About a month ago, I went to the Jesse Brown V.A. Hospital to see my physician, Dr. Frankie “Disco” Lopez, and hit him up for some new meds, preferably industrial-strength opiates. Dr. Frankie is a notoriously easy touch when it comes to handing out pain-killers. But just to be on the safe side, I Googled some exotic diseases and their symptoms to help make my case.
When I walked into Dr. Frankie’s office, he said, “Dude, we’ve got to make it quick. I’m meeting a nurse from ER for a nooner at the Diplomat Motel and I don’t want to keep her waiting. How are you feeling?”
“Not too good. I’m pretty sure I’ve got a case of Pontocerebellar Hypoplasia and I need something for the pain.”
“No problem. I’ll prescribe some shit that’ll make you feel real good. Hey, you’re a smoker aren’t you?”
“How long have you been smoking?”
“I started when I was three, about the same time I started drinking.”
“It’s time you had a chest X-ray. I’ll set it up.”
Two days later, as I was out on my back porch, enjoying a cigarette with my morning whiskey, I got a call from Dr. Frankie. “Dude,” he said, “I’ve got your X-ray in front of me and it looks like you’ve got a spot on the lower right lobe of your lung.”
“I’m going to order a CAT scan so we can get a better look.”
“Doc, should I be worried?”
“If it was me, I’d be shaking in my boots and crying for my mama.”
I’m not the kind of guy that rattles easily. Anyone that reads my blogs knows that I’m a badass, tougher than concrete, meaner than a snake, as fearless as an Acapulco cliff diver. I’ve stared death in the face more often than a mortician. I’ve survived growing up on the mean streets of Gary, Indiana, a war in Southeast Asia, 30 years of marriage, the Bush administration, and a career in the advertising business.
That said, the possibility that I might have lung cancer scared the shit out of me.
After giving it some thought, I decided to keep the information to myself. I didn’t tell anyone, not even the lovely Mrs. Milo. I figured the situation would upset her worse than it upset me. I knew she’d be angry with me for not telling her, but I didn’t want my wife to worry until I knew that there was definitely something to worry about.
I had to wait three weeks for the CAT scan and, trust me, it was a very long three weeks. Everything slowed down. The days dragged by. I felt like I had a ball and chain attached to my leg. My thinking was scattered and murky. The words biopsy, major surgery, chemotherapy, and painful lingering death were never far from my mind.
My wife sensed there was a problem. Every few days she’d give me an odd look and ask, “Milo, are you okay?”
“Sure, babe, I’m fine. Everything’s peachy. Why do you ask?”
“Well, you’re acting weird. I’ve seen you staring off into space and muttering to yourself. Plus, you’re drinking more than usual.”
“Heh, heh, you’re probably just imagining things.”
There were a dozen other miserable-looking fuckers hanging around in the waiting room of the Radiology Department when I arrived for my CAT scan. And all of us were there for the same reason. Doctors had found something in our bodies that required further investigation. We were all hoping for the best.
Later that day, a few hours after the CAT scan, I was in my back yard, enjoying a cigarette with my afternoon whiskey, when the phone rang. It was Dr. Frankie. “Dude,” he said, “it was a false alarm. Other than a touch of emphysema, your lungs are clear.”
“Doc, that’s great news.”
“Well, I’ve got to call a couple of other guys who won’t be as happy to hear from me.”
That night, at supper, I told my wife the story. As I suspected, she didn’t take it well. “Oh, you’re such an asshole! I’m your wife! We’re partners! How could you keep that from me for three weeks?”
“Honey, it wasn’t easy.”
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I’ve suffered the torments of Hell ever since Otis, a flea-ridden, rotten bastard of an alley cat, weaseled his way into my household. The mangy fucker may have conned my wife and daughters into believing he would be some sort of respectable house pet, but I knew better. I’m an old hand. I’ve been around the block more often than the postman.
From the moment I saw him, I knew Otis was up to no good. And it didn’t take long for him to reveal his true nature.
Otis is a vicious, cold-blooded killer, a merciless bully who preys on smaller and weaker creatures. Shortly after he moved in, I started finding the mangled carcasses of mice, bunny rabbits and songbirds in my back yard. Otis slaughtered the local fauna efficiently and indiscriminately.
