1000 Words: A Life’s Walk

The Walking Man died this week. He was murdered.

He was a fixture along Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, the Magnificent Mile, one of the country’s most glittering, high-toned boulevards, lined with fancy shops, bustling crowds, men in expensive suits, ladies in furs, and tourists from Iowa in T-shirts and sneakers.

Few people knew his name. Yet a thousand, a hundred thousand, hell, maybe a million people knew him by sight.

He walked the Magnificent Mile every single day, rain or shine, winter or summer. He spoke to no one, always looking straight ahead, his eyes fixed on some distant point, striding toward it, ever so purposefully. Sometimes he’d be seen on one of the side streets intersecting Michigan Avenue, or along the Equitable Building plaza, or between the foot of the mammoth John Hancock Center (then-named) and its own sunken plaza.

But he was never spied in, say, Billy Goat’s Tavern or the vestibule of the Tribune Tower or the lobby of the Hotel Intercontinental. He was never really anywhere even though he was always everywhere.

I first caught sight of him back in the late 1970s, when I began pounding the pavement along Michigan Avenue. My friends in the writing business, ad copywriters and newspaper reporters and the like, told me that’s what I had to do. Pound the pavement.

I walked Michigan Avenue just about every day, even as I spun records on the midnight shift at WUIC, the college radio station for the University of Illinois at Chicago. I’d go directly from the station a couple of miles to the southwest of Chicago’s Loop — by foot, of course — to my job as a coder at Rabin Research Company, a marketing consultant.

I worked for Rabin at different times of the day to accommodate my class schedule at UIC. Sometimes I’d show up on Michigan Avenue at 7:30 or eight in the morning, sometimes late in the afternoon. No matter when I’d hit the boulevard, I’d catch sight of the Walking Man.

I didn’t know him as such back then. After seeing him walking so purposefully, day after day, at any time of the day, along one of the most expensive streets in America, I concluded he was the scion of some fabulously wealthy family, its black sheep, perhaps a bit off, his daily needs taken care of by the executor of his trust fund.

The Walking Man had a lush head of jet black hair, long and flowing down past his collar, and a thick mustache. He took after the 1970s hockey idol Derek Sanderson, tonsorially. Sanderson was a hockey sex symbol when he was playing center for the Boston Bruins powerhouse teams of the early ’70s. He (according to Wikipedia) “helped transform the culture of the professional athlete.” Sanderson became known as a sexy hunk rather than a dumb jock. I figured the guy who’d eventually become known as the Walking Man wanted to be seen as a sexy hunk too.

Here’s a shot of Derek Sanderson:

And here’s one of the Walking Man, taken some years after his prime:

I’ll admit, the latter fellow isn’t exactly the type who’d cause a crowd of screaming females to toss their panties at him but you can’t blame a guy for trying.

The Walking Man always wore a sport coat and neatly pressed slacks. In the summer, he’d wear a V-necked shirt exposing his thick chest hair. In the winter he buttoned up the shirt under his sport coat, but never donned a parka or overcoat.

I’d mention him to other people and they’d invariably respond, “Oh yeah! That guy! Who the hell is he? What’s his story?” I couldn’t answer them. Nobody could for the longest time.

One guy I knew, Tennessee Tom Lee, got all excited when I brought the Walking Man up. “Oh man, Big Mike, you’ve gotta do a story about him!” I’d been writing for the Chicago Reader for years at this point. Tennessee Tom called him the Ghost.

Soon after, I saw the Walking Man — or the Ghost — coming toward me on Michigan Avenue. As he neared, I smiled and nodded. He continued looking straight ahead, his eyes still fixed on that distant point. Another day, he again came toward me. As he neared, I tied to catch his eye. “How’ya doin’?” I said.

There was no response. He stared straight ahead.

That’s what he did. Walked. Stared. Kept mum.

His name was Joe Kromelis. Acc’d’g to an Illinois history website, he came with his family to Chicago from somewhere in eastern Europe as a small child. His parents ran a successful Halsted Street saloon, sold it, and moved out of the city. Joe remained, aimless and largely jobless. He sold jewelry for a while on downtown streets and then settled into his life’s work. Walking.

Perhaps Joe had some spending money even as he became homeless. He’d lived in a Lincoln Park SRO for 30 years until it was sold and turned into luxury condos. I’m guessing he might have had some dough because he was brutally attacked a couple of times. One guy beat him with a baseball bat in 2016. Then, this past May, another guy doused him with lighter fluid and lit him on fire as he lie sleeping under blankets on Lower Wacker Drive. It’s possible his attackers themselves were homeless and wanted to get at whatever cash Joe had.

Joe Kromelis died this week, apparently from injuries he suffered in the May attack. NPR’s Scott Simon eulogized him this morning:

It may be a natural reflex of the heart to feel pity for Joseph Kromelis, but everything I saw in his stride the times I glimpsed him strutting across the Michigan Avenue bridge, looking poised, urbane, and elegant, tells me the Walking Man would prefer to be remembered for making his own way through life.

Me? I don’t think he’d have wanted to be remembered at all, back when he was alive. Just left alone. To walk.

1000 Words: Courage

The date was April 28, 1967. The site, the US Army induction center in Houston, Texas.

