Selected Works of Jessie Sheridan

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Last week would have been my mother’s 92nd birthday. Now ten years gone, I miss her comforting presence and protection more than ever. I don’t always like being the grown-up I was forced to become in her passing. After all, what achievement in my life could ever match her insistance, after giving her a hug and peck on the cheek, that when I kisses ‘em, they stays kissed? All the more frustrating is that adding that skill to my resume hasn’t really helped in my current job search.

If you didn’t know her, you were robbed. She was a wonder. Perhaps unfairly, the thing usually first said about her was that she not only gave birth to nine children, but she raised them for much of the time as a single woman.1 While that was a Herculean task, it’s a myopic assessment of her life’s work. It turns a deaf ear to the song of her soul.

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One of the keys to my mom’s greatness was that she reveled in what might be called the politics of language: its potential to empower, confine, inspire, and slaughter sacred cows. She loved its plasticity, and she jumped at any chance to subtly twist a meaning or substitute a rhyming word to render a self-important statement either absurd or obscene. (Ideally, both.) Once, when she had allowed our front lawn to run wild, with weeds chest-high in places (her philosophy of home maintenance was, shall we say, passively practical), our neighbors were up in arms. But rather than send one of her kids out with a lawnmower when the block committee formally asked her to tame it, she stuck a sign in front of our house that read,

KEEP OFF THE GRASS.
PROSECUTORS WILL BE VIOLATED!

Her geniuScan10001s wasn’t solely reserved for pissing off the neighbors, though. In the early 70s she helped research and edit the independently published Feminist English Dictionary, which she more ingeniously supertitled An Intelligent Woman’s Guide To Dirty Words. This slender and potent volume had the audacity to expose the entrenched sexism of the work of Webster, Funk, Wagnall, and the whole lexicophallic mafia, literally using their words against them. Here’s a sample entry, from the section titled “Patriarchal Epithets, Section 2: Woman as Whorish”:

EROTIC 1. b. tending to excite sexual pleasure or desire (the erotic power of perfume) c. directed toward sexual gratification (his erotic adventures with prostitutes).  (Webster’s TNI, 1966)

The dictionary got some impressive attention for an independently published and distributed book2, but was sadly ahead of its time. In the months before her death Jessie was planning two other books, both of which were built on her playful love of language. One was Stupidity For Dummies, a practical guide that would no doubt have been a bestseller in our culture of chop logic and manufactured reality. The other was The Merchant of Venus, a satiric mashup of pulp erotica and hardboiled mystery. She got the title from a misspelling she saw in the closed captioning on a Law & Order re-run.3 I was lucky enough to have her share some of the brilliantly purple prose with me, the rough sketches of which were built around canny double entendres involving the brand names of candy bars. Unfortunately, her enthusiasm flagged for both projects when a book deal did not appear to be forthcoming.

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Jessie with her brother, Charles.

And then there was her poetry. Like her hero, William Blake, she struggled to find a liberty of spirit in her lines. She railed against hypocrisy and sought to restore balance; honoring the yin and the yang in all things. One untitled poem from her collection, Mothers And Other Losers, is a perfect example:

Men and Women
Rehearse old myths
Building new gardens
To drive each other from

It’s a succinct and keen assessment of the age old problem of sexuality and romance, while another poem found her equally concerned with the individual’s wrestling match between spirit and flesh, the high and the low, straining toward a unification of the sacred and the profane:

I, Artist
Working in dirt

Housewife and hussy and
Part-time-poet

Sitting among
Crumpled candy wrappers
And old socks

Writing smut
And trying
To make it
Rhyme

Like Blake, she illuminated her texts. But she used vintage images of women in burquas and corsets, clipped from old Sears catalogs and encyclopedias. The controlled, almost imprisoned imagery sharply juxtaposed her words of self-awareness and empowerment. Never was she more direct and inescapable in her vision than in her “Ode To Whores”.

Sisters, they robbed us
Of our fire!

The source
of warmth, of heat,
Life burned
in us. They stole it, then,
Did not
Know how
To use it. If
They could, they would
Have killed us all. Instead, they
Sorted us into “whores” and “ladies”
Saying, “you, whores,
Keep some of it
So we
Can use it, and
You, Ladies, go
Freeze to death!”

Playing “whores and ladies”
to
Divide and rule.

It’s not a resigned lament, it’s a punch to the gut. And it perfectly illustrates what a wonder my mother was. The keen observer, the doubter, the trickster. But also the fount of so much love and hope for the world. Indeed, my favorite of her poems is a self-portrait, which I found among her belongings in a series of limericks profiling every member of our family. I can feel her matchless magic sparkling in its words:

There was a Grand Mother
Named Jess
Whose house was a terrible mess.
She loved all her children
With a passion bewilderin’
And they gave her a great happiness.

How do you like them apples? Oh, dear… I’m so sorry. Now I fear I’ve made you miss her, too.


FOOTNOTES

1When, later in life, reflecting on having so many kids, my mom matter-of-factly suggested it was the one thing for which she got real praise as a young woman, the thing she was good at. Damn shame.

