Warm evenings on cool nights

Earlier in the week, I took my constitutional around the neighborhood in shorts and a t-shirt. By Friday, I had to break out a parka and gloves. I enjoy a change of seasons but, in the Midwest, they can slam at you in a single day. What better way to warm yourself after a chilly surprise than with good company, old or new? I did both this weekend.

There is a jazz loving gang of four, into which I sometimes insert myself. Judy, Tavia, Mark and Ann take the jazz season at Orchestra Hall. Ann keeps me posted, and when there’s someone I’m keen to see, she is kind enough to secure me a ticket. Friday night, it was Ahmad Jamal, and nothing could keep me away.

Ann always meets me at the station to make sure I actually get wherever we’re going. This is, perhaps, unnecessary, but I confess I’m happy to see her waving at me, and I downshift to an anxiety-free gear once I spot her. We joined the others at Pain Quotidien where I had a little touch of Paris, a croque monsieur, a hearty sandwich perfect for a nippy evening. The scintillating quartet can be depended upon to keep me supplied, not only with laughter, but something harder to come by, informed conversation about jazz.

Ann and I had seen Ahmad Jamal before, but that was thirty or even forty years ago. To our absolute delight, he had lost nothing of his phenomenal dexterity on the keyboard. Nothing! So often, as an artist ages, reviewers will fib respectfully and tell you that “He (or she) never sounded better.” Kindly meant, but never true, except that this time, it was. The man is a marvel of delicacy, invention, surprise, and a hundred other things that you long for in a musician. He played uptempo numbers unfamiliar to me but welcome. He played old standards I wanted to hear, like “But not for Me,” and Cole Porter’s “I Love You.” He played a song I’d never really appreciated, “This is the Life,” from  Golden Boy. He said it was a favorite of his, and by the time he was through, I could understand why. With the very first hints from the percussion that he was about to go into “Poinciana,” the packed house went wild.

The lady two rows ahead, and to my left, had, unfortunately, been going wild all evening. Determined to convince us she was the coolest cat in the house, she danced in her seat, conducted, jabbing her arms about, (quite precariously for those on either side of her), never letting up except to try to film the proceedings, despite repeated admonishments from an usher. She kept popping up in my peripheral vision like an online ad. Sometimes I just had to close my eyes. Would I have said something, had I been closer to her? Nope. She was built like Jabba the Hut. No matter, this was an evening to remember, and nothing and no one could spoil it.

Sunday night found me again in excellent company. My erstwhile editor, Karen, was celebrating a birthday with her husband, George, and her sister, Anne, in from Duluth. And me. They picked me up in a car I’ve always found packed with personality, their adorably old fashioned looking Nissan Cube. On a trip to Williamsburg, John and I rented a Cube and thoroughly enjoyed tooling around in it. This time, I sat in the back with Anne, who manages the neat trick of being simultaneously soothing and delightful.

Karen had chosen Glenwood Oaks, both because the food is quite good, and also that they offer a percentage discount based on the age of the birthday diner. I looked forward to making out like a bandit in my golden years, but the increased lifespans of Americans struck terror into the management of the Oaks, and a cap has recently been imposed.

In hopes of adding to the general merriment, I had purchased what was billed as “the world’s most annoying birthday card.” As it turned out, the annoyance was mostly my own. You open it up, and it starts singing, You close it, and it keeps on singing. Like the energizer bunny, it never stops. The only way to make it cease and desist is to rip it to shreds, whereupon a glittering mess of stars spills all over you. What I hadn’t counted on was the group of loudsters whooping it up at the next table. Karen opened the card, but its songbirds were reduced to a gentle murmur amid the din around us. She closed the card, and I almost had to point out that it was still singing. it was passed around and held up to ears. Finally, someone inquired, “When does it stop?” With a devilish grin, I replied, “It doesn’t.” George stuffed it into the envelope and gave it a few swats. “No, that won’t do, you have to rip it apart.” Anne took the card, and I braced for the shower of stars. To my eternal dismay, Anne proved to be almost pathologically tidy. Not a single star hit the table or anything else, as she neatly patted them all into the envelope. So much for mirth and merriment. The card, now in tatters, continued to sing away contentedly. George snatched it up and ripped its entrails out. The song continued. He raised his fist, and with a mighty bam, thumped it into oblivion. He has missed his calling.

