From the monthly archives: "April 2010"

April 22, 2010

I’m never sure if Marya Veeck asks me to participate in her art shows because I’m a friend or if she actually thinks I’m a decent artist.

I have sold all three pieces I’ve exhibited in her warm August House Studio, 2113 W. Roscoe in Chicago. Bring a treat for Beasley, her docile, wide eyed beagle that watches over the artwork.

Veeck is an accomplished artist. We’ve connected not only for our love of baseball and irreverence (her father was Baseball Hall of Famer Bill, her brother is baseball’s marketing maverick Mike) but for our appreciation of the outdoors.

Early in her career I was drawn to the oil paintings and furniture that celebrated Marya’s years in Beauvais Woods along the eastern shore of Maryland. Ill health had forced Bill Veeck to sell his Chicago White Sox in 1961 and the Veecks moved to a converted farmhouse on Tranquility Lane in Easton, Md.

“I like to use bright colors and play them off against an uneasiness,” Veeck told me in 1990. “People respond immediately to the bright colors. Someone once said people were attracted to the colors like birds were attracted to bright objects.” And birdhouses were a logical next step for Veeck. The Veecks have always embraced blue skies. Her father liked to garden and build mobiles and her mother Mary Frances remains radiant in the springtime blossoms of Hyde Park.

About 15 years ago Marya began painting birdhouses in the same engaging motif as her furniture and oils. This leads to the exhibition of birdhouses “The Return of Birds I Have Known” which opens with an artist’s reception 6-9 p.m. May 7. ( The show features 125 birdhouses that range in price between $60 and $500. Besides Veeck’s birdhouse, there’s contributions from Chicago television producer Jamie Ceaser, Cindy Brashler, the wife of Chicago writer Bill Brashler “Bingo Long and the Traveling All-Stars)” and me. Again.

I’ve made a Tiki Bird House and a Baseball Bird House with aviary ready names like ex-Cubs Doug Bird, Robin Roberts and Hawk Dawson. For this show I started toying with a primitive Route 66 birdhouse until the spirit of artist Bob Waldmire took over. Waldmire was a Route 66 icon from Springfield, Ill. who died in December. His obituary made it into the Wall Street Journal and Chicago Tribune.

Waldmire was also viewed as an outcast, hippie and historian. On April 20 half of his ashes were buried next to his parent’s graves on the remote Cardinal Hill, south of Springfield. Waldmire took his last ride to Cardinal Hill in his 1972 Volkswagen bus that was the model for the character Fillmore in the hit movie “Cars.”

There’s more than one way to look at a story, which the Veecks know.

Waldmire was a bioregionist and some of his earliest drawings were of birds. He did a remarkable fine print map titled “A Nostalgic, Bioregionally-Flavored Bird’s Eye View of Old Route 66”.

Last November when I visited him in his retooled 1966 Chevy school bus south of Springfield, the first thing he asked me to do was feed his birds. There were chickadees, blue jays, gold finches, and cardinals—the state bird of Illinois.

“Birds have been one of the great highlights of my life,” Waldmire said.

So, Bob, this one is for you.

I affixed a few of the Route 66 state birds onto my robin egg blue house. I added a cut out of Bob from as he smiled and waved goodbye from the steps of his bus after our November visit. I also tossed in an image of Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket ( along Route 66 in Willowbrook for good measure.

You’ll also see the Eastern bluebird (Missouri), the Western Meadowlark for the 12 miles of Route 66 that flies through Kansas and maybe my favorite state bird of all: The Scisssor-tailed Flycatcher from Oklahoma. The small bird has a tail that resembles a pair of scissors, often reaching as long as 9 inches. The males are known for their “Sky Dance.” A merry dude climbs about 100 feet in the air, launches into a series of V-shaped flights and then plunges down in a zig zag course, someraulting while uttering a cackling calls and chirps. Its just like the streets of Wrigleyville after a Saturday Cubs game.

Anyway I hope you come out to see the show. My birdhouse is affordable and/or cheep.

Aroldis Chapman: I can’t face the future.

April 18, 2010

    Like a pie in the sky, last weekend I launched my baseball season by driving 460 miles round trip from Chicago to Toledo, Ohio to watch the professional debut of Cuban pitcher Ardolis Chapman.

    During the off season the Cincinnati Reds snuck up on all the big shooters and signed the left-hander to a six-year $30 million deal. He was assigned to the Class AAA Louisville Bats who visited Toledo.

