Due to a crushing deadline, I haven’t had time to write a new blog. That said, I’m contractually obligated to post something every Monday, so, here’s a beloved family favorite that I wrote a few years ago.
We’ve got two bathrooms in our house, one upstairs and the other in the basement. My wife, the lovely Mrs. Milo, and our daughter use the upstairs bathroom. The basement facility is reserved for my use.
The other day, my wife asked, “When’s the last time you cleaned your bathroom?”
“I don’t know, maybe a month ago.”
“Honey, you haven’t cleaned the bathroom in at least a year. It stinks. Weird things are growing on the walls. I’m afraid to go in there.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
“I’ll get to it next week.”
“The bathroom is disgusting. Will you please clean it tomorrow?”
“I’ve got a lot of shit to do tomorrow. I have to write a blog.”
The next morning, after enjoying a cigarette with my breakfast whiskey, I checked out the bathroom. My wife was right. It was nasty, an epic eyesore, foul, miasmic and cruddy. It looked like a fraternity house bathroom after a toga party.
I had my work cut out for me.
Tackling a job of this magnitude requires careful planning, steely-eyed determination, and, most importantly, the right tools.
I spent an hour gathering equipment – vacuum cleaner, mop, sponges, paper towels, Comet Cleanser, bleach, battery acid, hammer and chisel, machete, a Black & Decker jig saw, safety glasses, gas mask, a pint of Old Crow – and then I put my shoulder to the wheel.
I worked steadily, but wisely, stopping occasionally to regulate my alcohol and nicotine levels. After a few hours, I broke for lunch and took a short nap. When I woke up I went out to the garage to smoke a little weed, then went back to work.
Seven hours later, the job was done. I was proud of myself. The bathroom was immaculate. An alderman wouldn’t have minded taking a dump there.
Best of all, I had done the job without sustaining any major injuries. Other than a few cuts and scrapes, and aggravating an old war wound, the job went off without a hitch.
When I went upstairs, my wife asked, “Did you finish cleaning?”
“Took you long enough.”
“Did you want it done fast or done right?”
The lovely Mrs. Milo seemed doubtful. “I’m going to have a look,” she said.
I followed her downstairs and waited while she inspected the job.
“Well, what do you think?”
“You missed a few spots,” she replied.
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About a week after my father passed away, I drove to my mother’s house in Northwest Indiana to help her dispose of the Old Man’s belongings – mainly clothing – and return the hospital bed and other leased medical equipment that he needed in his last days.
Mom planned to donate Dad’s clothing to charity. We spent the afternoon sorting through my father’s closet, packing clothes into cardboard boxes. When we had finished sealing the cartons, Mom said, “There’s one more thing,” then reached into a dresser drawer and pulled out a .38 caliber, snub-nosed, Smith & Wesson revolver. Holding it gingerly, she asked, “What should I do with this darned thing?”
“Jesus, where the hell did that come from?”
“Your father used to carry it around. He usually kept it in the glove compartment.”
“I never knew he carried a pistol. I wonder why?”
“For protection, I guess?
“Did Dad ever use the gun? Did he ever shoot anybody?”
Mom shook her head. “I don’t think so. If he did, I’m sure he would have mentioned it to me.”
Gary, Indiana, the town where I was raised, was a dangerous place, populated by violent, thuggish drunkards, both male and female. Shootings, stabbings, random stranglings, savage beatings, and defenestration were daily occurrences. It was a foolish man, indeed, who wandered the streets of Gary without protection.
As a kid, I remember hearing stories about friends and neighbors who lost their lives because they hadn’t taken the trouble to arm themselves. There was Mr. Popovich, for example, who had forgotten to take his pistol along when he went to the corner liquor store to buy a pack of Luckies and a pint of Old Crow. He was found a few days later, shot full of holes, floating face down in the Calumet River.
Then there was Mr. Shapiro, who told his trusting wife that he was going down to the corner liquor store to buy a pack of Chesterfields and a bottle of Manischewitz, but forgot to arm himself when he left his house. They found his body later that night in the foyer of a whorehouse on Washington Street. He had been stabbed multiple times.
