Cutting Hibernian capers with my new toe

I wear my ethnicity lightly. It doesn’t define me, although the results of a DNA sample John sent in for me revealed that I’m much more Irish than I had supposed. The locus of my extended ancestry was a very narrow circle in the county of, of all things, Munster. I didn’t know there was a Munster Ireland. Actually, I didn’t know there was a Munster, Indiana until I moved there to be with John.

It amused me that John, without a scintilla of Irish in his background, always made more of St. Patrick’s Day than I did. It usually took the form of a search for the perfect, or at least the pretty good, dish of corned beef and cabbage.  He’d don something green, or failing that, put on a pretty shamrock pin that had been in his family a while. No matter what venue we tried, he was invariably disappointed. The corned beef was always too lean, too dry, too healthy.

No one was more Irish than my mother, with both parents born in Ireland, and herself born on March 17. Yet, on that day, she’d avoid Irish restaurants like the plague, not wishing to run into a loud, drunken crowd like, say, her own relatives. I remember one year, I was about ten, when she and I celebrated her birthday at a Chinese restaurant on 79th street, near the Avalon. We had the place to ourselves, which pleased her, but presently, three Chinese waiters dressed in green approached our table and began to sing “Danny Boy.” We bit our lips until they had safely disappeared back into the kitchen.

Now about that toe. For several months, it has gotten progressively more painful, and in the past two weeks, it has become difficult to keep a shoe on, let alone walk the track at the health club. My doctor assumed it was gout, and I began a regimen of exotic pills, gallons of tart cherry juice (which I’ve actually come to like), and nothing worth eating or drinking. Well, it turns out he was wrong. The culprit was a weirdly ingrown nail which, yesterday, was dealt with in a manner that I recommend to anyone trying to pry secrets from a traitor.

My beleaguered digit was rescued just in time for today’s outing with old friends and colleagues from Chicago Vocational High. Feeling festive, I put on a green shirt and green underwear. To my sweater, I attached John’s shamrock pin. I like, really I need, things about me that John had touched. When my ride, Tom Doyle, arrived, I was further greened up as he draped some emerald green beads around my neck.

Seven of us assembled at Horse Thieves Hollow. To get there, Tom and I had to dart across Western avenue, dodging traffic, running, in shoes, with my newly refurbished toe. It was exhilarating. I was ready for anything, for oysters, for red meat, for beer. The place was new to me, but most agreeable, especially when I spotted the statue of a large blue leopard high above the bar. For the next two hours, I basked in good humor, good company, good memories. Several of the women remembered my mother, and we toasted her birthday.

Back home in my bedroom, I took off the beads and the shamrock pin and placed them in an art deco glass box with the recumbent figure of a woman on the lid. It rests atop a bookcase with the other artifacts that John and I called our harem.

I’ll see my green treasures each morning as I arise. I’ll want to know where to find them for next year.


Old violet eyes

I woke up this morning thinking about the most beautiful woman in the world, not just my world, anybody’s world. Before she became the blowsy, chubby tippler, made up and decked out like a hooker, Elizabeth Taylor had been, for years, the face of all faces, possessed of an unparalleled and luminous beauty. I can think of only one other such face, from an earlier time, the rapturous Hedy Lamarr.

TCM is currently showing most of Taylor’s films, in chronological order. To watch her grow up this way is to realize that this staggering loveliness was there from childhood, from the very beginning, with never an awkward phase. Little boys watching Jane Eyre, National Velvet, and Life with Father must have been devastated.

She didn’t need technicolor; technicolor needed her. Her black and white images in Father of the Bride somehow manage a lustrous, if limited, rainbow. By the time of A Place in the Sun, in the hands of an ace director, George Stevens, her close-ups become still more powerful. She is learning, if not how to act, how to be guided, which can sometimes be every bit as satisfying. She needed no guidance to be alluring, no hack could have lessened her appeal, but she needed a strong hand to be convincing. She gets it again, from Stevens, in Giant, my favorite Taylor film. I know it is long, and the ending is way too broad, but she has a firm, and for her, a quiet grasp of her character throughout. And what a pleasure it is just to watch her toying with a branch, standing almost still, seeking shelter from the harsh Texas sun. Watch her in the jeep with James Dean. If there has ever been a more beautiful puss on screen, I sure don’t know of it.

I remember the day she died. I was strolling with John and our friends Darlene and Jeff in New York. A soft rain had stopped for a moment and a television reporter was interviewing passersby for their reactions to the news. He shoved a microphone at me, and as I began to speak, the overblown, addled homewrecker was far from my thoughts. We get to conjure up the departed at their best, and for me there was only Elizabeth Taylor, in a jeep. And those violet eyes.


