Saturday, December 10, 2005

Now Is the Time

Each morning Jimmie Heuga turns the cold water on to remind himself. Don’t give up on yourself Jimmie! After waking up at 5:30, he takes a normal warm shower and then he makes it as cold as possible. He hasn’t missed a day in over thirty years. Sure, it helps his vision and speech and coordination and strength. But that’s not the primary reason he does it now. It sets the tone, a good slap in the face, a reminder, for how he must approach each day: bring it on!

An aide helps him in and out of the shower, on and off the toilet, to get dressed, and into his wheelchair. This is his life now inside an assisted living facility he calls “prison” or “big house.” And even though he can’t walk, he still exercises daily and looks forward to alpine skiing, waterskiing, and swimming. And although he can’t grip a pen well enough to write a letter or type an e-mail, he uses his voice-activated computer to correspond with friends he has made through his life, which he says he wouldn’t trade with anyone.

Born Sept. 22, 1943 in San Francisco, Jimmie moved with his parents, Pascal and Lucile, to Tahoe, Calif., before he turned 2, the age at which he began skiing. Jimmie drew inspiration from Pascal’s friends, many of them world-class skiers such as Frenchman Emile Allais, who Jimmie met at age 6. People were drawn to Pascal’s outgoing personality.

Jimmie followed in similar footsteps as Pascal. “My father remains my idol,” Jimmie says. “He’s just very inspiring. There’s a spark in his eyes.” Pascal, of French Basque descent, had a fifth-grade education, but spoke five languages. Jimmie missed school as well, spending his days on the ski slopes instead. His parents supported his hooky habit, even Lucile, a reserved woman who graduated from UCLA and took care of many family responsibilities. He’d often go to home room in the morning and then she’d pick him up and drive him to Squaw Valley, where Pascal ran the lifts. Jimmie skied all day. They weren’t concerned. Jimmie read a lot – Mark Twain and Somerset Maugham, among others – and always had good grades despite his awful attendance record.

It was a happy family. Pascal enjoyed the outdoors and travel, and Jimmie loved to go with him hunting, fishing, camping and skiing. Pascal ran the chairlifts for 35 years at Squaw Valley. Lucile was a housemother. Pascal introduced her to skiing, and she caught the Heuga ski bug. She skied until she died at age 89.

Jimmie, the younger of his parents two sons, was very competitive. That competitive flame burned brighter from skiing with Allais and the other world-class skiers, such as Bill Beck, Tom Corcoran, Brooks Dodge and Chick Igaya. Jimmie not only had fun, but learned to appreciate each day. One time at ski camp, University of Denver ski coach Willy Schaeffler taught Jimmie a lesson that he applies to any circumstance he has faced since then. Schaeffler said that he could take any day and turn it into a good day. For example, if it’s overcast and bad weather, it’s the same for his opponents.

“My life has just been paradise,” Jimmie says. “I had so many inspiring people.”

His childhood, although happy, was not the norm. At age 8, Pascal taught him to drive a car. That same year Jimmie appeared in segments of a Warren Miller video. At age 15, he earned a spot on the national team, where he enjoyed driving his sleeping teammates to various races despite having no license. The following year he barely missed qualifying for the Olympic team. “He was just a phenomenal story,” says longtime friend Billy Kidd. “He was like a Tiger Woods at that time, being so much better than any other junior competitor. In other words, it wasn’t even close. He was just so good.”

Jimmie didn’t dwell on his accomplishments. Then again, he didn’t have the time. The summer before he qualified for the national team, he did hard manual labor in a construction job for his father. When he got off work.... he ran. He had no off-season.

At 5'6", 115 pounds, Jimmie was fearless on any pair of skis. Socially, he was shy, in particular around girls. He never had a girlfriend in high school. Jimmie had three sets of friends: his school friends; his ski friends; and his summer friends. Because he skipped school he didn’t have many school friends. His ski friends didn’t have anything in common with him other than skiing due to the big age gap. He liked hanging out with his summer friends, who came from much wealthier families.

Jimmie grew up in a modest three-bedroom, two-bathroom home a block from Lake Tahoe. Pascal organized large barbeques with his wealthy neighbors, who lived in the Los Angeles or San Francisco area and had summer homes on Lake Tahoe. Jimmie took after his father, enjoying the company of his rich friends, who were impressed by his superior athletic ability. He learned how to waterski on a single ski ten days after first trying. Soon he out-skied all his friends. He had a great time. They’d waterski and hunt for porcupines. Ever see fireworks in a boat on the Fourth? Jimmie did.

His wealthy surroundings never seeped down to his humble roots. After high school, he decided to ski for coach Bob Beattie at Colorado University. That summer, however, he did odd jobs – pouring septic tanks and driveways, and building rock walls.

On the East coast, a skier the same age as Jimmie had also chosen to ski for Colorado. And even though Billy Kidd grew up three-thousand miles apart from Jimmie, he had a similar childhood. Billy was born in Burlington, Vt. His father moved the family to Stowe, Vt., when Billy was 12 and showed promise as a racer. Billy, like Jimmie, loved waterskiing, in the summer on Lake Champlain. His father, a local motel owner, introduced him to skiing at age 5. Like Jimmie, he immediately fell in love with it: pushing himself down his backyard hill that was so flat he stopped when he turned; making a ski rack for his bike and wrapping rope around the wheels so he could ride it through the snow; going off the University of Vermont ski jump; and always having so much fun on skis that he failed to notice it was dark outside.

At Stowe, Billy skied with Olympic champions just as Jimmie had in Squaw Valley, sometimes with the same skiers, such as Olympic silver-medalist Chick Igaya. Both ski areas were well-supported and funded for young ski stars. Billy and his classmates got out of school early two days each week to ski at Stowe. The kids didn’t get much instruction. They learned by watching and imitating; skiing down the mountain behind Olympic champions.

Billy and Jimmie both idolized Buddy Werner. He was the one American who beat the top European skiers and earned respect home and abroad with his quiet, self-assured personality. Werner had skied at Colorado University, not a small factor in Jimmie’s and Billy’s decisions to attend college in Boulder. Either was Bob Beattie, the CU ski coach, who had won a pair of national titles. Jimmie lived with Beattie off and on throughout college as did other CU skiers. It was a close group.