I also recall hearing about Mr. Gomez, who left his sawed-off shotgun at home when he went to the corner liquor store to buy a pack of Pall Malls and a pint of Dos Gusanos tequila. On his way home he was killed and partially eaten by one of the many packs of feral pigs that roamed Gary’s streets.
“So, what should I do with this?” Mom asked again, still holding the pistol.
“Give it to me,” I said. “I’ll take care of it.”
“What are you going to do with it?”
I didn’t know how to answer that question. The right thing to do, I supposed, would have been to get rid of it, turn it in to the police, or toss it in the Chicago River. Even though I’m a veteran of the U.S. Army and familiar with all kinds of weaponry, I have an abiding dislike for firearms. They are manufactured for just one purpose – slaughter. I would have felt uncomfortable keeping one in my home.
I was still planning to get rid of the pistol when an ugly thought wormed its way into my mind and made me think I might be acting hastily. Although not nearly as bad as Gary, Indiana in its prime, Chicago is a very dangerous place, the murder capital of the USA. Nearly 3,000 people, men, women and children, some of them infants, have been shot in Chicago this year. They’ve been shot in playgounds, schoolyards, homes, back alleys and busy streets. It can happen anytime, anywhere, for any reason, or no reason at all. In some poor and neglected neighborhoods, leaving the house to run a simple errand, like walking to the store, can be a life or death proposition.
Perhaps it would be wise, I said to myself, to carry some protection. Maybe one of these days the Old Man’s .38 would come in handy. After all, I regularly take trips to the corner liquor store to pick up cigarettes and whiskey.
The choice was mine. I could either be a wolf or a sheep. After giving it a great deal of thought and considering all of the options, I finally decided that the best thing to do was find a liquor store that delivers.
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Men of a certain age are prone to weird ailments. Eight or nine months ago, I developed a bulge in my abdominal wall, a hernia.
When I mentioned it to Dr. Frankie “Disco” Lopez, my physician at the V.A. hospital, he said, “Dude, hernia surgery is a simple procedure. We’ll fix it in the morning and you’ll be home in time to watch Brian Williams on the five o’clock news.”
“I don’t want to have surgery.”
“You’re a hard-headed fucker. Okay, we’ll just keep an eye on the hernia. Let me know if it starts bothering you.”
A couple of weeks ago, the hernia started causing pain, making me uncomfortable. When I called Dr. Frankie to complain, he said he’d send something to deal with the pain.
Two days later, I received a package in the mail, containing 30 hydrocodone tablets.
Later that afternoon, the hernia began to bother me, so I took one of the pills. Then I noticed it was close to five o’clock, so I poured a glass of wine.
A short time later, the pain was gone. In fact, I actually felt pretty good. I figured if one pill and a couple of glasses of wine made me feel that good, another pill and more wine would make me feel even better.
The rest of the evening passed in a sort of haze. I walked over to Lincoln Square, browsed in the book store, and stopped for a whiskey or two at one of the German bars on the street. When I got home, I spent most of the evening on the computer, playing online solitaire and poker. I avoided social media because I knew I was fucked up and didn’t want to post anything more stupid or offensive than I usually post. I drank more wine. I may have taken another pill.
The next morning, the lovely Mrs. Milo asked me, “Did you drink two bottles of wine last night?”
“Jesus, what got into you?”
“What the hell, babe, it’s not the first time that’s ever happened.”
The hernia wasn’t bothering me that morning, but I knew it was just a matter of time before it made its presence known. I decided to be pro-active, and took a hydrocodone pill right after breakfast, just in case.
I had to run a few errands that day – grocery store, post office, Jiffy Lube. I stopped for lunch and had a beer with my hamburger. When I finished eating, I remembered that I had a couple of hydrocodone pills in my pocket. I swallowed them with the second bottle of beer I ordered.