2As I recall a few national magazines picked up the story of the dictionary, one of which was Playboy. In a snarkily sexist and all-around dick move, they included with the write-up a photo of a nude woman holding the book up in front of her face. They later forwarded letters of proposal from some men who assumed the model was my mother. I guess we have the answer to the age old question: What kind of man reads Playboy?

3Another great achievement she had under her belt was beating cancer. And it was a hell of a fight, with surgery to her palate and jaw robbing her of the ability to eat solid food for the last ten years of her life and imparing her speech, while the radiation diminished her hearing considerably. But she made the best of it, getting a vicarious thrill by asking you what you had if you mentioned you went out to eat.

Squelchy Love

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Through middle-school and high school, I subjected myself to a series of monumental and unrequited crushes on a succession of unlucky girls. Too insecure and clueless to ask any of them out, I would instead awkwardly orbit them, doing nice, thoughtful things, and pining away in sweet misery to a dolorous soundtrack of Cat Stevens and Simon & Garfunkel. I hoped at some point that one of them would realize that I was The One and effectively raise her hand and we could stroll together into some crepuscular idyll.1 Like everything else in my life, I felt like this should happen without much of an effort on my part. After all, it was much safer to wait for love to come crawling to me, rather than humiliate myself with the rejection I assumed would greet me if I ever made the first move.2

I came closest to having this strategy work for me in the fifth grade, when a girl actually brokered a deal through her friends for me to be her boyfriend. It was a painfully businesslike and short-lived arrangement, about as romantic as the failed merger of Comcast and Time-Warner Cable, and within a week the flimsy charade similarly collapsed in on itself. I went back to my crushes.

One constant through all of these one-sided romances was that, without fail, every one of these girls would, at some point, say that I was “sweet”. The words rang in my head like the steel doors of the friend zone slamming shut, and my latest opus of self-sabotage would be complete.3 That’s why I laughed so heartily one morning in high school, when I turned a page in the Chicago Sun-Times and saw the headline staring back at me: “‘SWEETEST GUY’ HELD IN AX-KILLING OF 4”. I tore it out, pinned it up over my desk at home, and would chuckle wryly to myself from time to time. What an insufferable asshole I was. How I wish I could go back and punch myself in my dumb fucking face.

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FOOTNOTES

1Brace yourself for the most pathetic thing you may ever hear: I remember vainly hoping that a girl would reveal her feelings for me through a school-sanctioned Valentine exchange or even a proclamation in the school newspaper. I’m not sure if it’s more excruciating for me to admit that or for you to read it. But there it is. Go Back To Reading

2Close readers of this blog may draw a parallel between my approach to romance and how I tried to orchestrate my first fight. Again, how fucked up is that? Go Back To Reading

3Much later (maybe last week) it occurred to me that at least one or two of these girls might have actually liked me back, but they assumed from my bizarre behavior (quite understandably) that I was not interested in them. Ah, well. Their loss, right? Go Back To Reading

My Truant Life

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From the get go, elementary school and I knew we would not be friends, and neither of us made much of an effort to pretend otherwise. Pre-school at the JCC was one thing, where the greatest demand made of me was five minutes of Tidy-up Time at the end of what was effectively a three hour group play date. I could get behind that. But when I entered kindergarten at Beulah Shoesmith Public School I realized that what lay ahead was undoubtedly a dead-end relationship, a dysfunctional clusterfuck, and the sooner school and I could make a clean break from each other the better for everyone concerned.

While being separated from hearth and home for six hours a day was a drag, it was Mrs. Polakoff, my teacher, who was the real problem. A martinet straight out of central casting, my memory has broken her down to component parts: long fingernails burnished in an unsettling crimson, a sternly set mouth that could only seem to voice disapproval, hair as black as the numb mystery of death.1 Her pedagogy was deeply rooted in negative reinforcement: make the child feel badly about not getting something right often enough and they will soon learn to avoid doing things wrong. I vividly recall her shaming me in front of the class for some incorrect answers to a “what two things go together” activity. While I’d like to say I thought it far too harsh an assessment of my developing skills, copping a self-preservational I don’t need this bullshit from some self-loathing, repressed bitch attitude, but if I’m honest, there was really just the hot panic of feeling dumb, of having disappointed her, of being bad. In no time at all school was a needy, bossy, and unkind tangle of problems I had no use for. How many more years of this? Are you fucking serious?

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(I am not pictured here.)

Luckily I was blessed with a loving mother who operated on a hardy diet of guilt and emotional fatigue. Here I was, the last of her nine children from two defunct marriages. She’d been through a lot, and I soon realized I could use that to my benefit. When I discovered that feeling sick was a free pass from Mrs. Polakoff’s Circus of Rancor, I was beset by a succession of vague ailments: fatigue, stomach pain, “body ache”. I even remember pulling the old thermometer-under-a-hot-tap gag, giving myself a fever that should have had me in a coma or a pine box (Though, to her credit, I think my mom called bullshit on that one; even she had her limits). I now figure she was on to my scheme the whole time, but it was ultimately just easier to give in. We had broken her will.2 And so I sat out what seemed like huge chunks of those first few years of elementary school, focusing on my independent study in advanced Media, based largely on a vigorous regimen of game shows and sit-com reruns.3

While I would classify most of my truancy as “passive scholastic resistance”, there was an incident a couple of years later when I ventured into more classic hooky territory. My brother, Josh, who is four-and-a-half years older than I, suggested we ditch school one Spring day and check out what looked like the mother of all playgrounds, which sat on the lakefront a couple of miles north of our neighborhood. I had admired this recreational Valhalla from my father’s car window as he drove us along Lake Shore Drive to his house when he had custody. It seemed to call out to me as we passed, with its towering rocket ship that was ringed by a corkscrew slide, a multicolored geodesic dome of a jungle gym, and a host of other wonders that made it seem like the Disney World of public parks. But it was an obscure object of desire, too out of the way from either of my parent’s homes to warrant them taking us there. So when my brother made the suggestion, I was all too game.

