Benny Jay: Erickyma

September 13th, 2019

When we were kids, we didn’t really know the parents of our friends.

It’s more like they were these formidable figures, looming in the background–like the adults in Peanuts.

So it was with Arthur Erickson, a man I never called anything but Mr. Erickson.

He was the father of David Erickson, one of my best junior high friends. A kid we usually called Erickyma.

Can’t remember why we called him that, though I’m sure we thought it was really clever at the time.

As I remember, Mr. Erickson was a quiet and lanky. A sample–and rare–conversation between the two of us probably went like this…

Mr. Erickson: Hello, Benny.

Benny: Ugh, hi…

As you can see, witty repartee with parents wasn’t really my thing.

The Ericksons lived on the second floor of a two-flat near the lake. We called it “Erickson’s crib.” I spent many afternoons hanging there.

Mr. Erickson was the display manager at Marshall Field’s department store. So obviously he was very artistic.

You could tell he was artistic just by looking at his house. It was very neat and orderly and filled with his paintings, sculpture and drawings.

One day while snooping around–as kids will do–I came upon a book of pictures of naked people.

It may have been the first time I’ve ever seen such a thing. In a book, anyway.

Naked boys playing leapfrog. Naked men running. Naked women walking up stairs. All kinds of naked people doing all kinds of different things–while naked.

I don’t think I can emphasize the naked part of this enough.

The photos were by Eadweard Muybridge, who was probably every bit as weird as his name suggests.

I’ve since learned that Muybridge was a seminal photographer of the 19th century, who’s had a profound influences on many artists, including, obviously, Mr. Erickson.

But back then all I knew is–dang, this shit is weird. Though that didn’t stop me from sneaking a look at that book every chance I had. But don’t tell Erickson.

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Arthur Erickson’s memorial program…

Mr. Erickson died last month–complications from a stroke. He was 89-years-old.

By the end of his life, he’d moved out of that nice two-flat by the lake and was living in an assisted living place.

Two weeks ago, they had a memorial service for him.

In their eulogies, David and his sister, Janet, briefly told the story of a man I hardly knew. For instance…

He graduated from Sullivan High School. Home of the Tigers. Which is appropriate, since Mr. Erickson loved animals of all sorts, especially big cats. He loved painting them, too.

In the `40s, he got drafted and sent off to Europe.

When he returned from the war, he met Marian Miller, a woman I came to know as Mrs. Erickson.

Sample conversation between me and Mrs. Erickson–oh, you can imagine how that went.

For their honeymoon, Mr. & Mrs. Erickson crossed the country. Visited the Grand Canyon, drove up the coast of California to San Francisco.

They were living the Bohemian life of two artists in Chicago. Then came the kids and that two-flat by the lake.

He was, they said, a bit of a mystic.

“He loved dogs,” Janet said. “He said you could look into a dog’s eyes and see the eyes of god. Not the god of racism and war. But the god you can see in the eyes of a dog.”

I wish I knew him when I was old to appreciate who he was.

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Benny Jay: Nobel Bob

June 30th, 2019

I was walking through Greenwich Village on a gorgeous October morning, when I got the word that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in literature.

What a coincidence.

Greenwich Village is where a young Bobby Zimmerman came to when he got the hell out of Minnesota all those years ago.

To get in the spirit of the moment, I stood in the middle of Washington Square Park, closed my eyes, and chanted a few lines from Talkin’ New York, one of Dylan’s earliest songs.

I swung on to my old guitar
Grabbed hold of a subway car
And after a rocking, reeling, rolling ride
I landed up on the downtown side
Greenwich Village…

I was hoping to magically transport myself back in time to 1961, so, when I’d open my eyes, I’d see young Bobby D sitting by the fountain, playing his guitar…

Alas, it didn’t work. When I opened my eyes, it was still very much October 13, 2016. And there was no Bob Dylan, young or old, anywhere in sight.

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Bob Dylan in Washington Square Park…

Unable to talk to Dylan, I did the next best thing. I sat on a park bench and called Milo, my partner in this blogging empire.

“Milo,” I said. “If you were to create a Mount Rushmore of cultural icons from our generation, you’d start with Dylan and Muhammad Ali. Right?”

“Right.”

“Then who?”

“Elvis.”

“Good choice. Now, you need one more–cause Mt. Rushmore has four.”

He gave it some thought, then said: “Nixon.”

“Nixon?” I exclaimed.

“Well, he was influential.”

“But he was a maniacal, drunken insomniac who bombed the shit out of smaller countries.”

“Benny, you make a good point.”

Folks, just between you and me, Milo hasn’t been the same since the titanium.

Eventually, we agreed that no such Mt. Rushmore would be complete without Jimi Hendrix.

Think about that–this must be an awfully great country to have produced Muhammad Ali, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan within a span of about ten years.

On the other hand, it produced Donald Trump.

