Friday, January 26, 2007

Life in Chicago

Waiting for the "El" on a blustery winter day in Chicago can really chill you to the bone. Winter winds whipping from the north, combined with sub-zero temps and moisture from Lake Michigan can make a ten-minute wait seem interminable when you're perched high upon a wooden platform praying for a nice, warm train to screech in.

To alleviate that, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) has these nifty enclosed spaces on each platform that are blasted with overhead heat where riders can huddle while waiting for the next train. The spaces are pretty small, only about 15' x 5', but really come in handy when the wind chills approach minus 30 F.

I take the Green Line from the State & Lake station downtown out to work each morning. I've noticed that there are always dozens of pigeons keeping warm in the heat-lamp area that is reserved for CTA passengers. All of us crowd in to the 15 x 5 area but the pigeons don't move and inch.

They're there to stay warm and have absolutely no fear of us people-type of occupants in their space. We've all paid $2.00 to take the train but they're adamant about their intent to just stay there for free, all toasty and warm.

They also poop. A lot. Unfettered. Unabated. With insouciant, careless ease do these pigeons poop. I stand there day after day and think, "If only I could do the same . . . ."

Ever so often, one of them will flutter up and scare the hell out of a female commuter; she'll just scream and freak with her eyes bugged out and big, fat arms waiving in the air, all because of a nervous little pigeon. But the pigeons never freak out. After she hurls herself down the platform, they just sort of meander around, regroup, and remain in the torpidity, oblivious to all us humans around them.

Yesterday, I decided to test them and calmly stepped on one's tail with my big Rockport shoe. It just hopped around in a restrained semicircle around my shoe, that's all. Once I released him, he just remained under the warmth.

I've seen these fearless pigeons every morning and keep forgetting to snap a pic of them. Finally, I remembered, and brought my camera. It was about 15 F this morning with a wind-chill of minus seven-grillion.

I don't think many things epitomize Chicago more than the El's under-the-heat-lamp pigeons.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

More Public Transit Antics

A couple of years ago, I was transferring from a CTA bus to the subway. I was walking down the aisle of the bus, but there was a man tending to his little kid in a stroller and he was blocking most of the aisle. I brushed past him in order to get off the bus. I didn't bump him, I brushed him.

As I did so, I heard him exclaim in a loud voice, "Scuse me!!" I didn't acknowledge him since I've learned that ignoring angry people is usually the best plan of action on public transit.

As I was walking to the street corner to cross, I heard him behind me, "Hey bud! Don't you have any manners? Hey!"

I was now in a crowd waiting to cross the street and into the subway station. I still ignored him, but he didn't give it up. "Hey bud! You bumped into me!"

I was thinking to myself that so far, I've not acknowledged him at all. I could just pretend to be hearing-impaired.

Just as I was thinking that, he was jabbing me on my shoulder. I wheeled around with a startled, perplexed look on my face and signed to him in frantic hand motions that I was deaf.

He just stood there kind of dumbfounded, knowing that he couldn't say anything more to me.

I scampered into the subway, silently congratulating myself for some quick thinking.

What a jerk.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Subway Drama

Okay, the other day I'm on the Red Line train going south from Belmont into downtown. (For those of you not from Chicago, the Red Line train is elevated at the Belmont station and then it scoots underground after that.)

There are these two women seated in front of me and they have really loud booming obnoxious voices. They're obnoxious because they're continually talking about their "m*f* boyfriend, and what that m*f* did and how he's not gonna f*kn let that m*f* do that to me, no m*f* way! And if he thinks he can f*k w/me he can kiss my m*f*n ass . . . . "
Okay, got the idea??

They were really obnoxious. And this conversation was going on way too long.

When I'm on public transit and I encounter someone as obnoxious as that, my motto is usually, "Be more obnoxious." Or rather, give them at taste of their own medicine.

So . . . .