A 25-year-old man who was classified as 1-A by the Selective Service System had been ordered to report for induction into the army. The United States, at the time, was engaged in an undeclared war in Southeast Asia. Already by that time, tens of thousands of American soldiers had been killed in there. Tens and even hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese also had been killed. Seven years later, the United States fighting forces would withdraw from the region, and the army whom America had been fighting rapidly swept across South Vietnam, taking it over. That had been the entire raison d’être the Americans fought against them in the first place.

US embassy evacuation in Saigon, 1973.

I use the term raison d’être to make a point. It is, of course, a French phrase. The French had fought a bloody campaign in Vietnam, in the years following World War II up to July 20, 1954. France had wanted to maintain control over the country, then known as French Indochina. It was among the last vestiges of European colonialism in Asia.

The Vietnamese, for their part, wanted independence and sovereignty, a couple of qualities we Americans talk about almost religiously. We celebrate our own war for independence and sovereignty every Fourth of July. Everyone, we shout to the world, should be free and independent. Except we sent billions of dollars to the French in their effort to reign over the Vietnamese.

The French couldn’t do it. The Vietnamese were plucky, determined, disciplined, and militarily brilliant. Even though the French soldiers were well-armed and well-fed, they were beaten by a dedicated civilian army that wore sandals rather than combat boots.

French generals sneered at their counterparts in the Viet Minh, the nationalist army of Vietnam. The French considered their foes to be nothing more than a gang of peasants.

France bled, both metaphorically and actually, for years in Vietnam. Then came the denouement: Dien Bien Phu. The French garrison there was thoroughly thrashed by those so-called peasants. The men and women of the Viet Minh dug tunnels, moved through the night, and pulled heavy armor pieces by hand. They they attacked and crushed the French there.

Viet Minh soldiers overrun a French defense line at Dien Bien Phu.

Colonel Charles Piroth, who commanded the French artillery at Dien Bien Phu and who’d crowed before the battle, “I’ve got more guns than I need,” killed himself in his bunker as the battle wound down. The entire country of France was humiliated. In July, 1954 France signed the Geneva Accords, ending hostilities and, essentially saying, you’ve won. That was a mere 13 years before the young American man appeared in the Houston induction center.

For two years, American generals similarly had looked down their noses at the Vietnamese. They told their bosses at the Pentagon and in the White House they were winning when, in reality, they were barely holding on. Already, protesters had taken to the streets to object to America’s undeclared war in Vietnam. Indiana’s Vance Hartke was the first US senator to oppose the war. Seven months after that young American man appeared in the Houston induction center, CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite told his viewers:

We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds…. To say we are mired in a stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.

According to popular lore, President Lyndon B. Johnson was watching his Oval Office TV as Cronkite spoke those words. He remarked, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Little more than a month later, Johnson dropped out of the 1968 presidential race.

Cronkite reports from Vietnam.

In the Houston induction office, the recruitment officer called out the young American man’s name three times. He intoned:

Muhammad Ali? Muhammad Ali? Muhammad Ali?

Three times Muhammad Ali, then the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, refused to acknowledge the call and step forward. Later, he told reporters:

I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong…. Why should (America) ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles away and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?

Muhammad Ali knew he would pay dearly for his antiwar stance. He was stripped of his championship. He was found guilty in federal court of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000 (the conviction was overturned in 1971). He was denied the right to ply his trade for the next three years, losing the opportunity to earn millions of dollars. He was vilified by much of white America.

Ali, at the Houston induction center.

Yet Ali did what he thought he had to do regardless of the consequences. As did countless others who protested the Vietnam War, who agitated for civil rights, who decried wealth inequities in America and around the world.

They suffered personal and professional hardships, even prison.

Contrast their moral certitude, their confidence, their faith, with that of the three men convicted this week of conspiring to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer because she’d dared to order the people of her state to wear surgical masks during a global pandemic.

One of them told the judge before sentencing:

Your honor, I had a lapse in judgment. I’ve been a good citizen. I’ve been a family man.

Another said:

I sincerely regret ever allowing myself to have any affiliation with people who had those kinds of ideas.

The third said he never meant Whitmer any harm. This despite the fact that the men were members of a heavily armed radical Right Wing “militia.”

Militia members during their takeover of the Michigan state capitol, April, 2020.

The one word never used to describe the men during their entire trial was “courageous.”

1000 Words: Baffled

Try as I might, I’ve never been able to figure out the terror many people feel about homosexuality.

And, from what I’ve read thus far, neither have psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, or any other -ists who study the bizarre creatures we call our fellow human beings.

Here we are, more than 300 years past the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. The Pope is no longer a global political leader. Worldwide instant communications have connected us and allowed us to get to know virtually every formerly alien speaker or believer and every different race or other taxonomic classification of our species. Time and behavioral evolution even have led us to (almost) accepting without question a certain equality of the sexes.

Talk to some fairly well-read citizen of, say, London in the year 1722 and you’d likely find he (of course, he) would be either baffled or petrified of the Chinese, Roman Catholics, women who aspire to higher places, women in general, Egyptians, Sudanese, the varied indigenous peoples of the New World, deists, females who wore the robe volante and males who sported the new extra wide, pleated coat skirts.

Some of these alien (to him) folks believed in a different kind of god. Some had differently colored skin. Some possessed the wrong genitals. Others wore the wrong clothes.

