Monday, April 24, 2017

Fear and Loathing at the Drive-Thru

It happened again this morning: I experienced acute schizophrenia at the drive-thru.

I'm a Baby Boomer, which means I was born before 1964 -- how long, I'm not saying, but some of you already know. In that substantial length of time, I feel as if I've seen it all in one form or another, and that includes the evolution of fast food restaurants, the likes of which I have probably visited far too many times. But let's face it, sometimes you're in a hurry, and fast food fits the bill: it's either that, or hold off eating until 11:00 PM, at which point your stomach (see the post "Who's the Boss?") will once again assert its full leadership potential. To avoid such a catastrophic situation, one sometimes finds oneself taking fast food a step further by not even going inside and instead using the drive-thru. And here's where it all breaks down for me.

I am not a drive-thru person. Those who have ridden with me might say that this is actually a vast understatement. I have been known to experience instant mood changes when confronted with an unfamiliar drive-thru menu, which in my mind requires minute upon minute of searching to find the desired items while impatient motorists, all of whom seem to have honed their drive-thru skills, wait patiently (or sometimes not) behind me. The only drive-thru that I've ever been comfortable with is the Jack-in-the-Box on Devonshire Street in Chatsworth, California, back in the Sixties, and that's only because: a) either my cousin Debi or her boyfriend Paul, a "Valley Couple," were driving, b) we didn't have to wear shoes in the car, and c) there were only about five items on the menu. Indeed, drive-thrus are a true test of my otherwise unwavering (ha, ha) good nature.

Drive-thrus used to be notorious for messing up your food order, so much so that McDonald's installed temporary parking spots adjacent to its restaurants so that you could dig down into the bag and check your order. Well, OK, that wasn't really the reason, but I like to use that as an excuse. It seems, and I say this cautiously, that drive-thru order accuracy has improved slightly, but it's not anything reliable enough to bet money on at this point. I always check my order, because it's almost certain that if I don't, there will be an issue. The last time I failed to check my order, I got home with cheeseburgers that were missing the meat. In the words of Dave Barry, "I am not making this up."

The other major issue with drive-thrus involves air pollution. I'll bet that if every drive-thru in the United States were to close for just a month, we'd experience enough of a hiatus in global warming that an entire glacial formation could reconstitute itself. Cars sitting there idling have to be emitting tons of pollution.

Of course, there are times and situations where drive-thrus make a bit of sense, such as when you're driving around on a July day and need a drink pronto, but the catch there is, you're only ordering one item. This works fine for soft drinks and milkshakes; however, try ordering a half-sweet and half-unsweet iced tea and watch what you get: almost guaranteed that it will be a concoction so sweet your teeth will hurt.

My most humorous experience with drive-thrus involved an evening years ago when my wife Karen and I decided to visit the Roswell Dairy Queen. I love DQ custard ice cream, and one of my favorite treats is the good old chocolate dipped cone. That evening, Karen insisted that we use the drive-thru. I wanted to go inside, but she would have none of that. The problem was that we were in my convertible with the top down, and the evening was very warm. By the time I got back home, a ride of maybe fifteen minutes, I was so covered in ice cream that my shirt and I both had to go in the wash immediately.

I wish I could get over this. I see myself making baby steps, such as using the Starbucks drive-thru. That one only makes me a little nervous, because I generally order one of several well-thought-out things, and if I freeze up and mistakenly order the wrong beverage, it doesn't make much of a difference, as long as it contains caffeine. Nowadays, I usually just go with the crowd if they want to stop at a drive-thru, then try to consume the food while it is still hot or cold, as the case may be. So, please don't hold this against me if you're a drive-thru fan -- I've tried to like them, I really have, and maybe someday, I'll put enough faith in the system to go all by myself. Maybe I should ask my doctor for a Xanax prescription first, though. You can't be too careful with this kind of stuff.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Surefooted

I'm a morning person, an early riser, up before the chickens, as they say. Maybe there's a second Richard somewhere inside my brain that wants to be a farmer...I'm not sure. I don't know about the cow milking thing, but I could envision the sun coming up over the fields with a rooster crowing. At any rate, one of the first things I do every morning, at least in the colder months, is to slip my feet into this pair of brown corduroy slippers, or as my folks used to call them "house shoes." Once I do that, I feel that the day can officially begin.

If memory serves me correctly, my corduroy slippers with plaid flannel lining were given to me as a Christmas present sometime back in the 90's. I depend on them being in my closet, except for summer months, when they work their way to the back shelf until the advent of chilly weather. I have a morning ritual: the shoes go on, our greyhound Ava and I walk downstairs so that I can let her out while my wife Karen and our older dog Payday snooze. If it's a workday, I make coffee, switch on Good Morning America, grab breakfast, play a game or two (sometimes more) of Words With Friends, then get moving. On weekends, I make even more coffee, play on my phone or read my latest book, then head out walking or whatever. It's all very predictable and comfortable.

