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 dear friends of mine.
That said, the toughest 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 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.”
Dickie Simon, 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 couple of months 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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This past Saturday I made the one-hour drive to Munster, Indiana to visit my 91-year-old mother at her assisted living facility. She’s been in the home for a few years now, and I don’t see her as often as I’d like. Fortunately, my sister lives about five minutes away from the place and visits Mom almost every day.
Mom wasn’t in her room when I got there, so I went to the nursing station and asked one of the nurses if she knew of my mother’s whereabouts.
“I believe she’s in the dining room, playing Bingo.”
Sure enough, that’s where I found my mother, playing Bingo with about 20 other elderly ladies. My mother recognized me when I greeted her, which made me happy. The dear lady has Alzheimer’s Disease and I know that in another year, if she lives that long, she probably won’t know who I am.
Mom gave me a big smile and said, “What are you doing here?”
“I just came by to visit.”
She seemed puzzled. “Where am I?”
“You’re in an assisted living place.”
She looked around the room, taking in the scene, then, nodded her head in understanding. “Well, I’m playing Bingo now.”
“Yes, I can see that. I’ll just go sit down and have a cup of coffee. We’ll talk when the game is over.”
While I was enjoying my coffee and watching the Bingo game, it occurred to me that most of the ladies playing the game were very much like my mother – blooded veterans of the cut-throat Northwest Indiana Bingo circuit.
In their prime, they had played Bingo in church basements, VFWs, school auditoriums and American Legion halls all over Lake County, from Hammond to Gary to Valparaiso and beyond. When they were younger, these Bingo stalwarts were fierce competitors, keen-eyed, quick-witted and aggressive. They were apex bingo predators. Some were so good that they played a half a dozen cards at a time.
At least once a week, these badass Bingo queens would hit the streets, looking for action. And they were hardly ever disappointed. Most of the time they came back as winners, bringing home supermarket and department store gift certificates, beauty salon coupons, and, occasionally, some cash money. When the holidays rolled around, the ladies usually came home with Christmas turkeys and Easter hams, bags of frozen shrimp, and boxes of Omaha steaks.
Sadly, the ladies playing Bingo in the nursing home, my mother included, were way past their prime. The skills they needed to succeed at high-level, competitive Bingo were long gone. Dementia, hearing problems, poor eyesight, and various other afflictions had robbed them of the considerable abilities they once possessed. Watching them was like watching one of your childhood baseball heroes hobbling painfully around the bases during an old timers’ game.
When the lady who ran the Bingo game spoke into her microphone and said, “The next number is G 16, G 16,” the old ladies did their best to swing into action.
“What did she say?”
“I think it was B 15.”
“No, that’s not it. The number was B 13.”
“Marge, did you catch the number?”
“No, I wasn’t paying attention.”
“LaVerne, did you hear the number?”
LaVerne said, “Lumma, lumma, lumma.”
The announcer, who, by the way, had the patience of a cicada, repeated the number. “Ladies, that was G 16, G 16.”
“See, I told you it was B15.”
A few minutes later, one of the players hollered, “Bingo!” When the announcer walked over to check the winner’s card, she said, “Edna, you don’t have Bingo. Two of those numbers were never called.”
“Darn, I thought I had a winner.”
A short time afterwards, another lady hollered “Bingo!?” When her card was checked, it turned out that she was mistaken, too.
I was hoping for the best when my mother called, “Bingo!” But, unfortunately, she had also gotten a couple of numbers wrong.
When the day’s Bingo action was over and the cards and markers had been cleared away, I walked over to talk to my mother. She gave me a big smile when she saw me. “Honey, what are you doing here?”
“I just came by to visit.”
She seemed confused. “Where am I?”
“Mom, you’re in an assisted living facility.”
She was quiet for a few moments, thinking things over, then she said, “You look skinny. You should eat more.”