Yet, largely, the world has come to accept that none of these things is a moral failure. Billions of us work, play, and love with people of other races, other faiths, and other hem-lengths. That same type of person, referred to above, today might as easily be a black woman in Sao Paulo or Atlanta, fairly well-read, empowered enough to speak freely, and open to so many of the things that had flummoxed my archetypal Londoner.

Nevertheless, there are enough folks whose gut reaction to two men or two women loving each other, being sexually aroused by each other, and actually acting upon that arousal, that lawmakers can codify their fears into statutes that curtail said love/arousal/action. They still number in the millions.

Two cases in point. One, the United States Supreme Court is hearing, this term, the case of a web designer who does not want to serve certain homosexual customers. This person, Lorie Smith of Colorado, has sued her home state because it has passed a law forbidding discrimination based on sexual or gender orientation by businesses open to the public. Smith says she will not design marriage announcements or other wedding materials for same-sex couples.

Lorie Smith.

Now, here’s the funny thing. Smith has not yet even started her marriage web design business.

Yet, she’s so terrified of running afoul of her god by designing an LGBTQI marriage announcement that she’s appealing to the highest legal authority of the land to protect her from having to do so. Smith, argue her attorneys, “will decline any request — no matter who makes it — to create content that contradicts the truths of the Bible, demeans or disparages someone, promotes atheism or gambling, endorses the taking of unborn life, incites violence, or promotes the concept of marriage that is not solely the union of one man and one woman.”

Notice how she and her lawyers throw in those universally accepted prohibitions against demeaning or disparaging people and committing violence? See, they seem to be saying, Smith’s a good person!

Hanging in Smith’s office is a plaque reading, “I am God’s masterpiece.” I suspect she has either forgotten or refuses to credit the Bible’s proscriptions against self-glorification.

No matter. The current Supreme Court is now dominated by justices leery of this whole LGBTQI movement toward freedom and acceptance. Led by the three justices nominated by a one-term president who lost the popular vote but won office on a technicality, the Court would surprise no one if it ruled in Smith’s favor.

Now for the second case in point. More than 30,000 people in rural North Carolina remain without power today after a coordinated weekend assault on a pair of critical electrical substations created a massive outage. All Moore County schools are closed and the Red Cross has opened emergency warming stations for people without heat as temps dipped below freezing last night. The Moore County sheriff calls the attack a “criminal occurrence.” The attackers, he says, used guns to disable the substations. He adds that although he won’t call the incident domestic terrorism just yet, he’s certain the substations were intentionally targeted. “It wasn’t random,” he says.

The incident comes on the heels of a controversy surrounding a planned drag show in nearby Southern Pines, causing a flood of outrage and threats on social media. A former US Army officer is being investigated for posting “The power is out in Moore County and I know why” on Facebook. The woman had already been posting angry screeds against the planned drag show. She posted “You know what to do” on her Facebook page.

The attack occurred as the drag show was in progress. The resulting outage forced the show to end.

Image: Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot

Mind you, this isn’t even about homosexuality per se but about men dressing as women for entertainment purposes. Nevertheless, the two issues remain intertwined in the minds of people who are scared to death by them.

I’ve long held that many of the most outraged and vociferous opponents of LGBTQI people are battling internal demons. Well, demons is how they see it. That is, sometime in their most hormonally-charged youth they dreamed or fantasized about being naked with someone of their own sex and panicked about it. The dream or fantasy might have been one-off, something that flashes into any of our minds on occasion, something we can’t explain but does not necessarily define us. Or it could have been a subconscious wish. Who knows? Who cares?

Well, they do. And it spooks them to their very core. They care about it for the rest of their lives, always on the alert to ward off the next such dream or fantasy and believing practicing homosexuals simply are too weak, morally and/or psychologically, to similarly ward off their desires.

Fear, as we know now, easily turns to hatred. That’s the best explanation I can think of for their terror.


(Not) 1000 Words: The Good and The Bad

Nothing one-thousand-word-y today. Just several things meriting a few paragraphs.

So, let’s go.

I quote from a story in this morning’s Chicago Sun-Times:

Neighbors were shocked to hear about the deaths on their normally quiet block.

Now, that’s a boilerplate line from any of a hundred thousand — hell, a million — newspaper articles about murder. In this case, five people were found dead in their home in the upper-middle class Chicago suburb of Buffalo Grove. Authorities suspect it was “domestic” in nature, meaning someone the victims knew and loved offed them.

Horrible. Heinous. Of course. But, for pity’s sake, aren’t we savvy enough to grasp that the neighbors’ll be shocked by such a crime? They’d be shocked to learn even one person had been murdered next door. Nobody — even among people in the toughest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods in any city — would say to a reporter, “Yeah, I figured it’d happen. Now, pardon me so I can finish raking the leaves.”

Staying in Chicago — my beloved hometown, natch — today and tomorrow are a couple of notable anniversaries.

Tomorrow, first. On December 2, 1942, physicists led by at least four eventual Nobel Prize laureates conducted the world’s first sustained nuclear chain reaction in a secret lab under the stands at the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field. For decades, the event was described among laypeople as “splitting the atom.” It proved that trillions of volatile atoms of uranium could be manipulated into releasing their collective potential energy. Researchers employed by the Manhattan Project then went about the business of developing nuclear weapons, based on the successful Stagg Field experiment.

