From the monthly archives: "November 2010"

November 25, 2010—-

She lived 7,000 steps beyond the truck stop.

The Midway truck stop was pretty much just as I left it about 10 years ago. The Midway is exactly 121 miles each way between Kansas City and St. Louis, which means it is no-way.

That’s why everything is going on at the Midway. There’s a general store stuck in ramshackle 1970s design filled with dusty bottles of Mountain Dew and souvenir wooden toothpick holders for $1.99. A 24-hour diner serves mashed potatoes drenched in gravy and green beans out of the can. There’s a tattoo parlor, a beauty shop and 85-room motel. The boot store has closed.

The country-western bar still plays on.

Upstairs from the diner in the Back Door Lounge.

Right off of I-70.

In these days of tight security and freaky morality, how could a 225-seat honky tonk still exist in a truck stop? Whitey Morgan and the ‘78s have to play this joint.

I stopped in last week to hear a cover band play rock-hard versions of Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues” and some Waylon. These cats had been around since Harry Truman. The guy collecting the $3 cover had about three teeth that dangled from the roof of his mouth like chandeliers in a riverboat casino. The cigarette smoke was thick and the Busch beer was cold and gassy.

Everyone drinks Busch beer around Central Missouri and I hate it. But it is cheap, especially when you are driving in search of new horizons. You are looking for someone who maybe won’t hurt you. That is why you drive fast.

“What are you haulin?,” she asked.

I talk more when I’m a stranger. “Cajun turkeys,” I answered. I don’t know why I said that. Stupid. Lots of things have happened to me that I don’t understand. Maybe I looked like a trucker. I hadn’t shaved in a couple of days, I wore a Shrimp & Petroleum Festival baseball cap and my sideburns were way too long. Thanksgiving was coming.

Back around Alton I heard a New Orleans chef talk about his recipe for Cajun turkeys on a satellite radio station. She had never been south of Chattanooga and spent some time in Nashville, Tn. during the final country-western boom of the mid-1980s.

She was even too late for that.

I could see her Busch-can-blue eyes through the smoke and neon shadows. Lines had formed around her eyes like backroads to twin lakes. She wore a blue plaid flannel shirt with the top three buttons undone. This revealed a loose black bra. On second glance the lacy brassiere looked old with black turning to shades of gray. Maybe she was 45. My mind drifted to a two-lane road trip out of Eureka Springs where we saw wild dogs and Get-Right-With-Jesus billboards posted by a militia group. I had to take a picture.

“Skeeter Davis,” she said in a snap. “I loved Skeeter Davis. She put a good spin on hurt.” I knew Skeeter’s mid-1960s hits, “The End of the World” and the shoop-shoop of “I Can’t Stay Mad at You.” She was a thin-as-a –Marlboro version of Skeeter Davis. “I used to hear that a lot,” she said. “Not so much now.” She nodded towards the bandleader who looked like a George meets Grandpa Jones. She said, “Ever notice when you go to a gig there’s someone who looks like the person on stage?” Sure enough one
of the white-haired pool players looked like he got tossed out of “The Grand Tour.”

“Actually,” I said, “I first saw that at a Faces concert when a couple guys looked like Rod Stewart with the rooster hair, before the mascara.” She looked at the empty tip jar at the front of the stage and said, “Same thing, a couple of summers ago when Kid Rock came to the state fair.” I countered, “You should see the audience at a Cher show.” She said, “Or Guns n’ Roses.”

We laughed and agreed that there never is anyone who looks like Bob Dylan at a Dylan concert. We also concluded that Garth Brooks version of Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” isn’t all that bad.

“Couldn’t find work singing Skeeter stuff,” she gnarled, revealing a tooth with an arrowhead chip. “Then Garth, Shania and then I gave up. Got married to a guy who ended up teaching English at the University of Missouri.

“So where are you going with your Ca-gin turkeys?”
“Kansas City,” I said. That was the truth. K.C., Mo. not Kansas. “Stopping off to see the Thomas Hart Benton home,” I added. I thought about buying her a can of beer.

