Letter From Milo: When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes (apologies to Dave Van Ronk)

November 30th, 2009

It’s terribly sad when a person loses the place he loves above all others. It’s even worse when a large number of people suffer the same loss.

Right now, there is a group of lost souls on Chicago’s North Side who are walking around with dazed expressions, a little frightened and a bit confused, like homeless people pushing shopping carts in the middle of a cold snap.

The reason these people are in such a sad state is that their favorite tavern, their home away from home, is shutting its doors. Now, this may not seem like much of a loss to most of you, but to people of a certain time, place and mindset the closing of this particular tavern is nothing less than a catastrophe.

This tavern, which I’ll call Swilligan’s, had been around since the early 1970s. It wasn’t much to look at, just a narrow room with a few booths tucked against one wall and perhaps a dozen stools leaning against the bar. To be honest about it, the joint was shabby. The only money the owner ever put into decorating was about 20 bucks a year for new Roach Motels — at least he claimed they were new.

Swilligan’s was located on Lincoln Avenue and it attracted a diverse and eclectic crowd. The regulars included artists, writers, musicans, gamblers, and for a short time, a touring banjo player/clog dancer. Most of the clientele, however, were regular Jills and Joes — carpenters, electricians, factory workers, cab drivers, nurses and teachers, as well as the infrequently employed and the chronically unemployable.

Oddly enough, despite Swilligan’s being a hole-in-the-wall, it attracted the occasional celebrity. Mike Royko would stop in once in a while. Bill Veeck came by to drink beer and talk baseball. The great Hunter Thompson made an appearance whenever he passed though town. The late folksinger, Fred Holstein, tended bar there when money or gigs were scarce.

It must also be admitted that a few drug dealers frequented the place. You could always purchase a little weed or something to fix your nose, if so inclined. The main attraction, however, was alcohol. Most of the regulars were heavy drinkers. In fact, I will go so far as to say that a few of them were world class drinkers. I could put it away pretty well myself in my heyday, until my health began to fail and my knees gave out, but I was always amazed at the amount of booze that some of the boys could handle — on a daily basis.

As I mentioned earlier, most of the customers were regular guys and gals, people who simply enjoyed the tavern life. For some of the regulars it was the only life they knew. For them, Swilligan’s functioned as a living room. It was where they relaxed, met friends, watched TV and entertained. A few even used the place as a mail drop or telephone answering service.

I haven’t spent much time in Swilligan’s in 10 or 15 years. For one thing, my wife never liked the place.

“How come you don’t like Swilligan’s?”

“It’s dirty, it stinks, it filled with low-lifes and losers and every time you go there you get fucked up.”

“So, what’s the problem?”

Whenever I run into an acquaintance from my Swilligan’s days and the subject of the bar’s closing comes up, there is always a palpable sense of sadness in the conversation. It’s as if the loss goes deeper than I could ever imagine. For Swilligan’s regulars, an era has passed, a way of life has gone and won’t be coming back. It’s time to move on. The problem is, where do they move to? How can they recreate what they once had? The short answer is, they can’t.

Dave Van Ronk, the New York City folksinger who passed away a while ago, captured the poignancy of a tavern habitue’s loss perfectly in his wonderful song “Last Call” from his album entitled “Songs for Aging Children.”

And so we’ve had another night
of poetry and poses
and each man knows he’ll be alone
when the sacred gin mill closes.

Sic transit gloria

All The Bells & Whistles

November 30th, 2009

The 00s: A Brief List of Good Records from the Last Ten Years (Pt. 4 — The Drive-By)

Sufjan Stevens, Come on Feel the Illinoise — The Betsy Ross Middle School Beginner Band plays Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band playing Steve Reich.

Panda Bear, Person Pitch — Blue winter light in a pale green room.

The Decemberists, The Crane Wife — Clap your hands, sing along, briefly and cautiously bang your head, spread your wings, keep singing.


Fleet Foxes, The Fleet Foxes — Don’t sing along on this one. Let them do it.

by Timothy Imse

Big Mike: Count Me Out

November 29th, 2009

I hate Black Friday. Wait…, I mean, I hate black friday. I refuse to capitalize it as if:

~ it deserves some sort of heightened respect over any other day: and

~ it’s really real.

Black friday reminds me of the term wellness that viraled its way into the American vocabulary in the 80s. We had a perfectly good word to imply things having to do with proper functioning of the organs and systems of the body. We said health for hundreds of years and every-goddamned-body knew what we meant. Then, the soulless, sexless office drones of the insurance industry got us to start saying wellness, an ugly, awkward construct that adds nothing to our understanding of health.

