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Jeremy Pollock portrait by James Iska

Jeremy Pollack portrait made by James Iska two months ago.

Jeremy Pollack lived in a black and white world which fit him just fine.

His love of noir’, a 1950s love song and the smell of fresh newsprint shaped a colorful life. Pollack died on Nov. 17 after a short bout with pancreatic cancer. He was 55 years old.

His death came just two months after he released “The Hard-Boiled Detective 1,” an acclaimed collection of pulp short stories set in Chicago that he wrote under the pen name Ben Solomon. The writing is tight and rhythmic which amplifies the  drama.

Pollack’s characters zigged and zagged around the Panther Room at the Chez Paree, the Club De Lisa on the south side and some looked for clues at the Hart Schaffner Marx factory.

There is no answer for Pollack’s death.

I guess every death could be called untimely, but Pollack’s passing knocked me out.

He was on a roll. “The Hard-Boiled Detective 1 ” was getting good reviews. The self-published book is available on Amazon.com. On Oct. 19 he appeared on “After Hours” with Rick Kogan on WGN-AM. Unlike the majority of his characters, Pollack had a bright future. On Nov. 17 my friend Scott Momenthy told me the news from his home in Florida.

Pollack had finally left his job as department manager at Printing Arts, 2001 W. 21st St.  in Broadview to devote most of his time to writing. Prior to Printing Arts, Pollack and Momenthy designed publications like “The Land Improvement Contractors of America” and “EcoLogic,” a conservative environmental magazine. While working his day shift Pollack was hard-writing at night from his Logan Square home that he shared with his partner Carolyn Smith. In Feb. 2013 he launched “The Hard-Boiled Detective” as a series of stories available through subscription.

“He wrote three stories a month and never missed a deadline,” Momenthy said Tuesday from Florida. “I was a subscriber. He was writing on the fly. He was that good. He wasn’t slaving over edits. He decided he would not name the detective. That was a big one for him. By the detective not havng a name his style grew around certain rules he set for himself about how he was going to write. He didn’t have to ponder it. He just had to adhere to principles and then naturally something unique would grow out of it. It’s a really interesting idea, a lot how you might live your life. You set up a principle, but you do go there according to what it is. It all came together in ‘The Hard-Boiled Detective,’ this guy who lived by a code. He had made up his mind before he walked into a mystery. He didn’t struggle with right and wrong. He knew.”

Jeremy Pollack

Pollack was born in Oak Park. His only sibling Jonathan is a classical pianist who lives in Rogers Park. His late father Sheldon was an advertising executive. During the mid-1970s his mother Lorel Abarbanel was a tireless advocate for Soviet Jews who applied to leave the USSR. She worked from her home and  the Spertus College of Judica in Chicago. She was worried about the KGB, which clearly planted a few ideas in Jeremy’s mind.

Momenthy met Pollack in 1975 in an experimental alternative education program at Oak Park-River Forest High School where classmates included actor Amy Morton and Paul Mertens who went on to join Poi Dog Pondering. “I was writing songs and he was one of the few people who were listening to me,” said Momenthy, who for 20 years ran “The Rhythm and Rhyme Revue” at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn.  “I first got to know him as a great listener. He was taking improv classes at Second City. That was his primary interest at that time.”

Jonathan Pitts, Executive Director at Chicago Improv Productions and Improv Instructor at The Second City Training Center was in that experimental class at Oak Park-River Forest. On his Facebook remembrance Pitts wrote, “After I put together my first improv team at Triton College, Jeremy would meet me at Denny’s restaurant to drink coffee while I ate French Fries and we’d talk improv. He’d written some of his ideas into a notebook and he shared them with me. It was like learning the alphabet into a language that I’d been around but didn’t fully understand. I still use some of what I learned from him today when I improvise and when I teach.”

James Iska of the Department of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago was a member of the experimental program at Oak Park-River Forest. In a Wednesday e-mail he wrote, “I’ve never known a more naturally gifted person. By the time I met Jeremy at age 15, he was already an accomplished dancer (having performed with the Joffrey Ballet), painter and cartoonist. He made films and performed music, acted and even formed his own theater-improv company. But I think his greatest passion was movies. At the drop of a hat he could recite entire scenes from his favorite movies. He especially loved film noir which explains this last great pursuit, writing hard boiled detective stories.”