I got a very pronounced case of Turret's Syndrome. (Keep in mind that I was seated right behind them) About every fifteen seconds, I'd just let out an incredibly loud half-second screech. "Eeeeeep!!!"

Within two stops, the women got spooked and moved into the next forward car.

Problem solved.

God, I love doing that.

By the way, I'm not exaggerating, I really did this!

I Heart The Container Store

Living in a wonderful little studio apartment on the 49th floor in downtown Chicago often calls for ingenuity as far as creative space is concerned and I think I've recently done a bit of that. Ingenuity, that is.

My little hallway closet has been doubling as my kitchen pantry for the past two years. And you know, while I was swinging open that huge door for the ump-teenth time, I finally realized that I could pile that door with shelves!

I must've seen one of those home-decorating shows while I was napping or something. The next thing you know, I was on-line with and got all sorts of ideas. Who knew they had all these appealing ways to re-do your living space!

I found me a nearby Container Store and hopped on the Red Line subway quicker'n you can say "cinder-blocks!"

Those folks at the Container Store are awfully helpful. Within half'n hour I was back on the Red Line with a steel door-track and six shelves to-boot. It was a good thing I had a hammer to bash things with, 'cause those plastic supporters don't go into the door real easy like the directions say they do.

By the way, make sure of what kind of pantry door you have. Apparently there are two types: The regular kind and the solid-door kind.

Anyway, I got my pantry all shelved, re-shelved and re-organized. Isn't this a sight to be seen? There's even a spice rack. And see that teensy-weensy itty bitty space where I have my saffron? Click on the pic. It's there, trust me.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

"And one time, when I was at band camp . . . . "

At the beginning of my senior year in high school, I came to a major realization about my identity. It was then that I realized I was not that great of a French horn player.

I had played French horn since the sixth grade and loved it. I was the only one in my class to play it, and I always loved that full, unique sound that the French horn is known for.

Unfortunately, I could never produce it very well.

You see, I got braces on my upper teeth in 8th grade and they didn't come off for another three years. Playing a French horn with metal braces on one's teeth gives new meaning to "play through the pain" let me tell you.

My braces came off during my sophomore year and my newly-formed mouth developed an involuntary vibrato when playing the French horn. Vibrato is definitely NOT what's called for when playing the French horn. What made matters worse was that the band director, Ms. Quintanilla, majored in French horn in college. My shaky, vibrating tone just drove her nuts.

So, at the beginning of my senior year, I threw in the towel. Wanting to become a well-rounded musician, I asked if I could take up a reed instrument. Ms. Q thought this was a fine idea -- anything to get me away from the horn section.

Deep in the bowels of the instrument closet, she found a contra-bass clarinet. Now, the contra-bass clarinet is a very unique instrument. There are the regular clarinets, the alto clarinets, and the bass clarinets. The contra-bass plays a full octave below the basses.

For one thing, it's a huge instrument, nickel-clad, measuring about eight feet in length. The one we had was a "paper clip" model, meaning that it was sort of folded around itself like a large paper clip. They're horribly expensive and I don't know how in the world my little high school band ended up with one, but there it was.

The good thing about playing such a huge reed instrument is that it required very little finesse or subtlety. Pretty much, all you had to do was honk on the darn thing. Also, I was well over six feet tall, weighed about 155 pounds, so the contra-bass and I were pretty equally matched. I've included a pic here from my high school yearbook. Doncha just love the hair?

I studied the fingering charts, practiced my scales, and got pretty good at it fairly quickly. My mom called it a "drain pipe" because it resemble the pipes underneath the sink. It always scared the hell out of our large, grey Persian cat, Chow-chow, which was fun too.

To play it, you sat in a chair with the instrument between your knees and it rested on a little floor-stand. Since it was directly in front of my face, I would often be a little cross-eyed while playing it. Or so I was told.

Ms. Q was pretty fanatical about all the instruments being in tune, so she had this electric oscillator up front to ensure each of us were exactly on pitch. We'd each play a note and the oscillator would indicate if we were sharp or flat.

