Category Archives: Louisville Kentucky

The Pencil Today:


“Let us go forth with fear and courage and rage to save the world.” — Grace Paley


One of the most overused terms in sports is courage. A guy hits a single in the bottom of the ninth to win a baseball game for his team and the announcers gasp and coo that’s he’s exhibited an uncommon amount of courage.

Or the plucky college basketball team beats the number one team in the nation which, as we all know, happened a little more than a month ago right here in Bloomington. Sure enough, the announcers and the next day’s sports columnists all agreed: that plucky team was very courageous.

I call bullshit.


There was only one truly courageous professional athlete I’ve ever seen. He was born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, 70 years ago today.

We know him as Muhammad Ali.

I’ve never given a damn about professional boxing. It’s a cruel sport. It’s nothing more than sanctioned assault and battery performed for the pleasure of the slobs who pay to watch.

Men batter each others’ brains into mush so promoters and TV execs can make millions.

You can have it.

But I was always a fan of Muhammad Ali. He was the first jock to understand that what he was doing, first and foremost, was entertaining.

“Float like a butterfly,” he said, “sting like a bee.”


“I am the greatest,” he proclaimed. “I said that even before I knew I was.”


“I wish people would love everybody else the way they love me,” he said.


Muhammad Ali was strong. Muhammad Ali spent months training for a fight. Muhammad Ali endured blows that would disable or kill you and me. Muhammad Ali beat up dozens of men in the ring.

But nothing he did was courageous until he started looking at the question of black and white in America.

“Boxing,” he said, “is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up.”

No social commentator has ever uttered or typed a line with such clarity and perspicacity on the topic of race in America.

When he first became boxing’s champion, he had reached the pinnacle of all that a black man could achieve in this holy land. He knew it wasn’t enough.

“I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catchin’ hell,” he said, “but as long as they ain’t free, I ain’t free.”

Still going by the name Clay, he and Martin Luther King, Jr. were the most famous black men in the world. He was wealthy. What man would jeopardize that?

He did. Racism in America so disgusted him that he joined the Nation of Islam in 1964. He changed his name to Ali.

Ali With Malcolm X

All those white men watching him beat up another black men weren’t going to like that one bit. Muhammad Ali instantly became the man they loved to hate.

What professional athlete today would put at risk even one commercial shoot to breathe a word about freedom or race or poverty?

Muhammad Ali had work to do — work much more important than mashing the brains of another black man for the amusement of white men.

America’s Vietnam War was disposing of thousands of human beings a week. It was fought, disproportionately, by America’s blacks.

In 1966, when Ali was classified 1-A by the Selective Service System, he opted for courage.

He was ordered to report to the Army’s induction center in Houston in April, 1967. When the induction officer called his name, Ali refused to respond.

He could have run to Canada, as many young men were doing back then. He could have joined the National Guard, as many pro athletes were doing at the time as well. Joining the National Guard was a way of avoiding service in the regular Army and, consequently, being sent to Southeast Asia.

He’d chosen neither of those ways out.

Three times the induction officer called his name. Three times he stood tall and silent. Finally the officer warned him that refusing to respond was a felony punishable by five years in prison.

Ali remained mum.

He would say later, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. They never called me nigger.”

Which, by the way, was now the preferred appellation for him among so many of those white men who formerly enjoyed watching him beat up another black man.

Ali was immediately arrested and charged. He was found guilty by a jury two months later. He’d been stripped of his championship title by boxing’s regulating authorities the day he was arrested.

Ali Photographed By Gordon Parks During His Exile From Boxing

He gave up his career and his freedom and put his fortune at risk, all for something he believed in.

Something he believed in.

Which sports celebrity today believes in anything?

Which American today would risk a nickel on something he or she believes in?

It all turned out well for Muhammad Ali, of course. His conviction was overturned by the US Supreme Court. He was allowed to compete for the heavywieght title again and he won it back.

In his doddering years, he has become this nation’s kindly, lovable grandpa. When he dies, politicians and wags will fall all over each other trying to be the first to say what a great man he was.

But on April 28, 1967, Muhammad Ali had no idea that would happen.

He only knew his public opposition to the Vietnam War was worth risking everything he had.