Talk about a double-edged sword! Many historians feel the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki effectively ended World War II (although others just as forcefully argue Japan already had been defeated; it’s navy and air force crushed, its home islands totally blockaded, and 60 of its cities destroyed by conventional bombing raids). Yet more than a quarter-million human beings were killed in two finger snaps. Tens of thousands of people who survived the initial nuclear bombings would later die of radiation effects for decades to come.

And, after the end of the war countries began arming themselves to the teeth with nukes, so much so humanity soon was in real danger of incinerating itself. It still is.

Table from ICAN (Internationall Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons)

Yet, delving into the recesses of the atom has allowed us to understand the basic nature of physical existence; to develop almost magical treatments for cancer; generate usable energy; and gain deeper understandings of chemistry, biology, and physics.

A double-edged sword indeed.

Now, then, today’s anniversary. At about 2:00pm, December 1, 1958, a fire began smoldering in a trash bin in the basement of Our Lady of the Angels grade school on Chicago’s West Side. Within 20 minutes, the little fire grew, emitting noxious smoke and generating superheated gasses that circulated through the building via its ventilation system. Soon, the school was engulfed in an inferno.

A total of 92 kids and three nuns died in the blaze. Thousands of people gathered on the streets and sidewalks surrounding the school as firefighters battled the flames. Many parents stood in the crowds, desperate to learn the fate of their children. The disaster became worldwide news.

My fifth grade teacher was named Pearl Tristano. She was my favorite teacher throughout elementary and high schools (we didn’t have middle schools or junior highs in Chicago in those days). Miss Tristano was youngish, fashionable (she wore colorful scarves, trendy dresses, and fine necklaces and earrings), and she had a sense of humor. She loved to quote lines from the sitcom “Get Smart.” She’d say “Sorry about that, Chief,” if she made a mistake on the chalkboard or “Would you believe…?” if I were caught not turning in my homework. Miss Tristano never betrayed any hidden grief. She smiled more than all the other teachers at St. Giles school, mostly nuns, put together.

I only learned later that Miss Tristano taught fifth graders at Our Lady of the Angels. She was on the job the day of the fire. My guess is she must have been fresh out of college then, as she was still young when she taught me.

A couple of Our Lady of the Angels schoolgirls returning to her class after running an errand told her the stairway was filled with acrid smoke. They could barely get the words out, they were hacking so badly. Miss Tristano pulled the fire alarm.

She witnessed a horror few people had ever experienced outside of wartime. Yet, she was the most positive, joyous teacher I can recall.

I read about her trauma at Our Lady of the Angels in a history of the disaster a few short years ago.

That fire, too, was a double-edged sword. School building codes around the nation — around the world — were rewritten to ensure such a tragedy might never happen again.

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the image of a Chicago firefighter carrying the lifeless body of a child victim became as well-known a public service announcement for fire safety as Smokey the Bear.

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Images from the Chicago Tribune/Chicago American photo files.

I don’t suppose Pearl Tristano is among us anymore. But she’ll always live in my memory and my heart.


(Significantly Fewer Than) 1000 Words: Leave Me Alone!

The holidays seem a good time for another rant. And today, Black Friday, is the perfect day to do so. I have, in the past, ranted about the cravenness of this most artificial and pointless of Days. So, here goes a new one.

Before I get to the meat of this rant, let me begin by saying it’s become apparent that precious few stores, services, companies, or corporations care to employ anyone to answer the phone when potential customers call for information. Whether you want to know business hours or the availability of a product or anything else, you have to endure an endless wait through an automated message giving you more extension choices than any sane person might consider reasonable, up to and including “For our racial, religious, and gender accessibility statement, please press 98.”

These businesses might say it costs far too much dough to employ people simply to pick up the phone. This even though the employees of small, locally-owned businesses seem to find the capability within themselves to answer the phone even as they wait on live, in-person customers. So that cost excuse appears to be nothing more than bullshit. Which, BTW, is the premier product most stores, services, companies, and corporations provide.

What makes this state of affairs even worse is the fact that all those stores, services, companies, and corporations find it necessary to employ entire armies of people whose sole function is to harass and harangue you after you’ve done business with them. Go into a CVS or Walgreen’s, say, for a Hershey’s bar with almonds and the checkout machine prints a receipt some three and a half feet long, most of it being a questionnaire probing the deepest recesses of you heart and mind concerning your thoughts and feelings about your “experience” buying said hunk of milk chocolate.

How Was Your Experience?

These places, in addition, can’t even find the financial resources to hire enough people to check you out and take your cash or credit card. Soon, I fear, they’ll be asking us to unload the semi delivering all those Hershey’s bars, Fleet’s enemas, Revlon nail clippers, house brand razors, and Christmas cards, among all the other flotsam and jetsam the store offers. Hell, who needs any on-site employees at all when you really come down to it?

Anyway, even if the place of business does not utilize automated checkout machines, after you’ve given it your custom you’ll be hectored for days and weeks after your transaction via text or email, similarly dunning you for your feelings about that “experience.”

I dunno about you, but I find this whole patronizing, supplicating, desperate need for my attention as annoying as all hell.

Look, if I have a major problem with a business, I’ll pick up the phone or write a scathing email to tell them so. And if things go too unforgivably awry during my “experience” I’ll send a message by never throwing my money that company’s way again. I can name any number of outfits whose doors I haven’t passed through in years because they screwed up so egregiously at one time or another.