So, she'd be tuning up the members of the woodwind section, one by one; flutes, piccolos, clarinets, saxophones, and me. Here's how it would sound:








pause . . .

pause . . . .


Everyone would crack up laughing every time. (I loved it.) Of course, there was no way you could really tell if I was in tune or not. Ms. Q would just kind of roll her eyes and go on to the brass section.

I'm really glad I wasn't that great of a French horn player. That inability enabled me to meet this wonderful, goofy instrument and I had such a ball doing it. To me, turning a bit of adversity into comedy is what makes life such an adventure and something, well, holy.


Monday, January 15, 2007

I'm a "Big"

A few months ago, I applied to be a "Big Brother" with the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. After a very long application process, I was approved and matched with a Little Brother.

In the program, the little brothers are called "Littles" and the big brothers are called "Bigs". Isn't that cute? (I like how Lorraine refers to her 12 year old daughter as "The Child" so I'm going to refer to my little as "The Little")

Well, The Little and I had our first outing together yesterday. He's 12 years old and lives with his mother. We met at our initial meeting with his mom and the social worker last week and had planned our first outing for yesterday.

I was a little nervous as the day approached. I was thinking, "What if the kid hates me? What if we don't have anything to talk about?" I'm sure he was a little apprehensive as well.

He's a pretty quiet kid but his mom said he always is at first and then becomes a real chatter box. I picked him up and had decided to take him to Navy Pier where there are all sorts of amusements. I had in mind to take him to one of those 3D simulator rides since I've always wanted to try one myself.

He was SO quiet the whole time. I tried to ask mostly open-ended questions; those that would require other than a 'yes' or 'no' answer. Mostly, I was met with an 'I dunno.'

He had been on the 3D ride before, so seemed to perk up and enjoy telling me what to expect next. (By the way, the thing is really lame and a total waste of a lot of money).

Even though we left after lunch, I assumed that a 12 year old boy would be hungry so I let him select a place to eat. He snarfed down a deep-dish barbecue chicken pizza and a big bottle of blue Gatorade ("They didn't even have blue Gatorade when I was your age," said I) while I noshed on a salad and a Diet Pepsi.

Even though he was very quiet, I did manage to make him smile a few times. After eating, we went to the botanical gardens there which have these really cool water spurty-things that arc way above your head. I pointed out the shape of the arc, noting that they were parabolic curves and he'd later be plotting them using quadratic equations in high school algebra and he can remember them from Navy Pier.

That was SO uncool.

Then we had ice cream at Ben & Jerry's. There was a little girl in line who was throwing a horrible temper tantrum because they didn't have blue ice cream. We had a good laugh at her.

On the subway, I showed him how to read the subway map, sort of. I also let him teach me how to play Tetris on my cell phone.

I can tell you this: I'm never having kids. It's just way too expensive!

We took the train from his place, took a taxi to-and-from the subway station to Navy Pier where we did the 10-minute ride, had lunch, ice cream and a taxi ride back.

Sixty bucks. Boom.

I got him home at the appointed time. I think we're off to a good start. The kid didn't fall under a moving train, he didn't run away or get caught shoplifting anything, so I'm calling it a success.

I think next time we'll just go ice skating.

Who knows? Maybe someday I'll be helping The Little with his algebra homework and when it comes to quadratic equations, I'll say, "See? Remember that day at Navy Pier? . . . "

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Second Cousins

My great aunt on my father's side has five grandchildren which would be my second cousins. I've known them since I was a little kid because my great aunt and my grandmother lived in the same town in Texas. Family get-togethers often saw all of us there at the same time.

My great aunt (Joyce) just adored her grandchildren. They were five boys, all about two years apart in age. The middle one was my age. I remember that the five boys all had three-letter names. In order of appearance, they were Dan, Kim, Rob, Jay and Ben.