That was courage.

The Pencil Today:


“The trouble with being a hypochondriac these days is that antibiotics have cured all the good diseases.” — Caskie Stinnett

Read On To Find Out Why I Put Up This Pic Of A Big Toe (And Its Buddies)


Life is not fair. We should all know it. The only people who cry about this state of affairs are those who expect life to be fair.

That, of course, is what kindergarteners think. BTW: Remember the rage for that gooey book by Robert Fulghum — “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”?

The man should have been incarcerated (right after Robert James Waller, whose “The Bridges of Madison County” hit it big around the same time.)

And who’s heard of Fulghum (or Waller) in the last decade or so? They’ve been swallowed up by the anonymity they so richly deserve.


Life has nothing to do with kindergarten.

Anyway, I didn’t post yesterday because I spent the morning in my doctor’s office. The diagnosis: gout.

Isn’t that the dumbest goddamn disease you’ve ever heard of? I mean, honestly.

It doesn’t kill you. It doesn’t maim you. It just hurts to high heaven, to the point where you can’t even sleep at night.


And its image really, really stinks. Unless you’re knowledgeable about it, the first thing you think of when you hear the word gout is some fat slob like Henry VIII, gorging himself on fatty, rich foods until his body rebels against him.


Nobody’s gonna hold a charity walk for that.

The truth, as my old pal and colleague Benny Jay found out a couple of years ago, is another story.

Benny’s my age but as trim as a 25-year-old. He eats like monk, rarely drinks, and runs every day. I really hate him. Yet he got gout. The docs told him he had a genetic predisposition for it.

When I first heard he had it, I immediately chided him: “So, you’ve been eating all the wrong crap, huh?”

If You Eat Pâté de Foie Gras, You Deserve Gout

I thought he was going to clobber me. He set me straight about what a straight-arrow he is (did I mention I hate him?) He really educated me about gout, too.

So when it felt as though a safe had fallen on my left big toe Monday night and I came to the conclusion I had gout, I didn’t put myself through the self-flaggelation that most sufferers do.

Still, gout is stupid. And life is not fair.


Don’t google pix of big toes, as I had to do to find the image above.

I didn’t know exactly what I expected to find. Figuring it’s the Internet and I was looking for images of a certain body part, I suppose I thought most of the results would be porn sites. The human capacity to fetishize things for masturbatorial gratification is positively amazing.

To my dismay, the vast majority of big toe images were 73 times more disgusting than any foot porn could be. (And BTW: did you know Goethe, Thomas Hardy, Elvis Presley, and Andy Warhol were foot fetishists? Man!)

For god’s sake people, take care of your toes!

And while we’re at it, men should never wear sandals. Yeah, I know, it feels comfortable, but the rest of us don’t want to see how you’ve ignored toe care for the last 20 years.

Women Can Get Away With It


In more pedestrian matters (hehe, a pun) the Herald Times yesterday ran an editorial calling for consolidation of the Monroe County and City of Bloomington governments.

That’s what Indy did with Marion County back in 1970. They call their set-up Unigov. Louisville, Kentucky and Jefferson County did it, too, in 2003, dubbing their marriage Metro Louisville. Former mayor Jerry Abramson used to brag that his town had become the 16th biggest city in the nation. Unfortunately, no one else bought into that conceit.

The editorial cites the county’s election day screw-up and the County Auditor’s credit card mini-scandal among the reasons the two entities should merge.

We’ll be listening for the reactions of the folks in Ellettsville, Stinesville, and Smithville.


State Senator Vi Simpson wants to get her hands on some of that $300 million of state money auditors found laying around last month.

Vi Simpson

Apparently, she’s interested in directing some of that dough toward state school districts that have had to endure — mirabile dictu! — some $300 million in state cutbacks of late.

Doesn’t she know these are more prudent, conservative times we live in? And she wants to throw away money on kids’ educations? Sheesh.


Just a little taste from what I consider one of the 10 greatest American movies ever made. Sheer pleasure for the ears and eyes.

The Pencil Today:


Oy! Another week, albeit a short one.

Okay, let’s get it started with some trivia fun. Here’s the question:

Where in the world is the Isle of Langerhans?