I've owned numerous pairs of slippers over the years, but for some reason, these have stuck with me. I may have owned five cars in the same period of time that I've had these shoes, but in all that time, these well-worn troopers haven't cost me a penny. I cannot count how many times they've trundled through the back yard trying to retrieve dog toys, or more often than not, a dog who is wandering aimlessly when I have to be somewhere. The bottoms of the slippers are made of some kind of synthetic material which retains water for a short time, although I did not realize this until recently, when I noticed that the almost brand new carpet was wet owing to my hasty retreat from the back yard to the living room after a rainstorm. They're extremely durable; I can throw them into the washer and dryer with no real concern for wash temperature or drying duration, and when I take them out, they still fit perfectly.

These shoes have seen so much action. They've been with me when I've been recovering from illnesses, when nothing has seemed to make me comfortable other than being wrapped up in a blanket with the TV on. I've slipped into them when I've had to get out of bed at night because I could not sleep. I've gotten both good news and bad news in them, and through it all, they've stuck with me like the most trusted friends you can imagine.

I don't mind that my corduroy slippers are wearing a bit, because let's face it: we all get older and a little frayed around the edges. They're not particularly fashionable, but that doesn't really matter, because I'm not always runway ready myself. I wear them with gray pajama pants sometimes, but no one is looking, so I think that's all right.

I'm not kidding myself: I know that one day, these poor slippers will give up the ghost, and I'll have to go in search of a replacement pair, but honestly, I hope that's a long way off, because to me, they're just perfect. I wish I could write a song for them or buy them a gift, but yeah, that would be odd, even for me. I'll just make sure they have a reserved spot on my shoe rack and that they don't get pushed to the back of the closet this summer.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Kelvinated

Not too long ago, my friend Keith dropped over to my desk at work and asked me, "Have you tried to buy light bulbs lately?" I responded that I had, and that the array of available options was dizzying. Keith was trying to replace a five-plus year old bulb in his house with the equivalent, but nothing seemed to be a truly good match. Really, you say? Oh, yes. Light bulb buying is a rather complicated endeavor these days.

As you've probably noticed if you've tried to buy replacement bulbs lately (and who hasn't?), the plain old incandescent bulb is essentially a thing of the past. Government regulations throughout the world have prohibited the manufacture or sale of them unless they are sufficiently energy efficient, and this is probably a good thing. For years, people have used halogen or xenon alternatives for task lighting in areas such as kitchens and workshops, but in the last few years, LED (light-emitting diode) lighting has become the preferred technology. The light is pure, clean and extremely energy efficient. There's only one problem with LED lighting, and that's the Kelvin scale for color temperature. Many people who are otherwise brilliant, conscientious and informed do not seem to understand the Kelvin scale and its relation to everyday lighting options.

The Kelvin scale is a absolute numeric index of temperature, and as it pertains to lighting, it serves as a color index as well. (I've included a helpful diagram with this post.) Lower Kelvin values tend to be warmer, while higher values more closely simulate daylight. As the Kelvin value increases, the light becomes more bluish. For example, soft white 100 watt home lighting is generally around 2700K, while surgery suites often utilize lighting in the 5000K or "daylight" range. The kind of lighting selected is typically based on the need: if you are looking to generate a warm, inviting feeling for your living room, select the lower temperatures; if, on the other hand, you need to simulate daylight and reflect most of the light impinging on an object back to your eyes for detailed desk or table work, select higher temperatures.

Selecting the "wrong" color temperature can have unpleasant consequences, particularly in outdoor lighting applications, where the human eye expects more gentle light. A quote from the Lightology website sums this up well:
Stay away from cooler color temperatures when lighting outdoor landscapes. The bluish tones from cooler temperatures can make environments appear sickly or unnatural, imparting a sense of uneasiness, and being on edge. Instead, opt for lighting with a very warm color temperature: 2700K LED is ideal, and 3000K is okay, too. The 2700K temperature offers a very soothing and natural tone that mimics the warm, comforting glow of a campfire. As such, it is ideal for creating relaxing, comfortable outdoor environments.
I always feel sorry for people who have selected higher Kelvin lighting, because I'm guessing that they are probably trying to do the right thing by being energy efficient, but that they haven't paid much attention to the details. Most of us consider "daylight" to be a good thing, but when it comes to outdoor environments, installation of high Kelvin options imparts a rather post-apocalyptic feeling to one's surroundings. I know that in my case, at least, I would like for my front yard to appear inviting, so that when you come to visit, you feel like you're going to be served a chilled martini instead of having your appendix removed.