When I got out of the service, I went to college at the state university in Terre Haute, Indiana, on the G.I. Bill. It was 1970, a few years past the Summer of Love, but the sexual revolution was still in full swing. Sadly, I was in no condition to take advantage of all the good things that the long-legged, busty southern Indiana girls had to offer.
I had returned to the USA just a couple of months earlier, after spending 14 months and seven days in the former Republic of South Vietnam, and I was a mental wreck. The term Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome hadn’t been coined yet, but I was undoubtedly afflicted by it.
I wandered around in a daze during my first few weeks on campus, keeping my head down, unable to reach out to people, unwilling to expose myself more than absolutely necessary. I avoided crowds and tried to keep my interactions with other students to a bare minimum. When I wasn’t in class, I was usually drinking or smoking reefer, sedating myself, trying to ward off unwelcome memories and prevent nightmares from disturbing my sleep.
I may as well have been a ghost, my presence on campus unnoticed except for those whose senses were attuned to the high and lonesome end of the misery scale.
That said, in most other respects I was a normal young man, 21 years old, healthy, fit and, to put it delicately, in dire need of female companionship. But my state of mind, at the time, made me hesitant to approach any of the young women on campus.
Thankfully, there was a solution for losers like me, who couldn’t get laid on their own. Terre Haute had an abundance of whorehouses, many of them located on the ironically named Cherry Street.
So, a couple of weeks after I entered the hallowed halls of academia, I walked over to Cherry Street and entered the hallway of another establishment, one that was not quite so hallowed. When the Madam admitted me, I stepped into a dimly lit parlor where four young women, wearing heavy makeup and dressed in lacy teddies and high heels, were waiting to greet customers.
I was stunned when I set eyes on the girls. I had trouble believing what I was seeing — two of the young tarts in that whorehouse parlor had been high school classmates of mine.
I remembered them well. We shared classes together. We were never great friends, but we knew other well enough to exchange small talk. They were girls who had developed early. By the time they entered their teens, they had the bodies of fully-grown women. I lusted after them, as did most of the guys at my school. But the two young ladies always had boyfriends, generally older guys with nice cars.
The girls, I’ll call them Donna and Cindy, recognized me, too. They stared at me for a few moments, surprised expressions on their faces. They looked at each other, Donna smiling, Cindy shaking her head.
“Wow! What are you doing here?” Donna finally asked.
“I’ll give you three guesses.”
Cindy giggled. “You haven’t changed much. You’re still a wise ass.”
The Madam came over, hovering by my side. It was time to make a choice. I would have liked to hire both Donna and Cindy and turn it into a real party, but I was just a poor college boy and could only afford one of them. I chose Donna. I decided that when my next check from Uncle Sam arrived, I’d come back to the whorehouse and have a go at Cindy.
Donna and I didn’t talk much. There were a lot of questions I wanted to ask, but I sensed she might be offended if I pried too closely into her affairs. Besides, we were on the clock and she had to concentrate on her work. It was a very pleasant experience. I enjoyed it immensely. She treated me very well. But I had expected nothing less. She was, after all, a professional.
A couple of weeks later, when my next VA check arrived, I took some of the government’s money down to Cherry Street. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the whorehouse, both Cindy and Donna were not there. When I asked one of the girls where they had gone, she explained that the girls worked a circuit, staying in one town for a few weeks before moving on. Cindy and Donna were probably working in a whorehouse in another southern Indiana town — Indianapolis, Evansville, maybe Vincennes.
About 25 years later, I was at a wedding in northwest Indiana and saw Donna sitting a few tables away from me. She was with a man and several teenaged children, who I assumed were her family. She caught me staring at her, seemed to recognize me, gave me a barely perceptible nod, and proceeded to ignore me the rest of the evening.
My sister also attended the wedding. I pointed out Donna to her and said, “I think I went to high school with that girl. Do you have any idea what she’s doing these days?”
My sister said, “I’m not sure. I think she owns a beauty shop in Hammond. Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know. Just curious, I guess.”