We set out for school on the designated morning and, as planned, we altered our course a couple of blocks from home. I hadn’t considered just how far we were traveling, trusting my brother’s navigation. It really just seemed like a succession of manageable distances. First a few blocks east to Lake Park. No problem. Then north to the 47th Street viaduct that served as a gateway to Lake Shore Drive. Easy. Lastly we would take a pedestrian bridge over the Drive and then walk north the playground at 31st Street. That never took too long in my dad’s car. A piece of cake!

Everything was indeed going fine until we got to the viaduct. It ran under the Illinois Central Railroad tracks, making it more like a tunnel than an underpass. Forty-seventh Street itself, while technically smack in the middle of Kenwood, was an unofficial dividing line between the mixed-race middle-class area where we lived and the poorer (and totally African American) confines to the north.4 Two white kids strolling along there weren’t exactly inconspicuous. But I was blissfully unaware of the more complex socio-economic underpinnings of the adventure as we passed from the bright day into the dank cave of our passage to the lakefront. Watching my shoes, I thought it impressive that, even in the piss-scented dark, weeds still were able to squeeze up between cracks in the huge slabs of cement.

About halfway through I became aware of some other boys several yards behind us. Were they also ditching? Did they have the same game plan? Before I could consider it for too long my brother stole a glance behind us, grabbed a handful of my shirt and hissed, “Run!” Just as I began to take a full stride forward I heard the bottles shatter right behind us, followed by the echoing shouts and laughter of the boys. Fear seemed to ride the wave of broken glass, egging me on but also grabbing at my ankles to keep me from running. This wasn’t good. In fact, this was really really really really bad. Not only was I going to die, but when they recovered my body here in the viaduct it would be clear that I was ditching school. Would my mom be sad or just mad? Lying about being sick to stay home was one thing, but straight up playing hooky on the streets and getting myself killed was another. My PF Fliers pumped and pumped and somehow we passed out the other end of the viaduct, back into the comparative safety of daylight.

Josh and I ran on toward the pedestrian bridge that spanned the Drive and we finally turned to see that the boys hadn’t followed. It was OK. Everything was going to be OK. That realization was enough to calm my heart and allow an unpleasant stinging to creep into my consciousness: I’d been hit. And not just hit, hit in the ass. I twisted to assess the damage and saw a small but expanding dark stain on the left cheek of my blue-and-white striped chinos. Fuuuuuck. OK, so everything was not OK after all. I was wounded and bleeding and we were a good mile from home, which was also the last place we wanted to go since we should have been in school.

Whether I cried the whole way back or just saved up the water works for my mom is no longer clear to me. But I do remember that my mind raced over the import of all that had gone down and the lessons learned. Thanks to my strict atheist upbringing, I had no thought of an angry and punishing God getting me for my errant ways, but I did figure that karma was what really bit me in the ass. More epochal was the terrible, heart-sinking realization that people you didn’t know could do vicious, violent and malevolent things for no reason at all. Those lessons, above what anger my mom may have expressed and the tenderness she no doubt poured down on her injured baby boy, are what remain.

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FOOTNOTES
1Over forty years later, I ran into a kindergarten classmate at my brother’s wedding. Sharing our memories of dear Mrs. Polakoff, he admitted her diabolical mien had done a little number on his developing sexuality, making him attracted to her type for years to come. Too bad there’s no Golden Apple Award for that shit. Go Back To Reading

2My brother Micheal has corroborated just how far I pushed my poor mother: “I remember in kindergarten Mom would drive you to school, get out of the car to take you in, and you would lock all the doors before she could open them.” Go Back To Reading

3I should have been transforming into the Incredible Hulk considering how much gamma ray exposure I withstood. Go Back To Reading

4The other thing I always associate with 47th Street is Gill’s, a now long gone liquor store that offered their own house lager, which they claimed was “The beer that won’t go flat!” You could buy it by the gallon glass jug from a drive-thru window. It was the first beer I ever tasted, and it was wretched. Go Back To Reading

Songs Sung Blue

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The laminated tag on her desk read “Latisha”, but everyone in the third grade called her Tish. We were gathered around her at the lunchroom table as she sang, her head tilting from side to side:

Ain’t your mama pretty?
She got meatball ‘tween her titties,
She got ham an’ eggs
‘Tween her legs.
Ain’t your mama pretty?

There was a hint of a sneer on Tish’s full, round face, like she was a bit bored with the entire proceeding. But that was part of the magic in the spell she cast.

I took her to a party,
She turned around and farted.
I asked her why she did it.
She turned around and shitted.

