Several weeks ago, some feral cats moved into the neighborhood and started hanging out by the dumpster in the alley behind the bar and grill on the corner of Rockwell and Eastwood. They were a rough-looking crew, really shady tomcats, tattered and scarred, with broken teeth and chewed-up ears. As soon as I spotted them, I knew they were nothing but trouble.
I mentioned my concern to the lovely Mrs. Milo. “Sweetie, have you, by any chance, seen those thuggish-looking cats hanging around on the corner?”
“There’s a gang of them and they’re real brutes. I can tell they’re up to no good. I’m going to keep a close eye on them.”
“Milo, have you been drinking already?”
“I may have had a smidgen of red wine with my breakfast burrito.”
As usual, my intuition proved to be correct. Shortly after the feral cats appeared, there was a sharp rise in criminal activity in the neighborhood. Most of the crimes were small-time, petty theft, vandalism, weird cat graffiti, but I was sure things would get worse.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that Otis, the rotten bastard of an alley cat, who’s made my life a living hell ever since weaseling his way into my home, more than 14 years ago, was hanging out with the feral cats.
I wasn’t surprised to see Otis consorting with cats of questionable character. He is, after all, a low-life character himself. His greatest pleasures in life are killing helpless little creatures and getting high on catnip. If it wasn’t for the fact that my wife and daughters are inexplicably fond of him, I would’ve gotten rid of the mangy fucker a long time ago.
That said, I didn’t like the idea of Otis spending time with a gang of criminally inclined cats. Nothing good could come of it. Otis is weak-minded and easily led. He was sure to get in trouble, the sort of trouble that brings cops to the door. And I’m allergic to cops coming to my door.
I decided to explain a few things to Otis, the same sort of things that were explained to me, many years ago, when I was young and reckless, running with the wrong crowd, and getting into trouble.
“Hey, dumbass!” I said to the cat. “You’re going to get in serious trouble if you keep hanging out with those losers down by the dumpster. You’ll probably end up in jail and, trust me, jail is no place for a tomcat. You’ve got a sweet deal here, two square meals a day, both dry food and canned, and a warm place to sleep. Don’t be an idiot and fuck up a good thing just for some cheap thrills. Wise up before it’s too late.”
Otis didn’t pay attention to a word I said. He continued associating with his nefarious feline friends. He’d leave the house early and come home very late. I had no idea what sort of mischief he and the feral cats were up to, but I expected the worst.
Then, yesterday morning, I got a pretty good idea of what Otis and his pals had been doing. I found Otis passed out on the kitchen floor, next to a bag that contained at least a pound and a half of catnip.
I was trying to figure out how the fucker could have gotten his paws on such a large stash of catnip, when I was interrupted by a loud knock on the door. It was the cops.
“Yes, officers, what can I do for you?”
“Late last night, a gang of cats broke into the Pet Palace in Lincoln Square and burglarized the place. We’ve rounded up most of the suspects, but one of your neighbors informed us that you have a cat that’s part of this gang.”
Here was my chance, the opportunity I had been waiting for to finally get rid of Otis. All I had to do was lead the cops into the kitchen, point out the stolen catnip, and watch as they slapped the cuffs on the cat and hauled his ass away. With luck, I’d never see Otis again.
But then I thought about my wife and daughters. They love the cat. There would be Hell to pay if they found out I turned Otis over to the police. They’d probably never speak to me again. I’d be sleeping on the couch for years. In the end, I didn’t have the guts to rat the cat out.
So I lied. “I doubt the cat is acquainted with those ruffians. He’s a nerdy cat, rarely leaves the house. He was home with me last night. We were watching the Housewives of Altoona on the Bravo network. He loves that show.”
When the cops left, I went back into the kitchen and saw that Otis was still passed out. I nudged him with my foot until he woke up.
“Hey, dumbass,” I said. “You got real lucky this time. But if you ever pull any shit like this again, I’ll personally take you down to 26th and California and turn your ass in.”
Otis stared at me for a moment, yawned, licked his nuts, and went back to sleep.
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I was once the proud owner of a chainsaw, until some rotten bastard broke into my garage and stole it.
I was heartbroken. That chainsaw was important to me. It was more than just a power tool — it was a symbol of masculinity, a totem to testosterone. When I cranked up my chainsaw and heard it roar, it sent a charge rocketing through my body that went directly to my groin.
