The shelter-in-place directive that most of us are complying with is a little like being captive in a Havahart rat trap. You’re pretty much stuck, but at least your neck hasn’t been snapped and you do get the cheese.
This sense of captivity that many of us feel does have its upside. I’m not thinking of anything particularly practical like finally having the time to clean the garage or vacuum the cat or sort by size and reorganize the paper bags you’ve been collecting for the last 20 years. I’ve done those things, except for clean the garage, but only because we don’t have one.
No, I see this as an opportune moment in our lives to reflect on the past, appreciate the moment, and contemplate the future—even if the future is one of a continued sequestration that forces us to give all of our money to Jeff Bezos and never see another person except on Zoom.
I’ve never needed any prodding to think about the future (especially about the very end of the future) or worry about things over which I have no control. Guilt is just a part of me—a piece of my genetic imprint. I’ve learned to accept it, embrace it with a constant and steadfast zeal. It’s a little like the relationships Norwegians have with lutefisk, which, since the Trump family recently invested heavily in cod futures, is currently being tested as a cure for Covid-19. If lutefisk, a gelatinous mass that looks suspiciously like phlegm, is indeed proven effective as an oral medication, I’m opting to go wherever the novel coronavirus wants to take me.
Appreciating the moment is a unique challenge, so I will only briefly look back at what is rather pointless because much of what I recall only makes me blush, even if nobody else is around. If there were lessons to be learned…well, I either learned them or not.
The regrets I’ve had are beyond counting, including the one about wanting to live a life with no regrets. This was an ambition expressed many young people who have vague recollections of the ‘60s as they looked to the next phase of life—like a real job, for instance.
My parents had a small reception for me when I graduated from college. They invited all of their friends and none of mine. Come to think of it, maybe it wasn’t a party for me. Maybe I just walked in on something that had been planned for some other reason. After all, there were no gifts, not even a card.
At one point, I experienced a Graduate moment when I was cornered by two men who took turns jabbing their fingers into my chest as they insisted on hearing my career plans. That was the moment I first said something about wanting to avoid a career in either insurance or real estate that I knew I would one day regret. How was I supposed to know Ted was a State Farm agent and Jack was a realtor?
At least I hadn’t said, “I just want to be happy!”
My parents’ next-door-neighbor then offered to set me up as a manufacturer’s rep selling tools. He walked me over to his house and opened the trunk of his Impala to show me an array of hardware like I’d never seen. The job entailed driving from town to town in an assigned area trying to sell hammers to hardware stores. The big attraction was that you got to stay in rundown motels four nights a week and eat in diners. There was no reimbursement for expenses. And I would need to get a haircut.
I returned to my folks’ backyard and opened my fifth beer. The only reason I know this is because my mother told me it was my fifth beer.
“What?” I asked. “Are you keeping track?”
“Of course I am,” she answered, as if it was her duty to keep track of such things.
The next day I went to a real graduation party. They had a cake, and platters of cold cuts, a grill loaded with bratwurst, a pot of sauerkraut, and washtubs full of Old Style—a Chicago beer that is on par with the worst beer anyone can ever recall tasting, like Old Milwaukee or Schaefer or Coors Light. My mother wasn’t there to keep tabs of my intake. The party showed promise.
The party was for a young woman who I knew professionally during college. She was a talented singer; I had been her drummer for three years. At some point, her father pulled me aside to ask about my plans. As it turns out, I was leaving the next day for Cleveland to pursue a publishing venture. Neil, the red-haired father who looked like he had spent his entire life consuming only bratwurst and Old Style, put his fat-fingered hand on my shoulder and squeezed—hard.
“I’s want youse da stay in Chicago and keep playin’ da drums for Cheryl,” he said, in perfect Chicago dialect.
I twisted out of his grip and told him that I really wanted to move on, and I didn’t want the financial uncertainty that goes with being a musician.
He then told me that he had that all worked out. He offered me a job as an electrical inspector for the City of Chicago. I then told him everything I knew about electricity: “It scares me.”
Neil thought that was pretty funny. He then told me the job was just a title and I’d be paid a handsome salary to act as a Democratic ward boss for a few weeks before City elections. That way I’d have financial security and remain a musician.
It was tempting to join a corrupt political system and usher drunks from Polish bars on the Near North Side to polling places, promising each a boilermaker or two for their votes. And it was a career path to power followed by many an Alderman—a title given to elected criminals who are best compared to raccoons, in that they commit most of their thefts under the cover of darkness.
I went ahead with my move back to Cleveland, known affectionately as the Mistake-by-the-Lake and frequently likened to “Detroit without the glitter.” The publishing venture never really materialized, but I got a story assignment to write a magazine story about EMTs. I spent ten days (nights, actually) riding with an ambulance crew and learning first-hand that some really drunk people show a very real propensity for violence at closing time. From that experience it occurred to me that one really hasn’t led a full life until witnessing a 6’2”, 240-pound African-American female EMT perform a tracheotomy with the neck of a broken beer bottle.
Arriving hat-in-hand back in Chicago, I learned that Cheryl was sleeping with her new drummer, the City had its new electrical inspector, and that my parents had sold the very home I had intended to crash in for the foreseeable future. (They had done this before.)
And that’s when and why I moved to California. Really. It was that serendipitous.
It was the summer of 1976 and my sister was getting married in Colorado to Gary, a Ph.D. professor of communications, an ordained Free Methodist minister, and perhaps the most intelligent person I’d ever met. He had long before abandoned his ministry and soon thereafter his faith, turning instead to a constant use of marijuana.
Anyway, I was to be their only attendant—best man, maid of honor, flower girl, ring bearer, witness, et alii.
At the time, I had a Cairn Terrier named Sappho, a pale-blue Ford pinto station wagon without a name, and maybe thirty dollars. Maybe. And now that my parents were moving to some undisclosed location, I was, basically, homeless.
My father gave me a credit card and told me he’d see me in Estes Park, Colorado, the site of the wedding. After the wedding, which was very nice in an outdoorsy, hippie sort of way, he told me to keep the credit card and follow the advice of Horace Greeley.
A couple of days later I was about as far west as a young man could go in these United States. I found myself camping out on a couch at my sister’s house in Winters, California, a one-horse town near Davis on Pudah Creek, where the fishing was pretty good, and the food and wine at the Pudah Creek Café was impressive. Considering that I was eating on my father’s dime, it was damned affordable, too.
And then one day, after cutting the credit card in half per my father’s request, I drove down to Los Angeles to begin my journey into newspapers and magazines, barely a moment of which I regret.
But I do every now and then I wonder if I had stayed in Chicago, practicing and mastering the fine arts of voter fraud and extortion, would I have risen through the ranks and become a Chicago City Alderman.
Or maybe I’d just be keeping time for a girl singer.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska
Every October my grandmother made enough sauerkraut to provide almost-daily servings for three families for a year. It took her a week or so to accomplish as she went up and down the basement stairs to deliver the sliced cabbage, heavily salted, to the ceramic crocks. The kysané zelí, as we knew it, was great. And it was always prepared for the table with some minced onion and garlic, lightly fried, and seasoned with caraway seed. The bagged sauerkraut found at most grocery stores is quite fine when treated with the onion, garlic and caraway.