Letter From Milo: There are some things I will never understand

October 27th, 2014

This past Friday morning, I called the Newton County Jail in Kentland, Indiana. When the receptionist answered, I said, “I’m Milo Samardzija, the Society, Lifestyle, and Religion columnist for The Third City blog site in Chicago, Illinois.”

“What can I do for you, sir?”

“Do you have someone named Thomas Eliot in custody?”

“Yes, sir. He has been detained since December, 2012. He’ll be going to trial in a few weeks.”

“What’s the charge?”

“Attempted murder.”

I met Tom Eliot in the late 1970s, in Sterch’s Tavern on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. He was from Houston, Texas and had come to Chicago to try his luck dealing commodities at the Board of Trade.

Tom and I became barroom acquaintances. He liked to drink and smoke weed, and so did I. When Tom got high he liked to play up his Texas accent. My friends and I started calling him “Texas Tom.”

After I had known him for a while, Tom mentioned that he needed a place to stay for a few months. I was living in Wicker Park at the time, sharing a three-bedroom apartment with another guy. We had a spare bedroom, so I told Tom he could move in with us.

When I got to know Tom better, I noticed that he had some odd mannerisms. He was loud, smug and opinionated, and he didn’t understand the concept of personal space. He’d get uncomfortably close when he talked to you. If you stepped back, he’d just step up and close the gap. He also had a variety of facial tics and twitches, which made it disconcerting to carry on a conversation with him. Other than that, he seemed like a regular guy.

A few months later, the future lovely Mrs. Milo and I decided to set up our own household and I moved out of the Wicker Park apartment. But I still kept in touch with Tom, running into him at various North Side watering holes.

My dear friend, Bruce Diksas, also worked at the Board of Trade, and he ran into Tom regularly. Over the years, Bruce kept me updated on Tom’s circumstances.

Tom was doing real well. He bought a seat at the Board. He got married. He had a son. Tom was drinking a lot. He was doing a lot of coke. He was struggling. His wife left him. He lost his seat. He was deeply in debt. He busted out completely. Tom was tending bar in Uptown, in a joint that catered to Somali taxi drivers.

Tom moved back to Houston to live with his mother. Shortly after moving in, Tom pushed his mother down a flight of stairs, injuring her severely. He spent the next few months in a psychiatric hospital. When Tom was released from the psych ward, he moved back to Chicago.

As soon as Tom returned to Chicago, he began stalking his ex-wife, who was living in Kenosha, Wisconsin. While making her life miserable, he got picked up for drunk driving. He made bail, but didn’t show up for trial. He ended up doing four months in the Kenosha jail for stalking, DUI, and jumping bail.

The last time I saw Tom was purely by accident, about three years ago, at the Jesse Brown V.A. Hospital. I was shocked at his appearance. His teeth were rotten, his clothes were shabby, and his tics and twitches were worse than I remembered. He looked like a bum. We chatted a while. He told me he was living in an SRO, above a dive bar, in the Grand Avenue and Halstead area. Before I left, he bummed five dollars and a couple of cigarettes from me.

Every once in a while, my friend, Bruce, would say we should go down to that dive bar and see Tom.

“I don’t want to see that crazy fucker.”

“He used to be a friend.”

“Yeah, that was before he lost his damned mind.”

Last week, Bruce was driving by the bar and decided to stop in and see if Tom was there. When Bruce asked about Tom, one of the regulars told him that Tom was in jail in Indiana.

He had allegedly stabbed a kid, an eight-year-old boy.

That evening, when I turned on my computer, there was an e-mail from Bruce, with a link to an Indianapolis newspaper. When I opened the link, I saw a scary-looking mug shot of Tom, and a headline that read, “66-year-old man stabs eight-year-old boy multiple times.”

The kid survived. Rumor has it that he was Tom’s grandson.

Tom’s trial is in a couple of weeks, and the good people of Indiana will pass judgment. I doubt I’ll ever see Tom again.

And that’s just fine with me.

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Benny Jay: Pat’s Advice

October 26th, 2014

Not to disgust you with the sordid details of my wretched condition, but….

I’ve been fighting gout for the better part of the last two months.

First it’s in the right foot and now the left. Can’t really walk, just sort of hobble around, howling in pain.

It hits me hardest when I was bowling. It’s so bad that Pat the Plumber takes pity and offers some unsolicited advice: “Take some fuckin’ coltrazine. My father uses it….”

