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The world keeps spinning.

And since the mid-1960s a group of socially conscious Chicagoans have met for dinner at the city’s soul food restaurants to talk about  politics, food and moving forward against strong winds. Many are gone now:  the restaurants and the members.

The survivors call the group “The Round Table.”

The unofficial leader of the group is Gene Barge, who was a spry 87  years old in November, 2013 when I was early into research on my book “The People’s Place.”  Barge has a remarkable pedigree. He was  arranger, producer and sax player at Chess Records, 2120  S. Michigan from 1964 until 1967, when Chess moved to a bigger space  at 320 E. 21st St. Barge continued with Chess, shaping Little  Milton’s “Grits Ain’t Groceries” album as one of the first hits out  of the new space.

Barge left Chess in 1973 to head the gospel music division at Stax Records in Memphis, Tenn. Director Andy Davis has cast Barge in the  edgy films “Stony Island,” “The Fugitive,” “Above the Law” and others. Barge was also leader of the late 1960s Operation Breadbasket  Band, the pre-Operation PUSH effort formed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Gene Barge (L) at Pearl's Place (Photo by Paul Natkin)

Gene Barge (L) and Rudolph Brown at Pearl’s Place (Photo by Paul Natkin)

“When I got to Chicago (in 1964 from Norfolk, Va.) it was turbulent,”  Barge said over a 2013 Tuesday night Round Table dinner at Pearl’s Place,  39th and Michigan. “Dr. King had been in Chicago in 1963 and ‘64 and  declared Chicago as one of the most racist cities in America. There  was a revolution in society. When I started with the group (in ‘64), most of the guys belonged to the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership  Conference), various community groups. Some guys were dealing  with housing over on the south east side.”

Early members were late Breadbasket saxophonist Ben Branch, who was  with Dr. King when he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine  Motel in Memphis, late Bobby “Blue” Bland guitarist Wayne Bennett, who  also played in the Breadbasket band, Chicago police officer Howard  Brookins, Sr.  and Chuck Bowen, an administrative aide to Mayor Richard M. Daley.

The discussions were hot and heavy.

“The soul food restaurants were scattered around the south side,” Barge said over a plate of fried catfish. “Army and Lou’s (gone),  Captain’s Table (gone). The civil rights preachers would have a whole  table. Some guys would drink coffee and have a sandwich. Other guys would be in the bar getting high. Entertainers would order cobbler from these restaurants and have them sent to their hotels. Edna’s in Garfield Park (still standing as Ruby’s) and Helen Maybelle’s  restaurant on Stony Island (gone, as is the one on 22nd and Cermak.)

“Helen became Jesse Jackson’s caterer. She would look out for him no  matter what. She would send food to his house, she would send food to  the meetings. Because when he was trying to start Breadbasket this  (Helen’s) was one of the places he would meet. There was no  Breadbasket. We would solve the problems of the day. Every once in awhile others would drop in, Dorothy Tillman, (future Chicago mayor)  Harold Washington went to every soul food restaurant in this city.  Branson’s. Bowman. The west side.”

Helen Maybell Anglin died in 2009 at the age of 80.

She was a coal miner’s daughter from Edgewater, Ala. Her mother Sarah cooked mixed greens, black-eyed peas and string beans for neighboring  construction workers in Alabama. Helen opened her first restaurant on  East 51st Street in Chicago in 1947 with her first husband Hubert Maybell. They called it the H & H Cafe.

When Helen opened the Soul Queen in 1976, she made sure everyone had the regal touch.

All waitresses wore gold paper crowns.


“I always try to see past what I think I see,” Helen told me in a 1994 conversation at Soul Queen at 9031 S. Stony Island. “I’m not  looking to find something. We’re not born equal, but we’re all  created equal.

“Everybody has soul. It’s just that it doesn’t always  come forth. If it hits you and gets to you, you’re going to respond.”

So “The Round Table” took its hits and bounced around. The group even met  at the now-defunct Wag’s, a diner that was part of a Walgreen’s drug  store on 35th Street east of old Comiskey Park. Rudolph Brown  remembered, “When they did away with Wag’s we had to leave. We went  to Sauer’s and that closed when they put up McCormick Place West.”

According to Barge, the Round Table was at its peak in the late 1960s and 1970s at Sauer’s, 321 E. 23rd St. Sauer’s, ironically was a building constructed in 1883 to hold a dancing academy for Chicago’s  hoity-toity, including Marshall Field. About a dozen “Round Table” members met weekly, today the number is half that many. Almost everyone is over 60 years old.

Sauer’s had considerable cultural weight because it was next door to Paul Serrano’s recording studio. The jazz trumpet player-audio engineer recorded politically charged artists like Jerry Butler,  Donnie Hathaway and Oscar Brown, Jr. on East 23rd St. 

Oscar Brown, Jr.

The late, great Oscar Brown, Jr.

Barge said,  “Army and Lou’s took over this place (Pearl’s) and then it was run by the wife of  (Chicago blues guitarist) Jimmy Johnson.”

A visitor looks around the table and listens to the stories from a not-so-distant time. The mind cannot make sense of the things the Round Table veterans have seen, the bitterness they have tasted. How  deep does the soul reach? How does soul really feel?

What is soul food?

Brown put aside his po-boy and answered, “It is the food my grandmother fed me on.  The greens, collards, chitlins from the south,  things that were basically given away because they didn’t think it had nourishment. Barge added. “I’m the oldest guy here. My  grandfather was a butcher in Fayetteville, North Carolina. People ate  to survive in the 1920s and 30s. Black folks were  just a few years  out of slavery. They couldn’t enjoy what was afforded to others. Even the plantation owners ate soul food themselves, the corn and the vegetables what we could get out of the ground, the slaughter of  the  hogs–but we ate what they threw away. We ate the feet of the hogs,  the ears. You understand?