I figure soulless, sexless office drones are behind the avalanche of black friday-isms we experienced the day before yesterday. What other kind of evil creature could have elevated some obscure industry-insider term that we now all have to embrace as if we give a holy shit about whether the Crabtree & Evelyn at Woodfield breaks even for the year.

Similarly, a concept Benny Jay raised sometime in the summer when he was writing about going to see either “A Serious Man” or some other overlooked flick that only he on this Earth had shelled out ten bucks for also makes my hair stand on end. That is, the newspapers constantly run updated Box Office Top Ten lists. I have a couple of problems with that:

~ is there anybody out there who cares whether “2012” is outpacing “The Men Who Stare at Goats” in ticket sales? and

~ if you’re life is so bizarre that you actually do care, lemme give you a hint — “2012” has explosions, violence and death, some dopey romance sub-plots, and is based on occult-y bullshit; ergo, it’s gonna be a huge winner.

Back to black friday. I swear to you, at least a half dozen people actually asked me if I was going to get up at three in the morning to get in line for the early store openings. Apparently, a lot of stores opened early, early, early for our newest faux holiday. Radio Shack opened at 5:30am. Radio Shack! Who knew it still even existed? Kohl’s and Sears opened at four. The seventh circle of hell that is Toys R Us opened at freaking midnight.

I tell you, Americans are sick fucks.

I try my damnedest not to be a sick fuck. Yet at least six fellow citizens basically asked me if I were. Look, if I’m gonna get up at three in the morning, there’d better be naked women and pizza involved or else I’ll be awfully cranky. Imagine actually choosing to enter a Toys R Us in the middle of the night. Have you ever been in a Toys R Us at any time of the day? The place makes me want to perform a vasectomy on myself right then and there.

Somehow, though, a significant number of Americans think they’re going to get a great deal on a Zhu Zhu Pet or a Barbie Twilight (which sounds so porn-y to me that I have to assume that’s what Mattel intended) if they hoist their balloonish, sage-flatulent carcasses out of bed at three o’clock the morning after Thanksgiving. That must have been the crowd Bushy-boy was addressing when, in the days after 9/11 he counseled the nation not to reflect on the excesses of religious fundamentalism, or try to understand the underpinnings of Islam, or even to engage their Arab neighbors or coworkers in meaningful conversation, but to shop.

I didn’t spend a penny on Bla…, I mean, the day before yesterday. Look, I’m as good a capitalist as anybody but I choose not to make a fetish out of it.

Benny Jay: Donnie Darko

November 28th, 2009

I’m in Dark Star, the world’s greatest video store, looking for a movie, when Mike, the owner, says to me: “`The Box‘ opened….

“The Box?”

“Yeah, Richard Kelly’s new movie….”

“Richard Kelly?”

“You know, the guy who did`Donnie Darko‘….”

“Donnie Darko?”

“You didn’t see Donnie Darko!”

“I, ugh….”

“Oh, my God – you gotta see Donnie Darko….”

He steps out from the counter, walks to the rack, grabs “Donnie Darko,” hands it to me, and just like that I take it home cause when it comes to movies I pretty much do what Mike tells me. For one thing, he knows a lot about movies. For another, we have a lot in common. For instance, we both love Pam Grier. As a matter of fact, it was Mike who made me watch “Jackie Brown.” I told him I wasn’t going to watch it cause Quentin Tarantino directed it and I didn’t like “Pulp Fiction” and he said what does one have to do with the other? He made me rent it — practically thrust the DVD into my hand — and now it’s one of my all-time all times.  I’ve seen it, I don’t know, three or four times….

When I get home I ask my older daughter if she wants to watch “Donnie Darko” and she says what’s it about and I say not really sure — didn’t even look at the box — but I think it’s a dark comedy, you know, like something by the Coen Brothers.

I don’t know why I said that — I guess I was just hoping it would be like that.

So we put it on and thirty minutes goes by and I realize, not having laughed once, this is no comedy — this is a scary movie. Not horror scary as in knife-bearing psychos jumping out of closets, but eerie scary, as in — this is starting to creep the hell out of me.