As his nickname suggests, Pat’s not a doctor. Still, desperate times warrant desperate measures. So….

“What’s it called?” I ask, taking out my notebook to write down the name.

“Coltrazine….”

“How do you spell it?”

“How the fuck do I know how to spell it. Do I look like a fuckin’ dictionary?

Two days later I visit my doctor: “Oh, yes,” she says, as she looks at my foot. “You have gout.”

I think: Great, tell me something I don’t know….

I say: “Have you ever heard of coltrazine?”

“You mean, colchicines,” she says. “It’s a drug that treats the specific gout flare up as opposed to the symptoms….”

Pause.

“Uhm, excuse me, doctor,” I say. “But are you saying there’s a pill you can give me to get me out of this misery?”

“Well, it treats the attack,” she says.

Have you ever noticed how a doctor will never answer a straight yes-or-no question with a straight yes-or-no answer?

“And no one told me this before – because….”

She smiles.

Is it just me, or is there something really wrong with the medical profession these days?

I mean, I’ve been to three different doctors in the last three months to talk about this fucking pain in my fucking foot and not one of them thought to tell me – oh, by the way, there’s pill we can give you to make it go away.

Instead, I get the news from Pat the fucking Plumber!

Hey, maybe when my toilet’s broken I’ll call my wife’s gynecologist!

The doctor sends me the drug store with a prescription, and I wind up looking at a bunch of little white pills.

The directions say I should take one every hour until the pain goes away.

In the fine print under the heading “side effects” it says: “diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain and vomiting my occur.”

Aw, shit. It’s like pick your poison. Fuck it – I gotta deal with the here and now….

I pop the pill….

Fast forward twenty-four hours and the proverbial shit hits the proverbial fan. I mean, all day and into the night it’s like raining Niagara Falls out of my – well, you know, where it’s raining.

And now it’s three o’clock in the morning – the house quiet as a mouse — and I’m sitting on the throne, groaning in agony and doubled up in abdominal pain.

Just like the fine print on the medicine bottle warned me….

The bathroom door pushes open and who walks in but the dog, looking to take a drink of water out of the bowl we keep by the bathroom sink.

She looks surprised to see me. As if she’s thinking – what the fuck are you doing here?

“Hey,” I moan. “Can a guy have some privacy?”

Eight hours later I roll out of bed and stumble to the bathroom, looking like death warmed over. I think it’s over, but, nooooooo….

My wife says — call the doctor. Forget that. I’m calling Pat the Plumber. He’ll know what to do….

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Letter From Milo: Yo, Mama

October 20th, 2014

We’re a one car household with three drivers in the family. My wife, the lovely Mrs. Milo, monopolizes the car. She’s a realtor and a Pilates instructor, and she’s always running off to show properties or teach classes.

When my wife is not using the car, my youngest daughter has dibs on it. She’s a student at a local university. She needs the car for the same reasons that all young kids need cars, reasons that I’d rather not know about.

The only time I really need the car is when I want to visit my 89-year-old, Alzheimer’s afflicted mother at her assisted living facility in Munster, Indiana, about an hour’s drive from our home in Ravenswood.

I don’t see my mother as often as I’d like. The only times I can visit her are on weekends, but weekends are also the times when my wife needs the car most. Negotiations for use of the car can be tricky.

This past Saturday, I said, “Honey, is there any chance I can use the car today? I haven’t seen Mom in a while and I’m starting to feel guilty about it.”

The lovely Mrs. Milo whipped out her appointment book. “This morning is out. I’m teaching at nine and ten. Then I’ve got two showings in Lincoln Square and one in Wicker Park.”

“How about this afternoon?”

“I’ve got another showing at two, then, I teach again at three.”

“Ah, shit.”

“Wait, wait, I can ride my bike to my three o’clock so you can have the car for three hours, from 2:30 to 5:30. But you have to be back by 5:30 because I’ve got two more showings at six and seven.”

“Great! An hour to drive there, an hour with Mom, and an hour to drive back.”

My wife got home at 2:30 and I was on the road a couple of minutes later. Traffic was light and I pulled into the assisted living facility’s parking lot, on schedule, a little less than an hour later.

Visiting my mother is always a bittersweet experience. I love spending time with her, but hate seeing the damage that Alzheimer’s has done. She had once been a strong, independent and intelligent woman. Now, she is a frail, addled, bewildered and unpredictable old lady. I never know how she’ll react when she sees me.