That’s the way business has always gotten the message throughout most of our holy land’s history. If you’re happy, you come back. If you’re mildly unhappy, you raise a fuss with some unfortunate manager or supervisor. If the clerk or product turned out to be unspeakably offensive, you resolve never to do business with that place again for the rest of your life.

1985 Yugo GV

The makers of New Coke, the Yugo, the Edsel, and the late 1970s band The Knack all got the message that American consumers had countless better things to spend their money on.

But that simple formula of consumer activism has been relegated to the trash heap of history. Now, that army of supplicants, if one is to believe these businesses’ claims that they’re striving day and night to provide us with the greatest, most satisfying “experience” outside of the times we conceived our eldest children and then watched them being born, must stalk us telephonically, text-ually, or email-ly in hopes of gleaning our merest psychological and emotional reactions to, again, our purchase of a single candy bar.

Enough! Stop! Quit it! Leave me alone!

(A Bit Fewer Than) 1000 Words: 45’s World

I just came across something Patton Oswald wrote during the depths of the pandemic. The gist of it was, the COVID-19 lockdown turned the world into the same kind of hellscape that the 45th President of the United States has lived in, in his head, all his sad, lonely life.

The 45th POTUS didn’t cause the pandemic and the lockdown, but there’s no question he made it one hell of a lot worse than it could have been, starting with his first public utterances regarding the disease. It was all a big fake, he claimed, a hoax perpetrated by his enemies, the Democrats, to make him look bad. From that moment on, the whole COVID and/or vaccine denialism thing spread like…, well, a global virus.

Anyway, here’s Oswald’s peek into 45’s awful, grim mind (all sic):


Donald forced America to live in the only reality HE’s comfortable in. Everybody’s huddled at home, watching TV, eating takeout food, clumsily promoting themselves on Zoom and Til Tok just to stay alive. The only people allowed outside are the people he never sees or acknowledges, the ones who replace the water bottle and cedar shavings in the hamster pen he loves. The act of quietly creating something you like, and having it speak for itself? Loathsome to him. Horrifying. He’s ended all of that. He hates movies, is indifferent to music, even kind of hates sports – because none of them celebrates him. So..they’re gone. A FEW live concerts are allowed – defiant, angry, super-spreader death-throngs that celebrate the “fake plaque” reality he’s decreed. The sports that are played are played in empty stadiums full of cut-outs like Rupert Pupkin’s basement, which is how Donald interacts with the world in his mind. Small business? A quiet, contented person who just wants to run a little used book store or bike shop or boxing gym or restaurant because that’s what they love, and could care less about GLOBAL DOMINATION? Wiped off the face of the earth. Donald can’t stand that. Artisans. Craft. Skills and soul. Hates them. So they’re gone. We are literally living in Donald’s curdled reality, now and forever. And it isn’t that he enjoys (or hates or even feels anything for) endless TV and take-out food and self-promotion and bragging in place of competence and mastery. The joy comes from seeing how miserable everyone else is. He doesn’t want to run around with the other kids playing soccer or hide and seek – but it tickles him to no end to have his dad call the cops and ruin everyone’s chill, goofy fun. Finally, everyone experiences the world the way lonely, spiteful little Donald does, the way he has his whole life. An endless, terrified hustle.

Again, that whole passage is reproduced exactly as originally written, so don’t email me with corrections (even though I generally appreciate that kind of care and attention in my readers).

Oswald has gotten into the ex-president’s head as few people ever have before.

Along the same lines, another jokester, Bill Maher, asked the other day on his HBO show, Real Time, the one question nobody’s been able to answer about the ex-president.

Maher muses: “Someone needs to explain to me how there have been over 1200 books written about the Trump presidency, books that were mostly competing to reveal every detail of his life, and not one of them tells me the one thing I’m most curious about: Who is Donald Trump fucking?”

The idea being, of course, that Melania clearly would rather be touched by a tarantula. “He’s fucking somebody,” Maher continues, “and it’s not Melania and it’s not nobody. He’s a dog and always has been….”

My take is, despite the infamous Access Hollywood tape and the ex-president’s carefully cultivated playboy image from the rollicking ’70s and ’80s, he has never enjoyed sex. In fact, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he engaged in procreation either gaggingly or through the use of artificial insemination. He strikes me as akin to radical religious fundamentalists who only copulate through holes in the sheet.

He’s a notorious mysophobe who famously eschews even shaking hands with other human beings and washes his hands more than an overworked scrub nurse. He’s forever angry and bitter and aggrieved and never truly smiles or laughs. He knows no pleasure, as Oswald suggest above. How, then, can he enjoy the ultimate pleasure? And what better reason could he have for insisting his wives and purported paramours sign non-disclosure agreements?

No, Bill Maher, he doesn’t have to be fucking somebody. If I’m right about that, it goes along way to explain him.

1000 Words: The Panic Party

I often stand in awe of the things people on the Right believe and are scared to death of. For decades, for instance, gun-fondlers have been shrieking to high heaven that “they” are gonna take away our guns. The NRA and its followers have been touting that line since at least the early 1980s.