Well, no country’s perfect.

Congratulations, Mr. D.

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Benny Jay: Old Dogs

June 16th, 2019

Sometime in the middle of last month, my dog Nicky lost her mind.

She developed an aversion to late-night walks. As in–she won’t do them anymore.

Every night, it’s the same old thing…

“C’mon, Nicky,” I say in that cheery sing-song voice we use for little kids and dogs. Like–this is gonna be so much fun!

But instead of walking down the front steps, she digs in her heals. Gives me the look that says: “No way, man.”

If I drop the leash, she whirls and heads back to the door–tail between her legs, as if to say:  “Hurry up and let me back in!”

It baffles me–there’s no obvious explanation. This is a dog who used to love late-night walks. She’s been my companion for thousands of them over the years.

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Nicky, the dog–I ain’t walkin’ anymore!

I’ve heard all sorts of explanations for her behavior.

It’s the thunder storms…

Or the firecrackers…

Or her eyes are going bad and she can’t see in the dark…

(The vet offered up that one.)

I’ve received many suggestions. Like this one from my father…

“Take her to the doggie analyst and have her lie on the couch and tell the doctor about her dreams.”

As you can see, my father’s sort of fond of Freud.

The vet suggested we give her a treat as a reward for leaving the front steps. And not just any old doggie biscuit, but something special–like a piece of hot dog or chicken.

This makes sense. Hell, I’d do just about anything for a good piece of fried chicken.

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Paging Dr. Freud!

But my wife gives the dog the treat and Nicky still resists.

“You don’t understand,” my wife tells Nicky. “I’m not giving you this piece of hot dog for the sake of giving it to you. You have to earn it. It’s a reward for going for the walk.”

“Oh, I understand perfectly,” Nicky tells my wife. “I’ll take the hot dog and you do the walking!”

Well, the dog doesn’t actually say that. She just let just know.

To be clear–Nicky’s an eager beaver when it comes to daytime walks. Tail wagging. Gonna run, run right down the street.

But at night–no way, Jack!

One night, a neighbor stops to watch me drag Nicky up the block. “Let’s face it,” the neighbor says, “your dog’s getting old.”

Makes as much sense as anything. With dogs as humans, getting old’s a bitch.

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Benny Jay: A Million Books

April 21st, 2019

I’d been unsuccessfully searching for the novel, Carlito’s Way, for several weeks, and then I walked into this book store in Los Angeles and found it staring me in the face.

God is good!

Not just any book store, by the way. The Last Book Store, one of the greatest book stores in America.

They have thousands of books–new and used–subdivided by genre. It was up in the second floor where they keep the paperback mysteries that I stumbled upon Carlito’s Way.

Up there it’s like a scene out of Harry Potter. They keep the books arranged in shelves that curve along a windy path. It’s like entering a portal to a secret world of books.

I’d recently read about Carlito’s Way in a New York Times article about Edwin Torres, the former New York City judge who wrote it back in 1975.

I remembered the movie with Al Pacino. But I didn’t know it was based on a book. Something about that article intrigued me. I looked for that book in libraries, book stores, used book stores. No dice.

And now I stumble on it–when I wasn’t even looking for it.

I took it off the shelf and cracked it open to give it the first sentence test.

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This is where I found Carlito’s Way

“Sooner or later, a thug will tell his tale. We all want to go on record. So let’s hear it for all the hoods. The Jews out of Brownsville. The Blacks on Lenox Avenue. The Italians from Mulberry Street. Like that. Meanwhile, the Puerto Ricans been gettin’ jammed since the forties and ain’t nobody said nothin’. We been laid, relayed, and waylaid and nobody wants to hear about it. Well, I’m gonna lay it on you one time, for the record.”

That’s it–I was hooked. Bought the book there and then and have been talking about it ever since.

I may be a little envious of Torres. Okay, a lot envious. I’ve been writing my whole life, but I’ve never came up with the strings of lean, edgy and melodic sentences he just rolls out of his brain like it’s an assembly plant. Some guys got it and some guys don’t.

It doesn’t have much of a plot. Just Carlito telling the story of how he rose from Spanish Harlem in the ’50s and `60s to become a big-time thug in New York City. And then his fall.

And to think I randomly discovered this great book by happening on some article in The New York Times.

There’s a million great books out there. I don’t even know most of the titles. Sometimes my greatest regret is knowing I won’t have time to read them all.

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Benny Jay: Strummer

April 4th, 2019

Years ago, I wandered into the office of a publicist named Eric, looking for info about property taxes.

At the time, Eric labored for the Cook County Assessor. So reporters turned to him when they had questions about property taxes. Which was pretty funny since Eric cared as much about property taxes as I cared about, oh, microbiology.

Hey, man, a gig’s a gig.