Mom didn’t answer her door when I knocked, and she didn’t answer her phone when I called from my cell. I went to the front desk and asked the attendant if she knew of my mother’s whereabouts. I was informed that she was in the recreation room, playing Bingo.

Mom was sitting at a card table with three other ladies, concentrating on her Bingo card, when I tapped on her shoulder. She looked up at me with a puzzled expression, then, broke into a smile when recognition set in.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“I just came to visit you.”

“That’s nice, but I’m playing Bingo now. Come back when the game is over.”

“Sure, Mom, no problem.”

I asked the lady running the Bingo game how much longer the game would last. She said, “We just started. It’ll be a couple of hours.”

I hung around for about five minutes, watching my mother play Bingo. Then I went out to the parking lot, got in the car, and drove back to Chicago.

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Letter From Milo: When the Thrill is Gone

October 13th, 2014

People get married for all sorts of reasons. They marry for love and for money. Some marry because they want to and others marry because they have to. Some marriages are arranged and some marriages are deranged. Some unions last forever and some are doomed from the start.

In my opinion, the best thing about being married is that if things don’t work out, you can always try again. There are no limits on how often a person can walk down the aisle. The institution of marriage comes with a lifetime supply of mulligans.

Holy matrimony, of course, is not for everyone. There are people (and I’m referring to males of the species) who are simply incapable of withstanding the rigors of marriage.

Some men are so set in their doggish ways, so unwilling to give away even the slightest bit of independence, or answer to anyone for their behavior, that matrimony is simply not an option for them. They live by their own rules and schedules, and answer to their own consciences. They want an unencumbered life, completely free of commitment or compromise.

Having a wife complicates matters for the independent minded. In general, wives tend to disapprove of low-life activities of any sort. And they’re damned unreasonable about the whole fidelity issue.

I have a dear friend, who I’ll call Bruce Diksas, to spare him undue embarrassment, who has never married and doesn’t plan to get married anytime soon. He lives on his own terms, enjoying a rigorous lifestyle that most wives wouldn’t tolerate. I once asked Bruce if he had ever thought about getting married.

“I briefly considered asking 4th Ward Alice to marry me.”

“I remember her. You two were together for a couple of years. What happened?”

“It was just one of those things. I was getting ready to have my usual breakfast. I rolled a joint, popped a beer and got the cold pizza out of the fridge, when she said, ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t care for some granola and soy milk?’”

“Jesus!”

“I couldn’t believe she said that to me.”

“Swear to God, just when you think you know somebody…”

While there are lots of men who have never gone to the trouble of getting married, there are many others who are plainly unsuitable for matrimony, yet they keep getting married, over and over again. They are as unfit for marriage as any boozing, drug-abusing, whore mongering career bachelor, but that doesn’t stop them from marching down the aisle whenever they can convince some poor woman to join them in wedded bliss.

I asked a friend, an old hell raiser named Rodney, who had been married four or five times, why he didn’t just give up on marriage and live in sin, or make some other satisfactory arrangements.

“I’m Catholic. I was schooled by nuns. I’ve got a lot of guilt in me. I don’t want to add to my bad karma by living in sin.”

“That’s a bullshit excuse. Catholics aren’t supposed to get divorced, either.”

“Heh, heh, I’ve given that a lot of thought. There’s a very fine line there. You see, technically, I never divorced any of my wives. They divorced me. So, I figure that gives me some wiggle room.”

I was having a few drinks and discussing the subject the other day with another old friend, named Carl, who has been through three very successful marriages. But since his last divorce, nearly two years ago, he had given up hope that he would ever experience marital bliss again.

“I’m just an old fuck now,” he lamented. “I doubt any woman in her right mind would have anything to do with me.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I assured him. “There are plenty of crazy women out there. I’m sure you’ll find one soon.”

“I hope so. I like being married. I’m just not very good at it.”

“That’s an understatement. I’m curious, what possessed you to get married in the first place?”

“I couldn’t help myself. My first wife had great tits.”

“What about the second wife?”

“She could suck the cork out of a wine bottle.”

“And the third one?”

“Double jointed.”

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Letter From Milo: The Point

October 6th, 2014

The Crown Point Detention Home, in Northwest Indiana, was the first stop on the road to reform school for adolescent Hoosier miscreants.