In fall of 1961 the U.S. Ski Association named Beattie the national team’s first full-time head coach. Most of the team was college skiers who took the winter semester off and bonded overseas with the European skiers. “When Jimmie and I were first on the team, the first year we went to Europe for the 1962 World Championships, they literally had enough money to send us over, and said if you got good results, we can bring you home,” Billy says. “I don’t think that those experiences could have been any better for us. We were a tightknit team. We were confident. We had great times over there. We strengthened friendships and had experiences that even without medals, came back with great memories.”

In 1958, Billy had walked through Idlewild Airport (later JFK Airport) in New York on his way to the National Junior Championships in Winter Park, Colo. Someone noticed him carrying his wooden skis on his shoulder and said, “I know skiing, how high do you jump?” That person, like many Americans at the time, had no idea about alpine ski racing. Americans didn’t own televisions and many associated skiing with jumping, not racing down a mountain.

American skiers had a lot to prove. Billy spent his 1963 Christmas vacation on the slopes at St. Anton in Austria. One day after skiing, he drank tea while chatting with the Austrian ski school director, who asked him how he thought he would do in the upcoming Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. Billy said that he thought if he skied well he could win a medal. The old ski instructor laughed and told Billy that it was a foolish belief. For he knew the Americans’ ski history.... Billy used it as motivation.

As the 1964 Olympics approached, one fact told the tale of American male skiers: they had never won an Olympic medal. Not even Buddy Werner. That fact did not stop Beattie from arguing on behalf of his skiers for higher pre-race seedings. The night before many top races, such as the Olympics, seeding positions were given to each racer. Beattie sometimes argued for more than two hours with the Europeans. “It was a battle all the time,” he says. “I just kept talking until they did something.”

His arguments for his skiers seemed futile after a U.S. let down in the downhill and giant slalom. He had boasted to the media and now his only chance was the slalom. “We’re at the junction,” reporter Dan Jenkins heard Beattie tell his skiers the night before the men’s slalom. “If we don’t get a medal tomorrow we’re all failures and I’m the biggest. But I’ll tell you something. We’re going to get a medal because you guys are the best slalom skiers in the world.”

Chuck Ferries, the U.S. slalom champion and first American that final day, fell on his first run down the steep and icy course, causing greater concern for Beattie. Billy, on the other hand, felt much more poised than he did at the start of the Olympics....

Disgust shouldn’t be one’s initial reaction for winning your country’s first medal in men’s alpine skiing. However, Billy felt that way after crossing the finish line on his second run and seeing he had missed the gold by .14 of a second to Austria’s Pepi Stiegler. Then he thought, there still is Jimmie, who had the third fastest time in the first run.

Thirty seconds before his final slalom run and the last chance for an American medal, Jimmie looked over and saw some female Colorado students with a banner that read: “Go CU.” He was so pumped up he needed to let off some steam and started talking to the girls, “Oh, you’re from CU....”

“Jesus, Heuga! Get focused,” said Beattie, standing near the starter’s gate. Jimmie, with no hat or goggles, raced down the choppy and icy course... and finished third. Two medals for the American men! Jimmie, like Billy, had the same initial reaction and slammed down his glove. Then things came into perspective. Werner sprinted to hug Jimmie. Beattie rushed down the mountain and joined them and their teammates in a warm embrace. “In a lot of ways it put ski racing on the map,” Beattie says. “It gave us tremendous respect in Europe, but also here at home.”

Jimmie roomed with Werner at the Innsbruck Olympics. After Jimmie won the bronze, he felt uncomfortable going back to his room that night. He wanted to give Werner his medal; he thought Buddy had deserved it. Quick flashback. When Jimmie was 11, in 1955, he had a big race at Sun Valley in Idaho. His father couldn’t go with him because he had a hernia, so Jimmie drove over 500 miles there, and then back after a week of skiing. Early that week he met Werner, then age 19, who invited him to ski with him. They skied together all week even though socially they had nothing else in common. Still, skiing with his idol left an indelible mark on Jimmie’s conscience.

The 1964 medals had a greater effect on Billy and Jimmie than they realized at the time. Although teammates, they were by no means close friends. Competing against one another and other skiers had consumed them. “What really forced us to begin getting along was winning that medal,” says Jimmie, who won the Arlberg-Kandahar combined a week later in Garmisch, Germany, beating all the Olympic stars in one of the biggest races of the year, and the first American to do so. “Because suddenly, here, the guy from the East and the West share something in common that no male skier for the United States had ever done before.”

That same year of the Olympics, Werner died in an avalanche. Suddenly a pair of 20-year-old skiers, Billy and Jimmie, were thrust into the spotlight, whereas the media had usually sought quotes from Werner. The media attention changed the sport in America, not the skiers. Before the Olympics, Jimmie had his goals written down and where there should have been an Olympic medal written, it was blank. He knew he was one of the best, however, he all but denied the medal before and after he won it. His mind was on competition.

That commitment, and impressive results at big races like the ‘64 Olympics, helped pave the way for the World Cup, a series of races worldwide based on a point system which Beattie and French journalist Serge Lang founded in 1967. With it came American television exposure and a more popular and better funded national ski racing program, as well as the best international competition on U.S. mountains. New ski resorts were built and programs such as NASTAR began spreading to many of them. Just as skiing enthusiasm had arrived for the U.S. men’s alpine team, in large part due to the ‘64 Olympic medals, its popularity grew in America.

He was a skier, so naturally it happened here, on a mountain. The year is 1967 and Jimmie is walking up the race course at Alpine Meadows, Calif. Racers always hiked up the course before a race in order to see where each gate was positioned. Jimmie looked at a gate. Then he looked down the mountain to gauge the turn he’d have to make and commit to memory. He closed his right eye and looked down the mountain with his left eye. Everything was blurry. He did the opposite, closing his left and looking with his right. Everything was fine. His vision was blurry. He asked his assistant coach Gordie Eaton if he should go see an eye doctor. Eaton shrugged, sure.

Jimmie saw an eye doctor. Nothing seemed wrong. But things just weren’t right. Sure Jimmie had finished third in the giant slalom at the World Cup that year, but he noticed something odd. The team would run sprints and he wouldn’t try to win. His competitive flame wasn’t burning bright. That wasn’t Jimmie Heuga....

