From the monthly archives: "December 2010"

The view of my Chicago street, 10 a.m. Dec. 25, 2010

Dec. 26, 2010—

I scoffed at the claim of rats chewing on the wiring of cars parked in our lot on the west side of Chicago.
I’ve lived in Chicago for more than 25 years and never heard of this.

But rats disabled the cars of two neighbors and on Christmas Eve I think it happened to me. I’m taking my car in tomorrow.

I did some research and in recent years auto manufacturers have used more environmentally acceptable (and cheaper) soy based plastics as wiring insulation. I guess that’s like a beer and a shot for rodents. We’ve been using mothballs as a deterrent and that has seemed to do the trick except that my hands now smell like the closet of a nursing home.

On Christmas Day I took buses and METRA to see my parents in west suburban
Naperville, normally a 40 minute drive from Chicago.
It was a beautiful day to embark on a four-hour journey. A fresh snow turned tree branches into playful pipe cleaners. Few people were on the street, and those who were smiled and said hello. One young guy extended his hand and said “Merry Christmas!” And Archie’s Iowa and Rockwell Tavern wasn’t even open.

I saw the hit film “The Social Network” alone on Christmas Eve. On Christmas morning I had renewal from getting out from behind a computer and interacting with people. On sidewalks. Buses. Cabs. And trains.

I waited for a train at Chicago’s Union Station.

A guy and a woman sat on the dirty floor near Gate 8. Their backs were slouched up against a wall of abandoned yellow pay phones. The couple wore matching faded blue jeans and if it was summer I would have guessed they had been at a Phish concert. They sat close together but were not holding hands. The woman looked to be between 30 and 35 years old.

She had straight black hair, an under-the-mistletoe smile and dark circles underneath her eyes. She told the guy about jail and visitation rights. She complained that her
two-year-old was biting her 10-year-old. She did most of the talking.

I wanted to buy a Chicago newspaper for the hour-long trip to Naperville.
The train stops at every station on holidays.

I’m a traditionalist who likes to get the Sunday paper on Saturday afternoon. None of the Chicago papers had made a delivery by noon Saturday at Union Station: Saturday or Sunday editions.

The Saturday New York Times was available as was a stack of day-old USA Todays.

I enjoyed the Times’ front page story about two Brooklyn couples who held separate weddings in Manhattan on Christmas Day, 1949. Since then the four of them have reunited every Christmas Day. All newspapers should do more stories like that. They connect the souls.

It had been years since I had taken the train through the western suburbs.

The names of the stops are so idyllic: LaVergne, Riverside, Hollywood…I bet there’s no rats in these towns. There’s also the slang sounding Berwyn, which sounds like Melvin’s crazy uncle. I was born in Berwyn.

“Approaching Fairview!,” bellowed the tall black conductor with a stylish scarf.

It seemed as if we were at Fairview forever. I looked out the gray window at a dozen people leaving the train. I couldn’t stop the questions from coming:

“Is this their first Christmas together?” “Are they going to work at one of the few places that are open in the suburbs?” “Are they green and just not driving?”

“Is someone here to pick them up?”
I love seeing a familiar face at the end of any trip longer than an hour. Sometimes they can answer the questions I’ve collected along the way.

“Why is he carrying a 12-pack of Busch Light?”

“Did rats chew on the wires of her car, too?”

Naperville was just down the road. I got off the train. There was no one to pick me up. My parents are now too old to drive. No cabs were to be found.
It was just like when I grew up here and there was only one cab company in town. I forgot his name.

I walked a couple miles west to the ranch house I grew up in. Earlier in the day there was a soft rumble as I walked through the city. Naperville’s streets were hushed.
I saw my old junior high school, where there is now a new junior high school. Near the front of the school they put up a bronze statue of kids holding hands and playing in an eternal spring. I walked by that.

I walked past the home of the guy we all thought was geeky in high school and then
brought a stunning flight attendant to our 10-year-high school reunion. I walked by the park with the lucky horseshoe pit I’ve promised to show people but things never work out that way.
I kept walking ahead.

I was hard wired, like a car that’s been sitting in the snow.

Meeting Black Elvis, New Year’s Eve 1987.

Dec. 23, 2010—

New Year’s Eve.
Where do I begin?
That’s what New Year’s Day is about, right?
I’m getting the feeling this New Year’s Eve will be like New Year’s Eve 1998. My Chicago friends Bob and Cleo met me at the Snow Flake Lounge, a tiny bar adjacent to the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Snow Flake Motel south of St. Joseph, Mich.

A local Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline husband-and-wife team hosted a karaoke party. Bob and Cleo were staying with some friends.
I stayed at the Snow Flake, where my one-light bulb room had minimal heat and a mattress that was crazy hard.
The lounge was packed with locals on a snowy night. “Elvis” went off the rails to cover Conway Twitty, Willie Nelson and even Faron Young’s “Hello Walls” while always sounding like a profound Elvis.