    I’m a huge fan of the passion behind Cuban baseball—I visited the island in the late 1980s to watch games in Havana—and I wanted to see what Chapman was all about. I knew he would be different than the tricky Cuban pitchers of my generation. He does not have the screwball of the late Mike “Crazy Horse” Cuellar the herky jerky hesitation of should be Hall of Famer Luis Tiant or even the sneaky moxie of Livian Hernandez and his half brother El Duque. Chapman, 22, was pretty magnificent.

     The Mud Hens scoreboard kept a radar gun on Chapman and he hit 100 MPH on five pitches. Chapman struck out 9 and walked 1 in 4 2/3 innings. He threw 85 pitches overall, 55 for strikes. [The Mud Hens batting coach is former Cub Leon Durham.]  

   Besides his terrific fast ball Chapman froze out several Mud Hens with a nifty slider and change up. The only run Chapman surrendered came on a Brennan Bosch infield single when Chapman failed to cover first base.

   My mind drifted, too.

   Like why don’t the Cubs ever get a guy like this? Unless he gets hurt, Chapman should be with the Reds by June. Chapman cost the Reds $30 million. Its been reported that the Ricketts family spent $10 million in off season upgrades at Wrigley Field. That’s one-third of the way to Chapman. Besides, the only thing done to the bathrooms by my seats in Sec. 242 was some extra lighting and linear drink shelves. Big deal. I think Ricketts is just smiling and setting us up for big hurts down the way—-like PSLs. They’re part of the plan at the new Target Field for the Minnesota Twins where they go by fancy pants names like “Legends Club Memberships.”

     So instead of enjoying Chapman on a beautiful spring day, I stewed about my Cubs. I’m fairly sure the up-and-coming Reds and even the Pirates could eclipse the Cubs in the N.L. Central Divison. We’ve got a leadoff man like Ryan Theroit, who gets cut a lot of slack because he gives good press like Mark Grace. Capt. Lou finally saw the light today and announced “The Riot” would be dropped to the 8 hole against left handed pitchers.

     It’s no “Riot” watching Theriot take called third strikes or swing at the first pitch to ground out with the bases loaded—-as I witnessed this week. Did I tell you about the Reds AAA shortstop Zack Cozart? The speedy 24-year-old got three hits and the game winning RBI as Lousville beat Toledo 2-1. There’s no escaping the reality of the Cubs, even in Toledo, Ohio.

Integrity is doing the right thing when no one else is watching.

I saw this unattributed line on my accountant’s wall last Saturday.

  Me, with natty tie and brother Doug, circa 1967.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The north wing of Edward Hospital in Naperville featues a cul-de-sac a bit smaller than the loop-de-loop I grew up on a couple miles away. On Easter Sunday I visited my Mom in the hospital. Basking in the sun of a promised summer, two families wheeled out new borns in spiffy carriages tied up with congratulatory balloons. A proud father smiled and said ‘Good morning.’ 
My Mom, 88, was having her blood clots dissolved.
Such is the circle of life.
My Mom is a strong minded coal miner’s daughter from downstate Taylorville, Illinois. My Dad, which you may have read in previous blogs, came up through the Chicago stockyards. They are tough customers. They celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in February, just before my Mom got sick.

Mom and Dad are physically diminished by the curtains of time, but their spirit remains strong. My Dad, 89, cannot hear and wears a hearing aid with bad reception. Sometimes the hearing aid makes the sound of a young whippoorwill in an old Hank Williams song.
On Sunday he leaned over in his wheel chair to listen to my Mom in her hospital bed.
He could not hear, but he could understand.
He nodded his head and Mom smiled as she held the orange shawl around her shoulders.

They are quite a couple. Mom and Dad no longer drive a car, but before my Mom’s recent episodes they worked out a buddy system. My Dad would drive because he could see. My Mom, who has macular degeneration, would try to help navigate. I was out of town for a couple days before having to come back to attend to my Mom’s recent needs. When I left we had a firm and steady caretaker from Hungary named Agatha. By the time I returned my Dad was cheerfully calling her “Aggie” while raving about the hearty breakfasts she cooked up.

My Dad became computer literate at age 80. After a long day at the hospital he stays up until midnight researching my mother’s ailments or trying to find her an online deal for a Kindle with large size type. A couple of times during long hospital visits, I removed myself from the room and watched their slow dance from a shaded corner. They are beautiful, a timeless nod that follows the wink.

These are my parents.
If you are lucky maybe they are yours, too.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The future of newspapering depends on thinking outside the box.
One dream I can’t shake is to have Sun-Times news boxes hand painted in a folk art motif by young Chicago students. 
I first saw this on the sleepy streets of Fairbanks, Alaska during the summer of 2005 when I attended the Midnight Sun Baseball Game (that starts at midnight on June 21; Summer Solstice). The boxes were quirky, colorful and drew attention. The boxes depicted cartoon figures and regional landmarks.

