Letter From Milo: If I were a carpenter…

November 28th, 2016

Every once in a while I get a song stuck in my head. It’s not a bad thing if it’s a decent number, but God forbid I should get fixated on a worthless ditty like In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. A day or two with that ridiculous tune rumbling in my head would probably be the end of me.

Recently, I got obsessed with If I Were a Carpenter, written and recorded by the late Tim Hardin. I walked around the house humming the tune for most of the day, occasionally breaking into song, belting out the lyrics in my loud, manly and pleasing baritone.

For some reason this aggravated the lovely Mrs. Milo. “Will you please stop that?”

“Stop what, honey?”

“Stop singing that stupid song. You’re scaring the cat.”

“That rotten cat can go fuck himself. The dog doesn’t seem to mind my singing.”

“Milo, in case you’ve forgotten, the dog lost its hearing about two years ago.”

I don’t know what my wife’s got against Tim Hardin, but I’ve always enjoyed his music. His best songs have an ache to them, a melancholy sense of loss and longing, that appeals to my sentimental Slavic soul.

Hardin had a hot streak in the 60’s. Those were the years he wrote If I were a Carpenter and Reason to Believe, as well as a personal favorite, The Lady Came From Baltimore. His songs were covered by artists as diverse as Bobby Darin, Rod Stewart, Johnny Cash and Joan Baez. Hardin even appeared at Woodstock, in 1969, playing his songs to an audience of a half million people.

Hot streaks don’t last forever. By the middle 1970s, Hardin was washed up, a mental and physical wreck. He was also in dire financial straits. He had no income from his song catalog because he had sold the rights to his music a few years earlier to settle a pressing problem.

The problem was heroin, a drug he had become very fond of while in the military and stationed in Vietnam, during the early years of the war. The fondness grew into an all-consuming obsession and it stayed with him the rest of his life. He was, by all reports, a degenerate junkie, erratic and unreliable, prone to putting on terrible performances, that’s if he even bothered showing up at all. He became virtually unemployable. By the late 1970s he was reduced to playing second rate clubs for chump change.

In early December of 1980 I was sitting out a snowstorm with the help of some bourbon and reefer, when I got a call from a dear friend. “Hey, Milo, are you doing anything tonight?”

“Nothing special.”

“I’ve got a couple of free tickets to see Tim Hardin at the Quiet Knight. You want to go?”

“Sounds good.”

Maybe it was the bad weather, but I doubt more than 40 people showed up for the show. The upside of the sparse crowd was that my friend and I got a good table, close to the stage.

Hardin appeared about 30 minutes late. It might have been better if he had never showed up at all. He looked terrible — bloated, pasty, in dire need of grooming and a bath. And he was obviously high, riding with the white witch.

Hardin stumbled through the first few songs, mumbling the lyrics, hitting sour notes on his guitar, nearly nodding off in the middle of a tune. A few people walked out after he stopped to lazily scratch himself in the middle of Reason to Believe. Others began to heckle him, “Come on, Tim, pick it up, man.”

I didn’t want to be there. It was painful watching Tim Hardin trying to put on a show. He had once been a well-paid, popular and honored entertainer. Now, he was just a lost soul, a ghost of glories past, incapable of even going through the motions.

I was thinking about leaving. I didn’t want to be a party to this train wreck any longer. Then Tim started playing If I Were a Carpenter and the fucker nailed it. He stood tall and straight, closed his eyes, and sang:

If I were a carpenter
And you were a lady
Would you marry me anyway
Would you have my baby

His voice was sweet and clear. His guitar playing was crisp. He sang the song like it was his testament, the one pure and true thing in his life. It was the song that defined him and he seemed determined not to fuck it up. He gave the audience the best he had. And when he finished, he was spent. Tim Hardin had nothing more to give. He fumbled through another song or two, made an incomprehensible apology, and left the stage. There was no applause.

About three weeks later, on December 29, 1980, to be precise, Tim Hardin died of a heroin overdose.

