I’ve eaten some nasty shit in my life. I’ve gobbled down food that hyenas and vultures would think twice about eating. I’ve sat down to meals that rats would cross the street to avoid.
That said, I’ve rarely eaten anything as vile and unappetizing as the C-Rations the U.S. Army fed its soldiers in Vietnam in the late 1960s.
When I was in the U.S. Army’s basic training program at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, a Drill Sergeant told my training company that we were the most privileged soldiers on earth. He said we were the best dressed, best paid and best fed military men in history.
The bastard lied.
Years later I discovered that the Canadian military is paid better, the Italian army’s uniforms are much more fashionable and, of course, the French army is much better fed. Now that I think about it, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Ethiopian army ate better than we did.
After a hard day of keeping the world safe for democracy, my comrades and I would set up a night bivouac and rummage through our rucksacks to see what we had to eat.
“What have you got, Bob?”
“Ah, shit. All I’ve got left is processed pork slices in petroleum gravy. How about you?”
“Chile sans carne. What have you got, Tim?”
“Some kind of noodle thing.”
“I don’t know if spaghetti is the right word for it.”
“Milo, what are you eating.”
“The label’s gone and it’s hard to tell just by looking. But I’m pretty sure it’s not going to taste like chicken.”
I thought my days of wretched dining would be over when I left the army. Of course, I was wrong. I had forgotten the fact that in order to eat well one has to earn well.
I wasn’t making much money in the mid-70s and what I did earn was mainly spent on liquor and drugs. Food was an afterthought.
Still, unless you’re Keith Richards, you can’t live on booze and drugs alone. A normal person has to eat every once in a while.
When money was tight and my dining options were limited I would go down to Sterch’s Tavern on Lincoln Avenue, where there was always a pot of chili bubbling on a hot plate. Sterch’s chili was hit-and-miss, to put it kindly.
Fortunately, one of the proprietors, a fine gentleman named Harlan Stern, who was always sensitive to the needs of his clientele, generally gave a straight answer when asked, “Hey, Harlan, how’s the chili today?”
If Harlan nodded, it meant the chili was edible. If he made a wiggling, so-so gesture with his hands, it meant the chili tasted terrible but was safe to eat.
If Harlan replied to your question by asking, “Do you, by chance, have any other dining options today?” then you ordered the chili at your own risk.
No matter how Harlan replied, my usual response was to say, ‘I’ll have a bowl of chili, a pint of beer and put it on my tab, please.”
Another questionable dining establishment I patronized was a greasy hot dog stand on Armitage called Doggie’s.
I lived about half a block from the place, in a coachhouse on Burling, which I shared with some like-minded friends. We were in the same sinking boat, financially, but when hunger could no longer be denied, we were somehow able to come up with enough money to pay for a few hot dogs, Polish and fries from Doggie’s.
Words fail me when it comes to explaining how greasy and unpalatable this food was.
It was served in brown paper lunch bags and in the minute or two that it took to walk back to the coachhouse, the brown bags were soaked through with grease. The hot dogs and fries tasted old, slick, stale and funky. I doubt they’d changed the oil in their fryers since the Truman Administration.
Every time I ate from Doggie’s I got a stomach ache. But I kept going back. It was handy. The price was right. And I was stupid.
Many years later, my daughter went to high school at Lincoln Park, which was right across the street from Doggie’s. One day I asked her, “Honey, have you ever gone over to Doggie’s for lunch?”
She answered by saying, “Eww, Dad, that place is disgusting.”
“Well, I’m glad to see that they’ve maintained their standards.”
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Last weekend, as the lovely Mrs. Milo, my eldest daughter and I were driving to Milwaukee to attend my Godson’s wedding reception, there was no doubt in my mind that it would be a very pleasant evening, civilized in every way. I’d run into old Serbian friends I hadn’t seen in years. The food would be tasty, the drink would be plentiful, and everyone would be well-dressed, well-spoken and well-behaved.