“The expression was, ‘You’d eat everything from the snoot to the root.

Brown said, “We came up with a lot of original things because of   necessity. My (African-American) pastor said that when he was a kid  in Virginia his mother worked for some white folks. They would eat  the greens, but they didn’t want to eat the pot liquor (the term for liquid left in a a pan after boiling greens). So she would take the pot liquor home and they would have cornbread and pot liquor. We knew  pot liquor was more rich in nourishment than greens themselves. 

That’s how she was able to feed her children. That happens throughout the south.”

Pot liquor was even used as a remedy and stored in Mason jars in the back of a refrigerator.

“My grandmother in Georgia had 16 kids, of which nine of them reached 80,” Brown said. “The oldest one now is 100.”

Barge interrupted, “Soul food won’t kill you.”

The Round Table enjoyed a healthy laugh before Brown continued, “It was a form of life. Somebody might have raised a cow.  You got the milk, you got the beef. We’d smoke it. I had corn, beans  and peas. I would trade that off for a piece of that cow. That’s how people survived. Poor blacks and southern whites are the same thing. If only one house had food, they would share with the other two houses. Color didn’t matter.

“Soul food was survival.”

Hilda Whittington was the only woman in the group of six at the Round Table. The 63-year-old Hyde Park attorney said, To me, soul food is  a throwback to the time of slavery. Our ancestors were cooking in the kitchen and given essentially, scraps. No one else ate chitlins, for  example. Our ancestors took them, cleaned them and seasoned the food. When I think of soul food, I think of spices, someone taking food no one wanted and making a delicacy.”

Helen Whittington at Pearl's, November, 2013 (Paul Natkin photo)

Biamani Obadele listens to Hilda Whittington at Pearl’s, November, 2013 (Paul Natkin photo)

She stopped and continued, “Soul food was served at the White House.”

In unison her comrades asked, “What?”

She answered, “Jimmy Carter was the first to bring chitlin’s in the White House. And then the price of chitlins went up! Who knows about  Barack (Obama)? Maybe he goes down to the kitchen at night and asks  for some chitlins.”

You can always learn something at the Round Table.

Long time Chicago soul orchestra leader-saxophone player Willie Henderson (Tyrone Davis, Donny Hathaway, Barbara Acklin) and Round Table member added, “The  menu today is basically the same. We’re all eating cornbread now.  Turnip greens. Butter beans.”

Pearl’s Place desserts are baked daily. 

They include red velvet, carrot and German Chocolate cake as well as banana pudding, peach cobbler and sweet potato pie.

Biamani Obadele had the most diverse take on soul food on this particular Round Table gathering. At age 41, he was the youngest  person at the dinner. I didn’t come to the table eating soul food,”  he said over a plate of fried chicken and spinach. “Not that I’m against soul food. I come here for the political discourse and  community conversation. The food is a plus. What’s happening today is  a new generation has become more health conscious.

“Traditional soul  food restaurants are changing. You see more variety, fish, tilapia. Turkey products. My grandmother, god bless her soul, would cook ham  hocks and beans. We started convincing her to use smoked turkey.”

Barge reminded his peers that many observers put African-Americans “all in one boat.”

He elaborated, “It is not true because we are all culturally different. The islands on the coasts of the Carolinas, they call African-American geeches (or “Gullah,” Sea Island Creole; descendants  of African slaves). They eat a lot of rice. African-Americans who come from South Louisiana are very mixed blooded; Spanish, French and  their version of soul food is entirely different. They eat more sea  food. Inward, away from the ocean, people lean more towards animals,  the hogs. They go hunting and eat other animals, squirrels.”

Brown nodded his head. He has eaten squirrels. Of course he said they  taste like chicken.

And chicken wings are soul food, too.

“When I first came to Chicago there were no wing joints on the north side,” Barge declared. “White people never ate chicken wings. Wings,  chitlin’s and ribs became universal. Soul food is a blend of  cultures. Chicago is the end result of all these cultures coming  together.”

Whittington grew up in Opelousas, La. “There was boudin,” she said. “And there was blood sausage. I know a lot of soul food came from the  black kitchen. But the Germans make a blood sausage almost the same  as we made with boudin. You have all kinds of food that came out of  one little pig. Very little is said about how we grew up. I grew up where my neighbors weren’t all black. Some were white. We lived  together. This was before the 1960s.”

Barge said, “In the ‘70s the south was more integrated than the north. I’m just being honest.”

Brown said, “The movement north was for economics. There were more  job opportunities.”

Barge continued, “Boston, Chicago: segregated. Supposed to be free, but segregated. In the south we had white folks across the street. We  were segregated, not by sections of town (as in the north) but by the  system.”

Whittington chipped in, “Even the churches were segregated.” Brown smiled and added, “Still is. Eleven o’ clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.”


Obadele retorted, “I know the stories my family told me and they are  nothing like this.”

Barge said, “Don’t get me wrong, now. We suffered from severe  racism. But the point was that we lived closer to white folks.”

Obadele put down his fork and said, “This city is still segregated. We’ve never had this kind of conversation. I’m only going by the stories  I’ve heard from my grandparents and great grandparents. Black women were domestics, but it was really difficult for the black male.”