As a teenager Pollack was attracted to the joyful performance style of Bob Gibson and Hamilton Camp. Gibson was the house act at the colorful Gate of Horn nightclub on the near north side. When they were teenagers Momenthy and Pollack hitchiked to the west coast to play folk music.  Pollack played ukele, Momenthy played guitar. They sang in double harmony style on the streets of California. They were voices waiting to be heard.

Scott Momenthy (L) and Jeremy Pollack contemplating the future of the newspaper industry in 1986 (Courtesy of Scott Momenthy)

Scott Momenthy (L) and Jeremy Pollack contemplating the future of the newspaper industry in 1986 (Courtesy of Scott Momenthy)

“He began to get involved in noir’ back then, too,” Momenthy said. “He was dressing like that, writing like that, even the songs he was writing was a throwback style from the 1940s and 50s. That was consistent with him right from the start. He was always Chicago. ‘Chicago this, Chicago that.’ He took great pride in Chicago. For him to start getting recognized by Chicago people and to be thought of as a voice in Chicago was huge to him.

“He’s looking to what’s the next step. He doesn’t feel good. And ten days later he’s dead.”

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In mid-August Pollack–as Ben Solomon–approached me for a blurb for his book. I saved his notes because I knew there would be more from this gifted author. “Very old-school stuff,” he wrote to me about his work. “Call it retro-detective. After 18 months with 54 stories in the bag approaching 400,000 words, I figured it was time to release a book. And volia….Merely your intention means a great deal.”

I had to deliver. I loved how Pollack put a face on sense of place.

His characters were able to breathe and move between his jazzy cadence. Pollack wrote with the detail and punch of a grizzled crime reporter.

Here is his scene from “G-Man” of walking down Lower Wacker Drive:

Lower Wacker’s a cavernous throughway, a subterranean crazy house. For mirrors, chutes and rails, it’s filled with limestone, green lamps, echoes. You’re never certain about the reverberations you hear in Lower Wacker. Maybe they belong to you, maybe to something unseen up ahead, maybe something after you from behind. Or maybe something on another level. Or maybe it’s your pulse beating in your ears like an oil derrick from lugging a satchel filled with pig iron.”

“Jeremy was into newspapers very much,” Momenthy said. “In 1984 he published No. 1 of the Chicago Sheet literary magazine. It was called ‘Chicago’s Finest Print.’ He edited it. Ben Solomon first showed up there. It was a broad sheet. It was beautiful. He was a cartoonist and his first cartoon characters showed up there. (Songwriter) Dan Bern wrote a piece. Jonathan Pitts did a piece.”

Jeremy Pollack would pick up stacks of The Chicago Sheet at the printer and strap them to the back of his scooter for delivery.

Jeremy Pollack would pick up stacks of The Chicago Sheet at the printer and strap them to the back of his scooter for delivery.

At the same time Momenthy and Pollack were working at the Wednesday Journal, which was Oak Park’s alternative newspaper. Pollack did production work at the journal. “I was working the boards,” he recalled. “We did the Chicago Sheet on the side. We were practicing guitars in the offices of the Wednesday Journal at night. He was doing so much. He was always laughing off talent. He said, ‘It’s not talent, it’s work.’ Jeremy painted, he wrote, he designed, he edited. And he produced.”

Momenthy paused. The phone line crackled like the last sparks from a candle. “I’m really torn now,” he said. “He was very humble. I feel I should have just told the guy when he was 25, ‘Do you know who you are? Do you know how much ability you have?’

” I don’t know if he ever knew.”

A semi-private memorial service for Jeremy Pollack will be held Nov. 22 at his Chicago home.

Find your partner on South Oakley Street. That’s my pal Jack D’Amico on vocals (Photos by Lou Bilotti)

Like a locket that hangs close to your heart, the Oakley Festa Pasta Vino Italian Festival  is timeless.

And it swings, too!