She knew of the Missouri artist/muralist from books in her ex-husband’s collection. We talked about the Benton mural in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Benton dropped dead in his Kansas City studio while making that mural that was inspired by cowboy singer Tex Ritter.

“I didn’t know that,” she said as she nudged a little closer. The previous night in Litchfield I fell asleep reading Benton’s autobiography “An Artist in America.” He ended the book by saying how the only way an artist can fail is to quit work.

“Well I still sing here every other month or so” she said in defiance to the artist. “But no Skeeter, hell today’s truckers don’t even know Tammy or Kitty. Maybe I’ll do some Reba.” Her day gig was in landscaping at the university athletic department and I didn’t know if I should believe that until she asked if I wanted to help her put a reclaimed baseball tarp over her backyard garden.

A late autumn chill was blowing across the Missouri plains. She talked of faded roses, wild potato vines and horesemint. Poke shoots? Never heard of of ‘em. “I live walking distance from here, behind the motel,” she said as she nodded away from the interstate.

“I’m in a hurry, but if its close I can help.”

The band launched into a George Strait song. There were about 10 people in the country-western bar on a Friday night. You could hear the sound of knocking pool balls underneath the music. The place smelled funky, like a mix of cigarette smoke and an old wet beagle. I told her about the last time I was here with DuPree. We drank beer and came up with names for the unknown house band: Z.Z. Truck Stop. Renegade Wind.

We got up and left. It was only a four minute walk in a cold rain to her beige ranch house, about 7,000 steps west of the Midway. She asked where I was from and how long I had been driving. “For years,” I answered. “But I’ve never left my hometown.”

I could say she invited me in to somewhere where it was warm, but that would be stretching the truth. I did help with the damp orange and black tarp. It was torn in the middle. I grabbed one end, she grabbed the opposite end and we tucked away the summer.

She continued to talk about country music that no one listens to anymore. She liked Faulkner, especially his line about “the past is never dead, its not even past” or something like that, but I never read much Faulkner. She pointed to a green Ford pick-up and said, “Not much into fancy stuff. I’ve got a desktop computer, but I use it for numbers and buying seeds. I’ve never been on My Space.” She had never heard of Facebook or status updates.

I heard an extended rhythm to a voice open to dialogue. She asked sad questions like “Do you have a family?” She liked peach pie and vanilla ice cream in the winter. In her distant eyes I saw the flicker of an honest dream. I cannot say I got to know her, but then I know her better than some people at home.

I will return in the spring.


Nov. 17, 2010—

I like to think I do my better writing in the twilight.
The pace becomes slower, the voices are softer and the mystery of the dark sheds light on all kinds of possibilties. I bet that’s why my Dad stays up until midnight. He watches “The Late Show with David Letterman” before retreating to his computer room. There, he checks out the latest online sales for his grandson Jude and Googles medical remedies for my Mom.

My Dad turns 90 today.

That’s big news. I’ve known only one person over 90 and that was Studs Terkel. At tonight’s dinner I will again ask my Dad to what he has attributed his long life. He will lean back, smile and likely say, “Stay cool.” And then he will begin to devour that big juicy steak he’s been talking about all week. At age 90, my Dad thinks he can do anything he pleases. And he’s right.

Maybe he is playing online poker all night.

I ordered a birthday cake from Roeser’s Bakery in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago, not far from where my Dad grew up. Roeser’s turns 100 next year. My Dad’s diabetic. But John Roeser is laying on the fudge.

My Dad has framed the big picture for me. The corners are hand carved with dignity, love, humor and grace.
I have only seen him blow up once (or maybe twice), but once for sure during my senior year of high school when roughly 150 horny teenagers were standing room only during a Thanksgiving weekend party in my parent’s Naperville ranch house. We recruited Naperville Central football players to charge a $5 cover for guys (girls admitted free), Ibach was playing the Allman Brothers on my Dad’s stereo and people were dropping cigarette butts in my parent’s orange sofa.
Yes, he was pissed.