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In most societies, even primitive ones, the elderly are treated with dignity and respect. When a man reaches a certain age, he becomes a valuable resource, honored for his experience, esteemed for his wisdom, and revered for his good counsel. And he is usually well taken care of – pampered, well-fed, all of his needs provided for.
It’s a little different in the USA. When a man reaches a certain age in this country, let’s say 50 or so, the first thing people want to do to him is stick a camera up his ass and take pictures of his colon.
A few days ago, I went down to the Jesse Brown VA Hospital to have my monthly liver check-up and pick up some new meds.
When I walked into the examining room, my regular physician, Dr. Frankie “Disco” Lopez, looked up from the Racing Form and said, “Dude, we’ve got to make it quick. I’ve got a horse running in the fourth race at Arlington and don’t want to miss it. How do you feel?”
“I feel pretty good.”
“Glad to hear it, saves me the trouble of giving you a check-up. Anyway, I’ve got some great news for you.”
“I’m going to schedule you for a colonoscopy.”
“You’re going to do what?”
“A colonoscopy. That’s where they stick a camera up your ass to see if you’ve got colon cancer. What’s a good time for you?”
“Wait a fucking minute! There is no way on earth I’m going to have a colonoscopy. I would rather gnaw off my own foot than undergo this demeaning, undignified procedure. The answer is no, absolutely not, never in a million fucking years. Do we understand each other?”
“Milo, you’re a real dumbass. Let me explain something to you. Dying from colon cancer is a terrible way to go. I can’t think of a worse way to die. The pain is unbearable. You’ll spend half of your time screaming in agony and the other half thinking of ways to kill yourself. Nothing, not the most powerful drugs, can alleviate the pain. It just gets worse and worse. The pain gets so bad that there’s a good chance you’ll go insane before you die. At the end, you’ll be nothing but skin and bones and oozing sores. And when you gratefully draw your last miserable breath, you’ll be lying in a stinking pool of blood and shit and pus and scraps of rotten intestine.”
“Doc, say no more. Your eloquence has convinced me. Schedule the damned colonoscopy.”
The procedure was scheduled for mid-September, but, first, there was prep work to be done. Before I could have the colonoscopy, Dr. Frankie said I had to watch a video that explained the process.
A short time later, I walked into a stuffy, windowless room where five other veterans, all about my age, were waiting to watch the video. The atmosphere in the room was gloomy and depressing. My fellow vets, brave men, stalwarts who had risked their lives, limbs and sanity for their country, were unnerved by the prospect of a colonoscopy. They all wore glum, resigned expressions. There was a palpable sense of dread hovering above all of our heads. One of the men was muttering to himself. Another was playing with rosary beads.
Then the video started. A greasy looking bastard wearing surgical scrubs appeared on the screen holding a mechanical contraption that looked like a sewer snake with a camera attached to the front of it. He explained that this contraption is inserted in the rectum where it works its way through your body, examining the large intestine and parts of the small intestine.
Then things got really ugly. The video showed the diabolical device in live action, crawling through someone’s innards, snipping off polyps, punching out biopsies, leaving a bloody trail of destruction in its wake.
The guy sitting behind me muttered, “Good God! How can they do this to a guy?”
Another cried out, “Oh, the inhumanity!”
Someone else groaned, “Sweet Jesus, this can’t be happening.”
We were all in shock when that frightening video ended. We staggered out of the room, dazed and reeling, wondering what on earth we could possibly have done to deserve such barbaric treatment.
An hour later, I was sitting on a stool in Swillagain’s Saloon, trying to drink my troubles away. I started to feel better after a few cocktails. I knew I was in for an ordeal, but somehow, someway, I’d get through it. After all, I’m a hard man, tougher than Kevlar. I survived growing up on the mean streets of Gary, Indiana. I survived a war. I survived a career in the cut-throat advertising business. I survived 30 years of marriage.