After a fine meal, the waitress brought Karen a small, but delicious looking square of cake with a candle. Karen made a wish, blew out the candle, and as she was sung to once more, she consumed it, the whole thing, before our eyes. When I got home, I broke into the trick-or-treat candy and gobbled a Baby Ruth.

 

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Pleasures, great and small

They’ve been piling up.  I’ll take them in reverse consecutive order. I’m sure there’s a word for that, there certainly ought to be. If so, it escapes me. I voted today. Early. I got a sticker to prove it. My friend Margaret texted me that Munster Town Hall was open late today for such purposes. I consulted Google for directions. On the rare occasions when I needed to find Town Hall, John was driving, and I’m afraid I wasn’t paying that sort of attention. Google showed me where it was, but said it was closed. Now, in matters of voting, I’d trust Margaret over Google any day; she’s very savvy about such things. I was right to do so.

Finding room B, where the voting took place, was like a treasure hunt. Many little orange signs with arrows led me through a maze of corridors to a small room where there were as many helpful volunteers as voters (three apiece). It was fast, easy, and pleasant. I’ll do it this way from now on. Oh, I admit that, since I cast my first vote in 1960, there’s always been an electricity in the air for me when I set foot in a crowded gymnasium with a polished wooden floor on Election Day. But, this was so easy, and I’m not exactly sure I remember how to get to the school with the polling place in my precinct. Or what it’s called. Yep, John was always driving. I’m pretty sure I’ve got the directions to my bedroom upstairs firmly in mind, though, failing that, the big sofa in the parlor is comfortable too.

After a day of anxious uncertainty, it was a greater pleasure and a relief to hear that my dear friend, John P., was safe from the ravages of hurricane Michael. His condo in the panhandle is practically gulfside and directly in harm’s way. To the consternation of friends and family, he stubbornly refused all pleas to evacuate, choosing instead to “tough it out.” It was those who cared about him who, indeed, had to tough it out during the long hours of no possible phone contact and only drone views of widespread wreckage. Like the naughty child who darts into traffic, he deserves a good shaking, but we’re all so glad he is still here that he’ll be let off with stern lectures.

Last weekend, there were the considerable pleasures of that rarity, a truly well made movie, A Star is Born. Reborn, and born again it’s true, but give it a pair of talented leads and this tale seems capable of endlessly donning fresh duds and speaking to each new generation. For a first time director, Bradley Cooper is surprisingly assured. He’s not just promising, he delivers. Watching Lady Gaga shuffle down an alley, casually tossing off the verse to “Over the Rainbow” as the old title letters blink on one by one, gave me a shiver of pure delight. She’s as assured as he is, an absolute natural. I suspect she won’t want to make a lot of films, given the obvious joy she takes in song writing and live performance, but whenever she does, I’ll be there. I had a couple of minuscule carpeenies. Why does his character assume she writes songs, and shouldn’t her rise to fame take more than a nanosecond? But the movie is tight, and fit, and fleet, and really, I wouldn’t change a thing.

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Finally, there was the delicious pleasure of having my book, Safe Inside, nominated for book of the year by the Chicago Writers Association. There’d been some sales, and many kind words from people who know me and may feel they’re supposed to like it. But this is a validation by professional writers. Mmmmm. Excuse me while I go off and do some serious smiling.

Chicago Writers Association

The psalm slinger

Several weeks ago, when the front door bell was still working, it rang, and I looked out to see a well dressed couple on my doorstep. I’ve learned what that means: bible thumpers. I opened the door a crack, in case I was wrong. I wasn’t wrong, but this pair was pretty calm and laid back. They smiled as though they knew me, and for a second I thought, “Oh dear, should I know them? Are they friends of John who came to our parties?” But the man was clutching a sheaf of handouts. Nope, these were just high end bible thumpers after all.

I told them I wasn’t religious, and wished them well. The topic of the handout, however was that one in a million shot, something that might actually interest me, so I took one. I’ve since tossed it away, and I forget the exact wording, but the gist was this: how and why should we bear the unbearable stuff that God sometimes chooses to fling at us?

Perhaps my expression betrayed that I was currently trying to bear some sort of unbearable, for they shifted into a mode of condolence which I found too comforting to fight off. It was also, for me, early morning, before my defenses have fully hardened. I confided that I had lost a dear and important partner. They urged me to read their tract and said they’d come back to see how I was doing. I wasn’t eager for that, but felt good that, having recently done some door to dooring of a different sort myself, I hadn’t been short with them.