No worry, he thought, I’m still having fun skiing. Still, his coordination, his vision, his flexibility, his sensitivity, and his strength sometimes deceived him. After a bitter cold day racing in Austria, he took a hot bath. When he got out, he felt pins and needles and almost a numbness from his waist down. He thought he burned himself in the hot water.... He searched for an answer, seeking various medical specialists, but never brooded over it.

A year earlier at the World Cup, he had straddled a slalom gate, flipped, and landed on his head and back, breaking his vertebrae. His mind told him to ignore it. A week later he raced in Kitzbuhel.

But the strange symptoms didn’t disappear. They’d come and go. Finally, in 1970, he received a diagnosis from a neuro-ophthalmologist... Jimmie had multiple sclerosis. Multiple sclerosis, or MS, has no known cause or cure. In the United States, about one in a thousand people has MS, according to researchers. Those afflicted, like Jimmie, have a loss of myelin, which acts as a protective cover for the body’s nerve fibers. This affects nerve signals from the brain and damages the central nervous system causing a variety of symptoms, such as numbness, blurry vision, loss of bladder control, and trouble walking. The symptoms come and go and progress differently for each person. “I thought I was impervious,” Jimmie says of his diagnosis. “The day before I ran five miles in just under twenty-five minutes. I was in really good shape. I thought, so what, I can take on anything.”

Jimmie, however, quit ski racing because of his MS symptoms and joined the U.S. Ski Team coaching staff out of its Denver office. By 1975 he had worked for a ski equipment manufacturer in San Francisco and then his job brought him to Connecticut, where he lived by himself.

In a Jan. 2, 1975 article, Jimmie told the AP: “I’m in good condition. I’m sure that has a lot to do with the shape I’m in. I’m not exactly sure, myself, about the nature of MS, but I do know it’s not going to stop me.” That was the first time he went public about having MS. He had told his parents and best friend and ex-wife, but never discussed it with anyone at length.

The common belief in the medical community was that exercise worsened a person’s MS symptoms. That’s the thing about it, it’s so easy, Jimmie thought, I’m just following my doctor’s orders. He exercised less and less. He felt worse and worse. By that spring, he had stopped exercising and sat in his room and looked out his window with angst as he saw joggers and people playing. His pulse had sped up. He had done so little he could hear the tapping of the blood in his ear against his pillow.

One day sitting alone in that room he discovered a quote by philosopher Blaise Pascal: “Man’s greatest obstacle is to learn to sit quietly in his room.” After reading it, he pondered it and thought, “Are you going to give in to the sort of insidious allure of the room, to be swept up by the confines of its walls, or are you going to break out and get back into life?”

There were two voices talking to him: one by the medical community and one by Pascal. The medical community sat on one shoulder giving him a reason, a warning, an excuse to sit around and take it easy. Pascal sat on his other shoulder telling him to ignore the medical community, go exercise, get in shape, break free, Jimmie, don’t forget your health.

He went outside and rode his bike for 45 minutes. He fell three times. His coordination hadn’t completely returned. When he finished, he felt wiped out... but he also felt good. He smiled. His confidence returned. He felt much better than when he had sat alone in his room. He continued to fall and he continued to get back on his bike. Multiple sclerosis wasn’t the problem... it was the loss of self-esteem.

For the next several years Jimmie continued to exercise, continued to relearn how to bike and run and swim, but he didn’t tell anyone for fear of their response. His heart rate dropped; his self-esteem increased.

By 1980 Jimmie had clearly distinguished the difference between chronic condition and sickness. MS didn’t mean he wasn’t healthy... it didn’t mean he couldn’t exercise... No! Those doctors have it all wrong! His anger grew, but he didn’t dwell on it.

In 1979 the National Medical Society had a conference in Denver and invited Jimmie to speak. They wanted to hear his controversial views. Before the speech, the organizers invited him to a charity bicycle race for MS. Jimmie wanted to race. They told him to sit with the dozen or so other people with MS, who sat watching in disbelief. Jimmie grabbed a bike and raced. That night he spoke to that group:

You’re letting yourself dream of what you can’t do – you can’t do this, you can’t do this. But there’s a lot you can do. We can’t do anything about the medicine. We don’t know the cause or cure. But we can do a lot of things to recapture our health. Everyone’s got constraints on certain things. I’m not as good a skier as I used to be. But who’s as good as they were. You reach your peak and you’re off that peak. And so you reach your peak momentarily and then, boom, you’re off it. So you’re off it and you’re never going to be as good as you were. But you can still maintain your health given the constraints that you’re dealing with, whatever those constraints may be.

That’s how he remembers the gist of his speech. They were embarrassed; they were angry. They thought their MS was much worse than his. Jimmie told them not to compare their lives with others. Everyone has their own situation. It’s how you deal with it that determines your life. Not MS.

By 1980, a decade after his diagnosis, doctors still advised him to wait for a cure, take it easy. Jimmie didn’t buy it. Warren Miller, a friend of Jimmie’s, filmed him riding his bike and swimming and exercising and feeling good. Jimmie showed the film to a neurologist. Same response: exercise is not good, take it easy. All of the National Medical Society board members disagreed with Jimmie. Well, not all. One member, Marvin Davis, agreed with him and convinced the other members that Jimmie should talk to other MS chapters nationwide. So Jimmie traveled to about seventy MS chapters across the country in the next three and a half years, playing the Miller film of him exercising and trying to convince stunned listeners why they should do the same. Many listeners became angry or simply were in denial. Don’t tell me I can exercise when my disease is worse than yours, they’d say. The response didn’t surprise Jimmie, whose goal was to get three percent of them to begin exercising.

It took an athlete, not a neurologist or scientist or medical researcher, to change the belief about a person’s lifestyle with MS. Jimmie changed the medical community’s thinking about the disease. That change occurred through the Jimmie Heuga Center, which was primarily funded through the Jimmie Heuga Express.

In 1984 a Vail ski instructor and friend of Jimmie’s thought of the idea behind the Heuga Express: take a group of skiers and record their total vertical footage skied in one day and raise money for it. It began in Las Vegas of all places. Jimmie and other Olympic skiers he had befriended over the years, such as Kidd, went to a big ski show in Las Vegas, going booth to booth and raising over $300,000. Next came the mountain: Mt. Alyeska. Miller filmed the record-breaking event in Alaska, more than a million vertical feet in sixteen hours of overcast spring skiing. Miller helped spread the word, showing his Alaska footage to groups of skiers and challenging them to beat the million vertical feet. It caught on with various events at ski areas nationwide and the championship in Vail, Colo. Each team had to be coed, and have three people due to the size of most chairlifts then in Vail, and pay or raise $1,000.