The Great Migration of the 1940s brought black workers from Georgia,  Louisiana and Mississippi among other southern states to Chicago. Young men found work in the Union Stockyards, between 47th St. and Pershing Avenue. Brown recalled, “My grandmother would take us to the stockyards and get a hog head. There was Armour and Swift. You’d buy the whole head, yeah! Armour would  throw the chitlins in a barrel. People could come and get the chitlins for free because they saw no  commercial use for them. They saw all the black people coming go get  them and Armour became the first to come out with commercial chitlins, they were in buckets.”

The migration fed the Chicago blues and jazz scene, it fed the restaurant scene. “Soul food can be anywhere,” Barge said. “It depends on the quality of the cooking. I’m in Paris in 1982 and I’m  asking Mick Jagger, ‘Where’s a good place to eat?’ And he mentions a soul food restaurant. On his first visit to Chicago in 1963 (to record with the Rolling Stones at Chess) he had gone to soul food  restaurants in (Chess songwriter-bandleader) Willie Dixon’s neighborhood on Lake Park. And sure enough, an American went to Paris and cooked in a soul food restaurant.  He used to order the greens from America every week.”

Obadele asked, “Was he black?”

Barge answered, “Yeah, but the guy who owned the restaurant was white.”

Whittigton continued to take it all in. When there was a brief opening she looked around The Round Table and said to anyone who was listening, “Wherever you find blacks talking about looking for better solutions, you will find soul food.”



June 26. 2013
33 things for Bill Linden to do on Route 66
(For his 66th birthday journey with Mrs. Bill from Chicago to Albuquerque, N.M. For more on the Mother Road visit the home page of this blog.)

1. Breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s, open since 1923  in downtown Chicago.
2. Golden brown chicken to go at Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket, 645 Joliet Rd. in Willowbrook (adjacent to I-55) —first excellent neon sign photo op. This iconic restaurant has been in the same spot since 1963. The late Dell Rhea was an executive director of the Chicago Convention Bureau and was instrumental in bringing the 1933 World’s Exposition to Chicago. 

3. Twin Spin in Pontiac, Ill.—-Pontiac car museum (I still drive a Pontiac) and the Route 66 Association Hall of Fame and Museum, 110 Howard St. downtown Pontiac. Check out my old friend Bob Waldmire’s 1966 Chevy bus-house. You would have liked this R. Crumb inspired artist. I visited Bob in this bus as he lay dying from colon cancer in November, 2009. One of the last things he asked me to do before I left was to feed his birds.

Route 66 is for free spirits.

4. Funk’s Grove, get some pure “maple siriup” in this wooded grove southwest of Bloomington.
5. Remodeled Dixie Truck Stop, McLean, Ill. Say hello to the MegaBus passengers on their pit stop.
But don’t pick any up.


6. Have a homemade apple, blueberry, cherry, peach, rhubarb, boysenberry or sour cream pie at the Palms (opened 1934)  in uptown Atlanta, Ill. (pop. 1,649, just five minutes from the Dixie). Heavyweight boxing champion Max Baer—father of Jethro from “The Beverly Hilllbillies” is the biggest named celebrity to dine at the Palms—to date. Bill Thomas brought the Palms back to life and is one of the great ambassadors on the Mother Road.
7. Photo op with the Bunyon Giant, across the street from the Palms. In 2004 Thomas spearheaded a drive to relocate the 19-foot tall Paul Bunyon fiberglass statue from a Cicero hot dog stand on ‘66 to Atlanta.


8. Cozy Dog Drive In, 2935 6th St. in Springfield, the launching pad for Bob Waldmire and his family. They’ve been serving battered deep-fried hot dogs on a stick since 1950. The logo of weenies in love is irresistible—tee shirt time!
9. Say a prayer at Our Lady of the Highway, Raymond, Ill. (it can be seen between exits 72 and 63 on the west end of I-55 heading south). The shrine is a life-size marble figurine imported from Carrara, Italy. Late farmer Frances Marten installed this shrine in 1959. When I-55 was built in 1970 the state tried to remove the shrine. They failed.

10. Slow down and put your arm around your significant other.

11. Ariston Cafe, opened 1924 on old Route 66  in Litchfield. Don’t miss the prime rib of beef served on a hoagie with au jus. Good beer selection, too. Litchfield is a gem of a Route 66 town about an hour north of St. Louis.


12. Euclid Records, 19 N. Gore Ave. in the Webster Groves neighborhood just west of downtown St. Louis. Awesome collection of vinyl—you might find some Bobby Troup music here. I’m adding their phone number for my own future reference: 314-961-8978. 


13. Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, 6726 Chippewa St. (old ‘66)  in St. Louis. Have a concrete with tart cherries and hot fudge. A concrete is basically a shake so thick that it can be turned upside down without falling out of the cup. I know our friend and fellow gypsy Al Solomon loves this place.

14. Take time to remember Route 66 is not about an agenda. Let the moments come to you.

15. If you are tired, rest a spell at the newly restored Wagon Wheel Motel., 901 E. Washington St. (Old 66), in Cuba,  Mo., about 85 miles west of St. Louis. (Exit 208 on I-44). The Wagon Wheel is the oldest continuously operating motel on Route 66.
The Wheel opened in 1935. The Chicago Daily Illustrated Times, the predecessor to our Sun-Times was six years old. The Wagon Wheel was one of my final road columns before the Sun-Times pantsed its travel section earlier this year.

16. Awesome photo op at the World’s Largest Rocking Chair in Cuba, down the road from the Wagon Wheel. And how big is it? It is 42-feet-1-inch tall, 20 feet-3 inches wide and weighs 27,000 pounds. Free.  Very cool grocery store and shooting range right next door.