I suppose I’m stealing the title from the new Andrew Lloyd Weber biography, but as far as I can tell from all your cryptic monikers, he’s not one of my followers, so I think I’m safe. They say his book is a “tell some,” because he’s so maddeningly discreet. His ex-wives will breathe easier, but his publishers can’t be thrilled.

Some days just conspire to make me think of John. Not that I require conspirators, I doubt that I ever go a full five minutes without thinking of him. He’s inside me, in my blood, the air I breathe. In some ways, in so many ways, he is me now, and I am him. Today, however, was something else.

I don’t check my cel phone messages as often as I should. I can go for days without remembering that there are such things, and I never expect there to be any. It’s  always a disconcerting surprise to find them lurking there, My sister-in-law is aghast at how they pile up (yes, she checks up on me. Her kindly attempts at keeping my life tidy and on the rails bring her more frustration and dismay than such an angel deserves). At any rate, today I noticed a message from the paleolithic age in which my classmate was inquiring about John’s first marriage. Whaaat???!!! I called her. She was . . . confused. And mistaken.

Then, Netflix told John that this was his anniversary with them and provided a picture of the first movie we ever ordered. I didn’t recognize the title, but I’m afraid it looked like gay softcore. Ah, youth.

Next, Facebook wanted to know why John hadn’t logged on for such a long time, and urged him to do so because so many people missed him. This day was getting hard to take.

What really did me in though, was looking at pictures our friend, Bryan, had just downloaded from John’s computer in the basement. They went back years. There he was, smiling, impish, frolicking, often with his arm around me. The worst (best) was a shot of the two of us out for dinner with Steve and Johnnie, the night we went to see “The Last Ship.” He is grinning and rolling his eyes heavenward like a cartoon character. I started to cry.

I turned off the computer and headed for the medicine cabinet where there was a bottle of Xanex, prescribed for just such occasions. But then I thought, maybe I’m supposed to cry now. Is it really healthy to mask what I’m feeling, bottle it up?

So I didn’t. I’m going to bed now with my security sock over my eyes, but my feelings remain unmasked.

Good night, Baby.

Adventures in Lincolnwood – part 2

My brother’s house is by far the most interesting on his block. This is, in good measure, due to the large, vertical hallway windows, and what lies beyond them and can be seen from the street. That would be trees, the cheerful, ingenious trees magically decorated by my sister-in-law who changes them at the drop of a season, or a holiday, or a whim. They give one pause – in a good way. Except for jaded neighbors who roll their eyes and mutter snarkish mutterings, passersby look up, and smile, and pause.

Ann and I were to occupy the apartment of Johnnie’s cowardly father, John P., who fled to Florida to escape our invigorating winter. Thousands of miles away, he was powerless to keep us from running completely amuck and making an utter shambles of the place, had we chosen to do so, but we were tired from our travels and restrained ourselves. This time (just saying, John P.).

Once inside, Johnnie called my attention to yet another festive tree, which she said was there for my birthday, and, indeed, there were presents beneath it. Now, I’m sure it stays there, ready to celebrate St. Swithin or Good King Wenceslas at a moment’s notice, should they happen to drop in, but it was swell to be the man of the hour. Even more to my liking, out in the kitchen waited the king of cakes, a Meyer lemon concoction splashed with lemony icing. I can taste it even now. Each morning, Ann and I, still in our pajamas, would feast on a slice with our coffee. And talk. What better talk than that around a kitchen table with a friend of almost fifty years? Of course, you do need that lemony cake.


After breaking all of John’s plumbing (but that’s another blog), there would be dazzling breakfasts of multiple quiches, pancakes lighter than air, and scrapple, a Pennsylvania Dutch treat that my grandmother called ‘paunhaus.’ She took the recipe to her grave, but Johnnie did her best to resurrect it. The only difference I can find is that Johnnie’s is lighter in color and gluten free. It conjured up so many sense memories that it took several adults to pry me from the table.


One tries to be a good guest. My idea of that is someone who can amuse himself without needing constant attention. I will never forget the house guest who lay in wait for me each morning bright eyed (I was still shut eyed), rubbing his hands and demanding, “And what are we doing today?” With this in mind, Ann and I took ourselves off for a long Sunday walk in the sunshine. Along the way, we passed an estate sale and wandered in. It’s difficult not to speculate about the lives of the departed in such a case. Difficult and a bit sad. Was the same person who collected such charming pieces of porcelain the one who chose the flocked gold wallpaper and orange carpet? And if not, was the estate sale the consequence of a murder?