I was just hoping that my luck would hold out and I’d survive the colonoscopy.
I was sitting in Swillagain’s Saloon, enjoying a few cocktails, when an old friend, who I’ll call Leonard, to spare him undue embarrassment, walked in the door. I was surprised by Leonard’s ragged and disheveled appearance. He is usually a very dapper man, always well-dressed and well-groomed, but when he walked into Swillagains, he looked like a bum, unshaven, unkempt, and in obvious need of a bath.
When I asked him how things were going, Leonard smiled ruefully and said, “Not too good. I’ve been living in my car the last couple of weeks.”
“Jesus! What the hell happened?”
“My wife caught me fucking around with another woman and threw me out.”
“Darn, I hate to hear that. Why don’t you just get a room somewhere?”
“I miss my wife. I’m hoping that if she hears I’m living in my car, she’ll feel sorry for me and take me back.”
“Do you, by any chance, have a Plan B?”
According to a recent study by the prestigious Gary, Indiana Institute for Prestigious Studies, more than 100,000 American husbands are caught cheating on their wives – every single day! Sadly, many of these incidents end badly for the straying husbands. Thousands of unfaithful men are shot, stabbed, poisoned, run over by cars, and beaten to death with cast iron skillets by irate, vengeful wives.
That’s why I had difficulty working up any sympathy for Leonard. I figured he got off easy. It could have been a lot worse. He was fortunate to have escaped with his life.
Besides, Leonard deserved what he got. Not because he cheated on his wife, but because he got caught. In my opinion, only incompetent fools and amateurs get caught cheating on their wives. If done properly, there’s almost no chance of discovery.
I should know. I’ve been cheating on my wife from the moment I married her. As of this writing, I have two mistresses, a steady girlfriend, and enjoy an intimate lunch with a prominent North Shore matron every other Thursday. And the lovely Mrs. Milo has no clue.
The reason I’ve been a successful philanderer for all these years is that I take precautions. I’m careful when I fool around.
For example, I never come home with hickeys, bite marks, or scratches on my back.
I also avoid lipstick stains at all costs.
I never use a credit card when buying expensive jewelry for my lady friends. I always pay cash.
I use a fake name when enjoying a one-night stand, usually calling myself Ben Joravsky or Adolfo Mondragon.
Whenever I take one of my paramours out for a night on the town, I avoid bars and restaurants on the North Side of Chicago, where I might run into someone I know. I confine my extra-marital carousing to shitholes like Cicero, Hegewisch, or Berwyn.
I always choose girlfriends who look like my wife. That way, on the extremely slim chance that the lovely Mrs. Milo catches me fooling around, she might be flattered by my thoughtfulness in choosing women who resemble her and refrain from putting rat poison in my Cheerios.
I always make sure I have a rock solid alibi when I stay out late at night, frolicking with one of my girlfriends. My dear friend, Bruce Diksas, will swear on a stack of bibles that he and I were out drinking and shooting pool until four in the morning. And, of course, I’m always prepared to return the favor.
Another thing I make sure to do is…
This is Mrs. Milo. I just noticed what my husband was writing and chased him away from the computer with the can of pepper spray I keep handy for occasions like this. That stuff he wrote about all of his mistresses and girlfriends is a load of crap. No woman in her right mind would have anything to do with him. Before the booze and drugs got to him, he was a respectable young man, and fairly good looking, too. Now, all he does is hang around the basement in his ratty old bathrobe, sip from the pints of Old Crow he hides around the house, and work on that stupid blog that he shares with those other creeps from The Third City. He hasn’t left the house in weeks. In fact, the only time he steps outside is when he sneaks out to the garage to smoke pot. God, he’s such a loser. If any woman out there is foolish enough to want him, they can have him and good riddance.
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A while ago, I fell down, hit my head, and suffered a subdural hematoma, which is bleeding of the tissues around the brain.