We’ll probably touch on that tonight, but there will be more important topics. What to get Jude for Christmas. We will toast to the serious health scares he pulled through in June. Do you want to know what love is? My Dad was on his back in intensive care and hooked up with a pasta-type serving of tubes, wires and cords. I wheeled my Mom in from a rehabilitation center next door to the hospital.

She extended her right hand. Like a ripple in a warm wave, my Dad’s shakey left hand caressed her hand. My Dad has taught me the value of a few words and those of us who witnessed this were silently moved by this instinctive gesture.

There will be talk of a spring garage sale for the stuff in his basement that defines a mind that has been active for 90 years. I continue to be amazed with rows of vinyl from the movie scores that have been his escape. There’s files of post cards of some places he has seen, places he hoped to see and sights he never wanted to witness.
He was in the U.S. Army, 106th Infantry Division from March, 1943- January 1946 and was awarded four battle stars on his service ribbon including the Battle of the Bulge. I found one yellowed typewritten letter sent to Chicago on May 2, 1945:

The news today of Adolf’s passing was, of, course, welcomed….We had a little company party last night. They had fried chicken, chocolate cake, and some confiscated wine. Plenty of everything and yours truly had about three hunks of chicken and a couple of pieces of cake. The wine was German made and is plenty powerful, so all I had was enough to wash the food down. The division band furnished all the music and it wasn’t bad at all. The Germans no doubt thought we were celebrating the death of
the fuhrer, but actually we didn’t know about it today…..”

Yes, we’re proud.
My brother and I have been revisiting his basement collection of hardcover books about
Chicago. He was born in Logan Square, he came up through the Stockyards and worked for Swift & Company in the Loop. I can’t walk around Chicago without thinking of him. I am a product of his city.

There’s a book of my own that I keep bedside during uncertain times. They are dispatches from Tao. The other night I meditated about aging. I’m was thinking of the emotional rewards in my Dad’s life which I may never enjoy.

But this Tao stuff says adjustment is the key. I know many of you do not have a parent in their ’90s. Or 80s. Or even ’60s, and I wonder if you ever can adjust to that loss.

The end of the passage says, “The secret of Tao is to know how to pass into old age gracefully. Yes, I know. But may I not still reflect on the poignancy of it all?

“To be fully human is to know resignation.”

At age 90, my Dad has showed me that.

Bring on the steak, the wine and the chocolate cake with a frosted mountain top that climbs to the stars. This is one night that will never end.


Nov. 11, 2010

The turns in life are why you stay on the road. No exit.
Just bear down and dream about the next stop. Something better is waiting for you.
Sometimes it is someone.

That’s what World Series MVP Edgar Renteria did. He’s in my Midwest League book “Cougars, Snappers and Loons (Oh My!) ” reminiscing about his days with the Kane County Cougars. Renteria was just 17 years old in 1993 when he was the Cougars starting shortstop. He was homesick for his native Colombia.

His host family Brian and Jane Mooberry of west suburban Elgin, Ill. met Renteria when he was fidgeting in the Cougars front office in Geneva. The team was trying to prevent him from returning to Colombia. He had enough money for a one-way ticket out of Chicago. Renteria was resistant to learning English. He hated American food. Once the Mooberrys adopted Renteria they cooked red beans and rice, which he ate daily.

When I talked to Renteria at the end of his 2008 season with the Detroit Tigers, he was slow to elaborate on baseball. He perked up when I mentioned the Mooberrys. “I appreciate so much what they did for me,” he said with a warm smile in the Tigers clubhouse. “I will never forget it. They tried to teach me English. They cooked food for me so I could stay happy.
They didn’t know me and didn’t know where I came from, yet they trusted me.”

Jane has been an English as Second Language instructor at Elgin Community College. She told me, “Everybody else on that team was 21 and older and here was Edgar, who they called ‘The Baby.’ Someday I am going to ask him if he thinks this is the truth: I really believe him being in this house created a baseball career. It would have been over had he not gotten into a nurturing environment.”