Oscar night was great fun. Johnnie made two hearty soups, vegetable, and cream of potato, and corn bread. The only choice to be made was which to devour first. Then we retired to a cozy rec room to watch the broadcast and consume copious amounts of popcorn. Kimmel made us laugh early and often, and we found little to groan at as the evening wore on. Oh you can if you try, but why try? Just don’t watch if it’s such an ordeal. For me, and granted, I may have more patience for and interest in such categories as editing and art direction than most people do, the only truly boring aspect of the Oscars is the morning after columns decrying the show as the most boring ever. Every year. Since I was a kid. This year was “the most boring ever.” The 1928 edition must have been a pip. In any case, it seemed to our little group that the the set, the dresses, the speeches, the banter, and the awards themselves were in pretty good shape this year, in fact better than most.

Add to that how well I always sleep in a strange new bed, and, you know, I think it might be okay to go away again sometime. Not right away, but sometime.

Adventures in Lincolnwood

This might be a better fit for my secret journal (yes, like Dr. Hudson, I have one) than my blog. It’s just something that happened to me, and I don’t know how well I can shape it, or if I have a point to make with it. Still, I’d like to get it down somewhere. I don’t usually do this to you, but bear with me for a bit and let’s see what happens. Of course, by then, it will be too late to turn back, and we all may be the worse for the experience. Might be best to bail now.

Once upon a time, last Saturday, I packed pajamas and a toothbrush and set out on the first leg of a centipede-like journey to my brother’s house in Lincolnwood. It was the first time I’d be sleeping elsewhere since losing John. I wasn’t at all sure this was a good idea, not just going to my brother’s, but going anywhere, ever again. I feel close to John here, in this house, with pictures of him everywhere, and leaving it not just overnight but for an entire weekend seemed somehow wrong-headed and most peculiar.

There were inducements. The prospect of my sister-in-law’s cuisine was tempting, as was the idea of an Oscar party where I could astound the company with my predictive skills. I agreed to go partly because not to have done so would have said more than I cared to about how I’m getting on.

At first, I thought I’d just drive myself to the Hammond station, but the more I thought about it, leaving Dimitrios to fend alone for two overnights in the parking lot seemed to be tempting fate. Nothing personal, Hammondtonians, but Dimitrios is dear to me. Luckily, I prevailed upon my friend and neighbor, Ken Bobus, to drop me off and pick me up on Monday, saving me the cost of a limo or a helicopter (believe me, I wasn’t ruling out any options). Ken is a retired teacher, and we passed the short trip to the station swapping tales of the bizarre and the macabre from our years in the classroom.

I’ve always loved train travel. It seems to me preferable to almost any means of transport, but now, with a bad back, hoisting luggage above my head is a thing of the past, and my pleasure was moderated by having to ride with my suitcase (It was a big toothbrush, many bristles) between my knees. Riding to Randolph Street, at the end of the line, is always agreeable however. You don’t have to pay attention. You can’t get it wrong. They’ll wake you up.

My friend Ann, who was also invited, met me at the Randolph station, not trusting me (quite wisely on her part) to get from point A to point B on my own. With plenty of time to murder, we set off to find a good coffee joint. En route, I managed to stub my gouty toe twice, once on a swinging door, and then, more painfully, on some almost invisible finger like protrusions from the sidewalk. A speed bump for pedestrians?

Over strong Intelligensia, we pondered the future of classrooms manned and womanned by machine gun toting teachers. Neither of us would have relished being in the vicinity of some of our former colleagues, had they been packing. Caffeined to the gills, we caught a cab to Union Station.

I don’t think I’d been in Union Station since my college days in the early ’60’s. I’d taken an overnight train to New York and remember a swell breakfast in the dining car, watching the east whiz by. I still like the look of the place, though the picture I snapped Saturday while Ann got our tickets was less to commemorate the decor than a cute Arab guy talking to his girl friend.


Since there was hardly anywhere to sit down, we went out to track 13 and discovered, to our dismay, that, unlike the luggage friendly South Shore trains that open at ground level, our train could only be boarded by schlepping our suitcases up several feet and once inside, up five more steep stairs. Ann’s back is no better than mine, but as we surveyed the situation woefully, a good Samaritan in her twenties showed up and offered to scale the heights with our bags. The saintly young woman just smiled as we gushed our thanks. “One day, I’ll need help myself,” she said, “I hope I get it.” We do too.

Ann, who would be a most resourceful desert island person, kept track of our stops, so I had the luxury of gazing mindlessly out the window at some nicely wooded scenery. Sometime, I’d like to get on a train, without luggage, and just go anywhere, gazing as I go.