When I returned from that trip I mentioned this to my friends at the Hideout music club who said they would be willing to coordinate students and host an art opening. I’ve since suggested this project to people at the Sun-Times. Maybe they think I’ve been in the sun too long.

Here is a box in front of the KnockBox Cafe, 1001 N. California, where I stop in for a bagel and stare at their boxes of water in the refrigerator. This box is begging to be repainted from kids in Humboldt Park. Why not have the first series of Sun-Times Fun Boxes installed in front of places like the KnockBox and the Matchbox, 770 N. Milwaukee Ave. where I sometimes drop in for a liquid refreshment? It can’t hurt.

And a heartfelt thanks to my friend Robert Feder for the following post……

Robservations on the media beat, by Robert Feder

Click HERE for the link

  • A hearty high five to my old pal Dave Hoekstra, one of the great unsung writers, columnists,storytellers and journalism treasures in town, on his 25th anniversary at the Chicago Sun-Times. The pride of Naperville Central High School (Class of 1973), Hoekstra, 54, brings the heart of a newspaperman and the soul of a poet to everything he covers — from his odysseys on Route 66 and around the world to his definitive profiles of Chicago legends. On his Sun-Times blog last week, Hoekstra posted a beautiful reflection on his career. (Here is the link.) Asked how he continues to do such great work after so many years and so many miles, Hoekstra told me:

“Basically what keeps me going is the ability to make the unknown known. I love the sense of adventure and discovery that comes in our jobs. Always tell students about the Jimmy Breslin at JFK gravesite story — to paraphrase — how everyone flocked around the gravesite; Breslin wandered off in the distance to interview the gravedigger. That’s kind of how I approach my job. Don’t know how much of that remains in fashion, but I try to fight the good fight.”

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The save is a big part of being a brother.
I didn’t understand this on August 21, 1975. My brother Doug and I were in the left field bleachers at Wrigley Field. Doug was 13 years old. I had just turned 20.
The Cubs were playing the Dodgers and we were keeping score—-just as we sometimes did into our adult lives. Andy Messersmith was the starting pitcher for Los Angeles and Rick “Big Daddy” Reuschel (one of my all time favorite Cubs) took the mound for Chicago. It was a meaningless game. 
The Cubs were in 5th place with a 58-68 record. Only 8,377 fans were in attendance.

I’m looking at my scorecard now. Rick Monday went 2 for 4 and hit a home run for the Cubs. The evil Steve Garvey batted clean-up for Los Angeles and got two hits. A Schlitz beer was 65 cents. Cigars were advertised at 15 cents, 20 cents and 30 cents. Sweet cigar smoke is one of my best memories of hanging out in the bleachers as a teenager. As are the old dudes with the dogeared girlie magazines.

The Cubs beat the Dodgers 7-0.
Rick Reuschel pitched 6 1/3 innings and was relieved by his brother Paul. They were humble farm boys from Central Illinois. (With current Cubs pitcher Randy Wells choosing new glasses, I suggest a tribute to Paul Reuschel, who by the way is flip-flopped with his bro’ on this baseball card.)

Not a whole lot was mentioned about it at the time, but this game has gained historical importance as the only occasion in baseball history a brother has saved a game for his brother. After all manager Jim Marshall could have brought in Oscar Zamora. Legendary Chicago sportswriter George Vass chronicled it as one of the 50 games he will never forget for Baseball Digest.
Now that Doug and I have weathered the stiff winds of adulthood, I reallize this wasn’t a meaningless game.
It was a metaphor for what we would become and how our relationship would evolve. The save. We were at this game. We will always be at this game. This is what I think about as I think about his Feb. 28 birthday.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

WHITING, Ind.—-Surely there is no place like this place.
While the name of the Purple Steer restaurant suggests a 1968 acid trip from Haight-Ashbury, the 24-hour diner is in fact at the working class corner of Indianapolis Boulevard and Calumet Avenue in Whiting. On the west corner the Purple Steer faces the Robertsdale Inn, a ramshackle tropical drink roadhouse. The north side looks out over Oasis Discount Liquors.
This is Caribbean escapism for the Calumet Region, one of the grittiest sections of America.
On the clearest of days the skies can be gray.
The countryside is dotted with “Tank Farms,” a series of mundane white septic tanks that stretch out for acres. Vapors spin out of the B.P. refinery smokestacks like candles on a foresaken birthday cake.
Last year photographer Gary Cialdella delivered a fine coffee table book “The Calumet Region: An American Place {$39,95, University of Illinois Press, Brauer Museum of Art, Valpariso University,] that features 118 pages of landscapes and scenes from the region. Cialdella, a 63-year-old native of Blue Island, focused on the heavy industry along the Lake Michigan shoreline from the old South Works in South Chicago to Gary.
You can feel the sweat drip off his muscular photos. Cialdella adroitly balances the use and misuse of land. He began making the black and white photographs in 1986. The Purple Steer —where nothing is purple—should hang Cialdella’s art on its walls.

