew exactly where Ordell was coming from. Even though he was, as I said, very much a psychopath.

Another example. . . 

Years ago. I’m walking Nicky, my dog. And we’re passing this babysitter and a five-year-old girl. And the girl’s got her finger in her nose. I mean—way up her nose.

And as Nicky and I approach, the kid takes her finger out of her nose and heads straight for my dog.

And the babysitter says something like, ”Oh, so sweet, can she pet your dog?”

Oh, folks, what to do? I didn’t want to be the mean old guy in the neighborhood. But I didn’t want that stuff from that girl’s nose on Nicky’s head.

So I told a little fib. I said, “Ugh, my dog’s not really that good with little kids.” And then I just hustled down the street.

Anyway, so what did I do when my friend extended his hand? I shook it. That’s what I did.

But then I dashed to the nearest sink to wash it. Next time, I’m going with the fist bump. Might as well take something good from the pandemic.

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Randolph Street: Life As Is

June 18th, 2021

1IMG_1239Angel Gallardo Station–Buenos Aires

2_MG_5248Ashland AvenueChicago


All photos © Jon Randolph


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