It was certain to be a fine wedding reception, but I knew it would pale in comparison to the Serbian wedding bashes I remember from my childhood. Instead of a spiffy place like the Hilton Hotel, where my Godson’s celebration took place, the receptions I attended as kid usually took place in the basements of Serbian churches or attached barn-like banquet halls.
My parents had been taking me to Serbian weddings, all over the Midwest, since I was a babe in arms, and all of the church basements and banquet halls looked pretty much the same. They were cavernous spaces with a small stage on one end, barely large enough to fit a five-piece Tambouritza band, and a huge, rectangular bar, that could accommodate a hundred or more standing drinkers, at the other end of the room.
In the early 1950s, when my parents first began dragging me along to these weddings, quite a few of the other guests were former soldiers, post-WW2 immigrants who now worked in the local factories. They were tough men, blooded and hardened combat veterans. Some of them, like my father, had been at war for nearly seven years, beginning in 1940, when the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia. After the Germans were defeated, they fought a brutal civil war against Tito and his Partisan Communists for control of the country.
As I mentioned, a lot of the wedding guests were rough men, poorly educated, with rough ways. It was understandable, considering their life experiences, which consisted of war, displacement, refugee camps, immigration, and hard work.
Many of the wedding guests, including my father, were heavy drinkers. They’d spend most of the evening at the bar, knocking back shots of Canadian Club, Seagram’s 7 or Christian Brothers Brandy, and guzzling whatever cheap beer was being served.
Inevitably, toward the end of the evening, fights would break out.
The fights were usually one-on-one affairs and were broken up before anyone was seriously hurt. The damage rarely went beyond a black eye, fat lip, broken nose, or a piece of an ear bitten off. By the end of the evening, the combatants would often be seen together, leaning against the bar, shoulder to shoulder, laughing and enjoying a few drinks.
But sometimes things got ugly and the fights turned into melees, free-for-alls with a dozen or more men involved.
I must have been six or seven years old when these wedding clashes entered my consciousness. Of course, I was too young to hang around at the bar. I probably spent my time in the main area where the banquet tables were set up and the dancing took place. No doubt I was with friends my age, most of us dressed in ill-fitting suits and clip-on ties from Goldblatt’s Boys Department.
And sometime toward the end of the evening we’d hear angry shouts and breaking glass and my friends and I would rush to the bar to watch the brawl. We’d stare open-mouthed as men threw punches, aimed kicks, swung chairs and tried to strangle each other. It was thrilling.
I remember once asking my father why the men fought. He may have been nursing a fat lip or a black eye himself when he said, “I suppose they are just letting off steam, having a little fun. The alcohol probably has something to do with it, too.”
That was a long time ago. Now I attend weddings of the grandchildren of those wild post-war immigrants. And I haven’t seen a good wedding brawl in close to 40 years.
As my wife, daughter and I were leaving my Godson’s reception and preparing to drive back to Chicago, my daughter asked, “Did you have a good time, Dad?”
“Yeah, it was okay.”
“Well, it could have been a bit livelier.”
I’ve probably got the worst looking front lawn on Eastwood Avenue. It’s an epic eyesore, a pathetic patch of ground, mostly bare dirt and weeds, with a few tufts of grass making a valiant effort to survive in extremely inhospitable conditions.
The lawn is so ugly that dogs won’t even shit on it. I’ve actually seen the neighborhood mutts disdainfully eying my lawn, before deciding to trot across the street to find a more aesthetically pleasing spot to do their business.
I suppose it’s my fault that the front yard is in such terrible condition. Other than mowing the lawn once in a while, I don’t pay much attention to it. I’m a practical guy. I understand the utility of grass, especially to ruminants, but I don’t see the value in a well-maintained lawn.
In fact, there are a lot of downsides to keeping an immaculate lawn. For one thing, it’s a time-consuming business. Mowing, edging, weeding, fertilizing and watering a lawn uses up precious hours that could be better spent in drinking, smoking reefer, having sex, playing poker or taking naps.
