Benny Jay: Summer Blaze

August 4th, 2015

What was it — three months ago?

My older daughter tells me: “Dad, don’t schedule anything for June 7. She and Him are having a free concert in Millennium Park. We’re gonna pack a picnic.”

“It’s the middle of May,” I say. “You’re talking about something that’s weeks away. Who thinks that far ahead?”

Well, days come and go and next thing you know I’m sitting on a cooler surrounded by thousands of twenty-something year olds.

She and Him are on the stage and all the kids are dancing. Singing the words they know by heart.

The girls are wearing their cool, summer dresses. Looking so young and having so much fun. The night has that summery glow where the rays of the setting sun bounce off the buildings. Everyone’s lit up — like movie stars.

imagesShe and Him — singing in Chicago….

 

I bike home along the lakefront. Moon’s big over the lake. Folks smoking weed, drinking wine, playing drums.

I’m thinking — this is gonna be a groovy summer. But I can feel it pushing. Don’t want it to rush.

Slow, summer, slow — you’re going way too fast…

Then it’s July…

My kids get a job at a summer camp. Gotta catch an 8:30 bus. They’re running through the house like they own it. From the bedroom to the kitchen to the bathroom and back.

God forbid I dare to use the bathroom. “Get out, dad — out! We gotta catch the bus….”

I hide in my bed. Wait till they leave. Then I sneak out to wash up.

Even then it’s not safe. I’m looking in the mirror — thinking, not bad for an old guy — when I hear the front door slam.

Oh, no…

Feet race up the stairs. And then — bam, bam, bam — my younger daughter hammering at the door.

“Get out, dad!”

“I thought you left…”

“I forgot my wristlet — hurry up!”

“I can’t wait `til this summer camp is over!”

As soon as I say it, I know I spoke too soon.

At night my wife and I walk the dog over to the Dairy Queen. Get myself a soft serve cone. Vanilla and chocolate swirl. Um, um, um…

My wife doesn’t get anything. “I’m stuffed from dinner,” she says.

I shrug and say, “suit yourself.” And go back to my cone.

imagesI love an ice cream cone — always have, always will….

I’m eating it real slow. Enjoying every lick. Hoping it lasts forever…

I look up. She’s eying my cone.

“Aw, man,” I say.

“C’mon on — please,” she says. “You know it’s better to share…”

Later that night we pass people pouring out of Wrigley. I love tormenting Cub fans.

“Did the Cubs win?” I ask. Even though I know the answer.

“No…”

“Oh, well. Don’t worry — next year’s gonna be the one…”

Slow summer, slow — you’re going way too fast….

Then it’s August…

Listening to Chicago Catz jamming in Jackson Park. They’re playing James Brown. There’s this one lady with a dyed-yellow Afro. She’s doing the funky chicken. She must be 60. But she’s dancing like it’s 1965…

On the way home, we pass Millennium Park. I think about that June 7th concert. Sitting on the cooler, watching the kids. Is it possible that two months have passed?

“We only got one more week of camp,” says my younger daughter.

“No way,” I say.

“Yeah –  September’s almost here…”

Slow, summer slow — you’re going way too fast.

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Letter From Milo: Wassermann Gardens, Chapter 4

August 3rd, 2015

The arrival of the supply helicopter was the most eagerly awaited event on the island. It was supposed to fly in every six weeks and the islanders looked forward to its arrival with the same sense of giddy anticipation that children feel on Christmas Eve. There had been problems, however, with the deliveries in the past year or so. Sometimes the helicopter was as much as two or three weeks late.

On the day the helicopter was due, the islanders began gathering early in the day at the small, bare bluff which served as a landing pad.  The blind men made their way to the site using the island’s network of guide ropes. Druliner, Jose from LA and Tony P. rounded up the crazies. Most of the madmen were docile and did what they were told. There hadn’t been a dangerous crazy in almost two years, since Collins had run amok and stabbed two men to death. Still, some of the crazies were uncontrollable and tried to run off at every opportunity. As always, they had to be hobbled, tied together at the ankles.

