In the mid-70s, I shared an apartment in Wicker Park with a couple of dear friends, who I’ll call Wayne and Bruce, to spare them undue embarrassment. It was a funky three-bedroom place on Evergreen Street, a few doors down from the Serbian Brothers Help Club, and across the street from the place where Nelson Algren lived for many years.
One night, the three of us were partying on Lincoln Avenue, hitting all of our favorite joints, Sterch’s, the Farthings, Oxfords, and the Wise Fools Pub. We were having a high old time, drinking, smoking a little weed, listening to music, and hanging out with friends.
At one of the taverns, Wayne began talking to a girl. I didn’t pay much attention because Wayne talked to people all the time. You couldn’t shut him up. He would talk to anybody, about any subject, for any length of time. He was a world class bullshitter, a windbag of epic proportions. He was an expert on everything and nothing. His preposterous, long-winded rants rarely made sense, but they had great amusement value.
When the three of us left the smoky, dimly-lit tavern, heading for another smoky, dimly-lit tavern, the girl that Wayne was talking to tagged along. Once we were out on the street, I was able to get a good look at the girl and was surprised, shocked actually, to see that her nose was badly broken, mashed nearly flat. It must have happened recently because there were still bruises on her cheeks and under her eyes.
The girl stayed close to us for the rest of the night. She seemed to be in a daze and looked scared and needy. When she wasn’t clinging to Wayne, she was standing near Bruce, or following me around.
I bought her a drink and tried to talk to her, but she didn’t have much to say, and I didn’t want to ask about her nose. When she did speak, she kept her eyes lowered, not making eye contact.
Later that evening, while Bruce and I were in the alley behind Sterch’s, smoking a joint, I said, “What do you think happened to the chick? Car accident?”
“I doubt it. I figure some asshole beat her up.”
“Well, there are a lot of rotten fuckers in the world.”
“It’s a shame. I bet she was real good looking before her nose got fucked up. She’s got a nice body on her.”
“Yeah, real nice ass.”
“I wonder why she’s hanging out with yahoos like us.”
“I don’t know. Maybe she feels safe around us.”
“Jesus, I find that kind of insulting.”
“Yeah, she doesn’t know us that well.”
We called it a night about three in the morning, got in the car and drove back to Wicker Park. Without anything being said, the girl hopped in the car and came with us.
We stayed up for another hour, drinking, smoking, listening to music and more of Wayne’s off-the-wall ravings. When we began drifting off, the girl asked if she could spend the night on the couch. We said it would be no problem and provided her with a pillow and blanket.
I had trouble falling asleep after crawling into bed. After all, I was a young man, in my prime, and there was a young woman in the next room. I briefly considered going out to the couch and lying down with the girl with the broken nose.
I was sure she wouldn’t turn me down. She might have even appreciated a little affection. But then a troubling thought occurred to me – what if she said “yes” only because she was afraid to say “no.”
On the other hand, there was the possibility that she might be offended if nobody made a pass at her. Maybe she’d think that her disfigurement was more than any man could handle.
I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing. Besides, Wayne and Bruce were both randy fuckers and I figured one of them would take a shot at her. But neither of them made the effort.
The next morning, after taking a shower, the girl smiled at us and said, “I have to go now, but thanks, guys, for everything.”
“Where are you going?” Bruce asked.
“I have to be somewhere.”
“Just take care of yourself,” I said.
“I will,” she replied, and then she left.
We never saw her again.
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My buddy, Ed, rolls into town last week — helps me turn the living room into fraternity row.
For a few days, it’s me and Ed, sprawled on lounge chairs, watching sports, reruns of The Untouchables and old movies, like Blacula.
Ah, the good life….
Blacula’s a great movie, by the way. Saw it years ago at the old Howard Theater in Rogers Park.
I saw many of the seminal movies of the `70s at the Howard – Shaft in Africa, Foxy Brown, The Sting and so on….
Though now that I think about it, I might have seen The Sting at the Valencia Theater in Evanston.
William Marshall plays the great African monarch — Prince Mamuwalde — who travels to Transylvania in 1780 to ask Prince Dracula to join the fight against slavery.