My mind went to work on the vividly tactile aspects of the scene she painted: Were the meatballs between your mama’s titties cold or hot? Why would she want to go through the considerable trouble and mess of grasping both ham and eggs (I imagined them fried sunny-side up for some reason) between her legs? And for how long? More to the point, why? Why why why?1 Tish may not have had a great singing voice, but all my questions were a testament to her singular talents.2 She was a master of the third grade sea shanty, those self-consciously illicit rhymes that were passed along a capella from child to child.3 They were dirty for the sake of being dirty. And she was just getting started.

Batman, take me to the movies.
Batman, the movie was groovy.
Batman, take me to your house.
Batman, lay me on your couch.
Batman, stick it in easy.
Batman, take it out greasy.

Though it sounded like a rejected B-side to the Dixie Cups “Iko Iko”, the see-saw rhythm to “Batman” had a compelling monotony that built some nice suspense. Just what would Batman do next? Oh, really? You don’t say! And then, just as things get really interesting, the listener is dropped abruptly without a bridge or chorus to provide some semblance of closure. Wow. What the hell, right? Was it a love song? If so, it was one of the most jaded stripe; its matter-of-fact inventory of events devoid of any feeling after the initial assessment of the movie being groovy. And the way Tish made “greasy” rhyme with “wheezy” in the last line really sold the whole package. Lord almighty. The fact that it involved Batman – Batman, for Crissakes – just made the whole thing all the more skeevy. While I had heard the Caped Crusader previously name-checked in vain, it was in a far tamer send-up of a holiday classic:

Jingle Bells, Batman smells,
Robin laid an egg.
The Batmobile lost a wheel
And the Joker got away. Hey!

Kid’s stuff. Tish was dealing in much headier fare, with far greater implications. There in the Shoesmith lunchroom, with the rank smell of institutional grilled cheese hanging in the air, everything we thought we knew was cast in doubt. Heroes were debased. Scales fell from eyes, piling on the ceramic tiled floor at our feet without a sound. It is still with me over 40 years later.

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Yet Tish was not the first to share such lyrics with me. In the summer of 1972 my mom took us on a road trip with our cousins, the Bilds. A mammoth Winnebago was rented and we set out for the Great White North for Expo in Montreal. Six kids (!) rattled around in the back of the camper, playing cards, hide and seek4 , and fighting, To cut the boredom at one point, my cousin Greg decided to regale us with his own repertoire of ribald poetry, which was more spoken word than song. He began with the tale of the chaste and resourceful Sally Brown.

There once was a girl named Sally Brown,
Swore no man could pin her down.
Over the hill came Piss-ball Pete:
Two-hundred pounds of solid meat.
Pinned her down in the tall green grass.
Stuck his dick right up her ass.
All of the sudden she let a mighty fart,
Blew his balls ten feet apart!

Yowzah! Such detail! Such rich characterization! There even seemed to be a moral of a sort somewhere in there, if you cared to do some digging. More notable was the ballad’s brutality. It chronicled a battle royale, but no one seemed destined to be the winner. As grim as it was, it was downright jocular compared to Greg’s next offering:

Charlie Chan was a dirty old man,
Walkin’ down the street with his dick in his hand.
Threw ten bitches against the wall,
Betcha ten bucks that he fucked ’em all.
He fucked and fucked ’til his dick was sore.
Went downtown and fucked some more.
Went to Nursie and Nursie said,
“Sorry Charlie, but your dick is dead.”
“Nursie! Nursie! That can’t be true!”
“Sorry, Charlie, but your balls are, too.”

Devastating stuff. An almost Germanic nursery rhyme straight from the foulest boy’s locker room in Hell. Where Piss-ball Pete suffered the ostensibly excruciating experience of having his scrotum stretched over three yards, Charlie Chan, after what sounds like a nightmarish spree of serial rape, is left with useless, necrotic junk. It’s game over for him, fuck-wise, and he’s summarily sent through Kubler-Ross’ grief stages for his late penis like shit through an incontinent goose. Mores the better, I think. You couldn’t say the rapist asshole didn’t deserve it and then some.

As the words rattled around my head (I think I heard them the once, to be remembered forever), I put them through some mental filter that was equal parts Allan Sherman and Sesame Street, coming up with my own take that could now well be adopted by PETA.

Charlie Chan was a clean old man,
Walking down the street with his hand in his hand,
Threw ten chickens against the wall,
Betcha ten bucks that he plucked ’em all…
Went to Nursie and Nursie said,
“Sorry, Charlie but your hands are dead.”
“Nursie! Nursie! That’s can’t be true!”
“Sorry, Charlie but your palms are, too.”

I know, right? Precious. But what’s most notable about my sanitizing is that it still implies the original smut. It can’t stand on its own, and is only funny in the context of the original.5 So much for cleaning up the act.

Fast forward to my sophomore year in college: While browsing a cluttered record store in lower-Manhattan with my friend Mike Heller, we discovered a nasty looking album by a band called The Mentors. Scanning song titles like “Sandwich of Love” and “Golden Showers”, Mike and I decided it was the perfect gift for our friend Stafford and we snapped it up.6 Later, as we collapsed in laughter on the floor of Stafford’s dorm room while listening to the mind-roasting, unremitting foulness of the music, I still couldn’t help but find it lacking. Sure, it was utterly depraved, but it didn’t hold a candle to the more honest obscenity of my childhood. Ah, well. Isn’t that the way it always goes?