Aunt Joyce just thought they hung the moon. Whenever I'd see Aunt Joyce, all she would do was to relay what each of the boys were doing, how old they were, their accomplishments, etc. "Oh, hello Buck. Well Jay just started high school, Ben is playing football this year, Kim is in college now. . . . "

I don't recall any of them doing anything extraordinary; they were just normal guys as far as I could tell.

At one family dinner at my great grandmother's house (Big-Mama), I was about to take a seat and Aunt Joyce exclaimed, "Oh! Don't sit there! That place is for Kim."

Apparently, her five grandchildren got to sit at the "big persons" table in the dining room. The rest of us were relegated to eating gruel out behind the house.

This went on for as long as I can recall.

My grandmother passed away when I was about 24 years old. Since our grandmothers were the common denominator, I didn't see my second cousins anymore after that.

Just a few years ago, my youngest cousin was getting married in an outdoor wedding on the family ranch. It had been years and years since I'd seen Aunt Joyce and I just assumed she'd passed away.

Just before the wedding, here came Aunt Joyce tottering up to take her seat, escorted by her son. I whispered to my brother, "She's still alive??"

So, I went over to her, knelt down and said, "Hello, Aunt Joyce. It's Buck."

In her shaky, elderly voice, she said, "Oh, hello Buck. Well, Kim's son is in college, Jay is living in Houston, Rob is . . . . "

Friday, January 12, 2007

Allstate Advertisement

Allstate Insurance Co. is still using the apartment building where I live for advertising. Have y’all seen the commercials on TV where the car goes plunging out of the parking lot and into the Chicago River?

I took these snaps the other day.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

A Lost Cause

My parents divorced when I was ten years old and soon after that, my younger brother, my mother and I went to live with my grandmother who had been recently widowed.

Soon after we were settled, one of the deacons in our Baptist church, a man in his 50’s or early 60’s decided that I needed a male influence in my life. This insight of his was probably due to the fact that (1) I was being raised by two women and (2) I was already playing the piano for the congregation and obviously not playing football. Not playing football in small-town Texas is very suspect, let me tell you.

So, one night after dinner, I was instructed to ride my bicycle over to their house just to hang out with him. He and his wife had just finished dinner and he took me to his wood-working shop behind the house. I asked him what this was for and he just said we were just going “shoot the breeze.”

It was all so apparent and my little eleven-year-old mind already had this guy figured out. He was hoping that by just getting me to hang around a manly woodworking shop, that such an activity would ward off any chance of me becoming, well, one of those. As a deacon in a Baptist church, I’m sure he felt it was his duty to make a man out of me; this poor little boy being raised by women who played the piano.

I wanted to tell him that I had a dad who lived only 30 miles away was a perfectly good male role model. I wanted to tell him that my dad had already exposed me to years of woodworking, which was fine, but I still enjoyed the piano and loathed football. I wanted to tell him that I didn’t want to be a carpenter. I just wanted to date one.

So, we just hung out in his shop which was excruciatingly boring, especially since I had this bozo figured out. Deep down, I knew that this dolt was trying to make a vain attempt to make me straight. He was trying to recruit me!

Finally, I had an idea. I was working on this arts & craft project and had it in my pocket. It consisted of four colored rubber strips that I was plaiting into a decorative keychain. I pulled it out and used one of his table vices to secure it while I went on with the plaiting. I was thinking, “This’ll show him!”

He sent me home after that and never bothered me again. He was probably proud of himself for doing his duty as a Baptist deacon, but I was a lost cause.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

"I Have a Dream. . . "

I have a peculiar sleep habit in that I always sleep on the sofa, fully clothed, with the lights on and CNN going all night. It’s strange, but it works. (I don’t even own a bed). Having CNN on all night also causes some pretty interesting and entertaining dreams.