Another negative aspect of maintaining a high-quality lawn is the expense. The tools necessary to care for a lawn – mowers, edgers, weed-wackers, clippers, etc. – cost a pretty penny, money that could certainly be put to better use. Several of my foolish neighbors have actually spent good money hiring lawn care companies to come by once a week to keep their lawns looking spiffy.
I refuse to invest time and money in something that serves no useful purpose, something that I consider to be absolutely worthless. That said, not everyone shares my low opinion of lawns.
My wife, the lovely Mrs. Milo, has been nagging me for years to do something about the lawn.
“Milo, the lawn is getting really nasty. It looks worse every year. Can’t you do something about it?”
“I don’t give a shit about the lawn.”
“I know you don’t, but the neighbors do.”
“Fuck the neighbors.”
“Well, I care about the lawn, too. I expect you to do something about it and do it soon. Do we understand each other?”
So, that’s how I found myself standing on the sidewalk in front of my house, staring at my wasteland of a front lawn, wondering how in the hell I was going to fix it. After giving it a great deal of thought, I came to the conclusion that the best thing to do was to cover the lawn in concrete and turn it into a handball court.
I was just about to go into the house and announce my decision to my wife, when I was interrupted by Leonard, a neighbor from across the street, who came up to me and said, “You’ve got lawn grubs. That’s why your lawn looks so shitty.”
“I’ve got what?”
“Lawn grubs. They eat grass roots. If you don’t do something about it, they’ll kill what’s left of your lawn. Eventually you’ll have to dig up this mess, treat it with pesticides and lay down new sod. You should have taken better care of your lawn.”
Leonard is a true lawn snob and I despise him for it. His lawn is immaculate. It looks like the 18th green at Augusta National. He spends his entire weekend, and parts of his weekdays, working on his lawn. I’ve actually seen him with a ruler, measuring the height of the grass before he mows it. He’s even got a digitally timed sprinkler system that automatically waters his yard, mornings and afternoons.
I don’t mind Leonard’s lawn obsession. We’ve all got our quirks. What pisses me off is his attitude. He looks down on people whose lawns don’t measure up to his high standards. I imagine he sees people like me, who care nothing for lawns, as lesser, deeply flawed beings.
Later that afternoon, as I was enjoying a whiskey and cigarette on my back porch, I thought about the lawn grubs devastating my front yard. They had been on my mind ever since my earlier conversation with that arrogant bastard, Leonard. After having another drink I decided I had to see what these grubs looked like.
I grabbed a trowel, went to the front yard, and dug around until I found a few of the grubs. They were disgusting little things, a sickly shade of white and about an inch long. I rooted around some more until I had about a dozen of them in the trowel.
As I watched the grubs squirming on the trowel, I wondered how such tiny creatures could do so much damage. How long did it take them to ruin a lawn? How quickly did they reproduce? How soon did the damage become evident? Those were just a few of the thoughts going through my mind. Some of the thoughts, I must admit, were wicked.
As the sun started to set and it grew darker, I walked across the street and dropped the grubs on Leonard’s lawn.
I was out on my back porch, enjoying a cigarette with my morning whiskey, when I noticed Otis, the rotten bastard of an alley cat who’s made my life a living hell for the past 14 years, trotting through the back yard, carrying a dead mouse.A few hours later, while enjoying my afternoon whiskey, I saw him crawl under the backyard fence and head toward Virginia Street. This time he was toting a small package of what appeared to be catnip.
I didn’t give it much thought at the time. Otis does a lot of stupid shit, and I’ve got more important things to do than worry about what some dumbass cat is doing.
I should have been paying more attention. A couple of days later, I was accosted by the Widow Shimkus, who lives across the street. ”That disgusting cat of yours has been pestering my Fifi for weeks, and leaving dead mice and birds on my porch. Then, this morning, she ran off with that vile creature and was gone all day. She looked terrible when she dragged herself home.”