That being said, there are definite benefits to LED lighting in some situations. Recently, all our incandescent choir loft lights, which sputtered and failed in a most inappropriately sacrilegious way, were replaced by LED's. The result was that we could now see our music evenly lighted without the fear that the lights would fail or that we would be spontaneously incinerated by the heat from the old incandescent bulbs. Two years ago, I saw a soprano's music almost catch fire. OK, I made that last part up, but you know what I mean.

The whole thing is fascinating in a way, and the technology available these days is seemingly limitless. So go out there when you have a chance and spend some time in the lighting aisle of your local Home Depot or Lowe's. You'll be amazed at the options available, but keep this Kelvin thing in mind, or you just may end up reawakening the spirit of George Orwell.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Denimosity

Like most people, I have owned countless pairs of jeans. I've lived in them for the larger part of my life since around 1971. For the most part, I've been satisfied with my purchases, but occasionally, a recalcitrant pair will surface, challenging all that I know and believe. Witness one such story.

Shortly before Christmas, I visited my local Macy's to buy several pairs of pants. I didn't go there with the intention of buying blue jeans, but after selecting a pair of camel colored duck Levi's and a slate gray pair of Calvins, I thought it might be a good idea to pick up a pair of dark washed Levi's 514's (number three from the top on the picture from my closet at right). I'd bought this style before, and people always said they looked good and fit well, so I banked on that. After all, I was working for Macy's at the time, and people loved to comment on each other's clothes. My female friends would not shy away from giving you an honest and truthful opinion, one way or the other, and I appreciated that. It saved me from a few potential fashion disasters such as the one that occurred around 2004, when my friend Jenny told me that she'd better never catch me wearing another pair of pants with a visible elastic waistband.

But back to the Macy's jeans. Before my purchase, I tried them on in the fitting room, checking them out from every angle, since you cannot be too careful there. The first day I wore the jeans to work (we had a casual dress policy), I noticed that as the day wore on, the jeans loosened considerably. By the end of the day, it became a struggle to keep them pulled up at the waist. They pooled over the tops of my shoes like rococo drapes in the parlor of a Louisiana plantation house. I brought them home and washed them, and the next time I wore them, they lasted a bit longer, maybe until early afternoon. This pattern continued throughout January, when I left Macy's to take semi-retirement.

Once I was not working, I had the opportunity to exercise more often, and I lost a few pounds. I saw this as a very positive thing until the next time I tried to wear the jeans. I put them on before I left the house one morning, and by lunchtime, they were sagging mercilessly. Now, I'm not a total fashion slave (okay, maybe sometimes), but this was unacceptable. It was time for action.

I bundled up the jeans in a Macy's plastic bag and headed to North Point Mall, where I had purchased them. I did this thinking that maybe the store would replace them. I wasn't looking for a refund, because I had owned them (and worn them) a few times, but I just wanted another pair like these. When I walked into the men's department that weekday morning, it was almost deserted, and within a minute or so, a male sales associate walked up to me and asked if he could help.

I was very honest with the sales person. I told him that I had purchased the jeans, had worn them on a few occasions, but that they just weren't working for me, and that I would like to exchange them. Mind you, there was basically no wear on these pants, but they seemed awfully big for the size on the label. The man looked concerned and downtrodden, and he began to ask questions. Eventually, I just said, "Hey, I used to work for the company. Tell me, is this something you cannot do?" At which point, he replied that no, since the jeans had been washed, they could not be returned. Now, I know that people do this all the time, but I didn't push the point. I put the jeans back in the bag and politely headed home.

That evening, I did a geeky thing: I looked up how to shrink jeans on the Internet. There's even a WikiHow page on how to do it. The next day, I followed the online instructions and voila, I had an almost perfectly fitting pair of jeans, except that they were still too long. After a trip to our favorite tailor shop and $16 for alterations, they were perfect. But seriously, I told myself, all this for one pair of pants. I wasn't even wearing them to a prom or anything. I had purchased them on sale, but after the alternations, any financial benefit from that had been negated.

I can only hope that all this effort is worth it, and that this pair of high maintenance jeans, like others in the past, will have a story to tell when they are retired to Goodwill or some other needy charity. But somehow, I think they'll always be treated just a bit differently from the other pairs in my closet.

I guess the moral of the story is that sometimes, you just have to work at something to get it right, or alternatively, anything worth having is worth fighting for. Seriously, there is nothing more awful than an ill-fitting pair of pants.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Gratis

Just the other day, I was playing the game Hanging with Friends on my phone, and as it happened, my best word to offer up to my challenger at the time was "gratis." That's a word you don't hear every day. Growing up, my dad used it all the time, and I wasn't sure what it meant, so one day, I asked him. His definition was simple: "free."