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FOOTNOTES

1I will say that I find your mama’s response to being questioned about her flatulence entirely reasonable and justified. Well played, Mama. Go Back To Reading

2Tish was also an avid eater of paste, dipping into a barrel-shaped tub she kept in her desk every so often, the red plastic applicator in the lid doubling as a spoon that she ran over her tongue. It wasn’t a secret. She was unabashed about her penchant for paste. God bless her. Go Back To Reading

3I would learn later that Tish was just carrying on the great tradition of The Dozens, but she also brings to mind for me the mysterious and ethereal chanteuse in Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West”, which happens to be my all-time favorite poem. Just saying. Go Back To Reading

4The combination of our kid-sized bodies and the plethora of cabinets, cubbies and crannies in the camper made hide and seek a viable diversion for quite a few miles. We played it so much that it nearly resulted in catastrophe. After herding us back aboard after one rest stop, a parent took a head count. Though my older brother Josh was missing, they assumed he was hiding and we took off down the road. After several miles the kids finally convinced the parents he was not aboard and we turned back around. Sure enough, standing at the roadside confused but remarkably unruffled was Josh. He was hardly ever forgotten again. Go Back To Reading

5I hadn’t thought of it until now, but my fascination with these songs could well be directly related to my habit of making up obscene lyrics for songs on the radio when I am driving alone. Go Back To Reading

Mentors_yafi6“You Axed For It” turned out to be just as potent as the cover advertised. We became such fans of the band that at one point we drove an hour from Wesleyan to see them play in an under-age punk club called Anthrax that was nestled in an industrial strip mall in Norwalk, CT. The band went on at least 90-minutes late because El Duce, their singer/drummer, was missing. He was finally discovered passed out in the john, revived, and propped behind his kit for the set (and yes, they did perform in their trademark black hoods). Their songs and overall zeitgeist were so offensive that they went on to be cited during Tipper Gore’s PMRC hearings, with Frank Zappa himself memorably quipping, “Anyone who writes a song about anal vapors had to do some digging.” El Duce wound up playing a role in the conspiracy theory around Kurt Cobain’s death, and was then (according to Wikipedia) somehow killed by a train after a gig in 1997 in a case of “misadventure”. Pour some liquor out. Go Back To Reading

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El Duce, his eyes still misty with sleep, takes it to the stage. Anthrax Club, 1986. Polaroid by yours truly.

 

Laughing Matter

My brief foray into cartooning is a definitive study of the “You Had To Be There” school of comedy, not only in its subject matter (life in Chicago’s Hyde Park at the turn of the ’80s) but also what I thought was funny when I was 14. As with most things that stirred me from my trademark torpor, I was inspired by potential reward. My buddy Alex Gordon’s mom ran a kitschy card shop called Funny Papers on 53rd and she was sponsoring a cartoon contest; the best strip about Hyde Park would win. Not letting my almost complete inability to draw stand in my way, I set to scribbling.

Hmmm, Hyde Park, let’s see. What’s funny about Hyde Park? Of course it never entered my mind to sing the praises of my native soil or even poke some good natured fun at its institutions. Sure, Hyde Park was progressive and diverse, with a world-famous university and cultural landmarks, but I thought it painfully boring, as if a thin film of dust perpetually clung to everything and everyone, and that dust was self-perpetuating. More to the point, it was just so damn predictable. In my mind, Hyde Park was the residential equivalent to the sesame seed paste-based candy halva: infused with a cloying sweetness that’s really meant to distract you from its more elemental chalky and unpleasant qualities.1 To be fair, that may well be how everyone feels about their home town. And it was a town, despite being within the Chicago city limits – a remote outpost that everyone in my North side high school thought might as well be below the Mason-Dixon line. So home turf be damned, after feeling the sting of my pen, this ho-hum burg wouldn’t know what hit it.

Casting a withering glance about me (as only a high school freshman can do), I focused on the theme of boredom and monotony, hitting it hard and often. And it was like shooting fish in a barrel. The stuff just wrote and drew itself. I then submitted my strips for the contest and found out a couple of weeks later that I actually garnered an honorable mention, presumably because the judges thought the crude rendering had been executed by a much younger kid. I was told that one of the judges who worked for the Reader, a city-wide free weekly, even suggested I contact them about doing a strip, but I was too lazy and intimidated (a lethal combination of things to be, by the way) to ever contact them. I put the comics away and laid down my pencil. <Sad Trombone, right?>

Now, for posterity, I offer a selection of the original Hyde Park Comix series for their first public appearance in 35 years. Are you listening, Pulitzer Committee? See for yourself why the wait was entirely justified.