And here is how it has played out:
* Renteria is a 15-year-major league veteran has appeared in the World Series with Florida (who were the Cougars parent team), St. Louis and this year’s San Francisco Giants, for which he was named series MVP.
* Earlier this week he was welcomed back to his hometown of Barranquilla, Colombia. Parades and parties were planned for Renteria, who already was a national hero in Colombia. He declined and said all available and future money go toward helping the estimated 900,000 people who have been left homeless from recent floods in Barranquilla, an industrial port city in northern Colombia.
* Renteria is co-founder of the Colombian Professional Baseball League. His dream is to have Colombia particpate in the annual Caribbean Series (Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela). The league is owned by Team Renteria, a charity group run by the shortstop and members of his family. Team Renteria also operates a youth baseball academy in Barranquilla.

During a July conversation in Milwaukee Renteria told me, “When you see somebody play in the big leagues you want to be that guy. I wanted to be like Jackie Guiterrez (the strong-armed shortstop from Cartagena, Colombia who played for Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia between 1983-88). That was my hero, that was my vision.”
Professional baseball has been played in Colombia since 1948. The eras are divided between 1948-58, 1979-88 and from 1993 when Renteria and his brother Edinson resurrected the league. Edinson, a former infielder in the Houston and Florida organizations (1985-94) is league president.

Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson played for the Barranquilla Vanytor team in 1957. His future Baltimore Orioles teammate Frank Robinson and future San Fransciso Giant
Willie McCovey played in Colombia during the late 1950s.
“Colombia is a big country, but they’ve only played baseball on the coast,” Edgar said.
“Its hot on the coast. Around (cooler) Bogota’ they like to play soccer. We like to play baseball more. I go back every winter and see how the Colombian players progress.”

And when Renteria hits the road, he is always taking Elgin, Ill. with him.

Yuya Rodriguez, a Colombian minor league legend who made it to the Class AAA level in the Giants system in the 1950s. His given name was Innocent Rodriguez.

Let’s party with Jim Flora album art (shot in D. Hoekstra tiki bar)

Nov. 2, 2010—

While driving around with Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and his extended family during last week’s poignant hometown tour of Chicago, I mentioned the Oct. 24 passing of S. Neil Fujita to Hef.

Fujita (foo-JEE-ta), 89, was the graphic designer known for Miles Davis’ moody “Round About Midnight” album cover (photography by Marvin Koner) and the abstract design of Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out.” He also did the minmalist book cover for the Truman Capote classic “In Cold Blood.” I knew Hef is a jazz fan and who doesn’t love hot, stunning album art of the 1950s and 60s? Along with Fujita, Jim Flora’s ephemeral-tiki designs for Columbia and RCA are suitable for framing.

Thanks Neil.

“Jazz and rock music covers in the 1950s and 60s were the beginning of a graphic revolution,” Hef said as the tour bus tooled around the Galewood neigborhood where he grew up (as did actress Kim Novak, “I Dream of Jeannie’s” Bill Daily and American Breed drummer Lee Graziano—”Bend Me Shape Me”!)…Playboy was a dramatic part of that. People don’t recognize that Playboy changed the very nature of commercial art. Before Playboy, magazine illustrations were the Norman Rockwell realistic things. My art director Art Paul and I simply redefined the nature of commercial art.” Paul
designed the timeless Playboy rabbit-head logo.

Hefner and Paul had an unknown kindred spirit in Fuijta, a Hawaiian of Japanese ancestry.
Earlier this year The Design Observer Group reviewed Fujita’s “Aim for a Job in Graphic Design/Art,” published in 1968.

Fujita wrote: “Too many of us have been terribly insensitive to the things we touch, smell, taste, hear and see. We have forgotten how to feel, and so we take the next best avenue of approach to living. We intellecutalize the things we have failed to grasp with our sense…..Let’s dig into things and search what we personally feel is truth. Not truth in relation to accuracy manifested in acts and comprehended by feelings.
“As communicators, we should be the spokesmen of this truth….only then will we be able to make our efforts in print worthwhile to others.”


