The good times never last. Just when you think you’ve got life by the nuts, something comes along that makes you realize how naïve and foolish you’ve been. One day you’re on top of the world, the next day a piano falls on your head, or your wife leaves you, or your doctor says you need a liver transplant.
I’ve heard it said that a wise man hopes for the best but prepares for disaster. If that’s true, then I must be a real dumbass, because I never saw the shit storm coming.
My problems began a few years ago when a mangy bastard of an alley cat followed my youngest daughter home and weaseled his way into my household. I did everything I could to chase the flea-ridden fucker away. I threw rocks at him, squirted him with a water hose, and tried to run him over with my power mower, but nothing seemed to work. As a last resort, I was going to shoot him, but the cat was obviously familiar with firearms, because he ducked out of range as soon as he saw me come out of the house with my pistol in hand.
The cat was a tenacious son of a bitch. He wouldn’t take a hint. He just hung around my back porch, grooming his ratty fur, trying to pass himself off as some sort of respectable house pet. Eventually, he endeared himself to my wife and daughters and, against my heated objections, they adopted him. They even gave him a name, calling him Otis.
I expected the worst when I let my wife and daughters talk me into taking in the cat, and I wasn’t disappointed. In a short time, it became painfully obvious that my family cared more for the rotten bastard of a cat than they did for me. For example, when my eldest daughter, who lives a few miles away, comes to visit, she barely acknowledges my presence. Instead, she rushes straight for the cat, picks him up, cuddles with him, and showers him with baby talk.
“What a cutesy little kitty you are. How’s my favorite little guy in the whole world. Ooh, I miss you so much.”
And when my wife comes home, the first thing she asks is if I had fed the cat. She doesn’t seem to care to about my nutritional needs. It was plain to me that I had become a second class citizen in my own home.
A while ago I was sitting in Swillagain’s Saloon, sipping a few cocktails and brooding on this humiliating turn of events, when a guy came in and sat on the stool next to me. He was well dressed and wearing flashy jewelry, but I noticed that his hands were badly scratched and there were deep gouges on his face and neck. We struck up a conversation and, in time, he asked me what I did for a living.
“I’m a famous and wealthy blogger. How about you?”
“I’m a licensed cat broker.”
“A cat broker. I provide cats to pharmaceutical companies for medical experiments.”
“That’s interesting. How does someone end up in that line of work?”
“To get started, you have to get either a Class A or a Class B cat broker’s license. Class A licenses usually go to breeders, because they raise cats specifically for medical experimentation purposes. I’ve got a Class B, which allows me to collect cats from anywhere I can find them. I get cats at animal shelters, find them in alleys, and buy them from private owners.”
“What happens to the cats?”
“Let’s just say it ain’t pretty. I’ve heard all sorts of stories. Some cats get their spinal cords broken so they can be tested with paralysis drugs. Some cats get blinded so researchers can investigate their visual cortexes.”
“One guy told me they deliberately induce strokes in cats by blocking the arteries to the animals’ brains. Another thing they do to cats is anaesthetize them, open their skulls and remove the membranes which line the inside of the head. They let the cats live for a while to see if any cell regeneration has begun, then they kill them and remove their entire brains just to obtain a few nerve cells for study.”
“Very interesting,” I said, considering the possibilities. “You’ve given me a lot to think about.”
Just then, the cat broker’s cell phone rang. He spoke in hushed tones for a moment, turned to me and said, “I’ve got to run. One of my contacts informed me that a crazy cat lady just died in Wicker Park and she’s got 93 cats. I’m going to see if I can make a deal with her heirs.”
“Well, it’s been nice chatting with you,” I said.
“Likewise,” he replied.
“By the way, can I get your phone number? I might be able to send some business your way.”
I’m having minor surgery this morning, so I’m posting a blog I wrote a few years ago. It has become a beloved family favorite and I hope you enjoy it.