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Letter From Milo: Fashion Plate

November 21st, 2016

A few years ago I started carrying a shoulder bag. I had been considering getting a shoulder bag for a long time, but there was something keeping me from getting one. That something was stupidity.

You see, I always thought that carrying a shoulder bag was an affectation, something a real man would never do. A shoulder bag, it seemed to me, was a sure sign of effeminacy. I mean, how much shit did a person have to haul around? You had your wallet, keys, cash, cigarettes and lighter, half pint of whiskey, extra-large, industrial strength condoms, and perhaps a concealed weapon.

All of those things could easily fit into the four pockets that traditionally come with a pair of pants in the Western World. Anything else was just extraneous bullshit.

But as time went on and life got more complicated, I found that four pockets were no longer enough to contain the things I had to carry around on a daily basis.

For example, when I got hired as Society, Lifestyle & Religion columnist for The Third City, I had to start carrying notebooks and pens to write down the great thoughts that occur to me on a regular basis. And how was I supposed to haul around my paperback books, crossword puzzle books, sunglasses, vials of uppers and downers, bags of weed and other necessities of life? There was no way all of that crap could fit in my pockets.

As much as I hated to do it, it was time to get a shoulder bag.

The first bag I got was a funky old canvas bag that I found at a thrift shop on Roscoe Avenue. It cost about three bucks and served my purposes admirably. The problem was that it was an ugly old thing, covered with stains and falling apart at the seams. When my wife, the lovely Mrs. Milo, saw it she started laughing.

“Do think you could have gotten a nastier looking bag?”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s covered with spaghetti stains.”

“I’ll throw it in the washer.”

“It stinks, too. Smells like a cat peed on it.”

“That should wash out, too.”

“Honey, you can’t wash out ugly.”

A few weeks later, Mrs. Milo came home and presented me with a brand new, black leather shoulder bag.

It was beautiful. The bag was made of deep, rich cowhide that shone like patent leather. It smelled like the interior of a brand new Buick Electra 225. It had shiny snaps and buckles and it was roomy enough to carry all of my essentials. Best of all, it was a manly looking bag. There was not a hint of effeminacy about it.

I’ve never cared about fashion. To quote the great Howlin’ Wolf, “I dress for comfort, baby, I don’t dress for speed.” I always considered people who made a fetish of fashion to be shallow, frivolous individuals.

That said, my new shoulder bag affected me in ways I would never have imagined. I started paying more attention to what I wore and what other people wore. If I saw someone carrying a shoulder bag, I immediately compared it to mine. I wasn’t turning into a fop, by any means, but I will admit that the potential was there. I was becoming a changed person, a Milo 2.0.

But some things never change. The other day my youngest daughter asked if I had a pen. I told her to check in my shoulder bag. After looking through the bag, she asked:

“Dad, why do you carry that nasty-looking knife in your bag?”

“Well, honey, “I explained, “I like to have a knife handy in case I need to cut some fucker up.”

“I see,” she said, nodding in understanding. “By the way, Dad, can I have some money? I need to buy some new clothes.”

“Sure, sweetie. That’s money well spent.”

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Letter From Milo: Rack ’em up…

November 14th, 2016

 

The town where I grew up, Gary, Indiana, probably had more pool rooms than churches. And for young men of a certain mindset, those dim, smoky and wicked billiard parlors were where we learned about life. I was about 15 years old when I first walked into a pool room. In a very short time, I discovered the arts of smoking, drinking and gambling, pleasures that have stayed with me all these years.

I became a pretty good pool player, not great, but competent. I acquired enough skill to occasionally make a few bucks playing 9-ball, pea pool, straight pool, rotation and snooker. Playing 8-ball for money was beneath my dignity. The boys in the pool room considered it a frivolous game.

When I was 17 or 18, I lost interest in playing pool and pool rooms. By then, I had discovered other ways to pass my time, some were unwise, others were very pleasant indeed. I would still stop by a pool room once in a while, but those occasions became rarer as I grew older.

