When I ride my bike, I have a habit of furiously waving cars through the intersection, as though I’m saying–“You go first, but hurry up!”
This happened the other day at the intersection of Elmwood and Oakton in Evanston, as a car waited for me to cross before making a left turn.
“No,” I said. “You go. Hurry up. I don’t have all day.”
When I got home I discovered that the driver (whose face I couldn’t see) was, of all people, Cap, one of my best friends in the world.
“I’m always looking for an old guy on his bike with a funny looking white helmet,” he told me. “Then I saw you.”
Okay, let’s get a few things straight…
Number one, my helmet’s not funny looking. Okay, maybe it’s a little funny looking. But once upon a time I thought it was cool. Obviously, styles have changed.
When I look into the mirror, this is what I see…
Number two–I’m not old. Okay, maybe a little. But who’s Cap to talk? He’s only three years younger.
The real problem is when I look into the mirror, I see a young Paul Newman looking back. Everyone else sees Rodney Dangerfield.
In Cap’s case, when he looks into the mirror, he sees a young Denzel Washington. Everyone else sees Redd Foxx.
I was thinking about this while walking to the grocery store with a granny cart. Years ago I wouldn’t have been caught dead with a granny cart. Obviously, those grocery bags are heavier than they used to be.
I was trying to look cool as I rolled that granny cart down the sidewalk. But even Denzel and Paul Newman would have a hard time looking cool with a granny cart.
To make matters worse, I had a senior citizen moment in the store, forgetting where I’d put my granny cart. I was following some other guy who was pushing a granny cart. I was about to say–“excuse me, sir, but you may have the wrong granny cart”–when I realized I’d left mine by the cheese counter.
Anyway, just to show there are no hard feelings about Cap calling me old, I want you to know we’re going to see The Magnificent Seven–the remake, in which Denzel plays the Yul Brynner character.
Don’t worry, Cap–I promise to leave the bike helmet and granny cart at home.
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Gary, Indiana, in the middle to late 1960s, had a sizeable Jewish population. Like a lot of other families in town, including mine, many of the Jewish families were post-WW2 immigrants.
As is the case with most immigrant groups, Gary’s Jewish community was hard-working and industrious, their lives centered around traditional values like family, faith, education and a belief in a better future. Some did pretty well for themselves.
For example, there was a kid who went to my high school named Joey Stiglitz who was pretty good with numbers. Like any Gary kid with a knack for math, I’m sure Joey aspired to be a bookie. When that career choice fizzled, young Joey Stiglitz tried his luck in the field of Economics and eventually won a Nobel Prize.
I don’t want to give readers the wrong impression about Gary’s Jews. Not all of them were pillars of the community. They had their quota of drunkards, druggies, whoremongers, thieves, gangsters, bookies, murderers, tough guys and rotten bastards. Some of them, I’m proud to say, were dear friends of mine.
That said, the toughest Jew in Gary was a man who made other dangerous men tremble in fear. His reputation as a hard, unforgiving, vengeful badass was legendary. He was a mean, vindictive, cold-blooded, pitiless son-of-a-bitch with a long history of dealing with crime, violence and bloodshed.
His name was Judge Richard Kaplan and he ruled the Gary City Courthouse with an iron hand.
Although Judge Kaplan’s given name was Richard, he was known throughout the City as Judge Max Kaplan because he always handed down maximum sentences. Miscreants who appeared before Judge Kaplan always expected the worst and they were rarely disappointed. He believed everyone was guilty until proven innocent — and he refused to believe that anyone was completely innocent.
As far as I know, only one person ever got the better of Judge Kaplan – and that person was me. Here’s how it happened.
I was 18 years old and going nowhere. I had dropped out of college after one semester and was hanging around Gary, trying to figure out what to do with my life. One night I ran into some friends, went out drinking, got into a wild brawl, got maced by the police and ended up in jail. The charges were illegal possession of alcohol, public intoxication, creating a public disturbance, assault and battery and resisting arrest, although, to this day, I believe the last charge was a bum rap.
When I was released on bail the next morning, I was given some paperwork informing me of my upcoming court date, which was just a few weeks away. The presiding judge was going to be “the Honorable Richard Kaplan.” My goose was cooked. I was a goner, as doomed as it was possible for a young man to be. To make matters worse, I had a couple previous run-ins with the law, and I was fairly certain that Judge Kaplan would hold that against me.