Every Friday afternoon, buses and vans, hauling young criminals from Lake County jails, would deliver their cargo of underage car thieves, burglars, shoplifters, druggies, armed robbers, rapists and the murderously inclined to “The Point,” which was what the Detention Home was generally called.

There were 50 to 60 kids at a time in residence at The Point. Sometimes there would be a preponderance of black guys from the mean streets of Gary. Other times Latinos from Hammond and East Chicago would be in the majority. And there were times when the inmate population would consist mainly of tough white boys from the factory towns and outlying semi-rural communities like Lowell, Black Oak and Hebron.

The average stay at The Point was 10 days to three weeks. During that time the teenaged inmates would be evaluated by the Detention Home’s staff in a number of areas, including intelligence, socialization, reactions to stress, aggression levels and violent tendencies. The staff’s evaluations would determine which type of reform school and what level of security would be most appropriate for the juvenile offender.

Sometimes, though, for reasons unknown, the staff would recommend that a young man be given another chance and the lucky kid would be unconditionally released or set free on terms of probation.

A high school friend, who I’ll call Nicky, had the misfortune of spending 18 days in the Crown Point Detention Home. Nicky was an odd but somewhat interesting guy, a bad boy, roguish yet likable. He was a tough kid, who grew up in difficult circumstances and hung out with a bad crowd. But he was also bright and had a good sense of humor. He liked to read, too. He always had a paperback book sticking out of his back pocket.

Nicky was sent to The Point because he got caught riding shotgun in a stolen car, which he did not know was stolen. He was 15 years old when he was sent to The Point.

When Nicky arrived at The Point, the majority of inmates were black. Nicky was a tough kid but even he would admit that the sight of all those rugged looking black guys, many of them two or three years older than he was, scared him. Things got worse when Nicky saw a guy he recognized, a wiry Puerto Rican kid named Rico, who was a member of a Gary street gang called “The Mystics.” The Mystics and Nicky’s friends didn’t get along.

Nicky and Rico stared for a while, giving each other cold looks. Had they met on the street there probably would have been trouble. Then, for no apparent reason, a barrier seemed to fall and the mood changed. They nodded at each other in recognition and broke into sheepish grins. When Rico approached, Nicky noticed that his face was bruised, scratched and swollen.

“What happened, man? You look like you’ve been in a fight.”

“The black dudes have been fucking with me. I’ve got nobody to back me up.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Three days.”

“How often have you had to fight?”

“Three days.”

Nicky and Rico spent most of the day together, talking about things they had done and friends and enemies they had in common. They sat together at lunch and dinner. They played checkers in the dayroom. Although nothing had been said and no deals made, they had come to an understanding.

That night, when three black guys approached Rico, who was the only Latino in the dormitory, and the fight started, Nicky dove in, punching the guy that sucker-punched Rico. More black guys joined in, the odds were ridiculous, but the important thing was that Nicky and Rico fought back. Not fighting, being passive or showing fear, might attract even more unwelcome forms of attention.

Fortunately, the fights never lasted more than a minute. The racket always drew the attention of the counselors, which is what the guards were called, and they broke up the battles pretty quickly. Still, Nicky and Rico took a pretty good beating, but they also inflicted some pain. When the counselors rushed into the dormitory to break up this particular fight, it seemed that none of the combatants were sorry to see the melee end.

During the day, the inmates were left to their own devices. They could play handball, watch TV, play cards or board games, or do nothing at all. Rico liked to watch TV. Nicky liked to read. Some old lady had donated her library to The Point, so there was a pretty good selection of reading material.

Nicky was dreading the coming night. He didn’t want to take another beating, but there was no no way to avoid it, no place to hide. He took comfort in the fact that he wasn’t alone. Nicky found a quiet corner and was reading a book, when one of the counselors, a guy called Mr. Toby, who was a grad student at St. Joseph’s College, approached him.

“What are you reading?”

“Lust for Life, by Irving Stone.”

“What’s it about?”

“A couple of painters from France.”

“Did you get to the part where the guy cuts his own ear off?”

“Yeah, that was a couple of chapters ago.”

That night, a couple of black guys approached Nicky. Harsh words were exchanged, threats were made and the fight was on. Nicky was quickly overwhelmed, but Rico jumped in and took some of the pressure off Nicky. They were taking a beating, but were still on their feet and fighting when someone yelled that the counselors were coming and the brawl broke up.

The next day Nicky was in his corner, reading a Jack London novel, when Mr. Toby walked up to him.

“Looks like you’ve been in a fight.”