All of the able-bodied men were required to be at the landing zone when the helicopter arrived. Once the supplies were unloaded, the men were supposed to cluster together while one of the helicopter’s crew took photographs of them. Marlowe supposed it was simply a way of keeping track of the island’s population. If there was another reason for the photos, Marlowe didn’t know it.

The rain was light that day, more a mist than a steady fall. The men were nervously milling around, or huddling in small groups, talking and smoking and staring off into gray and cloudy skies, hoping to see the helicopter on the horizon. There were several false alarms over the course of the day. Every half hour or so, one of the blind men would shout out that he could hear rotors chugging in the distance.

“I hear it, too,” someone else would yell.

Then someone would point to the horizon. “I think I see something.”

The men became agitated, the blind pestering the sighted, wanting to know if they could see the helicopter, too. Everyone watched or listened anxiously, waiting for the popping of the rotor blades to become louder and the speck in the distance to become clearer.

As the day wore on and it became clear that the helicopter was not coming, the bitterly disappointed men began drifting away. The blind men found the guide ropes and groped their way back to Fat City. Druliner untied the crazies and watched as they scampered off, slipping and sliding in the mud in their eagerness to get away.

Marlowe, Druliner, and Tony P. wandered down to the supply shed. When they arrived at the ramshackle, canvas-topped structure, they found Kline, Vukovic and several others inside, surveying the stocks. The supply shed was a shambles. Most of the C-ration boxes were torn open, cans and cardboard scraps were scattered all over the dirt floor. Many of the cans had been opened and the smell of rotting food permeated the shed. It was impossible to ascertain how much food remained, but it didn’t seem like enough.

When the supplies arrived the men picked over them quickly. The cans of fruit were taken first, which the men used to make a foul tasting but potent liquor. Then the choicer rations, like sliced beef and pork, the various stews and soups were taken. The less desirable rations, like scrambled eggs with ham or beans and franks, were left for last. There was no system in place for distributing the rations.

Years ago, before Marlowe had arrived on the island, there had been systems in place to govern most aspects of the islanders’ lives. Old Colonel Delamare, the island’s ranking officer at the time, had insisted on maintaining military discipline. Of course, there were more than 300 men on the island at the time, more than three times the current population, and discipline was needed in order to prevent complete chaos. While the Colonel was in command, the men dutifully lined up at the supply shed every morning to receive their rations for the day.

The Colonel was a firm believer in the military axiom that idle soldiers made second-rate soldiers. He organized duty rosters to keep the men busy. They were latrine details, graveyard details, garbage details, coconut gathering details, housekeeping details for the common areas, and guide rope details. The Colonel, in fact, had been the one who devised the system of guide ropes that crisscrossed the island and made the blind men more self-sufficient.

The Colonel led daily prayer meetings and evening sing-a-longs. He organized exercise programs and sports competitions to keep the men fit and engaged.  He made sure the crazies were properly clothed and fed. And on the rare occasions when one of the crazies turned violent, the Colonel personally led the team that humanely put the man down.

Everything changed after Colonel Delamare died. There was nobody on the island with the command presence, the determination, the strength of character, and the respect of the men, to carry on his work.

As the years passed and the older WW2 soldiers began dying off, there was less impetus to maintain fitness and morale. There was no more talk of a miracle cure that would restore them to the lives they once hoped to have. They no longer believed that somehow the hand of God would reach down from heaven and rescue them from their island purgatory. The Korean War era soldiers had resigned themselves to their unpleasant fates. They were, after all, creatures of their time and place, raised with an unwavering belief in duty, honor, and country. They were committed, conscientious soldiers, mindful of their responsibilities, ready and willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.

In the 10- or 12-year lull between the Korean War and the Vietnam conflict, there were no new arrivals on the island. The population dwindled and the surviving men stoically awaited the inevitable. They carried on with their miserable lives, buried their dead, and waited for their turns to visit Wassermann Gardens.

By the early 1960s, there were less than 50 men left on the island, all of them in poor health and even worse spirits.