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FOOTNOTES

1My brother Michael gave me my first taste of halva around this time, which he criminally oversold as being indescribably delicious and something I had been deprived of until that moment. I can still see it through the glass of the deli counter: huge bricks of various flavors that looked deceptively like fudge. Once I did take a bite, its most distinctive characteristic (what I would learn in adult life, from people in the cold cereal game, is referred to as “mouth feel”) overwhelmed me with revulsion. My mind instantly asked me why I had thought it would be a good idea to eat something like that, responding with the perfectly understandable urge to spit it out as quickly as possible. I’ve tried it since, thinking perhaps my palate had become more discerning and sophisticated, but I stand by my initial assessment. That shit is nasty. Go Back To Reading

2“The Shocking Pink” is my hilarious send-up of the Mellow Yellow restaurant, but at first I couldn’t recall the reference for the impressively named “Carnal Lunge,” until my dear brother Michael reminded me of the Cornell Lounge, a bar at 53rd, east of the IC tracks. Credit is no doubt due to the cartoonist B. Kliban, whose sometimes risque cartoons were a big influence at this point. Note that the visual gag in the final frame is meant to be the sidewalk rolling up. Try not to piss your pants. Go Back To Reading

My Magical Life, Part II

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[It may go without saying, but you probably want to read Part I first.]

UPDATE: I told a version of the following at the Moth. Here’s a video of it:

I never thought to consult anyone for practical advice on preparing for my debut as a magician, not even my experienced friend Phillip. When I had tried out all the bits for my family, everything seemed to go reasonably well. What more did I need to know? After a mental run-through of the act, I felt I was ready. When that Saturday rolled around, I put all my gear into a large cardboard box and my mom dropped me off in the family van.1 The address was a modern highrise apartment building about a block from where I went to school.

I entered the building’s vestibule, pushing the box with my feet, and found the name on the directory bank in the entryway. Considering the corresponding button a moment, suddenly every element of my being was infused with a hot liquid of fear. What the fuck was I thinking? I wasn’t ready for this! Standing up in front of a bunch of kids I didn’t know? Forget it. Maybe I should just abandon the whole plan and walk home? It wasn’t that far. Or maybe I could sit in the courtyard2 until my mom was scheduled to pick me up? But then I considered the possible repercussions. This woman had my phone number. She knew where I lived and went to school. Finally I sucked it up, reached out and pushed the button. A voice came over the intercom and told me I should go to such and such a floor and such and such a number. Startled by the sharp rasp of the interior door buzzer, I pulled it open and began my inexorable slog into an uncertain future.

Terror heightened my senses. In particular, each leg of the journey had a new smell, from the lobby (floor wax) to the elevator (cable grease) to the dim hallway outside the apartment (the musty ghost of a dinner I would never want to eat). I found the number, set down the box, and rang. The muffled sound of gleeful kids came from inside, and a moment later the door opened and a pretty, smiling blond mom welcomed me in. “Thanks so much for coming! I’m so glad you could do this. Everyone is so excited!” Her upbeat vibe eased me a bit. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad? The kids sounded happy and I thought again about the $12 that awaited me in less than an hour.

She led me down a narrow hallway and past a small living room. “They’re just having cake.” As I rounded a corner, I saw about 10 six-year-olds crowded at a table. “The magician’s here!” A couple of the kids seemed enthused, but there was general distracted air that gave me pause. This could prove a tough crowd.

“I thought in here would be good for your show,” she said, gesturing to a small, narrow space between the dining area and the kitchen. Not exactly the ideal performance space, but I made a mental note to consider that in the future. No biggie. “We’ll just take them out to the living room. Let us know when you’re ready.” Another mom helped her herd the kids from the table.

Once they were gone I set the box down and quickly realized the second lapse in my planning: I had no magic table. Uh oh. Second lesson learned. After panicking a moment, I went out to the living room and asked the blond mom if she had a small table I could use. “Oh,” she murmured, beginning to realize the level of professionalism that a $12 magician got her. “Hmm, let’s see.” She looked around. “Give me a second.” I retreated to the performance area and began to unpack.

A moment later she brought me a small steamer-type trunk which she set on one end. It wobbled a bit, but considering the size of the space, I had no other options. As they say, inexperienced kid magicians can’t be choosers. I finished my preparations and told her I was ready.

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I waited in the kitchen while the dining room table was pushed aside and the audience was seated on the floor. Then I strode out and greeted the assembled, launching into the act with the multiplying balls bit, doing my best to stand back far enough that the kids wouldn’t see the half-shells that made the illusion possible (spoiler!). Aside from fidgeting and intermittent chatter from the crowd (“Your foot is touching me!”), it seemed to be going rather well. So I moved on through the magic rings and a display of mentalism. All things considered, I was holding my own.

But the next lesson I was to learn was there’s always that one kid. He puts the lie to what everyone wants to believe about childish wonder. Rather than suspend his disbelief and just fucking enjoy himself, he wants to be the smartest guy in the room, loudly guessing the secret behind every trick. And once that little asshole infects the crowd, it’s Katie bar the door. I struggled through the next couple of gags and took comfort in knowing my show-stopper was at hand. This was the trick that gave me the chutzpah to venture into professional magic in the first place, not just for its zazzle, but for the little twist I added.

I held aloft a silver bowl and showed it was empty, even handing it to the Loud-mouthed Little Shit for inspection. I placed the bowl on the table, passed my hand over it, and – ska-pahyow! – a flash of flame erupted, eliciting a satisfying gasp from the kids. I quickly covered the bowl with its lid, waved my wand, and with a hearty “Ala-ka-whatsit,” I revealed a real live gerbil inside the bowl. Suck on that, you little fuckers! As I had hoped, the combination of fire and a cute animal won the crowd over to me. To applause initiated by the moms, I put the gerbil in small cage and set it aside. Now it was time to bring it all home.