Taste of Oakley, as it is more commonly known, is my favorite summer Chicago neighborhood festival. It takes place Father’s Day weekend along the overlooked enclave of Oakley Avenue and 24th Street and incorporates superb family run restaurants like Bruna’s Ristorante, 2424 S. Oakley and La Fontanella, 2414 S. Oakley, a favorite of the late great Chicago Sun-Times food critic Pat Bruno.

There is zero hipster factor at Taste of Oakley. People are wearing black, sure, but it is all in their hair. The tradeoff is families enjoying Italian Ice and ravioli on humble city stoops. Bookings include Frank Sinatra impersonator Jack D’Amico, who appears with a trio in a salute to Tony Bennett (7 p.m. June 13) and festival organizer Ron Onesti hosting a tribute to the late crooner Jerry Vale with Johnny Maggio and Jack Miucccio and Vale video clips (7:45 p.m. June 13 on the main stage.) Vale was the first singer to have a song inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame with his 1963 recording of  “The Star-Spangled Banner” that was played at Yankee Stadium.

At the trendiest Chicago festivals you will hear the Beastie Boys.

Expect lots of Jersey Boys at Taste of Oakley.

The long standing storefront restaurants and twinkling Italian lights of the Oakley neighborhood remind me of Arthur Avenue in the Little Italy section of the Bronx, N.Y.

It reminds Onesti of something much deeper.

Onesti grew up on Taylor Street, about 14 blocks north of Oakley.

His late father Alberto was a World War II veteran and a custom tailor at his father’s tailor shop, 1020 S. Western at Taylor. Onesti, 52, began his life in the same building where his father was born. His mother Gabriella is from Florence and Alberto was from Salerno near Naples, Italy. Alberto met Gabriella in Florence during World War II.

Ron Onesti

Ron Onesti

“My wife is from the Oakley neighborhood,” Onetsi said in a recent phone interview. “When I was in high school I came across that neighborhood…..

“Hello father…”

Onesti was talking while donating food to the Our Lady of Mt. Caramel Church in Melrose Park and Father Feccia of the Italian Cultural Center walked by.

Onesti stopped to spread the good word and continued, “In high school I took about 9 girls from Oakley Street to proms and dances. I happened upon those restaurants. About 10 years after that the neighborhood was going down and they wanted to establish a festival. I had been doing Italian festivals since I was 17 years old at Navy Pier and other places. The people on Oakley asked me to help them. And now this is the 24th year.”

The neighborhood is called “The Heart of Italy in the Heart of Chicago” and Bruna’s is the oldest restaurant on the strip. Bruna Cani opened the restaurant in 1933 and still features original oil-painted murals.

This weekend stop by the La Fontanella booth where owner-chef Franco Gamberale will be cheerfully dishing out arancini (rice balls), stuffed arthichokes, beef and grilled sausages.

Somehow I don’t see Grant Achatz doing this on a Saturday night in Chicago.

“The festival brings new blood to the area,” Gamberale said on Wednesday afternoon. “Otherwise people have no idea where we are at. It’s like a little island. Most of the old timers have moved out or died out. How are we going to replace them? At one time you couldn’t walk down the sidewalks of this neighborhood, but that was before the corporate honchos like Mia Franchesa and Rosebud. We don’t use steam tables. We don’t use deep fryers. We still cook the old fashioned way, everything fresh. We don’t have a frozen truck delivering anything here.”

Gamberale and his wife-chef Maria have owned La Fontanella for 28 years. The restaurant opened in 1971.

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Onesti said,  “It is a rare situation of the locals maintaining their ground. The (half-dozen) restaurants hanging around have a lot to do with it hanging in there. For the most part everybody who owns those restaurants lives there.”

About 20,000 people attend the three-day festival, which always concludes on Father’s Day with a special mass. (Suggested donation is $7)

“I try real hard to avoid the hipster thing,” Onesti said. “I didn’t create the feel of that neighborhood. That feel is there. I’m very specific on the vendors who come in. It’s all Italian style, but it is real good stuff–if you like that stuff.

