When I reached the tender age of 12, my mother bought me a violin and signed me up for lessons in a musty music studio in the Gary National Bank building on Broadway and Fifth Avenue. Every Saturday morning I had to walk seven or eight blocks, lugging a violin case, to the music studio and spend a couple of hours struggling to learn how to play a violin.
At the time, Fifth Avenue was one of Gary’s main drags, a thriving boulevard overrun by taverns, poolrooms, liquor stores, gambling dens, diners, bowling alleys, private social clubs and the occasional whore house. It was one of the most popular areas in town and most of my friends hung out on that noisy and crowded street. It’s where a lot of Gary’s young men learned the manly arts of smoking, drinking, gambling and whoring.
And that’s where I should have been on Saturday mornings. But no, I had to take fucking violin lessons. It was mortifying.
My friends never failed to give me a hard time when they saw me walking down the street with a violin case under my arm. They teased me mercilessly, calling me a sissy and a homo. They wanted to know if I was going to start taking ballet lessons next.
I tried to avoid Fifth Avenue. I took shortcuts and skulked through alleys. But it seemed that everywhere I went I ran into someone I knew and as soon as they saw the violin case they started laughing. My 12-year-old ego was shattered. I was a broken kid.
The situation became intolerable. I couldn’t handle the derision of my peers and gave up the violin after a few months. I realize now that it was a huge mistake. I probably would have met a lot more chicks in my life if I had stuck with the violin. I understand Jascha Heifetz did real well with the ladies.
About twelve or thirteen years later I was living in southern Florida and enjoying a fling with a lovely young woman from Alabama, named LaDonna Titwell. We got along wonderfully except for one tiny little thing – her dog.
I’m not certain it was actually a dog. It was more like an animated ball of fluff than any animal I was familiar with. It couldn’t have weighed more than two pounds and most of the weight was made up of tangled and matted fur that resembled canine dreadlocks. To make the little creature look even more ridiculous, the dog’s mistress tied ribbons in its raggedy coat.
Normally I wouldn’t have given a shit about the dog but every once in a while my lady friend would say something like, “Milo, sugah, would you mind taking Pookie for a walk. The poor thing hasn’t been out all day.”
“What was that, darlin’?”
“I said I’d be glad to, sweetie.”
So, there I’d be, walking down the street in broad daylight, holding a leash which was attached to a tiny beast that looked and acted like a battery-powered carpet remnant. And, of course, it just so happened that there were a dozen other guys walking their dogs at the same time.
Unlike me, these good ol’ Florida boys were walking real dogs, macho animals. They had pit bulls, pinschers, shepherds, blood hounds, and ridgebacks. One guy looked like he had a wolverine at the end of his leash.
When they saw me walking Pookie, they shook their heads in disbelief. Some smiled condescendingly at me. A few sneered in disgust, but most simply ignored me. They had sized me up, spotted me for a wimpy, pathetic loser, a discredit to the male gender, and wanted nothing to do with me. In all honesty, I didn’t blame them.
One guy, however, did approach me. He was an older, well-dressed man, who looked like he had seen something of the world. He was walking a Rottweiler with a spiked collar. When he came up to me he smiled knowingly and said, “It’s your girlfriend’s dog, isn’t it?”
When I nodded, he said, “I’ve been there, my friend. I just hope your young lady is worth all the trouble.”
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Denmark recently joined five other European countries, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland and Iceland, in banning the Halal and Kosher methods of slaughtering animals for food. They say that cutting an animal’s throat while it is still conscious is inhumane. Naturally, Muslims and Jews, the people most affected by the bans on ritual slaughter, are upset.
Now, I’m a mild-mannered guy and I hate arguing with people. I especially hate arguing with Jews and Muslims. I find them to be extraordinarily hard-headed and stubborn.
In my opinion, a person who is willing to have a piece of his dick sliced off, in order to keep a bargain with God, is a person that’s unlikely to listen to reason.
That said, I have to disagree with my Jewish and Muslim friends. The Danes are right. Cutting an animal’s throat, while it is still conscious, is cruel and inhumane.
The proper way to slaughter a beast, the way it’s done in most civilized countries, is to stun the animal before cutting its throat. The theory behind stunning is that a groggy, semi-conscious animal is less likely to feel pain.