You want to google it, I know, but hold off for a little while. Let Pencil fans from around the globe have a crack at it off the tops of their heads.

Then google it.

The first correct answer wins an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bypass Construction Zone.

The Grand Prize!

Hat tip to my old pal Andy Wallingford, Triviameister Emeritus of Wick’s Pizza-Goosecreek in Louisville, Kentucky, for the question.


Our first-ever Pencil Poll appeared Saturday. Our crack team of statisticians worked ceaselessly throughout the rest of the weekend in a valiant effort to keep up with the avalanche of responses. I’ve just been handed the latest results and they indicate a grand total of nearly two dozen people ventured their opinions on what should become of the various Occupy encampments around this holy land.

Man, no wonder the economy nearly came to a standstill over the last 72 hours!

Anyway, the majority of respondents want the camps to be left alone. Nearly a quarter of the fine folks who are loyal to this site think the Occupy people ought to do something more constructive. One person doesn’t care — in fact, that respondent doesn’t care so much that he went out of his way to answer an online poll to tell the world he doesn’t care. That’s certainty.

Oh, BTW: We got respondents from both coasts. And I’m not referring to the coasts of Lake Monroe. I mean the coast of the greatest nation in the history of humankind, this experiment in democracy, the United States of America.

Next goal — readers on all seven continents. In fact, we’re planning a marketing caravan to Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica next year.

Watch us grow!

America’s Outpost In Antarctica


Oh, baby! This is too good to be true. Have you seen the pissing match between Alaska Rep. Don Young, a Republican, and the eminent historian Douglas Brinkley yet?

Brinkley actually lives out every thinking person’s fantasy when he goes toe to toe with the proto-human Young. The Republican Party has been trafficking in anti-intellectualism since the late 1970s when the Christian right organized to put a saint in the White House.

He’s In Heaven Now, With All Dogs And Randy “Macho Man” Savage

So, Congressman Young was attending a hearing of the House Committee on Natural Resources, no doubt in his ongoing quest to allow multi-national corporations to sully every square inch of pristine wilderness in this holy land. Brinkley was testifying against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Young, natch, would prefer to see oil derricks are far as the eye can see there.

Suddenly, Young blows up at Brinkley. In fact, he’s so choleric that he calls him the wrong name and then…, well, watch.

Er, uh, don’t watch. I don’t know why, but C-SPAN won’t allow me to embed the video of the dramatic exchange. Maybe Rep. Young’s thugs got to the C-SPAN people (tee-hee).

Here’s my transcription of the Battle of the Century.

Young: “If you ever want to see an exercise in futility, it’s this hearing…. I call it garbage, Mr. Rice, that comes from the mouth….”

Brinkley: ‘It’s Dr. Brinkley. Rice is a university….”

Young: “Well….”

Brinkley: “You know, you went to Yuba College. You couldn’t graduate….”

Young: “I’ll call you anything I want to call you when you set (sic) in that chair!”

Brinkley: “Pardon?”

Young: “You just be quiet!”

Brinkley: “Why? You don’t own me! I pay your salary.”

Young: “I don’t own you but I’ll tell you right now….”

Here, the chairman tries to throw a bucket of cold water on the two baying dogs. Too late, they’ve got their teeth in each other’s necks.

Brinkley: “I work for the private sector; you work for the taxpayers!”

The chair continues to try to chill the angry Brinkley, who repeats his complaint that Young misidentified him and called his testimony garbage. The chair says the committee “see(s) a lot of people here and we make foo pahs.”

Well, that finally shut everybody up — for the moment. What on this green Earth is a foo pah?

Later, Young tears into Brinkley again, accusing him of living in an “ivory tower” and being part of the wealthy elite that sees Alaska only as their vacation playground. Young added — unnecessarily, I might add — that he is “pissed off,” presumably by smart guys, trees, wildlife, and perhaps democracy itself.

Anyway, go to C-Span to see this meeting of the minds. The exchange begins at 31:15 and lasts a little over a minute. My favorite part is the reaction of the blonde congressional aid whose eyes grow to the size of saucers when Brinkley tells Young, “you don’t own me.”

Today: Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Pardon me a moment while I take today’s first sip of coffee.