“Being Italian-American in Chicago, the word ‘neighborhood’ is almost as close to the word ‘church’ Growing up, within walking distance of our block there was the butcher shop, the candy store, the pharmacy. Dante Peluso was the guy who owned Peruso’s Hardware Store. Bobby Botelli was ‘Bobby the Grocery Store.’ Cam’s was the restaurant on the corner, the guys from Superior Bakery at Western and Taylor. It’s always been about neighborhoods, unlocked doors and no T.V. People were out. People shared.”

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These days the President of Onesti Entertainment is best known as the owner of the beautiful 900-seat Arcada Theatre in west suburban St. Charles. The Arcada is to Cialis what metal was to the Congress (in Chicago).

The 1926 St. Charles Vaudeville house features upcoming headliners like Devo (June 21), the great Johnny Rivers (Aug. 30) and ex-Runaway Lita Ford (Sept. 12).

No idea is a bad idea for Onesti.

He is forming a volunteer “Rock n’ Roll Board of Directors” that will offer ideas on how to book the Arcada. There will be a board for the musical decades of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s that will meet monthly.

“I’ll have an open bar for the meetings,” Onesti told me. “I’ll give them something to eat from the Italian side of me.”

So I could be on the 1960s board and ask Onesti to book the remaining members of the Troggs–even though lead singer Reg Presley is dead.

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“Absoultely,” Onesti answered. “It is all a function of what they would want to charge. Or I  might have Eric Burdon call in on the speaker phone. I had Creed Bratton at the Arcada. People said, ‘Oh, he’s that crusty old man on (the NBC-TV hit series) ‘The Office.’ I didn’t realize it, he was a friggin founding member of the Grass Roots (he played on the band’s first four albums) . I looked into it and brought him in. He came acoustically and I did it cabaret style. He did some songs, storytelling, we did a Q & A about the Grass Roots and ‘The Office.’ It was friggin’ marvelous.

“I’m trying to foster a culture that loves this music. The guy who has $10,000 worth of Armani suits but comes to my show in a Who tee-shirt.

And its been working. People bring their concerns or questions about the music to me all the time. It happened so much I decided to organize it. It doesn’t cost anything, I’m not selling them anything. It gives people a forum outside of a bar situation to talk about their love of music of a particular era. If you’re a ‘60s guy, you’re a friggin’ 60s guy. You dress like it. You got some funky hair going and a big old bushy moustache. I love the classics. The people I’ve had at the Arcada like Jerry Lewis, Mickey Rooney, Englebert. I have Ed McMahon on tape going, “Heeeeere’s Ronnny!’ I mean, who has that stuff?”

Wild thing.

 

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The Chicago River on a December day

December 26, 2012—

And so there were clouds.

In recent years my Christmas Eve ritual has been to see a movie by Navy Pier, followed by a long walk through the still of Chicago.

This year’s fare was “Silver Linings Playbook,” a film with the bright look and colorful optimism of the late-1950s. I’m seasoned enough to know life doesn’t always end this way, which may be why I dropped tears.

But “Silver Linings Playbook:” sure beat the Christmas Eve where I screened the documentary “Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy.” That night the Chicago north side theater consisted of me and three silver-hared female film buffs.

“Silver Linings Playbook” attracted more people than the Ron Jeremy dick-flick. There was the usual holiday gathering of strays and tourists. In the lobby I saw a couple people wrapped in old coats, framed by ragged shopping bags of random items. I don’t know if they were homeless, but they were displaced like silver bows that had slid off Christmas gifts.

After the film I walked down North Michigan Avenue, which was quiet as a museum hallway. I turned past the site of my former office, now a Trump Tower glistening in an opulent glow. Every golden Christmas light counted for a moment of fun in the now-razed building.

I rambled across an empty bridge over the Chicago River. I considered boat trips that began in Lake Michigan, went through the Chicago River, the Illinois and Michigan Canal, the Illinois River and the Mississippi River to New Orleans,

Connections made on sunny days.

Connections lost in dense clouds.

It takes a certain amount of grit and generosity to make those connections. I adjourned for a beer and a shot of warm tequila at the Matchbox (here’s Mark Konkol’s sweet postcard to Jackie and Dave). Bartender Graham’s soccer pals came in. Like me, they had bad teeth. They were full of piss and vinegar, cranked up about Boxing Day (Dec. 26) matches in England. Boxing Day is where the upper class helps out the needy and bosses give gifts to their employees…….