The Snow Flake was built in 1962. Wright died in 1959. The roadside motel’s plans were completed by William Wesley Peters, Wright’s chief apprentice and son-in-law. The motel and lounge have since been razed.

Last year I was with my ex-girl friend and her younger sister at a party with a live cumbia band in La Barrona (pop. 900) on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala. The doormen packed heat. Dancing abounded. There was a glorious fireworks show and cold Gallo beer.
We stayed with her wonderful friends, where our room had minimal heat and a
mattress that was crazy hard.
Her sister and I saw a rat scamper across the dirt floor of the casa, a fact which is still being denied in some quarters. Sometimes you don’t see what’s in front of you.

Jan. 1, 2010. Good morning.

Elvis was also in play when Wendy and I flew to Key West to see Jimmy Buffett and the Neville Brothers in a New Year’s Eve 1987 show in his just-opened Margaritaville Cafe on Duval Street. That’s back when you could make money in journalism. There were only 200 people in the room which gave me ample space to hang out with opening act “The
Black Elvis.”
The bed at the roadside motel on Highway 1-A was just fine.

This year I am staying home.
I will make jambalaya and wander over to the Empty Bottle to catch a Big Freedia “Bounce” set. I think Bob and Cleo will be back in the house.
Big Freedia is the main purveryor of the free-form New Orleans Bounce scene. Bounce has the fast beats of Chicago House, but Freedia (FREE-da) says there is more ass shaking going on in Bounce. We may be an older demographic for this gig, but no more than a night at Archie’s Iowa & Rockwell Tavern in my neighborhood.

The urban Bounce movement began as “Sissy Bounce,” a New Orleans term for biological men with varied and ambigious sexual identities, but “Sissy Bounce” is eschewed by its performers. I do expect fun, especially when Freedia draws from the rhythmic wordplay of some of my favorite 1960s New Orleans R&B artists like Jesse Hill (“Ooo Poo Pah Do”) and Oliver Morgan (“Who Shot the La-La?”).

And I like cooking jambalaya because I can also shoot from the hip.
I have to type this out to remember it: I throw on New Orleans rhythm and blues (soul singer-drag queen Bobby Marchan is in order for Freedia), Cajun music and fire up my kitchen. Sometimes I wear science classroom goggles.

Since it is New Year’s Eve I will add black-eyed peas for good luck, carrots, onions and maybe chickpeas. I use traditional jambalaya meats: andouille sausage and spicy tasso ham, which I find at Paulina Meat Market, 3501 N. Lincoln on the north side of Chicago. At Paulina’s, the tasso ham is dry cured, seasoned and fully cooked.

The ham is what makes my jambalaya different. Paulina Market uses four different peppers in the ham, including cayenne. I always add a teaspoon of ground cayenne pepper into my jambalaya just for more kick. Then I’ll spin out to the bottle for a bold dash of bounce. Who knows what might happen? Its just another night.

Big Freedia (left)—courtesy of Big Freedia.

Or is it?

I’m just looking for a dark corner for enlightenment, maybe a shot of tequila and a warm kiss to send me into a better year.

Jan., 2010; Guatemala.

Dec. 14, 2010—

Maybe some of you have been to Ruby’s Bar & Grill on the Coney Island boardwalk in Brooklyn, N.Y. Maybe not.

But everyone has the desire for an endless summer.

Ruby’s closed last month. It opened in 1934 and was the oldest bar on Coney Island. You could sit outside, stare at the Atlantic Ocean and understand just how small you are in this world. Life is not meant to be taken so seriously. They knew that at Ruby’s.

I remember dancing to Tito Puente and Ronnie Hawkins’ “Who Do You Love?” near Ruby’s jukebox. One time I saw a middle-aged African-American woman in breathless hip-huggers and chesty halter top. She was sucking on a pacifier.

Another time, near closing time, Puerto Rican women were slow dancing with scarred, stubble faced men to Jimmy Rosselli’s “When Your Old Wedding Ring Was New.” When I had my first pay-as-you go cell phone, I called a girl friend from Ruby’s.

I wished she was there.

Coney Island is my favorite place in New York. The tilt-a-whirl democracy is blatant. When the subway system came to Coney Island in the 1920s, its popularity took off. Coney Island became known as “The Nickel Empire” because of the 5-cent subway fare.

“It is blatant, it is cheap,” wrote author Reginald Wright Kaufman. “It is the apotheosis of the ridiculous. But it is something more; it is like Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone Park. To not have seen it is not to have seen you own country.”

Ruby’s fell victim to re-development from Zamperla USA, which has a ten-year lease to operate amusements the city bought for $95.6 million from Thor Equities. Thor closed down the Trader Vic’s at the Palmer House in Chicago. Ruby’s will be replaced by entertainment and/or retail stores you will find anywhere else in America.

There was only one Ruby’s.