That’s the ticket. The life-giving, eye-opening, brain-igniting legal substance without which I would most likely be a rotting corpse by 11:00am.

Guatemalan Coffee Cherries: The Seeds Inside Keep Me Alive

As faithful readers of this daily account are aware, I spend much of my time at Soma Coffee. I’ve been a coffeehouse habitué for at least the last twenty years, since coffeehouses came back into vogue.

Coffeehouses were the subterranean headquarters of the beatniks back in the late 1950s. There isn’t much at all about the ’50s that appeals to me — which is ironic considering one of this holy land’s most venerated presidents of all time, Saint Ronald Reagan, pretty much positioned that decade as something of a second Eden — but I’d have loved to have hung out in that era’s smoky, moody, finger-snapping, beret-required coffeehouses.

When beatniks went out of style, so did coffeehouses. Then, thanks to retro, Seattle grunge, and a phenomenon known as Starbuck’s, they started popping up here and there, mostly in those urban pioneer precincts that artists and hipsters gravitated toward.

I spent nearly ten years haunting Chicago’s premier, almost mythical, coffeehouse called Urbus Orbis. The place occupied the main floor of a four-story red-brick industrial building near the six-corners intersection of Milwaukee, North, and Damen avenues.

The locale was a tough spot in those days. Gang-bangers ran around grabbing their crotches and flashing signs at each other. Hard-drinkers tumbled out of the Borderline tavern just a half-block away. On any given Friday or Saturday night, stewed-to-the-gills drivers would slam into each other in the middle of that complicated intersection and physical altercations were sure to ensue. A good percentage of the time firearms were introduced into the proceedings.

Urbus Orbis itself was not immune to the horrors of the street. It wasn’t unusual to wait outside the single, locked bathroom, hopping on one leg then the other until finally banging on the door and getting no response. You’d tell the barista about it, she’d lower her shoulder and crash the door in, and the two of you would find some poet curled up in a ball on the piss-stained floor in a junk-induced reverie.

I loved the place.

There were anarchists, painters, actors, old punk-rockers, and countless hangers-on. On any given day I’d share a table with characters like Sidney T. Feldman, a former teen Frisbee champ who’d scraped-together his disc-tossing winnings to buy out his boss’s window washing business. Sidney loved to brag he was the laziest man in the city of Chicago. He worked a mere 45 minutes a week, he claimed, long enough only to schedule appointments with his North Shore clients and assign his crews. The first day I met him, he walked into the Urbus Orbis with a grey African parrot on his shoulder.

One winter night while stuck in traffic on the Kennedy Expressway, Sidney and I got the bright idea that we should become private detectives. We’d tail errant spouses and track down missing heirs. No joke. Sidney said it was a natural: I was used to bird-dogging and researching as a journalist and he knew how to run a business. He even knew a guy who could make a blinking eye neon sign to hang outside our office. But most of all it was perfect because we’d just bought snazzy new fedoras.

Out of the Past

I was to go down to the State of Illinois building the very next morning to get all the paperwork in order. Sadly, I learned a couple of chuckleheads need to be trained and sponsored before they can become private eyes. Even if they do have fedoras.

There was Michael Fisher, a twenty-something who wore a dashing brimmed hat like an Italian movie star and a long scarf which he threw over his shoulder with a dramatic flair even when the temperature hovered around 70. Michael’d spent his college years fencing and playing chess. He and Sidney — himself a highly-rated chess player — jockeyed for position to give me pointers on my game. Then they’d loom over me and kibbitz as I played another opponent, slapping their heads in dismay when I’d make a blunder. But if my opponent blundered, they’d shout, “Punish him!” in my ear.

There was Terry Broderick, a hulking, prematurely gray-haired man who relished being the outsider among us outsiders. He listened to a little known (at the time) radio ranter named Rush Limbaugh and would come into Urbus Orbis to tell us what treasonous things he’d learned Bill Clinton had done that morning. Terry wore many hats. He had a tiny red pick-up truck whose bed he packed with dry ice. He loaded it up with frozen meats and lobsters and would drive to northwest Indiana and ring doorbells to sell the stuff.