Last night, I dreamed that I was a judge at a beauty contest and the contestants were male news anchors. There were the usual competition categories: Talent, swim-suit, and Q&A. Here are some highlights:

Sean Hannity (Fox) The audience kept averting their eyes at the sight of Hannity in a swim suit. Pale, mottled flesh with pimply thighs seldom earns high marks from any judging panel. Sean attempted to sing an Irish ballad during the talent portion, but was struck with stage fright, burst out into tears and ran off the stage crying like a little girl.

Anderson Cooper (CNN) He looked kind of scrawny in his swim suit, but when he flashed a smile and gave a wink with his baby-blues, there was a collective “Awwww” from the judging panel. He wowed the audience with a flaming baton routine set to Donna Summer’s MacArthur Park during the talent segment.

Rick Sanchez (CNN) Who knew that Rick was also an avid bodybuilder? His swim suit appearance doubled as his talent performance.

Bill O’Reilly (Fox) He earned extra points during the swim suit competition for, thankfully, wearing an 1890’s style full-body cotton bathing suit. During the talent portion, O’Reilly appeared in a football uniform and opined on the virtues of high school football while slamming against a blocking sled.

Geraldo Rivera (Fox) Was arrested and disqualified for wearing a lime-green thong during the swim suit competition. Several children were traumetized.

Tucker Carlson (MSNBC) The audience cheered with unabated glee when Carlson got his hair styled on stage. However, Tucker suffered a nasty sprained ankle during the swim suit competition. Apparently, no one informed him that stiletto heels were not required.

Rob Marciano (CNN) Needless to say, Marciano won the swim suit competition, especially after appearing on the heels of Larry King and Lou Dobbs in Speedos. Dr. Sanjay Gupta came in with a close second.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

My Life as a Substitute Teacher

While home on Christmas break during my sophomore year in college, I had the bright idea of earning some extra money as a substitute teacher in the local public school. Back then, all one needed to qualify as a substitute teacher was to have completed 60 hours of college.

Since I had attended college full-time during the previous summer, I had just completed the requisite 60 hours by the time Christmas rolled around during my sophomore year. I thought it would be really cool to be a substitute teacher while I was on break.

I was 19 years old. I’d be teaching kids I was in high school with! This was gonna be so much fun.

The day after I applied, the phone rang at 5:00 am. I was needed to substitute. I was hoping that perhaps the band or choir director might be sick, or perhaps even the English teacher. I’d be great at that.

No such luck. As the evil fates would have it, it was the junior varsity football coach!

Luckily, it wasn’t football season so the only classes involved were boys Phys Ed. and the health classes. Good Lord.

P.E. class was first. I still had horrible memories of Phys Ed: Being chosen last when teams were selected, psychotic dodge-ball games, standing in right field praying that some lefty wouldn’t hit a fly ball in my direction. How the hell was I going to substitute for the P.E. teacher for crying out loud?

I managed to relinquish a dozen basketballs from a storage locker, scattered them across the court and instructed the boys to play with them. Just for the sake of irony, I actually blew on the whistle around my neck once or twice.

For the next forty-five minutes, I sat in the bleachers hoping no one actually required anything of me which is pretty much how I spent my P.E. classes as a student. The boys seemed to know when it was time to quit and meandered off the court while went to the teacher's lounge for a cigarette.

In the health class, I think they were reading a chapter on shaving or something like that. I managed to keep them quiet, no riots ensued and no one required emergency services so I guess I did pretty well.

My services as a substitute teacher were never required again.


Friday, January 05, 2007


I couldn’t think of something to write about right away. Turkeys came to mind, so I’ll write about turkeys.

The first time I made a roast turkey, I was young, naïve and completely unaware that there was a bag frozen innards that come inside each turkey. Into the oven it went. After a few hours, there was still blood coming out of the middle and the damn thing wouldn’t get done. It was horrible.

When it finally got done and the mysterious bag was extracted, I found that it was inedible. The whole thing had this weird, bloody, livery taste. Definitely not what turkey should be about. Lesson learned.