My wife went out with her girlfriends that evening, leaving me alone and bored. I wandered over to Swillagain’s Saloon, had a few drinks with the boys, smoked a little reefer, watched the Bulls game, and enjoyed a few more drinks. I don’t remember what time I got home.
The next few days were a blur. I stumbled through them in a narcotic and alcoholic fog. My wife sensed there was something wrong, but she probably attributed it to my penchant for low-life activities. Wisely, she avoided me.
The train, however, kept a rolling.
I lost my cell phone. My checking account was overdrawn. There were cocktail napkins in my pockets with names and numbers scribbled on them that I didn’t recognize. I opened a can of Progresso clam chowder, put it on the stove, turned on the burner, and forgot about it. More than a dozen people, most of them women, unfriended me on Facebook. One night I came home wearing just one shoe. Another night I came home with what appeared to be a hickey on my neck. I directed traffic for a while at the corner of Montrose and Western Avenue. I ran into an old girlfriend, but she claimed she didn’t remember me. I bought another cell phone and promptly lost that one, too.
A couple of days ago, I woke up and felt the hernia nagging at me. When I checked my vial of hydrocodone, I was terribly disappointed to discover that it was empty. All the pills were gone.
I immediately called Dr. Frankie. “Hey Doc,” I said, “The hernia is really bothering me this morning and I’m out of hydrocodone.”
“Wait a minute. I sent you 30 pills less than a week ago. Did you take them all?”
“No, I lost the vial. I’m sure it fell out of my pocket somewhere, probably at the racetrack.”
“You don’t have to mail the pills. I’ll stop by and pick them up. I’ll be there in 20 minutes.”
“I’ve got a better idea.”
“Why don’t we just fix the hernia?”
About a week ago, I was sitting in the admitting office of the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, waiting to set up an appointment for a physical. I had made the mistake of coming down on a Monday, which is the busiest day at the hospital. Thursdays and Fridays are best. There are generally no lines at the end of the week and you can be in and out in 20 minutes.
A veterans’ hospital is a strange place. Like the late, great James Brown sang, “This is a Man’s World.” The only women in sight were nurses, doctors, and clerical workers. The patients are almost completely male, which makes sense when you consider that the armed forces, especially combat forces, are predominantly male, too.
If a VA hospital is a man’s world, then it is a damaged man’s world. It is where soldiers who were injured in the service of their country come for treatment. One of the reasons they come to the VA is that most health insurance plans used to have a devilish stricture known as “a pre-existing condition.” I’m sure I don’t have to explain this asinine clause to any of my readers, but a pre-existing condition was enough to exclude most wounded veterans from traditional health care insurance.
As I mentioned, the hospital was crowded that Monday. I couldn’t help but notice that a surprising number of people waiting for treatment were maimed. I’m talking about amputees, double amputees, men with limps, men with walkers and canes, blind men, disfigured men, and a few who appeared to be insane: men who talked to themselves, made wild gestures, or drooled.
As I was sitting in the waiting area, a man in a wheelchair rolled up next to me. He was an elderly black man with a blanket covering his legs.
“How you doing, brother?” he asked me.
It was a question that veterans understand on many levels. It wasn’t simply a conversational ploy. It was an existential question about the state of your universe – your mental, physical, and social well being. The old man wanted to know if I was suffering from horrors or sweats. He was asking if I was eating well, getting enough sleep, making ends meet, having nightmares, or suffering from any of the monstrous post-war afflictions associated with combat.
“I’m doing fine,” I answered.
“Where was you at?”
“I was in Korea.”
“That must have been tough.”
“It was, brother. I never been so cold in my life. Lost all the toes on my right foot. Had a hole in my boot.”
“I understand ‘Nam was hot.”
“Yeah, real hot. Rained a lot, too.”
“I’d take hot over cold anytime.”
“I would, too.”
“You can hide from hot but you can’t hide from cold.”
“You’ve got a good point there.”