The most popular way to humanely stun an animal is to smash its head with a blunt object. This used to be done by a man wielding a sledge hammer, but now it’s done by a machine. This method is called “percussive stunning.”
Another humane method in wide use is called “electrical stunning,” which is basically nothing more than tasering an animal before slitting its throat.
Then there is the humane method called “controlled atmosphere killing,” used for smaller animals, like poultry. The animals are herded into an airtight space, gas is pumped into the room, either carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide, and the animals suffocate. Tolerance for these gases vary among animals, so some creatures take longer to suffocate than others.
Despite the availability of humane ways to slaughter animals, many people, like Jews and Muslims, cling to traditional methods of preparing animals for the table.
Serbians, for example, traditionally strangle lambs before placing them on spits. The Chinese beat puppies to death with two-by-fours before tossing them into stew pots. In New Zealand, it is customary to have sexual intercourse with a sheep before reducing it to mutton. And in England, animals are bored to death prior to becoming bland, tasteless meals.
No matter how it’s done, slaughtering a large animal, like a steer, is a brutal, nasty piece of business. There is nothing humane about the process. After it’s been bludgeoned, electrocuted or had its throat slashed, the steer is hung upside down on a hook to drain it of blood.
Every part of the animal is used. Nothing is wasted. The animal’s skin is torn off to be tanned for leather. Its head, lower legs and feet are removed. Then the steer is gutted, its viscera removed and used for making sausage or sold as organ meat.
When the carcass is quartered, the men with long knives, axes and saws begin their awful work. They carve out the filets, tenderloins, strip steaks, t-bones and roasts. When the choicest cuts have been taken, they start on lesser cuts, like chuck, flank, round, brisket and shanks. Anything left over is ground into hamburger. Bones that aren’t sold for cooking purposes are ground into fertilizer.
At the end of the day, there is nothing left but a bloody, greasy spot where a 1,500 pound animal once stood.
Last Sunday, we had guests for dinner, a small crowd, just family and a few friends. The lovely Mrs. Milo prepared one of my favorite meals, roast beef with all the trimmings. The roast was cooked perfectly, tender and savory, its pink juices pooling on the serving platter.
I had enjoyed several glasses of wine before the meal and was feeling real good. As I was carving the meat, I said, “Hey! Does anyone want to hear the story of how this fine piece of meat ended up on our dinner table?”
“Dad!” my daughter replied. “Nobody wants to hear it.”
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I started smoking marijuana as a teenager and smoked it regularly until my mid-30s. I wasn’t a degenerate pothead, stoned all the time, but I don’t recall too many days when I didn’t smoke a little weed.
I liked being a pothead. I enjoyed the fellowship and good humor of my fellow smokers. And since using weed for any reason was illegal, there was the added benefit of “sticking it to the man,” which always appealed to me.
I don’t know why I quit smoking pot. It wasn’t a conscious decision. Life just got in the way. I was married and had a steady job. Children came along. We acquired pets. There were soccer games to attend. I had bills to pay and a lawn to mow. Smoking weed was way down on my list of priorities.
I didn’t quit smoking pot completely. I smoked about one joint a year and that was when I was drinking with friends. If someone passed me a joint I’d usually take a hit so as not to appear rude.
Although some states have legalized marijuana for recreational use, my home state of Illinois has made weed available only for medicinal purposes. It seems there are some medical conditions that marijuana can actually help. Who knew?
I’ve got some long-standing health issues — some dating back to my military service — that marijuana is supposed to alleviate, but I never looked into it.
Although it’s the least of my problems, the thing that bothers me most is lack of sleep. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in 30 years. I wake up two or three times a night and no matter what time I go to bed, I wake up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning.
About a month and a half ago, at the V.A. hospital, a fellow veteran, who has similar problems, approached me and handed me a small aluminum foil package. “Try this,” he said.
“What is it?”
“Medicinal weed. It’s a strain that’s supposed to help with relaxation and sleep. It works for me. Give it a try.”
I did. And it worked.
I had a couple of hits early that evening and when I went to bed that night I slept until 7:30 in the morning. I was shocked. I didn’t believe it. I thought it was a fluke.
I tried it again the next night and the same thing happened. I slept for eight hours. I immediately called my veteran friend.
“How do I get my hands on some of this shit?”