He brings along Princess Luva, his lovely wife. Vonetta McGee plays Luva.
Confession time! I may have had a little crush on Vonetta McGee — back in the day.
Anyway, one thing leads to another and Dracula bites William Marshall, turning him into vampire. Hence, the name — Blacula. Get it?
About 150 years later, Blacula winds up in New York City. Don’t ask – it’s complicated.
The thing that always amazed me is that Blacula hopped out of his coffin and got around New York City like he’d been living in Harlem his whole life. Didn’t need a GPS thing or anything…..
There’s this one scene where Blacula’s running down the street and a cop starts chasing him.
I’m not sure why the cop’s chasing him. Blacula hadn’t done anything wrong. Except for killing a bunch of people. But the cop didn’t know that.
“He’s breaking the law,” says Ed. “Running while black.”
Good line, Ed. We’re howling over that one.
Nicky, the dog, when she’s not barking….
Right about this time Nicky, the dog, starts barking.
“Shut up,” I yell at the dog.
She keeps barking.
I walk to the window to see what she’s barking at. But the streets are empty.
“There’s nothing there,” I tell the dog. “You’re barking at nothing….”
It occurs to me she might be scared. I can relate. I was scared the first time I saw Blacula — especially when he comes up behind that lady in the photo lab. That scene still scares me.
The dog finally stops barking. But I’ve missed so much dialogue I feel I need to watch the movie again. Which is as good as an excuse as any to replay it – for the good times!
This time my wife joins us. And she loves it! I’m telling you – Blacula’s a great movie.
Fast-forward a few hours….
The dog’s lying on the bed. Payback time – heh, heh, heh.
I do my best William Marshall: “Come to me, Princess Luva.”
The dog runs under the bed.
“I am Blacula. I’ve come to suck your blood….”
What can I tell you — I always got my best ideas from the movies.
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Heading south to Greektown, when my youngest daughter breaks the news….
“You have bad breath,” she tells me.
Not sure what prompted her to drop the bombshell at this particular time. No matter, I must deal with it.
“Is this true?” I ask my wife.
“Not always,” she says.
Well, that’s hardly reassuring.
“Did you plan this?” I ask.
“Huh?” asks my daughter.
“Is this an intervention?”
“Oh, my God — you planned to have a family intervention to tell me I have bad breath.”
“We did not plan a family intervention,” says my wife.
“Don’t be defensive,” says my daughter.
“I’m not defensive,” I say.
“Yes, you are,” says my daughter.
“No, I’m not.”
“Just bring a mint with you….”
“Yeah, you used to carry mints with you,” says my wife. “Why did you stop doing that?”
Then they worry that they’ve gone too far. So they start telling me what a great guy I am. As in — great guy, despite the bad breath.
“Do I have bad breath all the time?” I ask.
“No, just once in awhile,” says my daughter.
I have this flash. Have I had bad breath in public places where it could come back to haunt me?
“When was the last time I had bad breath?” I ask.
“I can’t remember,” says my wife.
“Yes, you can,” I say.
“Okay — when we saw Flight.”
That’s the movie in which Denzel Washington plays this super cool airplane pilot who has lots of problems — excessive drinking, drug taking, womanizing — but not bad breath.
“But you didn’t tell me,” I say.
“I don’t always tell you.”
“You mean — you let me walk around with bad breath!”
It hits me that I’ve probably had bad breath while standing in front of people I was trying to impress only they didn’t tell me cause it wasn’t the politically correct thing to do.
I recall sitting next to a friend — Michelle — in a gym and she handed me a Tic Tac that she happened to have in her pocket. Obviously, she was sending me a subtle message. How could I not see it at the time?
Fast forward several hours….
I’m lying on the couch reading a book. The dog comes by. Sniffs in my general direction and then lays down besides me.
Suddenly, I’m aware of a horrendous odor. I check my shoes to see if I stepped in shit.
Nope. It’s the dog.
“Damn, Nicky,” I say. “You need a Tic Tac.”
It’s reassuring to know that my breath is not as bad as the dog’s.