Then, new men began arriving on the island. It seemed that the United States was involved in another war, a place in Asia called Vietnam, which none of the Korean War soldiers had ever heard of. The government was pouring men into Asia again and, unfortunately, some of them ended up on the island.

The new arrivals were a different breed of soldier than the islanders were used to seeing. For one thing, they were younger, in their late teens or very early 20s, and they, too, were creatures of their time and place. The new arrivals had been raised on television, rock ‘n roll, comic books, and the social and political upheavals of the 60s. They were rebellious and contemptuous of authority. They were mainly draftees, reluctant soldiers at best. They had nothing in common with the older men on the island, except that they, too, were doomed.

By the time Marlow arrived on the island, in 1969, there were only nine men left who had been in the Korean War, and they were pathetic cases – blind, crazed, tormented by spirochete-induced visions and nightmares, their insides rotting away from the disease that would soon kill them. The Vietnam soldiers were kind to the old-timers, making sure they were fed and clothed, but they avoided them as much as possible. The shambling, drooling, broken down and diseased old men reminded of their own fates.

In the supply shed, while surveying the wreckage that was their food supply, Marlowe realized that unless the supply helicopter arrived soon they would all become very hungry. “We better figure out what we’ve got here.”

 “The chopper should be here any day now,” Vukovic said. “It’ll probably come tomorrow.”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Kline remarked. “It was two weeks late last time.”

“It’s probably just a mistake.”

“It’s been coming in late for the past year. I’m starting to doubt if it’s by accident.”

“We should clean this mess up, make an inventory” Marlowe suggested.  “It’s a job we need to do.”

“That’s what I was thinking,” Kline agreed. “We may have to go on short rations for a while, just in case.”

Looking at the boxes and the scattered cans, Marlowe doubted if there was enough to feed the men for two weeks. One of the few pleasures the men enjoyed was that they could eat whenever they wanted and as much as they wanted. Granted, the food was unappetizing, just government-issued C-Rations, but over the years some of the men had become creative in the preparation of their meals. When the spices were available, the men would cook up savory stews, tasty soups and mouth-searing gumbos. If the weather was pleasant, they’d eat outdoors, out of large, communal cooking pots. But a couple of years earlier, spices inexplicably disappeared from the deliveries. Without salt and pepper and Louisiana Hot Sauce, which the men missed dearly, there was not much the men could do to make their meals more palatable. They reverted to gobbling their meals out of cans, making mealtime just another trial to be endured.

While the men brooded over the situation, a group of four blind men groped their way into the shed and headed for the pile of rations. They started tearing through the boxes, grabbing cans and stuffing them into the cargo pockets of their fatigue trousers.

Marlowe, Kline and the others looked at each other, wondering what to do. Finally, Kline spoke up.

“Hold on a minute, boys. We’ve just been talking about the food situation and we’ve got to be smarter about it.”

The blind men paid no attention to Kline. Exasperated, Kline looked at Marlowe for guidance, but Marlowe was at a loss, shrugging his shoulders in resignation.

Kline tried again. “Come on, boys. You were all out there this morning waiting for the chopper. You know what’s going on. This shit may have to last us a while.”

One of the blind men, Blind Teddy, turned his head in the direction of Kline’s voice. “Is that you, Kline?”

“Yeah.”

“Why don’t you go fuck yourself.”

Druliner’s temper flared. “Hey, quit being an asshole. This is serious. We might have to ration the food.”

“Druliner?” Blind Teddy asked.

“It’s me.”

“You can go fuck yourself, too.”

Marlowe could see that Druliner was close to losing his temper. He went to him and put a restraining hand on his arm. Druliner shrugged off the hand and angrily stomped away.

“Fucking blind motherfuckers,” Tony P. muttered.  “Never think about anybody but themselves.”

In a few minutes, their pockets loaded with canned food, the blind men groped their way out of the shed, found the guide ropes and headed back to their hootches.

“Tomorrow morning, I’m going to straighten this mess out,” Marlowe said. “We’ve got to come up with a system to deal with the rations.”