“I didn’t have much choice.”

Mr. Toby nodded in understanding. “What are you reading?”

“The Sea Wolf.”

“That’s a pretty good book. I read it a couple of years ago. Did you already finish that book about Van Gogh?”

“Yeah, I read pretty fast.”

“That’s a good skill to have.”

That night and the night after, the black guys left Nicky and Rico alone. The day after that, most of the blacks were shipped off to Indiana’s downstate reformatories. They were replaced by equal numbers of Latinos and whites. The new arrivals battled for dominance as ferociously as the blacks had done, but the Latinos never troubled Nicky. Rico was covering his back.

A couple of weeks later, Nicky was summoned to the Superintendent’s office, where he was released to the custody of a probation officer. As he was walking to the probation officer’s car, Nicky saw Rico watching him from the other side of a razor-wired fence. Nicky started walking toward Rico, but the probation officer stopped him

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“I want to say goodbye to my friend.”

“You’re officially on probation now. You’re not allowed to associate with criminals. Get in the car.”

For a brief moment Nicky thought about disobeying the probation officer, but realized that nothing good would come of it. The only thing he could do was wave goodbye to his friend. Rico seemed to understand Nicky’s situation. He waved goodbye also, then made a fist, thumped his chest twice and pointed his finger at Nicky.

On the ride back to Gary, the probation officer said, “You’re a lucky kid.”

“Why’s that?”

“One of the counselors took a liking to you. Said you were a smart kid, liked to read books. Never caused any problems. He said you deserved another chance. If it wasn’t for him you’d be working for the government right now, learning the fine arts of manufacturing license plates and sewing canvas bags.”

“That was nice of him.”

“Personally, I don’t give a shit about books. The only thing I care about is that you show up at my office in the courthouse building every Saturday at 10 in the morning, for the next six months. You got that?”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

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Letter From Milo: The Postman Rang Three Times

September 29th, 2014

I’ve been through some tough times, but this past week has been particularly shitty. On Monday, all 27 of my credit cards were rejected at the liquor store. A couple of days later, I got the rotten news that my application to distribute medical marijuana was, once again, denied.

Then on Saturday night, the two chicks I picked up at Swillagain’s Saloon mugged me in the parking lot of the Diplomat Motel and stole my one-hitter, Phi Beta Kappa Key, and Ventra Pass.

The only reason I mention these unfortunate incidents is to explain why I wasn’t able to come up with a new blog this week. I’ve just been too depressed to write anything.

That said, I’m contractually obligated to post a blog every Monday, so I’ve resorted to the traditional hung-over columnist’s trick of posting letters from readers, adding snappy replies, and calling it a column.

Thankfully, The Third City’s devoted fans are an elite group, wealthy, educated, and knowledgeable. In fact, most are MENSA members, and the ones who aren’t members claim they are on their resumes.

Here, then, are a few letters from our illustrious readers:

Letter #1:

Hey, Milo! I’m new in town and was wondering if you could recommend a place where a guy could hang out and meet some nice chicks?

Snappy reply:

I suggest you avoid Swillagain’s Saloon.

Letter #2:

Dude, what’s your opinion on the Ukraine versus Russia situation?

Snappy reply:

I’m taking Russia and giving the points.

Letter #3:

I demand that you stop making fun of my dear friend, Mrs. Shimkus, on your blog site. As a Jewish lady of a certain age, I am especially offended by those stupid ads for the Jewish-American Swingers Club, featuring Mrs. Shimkus as the Gang Bang Gal of the Week. I have known Mrs. Shimkus for more than 60 years and she is a kind, caring and generous human being. She deserves better than having her reputation ruined by your sleazy blog. You people are disgusting.

Snappy reply:

I forwarded your letter to my colleague, Benny Jay, who handles complaints from disgruntled Jewish readers. I mainly deal with pissed-off Eastern Europeans and the occasional quarrelsome Irishman. Rolando does his best to calm down irate Latino readers. No Blaise handles complaints from tall young men with good job prospects. John Randolph can’t be bothered. And, of course, Jim Siergey tries to reason with outraged cartoonists. Thanks for your interest in The Third City.