“I live with my daughter. She always keep the thermostat too low. I tell her, ‘Turn up the heat,’ but she say it gonna raise our electric bill. I tell her, ‘Fuck the damn electric bill. It way too cold in here.’ Man, I hate the cold.”
A few moments later they called the old man’s name and he rolled away to meet his appointment.
As I looked around the spacious waiting room, I noticed that it was a truly diverse place, blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, young men, old men, middle-aged men, all in the same boat.
I saw a white man pushing a black man in a wheelchair. I saw black men drinking coffee and chatting amiably with white men. I saw young men, probably Iraq veterans, companiably exchanging war stories with men three times their age. I heard raucous laughter, saw handshakes and high fives. I saw men comparing old wounds and scars. I saw a mixed race group rush over to help an elderly man who had fallen. I saw joy, humor, and dignity among men, who by all rights, should have been in states of regret, sorrow and despair.
I reflected on the fact that if it’s true that the military is the least segregated institution in America, then a VA hospital proves that shared experience and shared adversity can often trump hatred and intolerance. That was the good thing about being a veteran. It made you part of something that seemed pure, somehow divorced from much of the ugliness that pervades our society.
Despite the bitter cold of that February morning, I had a warm feeling when I left the VA hospital. I felt that I had somehow reconnected to the great and generous soul of humankind. But it was a long walk to my car and the cold started getting to me. I buttoned up my coat and put on my hat.
Damn, I hate the cold.
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I used to enjoy gambling. Poker, craps, sports betting, the horses – I played them all. You’ll notice I didn’t say I was a good gambler. The sad fact is that I lost a lot more money than I won.
There was a group of us who hung out at a tavern on Lincoln Avenue near Dickens Street and we liked to shoot craps. The group consisted of my good friend Bruce, Dino, Wayne, Carlos, Mike the Drag, Brooks, Dirty George, Roy, Irwin, and Pope Carl, a truly devout man who muttered a prayer every time he tossed the dice.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, first the six and then the ace.”
Once or twice a week, after a few hours of social drinking, we’d all head out to the gangway behind the bar and get a crap game going. I remember one time when Wayne made seven straight passes. What are the odds of that happening?
One idiot, who I’ll call him Milo to save him undue embarrassment, bet against Wayne every time. When Wayne made the seventh pass, busting Milo in the process, Milo angrily hurled his beer bottle across the alley. Living across the alley at the time was the great film critic Roger Ebert. The bottle landed on Ebert’s deck and shattered noisily. It may have even broken a window. We didn’t stick around to find out.
We also used to have some hellacious all-night poker games. Except for Bruce, it was a different cast of characters than the crapshooting crowd. There were three or four attorneys, Pat the Math Professor, Joe, who preferred to be called Monte when he played poker, and Bruce’s Uncle Morrie, who was in his 80s at the time and recently passed away at the biblical age of 101.
The attorneys were a pain in the ass. Whenever a question of rules or procedure came up, each attorney had to have his say, interrupting the game for ten minutes at a time. The attorneys argued, brought up precedent, cross-examined, rebutted, and made closing arguments. I’m surprised they didn’t try to call witnesses. I suspect that the copious amounts of booze and reefer might also have had something to do with the lengthy delays. To this day I refuse to play in a poker game that includes more than two lawyers.
Pat the Math Professor was a degenerate gambler. He played in as many as five poker games a week. He claimed it was his wife’s fault. He hated her and she despised him. He said the only reason he played so much poker was that he couldn’t stand being around his wife.
“I don’t even know why I gamble,” he once told the table. “I’ve got the worst luck in the world. I slept with my wife twice in 10 years and she got pregnant both times. What are the odds of that happening?”
The attorneys immediately began debating the odds.
My favorite gambling activity, however, was betting on thoroughbred race horses. Bruce and I and our friend Dino spent a lot of time at the local ovals, Arlington Park, Hawthorne and Sportsman’s. Bruce would usually drive. He always drove clunkers that would have been considered eyesores at demolition derbies. I doubt he ever paid more than $200 for one of his rust buckets. Still, somehow those cars always got us to the track. Getting back was another matter.