Saturday they were back, with an equally well dressed little girl who couldn’t stop yawning. The fellow said he’d like to read me a psalm he thought pertinent to my situation. Hoping for something lamby and gentle like the 23rd, I was instead subjected to a ghastly, hair curling psalm that might have been the 666th. According to this one, at  the moment of death, the body crumbles to earth and the spirit expires taking all thoughts with it. The loved one is no more. I stopped him right there. “Wait a minute! All that’s keeping me in one piece these days is the notion that my partner is out there somewhere, looking after me. All thoughts expire! How could you think this would comfort me? Or anybody? Just the opposite, it’s disturbing!” He replied (I couldn’t make this up), “There have been some instances of resurrection, Lazarus and a few others.”

Well, of course, that makes all the difference in the world. All John has to do is win the resurrection lottery, and everything’s hunky-dorey. I was speechless. The goof just stood there smiling a dopey, maddeningly beatific smile. Had it not been for the presence of his busily yawning daughter, I’d have throttled him. His life and limbs were further spared by the arrival of Adam at the back door.

“Sorry, have to go.”

“We’ll come back and speak more on this.”

Not bloody likely. Oh, they’ll be back for sure, but I’ve a non-violent way to send them scurrying back down the steps as fast as their saved little legs will carry them. Instead of saying partner, I’ll say husband.

Autumn day with a side of cousins

Leaving in plenty of time in case I had to park on the street, I slid into Dimitrios and decided the day was too chilly for what I had on. I slid back out, undid the security alarm and found a sweater. Back inside my friendly car, we had a brief conversation before starting out. The details don’t matter, besides it was personal; you don’t need to know absolutely everything, do you? I’ll say only this, I told him that one reason I talk to him is the same reason I talk to John’s picture, to keep from going bonkers. That made me laugh out loud, for hadn’t I just defined going bonkers? I’ve moved into the same chest as the lady with eighteen cats. I’m just in a different drawer.

But what if the things we choose to imbue with humanity are lit by it while we do so? Temporarily, of course. It would be unspeakably sad to contemplate one of the stuffed bears thinking, after my demise, “Whatever happened to that guy who used to give me a poke and wish me good morning? And what’s with that uppity lamp that never says a word?”

The train station lot looked full, but I found a surprising space for Dimitrios right at the entrance. I gave him a pat, wished him a pleasant afternoon, and caught myself thinking how much less tiresome it would be if these vehicles could converse in their drivers’ absence. Yes, utterly bonkers.

My train was late. It was cold and windy and the sky was mostly overcast, but if I looked to the north, there was an expanse of vivid blue and an excellent, stark, bare limbed tree for me to contemplate. I’m easily entertained. I recommend it.

The train was so crowded, I was lucky to find a seat, and doubly lucky in my seatmate. We were both working crosswords and compared strategies. I try to work contiguously, as John did. She cheats. An exhibited artist who lived for a while in New York, she attended the same church as Donald Trump. On a couple of occasions, she sat close enough to observe what he deposited in the collection plate: zippo. I hope we take the same train again.

I was meeting my cousin, Ed, and his wife, Ursula for what is becoming an Autumn ritual, lunch at the Walnut Room. The elevators weren’t working, and neither was the up escalator. Have you ever walked up a long flight of stubbornly immobile escalator stairs? Really? On purpose? The thought of keeping this unplanned cardio workout up to the seventh floor was daunting. Curse you, Macy’s.  This would never have happened on Marshall Field’s watch. Happily, I located a working escalator on the second floor.

The Walnut Room is a dark expanse on a cloudy day. I dithered at the entrance, scanning the place, not knowing if I were the first to arrive. Then a familiar and deliciously accented voice inquired, “May I seat you, sir?” It was Ursula, come to rescue me. Once I was armed with a vodka gimlet and the prospect of a tasty Jaeger schnitzel, I settled in for an even more nourishing catch up. Ed and Ursula had both worked at Lyric Opera for many years, so, in addition to rehashing old family scandals, there’s always backstage lore, such as the nasty prospect of two possible strikes to prevent or delay the upcoming season. Ursula had seen a dress rehearsal of the new production of La Boheme, and Ed and I were regretting that the incomparable old production had been retired. It had served for several decades, and was likely in tatters, but Lyric audiences had grown quite sentimental about it. The set was so perfectly apt that Lyric used to sell Christmas cards picturing act II’s snow scene.