The lovely Mrs. Milo ignored me when I complained about the cat. “That fucking cat is disgusting. I just found another dead bunny rabbit in the back yard.”
“If you would stop letting the cat out in the morning, these things wouldn’t happen.”
“I don’t let him out. He sneaks out.”
My wife looked me squarely in the eye and, in a menacing tone of voice, said, “Your daughters and I adore Otis. There’ll be hell to pay if anything happens to the cat. Do we understand each other?”
Despite my wife’s dire threat, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out a way to get rid of the cat without suspicion falling on me. I’ve come close to settling the cat’s hash a few times, but something always went wrong. Then, a couple of weeks ago, fate intervened, in the form of Fifi, an angora cat that was recently acquired by Mrs. Shimkus, who lives across the street.
Now, I’m no expert on feline beauty, but I have to admit that Fifi looked pretty good. Mrs. Shimkus had tarted her up quite nicely, plaiting ribbons in her long, silky fur and putting a glittery collar around her neck. Fifi spent her days sitting in Mrs. Shimkus’ bay window, preening and stretching provocatively. And when she occasionally licked herself, all of the neighborhood tomcats went wild.
Otis was no exception. He became obsessed with Fifi. He ignored his food and rarely slept. He even lost interest in torturing and killing helpless little creatures. All he did was stare longingly out of the window at Mrs. Shimkus’ house, where the alluring Fifi waited, so close, yet impossibly far away.
You see, there was an insurmountable problem. Otis had a rival for Fifi’s affections, a big brute of a tomcat named Barney, who outweighed Otis by 10 pounds. Barney had been terrorizing the neighborhood for years and was widely regarded as the toughest, meanest alley cat on the North Side. He, too, was infatuated by Fifi and staked out a spot on Mrs. Shimkus’ front lawn, chasing away any other cat that came sniffing around.
When Otis went over to call on the lovely Fifi, I figured there was a good chance that Barney would kill him. But, to my disappointment, Barney just gave Otis a good beating and sent him slinking home to lick his wounds.
Otis began behaving strangely after that incident. One morning I noticed that he seemed unduly interested in my gun cabinet, where I keep my collection of pistols and automatic assault rifles. The next day I saw him in the garage, gazing intently at my car. When I let him out of the house, he just stayed on the front porch for hours, staring malevolently at Barney who was still encamped in Mrs. Shimkus’ front yard.
Otis was up to something but I couldn’t figure out what he had in mind. He was a stubborn, vengeful cat and I knew that the mauling he had taken from Barney was eating away at him. I hoped he was planning on doing something stupid, and possibly suicidal, like confronting Barney again.
But I had underestimated Otis. He is old school shrewd, calculating and ruthless. He had been raised on the mean streets of this town and he would settle things the Chicago way.
A couple of days later when I went out to my front porch to enjoy a cigarette with my morning whiskey, I noticed that Barney was nowhere in sight. He had disappeared.
Later that afternoon I saw that Otis had taken up Barney’s spot on Mrs. Shimkus’ front lawn. He had brought along a dead mouse and some catnip as presents for Fifi. Apparently he and Fifi hit it off, because I didn’t see Otis again for several days.
About a week later I read a short article in the Tribune about a dead cat that had been found in the trunk of a car that was parked out by Midway Airport. The article said the cat had been executed “gangland style.” I was pretty sure it was Barney.
The police said they had no suspects but were interviewing several “felines of interest.”
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In the mid-70s, I shared an apartment in Wicker Park with a couple of dear friends, who I’ll call Wayne and Bruce, to spare them undue embarrassment. It was a funky three-bedroom place on Evergreen Street, a few doors down from the Serbian Brothers Help Club, and across the street from the place where Nelson Algren lived for many years.
One night, the three of us were partying on Lincoln Avenue, hitting all of our favorite joints, Sterch’s, the Farthings, Oxfords, and the Wise Fools Pub. We were having a high old time, drinking, smoking a little weed, listening to music, and hanging out with friends.