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……..I’ll leave that punch line to Albert Brooks, who is the funniest guy in America outside of BIll Linden.

Before I retired for my long’s winter nap on Christmas Eve, I read the current Vanity Fair Q & A between Judd Apatow and Brooks (Brooks plays a neurotic older dad in Apatow’s new comedy “This is 40.”)

At the end of the interview Brooks talks about how he was influenced by the minimalism of comic Jack Benny.

I want to share this with you:

A.B. “I knew him a little. He was very sweet to me once. I did a bit on The Tonight Show, early on, this bit Alberto and His Elephant Bimbo. I was a European elephant trainer. I came out and was dressed up with a whip, and I was distraught because the elephant never arrived, and I said, “Look, the show must go on. The Tonight Show, all they could get me was this frog, so I will do my best.” So I took a live frog and put it through all these elephant tricks. Every time he did a trick I threw peanuts at him. And the last trick, I said, ‘I call this trick ‘Find the nut, boy!’ I gave the peanut to somebody on the stage. I walked over and gave it to Doc Severinsen. ‘The elephant will find the peanut!’ I took this frog. I threw this black, huge cloth over him, the one I said I used to blindfold the elephant, and this black rag started hopping all over the place till it eventually hopped over to Doc Severinsen. It actually found him. I didn’t know what the hell the frog was going to do. So after the bit I sit down at the panel and Jack Benny was on. There was always that last two minutes where Johnny was asking people, “Thank you for coming—what do you have coming up?” And during the last commercial Jack Benny leaned over to Johnny Carson and said, “When we get back, ask me where I’m going to be, will you?” So they came back. Johnny said, “I want to thank Albert, Jack, where are you going to be performing?” And Jack Benny said, “Never mind about me—this is the funniest kid I’ve ever seen.”

J.A. “Wow.”

A.B. “And it was this profound thing. Like, Oh, that’s how you lead your life. Be generous and you can be the best person who ever lived.”

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Nov. 29, 2011—

November in Chicago brings me down, down, down.
Lower than Herman Cain’s pants.

Its been that way since I was a teenager. I remember getting up at seven on a mid-November Saturday morning and walking in a dark drizzle to take SAT tests at Naperville Central High School to gain entrance in a college I would never attend. I was too sleepy and confused to take a test. I felt like I was going fishing.

I’ve since tried to travel to sunnier climates in November. Several years ago I salvaged a tricked out tiki bar and had it restored with ambient red lights and bright bamboo to cheer me up on dark November days.

My turntable always comes into play with the tiki bar by spinning companion calypso albums, Hawaiian stuff and early Jimmy Buffett. The other day I reached for the pop, surf and twist of “Chicas! (Spanish Female Singers 1962-74).” The 30-year-old BSR turntable did not turn. I figured the belt was worn out.

I packed up the turntable and took it to my merry friends Ursula and Mitch Lewczuk who own The 20th Century TV & Stereo Center in the north side Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago. I’ve been a customer since way back in the 20th Century and I love the fact they never bothered to change the name of their store.

Ursula and Mitch are feisty  Polish immigrants who opened 20th Century in 1970. They don’t smile much. The store is an American Pickers delight of turntables, beta tapes, reel-to-reel machines and between 10,000 and 15,000 needles. Try to ask them about their 15,000 television and audio tubes in the basement. Ursula is in charge of the needle and cartridge department. She has a master’s degree in electronics from the Technical University of Warsaw in Poland, and her degree from the Triton College Consumer Electronics Program hangs by the front door.

Ursula wasn’t on the scene yet last Saturday morning when I walked in with my broken turntable. This may have accounted for Mitch’s grumpy attitude—-but then again, maybe it was the dark skies and steady rain of a mid-November day in Chicago. Mitch took a look at my turntable and decided it would take him at least five hours to fix it. He said there was a sensitive system of parts that needed to be removed, cleaned and made to feel new again.
It wasn’t worth the time.