Downtown Gary, Ind. Photos courtesy of Gary Cialdella

Cialdella is fascinated with sense of place.
“I’m interested in social landscape as a setting, a place,” Cialdella said last week over breakfast at the Steer. “I like to draw attention to where people live and work. The symbolism that is all around them: advertising, industrial setting, homes. As a photographer, a personal investment is what needs to be. There’s always something unique about an environment. I try to find that uniqueness.”
As I saw the Caribbean landscape around the dreary intersection I thought of the rural writer Wendell Berry, who in “Poetry and Place” wrote, “ To preserve our places and be at home with them, it is necessary to fill them with imagination.”

Cialdella has lived in the Calumet Region his entire life, only stretching as far away as Chicago and his current residence of Kalamazoo, Mich. He has made pictures in New Orleans and has spent the last four years photographing the immigrant Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. No matter how hard life gets, some people never leave their place, whether it be New Orleans, Haiti or the Calumet Region.
Connection to place is entrenched either spiritually or economically.
“Its a puzzle,” he said. “But people still buy and sell homes in this area. They’re relocating to Whiting and Hammond. Right across from the (B.P. refinery) in Whiting I saw people putting up new homes.
“For example, after Katrina I photographed in New Orleans. I was back last spring documenting people coming back to the Lower 9th Ward. There was very little going on. A couple new houses were being built and Brad Pitt’s foundation was doing a couple modern shotgun places. Adjacent to the Inner Harbor Canal I saw a white house down the road. There were no houses between it and me. No houses beyond it.”
Cialdella sat in his car and stared in the distance. He noticed the singular profile of a man.

“He was edging his lawn,” Cialdella continued. “There was no house next to him. No house behind him. No house across the street from him. I made a photograph from the distance to see this landscape around him. I was so moved by that. It practically brought tears to my eyes. I couldn’t believe the attention someone had put into this place that had been devastated. And they were back.”
Cialdella introduced himself to the man. “And he was thanking me for taking interest,” he said. “He was probably 70 years old. I wished a lot of good luck. There’s something rooted in human beings. People who live in these older neighborhoods and stay there have a stronger sense of that. Maybe its an older immigrant thing. But I know that in the Hammond area, Whiting and Chicago, Mexican-Americans are now the main population. And they’re taking root. And they’re reviving some of these neighborhoods.”

Cialdella is a passionate documentarian and knew the work of late Chicagoan Archie Lieberman who chronicled rural life near Galena in his 1974 opus “Farm Boy.” Lieberman always pointed out that he “made” pictures. “Its an important distinction,” Cialdella said. “Making suggests a process. ‘Taking’ suggests theft. There’s some of that in all photography of course, but when you’re making a picture you bring yourself to it.
Gary Cialdella sees that place with his heart.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Chicken Buses of Guatemala are tripped out-pimped up-lowdown moving pieces of folk art.
I love them.
The buses are retired coach and school buses. Most of the ones I rode out of Antigua were built by the Blue Bird Corporation in Fort Valley, Ga. The Blue Bird emblem was still entrenched like a sheriff’s badge near the front door of the Chicken Buses I rode. The school bus company started in 1927 as the Blue Bird Body Company in Richmond, Ind. under Christian principles. An original sign from company founders reading “God is our Refuge & Strength” still hangs the corporate headquarters in Georgia. 

Perhaps the Chicken Buses are blessed.
Each all-steel bus is custom designed and painted in bright red, yellow and evergreen. Gobs of shiny chrome are attached to the front. Most of the buses have names like interpid explorer’s ships. Our first bus was “The Cubanita” (the little Cuban girl or woman). “The Princescita” rolls back and forth between La Barrona and Guatemala City. I saw the beautiful “Orellana.” 
Many of the buses play loud mixes of cumbia and ranchera music, a perfect soundtrack for hair pin turns down the mountains of Antigua. Flavored with a bold and somewhat touristy New Orleans landscape, Antigua is nestled between three volcanos. 

During passenger stops rural vendors come on board the Chicken Bus to sell fruit, juice in a plastic bag, plantain chips (my favorite) and water. I heard fried chicken is also sold on the bus, but I did not see it. One vendor carried a stack of newspapers on her head. There’s an idea for the Chicago newspaper community.