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After World War 2, and the subsequent civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, my parents, and several of my father’s comrades-in-arms, became Displaced Persons. They lived in refugee camps in Italy and Germany, for a couple of years, before immigrating to the United States, eventually ending up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Two of the men who came to the USA with my parents were Dusan and Niko, my father’s boyhood friends. They grew up together in the same small village. They were teenagers, 16 and 17 years old, when the Germans invaded Yugoslavia in 1940 and all three joined the fight against the Nazis.
When the Germans were finally defeated, in 1945, my father and his friends spent another year and a half battling Tito and his Communist Partisans for control of the country. When Tito prevailed, the men were faced with some harsh choices – prison, the firing squad or exile. My father and his band of guerillas wisely chose exile, and, under intense pressure from their heavily armed enemies, made a do-or-die, three-week run for the Italian border. Many of them made it.
Dusan, Niko and my father were poorly educated farm boys. They could read and write, in Cyrillic, and do simple math. Most of their life’s experience consisted of warfare, six long years of it. Unfortunately, in Milwaukee, at the time, there was little need for warriors. There was, however, a need for factory workers.
My father and Dusan had wives and young children to support. Within a week of arriving in Milwaukee they found good paying factory jobs and moved their families into apartments. My family’s first apartment was in an area of cookie-cutter row houses. The houses were so identical that my father claimed it was impossible to tell them apart. He had my mother stand in front of the house when he got off work so he could figure out which building he lived in.
Niko, however, was averse to working in a factory. He was just a country boy at heart and hated the idea of working in a noisy, greasy, odorous fabricating plant. He had a better idea. He had heard of a farmer in Washington State, a fellow Serb, who would hire newly arrived countrymen to work on his farm. He made a few phone calls to the farmer who eventually agreed to take him on.
A couple of weeks later, Niko left for the Pacific Northwest. There was a raucous going-away party for Niko, with lots of food and drink, hugs and tears. This was the first time the three men would be separated since they were children.
Just before Niko got on the Greyhound bus for the long trip to the West Coast, my father gave him a 50 dollar bill, telling him it might come in handy in an emergency.
The farmer put Niko to work immediately, and it was hard, back-breaking, dawn-to-dusk work. But Niko didn’t mind working hard. He was a big strapping man, who enjoyed working outdoors, raising crops and handling livestock. It reminded him of more pleasant times, when he was a youngster on his family’s farm, before the seemingly endless wars changed the trajectory of his life.
Niko enjoyed working on the farm, but wasn’t very happy with his accommodations. He slept on a cot in a leaky, unheated shed and the food wasn’t as plentiful or as tasty as he had hoped it would be. Still, at least he had a job, and would soon be making some money, and, for the moment, that was all that mattered.
Niko became uneasy, however, when after nearly two months of hard work, the farmer had not paid him a cent. When he asked the farmer about his wages, he was told, “That’s not how it works in America. You’re starting at the bottom, so all you get is room and board. Maybe I’ll start paying you in a few months, but don’t expect much.”
Niko realized that he had been bamboozled. The farmer had played him for a fool, working him like a dog and not even tossing him a bone. Niko knew that what the farmer had told him was bullshit. His friends back in Milwaukee were starting at the bottom, too, but they were earning good wages and starting to make their way in this new world.
The more Niko thought about the situation, the angrier he became. He felt trapped, stuck in the middle of nowhere, with seemingly no options. He stayed awake all night, his mind churning with emotion, torn betweeen rage and despair. He even briefly considered killing the farmer. But most of all, he was desperately trying to think of a way out of his miserable situation.
Then, he remembered that he had a 50 dollar bill that my father had given him.
The next morning, Niko packed his small bag, gave the farmer a thorough, well-deserved beating, and walked 15 miles into town. He managed to find the bus station, walked up to the clerk’s window, laid his 50 dollar bill on the counter, and spoke two of the very few words of English that he knew.
In a thick Slavic accent, he said, “Milwaukee, please.”
Recently, as I was sitting at dinner with family and friends, I told the story of Niko and the 50 dollar bill. Most of the people at the table had heard the story before, but they seemed to enjoy hearing it again.
Then my sweet, gray-haired, 89-year-old mother spoke up. “It’s a fine story,” she said, “but you’ve got the facts wrong.”