The doctors said I was extremely lucky. I could have died, been a vegetable, or spent my golden years in a wheelchair, drooling and wearing diapers. Fortunately, they caught it in time. The brain surgery went smoothly and there were no complications. They told me I should make a complete recovery.
This all happened three and a half months ago and, despite what the doctors said, I still don’t feel right. I sense I’m about 90% of my normal self.
Oh, sure, people tell me I look great. They say they can’t see any difference in me, that I look and act exactly the same as I did before the accident.
But I know better. I may be okay physically, but mentally, I’ve still got a ways to go. In the last week, I…
Caught myself calling my daughter’s dog by my recently deceased cat’s name.
Put food in the microwave and forgot about it until the next day.
Spent 20 minutes looking for my reading glasses, when, all the time, they were clipped to the neck of my tee-shirt.
Couldn’t remember my zip code when I used a credit card at a gas station.
Walked to the corner convenience mart to buy cigarettes and forgot to take the pack with me when I left the store.
Did laundry and left the clothes in the dryer overnight.
Developed a slight stutter that friends and family claim not to notice, but I do.
There are several other issues that I blame on the head injury, but at the moment, I can’t remember them.
I complained about the situation to my wife and her advice was to be patient. “The doctors said your recovery would take six-to-nine months. The surgery was a little more than three months ago. You have to give it time.”
“Yeah, but I’ve always been a fast healer.”
“Honey,” she said, “you’re not a kid anymore.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“At your age, you can’t blame every little lapse on the brain surgery. It’s natural for an older man to be a bit forgetful.”
“Good lord! You don’t think I’ve got Alzheimer’s, do you? I mean, who forgets their zip code.”
One thing I didn’t forget was my youngest daughter’s birthday. She turned 24 this past Sunday and my wife planned a dinner party in her honor.
The lovely Mrs. Milo asked me to run a few errands. I picked up a birthday card, a present, and some beer and wine. I also had to stop at the bakery to pick up a cake.
When I arrived at the bakery, I realized I didn’t know what kind of cake my daughter liked. So I called my older daughter and said, “What kind of cake would your sister like for her birthday?”
There was a moment of silence, and then she said, “Ah, Dad, you asked me that same question yesterday.”
For the most part, Milo–my partner in this glorious, Third City blogging empire–has been a sedentary creature who rarely strays from home.
In fact, as boring as his life has been, I must confess mine is even duller.
Just think of where we’ve lived.
Milo’s lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Gary, Indiana; and Terre Haute, Indiana.
He did have a not-brief-enough-stay in Vietnam. He survived by consuming heaping helpings of marijuana and Jimi Hendrix.
Which, come to think of it, sounds like what he did last weekend.
Similarly, I’ve lived in Providence, Rhode Island; Evanston, Illinois, and Appleton, Wisconsin.
Not exactly Paris, Rome and London.
Two years ago, I ventured out of the country for a two-week visit to Argentina. As you recall, I entertained the locals with my attempts to order various meals in Spanish.
This is all my long way of saying that Milo stunned me the other day when he announced that he and his wife–the lovely Mrs. Milo–were taking a road trip to Duluth, Minnesota, of all places.
“You can’t go,” I told him.
“Cause I’ll be going out of town that same week and who will run the mighty TTC empire?”
“Fuck it, Benny, we’ll just shut the fucker down!”
Think of it. The two guys who never go anywhere leaving town–at the same time!
The good news is that we survived, though not without a few bruises.
Immediately upon his return, Milo called to complain about his aching back.
Apparently, he messed it up with all the driving he’d done.
“I used to drive day and night and never feel a thing,” he said. “Now my fuckin’ back is killing me.”
When I was done listening to him bitch about his back, I started in about my energy–of which I had none.
Apparently, I’d lost it on some beach in northern Michigan.
Sad to say, Milo and I have reached that advanced stage of life when even our vacations are hard work.
All in all, it’s good to be back home.