It’s about Donnie Darko, this smarmy 18-year-old played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s having these weird nighttime visits from a six-foot-two-inch rabbit – that’s rabbit, not rabbi – named Frank. I swear, I’m not making any of this up. And the Rabbit leads Donnie out of his bed in the middle of the night. And once he takes off on his late-night ramblings, you never know what he’s going to do. There’s one scene where Donnie takes this axe and goes off to school and he’s moving really slow, just taking his time, and….

“This movie’s creepy,” I tell my daughter.

“Yeah,” she says.

“I mean, it’s really creepy….”


“I don’t know how much more I can take….”

“I wanna stay to see the end….”

“Yeah, but this is really creeping me out….”

“No, stay….”

So I stay.

And Donnie Darko takes that axe and he…..

Oh, the horror. The horror – ahhhh!

To tell you the truth, the Donnie Darko character is really starting to annoy me — I mean, he thinks he’s so smart. But the thing that’s really killing me is that six-foot-two-inch rabbit. I never liked rabbits to start with.  As a matter of fact, I used to have a roommate who kept a rabbit in a cage in his bedroom and when he went away he got me to feed it. I hated going near that rabbit. I kept thinking it was going to get out of the cage and attack me. All it did was take carrots in on one end and crap `em out on the other. It looked like a fluffy, white rat. And I really hate rats. Don’t get me started on rats….

Finally, the movie ends. I won’t tell you what happens — in case you haven’t seen it — but it has all this time-travel stuff, like a demented version of “Back to the Future.”

“Whew,” I say. “Thank God that’s over….”

“Great movie,” says my daughter.

And then — dig this! — she yawns, stretches and heads off for bed. As in — oh, well, time to get some sleep.

“Where you going?” I ask.

“To bed,” she says.

“How the hell can you sleep after this?”

“I’m tired….”

“Don’t you wanna talk?”

“Good night, dad….”

Isn’t that funny — when she wanted me to stay, I stayed. But now, suddenly, oh, it’s sleepy time.

I sit in the dark and look out the window. Then I remember — gotta walk the dog. Should have walked her before I saw the movie. But I didn’t and now it’s well after midnight….

Outside it’s all dark and creepy. I’m looking over my shoulder for Donnie Darko and that rabbit. Especially that rabbit.

And guess what I see? That’s right – a rabbit! Scampering across a lawn. Our neighborhood’s crawling with them, by the way.

Soon as I see that rabbit, I turn right around and head home. The dog’s looking at me like – hey, man, what the fu….

“Sorry, Nicky,” I say. “But we’re cutting this walk short. Make it up to you tomorrow….”

I scurry into the house and lock the door. If I never see another rabbit, I’ll be a happy man….

Randolph Street: Highway 61–Road Sides

November 27th, 2009


Screendoor–Port Gibson, Mississippi


Tin Walls–Minnesota


Parasols–Dubuque, Iowa

4Demolition DerbyS

Demolition Derby–Sturgeon Lake, Minnesota

5Barber ShopS

Barber Shop–New Orleans, Louisiana

6City Park-CantonMoS

Park–Canton, Missouri

This is a personal look at Mid-America that I shot between 1976 and 1985.  These were taken along the approximately 1700 miles of US Highway 61 that roughly follows the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Minneapolis, then juts northeast to Duluth and along the western edge of Lake Superior to Thunder Bay, Ontario.  All photographs © Jon Randolph.

Big Mike: On My Plate

November 26th, 2009

Ben Joravsky, Milo Samardzija and Jon Randolph.

Sophia & Danny, Matthew and Arianna.

Ma, Joey, Mike, James and Steve.

Charlotte & Ron.

Louie, Tony, Lisa, Theresa, Maria, Mark, Sheila, Nick and Doug.

Tim & David and Mikey & Ati.

Anna for the wit.

Margaret, Ruth and Crystal for the opportunity.

Chad, Will and Joy for the doorway.

Amy for forgiveness.

Kenneth, Tim Wood, Tom & Beth, Brady, Tim, Michele and Neville.

Tom and Sid.

Santo and Holtzman for the thrill.

An English Comp 101 instructor named Greg for for the encouragement.

Del and Charna for the training.

Giancarlo for the car and the laptop.

Pat C., Pat A. and Alison for the guidance.

Paula and Annie for the support.

Nancy for the gig.

Jimmi T. and Spencer.

Pam and Sharon.

Tim C., Tim L. and Rob for the window.

Bryson, Wodehouse, Sagan, Ferris, Angier, Lewis, Taibbi, Caro, Capote, Roth and Twain for the words.

