A few days before Thanksgiving, I began cleaning my weapons, sharpening the cutlery, shopping for mace and pepper spray, stocking up on first aid supplies, refilling fire extinguishers, and Googling the phone numbers of bail bondsmen and criminal lawyers in the Chicago area.
We were hosting the family Thanksgiving dinner this year and I wanted to be prepared.
This is the first time we’ve celebrated Thanksgiving at our house in several years. We usually spend the holiday at my sister’s house in Northwest Indiana. I prefer going to my sister’s place because she and her husband are pretty well off and can afford to hire security guards.
I asked my wife, the lovely Mrs. Milo, how she was preparing for the occasion. She said, “I’m going to roast a turkey, make stuffing, prepare carrots, green beans, candied yams and mashed potatoes and gravy. I’m also going to toss a salad, make cranberry jelly and a pumpkin pie for dessert.”
“Sounds great, babe. While you’re doing that, I’ll go down to Home Depot and get a chainsaw, a Taser, and some sandbags.”
I slept poorly the night before Thanksgiving. I kept having nightmares about previous holiday disasters.
I remember one Easter when my sister pepper sprayed her husband, Bill, when she caught him putting ketchup on his lamb chops.
I also recalled the time we had to take my 82-year-old uncle, Marko, to the emergency room when he threw his back out doing the Limbo with a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon balanced on his head.
Then there was the 4th of July party where all of the men decided to have a big dick contest and each of us put 20 dollars into a pot as a prize for the winner.
My wife was disgusted. “I can’t believe you pulled out your dick in front of everybody.”
“Honey, I didn’t pull it out all the way. I just showed enough to win the contest.”
Of course, I’m not blameless when it comes to holiday disasters. A few years ago, on Christmas Eve, I accidentally burned down my sister’s garage while demonstrating the proper way to perform the Sri Lanka Fire Walk.
Naturally, I was prepared for the worst when everyone arrived – daughters, niece, a boyfriend, sister and brother-in-law, and my Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother. Things got off to an inauspicious start when my addled, gray-haired mama asked, “How’s your furnace working?”
“The furnace is working just fine, Mom.”
She asked me about the furnace twice more in the next 10 minutes.
To my utter amazement, the evening went off without a hitch. There were no disagreements, arguments or fights. Except for my mother constantly asking about the furnace, and my wife and sister overindulging on Bloody Marys and nearly ruining the gravy, everything went smoothly.
Oh, sure, there were a few tense moments. When my brother-in-law started telling a long, pointless and boring story about the many and varied pleasures of philately, my sister began eyeing her purse, where she keeps her blackjack.
And when I took off my shirt, got a Sharpie, and began playing connect-the-dots with the scars on my chest, which, I explained, had come from the many knife fights I had been involved in as a youngster, my wife gave me her ugly, sleep-on-the-couch stare. I quickly put my shirt back on.
I suppose most families have holiday traditions, rituals that have been passed down through the years. The traditions may involve serving certain foods, gift giving, religious observances, songs and dances, relating family histories, or seating arrangements at the dinner table.
Our family has a holiday tradition, too. We just hope to survive.
When the dinner was over and everyone was preparing to leave, my mother asked about the furnace one last time. Then my sister thanked me for hosting this year. “Great dinner,” she said, “but things were kind of tame for my taste.”
“To be honest, I thought it was boring as hell.”
“There wasn’t a fist fight, or even a decent argument all night. It was like a dinner party at Martha Stewart’s house.”
“I know. It makes me nostalgic for the good old days.”
“Christmas is at my house this year. Maybe we should invite Uncle Marko, or your friend, Bruce, he’s a loose cannon, or a few of those wild boys from East Chicago. They know how to liven things up.”
“Sis, that’s an excellent idea.”
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Every once in a while I get a song stuck in my head. It’s not a bad thing if it’s a decent number, but God forbid I should get fixated on a worthless ditty like In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. A day or two with that ridiculous tune rumbling in my head would probably be the end of me.
Recently, I got obsessed with If I Were a Carpenter, written and recorded by the late Tim Hardin. I walked around the house humming the tune for a couple of days, occasionally breaking into song, belting out the lyrics in my loud, manly and pleasing baritone.
For some reason this aggravated the lovely Mrs. Milo. “Will you please stop that?”
“Stop what, honey?”
“Stop singing that stupid song. You’re scaring the cat.”
“That rotten cat can go fuck himself. The dog doesn’t seem to mind my singing.”