We didn't pay for lots of stuff in those days. As you may have read elsewhere on this blog, my dad managed a grocery store, and in that position, one benefited from many gratis deals. Food brokers gave away free promotional materials to merchants if they sold a certain level of goods or maintained a particular level of stock for an item, and my father was rather gifted in the art of grocery marketing. He would mark cans of peas that had been selling for 29 cents at three for a dollar, and they would fly off the shelves. Things like that always amazed me.

One way Dad increased sales was with his outstanding hand-lettered promotional signage. Many Sunday evenings, he would make signs at the dining room table. I admired the sleek way he drew 9's, like an elongated oval that fell back on itself. Sometimes I helped make them, and even though mine didn't look nearly as symmetrical or colorful as his, he displayed them nevertheless. Sign making was an art of sorts, and his were very eye catching. So sales were good, and we got free stuff.

Thinking back on the dizzying array of gratis items we received, I realize that we had all bases covered. Here are a few samples of gifts that were bestowed upon our family during the 1960's:
  • Cutlery - This seemed to be a very popular item. We had knife sets "of the highest quality" from faraway places like Japan. (Come to think of it, we had lots of things from Japan.)
  • Flatware sets - We received a few of these, the most notable being a 24K gold electroplated set that was stored in a rolled-up moss green plastic sleeve. This set was reserved for fancy dinners like Easter or the times when someone would bring a new boyfriend or husband over for dinner.
  • The Teem Rabbit - This was an incredible chartreuse and yellow stuffed beast, standing over five feet tall, which my Dad brought home to me one Easter. (Teem was a 1960 Pepsi product, the equivalent of the recently-introduced Sprite from Coca-Cola.) Years later, the rabbit deteriorated somewhat after we had stored it in the attic and birds had nested in its stomach. But that wasn't enough to keep our inventive, packrat neighbor Kyle Davis from asking for it, to which we generously obliged. What he did with it, I have no idea.
  • Dented cans - We received many dented cans of food, many of which were unlabeled. My dad would write the contents in grease pencil on the sides of the cans. My mom could not stand this, because a) she felt that she had no clear idea of what was really in the cans, and b) she did not want us to get botulism from breached can contamination. I shared her concerns.
  • LP's - Occasionally, we would receive gratis records. The one that stands out in my mind is a two-album set of the Chase and Sanborn 102nd Anniversary Edition radio program featuring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, which I later found online as an MP3 (you can find anything out there). I still have those LP's.
  • Gum machine toys - It is inevitable in the operation of an urban grocery store that candy machines will be violated and will break, spilling their contents on the floor. The vendors would come and replace all the gum and toys, and in those rare cases, my dad generally scooped up some of the escaped toys and brought them home. I had several boxes of these and played with them ad infinitum.
None of this was very expensive, but oddly enough, I have kept many of the items. My mom had stored the cutlery and flatware at her house, and when she passed away several years ago, we packed them up and brought them home. Our girls are now acquiring the cutlery piece by piece as they set up their respective households.

I know I'll be fine with eventually disposing of all the gratis items except for one, and that's the moss green sleeved 24K gold flatware set. When I see that, I remember how we used it when Aunt Ida brought her boyfriend Mack and later, her new husband Herbert over for dinner. Come to think of it, just like that flatware, Herbert was a keeper.

Monday, November 21, 2016

You're in Good Hands

It would be an understatement to say that 2016 has been, to use one of Jimmy Buffett's favorite words, tumultuous. We survived a sideshow of an election. Britain voted to exit the European Union. Hurricane Matthew and earthquakes in central Italy and New Zealand left destruction in their wakes. We lost David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Leon Russell. Bob Dylan evaded the Nobel Committee to such an extent that we wondered for a while if he was still around. I think we all agree that now, we just want to enjoy the holidays and move on into 2017. Somehow, in light of all this, I remain optimistic. Why? Because I see promise in our next generation, promise which is already being fulfilled in a variety of ways. We're not waiting for it to happen...it is already happening.

There was no book that told me how I was supposed to feel at this stage of my life, but one learns by doing, as they say. Despite what we might hear or read about the millennial generation (I'm sure they're exhausted by now from hearing that moniker), what I see now are millions of young people committed to making it work. Think about it for a minute: when we baby boomers graduated from high school, there was plenty of work to do. Regardless of whether you launched into a trade or marched ahead to college (and sometimes more college), you were fairly certain that jobs would be plentiful. There were prescribed destinations, formulas for success.

But today's world is a different animal. A college degree is practically a necessity these days, and obtaining one does not, of course, guarantee that jobs will be available in one's chosen field. Getting a step up to the first rung of the ladder seems much more difficult than it used to be. So what does today's generation do? If they're lucky, they land lucrative jobs. If not, or if things don't pan out where they've landed, they keep moving. They explore uncharted career territory, they make the field broader, and in some cases, they even knock down the walls that contain that field. They open restaurants and shops, save our lives in emergency rooms, serve in the military, and build successful businesses, à la Facebook. Many of them are now teaching the next generation after theirs.