Wilder, Coppola and Hitchcock for the pictures.

Bowie, Drake, Gilberto, Gaye, Richard, Herrmann, Wilson, Wonder, Gershwin and Eno for the sounds.

Bruce and Carlin for the attitude.

Democritus for “Nothing exists except atoms and empty spaces; everything else is opinion.”

Einstein for imagining that beam of light.

Armstrong and Aldrin for getting there.

Barack Obama.

George W. for going away.

Reinhardt Sarges for Zoloft.

Kitty for the past eight years and, if we’re lucky and smart, the next 37 years.

Benny Jay: The Glee Club Shares Its Favorite Porn Sites

November 25th, 2009

I’m wasting time playing around with that Internet thingamabob that counts computer hits when I make a big discovery.

The bit I wrote about watching a football game at The Big House in Michigan is our all-time greatest hit.

At least, more computers came to it than any other blog bit.

Quickly, I call Milo to rub it in. Cause before that he’d had the the most widely read blog bit.

Don’t worry — I was very mature in how I broke the news.  I said: “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, I’m more popular than you….”

“I don’t believe it,” he said.

“It’s true. My cousin’s kid Josh — you know, the great singer — sent it to all his friends. Milo, we’re huge with with the Glee Club.”

“I still don’t believe you — go back `n check those numbers….”

So I do. And then I get carried away.  Get all scientific and stuff, making these little graphs with the X axis and the Y axis, like in economics. I’m having the time of my life, feeling all mathematical, when I make another discovery even bigger than the first.

Sex sells!

Or more to the point: If you put sex in the title — particularly the word porn — more people will read the blog bit.

For instance, my previous greatest hit was the bit entitled “My Secret Porn.” It wasn’t even about porn. It was about my love for the Bulls. I just put porn in the title cause I was being ironic or something. In fact, I’d like to take a moment to apologize to all the horny bastards in computer land who were disappointed to realize it had nothing to do with sex and everything to do with basketball.

Quickly, I call Milo again — cause that guy loves any excuse to talk about porn.

“Milo,” I tell him. “Your dick is huge!”

“I know that….”

“No, I mean that thing you wrote about the Fabulous Swedish Dick Extender is the most popular bit you ever posted….”

“I told you, Benny — you can’t go wrong peddling sex….”


“As a matter of fact, remind me to send a memo to the Barn Boss: We need more porn on this site….”

“Oh, Big Mike loves porn….”

“Here’s what I want you to do. Put porn in the title of the next thing you write. I don’t care what it’s about. And throw something in there about that glee club. Get those little suckers coming back….”

He’s right, you know. Everybody loves sex, even if they pretend they’re above it. I remember when it came out at his senate confirmation hearing that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas had a fetish for porn. His Republican backers were outraged — outraged, I tell you! — that anyone would dare accuse any Republican judge of having a thing for a movie about Long Dong Silver.

Personally, I don’t understand what they were so shocked about. Porn’s a multi billion- dollar industry. You got to figure at least a few Republicans are into it.

It reminds me of the time the neighbors invited my wife and me over for dinner.  They were the squarest of the squares — little dumpy creatures. Had Time magazine on the living room table and everything.

They feed us pot roast. Then they say, all innocent like: Wanna watch a movie?

Sure, we say. Why not?

So they sit us on the little sofa in the little living room in their little house and they put on this video. I can’t remember the name. It’s about this guy who accidentally creates a perfume that makes him irresistible to women. As soon as they smell it they have to have sex with him. They got scene after scene like the one where the lady cops pulls the dude over for speeding and then rips off her clothes and begs him to do the dirty to her.

By the way, did I tell you the dude had an enormous penis? Well, he did. Even bigger than Milo’s.

The guy gets this idea to mass market the perfume — now that I think about it, the movie was sort of making a larger point about capitalism. He calls it Gusher. And, oh, I can’t remember what happens next  cause this was a long time ago.

But here’s the thing. As we’re watching this movie on this little sofa in this little house the couple’s moving in. They’re getting closer and closer to where we’re sitting.  Bing! The light in my head goes on: These squares are swingers! They want to have group sex with me and my wife! And Gusher — or whatever the movie’s called — is like the aphrodisiac.

Man, as soon as that flick ends, my wife and I cut the hell out of that house. I guess, we weren’t ready for the big time.

So there’s my porn story. I  don’t have a lot of them. Like Clarence Thomas, I never watch the stuff.

I swear….

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