“Damn, Bruce, you got any gas in this thing?
“Plenty of gas, my man.”
“Looks like it’s on empty to me.”
“Don’t worry about it. The gauge is just fucked up.”
(The car finally starts on the eighth or ninth try.)
“What’s that rattle? It doesn’t sound good.”
“Nothing to worry about. It always does that.”
“Jesus fucking Christ! What was that?”
“Backfire, I think.”
“You oil light is on.”
“Fuck it. Pass me the joint.”
My luck wasn’t much better at the track than in my other gambling ventures. But every once on a while I’d get hot and win a few hundred dollars. That’s the thing about gamblers. They tend to forget their losses fairly quickly but they remember their wins forever.
I recall one day at the track vividly. Both Bruce and I won a decent amount of money and were heading back to the city to celebrate. Bruce’s dog, Rocky, was in the car with us. We were on the Eisenhower, a few miles from downtown, when there was a loud explosion and smoke began billowing from under the hood of his clunker. I looked back and saw that most of the engine was scattered across across the highway behind us. Bruce managed to wrestle the car to the side of the road.
Acting quickly, Bruce grabbed all of his documentation out of the glove compartment, then went to the back of the car and tore off the license plate. We abandoned the car to the mercy of the towing companies and wreckers and started walking toward the exit ramp. We walked about 25 yards when a cab pulled up. The driver rolled down his window and said, “You boys look like you need a ride. The dog does, too.”
Later, in a bar on Lincoln Avenue, I said to Bruce, “Good thing that cab came along.”
“Yeah,” he replied. “What are the odds of that happening?”
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When Benny Jay had the brilliant idea to start a blog site, his intention was to provide a showcase for the best writers in Chicago. Unfortunately, no writer in town wanted anything to do with The Third City. Most, in fact, wouldn’t even return Benny’s phone calls. The few that responded to his calls just told him to fuck off.
Out of desperation, Benny called me. “Hey, Milo, how would you like to write for The Third City?”
“Come on, man. This is important to me, and you owe me a few favors.”
”What’s the pay?”
“Heh, heh, we can discuss that later.”
“Okay, I’ll do it.”
“Great! Now, what are your areas of expertise?”
“I don’t have any.”
“You must be good at something. Everybody’s good at something.”
“Well, I’m pretty good at drinking, smoking and whoring. I can shoot a decent game of pool and I know a few card tricks.”
“Excellent! You’re now officially the Society, Lifestyle and Religion columnist for TTC. When will your first column be ready?”
“I don’t know, maybe in a couple of months.”
“I need it by Monday.”
In time, talented writers and artists began finding their way to The Third City. John Randolph gave up a lucrative career in boudoir photography to become our staff photographer. Rolando quit his day job as a para-gynecologist to become our Medical Affairs correspondent. No Blaise renounced her vows and left the convent to join our staff.
Jim Siergey, wearing only a bathrobe and slippers, wandered away from the Retired Cartoonists’ Home, in Mokena, and showed up, three days later, at our plush Michigan Avenue offices. He was immediately assigned to the Old Curmudgeon’s Desk.
Despite my misgivings about the blogging business, I discovered I had a real gift for it. In a short time, my blogs became wildly popular. The Third City’s readers came to rely on me for sound advice, brilliant insights, and spiritual enlightenment. I was doing so well that in less than a year I was promoted to the exalted position of partner.
But best of all, the money was rolling in, an obscene amount of money, more than I had ever earned honestly. I was rolling in the dough. I felt like I had won the lottery.