“I can’t be responsible for…”
“If you keep letting the cat run loose, I’m going to file a report with the Alderman.”
Over the next few days, I was confronted by several other women, all of them complaining about Otis.
Mrs. Popovich told me that she had seen Otis sneaking around with her cat, “Fluffy.”
Mrs. Houlihan angrily told me that her “Miss Juliet” was expecting kittens and she was positive Otis was to blame.
Crazy Connie, who lives with about 40 cats, sent me an e-mail, saying she had to chase Otis out of her back yard with a garden hose after she caught him trying to organize some sort of sex orgy.
Nobody knows Otis’ exact age. My wife took him to the vet shortly after he bamboozled his way into our household. The vet said Otis was about two or three. We’ve had him for 15 long years and that should make him about 18 years old, which is pretty old for a cat.
You’d think that after reaching a certain age, a person’s, or a cat’s, lusts would have been satisfied — if not satisfied, then tempered. I know that I have reached the age where getting laid is not at the top of my to-do list.
Although I still enjoy the old slap-and-tickle, I am no longer willing to crawl through two miles of molten lava and fight my way through a horde of rabid wolverines just on the off chance I might get some pussy.
Otis, apparently, feels differently.
I don’t mind Otis having his fun, but when his behavior begins to reflect poorly on me, that’s when I have a problem.
Besides, I hate when little old ladies give me a hard time. It brings back ugly memories of my misspent youth, when little old ladies were constantly bitching at me – my mother, the neighborhood biddies, schoolteachers, the rightfully concerned mothers of girls I was seeing, and the mothers of my friends, who correctly considered me a bad influence.
Enough was enough. I was sick and tired of getting grief for Otis’ wicked ways. I decided to straighten him out.
That afternoon, I found him in the back yard, lolling on the grass. He had just had his five o’clock catnip and was glassy-eyed, feeling no pain.
“Look here, dumbass,” I said to the cat. “I don’t know why an old bastard like you keeps trying to fuck all the fur balls in the neighborhood. If you haven’t gotten enough pussy by now, you’ll never catch up. But if you’re going to continue trying to screw every pussy cat in Ravenswood, then I wish you’d be more discreet.
“You’re a damned cat, for fuck’s sake. Sneakiness should come naturally to you. I don’t want any more old hags coming to my door, bitching at me because you knocked up their precious little Mitzy, Pookie or Buttercup.
“If this shit happens again, I’m taking your ass to the animal shelter. And I’m not talking about a no-kill shelter. Do we understand each other?”
Otis stared at me, blinking his eyes several times. Then he yawned, licked his nuts, rolled over, and went to sleep.
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I’ve become somewhat of a hermit as I’ve gotten older. My comfort zone has shrunk to a few North Side neighborhoods. I hate to travel. I don’t like meeting new people or seeing new things. I’m uncomfortable with crowds. And I refuse to fly.
I am, in essence, a weird old dude.
The lovely Mrs. Milo, on the other hand, is the most social of creatures. She loves people, parties and travel. Fortunately, she has a wide circle of girlfriends, some of them also burdened with uncooperative or curmudgeonly husbands, who help her enjoy the social pleasures, things that I am unwilling or incapable of doing.
A few weeks ago, my wife approached me and hesitantly asked, “Milo, honey, is there any chance you’ll go on a road trip with me?”
“Upstate New York. My brother’s going to race one of his cars at the racetrack in Watkin’s Glen. It’s near Ithaca, where, if you recall, I was born.”
“What! You’ll actually go.”
“And you won’t grumble and complain.”
“I just agreed to go. I didn’t agree to behave.”
Ithaca is about an 11-hour drive from Chicago. We decided to drive to Cleveland, which is more than halfway to Ithaca, and spend the night at a Bed and Breakfast, which my wife found on the internet. The room was funky, it had a medicinal smell, but the breakfast was excellent.