17. Stop or sleep at the Best Western Rail Haven, 203 S. Glenstone (old ‘66) in Springfield, Mo. By now it is an eight-hour non stop drive from Chicago. 
Elvis Presley stayed in room 409 at the Rail Haven. The Rail Haven got its name because of the quaint split rail fence that surrounds the property. There’s a nice outdoor pool for those hot summer days in the heart of the Ozarks. And don’t you go wandering off to Branson, down the road.

18. Amaze  your friends with the fact that Springfield is the “Cashew Chicken Capital of America.”
There are more than 100 restaurants that serve cashew chicken in Springfield.  I never get tired of sharing this story as told to me by the wonderful Lou Whitney, bassist-vocalist for the Skeletons, a popular pop-soul band based in Springfield. Whitney moved to Springfield in 1970. 

Pensacola, Fla. chef David Leong migrated to “The Queen City of the Ozarks” after World War II.
In the late 1960s a semi-truck plowed off of Route 66 into the kitchen of the now-defunct Grove Supper Club where Leong was working. Whitney told me this story in the summer of 2001. To demonstrate what happened, the 6’4” raconteur stood up from behind a desk in his downtown Springfield recording studio and threw himself against a wall. 
Like Dick Butkus hard.
Still standing Whitney said, “David was pinned against the wall and suffered minor injuries. He ultimately got a settlement.” Leong opened his own restaurant with the settlement and became the Ray Kroc of Cashew Chicken. His unique “Springfield” style consisted of Chinese oyster sauce, chives and/or chopped scallions.

19. Central Square in Springfield is where Wild Bill Hickok killed Dave Tutt in a shoot out after Hickok lost a poker game to Tutt.

20. Never bypass the 12 miles of Kansas on Route 66. (From Joplin, Mo. to Vinita, Okla.) I was once on a tour bus with Asleep at the Wheel on a Route 66 caravan and they did this. The residents of the few small towns along the way were pissed and vowed to never buy an Asleep at the Wheel record again.

21. Baxter Springs, Kansas has a sign advertising itself as “The first Cowtown in Kansas.” Don’t miss the rainbow bridges, too.


22. The Will Rogers Memorial is in Claremore, Okla. 
23. Play Bob Dylan on the car radio. Lately I’ve been listening to a “Shelter From the Storm” demo where Zimmy made every word count:
I was in another lifetime one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness a creature void of form....
But the spirit of the Mother Road restores your sense of totality. You understand your place in this traveling carnival of barkers, clowns and lion tamers we call America.

Here is Dylan’s alternate version:

24. Check out Cain’s Ballroom, 423 N. Main St., just off of ‘66  in Tulsa, Okla. even if you just walk by the place. Built from natural limestone, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys broadcast live from the ballroom from 1934 to the early 1960s. The Sex Pistols played here in 1978 and Hank Williams once passed out on a red vinyl couch in the office. I drove here once just to see Merle Haggard. Allow time in Tulsa. It is an underrated ‘66 town full of great architecture, shopping and diners.

25. The National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Okla. (just west of I-35.)

26. When the stars come out, pull over in a field outside of town. Get out of the car. Lay down on the hood of your car and look up to the sky. Make sure a hush falls across the plains. Make a wish.
It will come true.


27. U Drop Inn, 101 E. 12th St. (old 66)  in Shamrock, Texas, newly restored example of some of the best Art Deco on Route 66. The U Drop Inn opened in 1936 and was refitted to be featured in the town of “Radiator Springs” in the 2006 Disney animated film “Cars.” The U Drop Inn was on its last legs when I did the entire Mother Road in 1991. I believe today it is a visitor center and museum.

28. Amarilllo, Texas. I remember this for great thrift store shopping. Like we need more “stuff.”

29. The Big Texan Steak Ranch, opened in 1960 at what is now 7701 E. I-40 in Amarillo. Eat a 72-ounce steak in an hour and it is free. Ironically, the steak ranch is just east of Memorial Park Cemetery. These guys should hook up with the big rocking chair back in Cuba.


30. Tucamcari, New Mexico—lots of motels and neon photo ops. Bonus points for being worked into the Lowell George road song “Willin’.”
31. Cuvero, New Mexico. 
In 1991 I bought a turquoise ring at a Native American shop in this “ghost town.” I still wear it today to remind me of the circle of life (and to always check the air in your tires on a long road trip!). There is a quote in my new collection of oral histories “The Supper Club Book (A Celebration of a Midwest Tradition)” —-available at The Supper Club!!!t -which t is applicable to this ghost moment in Cuvero:

“No place is a place until things are remembered.”


32. Albuquerque—You have arrived. Remember to tell your passenger(s)  that Jim Morrison of the Doors lived in Albuquerque. As a four-year old in 1947 he witnessed a car accident in the New Mexico desert that seriously injured a  family of Native Americans. The imagery of “Crying Indians” haunted him the rest of his short life.

33. Don’t miss the beautiful restoration of the “Pubelo Deco” KiMo Theater, 423 Central Ave, N.W, for your trip will be something they make movies about. Stories with great songs, beautiful birds and happy endings.

Me & Minette Goodman

Oct. 11, 2010

Let me take a minute to write about living in the moment.

Sunday 10/10/10 was a remarkable Indian Summer day in Chicago, something like the 11th straight day of clear blue skies. People were running around—literally-to soak up the sun. Even by dusk I saw folks from the Chicago Marathon strolling around north side streets with medallions around their neck. There always is a finish line, but no so much if you are truly in the moment.

My weekend was filled with thoughts from Chicago past. On Saturday night I began reading “Royko in Love,” (University of Chicago Press, David, a collection of 114 love letters the gritty-on-the-surface Chicago newspaper columnist wrote to his future wife between 1954 and 1955 while stationed in the Air Force. In his introduction, Royko’s son David write tht the tone was from “…the pain of self-doubt and the fear of losing what is so close, but literally so far.” Royko’s wife Carol died suddenly in 1979 of a cerebral aneurysm on Mike Royko’s 47th birthday. She was only 44.