Mitch also complained about the city’s signage laws, parking meters and a relative of Channel 11’s Joel Weisman who lugged in a couple of huge beige speakers. Mitch didn’t like the fact he had to take care of two customers at one time. In 20th Century DJ talk that would be a “Twin Spin.” Nevertheless I walked out with a new modestly priced audio-technical turntable.

I put the turntable in my car and walked around upscale Ravenswood. This is where our  feisty Mayor Rahmbo resides and where the security happy mayor has a city camera fixated on his house, according to a weekend report in the New York Times.

Ironically, the 20th Century Stereo Center is only a couple doors down from a typewriter store that recently went out of business. A block west of the vacant store things turn new again. There is a fine elemenatry public school (our Mayor sends his kids to private schools) where neighborhood kids play basketball, read stories with happy endings and write poetry. People work long hours at this school.
It is worth the time.

Across the street from the school there is a  corner bakery where I picked up a three-tiered chocolate birthday cake for my 9-year-old nephew, my 90-year-old Mom and my 91-year old father. Now that’s a mouthful. But somehow, for a moment in the brightly lit bakery things seemed new again.

I had not been to Ravenswood in a while. I thought of old friends. The walleye pike at Glenn’s Diner.  I remembered when cartoonist Heather McAdams and her husband Chris Ligon ran a thrift store-used record place a few blocks west of Glenn’s down Montrose Avene. Chris always dismissed framed memories and retro movements.
“When we find stuff, it’s absolutely contemporary to us because it’s new and we’re excited about it,” he once told me. “To me, retro means trying to revive something from the past. I don’t think in those terms. When I go out junk shopping and find records, for that brief second it’s a brand new thing in front of me.”

I thought of all this as I waited for the birthday cake. A midde aged black man smiled at me. Maybe he recognized me from that Channel 11 television show on old Baby Boomers that ran over Thanksgiving weekend. Maybe he smiles at birthday cakes. Maybe not.

I strolled back to my car juggling the cake and a large cup of coffee. I drove to Naperville where my parents still live in the house where I couldn’t get out of bed to take my SAT tests. My Dad told his grandson about how refrigeration had the greatest impact on his life and recalled the ice man making home deliveries. My nephew listened with wide eyes and careful attention. Good things are always worth the time.

And new light emerges from those passages.

August 4, 2011—

I’m sure you have a ritual, too.

Maybe it is a weekly yoga class or a spot near the foggy window of a neighborhood bar. Maybe you carry your laptop to a favorite coffee shop where you add a daring dash of cinnamon to your java.

Perhaps you check blog posts every night at 11.

One of my rituals was to stop by the Borders book store every Sunday in suburban Oak Brook outside of Chicago, The visit became part of my drive from the city to visit my elderly parents. I would collect my thoughts, comb through the music—this Borders had a great buyer who stocked the hard-to-find Skeletons from Springfield, Mo.—and I’d get lost in the travel section.

I remember such a fuss when chain book stores came on the scene, but like indys there were good ones and bad ones. Borders Oak Brook was a good one. It had a less snotty aura than some of the independent  I go to in Chicago (but not the great Powell’s in Portland, Ore.!)  Even in chains, there are links of individual spirits.

I ran into my former high school English Literature teacher who retired and became a clerk at Borders Oak Brook. I made friends with the guys in the music department who like me, would hit the road in search of a good Bob Dylan concert.

The independents will get a bounce out of Borders closing, just like the fine maverick record stores that have sprung up in my Chicago neighborhood.

But I will miss Borders in Oak Brook.

Last Sunday I saw a poster made by the Oak Brook store manager. I must be getting old and soft cover because reading it brought a tear to my eye. Especially the part where, “We believe that super heroes are real and not just drawings in comic book and that books in the children’s section can and should be read by adults….We believe you don’t have to have just 1 favorite author, song, movie or treat from the pastry case…”

I believe in bars built with books; Cali, Colombia, Feb. 2011 (D.H photo)

The entire poster is here because I saw David Thomas Ewoldt take a photo of it with his i Phone.  Hope you can read it. I tried to upsize it.

I don’t take many pictures with my I Phone, and when I do it is an accidental portrait of my back pocket or the sidewalk.