At one of the taverns, Wayne began talking to a girl. I didn’t pay much attention because Wayne talked to people all the time. You couldn’t shut him up. He would talk to anybody, about any subject, for any length of time. He was a world class bullshitter, a windbag of epic proportions. He was an expert on everything and nothing. His preposterous, long-winded rants rarely made sense, but they had great amusement value.
When the three of us left the smoky, dimly-lit tavern, heading for another smoky, dimly-lit tavern, the girl that Wayne was talking to tagged along. Once we were out on the street, I was able to get a good look at the girl and was surprised, shocked actually, to see that her nose was badly broken, mashed nearly flat. It must have happened recently because there were still bruises on her cheeks and under her eyes.
The girl stayed close to us for the rest of the night. She seemed to be in a daze and looked scared and needy. When she wasn’t clinging to Wayne, she was standing near Bruce, or following me around.
I bought her a drink and tried to talk to her, but she didn’t have much to say, and I didn’t want to ask about her nose. When she did speak, she kept her eyes lowered, not making eye contact.
Later that evening, while Bruce and I were in the alley behind Sterch’s, smoking a joint, I said, “What do you think happened to the chick? Car accident?”
“I doubt it. I figure some asshole beat her up.”
“Well, there are a lot of rotten fuckers in the world.”
“It’s a shame. I bet she was real good looking before her nose got fucked up. She’s got a nice body on her.”
“Yeah, real nice ass.”
“I wonder why she’s hanging out with yahoos like us.”
“I don’t know. Maybe she feels safe around us.”
“Jesus, I find that kind of insulting.”
“Yeah, she doesn’t know us that well.”
We called it a night about three in the morning, got in the car and drove back to Wicker Park. Without anything being said, the girl hopped in the car and came with us.
We stayed up for another hour, drinking, smoking, listening to music and more of Wayne’s off-the-wall ravings. When we began drifting off, the girl asked if she could spend the night on the couch. We said it would be no problem and provided her with a pillow and blanket.
I had trouble falling asleep after crawling into bed. After all, I was a young man, in my prime, and there was a young woman in the next room. I briefly considered going out to the couch and lying down with the girl with the broken nose.
I was sure she wouldn’t turn me down. She might have even appreciated a little affection. But then a troubling thought occurred to me – what if she said “yes” only because she was afraid to say “no.”
On the other hand, there was the possibility that she might be offended if nobody made a pass at her. Maybe she’d think that her disfigurement was more than any man could handle.
I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing. Besides, Wayne and Bruce were both randy fuckers and I figured one of them would take a shot at her. But neither of them made the effort.
The next morning, after taking a shower, the girl smiled at us and said, “I have to go now, but thanks, guys, for everything.”
“Where are you going?” Bruce asked.
“I have to be somewhere.”
“Just take care of yourself,” I said.
“I will,” she replied, and then she left.
We never saw her again.
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My buddy, Ed, rolls into town last week — helps me turn the living room into fraternity row.
For a few days, it’s me and Ed, sprawled on lounge chairs, watching sports, reruns of The Untouchables and old movies, like Blacula.
Ah, the good life….
Blacula’s a great movie, by the way. Saw it years ago at the old Howard Theater in Rogers Park.
I saw many of the seminal movies of the `70s at the Howard – Shaft in Africa, Foxy Brown, The Sting and so on….
Though now that I think about it, I might have seen The Sting at the Valencia Theater in Evanston.
William Marshall plays the great African monarch — Prince Mamuwalde — who travels to Transylvania in 1780 to ask Prince Dracula to join the fight against slavery.
He brings along Princess Luva, his lovely wife. Vonetta McGee plays Luva.
Confession time! I may have had a little crush on Vonetta McGee — back in the day.
Anyway, one thing leads to another and Dracula bites William Marshall, turning him into vampire. Hence, the name — Blacula. Get it?
About 150 years later, Blacula winds up in New York City. Don’t ask – it’s complicated.
The thing that always amazed me is that Blacula hopped out of his coffin and got around New York City like he’d been living in Harlem his whole life. Didn’t need a GPS thing or anything…..
There’s this one scene where Blacula’s running down the street and a cop starts chasing him.