Terry also sold insurance door to door and ran his own moving company. He’d rent a truck, hire his Urbus acquaintances and the odd wino off the street, and move families from the Gold Coast to the North Shore. His business card claimed he was licensed and insured but we knew better. We knew he was running a pirate business because whenever he saw anybody he suspected was an inspector from the Illinois Commerce Commission snooping around, he’d flip the ramp back into the truck in a rush and peel away, leaving us and the family we were moving to stand there looking dumbfounded.

One day I confronted Terry. “Come on, man,” I said, “You and I both know you’re running a scam. Let me see your bonding papers. Where’s your business license?”

He looked over both shoulders and confessed, “I don’t have ’em.”

“So,” I said triumphantly, “you’re lying on your business card.”

“No I’m not!” he said, hurt. “I’m licensed! I’m insured! I’ve got a drivers license and I have auto insurance.” He was serious as a heart attack. Then he said, “Can you work tomorrow? I’ve got three jobs.” I said I could.

There was the Dark Prince. His given name was Bill. Years earlier, he’d been a silent fixture at the punk rock nightclubs La Mere Vipere, O’Banion’s, and Exit. He only ever wore black. Black pointy Beatle boots. Black stovepipe jeans. Black turtleneck sweater. Black eye liner. His spiky, pouffed-up hair was also shockingly black, which we all took to be a dye job considering he was about 40 years old. His mood was generally black and the cloud that hung over his head was, if not black, darkest gray.

The highlight of the Dark Prince’s resume was that he’d spent time on tour with Peter Murphy some years back. We though this odd since the Prince couldn’t play any musical instruments and he was vehemently opposed to the concept of labor, so we knew he couldn’t have been a roadie.

In any case, the Prince liked to sit alone, chain smoking and looking for all the world as if he was plotting to become the next Unabomber. One day the Prince walked into Urbus Orbis actually smiling — well, okay, the corner of his mouth was sort of upturned. He carried with him a dozen red roses. We all gaped at him.

He explained: A junkie street hooker he’d befriended was so touched that anyone would treat her like a human being that she’d decided to fall in love with him. She started out by leaving mash notes on his windshield. That day, she’d left the flowers.

“Whaddya gonna do with ’em?” we asked. The Dark Prince shrugged. “I dunno. Probably give ’em to my mother.” We though that sweet of him. He did, after all, live in his mother’s basement in the conservative suburb of Mount Prospect.

At least one Urbus regular went on to become a big hit in the bigger world. Adam Levin, a dreadlocked teenager, would sit with Sidney and me and tell us about his dream of becoming a writer. He carried a notebook with him everywhere he went. He wouldn’t stay too terribly long on any given day because, he said, he needed to write and he couldn’t do it with all the rest of us distracting him. His hard work paid off: Adam Levin’s novel “The Instructions” was published by the ultra-hip McSweeney’s people in 2010. Some critics likened his work to that of David Foster Wallace.

Urbus Orbis stood on the border between the Wicker Park and Bucktown neighborhoods. By the late 90’s the yuppies had discovered the area. First the gangbangers, the drunks and the junkies were pushed out. Then the Puerto Ricans. We knew we were next.

Urbus Orbis closed down on New Year’s Eve 1997.

Not long after that, the owner of the building decided to rent it out to the production company that put on MTV’s “The Real World.” They moved in some precious, faux-edgy, aspiring actors and videotaped their every living moment.

One Friday night a crowd of several hundred freaks, revolutionaries, and painters massed in front of the building, shouting for the MTV people to go home. A rock or two may have been thrown. The cops came, clunked a few heads, and everybody dispersed, lamenting to each other as they ran what a sick corporate police state we’d become.

Wicker Park and Bucktown now boast some of the priciest townhomes in the city.

I’ve set my laptop down in any number of coffeehouses since the Urbus days. There were Kafein and the Unicorn near the Evanston campus of Northwestern University. Katerina’s on Chicago’s North Side and Bic’s Hardware Cafe on the South Side. Heine Brothers, and Matthew Lannan’s joint in Louisville. And now, Soma.

Soma’s a good place. I’ve met tons of fine folks here. Nobody on the order of the Dark Prince, though. Soma’s more serious. Loads of students reading textbooks and instructors grading papers. Adam Levin would have liked it here.

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