“Milo, in case you’ve forgotten, the dog lost its hearing about two years ago.”
I don’t know what my wife’s got against Tim Hardin, but I’ve always enjoyed his music. His best songs have an ache to them, a melancholy sense of loss and longing, that appeals to my sentimental Slavic soul.
Hardin had a hot streak in the 60’s. Those were the years he wrote If I were a Carpenter and Reason to Believe, as well as a personal favorite, The Lady Came From Baltimore. His songs were covered by artists as diverse as Bobby Darin, Rod Stewart, Johnny Cash and Joan Baez. Hardin even appeared at Woodstock, in 1969, playing his songs to an audience of a half million people.
Hot streaks don’t last forever. By the middle 1970s, Hardin was washed up, a mental and physical wreck. He was also in dire financial straits. He had no income from his song catalog because he had sold the rights to his music a few years earlier to settle a pressing problem.
The problem was heroin, a drug he had become very fond of while in the military and stationed in Vietnam, during the early years of the war. The fondness grew into an all-consuming obsession and it stayed with him the rest of his life. He was, by all reports, a degenerate junkie, erratic and unreliable, prone to putting on terrible performances, that’s if he even bothered showing up at all. He became virtually unemployable. By the late 1970s he was reduced to playing second rate clubs for chump change.
In early December of 1980 I was sitting out a snowstorm with the help of some bourbon and reefer, when I got a call from a dear friend, who I’ll call George Bogdanich, to spare him undue embarrassment.
“Hey, Milo, are you doing anything tonight?”
“I’ve got a couple of free tickets to see Tim Hardin at the Quiet Knight. You want to go?”
Maybe it was the bad weather, but I doubt more than 40 people showed up for the show. The upside of the sparse crowd was that George and I got a good table, close to the stage.
Hardin appeared about 30 minutes late. It might have been better if he had never showed up at all. He looked terrible — bloated, pasty, in dire need of grooming and a bath. And he was obviously high, riding with the white witch.
Hardin stumbled through the first few songs, mumbling the lyrics, hitting sour notes on his guitar, nearly nodding off in the middle of a tune. A few people walked out after he stopped to lazily scratch himself in the middle of Reason to Believe. Others began to heckle him. Even George called out, “Come on, Tim, pick it up, man.”
I didn’t want to be there. It was painful watching Tim Hardin trying to put on a show. He had once been a well-paid, popular and honored entertainer. Now, he was just a lost soul, a ghost of glories past, incapable of even going through the motions.
I was thinking about leaving. I didn’t want to be a party to this train wreck any longer. Then Tim started playing If I Were a Carpenter and the fucker nailed it. He stood tall and straight, closed his eyes, and sang:
If I were a carpenter
And you were a lady
Would you marry me anyway
Would you have my baby
His voice was sweet and clear. His guitar playing was crisp. He sang the song like it was his testament, the one pure and true thing in his life. It was the song that defined him and he seemed determined not to fuck it up. He gave the audience the best he had. And when he finished, he was spent. Tim Hardin had nothing more to give. He fumbled through another song or two, made an incomprehensible apology, and left the stage. There was no applause.
About three weeks later, on December 29, 1980, to be precise, Tim Hardin died of a heroin overdose.
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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 30 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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I get up early, pour some coffee, page through the Sun-Times, and wind up reading an essay about Cinnamon Peeler, a poem by Michael Ondaatje.
It makes me curious to read the whole poem, so I go to the computer to look it up. And one thing leads to another and I end up reading a completely different poem: Well Said, Davy, by John Fuller.
As with many poems, I’m not sure what exactly he’s getting at. I stumble over a few lines. I lose track of where I’m at and where Fuller’s going. I hit a line that makes no sense: “The law was a devil to cheat as you pleased, as we knelt on the back of the city girls’ knees.”
Fuck it — I give up.
The thing about a poem is you can’t panic. You have to take your time. The meaning’s down deep, it won’t always be obvious. But I’m in a hurry. I got stuff to do. I can’t spend my whole day worrying about the back of those girls’ knees!
I go through my email. I write a post. I walk the dog. I take a jog. I talk to friends. I bike to the lake and sit on the rocks. I think about the Bulls. I hate on the Heat. I get into a long and passionate discussion with a neighbor about the shitty little man who runs our city.
You know, typical day.
I meet my wife. We walk to a restaurant. I eat chicken and watch the White Sox game on the TV that’s above the bar. They lose — again.
I go home and watch a video. The Dinner Game. Not bad.