At a charity event in Vail, former Olympic gold-medalist and Jimmie’s close friend Jean-Claude Killy introduced him to former first lady Betty Ford. Jimmie explained to her the mission and goals of his nonprofit scientific research organization that provides specialized educational and fitness programs for people with MS. She decided she wanted to support Jimmie’s Center, located in nearby Edwards, Colo. The Gerald Ford Celebrity Event, which became the American Ski Classic, had a dramatic influence in initial fund-raising for the Center.

Billy joined Killy in writing letters to garner support for the Heuga Center. “Billy has been so helpful and positive about anything to do with me and the Center, to this very day,” Jimmie says. “He’ll drive over and get involved in anything that has to do with the Center.”

Life was good. More people and organizations started participating and donating toward Jimmie’s Center and word spread. Neurologists and MS specialists joined in, adding more credibility. Even in the mist of tragedy good things evolved. Jimmie’s 11-year-old Godson died skiing out of bounds in 1986. At the funeral, Jimmie delivered the eulogy. Remember, by that time, he had a lot of experience speaking in front of large groups. He knew how to captivate an audience. And he spoke about “The Velveteen Rabbit,” a children’s book he had read the night before. There is a character in that book that reminds me of my Godson, he said. The Skin Horse had bald spots on his coat and was ragged looking. And the reason, Jimmie said, was because he had been worn away with love, and that is what my Godson did to you, he wore you away with love.

One of the people touched by Jimmie’s eulogy was Debbie Dana, who knew the boy’s parents. Three years prior she had an infection in her heart and had brain surgery and nearly died. “I did die and I was brought back,” says Debbie. “And God sent me back and.... I met God twice and then I go to this funeral service and I hear this man talk about a child that wears you away with love. And I said that man understands more about life ... than most people.”

That night she and Jimmie fell in love, and six weeks later they were married. He asked her to marry him on a flight to Sun Valley. When they landed, they hurried the arrangements and got married. Right after, she says, they had a party, and that’s when she found out about his skiing legacy. They both enjoyed their new and exciting life together, living close to the Heuga Center. And traveling around the country to ski resorts and fancy dinners and charity events and giving speeches and gaining lots of media attention and believers in the Heuga Center. Not to mention a family of their own. They had three sons. They both enjoyed life on the move. By the early 1990s, the medical community supported Jimmie’s belief of exercise benefitting people with MS. Today it is scientifically proven and common knowledge that exercise has a significant, positive effect on people with MS.

Things began to change for Jimmie in the 1990s. His Center and personal image and popularity remained strong throughout the decade, but his MS took its toll on him and his family. There were evenings when Debbie would tell Jimmie to dress for a black-tie dinner. I can’t Debbie, he’d say, I’m so wiped out. Sometimes his cold shower barely helped him make it through the day.

About ten years ago Jimmie waited on an airplane in Denver, delayed on the tarmac for an hour and a half. He had flown alone. The pilot had to wait for a gate to open and the plane was hot. Heat is bad for MS. Jimmie became exhausted and had to be wheeled off the plane as he thought, my world is getting smaller and smaller each day. A few months later he used a wheelchair, which he has needed ever since.

Then came the catheter, a tube doctors inserted from his stomach to his penis. He carried it like a sandwich bag. But life with it was no picnic. He’d have an infection and go to the hospital, like he did the time he rode on an inner-tube with his oldest son at Lake Powell, only to have his catheter bag fill up with blood. Jimmie never heard Debbie say a word about the expensive hospital bills. Sure, a dozen times or so he was in and out, but there were three or four times he stayed longer. It took its toll on Debbie. She worked. Jimmie became more physically dependent on her. Her three children were a handful as well. In June 1999, Jimmie moved a few hours away to an assisted living facility, the Balfour Retirement Community in Louisville, Colo., near Boulder and Denver. It was a decision that Debbie says she agonized over, talking with friends and ministers and psychiatrists.

The morning Jimmie left Edwards to move to the Balfour, his oldest son, Wilder, who was 10, crawled into bed and held his father’s hand. Neither father nor son said a word. “I probably should’ve but I.... I really thought I would be back, that I would be back....” Since then he’s only been back as a visitor. Jimmie and Debbie divorced a couple of years later. Leaving his children, he says, has been the hardest thing he has faced. It is the one issue, after talking for hours and hours about his life, that he becomes noticeably choked up about. He says his boys' response to him is different now and that they’ve come to grips that he can’t parent them, something he “still agonizes over.”

“I have my physical condition to deal with, which is really restricting,” he says. “Physically, I have a driver’s license. People go, Jimmie, I don’t think you should be driving. And I know my limitations. More than that, I wouldn’t trust myself going to Boulder. So how can I break out and physically go out and earn a living? I’m in a vacuum here.... and I want to break out and go take care of my children – let’s go rafting or let’s go bowling or let’s go to Lake Powell....”

And yet even in his “vacuum” there are no guarantees. The Heuga Center pays Jimmie for the rights to use his name, a five-year contract that has been renewed several times. It helps pay for his room at the Balfour, which is so expensive, virtually all of his savings and retirement money have been spent on it.

He worries. He doesn’t complain. He is still his father’s boy. (A few years ago Jimmie visited Pascal, who at age 95, greeted his son by doing pushups.) Jimmie says he relates to former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden’s philosophy on adversity: don’t lie; don’t complain; don’t make excuses.

Jimmie focuses on the positive, on the joy of skiing again after a hiatus in the ‘90s when he couldn’t stand the thought of skiing with the assistance of another skier or device. Billy Kidd’s persistent persuasion and encouragement finally convinced Jimmie to give it a try. At Billy’s Steamboat office he shows a visitor a video of Jimmie skiing down a course on a bi-ski soon after he began skiing again. “You start on a beginner trail to get the feeling of it,” Billy says as he watches the video. “But then to get up on something steep like that is difficult. Then to go around gates when he says turn here is extremely difficult. So he was really doing well, surprisingly well.”