Every once in a while I make a list of my favorite bars in America: The Green Parrot in Key West, Fla., the Lamplighter in Memphis, Tn. the Matchbox in Chicago and Vesuvio’s in San Francisco. All of these joints are small, they embrace diversity and there’s great music. You see weathered truth in the eyes of regulars. No one dyes their hair. The bartender always buys the third drink. Ruby’s was on that list.

Certainly the new developers will get more real estate bang for their buck. [Shoot the Freak and Cha Cha’s Italian Ice and Ice Cream are also going down.] Ruby’s was a linear, one-level boardwalk roadhouse with red frontage and a color portrait of a fat burger and fries. The new building may stand taller, but its soul won’t be as deep.

In 2001—a month before September 11— I wandered into Ruby’s after a Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball game down the 12th Street Boardwalk. Owner Ruby Jacobs had died in April at the age of 74. He started the bar with his brother Phil, who died in November, 2000 at 84. They are buried together at a cemetery near the Belmont racetrack. Ruby grew up on the boardwalk selling knishes. Ruby’s tombstone reads:

Coney Island the Elixir of Life.”

We take pictures of summer, we think of things to say on tombstones, dusted by snow in a New York winter. My final visit to Ruby’s turned out to be in the fall of 2007. I paid
closer attention because Thor had already announced plans to redevelop Coney Island.

I saw a faded photograph of Bob Hope and Jackie Gleason in blond wigs and drag. Their get-up was a suprise birthday present to Rudy, who was a big Marilyn Monroe fan. For the second time I heard the story about the tiny Cessna plane that crashed into the beach snd near Ruby’s front door. One of the regulars got up, left his drink at the bar, pulled the pilot out of the plane, and later returned to finish his cocktail.

Bartender Willie Hinds had worked at Ruby’s for 27 years. A mid-September sun softly glistened over the ocean. Hinds told me, “They took away the World’s Fair, they took away the World Trade Center, they took away Rockaway Park, they’re going to take away Coney Island, too.” She never smiled.

Then she told me about Bacardi and Cokes. I ordered a beer and talked to an attractive woman working the New York Times crossword puzzle. I generally don’t speak to strangers, but I like someone with a newspaper in front of them.

She was looking for a word for a period of existence.

And I looked around the empty bar.

Dec. 8, 2010—

I like to think I know a little about a lot of things, but I had never seen a real live tiny Christmas tree.
I mean, a three-foot North Carolina Fraser Fir with real needles. You put a cup of water in a tree stand and everything.

The orange ribbon on one of about seven branches says it is a “Tabletop Tree.” It seems this tree is for someone in a transient apartment or prison.

I do live alone and over the weekend forked over $20 for one of these lame trees. No one could stop me. I’ve seen three-foot tall artifical trees, but not real ones.
What’s next? Live micro-palm trees?

I recently decorated my Christmas tree. It took about three minutes. One string of lights hang like a melting icicle over the tabletop.

Sometimes this tree cracks me up. Other times it makes me wonder what happened to all my “Leave it to Beaver” life visions.

Over the past several years I’ve loaded up the car with Charles Brown holiday CDs and drove out with a significant other from Chicago to chop down a Christmas tree at Sinnissippi Forest in Oregon, Ill. I loved embarrasing my date by asking her to sit on Santa’s lap while Mrs. Claus gave me a “Why don’t you grow up?” stare. Sinnissippi closed last year after a 61-year-run. They told me that business had been down. Well, I had never chopped down a three-foot tree there.

Maybe that was the problem.

And this year I’m not in a relationship that demands the commitment to find a new forest—from the trees.
So here I am with my first ever “Tabletop Tree.”

I couldn’t figure out how these dinky trees are grown. The ribbon had a phone number for the Carolina Fraser Fir Company on Potato Creek Road in Mouth of Wilson, Va.
Their address is bigger than my tree.

Inventory manager Greg Goodman answered the phone. His company’s 500-acre farm is on the Virginia-North Carolina border. “There’s a little place in the field where we grow all the tabletop trees together—just for that purpose,” Goodman explained in a deep Southern drawl. “Most six, seven foot trees are set five feet apart in the field. These are probably set two feet apart, knowing we’re going to trim them when they’re smaller.”

Great. Just the way Maria cuts my hair.

“We plant a crop yearly with the intent of harvesting that crop 10 years down the road,” he said.

Goodman figured my tree was harvested in mid-November. You could transport these trees to Chicago in a car instead of a truck, so it is a green initiative.

Goodman said my little tree was already about eight to 10 years old. He explained, “Its about five years from seed before you set them out in the field. An eight foot tree is 15 years old.”

The root system is cut off so I can’t replant my tree to make it a bigger, more normal looking Christmas tree.

Should all this make me sad?
“No, that’s what its grown for,” Goodman answered. “The market for tabletop trees goes up every year. (Are you thinking TeenyTableTopTree ornaments?) Maybe more people living in apartments are able to use them. A lot of cities that didn’t allow live trees in apartments are now letting in live trees. There’s not much of a chance of one of them catching on fire before Christmas if they’re kept watered.”

And if they do catch on fire, a glass of water will do the trick.