“They say that a sincere love increases with time,” Royko signed off June 11, 1954, “So until tomorrow when I’ll love you more than I do today.”

Mike Royko with sons Rob (left) and David at the Chicago Daily News-Sun-Times Building in 1968. The Trump Tower stands at the old S-T site (Courtesy of David Royko)

While stationed in rural Washington state, Royko writes of his desire to go to the Edgewater Beach Hotel and walk along the lakefront. Edgewater Beach is a place that was special to my parents and in recent summers have provided scenes of my own. “I’ve never been to most of the so-called better places in Chicago because there has never been anyone that I wanted to go with,” the 21-year-old Royko writes.
I’ve been to that place.

On Sunday afternoon I dropped in on the ceremony to rename the Lakeview post office the Steve Goodman Post Office Building. The beloved Chicago singer-songwriter/Cubs fan knew he was living on borrowed time. He packed two lifetimes in one before dying of leukemia in 1984. He was 36. Eight days after his death the Cubs won their first post-season game since 1945 on a sun-drenched north side not unlike Sunday’s weather. This was not lost on me.

I was in a hurry to get to the wedding of Alice FitzGerald, the daughter of my friend Bill FitzGerald. But my compatriot Diane talked me into stopping at the post office. We slowed down. (I figured that a post office event probably wouldn¹t start on time.) While driving around in my timeless Pontiac of 104,000 miles we had been talking about this theme of not worrying about the future. The Goodman detour was a good call.

The dedication was playful and touching, illuminating Goodman’s spirit.
U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley introudced to the bill to rename the post office and I loved his comment about how our cars were getting towed by Lincoln Park Towing (a Goodman song topic) during the dedication. I was in such a good mood I didn’t lay all my issues about the 2010 Cubs on Cubs owner Tom Ricketts, who stood near me.

Bonnie Koloc tore my heart out with a searing take of Goodman’s “I Can’t Sleep (When I Can’t Sleep With You)” and Michael Smith and his wife Barbara Barrow delivered a weathered version of Smith’s “The Dutchman” that was popularized by Goodman. The crowd of more than 200 friends and family gently sang along on the chorus:

Let us go to the banks of the ocean/ Where the walls rise above the Zuider Zee.
Long ago, I used to be a young man/ And dear Margaret remembers that for me.

So the next gotcha moment was during Bill FitzGerald’s speech about the love of his daughter.
Bill was nervous and was overcome by emotion a couple of times during his comments. They were moments of truth.

He spoke how FitzGerald’s nightclub was being scouted for the 1986 Paul Newman film “The Color of Money.” The film’s art director Boris Levin liked FitzGerald’s because of “that baby” in the adjacent front apartment. That baby was Alice.

—I knew the bride when she rock n’ rolled (Photos by Diane Soubly)—

Bill stopped to compose himself and wiped a tear away from his eye. Like a shoebox full of snapshots sliding off a shelf, I’m sure a collection of moments overwhelmed him.

Scott Ligon’s wonderful Western Swing/honky tonk Western Elstons played songs like “Sentimental Journey” with former NRBQ bandleader Terry Adams sitting in on piano. Zak and Alice’s wedding song was the Beach Boys ballad “God Only Knows.” Love doesn’t exist in the future, which sounds like a Buck Owens song the band could have played.

—Western Elstons with special guest Terry Adams on piano—-

At age 80, Bill’s mom Margaret proved to be a fantastic dancer, Kate and Diane were keen photographers and guests played souvenir harmonicas with “10/10/10 Zak & Allice Kloska” inscribed on the side.

We danced, we drank and we toasted—not so much to the future, but to moments like these.

l to r: Cindy/Rosie, Diane, Dave, Bill Fitz

Salsa albums I bartered for before they got ripped off at the Bogota airport.

Oct. 6, 2010

People are scared of things they don’t know.

So for most of September I was the only white guy taking introductory salsa at the Dance Academy of Salsa & Modern Latin Dance in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago. The storefront studio is not far from my home and before my first lesson I circled the block with the windmilled apprehension of a first date.

But on my first visit I cut the rug with awkward Puerto Rican men, a fun Cuban woman, a shy Africn-American guy and an African-American woman who said I made her laugh.
I did not pursue further questioning.

I am half Dutch and a big part of my legacy is wooden shoes. And it felt as if I was wearing heavy butternut shoes as I tried to master the snappy 4/4 time of salsa. Let’s review: 1, right foot forward, hold on the 2, back left on the 3, hold on the 4. I suddenly discovered the balls of my feet.

I was heading to Cali, Colombia for a travel assignment. Located in the balmy western part of the country, Cali is the world capital of salsa. I had to know something. You don’t go to New York without a Sinatra song.

My instructor Miguel Mendez gave me confidence and claimed I progressed through each of my four lessons (at $15 a session). But just like close dancing or a long distance relationship, it was two steps forward, one step back.

I don’t even like mirrors. The academy is filled with full length mirrors so dancers can check themselves out. One tall beautifiul woman with stilletto heels always arrives for the advanced class at the end of our class. She never looks away from the mirror. I want to tell her that one of my favorite country songs is Lefty Frizzell’s 1973 hit “I Never Go Around Mirrors.” Maybe when we get to line dancing.

Then, “Dancing With the Stars” debuted as I left for Colombia.