We stayed at a B and B in Ithaca, too. The room was great, but the breakfasts were horrible. Everything – eggs, potatoes, bacon – was microwaved.
Despite the shitty breakfasts, we had a nice time in Ithaca. It’s a pleasant community, hilly, watered by several streams, with well-maintained homes, and dominated by Cornell University. It reminded me of Gary, Indiana. We did some sightseeing, found a few good restaurants, and patronized a couple of the local watering holes. Then, we were off to Watkin’s Glen to meet my wife’s older brother, Richard.
Richard is a retired naval officer, in his early 70s, with a lot of spare time on his hands. He spends that time buying, rebuilding and racing old Mustangs. And that’s how I ended up, on a fine Saturday in June, wandering around the pit area of the Watkin’s Glen racecourse. My wife and I were going to watch her brother race his Mustang.
I’ll admit that I know nothing about cars. In fact, I have no interest in knowing about cars. If someone had told me that I would spend an entire day nosing around the pit area of a racecourse, I would have laughed out loud and asked what they were smoking.
There were dozens of cars in the pits, most had their hoods up and a couple of guys tinkering with the engines. As I walked past some of these mechanic types, I could hear fragments of their conversations. And I could barely understand a word they said. It was like they were speaking a foreign language.
I realized, then, that these guys were like the kids I knew in high school who used to hang around gas stations, except that they had grown up and were able to afford expensive racing machines.
All of the race cars were covered in product decals – oil companies, auto parts companies, tire companies, etc. As I strolled around with a beer in my hand, I noticed a car with a prominently displayed “Hoosier” decal.
Ah, I said to myself, a fellow Indiana boy. I walked up to the guy working on the car and said, “What part of Indiana are you from?”
“I grew up in Indiana,” I said. “I noticed your Hoosier decal and wondered what part of Indiana you were from.”
He looked at me strangely and said, “I’m from Pennsylvania and Hoosier is the brand name of a tire.”
I smiled, nodded and walked away.
My wife and I spent another day in Watkin’s Glen, but stayed away from the racecourse. We sailed on Seneca Lake, ate at a couple of decent restaurants, and bought some souvenirs. The following morning we left New York State and drove straight through to Chicago. I was glad to get home.
About a week later, my wife approached me and said, “A group of us are thinking about going up to Michigan for the weekend. Do you want to go? It’ll be fun.”
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A few years ago, when I was preparing for major surgery, the doctor asked my wife about my lifestyle. He wanted to know if I had any bad habits.
The lovely Mrs. Milo replied, “Yes, he does. He smokes and drinks and eats red meat. He likes to gamble and he occasionally smokes marijuana with some of his low-life friends. And I know for a fact that he regularly entertains impure thoughts.”
“Let’s hope this surgery makes him change his ways,” the doctor said. “Maybe a few hours on the operating table will put the fear of God into him.”
“Doctor, you don’t know my husband. He won’t listen to anyone’s advice and he takes direction poorly. I doubt he’ll change his ways.”
My wife was right. Against all common sense, against sound medical advice, and much to the despair of several members of my immediate family, I quickly reverted to form and resumed the low-life diversions that had always been a comfort to me.
Shortly after recovering from surgery, I was, once again, happily wallowing in a mire of liquor, tobacco, red meat, reefer and thoughts of an impure nature.
A while ago, I was sitting on a barstool in Swillagains when an old friend, who I’ll call Pete, sat next to me and ordered a drink. Pete didn’t look well. His skin had a yellowish caste and he looked like he had lost some weight.
When I asked about his health, Pete said, “Fucking liver’s been acting up again.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Doctor says I should quit drinking.”
“Well, that’s something to consider.”
“Ah, the fucker’s been telling me to quit drinking for 20 years. I’m thinking about getting a second opinion.”