Time always flies with this sparkling couple, and all too soon, they were walking me back to the station. They live in Florida now, so I may not see them again until next Autumn. Worth the wait.

 

 

The great scam

I got a late start today, as is my wont. It was nearing noon, and though I’d done the other morning stuff, (there’s actually a lot of it), I still hadn’t had breakfast. My cell phone rang. The call was marked “restricted.” That didn’t sound like anything I needed or wanted to hear, and I really don’t know why I answered, but thereby hangs a cautionary tale.

The caller, in a heavy accent, purported to be one David Rebich, and claimed to work for the Federal Trade Commission. I guess I was still too groggy to hang up. He went on to say that I was the third place Publisher’s Clearing House winner. I laughed out loud and asked how much money I had to send them to collect my prize. “Not one cent. Are you thinking this is a joke?”

“No, I think it’s a scam, and shame on you.”

“I understand, but this is for real. In 2016, your husband, John Kruzan, filled out a Clearing House form for you, and another for his nephew, Joe Kruzan Jr. You have won.”

He had my attention. This was a lot of specific information about me, and for several months, I’d been receiving mail that seemed to be from PCH saying I was getting closer to being a winner. “Would you like to hear what you’ve won?”

“Yeah, sure.”

It was quite a haul: $1,750,000 in cash to be doled out in $5,000 monthly payments, (which would be more thrilling if I weren’t eighty-one. Oh well, more for the heirs), after an initial distribution of $150,000, six months payment of my credit card bills, and a new BMW.

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“Huh.”

“Mr. Kingsmill, we’re recording this call, and I’m not hearing much joy in your voice. Let me hear more joy.”

“You’ll hear lots of joy once I’ve determined this is legitimate.”

He proceeded to bathe me in numerous ways in which I could verify his claim, including a call back number, which I happily include: 202-796-2096. He named the mayor of Gary, whom he said I would meet at the presentation ceremony, and did I want to receive my check on television?

“Nope.”

“Haven’t you seen those happy winners on television?”

” I’ve seen them leaping and screaming.”

“Well then, are you sure you want to do this privately?”

“Yes. I’m not much of a leaper and screamer.”

He sent me a picture of my BMW and asked if I’d prefer a different color. He kept assuring me they wanted no money or personal information, (He seemed to have plenty of the latter, like where I’d gone to college, that I was a retired English teacher, and more). All I needed to do to set things in motion was go to a Walmart or CVS and register with a Pay Pal card; then representatives could meet me here. He asked if I lived alone. That spooked me. Why was I still listening to this preposterous nonsense? Because I was touched by the idea that John might actually have done this, and was looking after me from the great wherever. Still, even if I’d really won almost two million, what I wanted now was to eat breakfast and do my crossword. I told him I’d call him back.

I got my canny sister-in-law on the case. She demanded a cut, and I promised her the BMW. While I waited to hear back, it was irresistible to speculate about what I’d do with the loot if this were somehow really true. I’m lucky enough to be comfortable with what I have now. I don’t need or want a lot of money, but it would be nice to help out a few friends. Tim needs knee surgery, and has been putting it off. He’d have it in a minute if I’d won. Instead of tossing chump change at Doctors Without Borders and Habitat for Humanity, I’d be able to make real contributions. I could travel again, in style. I could give the Dutch boys a raise. When I went out to the garage, I told Dimitrios that I was spurning a BMW and he’d always be my car.

Then Johnnie called back with the results of a very thorough investigation (she should be handling the Kavanaugh probe). No millions. Oh well, at least it was Senior Tuesday at Walgreens.

Polar extremes

I haven’t been able to do this for a while. My pouty computer was in a bad mood. Once again, the redoubtable Captain Greg came to the rescue, this time over the phone. It seems he can work his magic even at some distance, and he was able to talk me through it. I should be able to resolve this particular glitch by myself in the future, though this device has many other tricks up its webular sleeve.

But back to the matter at hand, my checkered career as a political canvasser. For the past week or so, I’ve called hundreds of people, trying to recruit volunteers for door to door canvassing. Mostly, it went well, lots of ‘not homes’, and some disconnecteds, which were even better. My list was supposed to have been vetted to include only voters from the party I favor. When this wasn’t the case, I apologized and assured them I would have them removed, and that they wouldn’t be bothered again. This led to two strikingly dissimilar conversations, (well, one conversation and a rant).