In the ensuing decades, there’ve been two two-term Democratic presidents as well as a one-termer (thus far). And the US Senate and House have been led by Democrats at various times, occasionally both at the same time. Nevertheless, there’s been no significant federal gun legislation enacted since the Brady Bill in 1993 and the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 1994. The latter of which, BTW, lapsed quietly in 2004. Now, gun-loving Americans can freely purchase and possess the equivalent of military firearms easily and relatively cheaply once again, just the way god intended.

Still, when Joe Biden ran against the 45th President of the United States in 2020, the “they’re coming for our guns” canard was tossed around liberally (yeah, it’s a pun) by Republican candidates for everything from dog-catcher to POTUS. We’re nearly three years into the Biden presidency — and he’s been backed by Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress — yet so far…, well, nothing. Nothing, that is, save for a symbolic House vote to approve a new semi-automatic gun ban this past July. Symbolic because there was absolutely zero chance it would pass through the Senate. House Republican opponents sneered at the bill, saying it was nothing more than an election year stunt. And they were right.

Guns remain the most precious, sacrosanct possessions among tens of millions of Americans, second only, I’d guess, to salt- and sugar-laden white-flour foods deep fried in canola oil.

Whoever “they” are, they’re about as effective against gun hoarders as crash diets are against obesity.

The Right also lives in fear of anybody identifying as LGBTQI. The idea of M-to-F trans people using the women’s rest room sends chills up and down millions of people’s spines. What they imagine goes on in women’s rest room is beyond me, but if their worst fears about it were true, there’d be no call for internet hook-up sites anymore.

You don’t hear much about Antifa these days but just a couple of years ago whoever they were occupied the thoughts and terrors of many Republicans. Antifa, they claimed, were burning down our cities. As recently as January 6, 2021 and in the days immediately following, Antifa was portrayed as a gang of brilliant mimes, dressing up as MAGA insurrectionists and storming the United States Capitol.

I could go on and on but you get the picture. The Right and most of the Republican Party live in a constant state of panic. Many, many, many of their frights are about as reasonable as that of a four-year-old certain there is a monster under the bed.

The R & Rs seem to have this whole alarmist thing down pat. Nothing drives people to act like dread fear and Republicans use that to drive people to the polls.

That said, lots of folks on my side of the fence use the same tactic, whether intentional or not.

A few years ago, the Cassini space probe, sent to explore Saturn and its moons, turned its cameras back toward Earth. The resulting photo showed a tiny blue-ish dot, surprisingly modest yet still beautiful. A commenter under one of the news story posts about the photo said something on the order of If we keep fouling the Earth the way we are, that little dot will soon disappear.

Which is no less unreasonable than the fear that “they” are on the verge of seizing everybody’s guns or that drag queens will be kidnapping six-year-olds from public rest rooms. No reputable experts foresee the entire planet disappearing, no matter how much smoke and toxic flotsam we belch into the air and our oceans.

Another Left panic is we’re running out of water. Again, nothing could be further from the truth. The Earth contains the same amount of water it always has. Water does not disappear, nor is it transformed through chemical reaction into something else. There is indeed a water crisis in certain parts of the world but that’s because too many people have migrated to urban centers far from fresh water. And when there are droughts, the rivers and streams that are tapped at a distance to supply those populations run low.

I’ve had two guests on my Big Talk program who were well versed in this. One was a hydrologist and the other researched people’s environmental knowledge and attitudes. Both reinforced my understanding that the Earth’s water is not disappearing, only that it costs too much to desalinate and/or transport water to ocean-bordering or desert cities. The populations of those cities will undoubtedly suffer, even as, for instance, the rust belt cities of the midwest, intentionally built near huge supplies of fresh water are losing people — and have been since at least the 1960s.

And much of the exodus out of places like Detroit and St. Louis and even Chicago was driven by — yep — perhaps the first big R & R panic. Black people were said to be taking over big cities; so said the law and order candidates including Richard Nixon and the Republicans who came after him. Next thing you know, they warned, the Blacks’ll be coming into your neighborhood, for your daughter!

Now places like Las Vegas, Phoenix and southern California have grown huge with emigres from the east and north. With the Colorado River running low and the western mountain snow caps shrinking, people in those locales will be scrambling for drinkable water.

Meanwhile, St. Louis, Detroit and Chicago still have plenty of the stuff.

Rather than addressing this problem, the Republicans scream that schoolteachers are “grooming” students to be gay or to question their gender.

So, yeah, while we on the left can buy into some occasional bullshit, those on the Right appear to living on a strict diet of it.



(A Lot Fewer Than) 1000 Words: The New Library

A paragraph from a Herald-Times story about the under-construction Monroe County Public Library southwest branch caused me to raise an eyebrow this AM. Here’s the graf:

The building will be 21,000 square feet and rest on approximately five acres of sloping lawns on the southwest corner of Batchelor Middle School, 890 W. Gordon Pike. The interior will offer meeting rooms, computer access, study spaces, areas dedicated for young children and teenagers, and quiet nooks for reading and contemplation. In addition to those traditional services, the new branch will feature a teaching kitchen, all-ages collaborative space and amphitheater.

The article adds that much of the heavy construction work has been completed and the branch remains on schedule to open in May. An Indiana Public Media story dated March 5, 2020, reported an estimated total cost of $9 million for the project.

So, what made me go Hmm? None of the articles about the project over the past two or three years has mentioned the simple word, books. You’ll note, of course, the word is missing from the seemingly comprehensive run-down of the new facility’s features in the graf above.