Does this sound familiar? Absolutely. We've all been there or are in the process of getting there. And for my money, there are some great things on the horizon. Sure, I have a vested interest, because I have two grown daughters and a son-in-law who are part of this generation. I applaud them, as well as each and every young person across this world who is working to move ahead these days. I think we'll look up in a few years and say wow, these guys knew what they were doing.

Bring on 2017.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Talking to Myself

This is the third and final installment in a series about my years living in the city of Chicago.

We didn't know it at the time, but legendary author Studs Terkel lived in our immediate neighborhood in Chicago, a couple of blocks south of our apartment on West Castlewood Terrace. One of Studs' bestsellers was his autobiographical "Talking to Myself," and today's post borrows from that title.

In my previous post, "Steps to Lake," I described the adventure of finding our city apartment. Once we had settled into the neighborhood, we began to appreciate its cadence. We observed a regular cast of people coming and going every day, which may seem unusual in a metropolis the size of Chicago, but the city is, after all, a patchwork quilt of smaller neighborhoods. People tend to go to the same stores and restaurants, and they typically take the same buses and trains to and from work.

Fairly soon after arriving in the city, we noticed that a significant number of said people seemed to carry on conversations with themselves. Now, I realize that this is something almost all of us do from time to time, but in Chicago, we saw it elevated to an art form. We began to think absolutely nothing of people talking to themselves on public transportation or while walking down the street. You might not see it at a Chicago Symphony concert, but darned tootin' you were going to see it on the El trains.

Most of the time, when people talked to themselves, they didn't appear to be waiting for responses; rather, they would engage in diatribes about this or the other thing, which was often something quite mundane. I wondered if they were trying to burn neural pathways to memorize events or just create imaginary companions for themselves, because it is true that we observed a lot of loneliness in the city. But overall, these people didn't appear to be in the least concerned or upset about their topics of conversation (as it were) or the fact that others were trying to avoid staring in their direction, and I had to hand it to them for that. But one morning, we observed a self-directed conversation which was like no other.

The temperature that morning was between zero and ten degrees (not unusual for a winter day in Chicago), and we were waiting for the bus which ran north up Sheridan Road to connect with an El train at Howard Street. The bus was taking forever, so we ducked into the McDonald's at the corner of Foster Avenue and Sheridan for some breakfast. There, along a wall of windows, sat a late middle-aged woman facing the wall and carrying on a conversation with an imaginary friend. She was quite animated, talking and gesturing with her hands all the while. We ordered our breakfast and then took a seat to silently observe.

This was back in the day when people could smoke anywhere, and presently, a young man walked up to the lady and asked her for a light for his cigarette. She turned to him and answered, "Why, yes." She then looked back at the wall, pulled out her lighter, and said to her imaginary companion, "Excuse me." When she had finished lighting the young man's cigarette, she turned back to the wall and, without missing a beat, resumed her conversation: "Now, as I was saying...".

This tiny episode confirmed to me that I was indeed living in a place of wonder and amusement. There would be many other such stories throughout our time in the city, but I found that one memorable for the woman's spontaneity and impartial sense of common courtesy. In fact, the whole thing gave me pause for thought and also affirmed to me that it was all right if I occasionally talked to myself, which has since come in handy on many occasions.

I recently read an article that claimed scientists now believe that talking to ourselves actually might be a sign of genius. Supposedly, it helps by stimulating memory, keeping us mentally focused, and clarifying our thoughts in order to firm up decision making. If this is true, I encountered untold numbers of geniuses in Chicago without even knowing it. I wish I'd gotten some autographs.

Truly, living in the city was a learning experience. I could go on and on with these stories, but it's almost time for dinner, and I still have to call my friend. Speaking of, I wonder why he never says anything.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Steps to Lake

This is the second installment in a series about my years living in the city of Chicago.

Looking for an apartment in a big city is an adventure, especially when you're young, with limited resources. You soon abandon the idea of landing a place built within the last few years and hope that you can at least find something built since the advent of electricity. Depending on supply and demand, the pickings can be slim, but sometimes, the sales pitch alone is worth a visit.

The Four Towers apartment building (now known as
Shoreline Condominiums), our first city home
When my wife Karen and I got married, we knew we wanted to move to Chicago. This was a calculated decision based on the idea that since Karen was from Boston and I was from Memphis, moving to either of those places would have provided one or the other of us a certain "hometown advantage." Not that this would have been a problem, but we really wanted to launch our lives in our own place, and since we had many friends from college who still lived in the Chicago area, or "Chicagoland," as it is sometimes called by the locals, we made the decision to move to the city. We had both attended Northwestern, which is located in the leafy North Shore suburb of Evanston, but being in our early twenties, we longed to be more in the heart of things. And so, on one weekend in the spring, we began looking for an affordable apartment down in the city, south of the Evanston-Chicago border.