There are people in this world that better hope I never get diagnosed with a terminal disease. If a doctor ever tells me I’ve got just a few months to live, there are a lot of rotten bastards I’m taking with me.
I’ve got a shit list, and it’s a long one. It goes all the way back to grade school.
I’ve been told there’s a phrase in the Bible that says vengeance belongs to the Lord. Well, I’m not much of a religious guy, so where does that leave me? Besides, I’ve got a lot of grievances. I can’t be certain that the Good Lord will take my side in each case.
No, if there’s any revenging to be done, I’ll have to do it myself.
A while ago, having discovered several new aches and pains, and realizing I wouldn’t live forever, I decided it was time to start settling scores. I was sitting at the kitchen table, making an enemies list, when the lovely Mrs. Milo came by and asked what I was doing.
“I’m making a list.”
“What kind of list?”
“I’m writing down the names of all the low-life sons of bitches I’m going to shoot, stab, strangle and run over with my car in the next few weeks. I’m also planning on chopping up a couple of these cocksuckers with a machete.”
“Milo, have you been drinking?”
“I may have had a smidgen of red wine with lunch.”
“Let me see that list,” she said, and grabbed it off the table. “Are you crazy? What have any of these people ever done to you? And why in the world is your brother-in-law, Bill, on this list?”
“My sister heard about my plans and asked me, as a personal favor, to run over her husband with a car. I said okay.”
With the possible exception of cats, human beings seem to be the only creatures to commit, and take pleasure from acts of vengeance. There’s something deeply satisfying about hearing that something terrible has happened to someone you despise, someone who’s treated you shabbily, abused you, and made your life miserable.
Just imagine how great it would be to find out that someone you truly hated — someone who embezzled your retirement funds, killed your dog or ran off with your wife — had come to a bad end.
Then imagine how much better it would be if you had personally caused this despicable person’s destruction.
Vengeance, after all, requires a personal touch. Random accidents don’t count as proper vengeance. It’s not enough that a person slips on a banana peel and breaks his neck, gets torn apart by a pack of pit bulls, or gets crushed by a falling piano. You have to be the person that leaves the banana peel on the sidewalk, lets the dogs loose, or drops the piano.
And, finally, the object of your vengeance has to know that you are responsible for his or her predicament. Ideally, in the moments before the ambulance arrives, there’ll be enough time for you to walk up to the bleeding, mangled victim and gleefully take credit for their misfortune.
“Hey, Mrs. Shimkus, you remember me?”
“Maybe next time you’ll think twice about giving someone an F in algebra and making him go to summer school.”
I was sitting at my computer, surfing legal aid sites, when I got a phone call from Benny Jay, my esteemed colleague at The Third City. He seemed agitated.
“Milo, your wife just called me. She thinks you’ve lost your mind. She says you’re planning to commit some sort of wholesale slaughter.”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“I’m sure you’ve got your reasons. But I have to tell you that, in my opinion, this might reflect poorly on The Third City.”
When I explained my reasoning to Benny, he grew uncharacteristically quiet. After an awkward silence, he said, “Well, I can see your mind is made up, but while you’re at it can you do me a huge favor?”
“Put Hue Hollins on your list.”
“The NBA referee?”
“Yeah, I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since the bastard called that ridiculous foul on Scotty Pippen in game 5 of the 1994 playoffs.”
A couple of hours later, I got a call from my dear friend, Bruce Diksas. I believe he had been drinking. “Hey, Milo. You remember Carlos Rivera, the rotten fucker who hit a king on the river to beat my flush?”
“Consider it done.”
Just before I went to bed, I got a call from my sweet, gray-haired, 88-year-old mother. “Do you remember Mrs. Popovich…”
“Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll take care of it.”
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Benny Jay, my esteemed colleague here at The Third City, has a tough day job. He is a journalist, and his beat is City Hall. In the course of his work day, Benny routinely deals with some of the sleaziest, most conniving and treacherous bastards on the planet — Chicago politicians.