Years later, when I was older and wiser and living in Canada, I went to buy a turkey for Christmas dinner. I needed a big one since at least a dozen people were expected.

I found a nice twenty-pound turkey but are you ready for this? It cost sixty-five dollars! I was thinking, “Was this turkey raised on wild baby truffles or something? Geez!” I guess all turkeys in Canada have to be imported from the U.S. and need passports to get into the country.

Anyway, I couldn’t find room in the freezer to keep it, but then I realized: “This is winter in Canada. The entire outdoors is a giant freezer.” So, I just kept the turkey on the back porch until it was time to thaw it. (And I removed the nasty innards which made a nice feast for the cat.)

Stuffing/Dressing: My grandmother made this wonderful cornbread dressing that contained Jimmy Dean sausage, jalapenos and lots of green onions. I still make it from time to time. They even liked it in Canada.

I've also made an "Autumn Stuffing" that had apples, shredded carrots, pecans, etc. It was nice and different.

However, I still think the best one is the simple chestnut stuffing featured in the old red-and-white Good Housekeeping cookbook that our mothers received when they got married. Remember that old thing? That chestnut stuffing is still the best and can't be beat. It's a pain in the butt, though, peeling all those chestnuts. But worth it.

My brother in Texas makes the most fantastic fried turkeys. Before frying, he injects them with a mixture of melted butter, liquid onion, liquid garlic and pureed jalapenos. Thanksgiving never tasted so good . . .

Okay. I’m through talking about turkeys.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Look Ma, No Cavities!

I took a "personal" day today from work and actually used it to take care of personal things. What a concept.

It had been wayyy too long since I'd seen a dentist. After realizing that I had actually purchased pretty good dental insurance, I thought it was high time to go.

Now then, which dentist should I go to? That's easy: One that I'll go to. So I selected one with a nice sounding name but most importantly, one that was closest to where I live. I found one that's four blocks away. Perfect.

Actually, I don't mind going to the dentist. I sort of "zone out" and put myself in a trance while I'm in the chair, which is not unlike my normal state of mind anyway.

So, Miss Chatty Kathy starts in on my teeth. Dig-dig, chat-chat, dig-dig, chat-chat, scrape-scrape, chat-chat, scrape-scrape. X-rays are completed. (Hey, cool, they appear on a computer now. "Can you email them to me?")

No cavities are there, so apparently, I've been a good boy about brushing.

My grandmother, "Budgie", always had this peculiar habit with regard to dental hygiene. Once a week, she would sprinkle Ajax cleanser on her toothpaste and give her teeth a good scouring.

Don't laugh. She lived to the age of 92 with all her original teeth.

I have to admit that I occasionally follow Budgie's example. It sure leaves your mouth feeling fresh even though Ajax is . . . well . . . toxic. (Hint, Ajax tastes much better than Comet).

Here's another helpful hint. I asked the dentist what kind of toothpaste he recommended for keeping one's teeth as white as possible. (We keep hearing about those "four-out-of-five dentists surveyed recommend . . . " Well, I wanted to ask one of these four-out-of-five dentists myself.)

He said that a recent survey (see??) was done and out of all the toothpastes, guess which one did the best at whitening?


Yes! Remember Ultra-Brite from the seventies? That's what we always used at home. It sort of tastes like ammonia and it's super cheap. My mom still uses it. Ultra-Brite beat out the special whitening toothpastes like Rembrandt and all those others that cost mega-bucks.

I'll bet it doesn't work as good as Ajax, though.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

This is for Lorraine

I'm still so excited that I finally figured out how to record my piano playing, transfer it to an MP3 and post it on line.

So I was emailing dear Lorraine and asked her if there was anything she'd like to hear me play. She requested Beethoven's Für Elise, so here you go.

I don't know if I got all the notes correctly because I was playing from memory from waayyy back when. There are a couple of bobbles in my playing, but that just makes it authentic.

I'm just having a ball with my new toy . . . .