I have never watched “Dancing With the Stars.” But on my plane ride I read about contestant Michael Bolton. Eech.! People have said I look like him. Now I think I dance like him, too. Bolton echoed my thoughts when he told U.S.A. Today what hurts as he dances: “My brain. The hardest part is grasping all the moving parts and executing in a fluid form.”

That’s my problem with salsa. I love the music, especially Tito Puente and
Joe Bataan. I worry about the steps I take. I think about my partner. I try to keep my head level.
Its like raising a family.

Many years ago my pal John Hughes and I learned how to dance the merengue with a couple of Dominican women in a rural bootleg bar outside of Santiago, D.R. We figured that out in one night. Its pretty much back and forth which we covered at my dance academy.
But I am becoming a willing participant is all things salsa. I learned how the “cumbia step” is deployed in Colombia, which impressed absoultely no one when I shared that factoid in Colombia. At the end of each hour long session Mendez sells tight fitting black salsa tee shirts and instructional CDs and DVDs. I forked over $15 for a 1/2/3/4 salsa CD which I’m sure thrills my downstairs neighbors. Fortunately, I did not lose that CD when my laptop and briefcase (with a couple of vintage salsa LPS) were stolen in the Bogota, Colombia airport just before I flew home.

I’m not that outgoing and salsa dance lessons are a good exercise to get me out of my comfort zone. My life coaches Colleen and Jackie at the Matchbox approved of this new turn in my life, probably since it will keep me away from their bar moaning and complaining. Now that winter is around the corner, I’ll probably continue with my salsa adventures. Watch out. I’m stepping out when I’m not stepping on your toes.

September 20, 2010

It was like one of those clear cylinders filled with cold cash that you shoot off to the bank teller, yes, that’s how I drove from Chicago to Flint, Mich. over the weekend. The CD player was serving up John Prine’s “Taking a Walk,” but I drove fast.
You see things clearer from a distance.

The mood became more haunting the closer I got to Flint. A cool mist and dark skies made it seem more like November than mid-September. My summer had been masked and now autum was being robbed.
Whitey Morgan of the Flint hard honky tonk band Whitey Morgan & the ’78s told me about a great jukebox at the Torch Bar & Grill in a dark alley in downtown Flint. The Torch has been around since the 1950s and Morgan, the third generation of loyal GM workers, went there as a kid. I found the Torch but first I found a young woman weaving down the alley in the rain. She asked if she could use my cell phone. It was in my car. I went into the dimly lit Torch and it was filled mostly with hardscrabble men watching a college football game on a small television above the bar. I asked about the
Its been broken for years.

I’m enamored by Flint and the hopeful heartbeats that are mending its wounds. I picked up a copy of The Flint Journal and noticed that columnist Andrew Heller wrote about Michigan’s serious 13.1 unemployment rate in August. He then cited a report that said corporate profits in general are up 40 per cent. It is like one of those clear cylinders filled with cold cash that you shoot off to the bank teller, yes it is.

Just before I embarked on the 212 mile drive back to Chicago (in the same day) I found Witherbee’s Market & Deli, 601 Martin Luther King Avenue a mile north of downtown. It is the first grocery store to open in downtown Flint in 30 years. This is not one of those funky Michigan “Party Stores.” Witherbee’s is a beautiful and serene place, named after a Flint entrepreneur of the 1860s. The 8,000-square foot store was built in the early 1940s as a Goodyear tire store. It most recently was a women and men’s hat store and salon featuring “Hats by Jake.”

Since Witherbee’s opened in June Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm has dropped in to pick up some bananas in the former food desert. Earlier this year Witherbee’s won the Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation. Six awards are given throughout the state of Michigan.
The store interior is finished in a bright yellow motif and yellow and black checkerboard floors. The logo is a bumblebee that reminded me of Chicago’s late great Busy Bee diner. The logo was designed by students from Baker College of Flint. There’s upscale magazines like “Oprah” (or is it “O”?)  and “Martha Stewart Living” and foods from the fine Flint Farmer’s Market. I picked up a bottle of water, tuscany bean salad and a plastic spoon for the drive home.

I returned to my car and just sat there. I turned off the radio. I looked at the row of bright yellow mums in the steel planters that lined the mostly empty parking lot. It was about 6 o’ clock on a Saturday night and people all over America had somewhere to go, a place to make their deposit. But I felt the hope that had been planted in this foresaken city. I got misty eyed. Maybe it was me. Or the long drive on a gloomy day. You see tomorrow in the strangest places.

August 27, 2010—

I only take an international flight a couple times a year but they always seem seamless. On an average of 20 annual domestic flights, I’d say there’s trouble on 15.

Last week I had a connection in Miami, Fla. on American Airlines. The flight was slated to leave Chicago at 11:40 a.m. When checking in I was informed of a 20 minute delay because one pilot had not shown up.

To cut to the chase, we were all on the plane at 1 p.m. and sat on the runway for another hour, waiting for another pilot. Or maybe it was the same pilot.
The flight attendants told the eight of us our connection had already been
We were going to spend the night in Miami. And we hadn’t even left Chicago.

I texted my friend Tom. He travels more than me. He’s a former cameraman for
WBBM-TV in Chicago and now freelances for “48 Hours,” “60 Minutes” and
I needed a pep talk. Tom delivered and he agreed to let me share his story
with you:
Not an airline problem, but a good story. We were flying back from LA and
updgraded to 1st class. I put my seat back and the guy in back shoved it
back up. I put it down, he pushed it up…back and forth until I finally
gave up. We stewed for a while until we came up with an idea to fix this
prick. We noticed he had taken his shoes off so I carefully grabbed one
loafer from under my seat while he was sleeping.
I stuffed it in a pillow and sat it next to me. My soundman went to the
washroom then returned and asked if I would be needing the ‘pillow’ sitting
there. He picked it up, walked it back of the plane and stuffed it into an
overhead compartment.
The plane landed and we waited outside the gate to get our reward. It took
a while, but we finally saw him limping away with only one Gucci loafer.