Anyone that knows Benny or has seen his work will agree that he is a fearless reporter, steely-eyed, dedicated, daring and relentless. He will go to any lengths to get a story. If there is breaking news in Hell, Benny will grab his laptop, clamp a knife between his teeth, and parachute into the Inferno, just to bring us the sordid details.
Yes, Benny is as tough as they come, hardened by journalism’s school of hard knocks. He’s seen it all and lived to tell about it. Still, a lifetime spent in the company of swinish aldermen, greasy ward healers, and pinky-ringed fixers can take a terrible toll on a man.
Surviving the rigors of political journalism in Chicago is not easy. After a long day of swimming in the cesspool of City Hall politics, a reporter needs to unwind. Benny Jay is no exception.
So, what does Benny do to relax after a long day at the office? Does he drink himself senseless, like any normal guy would do? Does he spend quality time with a skilled and motivated mistress? Or does he take my good advice and spend a few pleasant hours at Mr. Choi’s Opium Den on Argyle Street?
No, he doesn’t do any of those things. What the fucker likes to do is go bowling.
That’s right, the great Benny Jay is a kegler. He’s got his own bowling ball and bowling shoes. And he’s been involved in a bowling league for years. Every Monday evening he goes to Timber Lanes on Irving Park Road and joins his buddies, Cap, Norm, the Young One, J Dub and others for a night of riotous, unrestrained bowling revelry.
Now, I’ve got nothing against bowling. I think it’s an excellent pastime for fat, beer-guzzling, bratwurst lovers from Milwaukee. But for someone of Benny Jay’s stature and experience, someone who has stared greed, hypocrisy and corruption in the face more times than he can remember, bowling seems like a rather tame undertaking. A guy like Benny should be climbing mountains, wrestling alligators, or playing high stakes baccarat in Monaco, not fretting over a 7-10 split.
My dismissive attitude about bowling resulted in an awkward moment a few days ago. Benny and I had just finalized a brilliant new scheme for screwing The Third City’s readers out of a great deal of money when he asked if I had any plans for the weekend.
“Yeah, I’m going to a birthday party.”
“Where’s it at?”
“Some kind of club.”
“What kind of club?”
“It’s, ah, a bowling alley.”
“Are you shitting me! You’re going to a bowling alley. Are you going to bowl? Do you even know how to bowl?”
Normally, when someone asks me if I know anything about a subject, my instinct is to claim to be an expert. That’s because I’m a bit of a windbag, by nature, and have a hard time admitting ignorance of any topic under discussion. If I ran into a NASA scientist and was asked if I knew anything about astrophysics, I’d probably say something like:
“Dude, astrophysics is my road game. I paid my way through the seminary with the money I made on astrophysics. The only reason I’m not in the astrophysics business now is that I’d have to take a cut in pay.”
So, when Benny asked me if I knew how to bowl, I said, “I can’t believe you’re asking me that question. Dude, bowling is my road game. I paid my way through barber college with the money I made from bowling. If I hadn’t gotten into the blogging business, I’d be on the PBA tour right now.”
Benny called me a couple of days later on the pretense of talking about the blogging business, but he really wanted to know about the party at the bowling alley.
“How was it?” he asked.
“It was fun. I had a good time.”
“Did you bowl?”
“How’d you do?”
“Pretty good. I bowled about 212.”
“Jesus, that’s pretty damn good. In fact, that’s real impressive for someone that doesn’t bowl.”
“Unfortunately, it took me two games to rack up that impressive score.”
“Are you saying it took you two games to knock down 212 pins?”
Benny started laughing. “Maybe you better give up bowling and take up ping pong.”
“Ping pong! Did you say I should start playing ping pong? For your information, I’m a killer ping pong player. I’ve made shitloads of money playing ping pong. Dude, ping pong is my road game.”
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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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