Steve and Johnnie were waiting at the station and drove us to Wildfire, a red meat-eater’s paradise. Responsible, temporary gout sufferer that I am, I settled for my millionth consecutive chicken and tried not to cluck. We skipped dessert because of  the superior treats Johnnie had waiting for us, and six hours since I’d set out, arrived at my home away from home for the next three days: Lincolnwood.

to be continued . . .


Birthday boy

It’s late now, and my birthday is officially over. The first one without John, yet, a particularly nice one. More messages of congratulation than anyone deserves. To read them, I had to fix a recalcitrant computer. I did it myself, which, if you know me, is astonishing. I remembered the advice of my techie friend, Bryan, and – voila! A very old dog has learned a new trick.

In addition to the internet affection, there were seven actual cards, though one was from my insurance agent, and another from my foot doctor. I’ll take it. At eighty-one, it’s all good.

I suspect I’ve had more birthdays than anyone reading this, so I’ve acquired some expertise on the subject. My advice is be grateful for anything nice that happens on your natal day. I’ve seen the nature of birthday celebrations undergo a sea change since I was a child. Then, there were no clowns, no bouncy houses, no themed events teeming with classmates. In my family, there really wasn’t much of anything beyond some aunts and uncles, socks and underwear masquerading as presents, and one of Grandma Kingsmill’s glorious chocolate cakes.

I don’t remember an actual party where I invited friends. I’m sure I didn’t encourage the idea because I wouldn’t have known whom to invite. I didn’t have real friends until high school, and such casual chums as I did have couldn’t be counted on to show up. Or so I thought at the time. As to gifts, I didn’t make it easy for anyone. Today, I receive elaborate wish lists that read like catalogs, but as a kid, I felt that to ask for something was greedy and cheating. I expected them to figure it out on their own. No wonder I got so many socks.

Then, eventually, came John, and the whole idea of birthdays was transformed into something magical. He DID figure it out. He knew me so well and was determined to please and surprise me. When I turned fifty, he threw an enormous party at Cafe Azteca and presented me with a poster of the first movie I ever saw, The Bad Man, with Wallace Beery and Ronald Reagan.

Lee & John Bad Man

On birthday mornings, he’d awaken me by singing a Mexican birthday song from a scene in The Leopard Man. The birthday girl in the film is later trapped in a graveyard and slaughtered, but his gesture was sweet, nonetheless.

I used to feel invulnerable on my birthday, as though nothing bad could happen to me for twenty-four hours. I got over that notion when, twice, my birthday began by driving John to the emergency ward. It taught me that birthdays didn’t matter. My  most precious present was having John in my life.

This year, I saw a poster at auction that I’d wanted for years, Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear, with wonderful graphics.


It was exactly the sort of thing that John would “figure out” and surprise me with. I bid and won it. It arrived today, and I thanked him.


February’s bright blue surprise

Smack in the middle of this stern winter that brought me frozen pipes and two feet of snow come balmy weather, warm sun and parade worthy bright blue skies. Show-offs stroll by in shorts. I don’t join them, but I smile for no reason and can’t manage a bad mood despite losing half a tooth when my dentist is down with the flu. If new cars were painted with the vibrant blue that now envelops us, no dealer could keep them in stock.

A perfect time this to find myself at Navy Pier for an afternoon of Schiller, cooked up as tastily as only Chicago Shakespeare can manage at the moment. “Mary Stuart” in the wrong hands could be a snoozer, or worse, a squirmer, but these hands were so right and patted everything into place so smartly that I was on the edge of my seat as these two conniving queens dueled to the death.

I love that space. I love skimming my hand on the broad banister of the gleaming wooden staircase. Halfway up, I have to pause and regard the wall of window looking out on sun flecked waves, Chicago’s skyline, and a boat. There’s always a boat. This time it was an enormous cruiser, sleek beyond the telling of it, with lines that gave it motion while at rest. What a vista!


Armed copiously with Werther’s succulent caramel coffee candies, I took my seat and hoped for magic. And got it.

Today was just as bright and illogically, unseasonably cheerful. I had to give Dimitrios the bath and spruce up I’d long been promising him. The works! He deserved it, lemon freshener and something called a “bottom blast.” I wonder if that is the vehicular equivalent of a high colonic? In any case, he enjoyed it. He took me to the health club and saved me with a beep from locking myself out of him (after the car wash, I’d forgotten to slip his key back into my pocket). Like dogs, cars are grateful for treats.

Inside the club, I circled the track bathed in late afternoon sun. For a day or two, all has been right with what’s left of my world.