He explained the process and gave me a phone number of a clinic and its address. I went there a couple of days later. I filled out some paperwork, had an interview with a doctor, and had my fingerprints and a photo taken. After paying about $300, minus a veterans discount, I was told I was approved and that my medical marijuana card would arrive in about a month.
After all these years, I guess I’m going to be a pothead again.
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Nicknames were common in the Northwest Indiana Rust Belt where I grew up. When I was a teenager, I knew guys called Rooster, Doc, Whitey, Goof, Ducky, Slim, Kit, Babe, the Saint, and Knucklehead.
The only guy that had a problem with his nickname was Knucklehead. He said it was an undignified name for a high school senior. The guys and I agreed. After giving it a great deal of thought, and drinking lots of beer, we began calling him by the much more dignified name of Roosevelt Knucklehead.
Most of the guys accepted their nicknames, good, bad, funny or mean, with good humor. It was a different matter when it came to nicknaming girls. I learned, through bitter experience, that giving a girl an unflattering name can have dire consequences.
When I was a freshman, I had a classmate who I’ll call Joanne. She was 14 years old and at the physically awkward stage of life. She was tall and skinny, with no curves at all. She was also uncoordinated and clumsy, always knocking things over or tripping over her own feet. And she wore braces – not the sleek, nearly invisible kind that are in style today, but the braces of 50 years ago, the ones that weighed 12 pounds and looked like the grill of a Pontiac.
There is probably not a creature on earth as mean or cruel as a 14-year-old boy, and my high school had more than its share of heartless young bastards. For some reason, a few of the guys started giving Joanne a bad time. They teased her unmercifully. They made fun of her figure, her braces, and the way she dressed. Nothing was out of bounds. Some of the comments were so mean-spirited and crude that they made her cry.
One guy started calling her “Jugs,” because she had none. The poor thing was flat as a table top. But the name stuck. She was Joanne Jugs from that moment on.
Then, a couple of years later, something astonishing happened – Joanne blossomed. When she returned to school for her junior year, she was a total and complete babe, a busty, long-legged young woman, with a gorgeous smile, who had suddenly become the prettiest girl in school.
She was fine, and she knew it. She walked the school’s halls, her wonderful ass rolling and tumbling and her breasts defying gravity, like a model strutting on a runway. The guys couldn’t keep their eyes off of her. They sniffed the air and howled like wolves when she passed by.
Of course, the teasing stopped immediately. And the nickname she hated, Joanne Jugs, was quickly shortened to JJ, which she didn’t seem to mind.
By the end of the first week of school, Joanne had risen to the top of every boy’s wish list. She was inundated with requests for dates. But she had a long memory and never went out with any of the idiots that used to tease her.
Sadly, I was one of those idiots.
I rarely call people by their nicknames these days. Tagging people with nicknames seems to be a young person’s thing and most of my friends are older folks.
That said, I do use pet names when I’m talking to the lovely Mrs. Milo, terms like sweetie, honey, precious, and babe. One morning, the words “Sugar Tush” popped into my head. I liked the way the words sounded together, so I said to my wife, “Hey, Sugar Tush, do you want to see a movie tonight?”
“What did you call me?”
“Where in the world did you come up with that phrase?”
“It just occurred to me.”
“Well, I don’t I like it. Please don’t call me that anymore.”
I was about to protest, but then I remembered Joanne from high school — and the price I paid for being a dumbass.
“Sure, honey,” I said. “I’m dropping those words from my vocabulary.”
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It’s the end-of-the-season banquet at the bowling alley, and though I’m a notorious non-drinker, I tell the barkeep….
“Scottie, gimme a beer.”
I call the barkeep Scottie cause that his name. Hey, some readers are a little slower than others.
“Oh, big drinker,” Scottie says.
Then I wander over to where the championship’s being rolled. It’s a monumental showdown pitting the Hawaiians, who earned their name cause they wear Hawaiian shirts, versus the High Rollers, who have earned their name cause….
Well, I think even our slower readers can figure out how the High Rollers earned their names.
Normally, I’d root for the High Rollers. On account of the fact that if they win the championship there’s a longshot chance it might lead to saner marijuana laws.
Okay, it’s a very longshot chance. But, still — if notorious reefer heads can win the bowling championship it must say something positive about the drug.
I was playing the guitar like Hendrix….