“Your father and I discussed giving Niko the money, but at his going-away party your father, along with all the other men, got roaring drunk, and he forgot about it. I took the 50 dollar bill out of your father’s wallet and personally handed it to Niko.”
Later that evening, I asked my sister if Mom’s version of the story was true.
“Well, Mom’s got Alzheimer’s and her short-term memory is gone. But her long-term memory is still sharp.”
“Besides, you know our father liked to drink. At least that part of the story is true.”
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This is a vacation week for The Third City, so we’ll be posting pieces from the past. In honor of the new James Brown movie, here’s a beloved family favorite about the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.
James Brown, the late Godfather of Soul, was a world-class ladies’ man. When the Hardest Working Man in Show Business was in his prime, traveling from gig to gig, constantly on the road, he enjoyed the company of a different woman just about every night.
It goes without saying that being the Godfather of Soul was a demanding, time-consuming job. There simply weren’t enough hours in the day for James Brown to take care of the business of being James Brown. He was so busy that he didn’t even have time to find his own chicks. He had to delegate that sensitive job to a close business associate, usually his valet.
Fortunately, for the valet, finding women for James Brown was not a difficult assignment. There were probably hundreds of thousands of women willing to make James Brown, who always felt good, feel even better.
The valet would usually find the woman he was looking for during one of James Brown’s spectacular stage shows. He would scan the audience for a lady that he hoped would appeal to his boss. Once he found the right woman, he would explain the situation to her and, if the woman was agreeable, make all of the necessary arrangements.
As I had mentioned, time was of the essence for James Brown. When he arrived for his appointed rendezvous, the lady, as instructed, would already be in bed, awaiting the Great Man’s attentions.
James Brown rarely spent more than a few minutes with a woman. He was a busy man. He had a schedule to keep. According to reports, his rutting was fierce but fleeting. When he had satisfied himself, he would give the woman a memento of the occasion, usually an autographed 8×10 glossy photo, say something like “Baby, I got to go,” and be off to the next town and the next show.
One day, as the valet was driving James Brown to a radio station for an interview, he noticed that his boss was unusually quiet, seemingly lost in thought. After a while, James turned to the valet and said, “Let me ask you something.”
“Sure, boss, anything.”
“What do a man get from eating pussy?”
“Heh, heh, I wouldn’t know nothing about that.”
James Brown pondered the valet’s answer for a few moments, a puzzled expression on his face, before saying, “Got to be something to it. I understand a lot of men be eating pussy.”
The Third City has never shied away from the tough questions. In my role as Society, Lifestyle and Religion columnist, I’ve tackled some of the most sensitive issues of our times. Granted, James Brown’s sex life is ultimately of little consequence, but the question he posed to his valet is a profound one and needs to be addressed.
When James asked, “What do a man get from eating pussy?” he was, in essence, asking, “What’s in it for me?” I was determined to find the answer to this perplexing question and write about it in The Third City’s blog. I didn’t want to count chickens, but I could sense scientific and literary awards in my near future. Hopefully, some of them would be accompanied by handsome checks.
This past Friday, I went to The Third City’s plush Michigan Avenue offices to do some research for the story. I was hard at work – a porn site on my computer screen, skin magazines scattered across my desk, a 900-number sex worker on speaker-phone – when I was interrupted by my colleague, Benny Jay.
“Milo, what the hell is going on here? You’re scaring all of the interns.”
When I explained what I was doing, Benny said, “Ah, shit! What are you trying to do, put us out of business? The last time you wrote about something like this the FCC almost pulled our blogging license.”
“Benny, I refuse to let small-minded bureaucrats dictate policy to The Third City.”
“That’s not the point. What about our readers? A lot of them are little old ladies. How do you think they’ll react to an article about eating pussy?”
“I would hope the subject matter would bring back some pleasant memories.”
“Do me a favor and don’t write this story. It’ll be nothing but trouble. And we can’t afford the legal fees.”
Against my better judgment, I took Benny’s advice. Besides, I didn’t want piss Benny off. I still owed him money from a reefer deal that went sour back in the ‘90s and was afraid he might call in the debt.