Over the decades and centuries, symbols and rituals of manhood have gradually been erased from society. Trophy scalps are frowned upon. High noon shootouts are illegal in many municipalities. Dueling scars are relics of a more genteel era. Detroit hasn’t made a decent piece of rolling iron since the GTO. Tattoos, once the province of sailors, circus freaks and South Sea islanders, are now as common as dental braces at Wilmette High School.
In my opinion, the last remaining symbols of masculinity are power tools. And the unrivaled king of power tools is the almighty chainsaw.
When the thief made off with my chainsaw, he also stole a piece of my soul. I felt empty inside, as if some vital, manly essence had been drained from my body.
After months of moping around, drinking too much, and feeling sorry for myself, the realization dawned on me that I was entirely to blame for my predicament. If I hadn’t bought the chainsaw in the first place, nobody would have been tempted someone to steal it.
I vowed, then and there, never to buy another chainsaw. I was done with power tools. I simply couldn’t stand the pain of losing them.
A few years passed and I found that I was perfectly happy not owning a chainsaw or a workshop full of power tools. Let the other handy men of the world cut down trees, make bookcases, fix leaky faucets, and rout out sewer lines. I’ve got better things to do.
Then, about two weeks ago, as I was out on the back porch, enjoying a cigarette with my morning whiskey, I noticed a large cardboard box in the yard.
When I asked the lovely Mrs. Milo about the box, she said, “It’s a snow blower.”
“Ah, shit. You shouldn’t have wasted the money.”
“Well, you’re getting older and shouldn’t be shoveling snow. All of your bad habits make you an excellent candidate for a heart attack. I don’t care for you that much anymore, but the children are still fond of you. They’d like to have you around for a few more years.”
“I still wish you hadn’t bought the damned thing.”
“I’ve got my reasons.”
There were actually two reasons why I didn’t want the snow blower. For one thing, I knew that as soon as I started using the snow blower, I’d like it. It would become important to me. I’d grow attached to it, just like I did with my chainsaw.
Secondly, there was no doubt in my mind that eventually some rotten fucker would break into my garage and steal the damned thing. And I didn’t want to go through the heartbreak and misery again of losing something that was important to me.
I slept poorly for the first few days after I got the snow blower. I woke up three or four times a night and went out to the garage, just to make sure the door was locked. I’d check out the alley to see if there were any suspicious characters lurking around. I started carrying a flashlight, pepper spray, and machete, just in case.
Then, I had a great idea. I decided to sleep in the garage. That way, I’d be prepared for any eventuality. If someone tried to break in, they’d find a nasty surprise waiting for them.
After spending a few nights in the garage, I was confronted by my daughters.
“Dad, you’re acting weird. Mom is making an appointment with a psychiatrist.”
“Why would she do something like that?”
“You’re carrying weapons and sleeping in a garage.”
“Mom says normal people don’t arm themselves and sleep in garages.”
“Yeah, well, that’s her opinion.”
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The other day, the lovely Mrs. Milo and I had one of our rare civil conversations. During this friendly little chat, my wife happened to mention the name of one of her girlfriends, a woman I’ve known for many years.
The woman, who shall remain nameless, is a devoted wife, loving mother, and successful businesswoman. She is a pillar of the community. Her reputation is impeccable.
And yet, when my wife mentioned her name, I made a crude, totally inappropriate comment about her.
My wife shook her head in disgust. “Do you always have to be such a wiseass?”
“You knew I was a wiseass when you married me.”
“I thought it was just a phase you were going through. I was hoping you’d grow out of it.”
“Well, I didn’t.”
Being a wiseass is a mixed blessing. The joys are many, but the downsides can get ugly. I should know. I’ve been a wiseass all my life.
Sure, there’s nothing better than disrupting a classroom of high school students with a well-timed vulgar remark, but it’s hardly worth spending a week in detention hall.
Farting in church is always a crowd-pleaser, if you’re willing to risk burning in hell for eternity.
Introducing yourself as the guy who used to frolic with the bride, at her wedding reception, is usually good for a laugh, but you can kiss your friendship with the newlyweds goodbye.
Like most wiseasses, I discovered the pleasures of irreverence at an early age. By the time I reached adulthood, I had mastered the arts of the snide remark, smart aleck retort, nasty innuendo, and swinish comment.
Sadly, not everyone appreciates a wiseass. I have learned, through bitter experience, that there are some people who have no room in the lives for sarcasm, ridicule, derision or contempt. They have zero tolerance for wiseasses. That’s why I avoid drill sergeants, cops and judges like the plague.