When Hefner started Playboy in 1953 he deployed honest-to-the-core Chicago writers, artists and designers. They did not have New York pretension. “There was a pool of untapped talent here,” he told me. “The way we handled the cartoons gave the magazine a unique appearance. The full page full color thing was inspired by Esquire, but it got away from that. Esquire got frightened away from the post office (regulations). But beyond that, I hired commercial artists to become cartoonists so it gave the magazine a sophisticated look. My minor at the University of Illinois (Champaign) was art. There was always interesting graphics.”

I think the hometown visit [see my previous post here from my Chicago Sun-Times
blog, Hef Tweeted it, thank you….] was designed as a coming-of-age visit for Hefner’s sons Cooper, 19, and Marston, 20. I’m sure they will be back. They perked up when I told them stories of the Old Town Ale House as the bus headed down North Avenue.

Last year Hefner and the boys’ mother Kimberley sold their residence next to the Playboy Mansion for $18 milllion.
The five-bedroom, seven bathroom home built in 1929 was the place where Cooper and Marston grew up.
Cooper told me, “My Mom and Dad had houses parallel to each other, adjoined by a gate. So we grew up on both properties. Growing up wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. It was totally normal—until you grow up and are able to re-evaluate your situation and compare it to your friends. Then you realize you had something special. But, ‘What was it like playing with the monkeys?’ It was nothing special. You might go outside and mow the lawn and walk the dog. We’d go outside and feed monkeys.

“Marston has always been into video games. I loved making movies. I never went to the beach. I don’t like sand. It bothered my feet. I don’t know why. But we did the normal stuff. Obviously we had a big yard so we played games. I was telling someone the other day about how Nelly and Justin Timberlake were at the mansion. I was probably 11. Someone sent Marston and I to get autographs but I couldn’t figure out why I wanted an autograph. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to meet Justin Timberlake and Nelly, but what was I going to do with a piece of paper? Or nudity was never a big deal. But when you bring a friend over and they see a naked picture, you wonder why its a big deal for them to look at boobs but not for us.”

They’ve been exposed to fine art all their lives.


Hef and Crystal Harris in front of the former Playboy Mansion, 1340 N. State.

I HEARD many interesting things during Hugh Hefner’s Friday afternoon bus tour of his hometown Chicago haunts.
But the best item might have been when Hef’s girl friend Crystal Harris suggested he wear the plaid scarf that was a gift to Hef from her mother and stepfather.
What do you get the man who has everything?
And doesn’t like clothes?

“It was a guess,” answered Harris, 24. “I got him the iPad and I didn’t know if he would like it. He uses it every day.”
Harris grew up in San Diego, Ca. Her mother is a real estate broker, her stepfather is a financial advisor.
They will be attending Hefner’s annual Halloween party at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles.
Hefner and his entourage were in town for the premiere of the acclaimed Brigitte Berman documentary “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel.” Even closer to Hefner’s heart was the chance to show Harris and his sons Cooper and Marston (Hefner’s middle name) his home town for the first time. Cooper is 19, Marston turns 21 on April 9, 2011—the same day Hefner turns 85……..

The documentary features priceless clips from Hefner’s groundbreaking “Playboy Penthouse” television show which debuted in 1959. A ring-a-ding highlight is Sammy Davis, Jr. celebrating a swinging Eisenhower-era Chicago. Sammy smiles, dances and sings about Chicago being a more happening place than Las Vegas or New York—mainly because of Playboy’s free spirit presence in Chicago.

“That was special to me because my Dad (Ray Harris) was a singer who was an opening act for Sammy Davis, Jr.,” Harris said. “That was in England.”
Hefner added, “She was conceived in England and born here.”

Harris continued, “My Dad passed away but he had a lot of music that was unpublished. During season six of (Playboy’s) ‘The Girls Next Door’ I sang ‘Say What You Want’, one of his unpublished songs. That got me signed to a label (Organica Music, an arm of Universal). The producer I’m working with has the rights to Sammy Davis, Jr.’s music.
“Its weird how everything connects.”
Harris will begin recording her debut contemporary-pop record next year.

Just as weird, Organica’s new VP of A&R is Jordan McGraw—-the son of Dr. Phil.