On the other hand, the Hawaiians feature several lovers of the Blackhawks, who have just lost to Detroit. In particular, Pat the plumber looks like he might cry.
So out of sympathy to Blackhawk fans everywhere, I decide to be neutral.
Plus, I’m keeping score — an important task that I don’t take lightly. Actually, I’m not the official score keeper. The Young One is the official scorekeeper. I’m Tonto — his faithful sidekick.
A role I take no more lightly than if I was keeping score myself.
By the way, the Young One earned his nickname cause he’s young.
“Benny, tonight’s the night we get you drunk,” the Young One tells me.
“Great!” I say. “Order me Jack `n Ginger!”
“Fuck that — tonight, you will drink like a man!”
He goes to the bar and returns with a glass of Coke and something. Not sure what that something is, but there’s definitely a lot of it in the glass. I’m also not sure why Jack `n Ginger is less manly than Coke `n something else.
But I’m new at this drinking game.
And dancing like the Four Tops!
Within a few minutes, I’m feeling no pain. Jimi Hendrix comes on the jukebox and I start belting it out.
“Hey, Joe — where you goin’ with that gun in yo’ hand?”
Then I start playing air guiatar.
“Wrong hand,” says the Young One, who’s also playing air guitar.
Oops. I was using my right. Everyone knows Jimi was left handed.
Immediately, I switch to my left.
Hey, ma — I’m an ambidextrous air guitar player!
On come the Four Tops.
“Sugar Pie, honey bunch….”
I start to air dance.
At some point, the Young One gets me a refill. Whee!!!!
The Hawaiians win. Miraculously, we didn’t make any mistakes in the scoring.
Scottie — another round!
I must have made it home cause I wake up in my bed — with a pounding headache.
Shit. From here on out, I’ll leave the drinking to the pros.
See you next year, fellow bowlers!
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I have a chronic condition. It’s called the Bum Gene and it’s plagued me for years.
The Bum Gene, as my similarly afflicted friend, Bruce Diksas, explains it, is a parasitic component in the DNA that compels a person to make stupid choices, opting for instant gratification over delayed satisfaction.
Faced with a choice between a fleeting moment of pleasure or doing something constructive, a person carrying the Bum Gene will choose a brief moment of pleasure every time. When deciding between being a productive member of society or giving in to one’s worst instincts, the Bum Gene afflicted will always opt for the latter, no matter the consequences.
Although the condition affects both men and women, the Bum Gene is most commonly found in males of the species. Typically, the condition becomes apparent in the teenage years, when adventurous young men begin experimenting with alcohol, tobacco, and reefer, and spend countless hours unraveling the mysteries of poker or learning their way around a pool table.
By the time these dedicated young wastrels reach their 20s, they have become addicted to the high life. They may hold jobs, they may marry and raise families, but their true love is the old Rip and Roar. The Bum Gene is in control and the train keeps rolling all night long.
The party seems like it will never end – but it always does. You may continue rocking and rolling into your 30s, 40s, 50s, and even 60s, staying at the table way beyond prudence, but at some point a toothless, grinning hag of a waitress, representing the management, will present a check.
This particular check can’t be settled with cash, checks, credit cards, or promissory notes. The coin of this low-life realm is your health — ravaged lungs, swollen livers, leaky kidneys, balky hearts, hardened arteries, pancreatic woes, certain types of diabetes, and dozens of strains of cancer, all of them lifestyle related.
Despite the pleas of family and well-meaning friends, and the sound advice of doctors, those poor souls suffering with the Bum Gene can’t, or don’t want to, change their wicked ways.
My physician at the V.A. hospital, Dr. Frankie “Disco” Lopez, always gives it a noble effort.
“So, Milo, have you quit smoking yet?”
“I’m working on it, Doc.”
“What about the drinking? Have you cut down?”
“That’s another work in progress.”
“Have you been exercising at all? We’ve got a real nice gym here at the V.A., with all the latest equipment. It won’t cost you a cent.”
“No, thanks, I’ve never cared much for exercise.”
“Milo, I see dumb fuckers like you every day. They go through life doing whatever makes them feel good and never consider the consequences. They smoke, drink, abuse drugs, have horrible dietary habits, and never exercise. Then, when things go wrong, and they certainly will go wrong, they expect me to fix them. By then, it’s generally too late. The damage has been done. All I can do for the poor bastards is prescribe chemo or insulin, recommend some last resort surgery, or just make them comfortable and pain-free while they’re dying.