Gerbil-Shutterstock

My final trick was the most involved in terms of effort. I held up a quarter and passed it around through the audience for inspection. Normal quarter, right? I then gave a magic marker to the birthday boy and asked him to make a distinctive mark on the coin. Taking the coin back, I pulled out a handkerchief and draped it over the hand holding the coin, and — oh, shit. One second. Uh, I forgot I need one more thing here. “Ma’am, could I borrow a drinking glass? Yes, I forgot I to bring that. Oh, thank you so much.” I set the glass on the wobbly table, reached inside my coat and produced what looked like plastic ashtrays that were bound with rubber bands. I set the bundle on the table and put the glass on top of it. Holding the handkerchief out to the birthday boy for one last check, I asked, “Do you feel the coin? Is it still in there? Yes?” So I draped the handkerchief completely over the glass and dropped the coin with an evidentiary clink. Another wave of my wand and I whipped the handkerchief off the glass with great flourish.

The arc of the drinking glass as it sailed into the air was directly equivalent to the path of my heart as it leaped into my throat and then plummeted to my shoes. We all watched it, helpless, and when it shattered on the floor, I could only think of how this was the worst thing that had ever happened to anyone ever. The moms gave a shriek and scrambled to protect the kids from any flying shards. Was this part of the act? Get back kids. I’ll get a broom. Everyone OK? As they fussed, I stood there dumbly, my humiliation complete.

After the damage was cleared and the audience reseated, I made a perfunctory rush through the rest of the trick, revealing the coin to be inside a little sealed bag inside a nest of trays within trays within trays. Whoop-dee-fucking-doo. The effect was ruined. Worst of all, there was no follow-up. That’s it, kiddies! Thanks and I’ll see ya! They were ushered back to the living room and I quickly began to pack up, wondering if there was a back door I could slip out. The blond mom returned and thanked me and I again apologized profusely. It was a painfully awkward exchange that concluded when she handed me my fee and escorted me to the front door.

I did a few more parties, applying my lessons learned (including always having a plastic drinking glass as part of my gear), but, if you’ll excuse the expression, the magic was gone. I wasn’t cut out for that racket. There were always the doubters, the wiseasses, the restless. And I had to admit to myself that I just wasn’t that good. In the end, my magical life could be best summed up by a trick I picked up right before I quit, which was one my dad loved. I would hold up a placard that demanded, APPLAUSE PLEASE. Then I would flip it over: THANK YOU. And the final flip: BOTH OF YOU.

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FOOTNOTES

1It was really more of a camper van, with a tiny kitchenette and removable tabletop. My dear mother loved campers. There was something about a home on wheels that really fired her imagination. If she spied one in a parking lot she had to go over and peer in the windows, much to her children’s horror. Considering the amount of kids she may have had to transport at any given time, it made some practical sense, but never so much as when she had an International Harvester wagon, which we dubbed “The Incredible Hulk.” But the one vehicle she seemed to love the most was the closest thing she ever had to a traditional camper, our Toyota Chinook, with its 4-cylander engine and eggshell of a fiberglass frame. The adventures in that beauty deserve their own entry at a later date. Go Back To Reading

2It was in this very courtyard that my brother had seen a free concert by Bonnie Kolac and Aliotta Haynes and Jeremiah some time earlier. He even got autographed pictures of them, which he hung on the wall of the room we shared at our dad’s house. At the time that seemed like an unbelievable brush with fame to me, as I had heard “Lake Shore Drive” on the radio. And yet there you sit, never having heard of any of those performers before. Time’s a revelator. Go Back To Reading

My Magical Life, Part I

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They aren’t required to register like sex offenders. In fact, you pass them on the street every day and never know it. Some hold public office and others may be beloved celebrities. You may well even be related to one. After all, once reformed, there is nothing specific to set them apart, no tattoo or scar. It’s just something they did. Shit happens. I know, because I myself was once a magician.

It was the sixth grade and my friend Phillip McCane was about the coolest kid I knew – handsome, self-assured, and accomplished.1 To top it off he was already making money as a magician. He even had business cards printed with his stage name, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” So when he pulled out a mail order magic catalog one morning at school, I eagerly pushed aside my self-guided work on pie-shape fractions (Thank you, Maria Montessori!) and began to devour the pages. comictricks2resize-500x794 Now, I had long coveted the chazerie I saw on the back covers of Marvel comic books and hawked on WGN Channel 9 by TV Magic’s Marshall Brodien2, but the stuff in this catalog was on a whole other level. Sure, there were some simple novelty gags: disappearing ink and the old cup and ball trick. But as I flipped through I discovered wands that made flowers bloom, canes that vanished in a cloud of silk scarves, and a golden chalice that would miraculously fill with liquid of any color in the rainbow, over and over again. There were even full-sized stage rigs involving levitation, multiplication, and death-defying escape. Aside from these breathlessly described offerings, there was a a host of magical accoutrement – flash paper, “life-like” fake thumb tips, paper flowers, and magic books. I wanted it all. And why not? The descriptions promised easy-to-follow instructions and instant success. Within minutes I would be conjuring like Houdini. I quivered with anticipation of my future fame.