That evening, I was hanging out in Stu and Ducky Greene’s basement with a few other guys, drinking beer and listening to the brothers’ collection of shoplifted 45s.
“You are fucked, man,” Ducky said, sadly. “You’re looking at 90, maybe 120 days in Crown Point.”
”That’s if Judge Max lets you off easy,” Stu Greene added. “If he’s in a bad mood it could be worse. It’s a good thing you’re not Jewish.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Because he’s extra tough on his own kind.”
Dickie Simon, another friend who had an unpleasant experience with the City’s justice system, spoke up. “Too bad you’re not in the military. That’s Judge Max’s only soft spot. He takes it easy on soldiers. He’s an ex-Marine Captain, fought in World War Two.”
The next morning I went down to 7th and Broadway, walked into the Navy Recruiter’s office, and said, “I want to join up.” I spent several hours filling out paperwork. The only thing I had to do to officially be in the Navy was sign on the dotted line. But, I hesitated to sign. “Do you mind if I take these papers home and show them to my mom and dad?” I asked.
“You’re 18 years old. You don’t need your parents’ permission.”
“I know. But I’d like to show them anyway. I’ll be back tomorrow. I promise.”
The next morning I went down to the Courthouse, explained my situation to a secretary and asked to see Judge Kaplan in his chambers. After a two hour wait I was ushered into Judge Kaplan’s office.
“Tell me what you want and make it quick,” the Judge said, not even bothering to look at me.
The last place on earth I wanted to be was in a courthouse, talking to Judge Kaplan. I was nervous as hell, scared actually, but somehow I got through my poorly rehearsed pack of lies. I told the Judge that I was terribly sorry for any trouble I had caused. I explained that my inexcusable behavior was due to immaturity and the influence of bad companions. I said that I had given my situation a lot of thought and realized that by joining the Navy I would get away from bad influences and be in a disciplined situation where I would have the opportunity to become a responsible member of society.
Judge Kaplan quickly glanced at the Navy paperwork I laid on his desk, then looked at me for the first time. “I dislike young punks and criminals because they usually grow up to be old punks and criminals,” he said. “Had your case gone to court, it wouldn’t have turned out well for you. But I have a feeling that you’re a sincere young man. Your decision to join the military is a wise one, especially with our nation at war. I’m going to dismiss this case. Good luck in the Navy, son. Just remember, be on your best behavior. If you get in trouble, I can assure you that the officers who sit on military tribunals are not as good natured as I am. Now, get the hell out of my chambers.”
As soon as I left the Courthouse, I went back to the Navy Recruiter and handed him the paperwork. “I’m sorry,” I said, “But I changed my mind. I think I’m going to study for the priesthood instead.”
There was a strut in my walk when I left the Recruiters’ office. I was pretty proud of myself. I had gone into the lion’s den and come out without a scratch. I had outwitted the dreaded Judge Kaplan. I had gotten the best of the toughest Jew in town.
My euphoria was short-lived, however. A couple of months later I received my draft notice. And a few months after that I was in Vietnam.
Many years later, when Judge Kaplan died, an old Gary friend sent me a copy of the judge’s obituary. When I read it I noticed that Judge Max had served on the Lake County, Indiana Draft Board, which meant that he had a say-so about which local boys were eligible for the draft.
Was it just a coincidence that I got drafted so soon after pulling a fast one on the judge?
I couldn’t help but smile when I realized that maybe, just maybe, the tough old bastard had the last laugh after all.
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I’m cruising southbound on Lake Shore Drive, heading for El Dragon’s birthday bash at a bar in Hde Park, when I hit a wall of traffic.
I mean, we’re talking Wall of China proportions.
Because of a construction project, they’ve closed two lanes just south of Soldier Field and closed the drive at 31st Street.
I know this because I happen on an all-news outlet while desperately switching from one radio station to another. As I do when I’m in an agitated state, like a rat in a cage.
I should have checked a traffic report before I took off. So, once again, I have no one to blame but myself.
Have you ever noticed that when you’re in bumper-to-bumper traffic the seconds seem like hours and the good music disappears?
In desperation to hear anything other than a commercial jingle, I find myself listening to the Brian Kelly show. He’s the football coach at Notre Dame–a team I’ve rooted against virtually my whole life.