That afternoon, I was sitting in Swillagain’s Saloon, sipping cocktails and feeling sorry for myself, when an old friend, named Sarah, walked in and sat next to me. Sarah had married well and become a prominent North Shore matron, but I had known her before she had become quite so prominent.
After buying her a drink, I said, “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”
“Milo, I’m a married woman.”
“It’s not that kind of question.”
She said, ‘Okay,” and then I asked her the same question that James Brown asked of his valet.
Sarah gave me a quizzical smile, not unlike the Mona Lisa’s, and then laughed out loud. “Honey, all I can tell you is what goes around, comes around.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Give it some thought, Milo. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
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Some guys act like the party will never end. They carry on like 25-year-olds, drinking, smoking, and drugging, living the high life, burning the candle at all three ends, well into their 50s, 60s, and 70s.
Unfortunately, that kind of activity often has a serious downside. Years of self-destructive behavior can exact a terrible physical toll. When the waiter at the Lifestyle Café presents the check, most people can’t afford to pay it.
Last week, I met a couple of old friends for drinks. Both have health issues. One of them, who I hadn’t seen in many months, recently had major surgery, and there were complications.
“Man, I couldn’t piss for a long time after the surgery,” he said, sipping from a bottle of beer. “I had a catheter stuck up my dick for two months.”
“”Jesus, how the hell did that happen?”
“My kidneys and liver are fucked up. Doctor says I’ve got to quit drinking.”
The other guy hanging out with us also had physical issues, some due to a lifetime of overindulgence, others due to exposure to Agent Orange while in Vietnam. He stopped drinking, with the utmost reluctance, a while ago, on his doctor’s orders, but still enjoys puffing on a joint. He is scheduled to start radiation treatments for a recurrence of prostate cancer in a few weeks.
It was great seeing my old friends, but I have to say that the conversation was a bit gloomy for my taste. Most of the talk was about our old circle of friends and the ailments that have afflicted them. Sadly, many of their health problems were caused by their own irresponsible behavior.
I hated hearing that so many of my old buddies, former stalwarts of the boulevards, veteran carousers, and connoisseurs of excess, were ailing.
“Pete is hooked up to an oxygen tank 24-hours-a-day.”
“Bobby’s heart is acting up again and he’s back in the hospital.”
“Stanley needs a liver transplant.”
“Phil’s got diabetes and the doctors are going to whittle away some more of his leg.”
“Jerry’s lung cancer has returned.”
“Hal can’t keep food down anymore and his doctors don’t know why.”
The woeful list goes on and on.
I felt weird for a few days after the get-together with my friends. A dark cloud was hovering just above my head. I began noticing all sorts of new aches and pains.
Was my lower back pain actually a sign of a diseased liver? Was the ringing in my ears signaling the onset of a brain tumor? Is emphysema the reason I get winded when shoveling snow? Was my heart getting ready to explode like a cheap firecracker?
After a couple of restless days and sleepless nights, I made an appointment to see my physician, Dr. Frankie “Disco” Lopez, at the Jessie Brown V.A. Hospital.
Dr. Frankie was studying the Racing Form when I walked into his office. When the good doctor noticed me, he said, “Dude, we’ve got to make it quick. I’ve got a horse running in the 6th race at Arlington and I don’t want to miss it.”
When I explained why I had come to see him, he asked, “Are you still drinking and smoking?”
“Are you still smoking weed?”
“Not as much as I used to.”
“Have you picked up any new vices recently?”
“I’ve thought about it, but I can barely handle the ones I’ve got.”
Dr. Frankie gave me a quick check-up. He thumped me on the back, looked into my ears, checked my eyes, made me open wide and say, “Ahh,” and listened to my heart with a stethoscope.
When he finished, I asked, nervously, “Well, Doc, what’s the prognosis?”
“Dude,” he said,” you’re going to die.”
“Ah, shit! How much time have I got?”
“How the fuck should I know?”
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I remember it like it happened yesterday.