Jimmie put three pictures of himself skiing with his bi-ski, or sit-ski, last winter at Alpine Meadows in a column on his wall near his bed. On the slopes he sits down on a seat with skis. He doesn’t use outriggers or small balancing skis. Instead, he uses his arms to balance as a skier holds a pair of ropes behind him for speed control. Looking on his wall at the middle picture, last autumn, he said, “I see a lot in that picture that just really turns me on and gets me excited about this coming year.... And so for the first time I skied down some black-diamond runs. That slope is part of a course. I’m going from one gate to the next gate....”

A while later he looks at the photo near his bed of him as a 9 year old skiing at Tahoe. “Today’s skis are just so far advanced,” he says. “Look at how my knees are so bent. I should be putting more pressure on my edge. Today’s skiers at that age are skiing much better. I look at my kids and they’re doing more than I did, yet it’s all relative. They’re all better skiers than I was. What’s too bad is that I couldn’t help them because I could have made them better skiers. But at least I could stand on the sidelines.”

Jimmie named Billy Kidd the Godfather to his third and youngest son, Winston. Billy’s middle name is Winston. Billy has been ski director at Steamboat Resort since 1970, as well as a television commentator, skiing writer and author, and has skied all over the world, including Antarctica. Their lives have taken different paths but they both say they are better friends now and see each other about once every two weeks. “I think that we probably became better friends and got closer over the years because of perspective,” says Billy, wearing his trademark cowboy hat at his Steamboat office. “In other words, we’re getting older, we can look back and see how something that happened was not just a funny story but it had significance on how it affected our lives ... it’s really easy to get discouraged. Things go wrong. Everybody’s life doesn’t always go right. And even for Paris Hilton it seems that once in a while she chooses the wrong dress and oh, what a catastrophe. With Jimmie, he keeps a very good perspective on what’s important and anybody that can meet him will be positively affected by him.”

Maybe what inevitably links Billy and Jimmie is not their similar love for skiing or storied past. Maybe it’s their appreciation of life. For if you ask either one, they’ll tell you they wouldn’t trade it with anyone else. And not even a cure for MS would change a thing. “Let’s say research came out and they came up with the cure for MS,” Jimmie says. “What does that mean? How would that change my life? The cure to MS doesn’t mean that suddenly the quality of my life is better. I have to maintain the quality of my life. Whether I have MS or not, I have to solve that issue. So in that sense, a cure doesn’t mean a thing.”

Jimmie is excited about the bike he started pedaling daily in July, not with his feet, with his hands. His velcro straps keep his hands in place in order to pedal his stationary bike that sits between his bed and computer desk. He can only ride it outside when someone rides with him. Stopping and starting on hills are a problem by himself. He is also at the mercy of someone else taking him skiing or waterskiing or swimming – all part of his activity list. And he acknowledges his improvement, his increased arm strength and lower heart rate.

Before MS, Jimmie never had the time or the mind-set to reflect on his life and its pleasures. Now he is happy with a simple frog-kick and flex of his buttocks in the swimming pool. Everything is so much more meaningful now. He still doesn’t compare or judge himself with others. He finds fulfillment in his accomplishments, an approach to life he says is vital for anyone.

“I’ve been dealing with this for thirty-seven years every day of the week,” Jimmy says. “And every day I have to slap my face and say, ‘Don’t give up on yourself.’ And you don’t ever have the answer. You have to really tell yourself, ‘All right asshole, get in there.’ Because I’ve had good times. I’ve had bad times. And yet I wouldn’t trade those times for today. I just have to put the past behind me. All the good times and the bad times and just live for today because here I am looking at the rest of my life.”

A life that has grown smaller, inching him into the confines of a room. But remember, he was sitting in a room when he discovered the Blaise Pascal quote.

“What’s an inch when you’re able to use the world?” he says. “But in time it comes in. And after 30 years it comes in from the top and bottom and sides ... and then all of a sudden it’s inched me into this room. And the whole issue is, this is your life Jimmie, what are you going to do about it? Sit around here and piss and moan? Or are you going to get on with your life? And here I am, 62, and I’m looking at the rest of my life. What am I going to do? Am I going to go, ‘God dammit, why me? Why me? Life has dealt me a freaking hand.’ Or am I going to go, ‘Hey, I got this bike here and I can get some things going. I can go swimming and waterskiing. I’m swimming tomorrow and I waterskiied yesterday and Jesus, I’m psyched.’”

Saturday, December 3, 2005

From the City to the Suburbs and Back

My family and friends often ask, “What do you do all day?” or “What did you do today?” Given that it is a very open-ended question I usually give them a summary of what I did or if it’s a weekend I’ll usually give them the edited version. They don’t seem to understand how I can be busy without a job. If I have a job then the question becomes, “What having you been doing when you get off of work?” or “Anything interesting or new in your world?” To which I’ll probably give them a similar answer to the first set of questions.

The truth is, I am busy, if not physically then certainly mentally. I always have something on my mind, just my nature, although I don’t always let someone know. Nevertheless, here was how I spent the first Monday after Thanksgiving with no job.

I woke up and ate and wrote spontaneously in a notebook until three pages were filled. It is an exercise I have been doing every morning to clear my mind and practice writing more creatively. The idea came from the bestseller The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Reading and writing, as Stephen King said in his memoir On Writing are the two most important things a writer can do. I believe him. But exploring your surroundings and meeting new and interesting people can be equally important. I’ve been trying to do all three, which in a nutshell explains why I’m busy without a job.

I had planned to see an author I admire and who I had recently read one of his books titled There Are No Children Here. His name is Alex Kotlowitz, a long-time Chicagoan, who was to give a speech that night at the public library in Des Plaines, a northwestern suburb of the city. I had already scheduled to use Hertz to drive to Des Plaines. I wanted to see if I could find a better deal with Enterprise. Because my cell phone had recently broken, I couldn’t call. So I walked down State Street to the Enterprise dealership. A stout man with dark, thinning hair told me the price. I said sure. It was twenty dollars cheaper. I walked back to Hertz, a few blocks away on Clark Street, and canceled my reservation.

The Red Line was next. I took it to the Fullerton stop and with my black gym back I had slung over my shoulder, walked to the Lakeshore Athletic Club. I lifted weights and used the Stairmaster for almost two hours.