Letter #4:

Dear Milo: This is your friend, Sven, from the Fabulous Swedish Penis Enlargement Company. I am most upset to hear of your unfortunate accident with our latest model of penis enhancement merchandise, the Seattle Slew Ultra Deluxe 3.0. We have had many complaints about this product ever since Bain Capital acquired our company and outsourced production to Asia. After much investigation we have discovered that the problem is not with manufacturing, but with the instruction manual. The Pakistani copywriter mistakenly wrote that the device should be strapped to the left leg instead of the right. And it was supposed to be a two-pound dangling weight, not a 40-pound one. We sincerely apologize for any problems this may have caused and hope that you are recovering nicely and will soon be back to enjoying your usual strenuous sexual activities.

Snappy reply:

Sven, thanks for your concern and the prompt response. My doctor says there’s an excellent chance there won’t be any lasting damage. Once the limp goes away and the testicular swelling subsides, I should be as good as new. Don’t forget to send me the new brochure when the 2015 models are ready.

Letter #5:

Man, I’ve been reading about the problems you’ve been having with your cat, Otis, and I feel your pain. He sounds like a rotten fucker. Let me know if you need a hand getting rid of him. I’ll be glad to help.

Snappy reply:

Thanks for the offer, but I’ve figured out a way to settle his hash once and for all. Next Saturday, I’m taking Otis to an event at the dog park on the lakefront. It’s Pit Bull Appreciation Day.

Letter #6:

Hey, Milo, I’ve seen photos of you on the internet and you are an extremely handsome man for someone of your advanced years. How do you manage to maintain your good looks?

Snappy reply:

Photoshop.

Letter #7:

Milo! Will you quit screwing around with that stupid blog and give me a hand. I need some help with the yard work. I want to get the garden ready for winter. You’ve been down in the basement sitting in front of the computer all morning. I can hear you muttering and cussing down there. I know for a fact that you’ve been drinking. And you’re probably sneaking out to the garage to smoke reefer. I need your help now. I mean it!

Snappy reply:

Yes, dear.

EDITOR’S NOTE:
In our continuing efforts to improve service to The Third City’s loyal readers, we have recently upgraded our phone system. Here are the new extensions.

* Press 1 if you are serving a subpoena.
* Press 2 for paternity suits and cease-and-desist orders.
* Press 3 if requesting DNA samples.
* Press 4 for Nickel Bag Bernie’s cell phone number.
* Press 5 for directions to Madame LaFarge’s Whorehouse.
* Press 6 to contribute to The Third City’s Widows & Orphans Fund.
* Press 0 if you wish to be on hold forever.

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Letter From Milo: The Toughest Jew in Town

September 22nd, 2014

Gary, Indiana, in the middle to late 1960s, had a sizeable Jewish population. Like a lot of other families in town, including mine, many of the Jewish families were post-WW2 immigrants.

As is the case with most immigrant groups, Gary’s Jewish community was hard-working and industrious, their lives centered around traditional values like family, faith, education and a belief in a better future. Some did pretty well for themselves.

For example, there was a kid who went to my high school named Joey Stiglitz who was pretty good with numbers. Like any Gary kid with a knack for math, I’m sure Joey aspired to be a bookie. When that career choice fizzled, young Joey Stiglitz tried his luck in the field of Economics and eventually won a Nobel Prize.

I don’t want to give readers the wrong impression about Gary’s Jews. Not all of them were pillars of the community. They had their quota of drunkards, druggies, whoremongers, thieves, gangsters, bookies, murderers, tough guys and rotten bastards. Some of them, I’m proud to say, were very good friends of mine.

The Greene brothers, Stu and Ducky, were young thugs with bright futures as unlicensed pharmaceutical distributors. Another friend, Sonny Feigenbaum, spent more time in reform school than in high school. And, for all I know, my old poolroom companion, Josh Litvak, may still be serving out his life sentence for shooting two guys who he mistakenly thought were screwing his wife. Josh was always the jealous type.

That said, the most feared Jew in Gary was a man who made other dangerous men tremble in fear. His reputation as a hard, unforgiving, vengeful badass was legendary. He was a mean, vindictive, cold-blooded, pitiless son-of-a-bitch with a long history of dealing with crime, violence and bloodshed.

His name was Judge Richard Kaplan and he ruled the Gary City Courthouse with an iron hand.

Although Judge Kaplan’s given name was Richard, he was known throughout the City as Judge Max Kaplan because he always handed down maximum sentences. Miscreants who appeared before Judge Kaplan always expected the worst and they were rarely disappointed. He believed everyone was guilty until proven innocent — and he refused to believe that anyone was completely innocent.