Books — the things that used to be the main and sole purpose of libraries. Library — from the Latin, liber (plur. libri), meaning book (books).

We still don’t know how many books the new structure will contain, nor how many stacks, how much floor space is devoted to browsing, or even whether the MCPL will invest in a whole brand new inventory of books. MCPL librarians may, for all we know, simply grab a bunch of books from existing MCPL sites and move them to the Batchelor site. Who knows?

Now, I guess, books ranks way down among the list of Reasons Libraries Exist. Certainly further down than, say, all-ages collaborative spaces, whatever in the hell those are.

Remember These Things?

1000 Words: You’re Filthy and You Stink!

Longtime Pencillistas know that I haven’t had broadcast TV since the mid-90s, nor have I had cable since, if I recall correctly, the late ‘Aughts.

Ergo, I’ve had very little truck with TV ads for at least a decade and a half or so. I do catch ads on radio. I listen to the sports talk station from Chicago, WSCR-AM. That’s how I learn how much I really need boner pills and a better system for betting on games. At this point in time, sports radio is solely about legalized gambling and erectile dysfunction, if one is to judge by the content of its ads. I also listen to NPR, meaning I’m constantly bombarded with reminders of how generous and altruistic the largest corporations in America are, seeing that they’re the biggest underwriters of public radio.

This past weekend, operating on a tip I caught from the redoubtable Don Moore via social media, I subscribed to a streaming service called Tubi. It has thousands of movies and television programs and is free. For instance, Sunday evening I watched Laurel and Hardy in The Flying Deuces and Richard Basehart and Jack Webb in the film noir classic He Walked by Night. I had scrolled down the list of Tubi offerings and was blown away, what with Stalag 17, Fail-Safe, the whole Peter Sellers Pink Panther franchise, In the Heat of the Night, Stagecoach, Notorious, Bela Lugosi as Dracula, at least two of the four Dean Martin-as-secret-agent Matt Helm spoofs, countless schlocky horror films from the late ’50s and the ’60s, and…, well, the list goes on.

At first I couldn’t figure out what the deal was with this Tubi stuff. Before I committed, I wondered how the company made any dough. My first guess was it would sell my metadata and, if I signed up, I’d subsequently forever be swamped by texts, ads, pop-ups, and — who knows? — midnight visits by door-to-door salesmen.

Turns out the Tubi biz model is advertisement-based. Any movie or program on the channel will be interrupted at odd times by a string of ads, just like broadcast TV was back in the ’90s and, I assume, still is today.

Since I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, I’m quite accustomed to commercial breaks on TV, a hardship, I’d guess, that would be unbearable for younger generations today. There isn’t, to be sure, a Skip Ads button on the screen, lower right. I can picture a 20-something saying Fk this! and switching back to TikTok where there are no such breaks. Natch, they’ll be Ignoring the fact that the entirety of TikTok is an advertisement of some form or another. So, I suppose they’re right; it’s like saying there were no sudden showers yesterday because it rained from morning until night.

To tell the truth, I sort of appreciate commercial breaks. I get to run to the bathroom occasionally and stop off at the fridge on my way back because there’s still some cold pizza left from last night.

So, here we are in the third decade of the 21st century and what are advertisers trying to sell us? Lo and behold, it’s the same shit they were flinging at us in, say, 1968. To wit: that we Americans are the stinkiest, filthiest, grodiest, most messy, germ-infested, pest-ridden fat slobs this side of a frat house.

For pity’s sake, every single part of our bodies, inside and out, and all the surfaces within our homes, as well as every article of apparel that touches our skin is no more clean than the reservoir beneath any given port-a-potty at the conclusion of the annual Pitchfork music fest.

But there’s a product to ameliorate every stain, spill, or stink imaginable. The blades of our ceiling fans, the floor tile near our garbage pails, our hair, our fingernails, our breath, our armpits, and our female parts all are fouled beyond belief but — thank Christ in heaven — there’s a bottle-ful of chemicals, a treated wipe, a spray, or a specialized detergent that’ll make any and all pristine once again.

A side note: advertisers have been hammering women that their nether parts are malodorous and un-fresh since at least the late 1960’s. That’s when Madison Avenue realized women’s junk emitted a distinctive aroma. The ad men were compelled by their very nature to portray such scent as hideous so as to sell females mists, scrubs, and perfumes to mask it. Leading me to wonder why men’s junk isn’t similarly branded. I mean, I’m as clean as all get-out but I’m fairly certain my boys south of the belt line don’t quite smell like freshly baked apple pie. Aren’t there millions — hell, billions — to be made marketing male hygiene products?

Pristeen™ Ad, 1969

Anyway, I’d forgotten how ridiculous — no, deranged — TV ads are and always have been. It’s no wonder Americans are a neurotic, obsessed mess. The very fact that we’re alive makes us as delectable as a plastic trash bag filled with putrid fruit and chicken bones.

We don’t care at all for ourselves anymore and TV advertisement surely has played a major role in our meta-alienation.

But products in gaily colored plastic bottles are our only redemption. One commercial I saw during the Laurel and Hardy movie showed a young women who proudly proclaimed she uses Febreze™ on her sofa cushions every single day. Another women was shown unloading her laundromat dryer and when she pulled out a towel, she was so drawn to its fresh smell that she buried her face in it and appeared to experience an orgasm.