On the way back home I ran into a familiar homeless man outside of Walgreens on Division Street. Virtually every day he is on that corner. We’ve been trying to arrange a time to have lunch together. Sometimes it rains or it gets too cold and he takes shelter at a friend’s house. I run into many homeless or people asking for spare change, usually black men, and I turn them down. The reason I like this man was because he reminded me a little bit of Eddie Murphy, complimenting girls on their appearances and always jovial with strangers, but never in a way that seemed force. He was genuine as far as I could tell. The other thing I noticed, besides the fact he would be at the corner each day, sometimes hours and hours with the relentless Chicago wind, was that he was in a wheelchair. And he had no feet. I didn’t know anything about the man, except that he was a friendly guy with no feet and no home. I’ll talk about him at a later time. On that day he told me he hadn’t eaten all morning and asked me for some money. It was the first time he had asked me for money.

“How much do you need?” I asked.

“Whatever you can spare,” he said.

I gave him a five.

“Thanks my man. Now we can eat. Now we’re going to eat lunch with this.”

He said it as if he was feeding a family. Maybe he was referring to himself and his stomach as two separate people. We shook hands and made arrangements to meet in the near future.

I went home and showered and grabbed my notebook that fit into my big black winter coat pocket. I emptied my wallet of any big bills and I left all my credit cards and other cards on my desk.... I was headed to the hood. I had a few dollars and my lucky two-dollar bill. I was headed to Crane Tech Prep, a high school in one of Chicago’s notorious dangerous westside neighborhoods. A neighborhood that a 28-year-old black man, who lived on 79th Street, once told me while riding the El, “You have one strike against you, man, just for being white. That’s one strike against you. It’s dangerous for me. It’s dangerous for anyone. But you have one strike against you right off the bat.” I had decided a week earlier to go to Crane Tech because they have a great basketball team each year. Will Bynum, a Crane alum, played for Georgia Tech and now is in his first year with the Boston Celtics. This year, Crane has one of the nation’s best point guards, Sherron Collins, who committed to Kansas. I thought I could write a feature on Collins or the team as most reporters wouldn’t venture to that neighborhood. I did. Its coach, Anthony Longstreet, a rounded man with droopy eyes like a bulldog, had told me a week prior that he didn’t have a complete schedule yet and that I would have to come back in a week at this time, aka 1:30 p.m.

So I went back. On the way there I talked to a 26-year-old white man with an unkept beard. He said he had been laid off as a teacher on the south side. He mentioned that he had been substitute teaching and I told him I was interested in doing that since I had no job and would be flying home over Christmas and busy on New Year’s. I needed the holidays off but I needed some money as well. My savings was dwindling away. He said that in order to teach in Chicago Public Schools you needed a teaching license. That is bogus, I thought. They are laying teachers off and there is a shortage of subs and they require licenses. They don’t do that in Connecticut, which pays its teachers the most of any state. I felt worse after talking to him. There go my hopes for a job where I could have time to write and still have the holidays off. He offered to show me to the main office on Clark Street because he was going there. I said I was meeting someone.

On the train there I noticed a big loud black girl with a black and white leather jacket with “Scareface” written on it with a picture of Al Pacino holding a big gun. It said, “The American Dream” on one sleeve and had a big dollar sign on the other. This wasn’t the Gold Coast. I got off the Western stop and walked over a highway bridge. I looked to my right and saw the great Chicago skyline. It wasn’t very far away, but there was a huge difference. As I was about to cross the street on Jackson, a tall black man, about 30, said he needed forty cents. I told him sorry, that I was unemployed. He didn’t say anything but he had a look on his face that said, “What am I going to do now?” I did feel nervous. My palms were a bit sweaty, especially when I saw a group of young black men walking by with dew rags underneath their hats and baggy jeans and big coats. They didn’t appear any different than kids from my hometown. It’s just I knew they were tougher here. It was different. I kept my head down and stared at the sidewalk as I strolled to Crane. No one bothered me. When I arrived at the school, I saw two police officers walk out and into their car parked in front. That’s weird, I thought, why are cops here. Crane is a large stone building with giant pillars and equally large reddish-orange doors and large black gates in the front and back. The cops had left the door slightly ajar. I wedged it open with my fingers and walked in. I told the hallway monitor I wanted to see Coach Anthony Longstreet. I signed in and they gave me a pass and I walked into the gymnasium. A group of girls were huddled on the bleachers gossiping and watching the boys play basketball. It must have been gym class. Coach Longstreet’s office door was ajar, just like the front door, and I walked in.

“Now is not a good time,” he said shaking his head with a look of anxiety. “Now is not a good time.” He kept shaking his head. I stood there and wondered for a second who these other white men were in the room. “Can’t you see Coach Self is here,” Longstreet said as he walked away shaking his head. Kansas head coach Bill Self, resplendent in a dress shirt and dress pants, was sitting on a desk next to Sherron Collins, who was also sitting and wore street clothes. Self had a notepad in his hand or pieces of paper and seemed about to explain something to Collins. There was another man in the small room, probably Self’s assistant, standing on the other side across from me. There was an awkward silence as the three men looked at me. I looked at them. Self broke the silence and said, “Hi.” I said hello back and walked out the door. Was Collins signing his letter of intent to go to Kansas? Or was it to make sure he was academically eligible? Maybe neither. I found out later that Coach Self was just checking on Collins to make sure he was academically eligible and on pace academically to play college basketball. I knew I could write a good story if they would just let me – that seemed to be my theme so far in Chicago. Maybe I should work an easier route and write about someone no one knows. I pondered that after listening to Alex Kotlowitz.

Before I saw Kotlowitz speak I ate a gelato at Café Gioia. Enzo had stepped out. I’d catch him later. I came home and read the local newspapers and bought some groceries and went to pick up my rental car at Enterprise. They gave me a Toyota Camry and I headed west on the Kennedy Expressway. Most of the rush-hour traffic I had worried about drove the opposite way, into the city. I found the public library in Des Plaines and waited in a big room with a few dozen chairs for Kotlowitz.

Formally dressed in black pants and a dress shirt, he looked skinnier and had shorter hair than I had imagined. Not that I cared. He was a writer and he spoke like an intelligent one. He spoke openly, but had a speech that he had written out word-for-word, which I saw when he signed his books after it and a Q & A.