He was a stranger but I walked up to him and requested that he send me a copy of his photo. A good book store will do that to you. I asked the early-to-middle-aged Glendale Heights resident to attach a note describing his muse.

“I first visited the Oak Brook store a couple of weekends after it opened twenty years ago,” he wrote on Aug. 2. “Before that I had only been to typical shopping mall bookstores. In comparison, the Borders store was a wonder. It was huge.  The selection was vast. I saw things I didn’t think you could buy in bookstores. For years afterward, I’d go there to look for and find all the things I couldn’t get anywhere else. When I came back home during and after college, Borders was the only place in the suburbs I’d find more advanced and obscure items.”

The store clearly meant a lot to Ewoldt. He wanted to capture the poster.  His camera was a net over an endangered species.

The poster was  tactile and deep, like real books, magazines, newspapers and vinyl records.

Words are something you hold on to.

Especially in times of transition.

The Red Lips at La Manigua Botanic Garden, Colombia.

They are used to make a poison—watch out. (Courtesy of Pilar Quintana)

MARCH 5, 2011——
The mirror in the hotel bathroom tells the truth.
Who is that old piece of bark? Why are there dark rings of time under those eyes?

Almost all hotel bathroom mirrors are washed over with bright light. It creates an in your-face effect you don’t get at home. Sometimes it may be the luster of a clean loo, other times it could be the magical distance from a known place.

In the mid-1980s I stayed at the Covent Hotel, a men’s only pay-by-the-week flophouse near Lincoln Park in Chicago. I have seen cypress trees made bare by lightning. These guys were like that.

The whole place smelled like mothballs. We had community bathrooms and those places were really dark. I spent more time in the mirror watching out for creepers moving around in unfortunate shadows.

Is that mole under that lip cancerous?
There’s a scar from a broken play in a distant football game where you tried to run for daylight.

You still move through the seasons with a sense of wonder that can betray your age.
Hardly anyone sends letters any more but on the return from a Valentine’s week vacation to Colombia there is a message from Pilar Quintana. You didn’t meet anyone named Pilar Quintana in Colombia. Who is this person?

She writes:

I found your page in Tumblr and very much enjoyed your posts about Cali, more so since I know Suárez Fiat and Vicky Acosta. I’m from Cali also and I’m a writer myself (I have published three novels). My husband is originally from Northern Ireland but grew up in Australia. We’ve been living in Colombia’s Pacific Coast for over seven years now. After travelling around the world we ended up buying a beautiful piece of land on top of a jungle cliff here, built our wooden house and have been living a simple life since then.

One year ago we decided to do something with our lot and hence we created La Manigua Botanic Garden, where we protect its flora and fauna and share our knowledge of it with the visitors. In our Tumblr blog http://jardinbotanicolamanigua.tumblr.com/ you can get a taste of the place.

The reason I’m writing is to let you know we are here, in case you like nature and want to discover the very wild and beautiful Colombia’s Pacific Coast. So, please, take this as an invitation. I must tell you, though, that our sunsets are over warm waters.”

This is what you have looked for in the mirror: something to do with your lot.

The author lost in Bogota’.

Something about two people traveling together, joining their dreams at the hip and softly dancing into a blossoming future. There’s been some rough visits to Colombia, but you go back wanting to give it all another chance. You sense the warmth. The invitation makes you feel good and again believe in the will of that face in the mirror.

Pilar later sends a synopsis of her third novel, “Conspiracio’n Iguana,” a thriller set in an apartment building for yuppies owned by a guru that keeps them happy so they go motivated to work every day (I imagine like Facebook in Silicone Valley.)

The main character discovers a secret jungle on the roof top where renegades experiment with psychedelic Indian stuff like yage. The yage is the bitter-tasting psychedelic hooch they’ve been drinking around Bogota’ for decades. Writer/gun freak William Burroughs road tripped to Colombia in the 1950s in search of yage.

The renegades conspire to overthrow the guru and the main character jumps in the fray.

Pilar also sends pictures of her beautiful garden and intoxicating red lips.
There’s a humpback whale with a new born baby. Between July and November Humpback whales migrate to the warm waters of Colombia’s Pacific Ocean to mate and give birth.