The story made me smile and that’s all you can do in these situations.
Of course there’s more to my story, just as there is with your airline horror stories.
It turned out the connection was a half hour delayed—-no one bothered to tell us—but I caught the information on the flickering information board as we disembarked from our plane. We had 10 minutes to run from our gate to the departure gate at the other end of the concourse. Me and another guy sprinted down the strip like O.J. Simpson and Al Cowings. Three of us made the connection as the plane’s door closed behind us. The other five passengers were stranded in Miami.

With all their shoes.

August 17, 2010

Several of my female friends are chatty airline passengers. One friend in the advertising industry has even developed a couple of long-term relationships with a random seatmate. I generally don’t talk to any one. I’m sure I have negative body language and I’m always carting around a book and newspapers as hideaway devices.

Last week’s flight from Stockholm to Chicago was different. I jostled down the aisle and saw my seatmate all hopped up about having a window view. He had one of those wallet sized plastic ID-ticket holders around his neck, a sure sign of a professional traveler.

He was 12 years old.

His name was Erik and he was on his way home to San Diego, Ca. after a six-week visit with his grandfather in Estonia. Erik was traveling alone.

Space does not permit me to share everything I learned about Erik on the eight hour flight. I know he has flown 32 times over the Atlantic Ocean. This does not count one round trip between San Diego and Philadelphia, three round trips between San Diego and Seattle, four round trips between San Diego and Cambodia and four round trips between San Diego and Tahiti.

This was like sitting next to Jimmy Buffett.

Erik is a part-time pilot. He’s already flown a prop plane three times. When I was 12 years old I couldn’t even build a model airplane.

He analyzed our flight patterns and kept meticulous time on a honkin’ watch the size of Mars. “There’s more smoothness on a Boeing 747,” Erik explained from under a mop-top haircut. “The wingspan is much less wider than an Airbus.” He refused to sleep.

He knew he wanted to be a pilot at the age of 3. Erik said his father was an architectural photographer and his 46-year-old mother wants to parachute out of an airplane. He asked me to play blackjack and after about 20 rounds I got the feeling he was trying to hoodwink me. I mean, he was dealing cards face up. “Never trust an unattended minor,” he said with a sly smile. We weren’t playing for money although I told the flight attendants we were. The plane was full so they couldn’t move me. Or him.

Erik remarked how Asiana Airlines has the capability for interactive blackjack and poker with other passengers, something our flight did not have. He showed me some magic card tricks which we shared with Swedish women across the aisle. I had more passenger interaction on this flight than on my last five years of flying.

My new pal was bummed out about returning to school because he was starting at a new school. I told him that when I was his age I was uprooted when my parents moved from Columbus, Ohio to Naperville, Ill. It was tough. He is not alone.

Erik drifted in and out of the movie “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” three and a half times during the flight and let me listen to The Red Hot Chili Peppers on his iPod. Then he asked, “Do you know Beck?” I said I loved Beck’s sense of challenge and shifting musical motifs. I think Erik was impressed. I also elected not to talk about how Beck’s “Lost Cause” has been in my recent rotation. He’ll have plenty of time to learn about that stuff on his own.

I’m not mentioning the airline we were on because Erik gave them low marks on the landing at O’Hare. It was something about how the wing flaps were still up when the plane came to a stop, which meant the pilot would have to start up the plane and put it in reverse before the next departure. Or something like that. I was tired and I wasn’t taking notes.

But Erik is a great kid. We agreed on how screaming, screeching babies are the worst thing about flying. Worse than turbulence. He carried an “Adventures of Tom Sawyer” paperback and that scored huge points with me. As I disembarked I told Erik his parents should be very proud of him, which I’m sure they are. If I ever have children, I too, will tell them to reach for the stars.

July 26, 2010—

MADISON, Wis.—-I’ve found the perfect comfort zone at the Edgewater Hotel on Lake Mendota in Madison.
And it is about to get bigger.

The hotel’s porthole windows and flowed, curving exterior lines in original brick and steel reminds me of South Beach. But this less LeBron James and more of the smooth soul of Etta James.

In May the city council approved plans to move ahead on major redevelopment of the property, which opened in 1948. Regular readers of my stuff in the Chicago Sun-Times and my blog know of my affinity of the Edgewater and its streamlined design that replicates a cruise ship.
I love the hotel’s cute names like the Pleasure Pier, where the Gibraltar Rockets, my favorite regional reggae band performs on Thursdays through Labor Day, the Admiality Room and The Cove, a cocktail lounge which features more than 100 celebrity photographs (Sonny and Cher, John Prine, Warren Zevon and yours truly, next to Yankees second baseman Bernie Allen).

The hotel is in the Mansion Hill historic district and because of that it has not been easy to move forward on the proposed $98 million redevelopment. A private pool, spa and restaurant will be added on top of original 1948 building. A grand staircase will be built for pedestrians to move six stories from Wisconsin Avenue down to the lake.
The sticking point with a couple of neighbors is a secondary tower with 100 new hotel rooms, 12 deluxe condominimums, restaurant, sidewalk cafe and public park with new parking. The tower has been brought down to eight stories from 12, to appease the neighbors. One neighbor is continuing efforts to stop the project.
But the final city council meeting that approved the redevelopment began at 7 p.m. and ended at 7:40 a.m. the next day, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

“The Edgewater is an internationally known independent property,” second generation owner Scott Faulkner said last week. “We’re going to keep it independent and take it to the next level.”
Faulkner hopes for groundbreaking in March, 2011 with the project expected to be done in the following 18 months. He does not expect the Edgewater to close down during work. The pier—where Tommy Bartlett Ski Show performed before moving to the Wisconsin Dells—is also scheduled to be expanded.