He talked about his books, which I had read, but what struck me most was his view of Chicago and of himself as a writer. In many ways I felt the same way. “I’ve gone through life always thinking of myself as an outsider,” he said. “There’s an old Groucho Marx line that I wouldn’t want to join any club that would have me. And that’s how I think I’ve often felt in my life. I can’t begin to psychoanalyze the reasons behind that. Anyway, part of it explains my attraction to journalism because wherever I go as a journalist I’m inevitably and naturally an outsider by race, by class, by religion, by geography, by politics, by circumstance. It’s a tough part for me of being a journalist. And the tough part, of course, is finding your way in the communities where you don’t belong. But being an outsider I think can be terribly important. Because I think outsiders often have a much clearer and cleaner perspective of what’s going on in the inside.... And when you think of this city you come to realize that it is a place that is molded, if not defined, by outsiders.” He mentioned how various architects, artists, and writers “thrived” in Chicago as outsiders. It made me feel like I, ironically as an outsider, belonged. Perhaps even more than his comment about being an outsider was how he compared Chicago to New York and why it is a unique place, a place that seemed to fit my value system. “It’s a place that doesn’t presume,” he said. “It takes you at face value. New York, for instance, where I’m from is a place where you’re measured by your accomplishments, by your wealth, and in some ways I find New York a more provincial place than Chicago. There is no question in my mind that if I was to live in New York now my immediate circle of friends would be other writers, other journalists. And here in Chicago my friends cover a wide birth.” He also said that the city represented all of America more than any other place. “It’s a city which within its boundaries you can find most of what we celebrate and bemoan in this country. It’s a place constantly in search of itself.”

“It’s an imperfect place. And I believe, as a result, a perfect place to try to make sense of these imperfect times.”

A New York City native, he answered my question about how he began as a writer and what he recommended for a freelancer like myself. He said after college he didn’t know what he wanted to do, and he spent a year working at a cattle ranch in Oregon. He then saw a small add for a small weekly newspaper in Lansing, Mich., and was hired. He realized he wanted to write for a living. After a year there, he worked as a freelancer for five years. He worked ten years in Chicago, writing for the Wall Street Journal. He said it was a great newspaper for reporters and that he enjoyed working there, but left twelve years ago to write books. In the end, he pointed out that stories are what he sells to editors and if they are good ones they will sell. Finding and reporting a good story is what he teaches his students at Northwestern and Notre Dame, and what he says is still the hardest part of his job. “As a writer I am often writing about very emotional material,” he said. “I try to write as dispassionately as I can. And I do that because I think it is important that readers find their own way. I think the worst thing that readers like is to have them pushed or pulled through a story. You don’t like to be shouted at. And let me tell you, there is a lot of shouting going on these days.”

Still, I went to this speech and enjoy his writing because his values seem to mirror my own and I found his story topics pertinent and compelling. “I should also tell you that I write out of a very strong moral conviction. I have a very clear sense of how things ought to be. A very clear sense that things ought to be fair, that they ought to be just.... And if they’re not, well then what better reason than that to tell stories,” he said. “I enjoy the everyday story, the stories of everyday people, people who struggle against forces both within and without. And I’ve got this undying faith of the ability of people to change.”

Still, some things have not changed. On my drive home, back into the city, I decided to take the exit near Wrigley Field and drive around, primarily through working-class Mexican neighborhoods. Everything seemed bleak and dark and less lively in contrast to the downtown city lights and constant traffic, mostly by taxis. I had entered the Enterprise drop-off lot and parked when I realized I hadn’t filled up the tank. So I drove out and looked for a gas station. When you don’t know the downtown very well and you don’t own a car, finding gas is a daunting task. Or at least it was for me. I lingered at traffic lights looking for gas stations as I drove through downtown. Then I headed south on Michigan Avenue because the pace was a lot quicker. Still no luck. I felt like an outsider in the car, not on foot. I headed to Chinatown, thinking there has to be a gas station in that area. No luck. Finally I stopped at a Walgreens near Chinatown and asked a young black man, who had a gap in his front teeth, where I could find gas. He told me, “Three blocks east and about ten blocks north.” He was friendly and appeared eager to help. Thank goodness for him. I was tired and wanted to go home.

Gas stations, like many things, are different on the south side. When I pulled up to the pump a young black man told me the pumps were temporarily down. “Can I wash your windows for a few dollars?” he asked. “Me and my brothers need some money so we can fill up and go home.” I told him it was a rental and that I didn’t really care if the windows were washed or not. Then I asked where he lived. He said 79th Street. I felt bad and gave him a dollar and told him he could just keep it. “Well, can I wash your windows anyway?” he asked. I told him again that it was a rental. “It’s always good to ride in style,” he added. I told him thanks, but it wasn’t worth it. Then I realized I had pulled up to the wrong side of the pump. The gas cap was on the other side of the car. I pulled up to another pump and heard the same young man telling a middle-aged white couple that they could use their credit cards now to pay for gas. I pulled out my card and filled it up. I heard him tell his brothers he only needed two more dollars and they could get some gas. I left with a bad feeling. Here I was, tired and in a hurry to get home. And here was a black man about my age who had to raise money washing windows to get home. He seemed as genuine as the man who gave me directions and the white people I chatted with at the Des Plaines Public Library. It didn’t seem right.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Thoughts of Sicily

I’ve been in Chicago for a month and I still have no job. The truth is I haven’t applied for any jobs yet. It’s difficult to apply for a job and ask for days off on Christmas and New Year’s. I’m headed back to Connecticut for four days, which includes Christmas. Then my college friend Matt is visiting toward the end of the month and New Year’s.

But waking up rather late and reading the local newspapers and a couple books, most recently There Are No Children Here and A Moveable Feast, can lead to a feeling of laziness and worthlessness. I am in good shape physically as I lift weights and run on the Stairmaster at the gym I belong to on Fullerton three times a week. But even that doesn’t fix the feeling I’ve had lately.

That’s why I put together my resume and best clips of my writing last night. That’s why I took the Red Line to the Grand stop with the intention of freelancing for the Chicago Reader. I’ve been reading their weekly newspaper, which is free, and I feel like it is the only publication in the city that really lets a writer write. None of the limiting restrictions of journalism apply, such as length and style. They give a writer freedom and ambition and talent to explore and spread his or her wings. At least that’s what I’m feeling after reading their newspaper and the white piece of paper that answers questions on freelancing for the Reader. I was given that paper after I walked inside the building on Illinois Street, where there are copies of the Reader stacked in the lobby. Inside I walked up big metal stairs. The walls were painted purple. I told the receptionist I was interested in freelancing for the Reader and that I wanted to talk to whomever was in charge of that. He gave me a piece of paper.