A little later, I was standing outside of the saloon, enjoying a cigarette with an old friend, who I’ll call Tim. We were in the middle of a conversation when Tim went into a hacking and wheezing fit that lasted for a couple of minutes.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just the fucking emphysema acting up again.”
“Sorry to hear it.”
“Doctor told me if I wanted to live much longer I’d have to quit smoking.”
“What did you say?”
“I told him I’d think about it.”
Later that evening, as I was enjoying a glass of red wine and mulling over the day’s events, I thought about the choices that my friends Pete and Tim had made. When presented with evidence that their behavior would have detrimental and possibly fatal consequences, they chose to ignore it. They didn’t believe it, didn’t understand it, or didn’t care. In any case, they refused to take their doctors advice.
Now, these doctors had, no doubt, seen the damage that heavy drinking and smoking can cause. They have treated people with ruined lungs and corroded livers. They’ve watched heavy smokers slowly choke to death as cancer squeezed the life out of them. They’ve watched heavy drinkers turn yellow and die because their livers failed. They’ve probably told an untold number of people who led self-destructive lifestyles that they were doomed.
Inevitably, when patients are told they have a terminal illness, the first question they ask is, “How long have I got?”
The doctors generally give an educated guess. It could be weeks, months, or even a couple of years. But deep in their hearts, doctors know that the true answer is, “Not long enough, my friend.”
I wish Tim and Pete would have taken their doctors’ advice.
Man, I’m glad I’m not a dumbass like those guys.
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I roll into Denver with one mission in mind — buy some reefer!
“I gotta find a connection,” I tell my daughter.
“Dad, you don’t need a connection — marijuana’s legal in Colorado.”
“I know, but you need to find out where to buy the good shit.”
“Dad – the Marijuana Dispensaries are all on my app.”
“Fuck that app shit — I’m old school!”
We walk into a restaurant that specializes in sandwiches named after marijuana products.
I figure the dude behind the counter is my go-to guy on account of the fact that he’s got a marijuana leaf tattoo. Generally, a tell-tale sign.
“Hey, man,” I say. “Do you know — ya’ know.”
“Huh?” he says.
“He wants a marijuana dispensary,” my daughter says.
“Oh,” he says, “you want to go to Native Roots.”
“No, man — Roots. Native Roots.”
Back in the old days, we called it Acapulco Gold!
We walk around the corner to the Native Roots building. There’s a security guard in the lobby.
I wink at him.
“Let me guess,” he says. “You’re going to Native Roots.”
“My man,” I say.
“Please,” he says. “Try to be subtle.”
We take the elevator to the fourth floor and walk into a waiting room with a picture of Snoop Dogg on the wall.
The receptionist checks our IDs and tells us the budologist will see us when she’s free.
The budologist is a young woman — maybe 25, tops.
I explain I haven’t smoked reefer since 1980. Though it could be 1981 — “I can’t remember cause I was high at the time.”
She doesn’t crack a smile. Shit — I’m bombing with my A material.
“I want something that won’t make me paranoid,” I say. “You know, like in that episode of The Sopranos where Tony hooks up with that hooker in Vegas and they smoke a joint and wind up in the desert watching the sunrise. You know that episode?”
Remember that scene in the desert?
Apparently, I’ve encountered the only budologist in Colorado who’s unfamiliar with The Sopranos.
“My advice,” she says, “is to stay away from the sativa.”
Ah, yes, sound advice — in marijuana and life.
“Back in the day, we called it Acapulco Gold,” I say.
She thinks: No one asked you `bout back in the day, motherfucker.
She says: “That’s nice.”
She hands me a packet of reefer-laced gummy bears, as if to say — this is for the rookies.
A guy walks in wearing a cowboy hat — looks like he just rolled into town on a Willie Nelson touring bus.
“Gimme a lollypop,” he tells the budologist.
Suddenly, I don’t feel so bad about my gummy bears.
On the way out, I tell the security guard: “I got the stuff.”
“That’s nice,” he says.
Yeah, man — just like back in the day.