Still, those few years spent hanging out in pool rooms were not a complete waste of time. In the early 1980s, my knowledge of the game and its milieu got me a job as the managing editor of Billiards Digest, a Chicago-based magazine catering to pool players and the industry. I didn’t stay long. The only thing I liked about the job was the paycheck, but after a few months, even a paycheck wasn’t enough to keep me interested.

My involvement with the game of pool ended when I left Billiards Digest. I have not given much thought to the game or set foot in a pool room in more than 25 years. Then, this past Friday, a dear friend, who I’ll call Bruce Diksas, to spare him undue embarrassment, called and asked if I felt like shooting some pool.

“I’d prefer to take a nap,” I replied.

“Come on, don’t be a lazy fuck. I heard about a place called Chris’ Pool Room out on Wilson, by Milwaukee Avenue. It’s supposed to be a classic old room, like Bensinger’s. We ought to check it out. There aren’t many left in town.”

“Nah, I don’t want to go.”

“Great! I’ll pick you up in 20 minutes.”

Bruce’s interest in the game of pool goes way back. Like me, he became a habitué of billiard parlors as a teenager. His youth, however, was misspent in Bridgeport, on the South Side of Chicago, while mine, as I had mentioned, was wasted in Northwest Indiana. As a young man he even managed a pool room, although I doubt he includes that information on his resume.

Chris’ Pool Room was as advertised. It reminded me of the beloved dens of iniquity of my youth. The place was dark, dingy, and smelled of decades-old cigar smoke. The history of the joint is written on its walls, in faded and peeling posters, framed and yellowing newspaper articles, and autographed photos of long-forgotten hustlers.

It was early afternoon when Bruce and I arrived at the pool room. I was surprised to find that the place was nearly empty. Although there were dozens of tables in the room, only three or four were in use. And all of the players were older men, none seemed to be under under the age of 50. There were a couple of gents playing friendly games of 8-ball, and another two guys playing alone, practicing, keeping their chops sharp in case a money game came along.

We stayed for about an hour and a half and had a pretty good time. Bruce and I were still competent players, but we both realized something odd about our games. Although we had no problems on short shots, when we lined up long shots we noticed that the object balls became blurry, and it was very difficult to make delicate cuts. Our eyesight had betrayed us. I tried putting on my reading glasses, but it didn’t help.

Another thing I noticed was that I had difficulty with awkward shots. There was a time when I could stretch across a table and contort my body into an uncomfortable position just to make a shot. When I tried to do it at Chris’ I got a kink in my back.

As I was rubbing my back, trying to work the kink out, I consoled myself by thinking that I wasn’t actually getting older, I was just not in top pool playing condition.

When we left Chris’ Pool Room, Bruce made a comment about the lack of young people in the place. “When I was growing up, the pool rooms were packed with young guys. Now it seems like it’s mostly old farts.”

“I suppose most of the young ones stay home and play video games,” I said.

“That’s too bad,” Bruce said. “They’re missing an important part of their education. There are things you can learn in pool rooms that you can’t learn anywhere else.”

“It’s too late, anyway. Most of the old style pool rooms will be gone in a few years.”

“I hate to hear that. What do you think will happen to all the old fuckers who like hanging around in pool rooms?”

“I suppose they’ll be gone, too.”

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Letter From Milo: Immigration Man

November 7th, 2016

I believe the gentleman that runs the convenience store in my neighborhood is from Pakistan. I don’t know for a fact that he’s Pakistani. It’s an educated guess on my part, based on the fact that whenever I walk into his shop he’s watching a cricket match on TV, and Pakistan is always one of the contending teams.

I’ve been patronizing the store for the last couple of years. Every time I walk into the shop I try to strike up a conversation with the man, but it is a long-standing exercise in futility.

Unfortunately, I don’t speak Urdu and it seems the only English the proprietor understands are the words “Marlboro Lights” and “Lotto.” Still, I’m a friendly guy and a bit of a motormouth, so I keep trying to start a conversation with him.

“Hey, my man, I see you’ve got the cricket game on.”

“Yes, yes.”

“Who’s winning?”

“Yes, yes.”