Even though Evanston is officially termed a suburb, it does not look at all like one. The three and four story residential buildings and storefront businesses flow seamlessly as you head south along Lake Michigan into the north side of Chicago at Howard Street, where a large elevated train or "El" station marks the dividing line. Immediately south of Howard sits the venerable Rogers Park neighborhood, which for many years was home to kosher delis and lots of mom and pop businesses. In those days, Rogers Park was a relatively quiet, established neighborhood, and we looked at a few places there, but ultimately, we ended up heading a bit farther south, to the Edgewater neighborhood, which was part of Uptown. There were many Edgewater apartment buildings in our price range, which at the time was less than $250 a month. These days, that would be unattainable, but in 1978, you could actually find a number of apartments renting in that range. We scoured the newspaper listings and came up with several attractive options.

One of the first places we visited sat directly on Sheridan Road, a major north-south thoroughfare paralleling the lake shore several blocks to the east. This apartment was memorable for its liberal use of red velvet flocked wallpaper. I'm sure there were other wall colors represented in the unit, but after seeing the red, nothing else mattered. Given that, and the fact that the apartment sat above a busy street and had absolutely no character, we opted to continue looking.

Another apartment caught our attention with its tagline, which read, "Steps to Lake." We stopped by and found that indeed, the place was only a short walk from Lincoln Park and Lake Michigan, but that was really its only redeeming value. The front door opened into a lobby which was probably stylish in the 1940's but was seriously showing its age. Many buildings in Chicago open onto a center courtyard, and the leasing agent told us that this one did as well. We poked around looking for said courtyard and finally found what he was referring to: an open-air architectural aberration in the rear of the building which effectively provided a chute from the top floors to the bottom, where discarded cans of paint lay abandoned and rusting.

The agent took us to the apartment, and it was a sight to behold. The walls contained built-in cabinets with drawers which did not slide in and out as intended, but rather sat in the cabinets at angles. The windows looked out on other buildings, and the floors needed refinishing. The place just looked tired. At one point, the agent pointed out a small alcove and said, "This would make a nice sewing room for the ladies." But sewing room notwithstanding, we just weren't interested. We said thanks to the agent and continued looking.

Funny thing, but the perfect apartment turned out to be just around the corner. When we finally stopped in to look at it, we realized it was exactly what we had hoped to find. It was a little one bedroom unit with a Pullman kitchen built into a side wall of the living room, and it had a quiet, comfortable bedroom with a functional little bathroom that must have had about ten colors of tile on the wall. But it was clean and it was livable, not to mention that it was on the eleventh floor of a building called Four Towers, on North Marine Drive, and it sat directly across the street from Lincoln Park. We signed the lease.

We settled into city life quickly. We learned how to walk groceries home from the supermarket, how to entertain on a shoestring, and how to find our way around using only public transportation. In the evenings after work, or on the weekends, we would take our ten speed bikes down the freight elevator and ride them across the street into Lincoln Park and onto trails which led directly over to the lake shore. From our living room windows, we looked out over the north side of Chicago, and at night, we would turn off the lights and let the city illuminate the room. Many evenings, we would sip glasses of Valpolicella wine with friends and just gaze out at the seemingly endless metropolis.

And so, in the end, we had a place to call home, a place without red velvet flocked wallpaper, and with drawers that actually slid in and out of the cabinets. It was clean, quiet, comfortable and, for being on a tight budget, actually rather stylish. We felt like we had arrived, and all for $185 a month (plus electricity). But perhaps best of all, we were still literally only "Steps to Lake."

Sunday, June 19, 2016

LSD

It dawned on me a few days ago that I hadn't written many blog posts about my years in Chicago. I moved there in the fall of 1973 to attend Northwestern, left for a year after graduation to return to Memphis, then came back to the city and lived there until 1982, when I was offered a corporate transfer to Atlanta. This is the first installment in a series about my time there.

There's this one thing you need to know about Chicago. No name can stand on its own without a corresponding, highly abbreviated nickname. Even people who go by the initials "J.R." will find themselves addressed in Chicago as simply "J." The paper is not called the Tribune but "The Trib." In this spirit, locals often refer to Chicago's major lakefront thoroughfare not as Lake Shore Drive, but rather "LSD." And this is where our story begins.

LSD with very light traffic
It's not every day that someone drives away from their wedding in a U-Haul truck, but such was the case for my wife Karen and me on that warm summer evening in August, 1978. We had a little one bedroom apartment in a high rise waiting for us in Chicago, and although I had moved my possessions there a couple of months earlier, we still had to transport Karen's things from her family home in suburban Boston -- hence, the U-Haul. I hadn't driven a stick shift much, but since the trip was mostly on the interstate, it wasn't too bad. We found some good radio stations and made a nice trip out of it. After driving for two days through New England, across Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, we finally found ourselves on the third day, breezing north on Lake Shore Drive, ready to settle into a new life.