I placed an order under Phillip’s guidance as soon as I could. I’d start simple with some close-up illusions (if I was going to do this right I would need to use the correct terminology, as every serious magician knows that “tricks” are for whores and Halloween). He put me down for some multiplying balls, the Miracle Coin, and the old standby, interlocking silver rings. Once they arrived I set to work, only to make a bitter realization: “instant success,” my ass, this crap was hard! I lacked dexterity, I lacked finesse. I had no patter. There was clearly a long road ahead. Normally this would be enough for me to dump everything on the floor and head directly to the nearest TV for succor. But instead, perhaps for the first time in my life, I applied myself with some seriousness.3

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It wasn’t long before I was obsessive about the whole thing.4 I dug out a magic set I had ignored from a previous birthday (no doubt in favor of some less demanding superhero action figures) and mined what I felt was the most impressive material. I also began to bone up on the master practitioners, learning that Houdini got his name from the great 19th Century French conjurer, Robert Houdin, and that early magic practice had religious roots with Hindu fakirs. You know, shit no one else my age cared about. Hell, it should have been a red flag that one of the top names in the business at the time was the bucktoothed and bedazzled Doug Henning, who touted his show as a metaphor for Transcendentalism. Oy vey. doug_henning But let’s remember that at the heart of it all was the allure of being amazing. What could be more interesting than someone who could do something you couldn’t explain? My father and mother were both remarkably encouraging, no doubt delighted that I showed interest in something that didn’t involve a cathode ray tube. So they indulged me. My mother schlepped me all the way to the source of one of the best catalogs, a stock-crowded storefront on Chicago’s north side called Magic, Inc. Closer to home was the terrific magic counter at Marshall Field’s.5 I can still picture the poor bastard who manned it: heavyset and dour, his thinning hair heavily Brylcreemed above a sweaty face that sat behind thick horn-rimmed glasses. He clearly hated kids and was constantly admonishing some brat to not touch the merchandise. But he lit up when demonstrating the wares for even the smallest crowd. Looking back, I imagine he was someone who never made the big time, so rather than subject himself to the kid’s party circuit, he fell back on the steady work that Field’s provided him. In other words, I was blissfully unaware that I was looking at what could well have been my future if I continued down this path.

Resolute, my short-term goal was clear: like Phillip, I wanted to turn magic into cash. After making some additional acquisitions and putting in a bit more practice, I figured I had a solid 20 minutes of material. I could pad that with some patter and audience interaction and – abra-ca-fucking-dabra – I was good to go. My act well in hand, I needed a professional name. “The Magician” was definitive, but seemed a little obvious. So I landed on the very next thing that came to my head, “The Wizard.” I felt it had a whiff of the exotic. Taking another cue from Philip, I  had it printed on business cards and then worked up a flyer that I hung in the front hall of my school. It was now just a matter of time.

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Note the hand-corrected typo in the address.

A few weeks later someone called our house asking for me. It was a mother who had been referred by the already engaged Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Was I available for her son’s birthday party the following week? Oh, yes? We worked out the terms and I wrote down the details. Hanging up the phone my head almost exploded with the realization that I was going pro.

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FOOTNOTES

1Phillip was also the driving force behind what may well have been the only gang to roam the halls of Ancona Montessori: the Falcons. An homage to Fonzi’s eponymous gang on Happy Days, it consisted of Phillip, myself, Paul Farachi, Alex Gordon, and Herman Torry. While a short-lived endeavor, we lasted long enough to compose a self-laudatory poem that we recited during share time with the rest of the grouped fifth and sixth grade classes. I can still remember the lines, “The Falcons are cool./The Falcons are great./When we got to a party/We are very rarely late.” We may have been streetwise, tough and exclusionary, but that didn’t mean we didn’t have some semblance of manners. Membership was dissolved when parents of other kids complained. Go Back To Reading

sv0f6gv63ml4c4nd5ewlvc7f5livzi2Marshall Brodien loomed large in my childhood, not only as a nimble-fingered pitchman, but as Wizzo the Wizard on Bozo’s Circus, a role that relegated him to that most loathed segment of the population for me: clowns. But we will tackle that topic anon. Go Back To Reading

3Years earlier I had already given up the piano after not mastering it in the first lesson and had similar success with the study of ballet. That didn’t keep me from feeling it was unfair that I was left out of my siblings’ subsequent dance recital, which should give you some idea of how fucked up my conception of how life works is. Go Back To Reading

4As was the case with secret girl crushes a couple of years later. And then record collecting a couple of years after that. And now with my mortgage. Go Back To Reading

5This was back when there was almost an entire floor devoted to toys at Field’s. Among the wonders on display was an alcove of Steiff animals of all species and size, a robust offering of Corgi die cast cars, and a vast scale model landscape navigated by a mind-blowing electric train. If provided access to a time machine today, that floor would be my first stop. No fucking question. Go Back To Reading

Special thanks to Paul Farachi, Pamela Monk and Gabriel Sheridan for being fact-checking cuzes.

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