We like to tell ourselves we’re 23 times more sophisticated than the dopes of the 1960s were. This is the internet age after all and everybody knows about dangerous chemicals and subtle advertising manipulation. Why, there was even the much ballyhooed Mad Men premium soap opera a few years ago peeling back the curtain on how ad agencies hypnotized us.

Yet, even today, we’re still desperately afraid we’re a foul, rancid, noxious, funky mess.

1000 Words: No More

Some folks on my side of the fence preach civility and accommodation with regard to the tens of millions of other folks who think the 45th President of the US is this holy land’s savior.

Every now and then some person, pure of heart and with the best of possible intentions, tells us on social media or in an editorial that we must listen respectfully to the views of all our fellow citizens, that we must heed their utterances and feelings, take them into account, and even — perhaps — grant them credibility via our laws.

By and large I buy that. The key half of that sentence being by and large.

I’ve come to realize that people want guns to hunt with and for protection and that doesn’t make them wild-eyed killers. Growing up and living most of my adult life in a big city, often in tough neighborhoods, I’d seen so much random and senseless gunplay that I, for the longest time, yelled for the abolishment of guns. I mean, I’d hit the living floor upon hearing gunshots on any number of occasions through my later years in Chicago. I’d seen gangbangers chasing each other down the street, firing wildly behind them — without taking aim, of course. I’d read about people living in adjacent apartments being shot and sometimes killed when someone next door fired a gun, their homes being so close and the walls so thin. Once gangbangers in my neighborhood in East PIlsen engaged rivals in a gunfight and a little two-year-old girl in a stroller two blocks away was hit by one of their stray bullets. She died within minutes.

The only conclusion I’d thought I could come to was guns ought to be outlawed. Period.

Then I moved down to Louisville, Kentucky and, later, to south central Indiana. I met people who spoke dreamily about glory days when their fathers would take them out hunting. Another guy I knew, who lived just off Lake Monroe, one of the most liberal guys imaginable, told me he kept a couple of rods handy because, were a home invader try to get in, the sheriff might not be able to come to his and his wife’s rescue for 45 minutes or an hour.

See, in my old Chicago neighborhoods, the cops responded within a couple of minutes of me calling them. Sometimes, it seemed, as soon as I’d hang up the phone.

Accordingly, my feelings about guns have evolved.

That seems to be the essence of people’s calls for listening respectfully to the views of all our fellow citizens and taking their feelings and experiences into account. It’s being an adult.

Yet there are limits. And the Republican Party, today’s Republican Party, birthed of Richard Nixon’s law and order appeals of the ’60s, groomed on the anti-busing activism of the ’70s, emboldened by the dog whistles of the Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush campaigns of the 80s, and schooled by Newt Gingrich’s GOPac Memo demonization of Democrats and liberals in the ’90s, has gone to a place where listening to them, hearing their plaints, hoping to accommodate them, is as senseless to me as trying to have a civilized chat with someone who mainlined 10mg of PCP a quarter of an hour ago.

How else can I describe the ravings of the people who are joking about the skull-bashing that Nancy Pelosi’s husband suffered last week?

That’s what all this inane polarization has brought us to. It’s a polarization that’s been nourished for some three decades now by the likes of O’Reilly, Jones, Limbaugh, Breitbart, Bannon, Carlson and all the rest of the squealing, bleating, shrieking blowhards and provocateurs who fancy themselves political observers.

They’re “political observers” in the same way an arsonist might describe himself as a pyrotechnical researcher.

Any number of political candidates, wits, and wags in the last week have cracked jokes about the near-deadly assault and have tried to minimize or even justify it. A bunch of internet idiots have suggested the assailant was really Paul Pelosi’s scorned lover. Virginia’s governor, running for reelection, has exhorted voters to elect Republicans so they can send Nancy home to sit with her recovering husband. All this eliciting millions of likes, rousing laughter, and ear-splitting cheers.

I’m surprised nobody’s come up with the theory that Pelosi herself staged the attack. Is that any more outlandish than the pizzagate and baby-eating lunacies of just a few years ago?

A huge swath of the populace has lost its freaking mind. A lot of them have guns. Most of them are slaves to their own hates and fears. Their “savior” has told them the 2020 election was stolen and they believe him with all their hearts despite there being no evidence such a thing happened. They view the January 6th insurrection as healthy dissent, a “normal tourist visit.

CPAC, QAnon, nativists, white supremacists, neo-fascists, anti-semites, chemtrail-ists, virulent anti-United Nation-ists, 2nd Amendment fetishists who warn of the coming door-to-door gun seizures, conspiracy theorists who believe Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates developed COVID to loose upon the world so they can take the planet over, or that FEMA concentration camps are in the offing, or…, for chrissakes, pick any deranged idea you’d like — they’ve flocked to the Republican Party.

There was an age, in many people’s lifetime’s, when being a conservative, being a Republican, meant simply you didn’t want too much government spending or taxing. When you thought government regulation was an overreach, that the people and the free market were wise enough to ensure that corporations and their products wouldn’t harm us all that much.

I’d never agree with them but at least I didn’t think they were demented.

I can’t say that anymore. And I lack the saintly patience to listen to their ravings anymore. Their feelings, their experiences, their views — none of it — are of any interest to me anymore.

It’s not the time for civility and accommodation anymore.

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