“And those are the unlucky fuckers. The lucky guys, the ones about your age, smokers and drinkers with arteries as hard as cast iron pipes, usually just die from heart attacks, quickly and relatively painlessly. In the end, that’s probably the best way to go. Plus, it saves everybody a lot of trouble and expense.”
“Well, Doc, I can’t recall when I’ve had a more pleasant conversation. I’ll see you in six months.”
“I’ll be here. I’m hoping you’ll show up.”
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Corporal punishment was an accepted practice in the Gary, Indiana school system. Misconduct was dealt with swiftly and painfully. The instrument of punishment was always a paddle, which was known as “the board of education.” Customarily, it was a heavy, two-foot-long piece of wood with holes drilled in it.
As explained to me by a member of the Slide Rule Club, the holes in the paddle decreased air resistance, which allowed it to achieve maximum forward momentum when it made contact with your sorry ass.
A few of the male teachers had reputations as being quick to punish students, but the worst disciplinarians were three of the brutes on the coaching staff. The three coaches, who I’ll call Coach Howard, Coach Fine and Coach Howard, were the school’s go-to guys when it came to paddling boys. Teachers that were too timid to punish students on their own sent their miscreants to the coach’s office to be straightened out.
The high school I attended was a hotbed of delinquency, the classrooms packed with ruffians, thugs, hoodlums, sneaks, and greasers. It was a rare day when there weren’t at least half a dozen guys lined up at the coach’s office, waiting to go inside, bend over and grab their ankles.
“Oh, man, I hope I don’t get Coach Fine. The fucker swings that paddle like Ernie Banks.”
“I rather have him than that creepy Coach Howard. Swear to God, he acts like he gets a kick out of beating on somebody’s ass.”
I was a troublemaker in school, especially during my freshman year, disruptive in class, a wise ass. As a result of my boorish behavior, I spent a lot of time, that year, in the coach’s office.
“Oh, no, it’s you again. When are you going to learn your lesson?”
“Coach, it was a misunderstanding.”
“What kind of misunderstanding?”
“Mrs. Shimkus said to turn to page 84 of Silas Marner. I thought she said turn up my transistor radio.”
“Bend over and grab your ankles. You’re getting three.”
The first swat always hurt like hell. The worst thing about it, however, was that you knew two more were coming. The second hurt as badly as the first, but the knowledge that there was only one more to come made it easier to take. The final swat was the most painful, because your ass was stinging and sore from the first two blows, yet knowing that the ordeal was over made the pain bearable.
The only thing the coaches hated more than unruly teenage students, were teenage smokers. If a kid got caught smoking, or with a pack of cigarettes, or even a pack of matches, he’d be required to report to the coach’s office.
After school, one day, I was walking along 5th Avenue, headed for the Club, which was my favorite pool room. I was smoking a cigarette as I walked, probably a Winston, when a car pulled up to the curb next to me. When the driver cranked down the window, I saw that it was Coach Howard. He gave me a stern look and said, “You be at my office before classes start tomorrow.”
I was a senior in high school, nearly 18 years old at the time, and would be graduating in a few months. I hadn’t been swatted since I was a freshman, three years earlier.
In those three years, I had grown a bit, lived a little, and learned a few things. One of the things I learned is that people’s motivations for doing things aren’t always what they seem. Sometimes people take actions for no apparent reason and to no apparent purpose. Other times, they know exactly what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and what they plan to get out of it.
More importantly, people are sometimes motivated by what others think of them.
Coach Howard was waiting for me when I arrived at the office the next morning. “I saw you smoking on the street yesterday,” he said. “You got anything to say for yourself?”
“Guilty as charged, Coach.”
“That’s an automatic five swats,” he said, as he rose from his chair and reached for the paddle. “Bend over and grab your ankles.”
“I said no. I consider grown men spanking boys to be sick behavior.”
“Watch what you’re saying, boy.”
“I can’t think of any normal people who make boys bend over in front of them while they slap their butts with chunks of wood. It’s what perverts do, in my opinion. Some people might enjoy this kind of thing, but I cannot, in good conscience, engage in such behavior.”
Coach Howard stared at me for a few tense moments, then said, “Get the hell out of my office.”
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