Ironically, Hefner and Harris met two years ago at Hefner’s annual Halloween party.
“I’m shy but I walked over and said, ‘There’s Hef’,” she recalled. “I was on my last semester before getting my bachelor’s degree at San Diego State. I had packed up and moved to L.A. I was studying psychology. That’s what we had in common. Hef was a psychology major.” (At University of Illinois).

Early on in the tour Hefner remarked, “Despite the conservative nature of my (Methodist) family, my childhood was very happy. It was one filled of imagination and games.”

Again, ironically, Hefner said just last week he received a miniature dollhouse that is a wooden replica of the house he grew up in the 1900 North block of New England Avenue in Chicago. “It was a belated gift from Holly (Madison, former girl friend),” Hefner said. “She ordered it in May, 2008 when we were goin’ together. It took that long to construct. Its down to the toothbrush and toilet paper—every detail!”

Hefner was excited about his visit to Steinmetz High School, where he attended in the early 1940s. He founded the school newspaper and was president of the student council. (Steinmetz principals would not allow media into the assembly that featured Hefner). “Steinmetz has a strong print presence and won awards for its poetry people,” Hefner said. “Also, there were a couple hundred people in this mini-auditorium. And the vast majority of them were women. I was surprised.”
And Hefner laughed.
He then cited the popularity of Playboy’s “The Girls Next Door” reality show.

Playboy Enterprises spokespeople said it was the first time Hefner and his sons have sat down for an in-depth conversation with the media.
MY TWO SONS: Marston, left, Cooper right (Sun-Times photos by John Kim)

Hefner’s sons are incredibly humble and down to earth. Their parents did a good job. Their mother is former playmate Kimberley Conrad. Marston and Cooper grew up in a house next door to the Playboy Mansion in Los Angles. Hefner and Conrad divorced in 2009.

Marston is studying philosophy and planning to go to U.C.L.A. Cooper is attending Chapman University, a small liberal arts school near Los Angeles. He is studying film production with a minor in history.
He also reviews movies on the XM/Sirius Playboy channel. Every Friday morning he hosts the “Cooper’s Cougar” segment. The premise is that if Hef likes younger women, his son chats up women in their 40s.
“The older I’ve gotten the more I’ve enjoyed learning about the company,” he said. “And the more interested I’ve become. Right now my focus is school, but I’m enjoying life.”
For example, Cooper was excited about the police escort out of Steinmetz. His brother said, “He’s either going to be a police officer or the CEO of Playboy.”

They are music fans.
“I grew up with the Beatles when I was young,” Marston said. “I’d dance to them at the mansion. Then I’d listen to alternative and indy, which I still listen to as well as hip-hop. Recently I saw Sensitive Rubdown, which is really underground.”
Cooper added, “I grew up listening to the oldies, although Dad wouldn’t like us referring to it as the ‘oldies.’ Now I listen to indy rock. I’m not into hip-hop. I like old Weezer, the Sounds and the Killers.”
When Cooper was 13 years old he played in a Los Angeles alt-band called The Skips. “We played the Whiskey A-Go-Go,” he recalled. “We’d look at the crowd and there would be my 13, 14 year old friends and Marston. Then you had all the guests from the mansion who were 60, 70 and 80. My Dad always came to the shows.”

Hefner, of course, had different musical tastes than Cooper and Marston’s mother, former Playmate Kimberley Conrad.
“My Mom was jammin’ out to Guns n’ Roses in her Mercedes,” Cooper said. “My Dad was sitting on his silk bed in his silk pajamas listening to jazz. We were caught in the middle and got the best of both worlds.”

The current mansion’s ‘Game House’ has a 1945 jukebox with 78 RPM that recall Hefner’s high school years. “Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Artie Shaw,” Hefner said with a satisfied smile. “I started the magazine to create in the pages the party I thought I missed. I was born in 1926 and grew up during the Depression. I was the day after the party. I identified very much with the Jazz age: F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Great Gatsby. People have that feeling now, in things like the success of ‘Mad Men’ and Playboy globally. Much of the world has moved into what we were in the 1950s.

“They’ve missed a party.”