As far as I know, only one person ever got the better of Judge Kaplan – and that person was me. Here’s how it happened.

I was 18 years old and going nowhere. I had dropped out of college after one semester and was hanging around Gary, trying to figure out what to do with my life. One night I ran into some friends, went out drinking, got into a wild brawl, got maced by the police and ended up in jail. The charges were illegal possession of alcohol, public intoxication, creating a public disturbance, assault and battery and resisting arrest, although, to this day, I believe the last charge was a bum rap.

When I was released on bail the next morning, I was given some paperwork informing me of my upcoming court date, which was just a few weeks away. The presiding judge was going to be “the Honorable Richard Kaplan.” My goose was cooked. I was a goner, as doomed as it was possible for a young man to be. To make matters worse, I had a couple previous run-ins with the law, and I was fairly certain that Judge Kaplan would hold that against me.

That evening, I was hanging out in Stu and Ducky Greene’s basement with a few other guys, drinking beer and listening to the brothers’ collection of mostly shoplifted 45s.

“You are fucked, man,” Ducky said, sadly. “You’re looking at 90, maybe 120 days in Crown Point.”

”That’s if Judge Max lets you off easy,” Stu Greene added. “If he’s in a bad mood it could be worse. It’s a good thing you’re not Jewish.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Because he’s extra tough on his own kind. He sent Sonny Feigenbaum to Plainfield for a year just for stealing a few cars. Said he was a disgrace to his family and his people.”

Dickie Kaiser, another friend who had an unpleasant experience with the City’s justice system, spoke up. “Too bad you’re not in the military. That’s Judge Max’s only soft spot. He takes it easy on soldiers. He’s an ex-Marine Captain, fought in World War Two.”

The next morning I went down to 7th and Broadway, walked into the Navy Recruiter’s office, and said, “I want to join up.” I spent several hours filling out paperwork. The only thing I had to do to officially be in the Navy was sign on the dotted line. But, I hesitated to sign. “Do you mind if I take these papers home and show them to my mom and dad?” I asked.

“You’re 18 years old. You don’t need your parents’ permission.”

“I know. But I’d like to show them anyway. I’ll be back tomorrow. I promise.”

The next morning I went down to the Courthouse, explained my situation to a secretary and asked to see Judge Kaplan in his chambers. After a two hour wait I was ushered into Judge Kaplan’s office.

“Tell me what you want and make it quick,” the Judge said, not even bothering to look at me.

The last place on earth I wanted to be was in a courthouse, talking to Judge Kaplan. I was nervous as hell, scared actually, but somehow I got through my poorly rehearsed pack of lies. I told the Judge that I was terribly sorry for any trouble I had caused. I explained that my inexcusable behavior was due to immaturity and the influence of bad companions. I said that I had given my situation a lot of thought and realized that by joining the Navy I would get away from bad influences and be in a disciplined situation where I would have the opportunity to become a responsible member of society.

Judge Kaplan quickly glanced at the Navy paperwork I laid on his desk, then looked at me for the first time. “I dislike young punks and criminals because they usually grow up to be old punks and criminals,” he said. “Had your case gone to court, it wouldn’t have turned out well for you. But I have a feeling that you’re a sincere young man. Your decision to join the military is a wise one, especially with our nation at war. I’m going to dismiss this case. Good luck in the Navy, son. Just remember, be on your best behavior. If you get in trouble, I can assure you that the officers who sit on military tribunals are not as good natured as I am. Now, get the hell out of my chambers.”

As soon as I left the Courthouse, I went back to the Navy Recruiter and handed him the paperwork. “I’m sorry,” I said, “But I changed my mind. I think I’m going to study for the priesthood instead.”

There was a strut in my walk when I left the Recruiters’ office. I was pretty proud of myself. I had gone into the lion’s den and come out without a scratch. I had outwitted the dreaded Judge Kaplan. I had gotten the best of the toughest Jew in town.

My euphoria was short-lived, however. A month later I received my draft notice. And a few months after that I was in Vietnam.

Many years later, when Judge Kaplan died, an old Gary friend sent me a copy of the judge’s obituary. When I read it I noticed that Judge Max had served on the Lake County, Indiana Draft Board, which meant that he had a say-so about which local boys were eligible for the draft.

Was it just a coincidence that I got drafted so soon after pulling a fast one on the judge?

I couldn’t help but smile when I realized that maybe, just maybe, the tough old bastard had the last laugh after all.

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