There are two industries, however, where a wiseass is welcomed with open arms, where his unique skills are needed, valued and well-compensated. After all, when you need to sell a product or an idea that nobody needs, at a price nobody wants to pay, who better to do the job than a wiseass — a cynical, calculating, flippant bastard who’ll say anything to make an impression or achieve his goals.
The two industries are, of course, advertising and politics.
I’m glad I chose the ad business. I’m pretty sure I would have been a rotten politician.
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I had heart surgery about four years ago, at Hines V.A. Hospital. A team of surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, carpenters, pipefitters, sleight-of-hand artists and candy stripers cracked me open like a lobster. They took out my heart, replaced a faulty valve and fixed an aneurism, all while keeping me alive by means of a mechanical heart that had been rented that morning from the local Ace Hardware.
About an hour before the surgery, I was pacing around my room, trying to figure out a way to sneak out for a smoke, when I glanced out of the window and saw my doctor pull into the parking lot. As I watched him get out of his car, a late model Trans Am, I saw him toss away a beer can, then stop to smoke a joint with the parking lot guys.
A few minutes later he was in my room. “How’s it going, dude?” he asked.
“Pretty good. How about you?”
“Me? I feel fine. Matter of fact, I feel extra fine. Let’s get this thing started. I’m kind of in a hurry. I’ve got a horse running in the 8th race at Arlington and don’t want to miss it.”
“Sure, no problem.”
The next 20 minutes passed in a flurry of activity. They gave me drugs to relax me. They stuck catheters and IVs in every available vein and artery. A sweet young thing shaved my chest. The last thing I remember before fading into unconsciousness was the good doctor gleefully clapping his hands and saying, “It’s showtime!”
I woke up about eight hours later, surrounded by family and loved ones — at least that’s what they told me. I could have been surrounded by zombies, man-eating snakes and the spawn of Satan and wouldn’t have known the difference.
I was too far gone, way deep into the mystic, hiding in the place where the badly wounded go to either recover or die.
It was another 24 hours before I came to realize where I was — the Intensive Care Unit — and what had happened to me. Once I came to my senses, I knew I was in for a waiting game. Yes, it would be an ordeal. There would be pain and discomfort. Then would be small steps forward and small steps back. But, unless something went terribly wrong, I would improve every day. And in seven days, if my doctors weren’t bullshitting me, I would go home, hopefully well on the way to recovery.
I figured I could stand anything for seven days. I was tough. I could handle the Spanish Inquisition for seven days. Besides, the V.A. hospital system was very generous with drugs, especially opiates. Not only would I be pretty much free of pain, I would also be pretty much free of my wits, good sense and sobriety, which suited me just fine.
In the meantime, I had plenty of visitors, friends and family. The lovely Mrs. Milo came by every day, spending hours at my bedside. My children visited regularly. My mother and sister stopped by every other day. Even my good friend, Bruce Diksas, dropped in to check on me. I suspect he was worried about the 20 dollars I owed him and wanted to make sure I didn’t do something underhanded, like die, to avoid paying him back.
The doctors were right on the money. There were no complications. The recovery went according to plan.
On the seventh day (hmmm, catchy phrase) I went home.
One of my favorite visitors at the hospital was Rabbi Norm Lewison, a chaplain at the Hines V.A. Hospital. He stopped by every day and spent a few minutes chatting with me. The normal practice for someone with a Serbian background would have been to have a Eastern Orthodox priest come to visit. But there were no Orthodox priests at the facility, so, for some reason, they decided to send a rabbi.
Rabbi Lewison was a sweet man, friendly, open and full of good cheer. I looked forward to his visits. We had some nice conversations and every time he left he said he would pray for my full recovery. Let’s face it, if you’re in a tough spot it doesn’t hurt to have the God of Abraham, Moses, Solomon, Bob Dylan and Sammy Davis, Junior on your side.
This past Friday morning, I called the Newton County Jail in Kentland, Indiana. When the receptionist answered, I said, “I’m Milo Samardzija, the Society, Lifestyle, and Religion columnist for The Third City blog site in Chicago, Illinois.”
“What can I do for you, sir?”
“Do you have someone named Thomas Eliot in custody?”
“Yes, sir. He has been detained since December, 2012. He’ll be going to trial in a few weeks.”
“What’s the charge?”