About five years ago, Frankie “the Suit,” Chief Financial Officer of this scabby, befuddled outfit, asked Benny Jay and I to attend a meeting in the conference room of our plush Michigan Avenue office. He wanted to discuss the sorry state of The Third City’s finances. According to the spread sheets Frankie had tacked to the walls, readership was down, advertising was down, interest was flagging and, worst of all, revenues were nearly non-existent.
“Boys, we’re in trouble,” Frankie said. “Unless we find more readers and crank up our cash flow, you two might have to take salary cuts.”
“But I’ve got the solution to our problems, “Frankie continued. “We’re all going to get on Facebook.”
“Great idea, Frankie,” Benny Jay said. “That’s why you make the big money here.”
“Good thinking,” I added. “But, ah, what the fuck is Facebook?”
“Facebook is a social networking site.”
“Networking is something people do to stay in touch with like-minded individuals. They help each other find jobs, romantic partners, etc.”
“Sounds like a bunch of homely, unemployed losers fucking around on the internet.”
Frankie called me a few choice names and then went on to explain our Facebook goals.
“The thing to remember is that we’re going for quality over quantity. We want to befriend movers and shakers, people in the media, people who can help promote The Third City. Don’t waste time making friends with just anybody. The whole point of this exercise is to promote our blog site and get obscenely rich. We’ll get together next month and evaluate our Facebook progress.”
When I got home that evening I poured a big glass of wine and sat down at the computer, ready to join the world of Facebook. To be completely honest, I actually had heard of Facebook before, but always figured it was something for kids. Not knowing any better, I imagined that an adult spending time on Facebook was odd, even creepy, sort of like a grown man spending time watching MTV. I quickly learned different.
Anyway, once I logged on to the site, I discovered that I needed help. So, I called on the services of the Facebook experts in my home, my daughters, Nadia and Petra. They quickly got me set up and explained the basics. The only thing lacking was a photo of me.
“Why do I have to put up a picture of my ugly old ass?”
“Duh, Dad, it’s called Facebook for a reason.”
“I’ve got an idea. Let’s put up a picture of Steve McQueen and tell everybody it’s me.”
“That would be, like, false advertising. Don’t worry, Dad. We’ll find a nice picture of you.”
The girls rummaged through some old photo albums and found a 20-year-old picture of me. They scanned it, did a bit of Photoshop work, and imported it into my Facebook profile. I was in business. Two minutes later, someone sent me a message asking to be my friend, and I was off to the races.
Every night I would sit at my computer, a couple of bottles of red wine in easy reach, and do my Facebook duty. I’d request friends, confirm friends, comment on links, become a fan of sites and post shit on my wall. I wasn’t doing it because I enjoyed it. No. If anything, it was becoming a chore. I was doing it for a greater good. I was doing it for The Third City. I was doing it for all the people that counted on us to keep their spirits up in these desperate times. I was doing it for all the good folks that see us as a bastion of decency and civilized discourse in an increasingly rude and hostile world.
Mainly, though, I did it until the wine ran out.
About a month later, Frankie, Benny Jay and I reconvened in our corporate offices.
“Well, boys,” Frankie said, “we’ve staved off disaster. We live to blog another day. Our readership has increased by 87.4%. And it’s all due to Facebook. But, I have to tell you, I’m puzzled.”
“If you remember, I asked you both to befriend movers and shakers, people with influence in the world of media and communications. Well, according to my printouts, you two did no such thing.”
“We did our best, Frankie,” Benny Jay said.
“Benny, the only people you befriended are a bunch of Bulls’ fans and the guys on your bowling team, and most of them are illiterate. They need a calculator to keep score at the bowling alley.”
“What’s your point?”
“And Milo, you’re a disgrace.”
“So, what else is new?”
“I checked your friends’ list and the only people on it are young women who show a lot of cleavage in their profile photos.”
“It’s still a work in progress, Frankie.”
“Whenever you comment on someone’s link, the only thing you say is ‘Go fuck yourself.’”
“That can’t be right.”
“And who’s this Elaine Soloway broad?”
“I’m not sure, but I believe she was my third or fourth wife.”
“Well, I guess it’s not important. What matters is that our readership is up and the dough is rolling in again. Now, have either of you two dumbasses ever heard of something called Twitter?”
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