I’m not sure why the cop’s chasing him. Blacula hadn’t done anything wrong. Except for killing a bunch of people. But the cop didn’t know that.
“He’s breaking the law,” says Ed. “Running while black.”
Good line, Ed. We’re howling over that one.
Nicky, the dog, when she’s not barking….
Right about this time Nicky, the dog, starts barking.
“Shut up,” I yell at the dog.
She keeps barking.
I walk to the window to see what she’s barking at. But the streets are empty.
“There’s nothing there,” I tell the dog. “You’re barking at nothing….”
It occurs to me she might be scared. I can relate. I was scared the first time I saw Blacula — especially when he comes up behind that lady in the photo lab. That scene still scares me.
The dog finally stops barking. But I’ve missed so much dialogue I feel I need to watch the movie again. Which is as good as an excuse as any to replay it – for the good times!
This time my wife joins us. And she loves it! I’m telling you – Blacula’s a great movie.
Fast-forward a few hours….
The dog’s lying on the bed. Payback time – heh, heh, heh.
I do my best William Marshall: “Come to me, Princess Luva.”
The dog runs under the bed.
“I am Blacula. I’ve come to suck your blood….”
What can I tell you — I always got my best ideas from the movies.
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Heading south to Greektown, when my youngest daughter breaks the news….
“You have bad breath,” she tells me.
Not sure what prompted her to drop the bombshell at this particular time. No matter, I must deal with it.
“Is this true?” I ask my wife.
“Not always,” she says.
Well, that’s hardly reassuring.
“Did you plan this?” I ask.
“Huh?” asks my daughter.
“Is this an intervention?”
“Oh, my God — you planned to have a family intervention to tell me I have bad breath.”
“We did not plan a family intervention,” says my wife.
“Don’t be defensive,” says my daughter.
“I’m not defensive,” I say.
“Yes, you are,” says my daughter.
“No, I’m not.”
“Just bring a mint with you….”
“Yeah, you used to carry mints with you,” says my wife. “Why did you stop doing that?”
Then they worry that they’ve gone too far. So they start telling me what a great guy I am. As in — great guy, despite the bad breath.
“Do I have bad breath all the time?” I ask.
“No, just once in awhile,” says my daughter.
I have this flash. Have I had bad breath in public places where it could come back to haunt me?
“When was the last time I had bad breath?” I ask.
“I can’t remember,” says my wife.
“Yes, you can,” I say.
“Okay — when we saw Flight.”
That’s the movie in which Denzel Washington plays this super cool airplane pilot who has lots of problems — excessive drinking, drug taking, womanizing — but not bad breath.
“But you didn’t tell me,” I say.
“I don’t always tell you.”
“You mean — you let me walk around with bad breath!”
It hits me that I’ve probably had bad breath while standing in front of people I was trying to impress only they didn’t tell me cause it wasn’t the politically correct thing to do.
I recall sitting next to a friend — Michelle — in a gym and she handed me a Tic Tac that she happened to have in her pocket. Obviously, she was sending me a subtle message. How could I not see it at the time?
Fast forward several hours….
I’m lying on the couch reading a book. The dog comes by. Sniffs in my general direction and then lays down besides me.
Suddenly, I’m aware of a horrendous odor. I check my shoes to see if I stepped in shit.
Nope. It’s the dog.
“Damn, Nicky,” I say. “You need a Tic Tac.”
It’s reassuring to know that my breath is not as bad as the dog’s.
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After World War 2, and the subsequent civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, my parents, and several of my father’s comrades-in-arms, became Displaced Persons. They lived in refugee camps in Italy and Germany, for a couple of years, before immigrating to the United States, eventually ending up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Two of the men who came to the USA with my parents were Dusan and Niko, my father’s boyhood friends. They grew up together in the same small village. They were teenagers, 16 and 17 years old, when the Germans invaded Yugoslavia in 1940 and all three joined the fight against the Nazis.
When the Germans were finally defeated, in 1945, my father and his friends spent another year and a half battling Tito and his Communist Partisans for control of the country. When Tito prevailed, the men were faced with some harsh choices – prison, the firing squad or exile. My father and his band of guerillas wisely chose exile, and, under intense pressure from their heavily armed enemies, made a do-or-die, three-week run for the Italian border. Many of them made it.