The project is being done by Bob Dunn of the Hammes Co. in Madison and I did not know his pedigree.
Dunn redeveloped Lambeau Field, the home of the Green Bay Packers. Dunn also did Ford Field in Detroit, the new Meadowlands Stadium (Giants/Jets) in New Jersey and is working with the NFL to build a new stadium in Southern California. “He lives about two blocks from me,” Faulkner said. “He’s been after me for 10 years so a couple of years ago we sat down and talked.”

Dunn has called the Edgewater “Madison’s Living Room.”
And I’m the guy crashing on the sofa who never wants to leave.

The original Edgewater architect was Lawrence Monberg of Chicago, who designed a couple of other Art Moderne buildings near the Edgewater and the 1938 remodeling of the 160 W. Burton Place building in Chicago (where building tiles were replicated from Edgar Miller’s designs). The Quisling Brothers of Madison built the Edgewater. hotel. In 1948 they drafted Austin “Augie” Faulkner from the fabulous Drake Hotel in Chicago to become general manager. Faulkner became owner of the Edgewater in 1963 and received permission from the Drake to model the Edgewater logo after the Chicago property.

Scott Faulkner’s son Ross, 23 is now running the hotel’s pier operations and is in line to become the third generation manager of the hotel. Besides the Rockets, J.P. Roach the son of John Roach (former Steve Dahl television producer and co-writer of “The Straight Story” screenplay) plays acoustic guitar every other Tuesday sunset sets on the pier. Ever the intrepid music fan, I’ll return to the Edgewater this Thursday to catch the Rockets after last Thursday’s show was rained—and tornadoed out.

July 18, 2010—

I’ve spent some of the summer wandering around my father’s library in the dark basement of my parents Naperville home.
His ample bunker has always been a work in progress. There are no finished walls, old sofas where you could’ve made out as a kid and his books are propped up on rows of steel shelving like rusty rakes.

Dad used to go downstairs a lot to absorb a cool still during these hot summer months. I also think his books took him to another time.
Now he can no longer walk downstairs and has invited me and my brother to “take what we want.”
My entire apartment is like his basement, so I don’t need many more books. I have books in my kitchen cabinets. But I’ve snagged a couple of vintage Chicago titles and bequeathed them to young writers where I work. New ideas with grounded sources.

Having grown up in the three flats of Logan Square and the Chicago Stockyards, my Dad has a strong sense of roots. Hopefully these words from the mid-20th century will bring perspective in understanding the city today.

But there is one title I have kept: “CHICAGO (An extraordinary guide),” [Rand McNally, $7.95] written in 1967-68 by Jory Graham.
“CHICAGO” is a 475 -page hard cover travel and information guide. It offers fascinating insight into the way a heartland city used to be. Lots of stuff went down in the summer of 1968 (assassination of Robert Kennedy, the violent Democratic National Convention in Chicago), just after this book was published.
It is the city’s final guide to Midwestern innocence, a place comfortable in its own skin.
Chicago soon entered a complicated international stage.

Graham was a fourth-generation Chicagoan who wrote for the now-defunct Chicago Daily News. She died in 1983 and spent the last three years of her life writing a coping with cancer column. She was smart. A line in her foreword still rings true today:
The Chicagoan’s confusion of bigness with greatness is wholly American, but the degree to which he equates them is un-matched anywhere north of Texas.”
As a long time contributor to “The Unofficial Guide to Chicago” series I’ve had fun wandering through the guide. For late night bars, Graham cites the Rally Alley, 1017 N. Rush and says, “In summer, when the dancing becomes horribly perspiry, the 5 AM closing is often greeted with a cheer because somebody suggests running across to the lake for a quick swim. Go—you’ll be just in time for the sunrise—and the lake is splendid at that hour.”
Today you would either be arrested or you would have to keep running back and forth to your car to feed the parking meter.

The restaurant section is full of the dearly departed like Binyon’s, Harvey House Grill, and Tiger Steak Bar & Dining Room on E. 79th St. (“The other superb Negro steak house in the city….private dining room for top echelon businessmen and celebrities, such as Dick Gregory. The main room is a hangout for Negro newsmen.”) But then there’s standbys like Bruna’s Cafe, 2424 S. Oakley, which has become one of my favorites in recent years. Graham recommends the Sunday specialty of Roast Chicken, “with oregano and other herbs tucked under its wings.”
And in the sports section Graham complains how Chicago’s facilities are spread across town and there is “considerable pressure for a glossy new catchall indoor-outdoor sports areana, one that will top Houston’s Astrodome, of course.”

Of course.
She also tells female readers to use First Aid stations at crowded stadiums. Graham says the trick is to “look distressed—the nurse won’t dare say no. Thus you get a toilet that flushes, two kinds of water in the wash basin, soap and plenty of paper towels.”

Reading Graham’s words has not been an exercise in nostalgia. I was only 13 when this book came out. But I stopped in the silence of the basement as I learned about the bocci evenings in the Siclian neighborhood, 3200 W. Chicago, not far from where I live. All that is gone. It is a not so faint memory for someone, somwhere.

A city is like a garden with deep roots shifting and new ideas in bloom with every coming season. We sustain from the warmth of close neighbors and the thrill is in the till. That is what I could tell the next generation of writers to which I am passing on these books.
That is what my Dad is telling them.