A few men boarded the buses with machetes and leather whips. At one stop the bus driver requested that the cowboy deposit his machete at the front of the bus. I squirmed a lot. I am 6’2” and most of the Guatemalans are around five-feet tall. And most of the buses were built for kids. I did not bring an iPod and hardly had space to read a book or a magazine. I gazed out the window at the blue countryside, a pastiche of modest farms and roadside huts.

“We are in at least 60 countries,” said Ron Smith, Blue Bird Director of Marketing. “We sell them through dealers to school districts. The school districts use them between 10 and 15 years. The buses are really well made to meet federal safety standards in North America. They have a lot of life left in them. So a dealer or school district sells them to a broker who takes them to Third World countries. We see a lot of them in Latin America.” Smith said 225,000 miles is a good lifetime run for a Blue Bird bus in North America.

Smith studied the Chicken Bus photos I took. He even put one on his screen saver. He estimated the buses were built in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. “I can tell from the chasiss that it was prior to our models of the last 10 years or so,” he said. “They’ve been out there a while. But they’re built to transport students. Its a cage within a cage. It is beautiful to see how the owners and drivers take wonderful care of them.”

Locals say the vehicles are called Chicken Buses because people are crammed into them like chickens in a coop. Others claim they are Chicken Buses because riders transport live animals on the buses.

The website suggests that “Chicken bus is the derogatory term used in many guides to refer to the rural public transportation buses in Guatemala and in many parts of Latin America.” I do not use Chicken Bus in negative tones. 
As the only “gringos” on the crowded buses, I found Guatemalan riders to be courteous, warm and engaging. Local women let their babies ride in the welcoming laps of my girl friend and her sister. I must have spent a dozen hours on Chicken Buses in Guatemala and not once did someone blow snot in my face. I can’t say that about my rides on the CTA.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A bunch of palm trees are not as interesting as one palm tree.
A singular palm tree became my respite during a New Year’s Eve vacation to Guatemala. I was with Adriana and her sister. I have never traveled with two women—at least in the physical sense. They are younger than me. At times it seemed I was in a reality show.

I was in La Barrona, (pop. 900), where no one spoke conversational English. I recalled a few phrases from high school before I flunked out of Spanish II. 
On our first day at La Baronna (sandbar), Adriana and I came upon a large sandbar with the slope of a crescent moon. Adriana was in La Barrona a few years ago when she volunteered for a sea turtle conservation effort. She said the sandbar was new. I headed for the palm tree perched above the sandbar. The palm tree was in an estuary steps from the Pacific Ocean. Herons as thin as bamboo shoots abounded along a riverway. I saw pelicans and Great Egrets. Maybe Kingfishers, I’m not sure.

The palm tree reminded me of those minimalist Corona beer commercials. No one was within miles. I figured the one coconut in the palm tree would fall down and knock me in the head. I had no iPod or cell phone. Just a book of Raymond Carver short stories, a notebook and some back issues of “Baseball America.”

I love the timeless possibility of an ocean horizon more than the momentary adventure of the crashing sea. A few times during our week in La Barrona I made my way to the palm tree I called my own. There were no other footprints in the sand besides mine from previous visits. Some visitors to my secret spot saw sea debris lodged in the sandbar. I only saw the ocean and virgin sunsets.

The world spins on dreams. I thought a lot about this under the palm tree. Adriana has a fast-talking upbeat friend name Douglas who took an eight hour Chicken Bus ride to reconnect with her. He is a fisherman who wants to spend three years working in Houston, Tx. to better his family.
Just about every night I was at the beach I spotted a man walking the beach looking for turtle eggs. He was always a different man, but similar in that he was always alone. Every man I saw carried a machete by his side. The foreword silhouettes of these wandering Guatemalan men under a full moon will be etched in my mind. Three-quarters of Guatemala—the most populous country in Central America—-lives under the poverty level. But these men have the freedom of the ocean.

We took the Chicken Bus to La Baronna from Antigua. The buses are so named because people cram into them like chickens. They are reclaimed coach and school buses from the United States. During one connection on the way to La Barrona, I used the bathroom at a gutted out gas station. 
When I came out of the loo I saw Adriana sitting on a curb between the two gas station pumps. Her backpack was at her right side. Her sunglasses sparkled in the piercing sun. She looked beautiful. She was waiting for her favorite bus, the Princess, whose spinning wheels takes you to La Barrona. She is always waiting for the next adventure, which is what I love about her. I thought about that, too, under my palm tree, alone and looking at the fortuity of the ocean.