I met Tom Eliot in the late 1970s, in Sterch’s Tavern on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. He was from Houston, Texas and had come to Chicago to try his luck dealing commodities at the Board of Trade.
Tom and I became barroom acquaintances. He liked to drink and smoke weed, and so did I. When Tom got high he liked to play up his Texas accent. My friends and I started calling him “Texas Tom.”
After I had known him for a while, Tom mentioned that he needed a place to stay for a few months. I was living in Wicker Park at the time, sharing a three-bedroom apartment with another guy. We had a spare bedroom, so I told Tom he could move in with us.
When I got to know Tom better, I noticed that he had some odd mannerisms. He was loud, smug and opinionated, and he didn’t understand the concept of personal space. He’d get uncomfortably close when he talked to you. If you stepped back, he’d just step up and close the gap. He also had a variety of facial tics and twitches, which made it disconcerting to carry on a conversation with him. Other than that, he seemed like a regular guy.
A few months later, the future lovely Mrs. Milo and I decided to set up our own household and I moved out of the Wicker Park apartment. But I still kept in touch with Tom, running into him at various North Side watering holes.
My dear friend, Bruce Diksas, also worked at the Board of Trade, and he ran into Tom regularly. Over the years, Bruce kept me updated on Tom’s circumstances.
Tom was doing real well. He bought a seat at the Board. He got married. He had a son. Tom was drinking a lot. He was doing a lot of coke. He was struggling. His wife left him. He lost his seat. He was deeply in debt. He busted out completely. Tom was tending bar in Uptown, in a joint that catered to Somali taxi drivers.
Tom moved back to Houston to live with his mother. Shortly after moving in, Tom pushed his mother down a flight of stairs, injuring her severely. He spent the next few months in a psychiatric hospital. When Tom was released from the psych ward, he moved back to Chicago.
As soon as Tom returned to Chicago, he began stalking his ex-wife, who was living in Kenosha, Wisconsin. While making her life miserable, he got picked up for drunk driving. He made bail, but didn’t show up for trial. He ended up doing four months in the Kenosha jail for stalking, DUI, and jumping bail.
The last time I saw Tom was purely by accident, about three years ago, at the Jesse Brown V.A. Hospital. I was shocked at his appearance. His teeth were rotten, his clothes were shabby, and his tics and twitches were worse than I remembered. He looked like a bum. We chatted a while. He told me he was living in an SRO, above a dive bar, in the Grand Avenue and Halstead area. Before I left, he bummed five dollars and a couple of cigarettes from me.
Every once in a while, my friend, Bruce, would say we should go down to that dive bar and see Tom.
“I don’t want to see that crazy fucker.”
“He used to be a friend.”
“Yeah, that was before he lost his damned mind.”
Last week, Bruce was driving by the bar and decided to stop in and see if Tom was there. When Bruce asked about Tom, one of the regulars told him that Tom was in jail in Indiana.
He had allegedly stabbed a kid, an eight-year-old boy.
That evening, when I turned on my computer, there was an e-mail from Bruce, with a link to an Indianapolis newspaper. When I opened the link, I saw a scary-looking mug shot of Tom, and a headline that read, “66-year-old man stabs eight-year-old boy multiple times.”
The kid survived. Rumor has it that he was Tom’s grandson.
Tom’s trial is in a couple of weeks, and the good people of Indiana will pass judgment. I doubt I’ll ever see Tom again.
And that’s just fine with me.
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Not to disgust you with the sordid details of my wretched condition, but….
I’ve been fighting gout for the better part of the last two months.
First it’s in the right foot and now the left. Can’t really walk, just sort of hobble around, howling in pain.
It hits me hardest when I was bowling. It’s so bad that Pat the Plumber takes pity and offers some unsolicited advice: “Take some fuckin’ coltrazine. My father uses it….”
As his nickname suggests, Pat’s not a doctor. Still, desperate times warrant desperate measures. So….
“What’s it called?” I ask, taking out my notebook to write down the name.
“How do you spell it?”
“How the fuck do I know how to spell it. Do I look like a fuckin’ dictionary?
Two days later I visit my doctor: “Oh, yes,” she says, as she looks at my foot. “You have gout.”
I think: Great, tell me something I don’t know….
I say: “Have you ever heard of coltrazine?”
“You mean, colchicines,” she says. “It’s a drug that treats the specific gout flare up as opposed to the symptoms….”
“Uhm, excuse me, doctor,” I say. “But are you saying there’s a pill you can give me to get me out of this misery?”