Vukovic, Tony P. and Druliner agreed to help Marlowe with the inventory. They would start first thing in the morning. That settled, Druliner invited the men to his hootch to have a drink. “The new batch is ready and I need some Guinea pigs.”

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Benny Jay: Dog Shit Ethics

August 2nd, 2015

king the dog one night not long ago, I come face to face with one of the great ethical dilemmas of our time…

Am I responsible for picking up crap that is not mine?

Or my dog’s, to be exact.

I mean, I, myself, was toilet trained years ago.

Here’s how it goes down…

My dog does her business. Good citizen that I am, I dutifully stoop to collect the deposit, as I’ve done countless times before.

And what do I see?

Another pile of shit sitting right next to it that’s not my dog’s!

I know this cause my dog’s crap has a different look. Not to get all technical and everything, but one’s browner than the other.

Plus, this pile is cooler.

So you can tell it was left long before my dog arrived.

I’m like a detective putting together the clues.

columboanddogJust call me Columbo…

 

I know what you’re thinking.

You’re thinking–Benny, what’s the big deal? Just pick up the shit and be done with it.

And you’re right. I mean, I’ve had two dogs in my life. Plus, I’ve walked dogs owned my parents. If you add it all up, I’ve collected about 20,000 mounds of crap–at least.

So I shouldn’t be finicky. I mean, how much different can one dog’s shit be from another’s?

Yet…

There’s just something about my dog’s shit that’s less disgusting to me than another dog’s shit.

I’m not sure what this is. Or what it could be. It just is…

So…

I clean up my dog’s stuff. Then I stare at the other pile.

I look up and down the street. No one’s coming. I could just walk away and no one would know the difference.

It is all up to me to decide…

And with that, I scrunch up my face, so the smell won’t penetrate my nostrils, and I scoop it up. I rush to the dumpster in the alley and throw it in.

Then I hightail home to wash my hands three or four times.

Consider it my good deed for the day.

It takes a village to clean up after a dog, as Hillary might say.

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Rolando: Crazy Kid

August 1st, 2015

I was a bizarre kid with a lot of weird ideas when I was growing up. And lately for some odd reason, I’ve been revisiting a lot of memories from my childhood and having a good laugh in the process.

I mean, the crazy shit that I used to think up. Most of it was based almost entirely on my own imagination, some of it was based on observations my young mind would make, but almost all of it–now that I look back as an adult–was hilarious.

Take, for example, my take on some of the differences between white folks and brown folks. I can remember clearly, at the age of seven or eight, believing that white people did not feel cold the same way brown people felt it.

I was convinced that white people didn’t feel cold on their legs or arms.

How did I come to this conclusion? Well, it was simple, really. We’d be in my dad’s car, driving down the street, and I’d see a white person, jogging, with shorts, a t-shirt and gloves and a skull cap on. In the middle of winter. Just bare arms and bare legs.

I saw this repeatedly. So I formed an opinion: White people’s arms and legs don’t get cold.

Or take for example my belief that, as a young, nine-year-old little league baseball player, if I were transported back to the twenties or thirties, I would be as good, if not better than the pro ball players of that era.

The Babe and all those old timers? I’d show them how to knock it out of the park. I’d run faster, hit harder, throw missiles from any position on the field–they’d have to rewrite the history books about this young Puerto Rican kid phenom who was killing the league.

How would I be able to do these things at the tender age of nine? Well clearly (in my mind) the human body had progressed so much in the intervening six or so decades, that a nine-year-old in the early nineties, was much stronger and a more capable athlete than someone from the twenties or thirties.

If only I could’ve gotten a fully-functioning time machine. I would’ve been a star.

The funny thing about all this is that I don’t remember at what age I stop believing these things or what it was that finally made me understand that things didn’t quite work that way.

They were just beliefs that I held true until they weren’t.

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Randolph Street: Paris Rooftops

July 31st, 2015

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All photos © Jon Randolph 2006

jonrandolph.com

 

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