“I understand Pakistan’s best player has a problem.”

“Yes, yes.”

“I heard on ESPN that he got caught fucking a goat and got suspended for three games.”

“Yes, yes.”

“It’s been nice chatting with you, but I’ve got to run. Let me have a pack of Marlboro Lights and a Lotto ticket.”

My father and mother were immigrants, who arrived in the USA a few years after WW2 ended. The old man had been a warrior from the age of 16, fighting Nazis from 1940 to 1945, then joining the battle against Comrade Tito and the Communist Partisans in the first of Yugoslavia’s civil wars. History buffs will recall that Tito prevailed in that ugly conflict and the losers faced some harsh choices, as losers of wars generally do. The choices were prison, the firing squad or leaving the country, which he wisely did.

As I had mentioned, the old man had been a warrior, but there wasn’t much call for warriors in Gary, Indiana in the late 1940s. What was needed in Gary were factory hands, hard working men and women willing and able to make steel and automobiles, in return for a decent wage and essential benefits.

The steel mills and factories of Gary were manned by African-Americans, southern whites, Latinos, mainly Mexican and Puerto Rican, and Eastern European immigrants. They did the hard work, laboring in crude, deafening, noxious and often physically dangerous conditions. And they were happy to do it. For most of them, working in Gary’s factories was a step up on the ladder of life.

The city’s neighborhoods were a reflection of the ethnic makeup of the factories. My neighborhood was a mini United Nations, populated by Greeks, Poles, Jews, Serbs, Mexicans, Russians, Italians, African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Lithuanians, Irish, Syrians and Armenians. And I loved them all. I loved the foods they cooked, the liquors they drank, the holidays they celebrated and the way they sometimes mangled the English language. I admired the way they worked hard and planned for a better future. I liked the contributions they made to local life and culture.

I especially loved the women, who came in all sizes, shapes and colors. My first kiss came from a Jewish girl. My second was from a Mexican girl. Modesty prevents me from mentioning anything about the local Greek or Italian girls.

I still have a soft spot in my heart for immigrants. When I hear some cheap politician trying to make political capital by railing about the “immigration problem,” I just shake my head and wonder if he’s that stupid or that calculating. I would prefer to think it was simply stupidity, because if it comes from political calculation, it is then truly evil.

Immigration is not a problem. Immigration is an asset.

Immigration’s effects can’t and shouldn’t be judged in the short term. The guy doing your landscaping may have a child who grows up to discover the cure for cancer. The guy selling you a lottery ticket may have a child who discovers the alternative to fossil fuels. The lady cleaning your office may have a child who one day grows up to be a Chicago Alderman.

If it wasn’t for immigration I would never have met and befriended my neighborhood Pakistani shop keeper, whose store I visited this morning.

“Hey my man,” I said, when I walked into his shop. “I see you’ve got the cricket match on.”

“Yes, yes.”

“Damn, looks like Pakistan’s losing. I heard those South African bastards were pretty good.”

“Yes, yes.”

“I hope you don’t have too much money on the game. What’s the spread?”

“Yes, yes.”

“That’s cool. Ah, let me have a pack of Marlboro Lights and a Lotto ticket.”

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Benny Jay: One Less Bell to Answer

November 3rd, 2016

As many of you may know, I’ve reached that stage of life known as empty nesterhood.

The kids have grown and moved to far-off cities, leaving me alone in the house with my wife and the dog.

However, over the holidays, the kids returned–friends in tow–and everything went back to the way it was.

For starters, it was warmer in the house.

I tend to keep the thermostat low on the grounds that it’s only me and the aforementioned wife and dog. And we can wear hoodies, if necessary. Well, not the dog. But you get the idea.

Obviously, my kids have a different point of view.

One day, feeling a little sweatier than usual, I walked to the thermostat where I discovered that someone had set the temperature at 87 degrees. Thus, generating the following exchange…

Me: What the fuck!

Kid One: Don’t turn it down–it’s cold!

Me: Put some socks on!