One gentleman told me that he always votes for the other party and would have hung up except that he liked the way I was presenting myself, not reading from a script, and wanted to hear what I’d have to say. We wound up sharing tips about back trouble, and he wished me luck. Then there was the woman who called back, (I leave messages). She was upset and in a fury, screaming denunciations at me, demanding to know how I had gotten her number, and threatening to call the authorities, (Just what authorities I’m not certain). My mortification was magnified by the fact that a friend was over and I had the call on speaker phone, (it makes it easier to hear, but my brother has warned me against this practice. Repeatedly).

Soooo, I decided that was enough of that. I had been thinking of stopping anyway, because of the time involved. That meant getting the magnetic and relentless Aziz to take no for an answer, something he is trained not to do. I was dreading it. I’m a big dreader in these situations, but, as that great self-help advisor, Lady Macbeth, urged, I screwed my courage to the sticking point.

When I got to the new headquarters, it was empty of almost everything but Aziz. They need tables. It was just me and Aziz looking so Azizy it made my head spin. I gave him my lists and spoke my piece, bracing to withstand his guilt trips and arguments. There weren’t any. The fellow is fiendishly brilliant. He just smiled a Mrs. Butterworth smile and nodded. He understood. Damn him for understanding. It was all I could do to get out of there without talking myself into a life of perpetual canvassing.

But I did get out. Aziz talked of seeing me again closer to the election. We’ll see. We’ll see.

Off to a rousing start

I knew Sunday would be a good day. John and I used to take in the season at Chicago Shakespeare, and I’ve kept it up. I had tickets to “Nell Gwynn”, and even with a so-so play, the company of Tim and Ann, and the promise of treats in Greek Town are enough to see me through and then some. The day began oddly however, due entirely to my own stupidity. The water pressure in the shower seemed lower than usual, and I wondered if I’d need to call a plumber about it. Then, when I went downstairs, the front windows were steamed up. The humidity must be terrible today, I thought. I heard an intermittent drumming sound on the windows, like rain, but the sun was out. It was only raining in front. How could that be? Uh oh.

Yes, I had forgotten to turn off the sprinkler the night before. I’ve been using, sort of in John’s memory, his all purpose excuse in later years, “I’m old and confused.” Tim never liked it from either of us, and wants me to retire it. He has come up with a somewhat sprightlier alternative which I’m considering: “I’m an octogenarian. Whaddya expect?”

Ann called to say she wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t be joining us. She won’t miss the play because Shakespeare is famously helpful about ticket exchanges, even on the shortest of notice. Regretting her absence, Tim and I set out on a day so giddily splashed with sunshine that glasses and visors were a must. The outer drive was narrowed by a morass of construction, and we arrived at Navy Pier with little time to spare. The parking lot was a shambles of needless confusion, but Tim has mastered its secrets and found a space tucked away where no one thought to look. We ran upstairs, leaving a hapless horde of aspirant parkers to sort things out. I fear some of them may be at it still.

Once in our seats, we gaped at the brilliant set devised for “Nell Gwynn,” truly a thing of beauty. The play premiered in London, three years ago, but it’s hard to imagine a more striking and colorful stage picture than what Hugh Durrant, the original British designer, has whipped up for Chicago. His costumes are another marvel, one spectacular confection after another.

The basic story of the real Nell Gwynn, a spunky beauty, raised in a brothel, the first actress to appear on an English stage, and favorite mistress of King Charles II, is such a natural, it’s surprising it hasn’t been dramatized before now. It must have been, at some point, for in addition to plucky Nell, herself, there are so many fascinating issues and personalities swirling around her. After a bloody civil war during which young Charles II was forced to look on ala “Game of Thrones” as his father is beheaded, comes the Restoration, overturning Cromwell’s repressive Puritanism, loosening moral codes and corset stays, and, for a dizzy while, trading ‘holier than thou’ for ‘naughtier than anybody.’

The play draws on all this as much as can be managed in a few hours. I found myself wishing for a more spacious telling, say a mini-series. Holiday Grainger would make an ideal TV Nell. There is wit, some of it quite bawdy, there is style to burn, and there is a good deal of period influenced music, well played by a chamber group high above the stage. The crowd was wild about it, and I, if not wild, was highly entertained and amused. What kept me from going over the moon was the distraction of seeing it partly through the eyes of the absent Ann. It may be too broad in spots for her taste. I’m not sure what she’ll make of it, or even if she’ll like it at all. But I suspect you will.

In her honor, when Tim and I got to Greek Town, we ate for three.