Dusan, Niko and my father were poorly educated farm boys. They could read and write, in Cyrillic, and do simple math. Most of their life’s experience consisted of warfare, six long years of it. Unfortunately, in Milwaukee, at the time, there was little need for warriors. There was, however, a need for factory workers.
My father and Dusan had wives and young children to support. Within a week of arriving in Milwaukee they found good paying factory jobs and moved their families into apartments. My family’s first apartment was in an area of cookie-cutter row houses. The houses were so identical that my father claimed it was impossible to tell them apart. He had my mother stand in front of the house when he got off work so he could figure out which building he lived in.
Niko, however, was averse to working in a factory. He was just a country boy at heart and hated the idea of working in a noisy, greasy, odorous fabricating plant. He had a better idea. He had heard of a farmer in Washington State, a fellow Serb, who would hire newly arrived countrymen to work on his farm. He made a few phone calls to the farmer who eventually agreed to take him on.
A couple of weeks later, Niko left for the Pacific Northwest. There was a raucous going-away party for Niko, with lots of food and drink, hugs and tears. This was the first time the three men would be separated since they were children.
Just before Niko got on the Greyhound bus for the long trip to the West Coast, my father gave him a 50 dollar bill, telling him it might come in handy in an emergency.
The farmer put Niko to work immediately, and it was hard, back-breaking, dawn-to-dusk work. But Niko didn’t mind working hard. He was a big strapping man, who enjoyed working outdoors, raising crops and handling livestock. It reminded him of more pleasant times, when he was a youngster on his family’s farm, before the seemingly endless wars changed the trajectory of his life.
Niko enjoyed working on the farm, but wasn’t very happy with his accommodations. He slept on a cot in a leaky, unheated shed and the food wasn’t as plentiful or as tasty as he had hoped it would be. Still, at least he had a job, and would soon be making some money, and, for the moment, that was all that mattered.
Niko became uneasy, however, when after nearly two months of hard work, the farmer had not paid him a cent. When he asked the farmer about his wages, he was told, “That’s not how it works in America. You’re starting at the bottom, so all you get is room and board. Maybe I’ll start paying you in a few months, but don’t expect much.”
Niko realized that he had been bamboozled. The farmer had played him for a fool, working him like a dog and not even tossing him a bone. Niko knew that what the farmer had told him was bullshit. His friends back in Milwaukee were starting at the bottom, too, but they were earning good wages and starting to make their way in this new world.
The more Niko thought about the situation, the angrier he became. He felt trapped, stuck in the middle of nowhere, with seemingly no options. He stayed awake all night, his mind churning with emotion, torn betweeen rage and despair. He even briefly considered killing the farmer. But most of all, he was desperately trying to think of a way out of his miserable situation.
Then, he remembered that he had a 50 dollar bill that my father had given him.
The next morning, Niko packed his small bag, gave the farmer a thorough, well-deserved beating, and walked 15 miles into town. He managed to find the bus station, walked up to the clerk’s window, laid his 50 dollar bill on the counter, and spoke two of the very few words of English that he knew.
In a thick Slavic accent, he said, “Milwaukee, please.”
Recently, as I was sitting at dinner with family and friends, I told the story of Niko and the 50 dollar bill. Most of the people at the table had heard the story before, but they seemed to enjoy hearing it again.
Then my sweet, gray-haired, 89-year-old mother spoke up. “It’s a fine story,” she said, “but you’ve got the facts wrong.”
“Your father and I discussed giving Niko the money, but at his going-away party your father, along with all the other men, got roaring drunk, and he forgot about it. I took the 50 dollar bill out of your father’s wallet and personally handed it to Niko.”
Later that evening, I asked my sister if Mom’s version of the story was true.
“Well, Mom’s got Alzheimer’s and her short-term memory is gone. But her long-term memory is still sharp.”
“Besides, you know our father liked to drink. At least that part of the story is true.”
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This is a vacation week for The Third City, so we’ll be posting pieces from the past. In honor of the new James Brown movie, here’s a beloved family favorite about the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.