It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon, and I was probably driving about 40 miles an hour, when suddenly, I saw the lights of a police cruiser in the driver side mirror. Thinking that the policeman must have been on someone else's tail, I continued to motor north, when out of the blue, he appeared immediately to my left and yelled into a megaphone, "Truck, pull over!" Without hesitation, I pulled onto the shoulder and sat there, wondering what in heavens name I had done.

The officer walked up to the window, and this was the exchange which followed:

Police Officer: Sir, you're driving a truck.

Richard Brooks: Yes, officer, I know.

PO: But this is Lake Shore Drive.

RB: Yes, I know.

PO: But Lake Shore Drive is a boulevard.

RB: Yes, and...?

PO: Commercial vehicles are not allowed on boulevards in Chicago.

RB: Is this a commercial vehicle?

PO: Yes, it is. May I see your license, please?

At this point, I realized that I was out of my element. I had driven so-called "boulevards" countless times, but as with many big cities, Chicago has its own rules, and I had apparently violated what the officer considered to be an obvious one. The problem was, I had a Tennessee driver's license (which at the time had no picture), Karen's was from Massachusetts, the truck had Arizona plates, and we were driving in Chicago. The officer obviously didn't like what he saw, and the dialog continued:

PO: Sir, may I have your bond card?

RB: What is that? I don't have one.

PO: OK, then...I need to have you follow me to the police station.

And off we went, following the cruiser to the 39th and Prairie police station on Chicago's South Side.

Let's just say that the police station was not in the best part of town, and as we walked in, we noticed that the walls were lined with posters of America's Most Wanted and Chicago's Most Wanted. In all seriousness, the Chicago group looked much more threatening. We walked up to a police desk like the ones you used to see on television, with tall lights topped by round globes on each side. A rather jovial policeman then explained to me that they would have to keep my license and that I would have to appear in traffic court in a couple of weeks. Also, he explained that a "bond card" was Chicago's term for a proof of insurance card. After all the business was done, the officers escorted us back out to the U-Haul, and since Karen had been a stick shift driver for some time, she took over the driving.

Since we couldn't take LSD, we had to meander through the streets of the Loop to get to our north side apartment, and Karen piloted the U-Haul like a champ, making our way under the rattling overhead CTA lines and tons of pedestrian traffic. She handled it as gracefully as could be expected, and when we finally got to the apartment, we wanted nothing more than to lie down and rest, but trucks don't unload themselves, and our apartment was eleven floors up. We made good use of the freight elevator that day.

And so began life in the city of Chicago. Four years in the rarefied air of Northwestern on the North Shore had not really prepared me for this, but somehow, we thrived in the city, and in the next few posts, I'll tell you how it all worked out and how by the end of my time there, I was shortening names with the best of them.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Dropoff

It wasn't a long drive from our house, maybe ten minutes or so, but it was long enough for me to build up anxiety for what was about to happen: I was going to be dropped off at a new place with lots of people I'd never met, and although I was a reasonably social high school junior, this wasn't what I had bargained for on that Sunday night.

A souvenir picture from our OWS 2010 reunion
My mom had become interested in this church halfway across town in East Memphis. She had heard that it was a growing congregation with great youth activities, and I guess she felt it was time we found a church again. We'd left our previous church several years before, and we hadn't really seriously looked anywhere since. My uncle was a Methodist minister in California, so it only seemed appropriate to maintain some level of religious involvement. My dad, owing to the recent lifting of blue laws, spent most Saturdays and many Sundays working at his grocery store down on Lamar Avenue, so my mom and I were pretty much on our own on the weekends. And so, one gorgeous Sunday morning in the fall of 1971, we packed up and headed to Mullins United Methodist Church, at the corner of Walnut Grove and Mendenhall.

From the moment we walked in, we liked the place. It was a bit more modern in appearance than our previous church, and it didn't have a stuffy feel, which appealed to both of us. The minister, Reverend Tom Wilson, was a friendly fellow who seemed to wear a perpetual smile and was genuinely engaging with members of the congregation. We liked the music, and we liked the fact that lots of people greeted us and made us feel welcome. We called it a wrap and decided we'd come back the following week, but my mom went one step further: she decided that I would attend Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF) that same night. I guess she figured that if you were going to jump into something, it might as well be at the deep end of the pool. That being said, I wasn't much of a swimmer in those days.