Kelly’s sidekick is reading texted-in questions like–“Billy, a big fan out in Oklahoma, wants to ask about your punt coverage…”
I can take no more and switch to an all-news station, where I learn that federal prosecutors are zeroing in on New Jersey governor Chris Christie for his role in closing a bunch of traffic lanes at the George Washington bridge.
That caused a massive traffic jam I can really relate to.
I almost got to hear a song by Todd Rundgren…
Christie’s aides closed those lanes to pressure a Democratic mayor to endorse the governor’s re-election campaign. Apparently, it was really important for Christie to have those endorsements–coerced or not–to prove to future presidential primary voters that he was the sort of Republicans that Democrats like.
Much irony in that Christie wound up losing this year’s GOP nomination to a douchebag most Democrats hate.
Back to the Coach Kelly show…
A surprise guest is Todd Rundgren, the rock star of my youth. Turns out he’s an artist-in-residence at Notre Dame. See, you can learn stuff while stuck in traffic.
He starts singing Bang the Drum All Day when they cut him off as the show ends.
It’s that kind of night.
It takes me 90 minutes to reach 31st street. Instead of staying in the wall of traffic heading on the southbound detour, I take the northbound lane back home.
By the time I reach my garage, it’s after 11. And I’ve spent over two hours driving to 31st street and back.
Sorry, El Dragon. Next year I’ll make sure to check out the traffic report.
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“I can’t find it.”
“Can’t find what?”
“Damn son of a bitch, my shit’s missing.”
“Don’t start this shit, Ron. It’s time to go.”
“My eye patch. Where the hell is my eye patch?”
“What eye patch, Ron?”
“My eye patch, mother fucker. I had an eye patch with my shit. Now it’s gone.”
“Ron, everything you came in with is in this bag, so cut the shit.”
“Not my eye patch. The shit’s not here.”
“Why the hell do you have an eye patch for?”
“Cause I do.”
“Come on, Ron, it’s time to go. You’ve been here all night, we’ve let you sleep, now you have to go. Stop stalling.”
“I ain’t stalling, I want my patch. Hell, you probably stole my shit.”
“Me? Me? Ron, I have two functioning eyes. Why the hell would I steal an eye patch?”
“Cause you’re a dirty, no good thief.”
“Ron, you have two functioning eyes, so why the hell do you have an eye patch anyway?”
“Cause I do, asshole. Now give it here and I’ll be on my way.”
“Alright, Ron. Enough. Get out, or I’ll call security to get you out.”
“You’re one rotten mother fucker. Alright. Alright. I’m leaving. But if I see you on the street with my patch, I’m whipping your ass.”
“Good enough, Ron. I’ll take that chance.”
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These pictures are from 1974.
Gift Store–Mt. Rushmore
All photos © Jon Randolph
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A few weeks ago, I was talking movies with my older daughter and she asked…
“Have you seen Tangerine?”
“Oh, my God, you have to see it. It’s streaming on Netflix”
So, what the hell–I always do as my daughter says.
I watched it once. Then I watched it again. Now I’m hooked.
Not just on Tangerine, but on Sean Baker. The genius who directed it.
Tangerine tells the story of one day in the lives of two black transgender hookers in L.A. Baker shot it on an iPhone.
The dude’s so talented, he could shoot a movie on my old flip phone and it would look fantastic.
After that, I started plowing through Baker’s previous movies that I would have watched years ago, had I not been so busy doing other things. Like raising kids who now tell about Tangerine.
I saw Take Out, his 2004 movie about a Chinese restaurant delivery man, who falls behind on his payments to the mob.
Baker’s genius is his ability to tell compelling stories about ordinary human beings you walk by every day and not even see–like they’re too inconsequential to notice.
Then you see them in a Sean Baker movie and it’s like–holy shit, they’re just like me.
Okay, I’m not a black transgender prostitute. But anyone can relate to life being a struggle.
For the last few days I’ve been watching Prince of Broadway, which came out in 2008.
It’s about the hustlers who come up to you while you’re walking down the street and try to sell you name-brand knock offs you may or may not need.
Like a fake Gucci purse.
I’ve run into a few of these guys over the years. Generally, they’re trying to sell me a watch. Our exchange goes like this…
Me: What’s the matter with the watch I got?
Hustler: That watch ain’t shit, bro. Not for a big-time player like you.
That’s a hard appeal to resist.
Now try hustling watches with a baby in your arms.
Great, great movie.
You’re the man, Sean Baker. I can’t wait for your next movie.
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