I go to bed. But I don’t feel like sleeping.
So I lie on the couch and read the latest Easy Rawlins mystery by Walter Mosley.
Fifteen minutes later, I wake with a jolt. The book on my chest.
I get up to go to bed, when — wham! — it hits me like a sucker punch.
“As we knelt on the backs of the city girls’ knees….”
Why, of course! Duh! They were doing it doggy style. You know, the Greek way. Coming at it from the back, so to speak.
Oh, my God, it’s so obvious — why didn’t I see it right away?
I want to call someone and tell them all about it. But way too late.
So I just go to bed, feeling rather proud of the day’s accomplishments.
Good things come to those who wait.
The late 1970s were definitely not my peak earning years. I scuffled for a living, freelancing as a copy editor and proofreader, and occasionally making a few bucks writing jacket copy for a local book publisher.
To cut expenses I shared an apartment in Wicker Park with a guy named Mark, whose financial circumstances were not much better than mine. He eked out a living with temporary bartending gigs and occasional electrical work. We never had much money, but there was always plenty of alcohol and reefer on hand and sometimes there was a bit of food in the refrigerator.
Mark had the good fortune, at the time, to be dating a fine looking woman, named Maggie, who was a dancer in a modern dance company. Maggie and I always got along well and one day she said to me, “Hey, Milo, how would you like to go out with a beautiful girl? She’s a dancer, too. We’re in a show together.”
“Hmm. I believe I could make room in my schedule for a beautiful girl.”
“There’s a catch. You’ve got to come to the theater and see the show if you want to meet her. I’ll introduce you after the performance.”
I definitely wanted to meet this woman, but I had never been to a dance performance and didn’t want to go by myself. I asked a few of my friends if they wanted to go, but they all had other plans. Bruce Diksas was committed to a poker game. Ron Skelton had been drinking all day and was planning to direct traffic, later that evening, at the corner of Lincoln and Diversey. And Wayne Gray had a date with a prominent Gold Coast matron whose husband was away on business.
I had resigned myself to going to the dance concert alone, when I ran into a friend, named Carlos, at Swillagain’s Saloon. I asked Carlos if he wanted to go to the concert, he said, “No, man, I got no interest in that shit.”
I had known Carlos for a few years and I knew that his main interests in life were getting high, gambling and, most importantly, getting laid.
So, I said, “Don’t be a dumbass. It’s a dance concert. The place will be crawling with fine looking ladies. It’ll be a bonanza of babes, like Oxford’s Pub at closing time, but better. Even an ugly fucker like you should have no trouble getting lucky. You’ll be a disgrace to Puerto Rican manhood if you take a pass on a chance to get some pussy.”
“Well, since you put it that way, I’ll go. But first, let’s have another drink.”
I don’t remember much of the concert, but I do recall spending most of the time trying to figure out which of the dancers Maggie wanted me to meet. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face when, after the show, Maggie walked into the lobby with the woman I’d hoped to see.
“Milo,” Maggie said, “say hi to Sharon.”
We chatted for a while. I don’t recall what we talked about, but I do remember making her laugh once or twice. After what seemed like too short of a time, Sharon smiled prettily, said it was nice to meet me, shook my hand and left.
A couple of days later, I ran into Maggie and she said, “Sharon liked you, said you seemed like a nice guy. I bet if you asked her out she’d say yes.”
“Do you, by any chance, have her telephone number handy?”
“I’ve got it right here.”
The next night, Sharon and I were seated across from each other in a booth in a North Side restaurant. There was a bit of awkwardness at first, but after ordering some wine and making small talk, we got comfortable with each other.
“So, tell me about yourself,” she said.
“It’s a long story.”
“That’s okay, we’ve got lots of time.”
And we did. We had all the time in the world. Going to that dance concert worked out real well for me.
But I don’t remember if Carlos got lucky that night.
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I’ve practiced law in Chicago for twenty years. Before starting down that career path, I spent about a dozen years working as a golf caddie.
Caddying was, hands down, the best job I ever had — so much so that I still can’t kick the looping life entirely. I last carried a bag just two months ago at the BMW Championship Pro-Am at Conway Farms Golf Club.
Movies about lawyers are a dime a dozen, but I’ve yet to see one that accurately captures the big-city law firm experience. Movies about caddies, however, you can count on one hand, and crazy as it may seem, Caddyshack tells it like it is.
It captured my caddie experience in spades: grew up in a big Irish family; won the caddie tournament (once); won the caddie scholarship; enjoyed an abbreviated “caddie swim” on off-days; looped for doctors, judges, CEOs, real estate developers, clergy, etc.