Kid Two: I’m telling mom!

jimmymcnultyandbunk

Over the holidays, I saw a lot of The Wire, plus…

 

Another thing, the lights are always on, even if no one’s in the room.  I’m starting to think my kids are living off dividends from secretly acquired shares of Com Ed stock.

I found myself constantly wandering through rooms turning off lights. Thus, generating this exchange…

Kid One: Dad, it’s dark!

Me: You don’t need a light, if you’re not in the room!

Kid Two: I’m telling mom!

blackmirror

This episode of Black Mirror…

 

There were also more dishes in the sink. And a scramble to get first dibs on the shower. And the TV was going day and night.

I suddenly found myself unable to resist re-watching episode after episode of The Wire.

Which remains the greatest TV show–ever!

Plus, I was watching American Horror Story, Transparent and Breaking Bad.

Until time lost all meaning, and I was going to bed at 4 and waking up at the crack of noon to watch another episode of Black Mirror.

Which is not a bad show, by the way.

And then one day, without warning, the kids were gone. Back to their new homes in far-off cities.

And now the house is cold and dark and the TV’s off and there are no dishes in the sink and I have first dibs on the shower anytime I want.

And I miss them more than ever…

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Letter From Milo: Dick Trouble

October 31st, 2016

In the last couple of years, an embarrassing personal issue has arisen that may well prove to be the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. It could destroy my good reputation and ruin me socially. Calling it “a disaster of unimaginable proportions” may be an understatement.

My dick betrayed me. Somewhere along the line it developed a mind of its own. We are no longer on the same page. There are occasions when it just won’t go along with the program.

This mutinous behavior doesn’t occur often, but it happens more times than I’d care to admit to anyone but the discreet readers of The Third City, who, I trust, can keep a secret.

Normally, I avoid writing about sensitive or intimate topics, especially where sexual matters are concerned, but in this case a visit to my doctor prompted me to make an exception. I had stopped by the hospital for my weekly penicillin shot and liver checkup, and was chatting with my primary physician, when he asked, “Have you had any erectile problems recently?”

“Can you be more specific?”

“Have you had trouble getting or maintaining erections?”

“That’s a hell of a question to ask a guy.”

“I’m a doctor. Your health is my business.”

“Heh, heh, now that you mention it, I’m not the race horse I used to be.”

“Don’t take it personally. It’s a natural part of the aging process. Fortunately, there are medications that can, ah, restore your abilities.”

“Like Viagra?”

“Yes, and there are others, too. A huge amount of time and money has gone into the research and development of erectile dysfunction drugs. In the last few years a lot of new medications have come on the market.”

“Doc, I’m not taking any dick medicine.”

“Don’t be hasty. For men of a certain age these drugs have been a Godsend. A lot of men put their faith in Viagra.”

“I put my faith in red wine and reefer. Unlike my dick, they’ve never let me down.”

The doctor’s comment, about the time and money spent on developing drugs like Viagra, stayed with me as I drove away from his office. I don’t know the actual numbers, but I suspect billions of dollars have been spent on R&D for what are, essentially, recreational drugs. The only thing a drug like Viagra is good for is giving a man an erection so he can have some fun by fucking something. I understand it’s the most prescribed drug on the planet.

Aids is still a scourge. Heart disease is rampant in affluent societies. Cancer cases are on the increase. Global warming is creating environments that are conducive for new viruses to develop and old ones to mutate, with potentially catastrophic results. Yet our finest medical researchers and our largest pharmaceutical companies are spending their time and money designing drugs to help horny old bastards get boners. I suspect that most of those researchers and drug company honchos are male.

Later that evening I was watching TV when a commercial for Viagra or Cialis came on. It featured an attractive middle-aged couple fooling around in a kitchen before walking off, hand-in-hand, to an undisclosed, but undoubtedly cozy, destination. The commercial was very well done, with good production values and a touch of soft-core porn ambience.

The commercial was fine, but the tagline was absolutely brilliant. The copywriter who came up with the line, “If you experience an erection lasting longer than four hours, call your doctor immediately” is an advertising genius.