James Brown, the late Godfather of Soul, was a world-class ladies’ man. When the Hardest Working Man in Show Business was in his prime, traveling from gig to gig, constantly on the road, he enjoyed the company of a different woman just about every night.
It goes without saying that being the Godfather of Soul was a demanding, time-consuming job. There simply weren’t enough hours in the day for James Brown to take care of the business of being James Brown. He was so busy that he didn’t even have time to find his own chicks. He had to delegate that sensitive job to a close business associate, usually his valet.
Fortunately, for the valet, finding women for James Brown was not a difficult assignment. There were probably hundreds of thousands of women willing to make James Brown, who always felt good, feel even better.
The valet would usually find the woman he was looking for during one of James Brown’s spectacular stage shows. He would scan the audience for a lady that he hoped would appeal to his boss. Once he found the right woman, he would explain the situation to her and, if the woman was agreeable, make all of the necessary arrangements.
As I had mentioned, time was of the essence for James Brown. When he arrived for his appointed rendezvous, the lady, as instructed, would already be in bed, awaiting the Great Man’s attentions.
James Brown rarely spent more than a few minutes with a woman. He was a busy man. He had a schedule to keep. According to reports, his rutting was fierce but fleeting. When he had satisfied himself, he would give the woman a memento of the occasion, usually an autographed 8×10 glossy photo, say something like “Baby, I got to go,” and be off to the next town and the next show.
One day, as the valet was driving James Brown to a radio station for an interview, he noticed that his boss was unusually quiet, seemingly lost in thought. After a while, James turned to the valet and said, “Let me ask you something.”
“Sure, boss, anything.”
“What do a man get from eating pussy?”
“Heh, heh, I wouldn’t know nothing about that.”
James Brown pondered the valet’s answer for a few moments, a puzzled expression on his face, before saying, “Got to be something to it. I understand a lot of men be eating pussy.”
The Third City has never shied away from the tough questions. In my role as Society, Lifestyle and Religion columnist, I’ve tackled some of the most sensitive issues of our times. Granted, James Brown’s sex life is ultimately of little consequence, but the question he posed to his valet is a profound one and needs to be addressed.
When James asked, “What do a man get from eating pussy?” he was, in essence, asking, “What’s in it for me?” I was determined to find the answer to this perplexing question and write about it in The Third City’s blog. I didn’t want to count chickens, but I could sense scientific and literary awards in my near future. Hopefully, some of them would be accompanied by handsome checks.
This past Friday, I went to The Third City’s plush Michigan Avenue offices to do some research for the story. I was hard at work – a porn site on my computer screen, skin magazines scattered across my desk, a 900-number sex worker on speaker-phone – when I was interrupted by my colleague, Benny Jay.
“Milo, what the hell is going on here? You’re scaring all of the interns.”
When I explained what I was doing, Benny said, “Ah, shit! What are you trying to do, put us out of business? The last time you wrote about something like this the FCC almost pulled our blogging license.”
“Benny, I refuse to let small-minded bureaucrats dictate policy to The Third City.”
“That’s not the point. What about our readers? A lot of them are little old ladies. How do you think they’ll react to an article about eating pussy?”
“I would hope the subject matter would bring back some pleasant memories.”
“Do me a favor and don’t write this story. It’ll be nothing but trouble. And we can’t afford the legal fees.”
Against my better judgment, I took Benny’s advice. Besides, I didn’t want piss Benny off. I still owed him money from a reefer deal that went sour back in the ‘90s and was afraid he might call in the debt.
That afternoon, I was sitting in Swillagain’s Saloon, sipping cocktails and feeling sorry for myself, when an old friend, named Sarah, walked in and sat next to me. Sarah had married well and become a prominent North Shore matron, but I had known her before she had become quite so prominent.
After buying her a drink, I said, “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”
“Milo, I’m a married woman.”
“It’s not that kind of question.”
She said, ‘Okay,” and then I asked her the same question that James Brown asked of his valet.
Sarah gave me a quizzical smile, not unlike the Mona Lisa’s, and then laughed out loud. “Honey, all I can tell you is what goes around, comes around.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Give it some thought, Milo. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
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