And by the end of my caddie career, I could even relate to some of the seemingly far-fetched scenes from the film.
Remember, for example, when a pitchfork-wielding Bill Murray delivered his wholly improvised monologue about the big-hitting Dalai Lama? Murray explained how the Lama had tipped him at the end of the round not with cash, but with the promise of “total consciousness.”
Hell, I once caddied for a Roman Catholic bishop back in the mid-1980s and His Excellency, for all practical purposes, ran the same “Oh, uh, there won’t be any money” game on me.
That particular deal went down in the south end of the parking lot of Butterfield Country Club, just as His Mediocrity (I’m referring only to his golf game, of course) popped the trunk of his black Cadillac so I could put his sticks in the car.
The bishop had played the course earlier that day as a guest of one of the club’s members, and the parking lot was the place where I always had the best chance of scoring a post-round tip from the guest whose bag I’d just carried.
Why the parking lot?
If things went according to plan, I always had my golfer one-on-one by the time we made it out to the lot. That way, there wasn’t a member around to run interference by saying, “Don’t worry about Matt – I’ll take care of him when we get inside.”
And that’s how it played out with the bishop. It was just the two of us on the blacktop exchanging some final pleasantries — the young caddie and the old guy who drove a new Caddie.
Time to close the deal.
The bishop and I had talked plenty while we were out on the course together that afternoon, but at no point during the round did he and I discuss my religious background. (I’d graduated from a nearby Catholic high school a few years earlier.) As a result, he had no idea whether I played for his team on Sunday mornings or suited up with Xenu, Travolta and the Thetans.
But none of that mattered to His Thriftiness once he opened his wallet to give me my tip.
The man simply handed me three holy cards and sent me on my way.
Three holy cards.
For those of you who didn’t grow up Catholic, picture a baseball card. Now replace the photo of the third baseman on the front of that card with a painting of a third-century martyr. Swap out the player’s stats on the back of the card for a prayer.
Repeat that exercise two more times and you’ve got my tip from the bishop for a round of golf.
“So I’ve got that goin’ for me . . . which is nice.”
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So I’m standing in the courthouse waiting for my buddy — the great El Dragón – to file some papers….
And I’m chatting to the clerk behind the counter.
She’s very chatty — going on and on about this or that.
Only here’s the thing….
She’s wearing a low-cut blouse and she’s got some serious hooters.
It’s not like I’m this horny old man who’s got nothing on his mind except breasts. But these suckers are right in my face!
And here’s the thing about exposed breasts in public places. They’re like eye magnets. I don’t want to look, but I can’t help myself.
So what I do is I keep my eyes frozen on her forehead. Like it’s the most interesting forehead in the world. And inside my brain is screaming: Don’t look, don’t look, don’t look….
But the harder I try not to look, the harder it is to keep from looking. And, like the law of gravity, my eyes invariably fall….
By the way, I’m not alone about this. I’ve talked about this with other people who tell me they go through the same thing.
In fact, there’s a certain woman I know who struggles with the same condition. I won’t tell you her name, but I’ll give you a little clue – she’s married to me.
On time we were at a parent-teacher conference. Our kid’s math teacher was wearing a low cut-blouse – everything was hanging out.
I was desperately trying not to look. Cause, c’mon, it’s a parent-teacher conference!
And the teacher’s going on and on about algebra – or whatever. And I’m saying to myself – don’t look, don’t look. But….
I can’t help myself. I looked!
Yes, at my kid’s math teacher! Oh, the shame.
And when it was over, I asked my wife: “Did you see what I saw?”
“It was hard not to,” said my wife.
But back to the courthouse….
The clerk’s talking about how it’s important to keep our files in order. Cause if we let our stuff get out of order our desks will overflow with paper.
I don’t know how we got onto this subject.
And I’m like, yeah, I hear you. And the whole time I’m thinking: Don’t look, don’t look, don’t look.
Finally, El Dragon finishes his business and we head for the elevator.
“Man,” I say. “That clerk I was talking to had some seriously exposed cleavage….”
“Yeah, man,” I say. “I didn’t want to look, but shit….”
And here’s the thing – he’s mad at me!
“Why the fuck didn’t you tell me about it, man?” he says.
“What the fuck was I supposed to tell you?” I ask.
“I dunno. Something….”
“You know – you’re one horny bastard….”
“Yeah — so?”
Sometimes you can’t win for losing.