A four-hour erection is the Holy Grail for most men. By even hinting at the possibility of an all-day chubby, the commercial succeeded beyond its creators’ wildest dreams. 70-year-old men, after seeing that commercial, realize there is still a reason to go on living. Men who haven’t raised a decent piece of wood in years begin wondering if their long-suffering spouses are ready for a new challenge. Guys who had resigned themselves to never getting lucky again now see a bit of good fortune on the horizon.

Despite its misleading nature, that commercial’s tagline did its work well. It was a wonderful example of reverse psychology. The people who produced the spot may deny it, they may swear that the thought never crossed their minds, but their intentions were obvious to me. They knew exactly what they were doing.

I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but even I know that if I had a four-hour hard-on, the last person I’d call would be my doctor.

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Letter From Milo: Lucky Guy

October 24th, 2016

The middle and late 1970s were definitely not my peak earning years. I scuffled for a living, freelancing as a copy editor and proofreader, and occasionally making a few bucks writing jacket copy for a local book publisher.

To cut expenses I shared an apartment in Wicker Park with a guy named Mark, whose financial circumstances were not much better than mine. He eked out a living with temporary bartending gigs and occasional electrical work. We never had much money, but there was always plenty of alcohol and reefer on hand and sometimes there was a bit of food in the refrigerator.

Mark had the good fortune, at the time, to be dating a fine looking woman, named Maggie, who was a dancer in a modern dance company. Maggie and I always got along well and one day she said to me, “Hey, Milo, how would you like to go out with a beautiful girl? She’s a dancer, too. We’re in a show together.”

“Hmm. I believe I could make room in my schedule for a beautiful girl.”

“There’s a catch. You’ve got to come to the theater and see the show if you want to meet her. I’ll introduce you after the performance.”

I definitely wanted to meet this woman, but I had never been to a dance performance and didn’t want to go by myself. I asked a few of my friends if they wanted to go, but they all had other plans. Bruce Diksas was committed to a poker game. Ron Skelton had been drinking all day and was planning to direct traffic, later that evening, at the corner of Lincoln and Diversey. And Wayne Gray had a date with a prominent Gold Coast matron whose husband was away on business.

I had resigned myself to going to the dance concert alone, when I ran into a friend, named Carlos, at Swillagain’s Saloon. I asked Carlos if he wanted to go to the concert, he said, “No, man, I got no interest.”

I had known Carlos for a few years and I knew that his main interests in life were getting high, gambling and, most importantly, getting laid.

So, I said, “Don’t be a dumbass. It’s a dance concert. The place will be crawling with fine looking ladies. It’ll be a bonanza of babes, like Oxford’s Pub at closing time, but better. Even an ugly fucker like you should have no trouble getting lucky. You’ll be a disgrace to Puerto Rican manhood if you take a pass on a chance to get some pussy.”

“Well, since you put it that way, I’ll go. But first, let’s have another drink.”

“Good idea.”

I don’t remember much of the concert, but I do recall spending most of the time trying to figure out which of the dancers Maggie wanted me to meet. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face when, after the show, Maggie walked into the lobby with the woman I’d hoped to see.

“Milo,” Maggie said, “say hi to Sharon.”

We chatted for a while. I don’t recall what we talked about, but I do remember making her laugh once or twice. After what seemed like too short of a time, Sharon smiled prettily, said it was nice to meet me, shook my hand and left.

A couple of days later, I ran into Maggie and she said, “Sharon liked you, said you seemed like a nice guy. I bet if you asked her out she’d say yes.”

“Do you, by any chance, have her telephone number handy?”

“I’ve got it right here.”

The next night, Sharon and I were seated across from each other in a booth in a North Side restaurant. There was a bit of awkwardness at first, but after ordering some wine and making small talk, we got comfortable with each other.

“So, tell me about yourself,” she said.

“It’s a long story.”

“That’s okay, we’ve got lots of time.”

And we did. We had all the time in the world. Going to that dance concert worked out real well for me.

But I don’t remember if Carlos got lucky that night.

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