There’s a red-legged honey creeper. It reminds you of that guy with the snoring problem next door on the third floor of the Covent. Did he pack heat in the coldest of places?

The final picture is the Bloodwood tree.


The tree is generally recognized by a crooked trunk and shiny green leaves. The tree naturally “bleeds” reddish sap and its “blood” is used to heal open wounds.
You know there is something very special in this garden.

You can’t wait to see it.

June 29, 2010—

What a time it was. A good time. In 1907 the Chicago Cubs were in the midst of a dynasty. They won 107 games, lost 45 and beat Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers to win the World Series. The Cubs pitching staff was led by Orval Overall and Three Finger Brown and a guy named Wildfire Schilte patrolled right field like Smokey the Bear.
Chicago was in a renaissance.

The Cubs were second in the National League in attendance (422,550) and a couple miles east of their beloved West Side Grounds (Wrigley Field wasn’t built) Chicago author Hamlin Garland founded the Attic Club atop Symphony Center (formerly Orchestra Hall).

In 1909 the non-profit organization that supports men and women in the fine arts and performing arts was renamed The Cliff Dwellers Club. In 1996 the club moved next door to the 22nd floor penthouse of the office building at the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue at Adams Street. The outdoor veranda has a breathtaking view of Millennium Park, the Art Institute of Chicago and Lake Michigan.

Like the Who said, “Because all the while/I can see for miles and miles.”

The Cliff Dwellers Club is the site of the July 8 party for the hardcover version of my minor league baseball journal “Cougars and Snappers and Loons (Oh My!) [$24.95, http://www.cantmisspress.com/]. The event runs from around 5:30-8 p.m.. There’s a cash bar along with complimentary cheese and vegetable trays. I’ll be bringing some Cracker Jack and a bottle of Cazadores tequila. The party is being thrown by my publisher George Rawlinson.

I’ve been to one of George’s previous events at the Cliff Dwellers.
The regal space is one of the most well kept secrets in Chicago. Bring a camera. The spirit of the club rolls out from the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and an 1891 exhibit at the Art Institute. Native Americans were predominately featured at each venue.
The club was named after the Henry Blake Fuller novel “The Cliff Dwellers,” where he parallels the emerging cityscape of Chicago and the Native American Cliff Dwellings of the Southwest. (For much more visit the Cliff Dwellers website http://www.cliff-chicago.org/).

Who knew? My only Cliff-in-Chicago reference was the lumbering Cliff “Moondog” Johnson, who played left field for a blue spell during the 1980 Cubs season.
Moondog landed in Chicago via Cleveland after the 1979 season when he punched out Goose Gossage in the New York Yankees locker room, sending the Goose to the D.L for two months. And people think Carlos Zambrano has issues.

7/8/10 should be a blast. Swing by if you can.

May 24, 2010-

     It took too long to take my first bike ride to Humboldt Park this spring.

     Humboldt Park is a rambling 3 1/2 square mile area on the near northwest side of Chicago regarded as the cultural capital of the Puerto Rican midwest. On Sunday the park was filled with people despite the bandwagon jumpers who watching the Chicago Blackhawks hockey game. [Quick—who is Lou Angotti?] The sound of salsa music filled the air and fathers played soccer with their sons. I could smell the richly grilled steak and onions of the jibarito sandwich.

     I live on the border of Humboldt Park and Ukranian Village, my favorite bridge in  Chicago. I don’t hang around the park at night. A couple of winters ago I met a young music fan in a Baltimore, Md. rock club who got rolled in Humboldt Park after walking home from a gig at the Empty Bottle. He lived to talk about it. He even smiled about his innocence.

    I often ride my blue 1970s-era ocean blue Schwinn cruiser to the park alone on a Sunday afternoon. I prop the bike on its steady kickstand and sit on a sidewalk by a peaceful lagoon. Sometimes I skip a stone across the water, like I did when I was a kid. During the day Humboldt Park is more tranquil than parks closer to Lake Michigan.   People move at a slower pace and there is more romance in the air. Hand in hand, eye to eye. The heart is naked.

    It becomes easy for me to take an assessment of things and realize who I can be. I don’t see any big fences. I feel young again.