“Well, it treats the attack,” she says.
Have you ever noticed how a doctor will never answer a straight yes-or-no question with a straight yes-or-no answer?
“And no one told me this before – because….”
Is it just me, or is there something really wrong with the medical profession these days?
I mean, I’ve been to three different doctors in the last three months to talk about this fucking pain in my fucking foot and not one of them thought to tell me – oh, by the way, there’s pill we can give you to make it go away.
Instead, I get the news from Pat the fucking Plumber!
Hey, maybe when my toilet’s broken I’ll call my wife’s gynecologist!
The doctor sends me the drug store with a prescription, and I wind up looking at a bunch of little white pills.
The directions say I should take one every hour until the pain goes away.
In the fine print under the heading “side effects” it says: “diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain and vomiting my occur.”
Aw, shit. It’s like pick your poison. Fuck it – I gotta deal with the here and now….
I pop the pill….
Fast forward twenty-four hours and the proverbial shit hits the proverbial fan. I mean, all day and into the night it’s like raining Niagara Falls out of my – well, you know, where it’s raining.
And now it’s three o’clock in the morning – the house quiet as a mouse — and I’m sitting on the throne, groaning in agony and doubled up in abdominal pain.
Just like the fine print on the medicine bottle warned me….
The bathroom door pushes open and who walks in but the dog, looking to take a drink of water out of the bowl we keep by the bathroom sink.
She looks surprised to see me. As if she’s thinking – what the fuck are you doing here?
“Hey,” I moan. “Can a guy have some privacy?”
Eight hours later I roll out of bed and stumble to the bathroom, looking like death warmed over. I think it’s over, but, nooooooo….
My wife says — call the doctor. Forget that. I’m calling Pat the Plumber. He’ll know what to do….
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We’re a one car household with three drivers in the family. My wife, the lovely Mrs. Milo, monopolizes the car. She’s a realtor and a Pilates instructor, and she’s always running off to show properties or teach classes.
When my wife is not using the car, my youngest daughter has dibs on it. She’s a student at a local university. She needs the car for the same reasons that all young kids need cars, reasons that I’d rather not know about.
The only time I really need the car is when I want to visit my 89-year-old, Alzheimer’s afflicted mother at her assisted living facility in Munster, Indiana, about an hour’s drive from our home in Ravenswood.
I don’t see my mother as often as I’d like. The only times I can visit her are on weekends, but weekends are also the times when my wife needs the car most. Negotiations for use of the car can be tricky.
This past Saturday, I said, “Honey, is there any chance I can use the car today? I haven’t seen Mom in a while and I’m starting to feel guilty about it.”
The lovely Mrs. Milo whipped out her appointment book. “This morning is out. I’m teaching at nine and ten. Then I’ve got two showings in Lincoln Square and one in Wicker Park.”
“How about this afternoon?”
“I’ve got another showing at two, then, I teach again at three.”
“Wait, wait, I can ride my bike to my three o’clock so you can have the car for three hours, from 2:30 to 5:30. But you have to be back by 5:30 because I’ve got two more showings at six and seven.”
“Great! An hour to drive there, an hour with Mom, and an hour to drive back.”
My wife got home at 2:30 and I was on the road a couple of minutes later. Traffic was light and I pulled into the assisted living facility’s parking lot, on schedule, a little less than an hour later.
Visiting my mother is always a bittersweet experience. I love spending time with her, but hate seeing the damage that Alzheimer’s has done. She had once been a strong, independent and intelligent woman. Now, she is a frail, addled, bewildered and unpredictable old lady. I never know how she’ll react when she sees me.
Mom didn’t answer her door when I knocked, and she didn’t answer her phone when I called from my cell. I went to the front desk and asked the attendant if she knew of my mother’s whereabouts. I was informed that she was in the recreation room, playing Bingo.
Mom was sitting at a card table with three other ladies, concentrating on her Bingo card, when I tapped on her shoulder. She looked up at me with a puzzled expression, then, broke into a smile when recognition set in.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“I just came to visit you.”
“That’s nice, but I’m playing Bingo now. Come back when the game is over.”
“Sure, Mom, no problem.”
I asked the lady running the Bingo game how much longer the game would last. She said, “We just started. It’ll be a couple of hours.”
I hung around for about five minutes, watching my mother play Bingo. Then I went out to the parking lot, got in the car, and drove back to Chicago.
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