Anyway, I was going on and on–as I’m apt to do–about the connections between TIFs and the Homeowners Exemption, when Eric changed the subject. No doubt to keep from dozing off.

“Do you like Joe Strummer?” he asked.

“Drummer?”

“No, Strummer–from The Clash.”

“Never heard of him.”

“You never heard of Joe Strummer? He’s a fuckin’ genius!”

There and then Eric started quoting iconic lines by Joe Strummer, including this one…

“He who fucks nuns will later join the church.”

Now, that grabbed my attention. You don’t generally get the words “fuck” and “nuns” in the same lyric.

Soon Eric was singing the full verse.

‘N’ every gimmick hungry yob digging gold from rock ‘n’ roll
Grabs the mike to tell us he’ll die before he’s sold
But I believe in this and it’s been tested by research
He who fucks nuns will later join the church…

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We’ve come a long way from Joe Strummer…

I’m not sure what impressed me the most: the lyric or Eric’s ability to quote it by heart.

“It’s from Death or Glory,” he said.

Silence.

“From London Calling…”

More silence.

“You’ve heard of London Calling–right?”

I shrugged.

“Dude, you gotta be kidding me–you never heard of London Calling?”

“I kinda spent the `70s listening to pop music on a transistor radio I kept by my bed,” I confessed.

“What kind of `70s music do you like?” he asked.

“Any list must include the Bee Gees,” I said.

“You’re kidding, right?” he said.

Saturday Night Fever is one of the greatest pop records–ever!”

“Oh, shit, next you’ll be telling me you like the Carpenters.”

“How did you know?”

“I was making a joke.”

“No list of `70s songs is complete without Superstar.”

“Dude, you can’t admit this shit–it’s embarrassing.”

“Why? Karen Carpenter is a great singer.”

“Don’t tell me you like Barry Manilow.”

“Of course. `She sits there so refined, and drinks her self half-blind’. Great lyric!”

And so on…

We’ve been having one variation or another of that debate ever since. Probably be having it in our dotage at the Happy Trails Nursing Home. It sure beats talking about property taxes.

Anyway, imagine my surprise when I recently saw Eric making a Facebook “playlist of seventies songs I’m embarrassed to say I like.”

Before it was over, Eric had confessed to liking Baby Come Back, Do Ya Think I’m Sexy and Fly, Robin, Fly.

And he’s bitching about Barry Manilow?

Welcome to the church, Eric. I had a feeling you were

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Benny Jay: Rapper Man

March 27th, 2019

I’m on the phone, talking to Kitty — my friend, the publicist.  And she tells me one of her clients is Rhymefest, the rapper.

Moreover, Rhymefest and Kanye West are up for a Grammy for New Slaves, a song they co-wrote.

Then she says: “You probably haven’t heard of it.”

You know, like I don’t know shit about hip hop!

“What do you mean, I haven’t heard it!” I tell her.

The thing is — people are always assuming I don’t know shit about hip hop.

That’s cause I’m old. Plus, I already admitted I only learned about Jay-Z in 2009, years after he had already become an international superstar.

That’s when I happened to hear 99 Problems on the juke box at the bowling alley and asked my teammates: “Hey, man, who is this guy?

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If I ever got in trouble in NYC, I’m calling Murray Richman!

That night I went home and read all about Jay-Z on the internet.  I was particularly impressed by his connection to Murray “Don’t Worry” Richman, the criminal defense lawyer he hired to beat the rap for knifing a guy at a disco in New York City.

I believe that’s the shrewdest decision Jay-Z ever made. Hiring Murray Richman, that is. Not knifing the dude at the disco.

Anyway, I tell Kitty: “I know that song. My daughter taught it to me. It goes like this.”

And there and then I start rapping — live and on the phone!

“Uh-uh-uh, what up?  Uh, I’m tryna, what up?”

Which, I realize, pretty much sounds like my imitation of every hip hop song I ever heard, including 99 Problems.

“It ends with him saying where’s the mall?” I say. “That’s my favorite part — about the mall.”

“Wow,” says Kitty, who’s clearly impressed.

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Rhymefest!

After we hang up, I start to think. Was I singing the right song to Kitty? So I go to the internet and start looking things up and — oh, no! I screwed the whole thing up!

I was singing Vanity Slaves by Kendrick Lamar. Which is a really excellent song about how people are trapped by their lust for fame and fortune. That’s the one that ends with Lamar asking where’s the mall. Like he’s a vanity slave, too. Get it?

God, I love that song.

Unfortunately, New Slaves is a different song. Which I’m sure I’ll also love, once I get to know it.

In other words, I got it all fucked up — again!

Please don’t tell Kitty. My reputation will be ruined.

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Randolph Street: I Love These Pictures!

March 17th, 2019

 

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Artist at work…

 

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Alone together…

 

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Boys just wanna have fun…

 

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I love this picture!

 

All photos © Jon Randolph

jonrandolph.com

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