Anyway, there we were, with me sitting in the car, saying I was not going to get out. I was adamant. However, my mom in her youth had been a fiery redhead of strong opinion, and her tenacity had not dissipated over the years. In short, I lost the battle and with an air of obvious resignation, I headed into the church to attend the meeting. I was 16 years old, and here I was, sitting among a very large group of kids roughly my age, none of whom I had ever met. You remember how it is at that age: you're hypersensitive about anything you do or say, fearing that you might be labeled an outcast, but in this case, that never happened. On the contrary, I found that people actually appeared to want to talk to me, and somehow, it was natural to reciprocate.

The theme of that night's MYF meeting was the recently released album "Jesus Christ Superstar," and although I played multiple instruments and listened to music constantly, this was something I had never heard. I lived and breathed Grand Funk Railroad and could sing Creedence in my sleep, but I knew very little about "Jesus Rock," as it was called in those days. But I was somewhat taken by it. We listened to a few songs from the album, and then our youth leader Richard asked if any of us played instruments. Since I had played guitar for about five years in a series of garage bands, I tentatively raised my hand. Richard wondered if, given the size of our church, we might be willing to start our own "group." He offered to serve as director, but he didn't want to call this a "choir," because that sounded very uncool to us early 70's types. We did some thinking and came up with a name: The One Way Singers.

Almost from the beginning, everything just clicked. At its peak, we had well over 100 singers, some of whom came from other churches just to be part of the group. There were six of us in a band that accompanied the group: a keyboard player, drummer, lead guitar (yours truly), rhythm guitar, bass guitar, and percussion. We rehearsed diligently, meeting every Sunday afternoon about 4:00, after which we would have dinner in the church basement, followed by our regular MYF meeting. It seemed that everything at Mullins took on a new flavor, and the group gained momentum.

By the next summer, despite a change of directors, we were ready to embark on our first tour to Louisiana and Texas. Our outfits were amazing and so totally hip for the time: lime green jumpers for the girls, lime green polo shirts for the boys, with white pants, white belts and white shoes. Every day of the tour was a new experience. We played in churches large and small, and one night, we even played at an orphanage in New Orleans. Each evening except for one, we split up and stayed overnight with church members. We had some of the kindest hosts: they would give us tours of their communities, talk to us about our experiences and interests, make big breakfasts for us, and even wash and fold our laundry. We hung out with families at their pools, talked about whether the universe had an end, and made midnight snack runs. The tour was an unqualified success.

The next year, we changed up our outfits and broadened our geographical horizons, heading north to play in Indiana, Michigan, Ontario, and Ohio. We spent a day at Greenfield Village, got to explore Toronto's Yonge Street when our bus broke down there (a frequent occurrence), stayed overnight with a hippie musician, and spent a wonderful, memorable day at Niagara Falls. Since I had just graduated from high school and was headed to Chicago in the fall to attend Northwestern, I realized that this trip would really be my last hurrah with my Mullins crowd. I'm not exaggerating when I say that to this day, that week remains as one of my best memories, a time when everything seemed to come together to prepare me for launching into whatever life might deliver.

I headed to college in the fall, but I would make a point of stopping back at Mullins to visit whenever I was on breaks, and each time, it would feel like I'd never left. Back in those days, it didn't seem that I was completely home until I had strolled through the peaceful little cemetery that separates the parking lot from the church door. A few years ago, the One Way Singers held a weekend reunion, and on that warm Saturday night in late July, as I walked into the church with my friends from so long ago, my black and white Stratocaster over my shoulder (I didn't end up playing it), everything came flooding back, and I silently thanked my mother for making me get out of the car all those years before. If she could have been there at that moment, I know that she would have been smiling from ear to ear.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

A Serious Peace Piece

​​I read a Rolling Stone article about the late Glenn Frey yesterday, and it mentioned that his hit songs featured "melodies that were perfect for the easygoing mood of the Seventies." I don't mean to dwell on the past, and I am thankful for life's many experiences in the intervening years, but reading that made me so grateful for having spent my late teens and early twenties in that unique decade.

What was it that made the Seventies "easygoing?" Certainly, they weren't that way at every point in time between Eric Clapton and Talking Heads, but overall, I believe what made the decade special was a combination of the overall decompression following the Vietnam war combined with an open-mindedness and sensitivity to others that has yet to be replicated. We seem to have become a more callous society. Many of the challenges that we face today are those that have been created from within: detachment, pessimism and isolationism are prime examples. We live on the very same planet that we inhabited in 1974, yet in many ways, it feels like a different world. The thing is, it doesn't have to be this way.

I don't preach about many things, and I'm not a hippie awaiting the return of psychedelia, but I think it would serve us well as a society to try to bring back some of the sentiment of the Seventies, to celebrate with those we love and at the same time, to be aware of challenges that others we know may be facing. Given our current modern methods of communication and the ever-expanding world of social media, it seems like we might be able to give ourselves a head start. We're all in this together, and maybe if we try, we can once again achieve at least a degree of that "peaceful, easy feeling" that Glenn Frey sang about all those years ago.