It was a life-changing experience. I quit shopping for clothes at Sears and started wearing bespoke suits made by the same tailors who dressed Sidney Korshak and Irv Kupcinet. I quit hanging out in dive bars and began frequenting the finest watering holes in Rush Street’s Viagra Triangle. I was able to lose a lot more money at the track than I could when I was a poor boy. I could order oysters and steak sandwiches any time I wanted. I bought a Cadillac. I acquired a long-legged, busty mistress and set her up in a Gold Coast apartment. I invested in several fried chicken franchises. I got season tickets for…
This is Mrs. Milo. I saw what my husband was writing and chased him away from the computer with the can of pepper spray I keep handy for occasions like this. I can’t believe the crap he writes for that stupid blog. The Third City doesn’t have an office on Michigan Avenue or any other place. If those other losers who write for the blog are anything like Milo, they spend all of their time in dingy basements, dressed in a ratty bathrobes, drinking Old Crow, and sitting in front of cheap computers. In fact, the only time Milo leaves the house is when he sneaks out to the garage to smoke pot. There is no Cadillac. There are no season tickets. As for the mistress, if any woman out there wants him, they can have him and good riddance.
I was three days short of my 21st birthday when I came home from the Republic of South Vietnam, where I served with the 11th Infantry Brigade of the Americal Division.
After an 18-hour flight, I arrived at Fort Lewis, Washington, where I was to be discharged. I filled out paperwork, was treated to a steak dinner, measured for a new uniform, given some cash money, about $600, and a plane ticket home.
Less than 48 hours after leaving Vietnam, I was back on the streets of my hometown, Gary, Indiana. It was a cold February morning and I was on the corner of 45th and Broadway, with a duffel bag on my shoulder, a few blocks from my parents’ house, gazing at a landscape that seemed only vaguely familiar. The disconnect between where I had been two days earlier, in a Southeast Asian war zone, and where I was now, standing alone on a street in a Midwestern rust belt city, made me feel exposed and vulnerable.
I wished I had an M-16 handy and a couple of hand grenades within easy reach, just in case.
“Okay, Milo,” I said to myself, “what the fuck are you going to do now?”
Times have changed. The military does things differently these days. Now, when a combat veteran is honorably discharged from the service, he or she has access to a wide range of readjustment programs offered by the Veterans Administration.
Social and psychological services are available to help a veteran transition to civilian life. Bereavement counseling is available, as well as sexual trauma counseling. There are programs that help veterans deal with substance abuse issues. Job training and job placement programs are offered. And every VA hospital and Vet Center offers treatment for PTSD.
Unfortunately, none of these programs were available to the recently discharged Vietnam vet – not a single fucking one. We had to go it alone.
I knew, when I got home from Vietnam, that there was something wrong with me, but I couldn’t figure out the problem. The term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder hadn’t been coined yet. If I had known about PTSD I might have tried to get some help, although I’m self-contained by nature and probably wouldn’t have asked for help even if I knew I needed it.
I wasn’t sleeping well and was eating poorly. I avoided my old high school friends, who seemed like childish strangers to me. Certain sights, sounds and odors disturbed me. I was haunted by violent dreams. I saw ghosts.
I spent most of my time in a car, driving aimlessly, listening to the radio and smoking lots of marijuana. Sometimes I’d pick up a six-pack or a pint of whiskey and drive out to the beach, where I’d find an isolated spot near the shore of Lake Michigan, park the car, and watch the waves roll in and out for hours at a time. The sound of waves lapping at the shoreline soothed me and sometimes I would fall asleep, lulled by the tides.
After being home for a few months, the time had come for me to make a decision. I could either get a job in one of the local factories or do something else. I opted for something else. I decided to take advantage of the GI Bill and go to college for a while, just to clear my head. Maybe I would get a new perspective on things. Maybe my demons wouldn’t follow me to southern Indiana. Maybe I could outrun the past.
It took me years to learn that I couldn’t outrun the past, but somehow I managed to learn to live with it. A lot of my old comrades in arms weren’t as fortunate.
According to the New York Times, there were 1.7 suicides among Vietnam vets for every 1.0 suicide by non-Vietnam vets in the first five years after discharge from the military.
I’m saddened by those numbers, but not surprised.
It was a brutal war. For many, it was a brutal homecoming, too.
And there was nowhere to turn for help.
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