“Thanks, I’ll read it at lunch,” I said.

“Where are you going to eat?” he asked.

“The Billy Goat Tavern. Where are you going?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where are some of your favorite places to go?”

“We’ve been to them all around here so we get kind of tired of the choices.”

“Well, I thought the Billy Goat Tavern would be good. Just thought I’d check it out being famous and all.”


“Thanks, I will, and thanks for the freelancing paper.”

I headed south and then walked east on Hubbard. Most people on the street wore winter hats or gloves or both. I didn’t have either. I felt like a native Chicagoan. I felt tough. I really wasn’t Chicago tough yet. I didn’t have a job. I slept late. And I walked with one hand in my pocket and the paper and my resume and clips in the other hand.

From a distance, I saw the sign for it. I didn’t expect it to be under a walking bridge and somewhat secluded from downtown. Probably better that way. There were a dozen or so people gathered outside with a family posing for a picture near the entrance. Americans love anything famous, that’s for sure. And if celebrities had been around the place even better. From the look of things inside, John Belushi would be proud.

You walk down a few stairs and there is a horseshoe-shaped counter in front with people waiting in line. I walked to the left side and got in line. On both sides were tables, mostly full, including the L-shaped bar to the right. A family tried to sit down at one of the empty tables. One of the servers walked over to them and said they had to wait in line first, order and then sit down. It is a little confusing for newcomers, but the man explained it to them like a Sicilian, like it was obvious. Two months ago I visited Sicily for the first time and tried to order a pizza with my brother. We each wanted a different topping so we asked for half peppers and half pepperoni. The waiter put the tip of his thumb and fingers together and turned his hand and shook it with a look on his face that said, “What’s the matter fo’ you?” He asked the chef and then came back and said he couldn’t do it. He said you want this, pointing to a menu option. We said no. He said you want this. We finally pointed to a pizza with one topping and he agreed. In Sicily, it isn’t what you want. It’s what they want you to want. And if you don’t like what they want for you, then it’s your fault.

Well, I felt like I was in Sicily again. Not because of the food. Because of the men running the operation. They all had dark hair and accents and the man taking the orders went up to each person in line and said, “Doublacheeseborger.” And then everyone nodded. Then he would ask, “Just one?” I told him two. Then he turned to his buddies near the grill and yelled, “Two doublacheese!” This went on through the whole line until it came to the girl behind me.

She was young and pretty to look at and wore makeup. She told him she wanted a single.

“You want doublacheese?” he said.

“I want a single,” she said in an unconfident voice as if it was a request and not an order.

“We only have double and triple today. Double is the best.... What do you want?”

“I want a single,” she said, looking a bit confused and annoyed.

“You want a double,” he said with enthusiasm once again.

“Ok, I’ll have a double.”


There were options for other items, steak sandwiches and single hamburgers, but they served more as menu options on the list above the counter than real choices. As the sign next to the entrance, on the brick outside wall, read:

The World Famous Billy Goats
Billy Goats

Just after the pretty girl behind me gave in to man behind the counter, another person near the back of the line said, “I want fries.”

“What’d he say?” said the man behind the counter. “No fries, just chips. Cheezborger, Cheezborger! Cheezborger! Cheezborger! Cheezborger! Coke, no Pepsi!”

“Oh, shut up,” said one of the guys grilling the thin burgers on the stove. The guy taking the orders loved the attention and being in charge. Nothing seemed to make him happier than telling customers they were going to order double “cheezborgers” and then yelling it to the guys on the grill, who kept taking new buns out of a big brown paper bag and putting them on the grill. No gloves. This was Billy Goats. It moved with the speed of a well-tuned assembly line. I paid the young woman at the register. I told one of the guys by the stove I had two doubles. He put the burgers inside the big buns on two separate pieces of cellophane paper. I added pickles, and ketchup, which seemed to be running out. Mustard was the popular choice as there were a half dozen bottles compared with two ketchup bottles.

I looked around, with my paper, resume and clips, and burgers and Coke in hands. I asked a lady sitting alone at a table if it was full. She said it was. I found an empty bar stool and sat down.

“You have a single?” a middle-aged man sitting next to me asked.


“Did you order a single or a double?”

“I ordered a double. That’s all they had.”

“Yeah, that’s all they’re serving today.”

“What’d you have?” I asked.

“A double. I used to have two doubles like you.”

“Yeah, well, I’m hungry.”

No matter how hungry you are, it is hard to just concentrate on your food. The walls are covered with photos of various writers and newspaper articles and famous Chicagoans. The ones I saw were mostly of Billy Goat and the old gray-haired man at the grill (He’s probably Billy Goat’s son or nephew). There were pictures of him with former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, Sr. Near the garnish table there was an article about the place with several photos of Bill Murray.

There is the head of a real billy goat mounted above the bar wall and a white sign with red lettering next to it that reads:

Billy says...
Try Our Signature Drink
The Horny Goat
7-UP and a kick of Cranberry
$ 4.00

When I began my meal I was watching the television in the corner. Texas was beating Texas A&M 21-15 in the third quarter. Then I saw Vince Young, the Texas quarterback, get sacked and fumble the ball. The Aggies recovered it and scored a touchdown going ahead 22-21. I got more of a kick from the sign next to the television than the game, which read:

We do not CASH
NOT even my own... Billy Goat

I felt like I was living in my parent’s era or even a generation before that. Sure the food was a heart attack waiting to happen, but the atmosphere and people, who all seemed content accept the girl behind me in line, were worth the visit.

I stepped outside and felt the cold air smack me in the face. It felt good, like a love tap. Only after I had walked a block did it begin to bother me. I walked past shoppers, after all it was the day after Thanksgiving, scurrying around town. They looked like rich out-of-towners. But they didn’t have spending or the holidays on their minds. I began to walk fast for the air began to sting my face and hand that held my papers. I saw a black man rummaging through a garbage can at the corner of Madison Avenue. I saw him pick up a used McDonald’s cup and open the lid to see if any soda was inside. I thought about giving him a few dollars, but I didn’t stop for some reason. Maybe it was the cold weather. Maybe he seemed too intent on his business that I didn’t want to bother. I felt bad about it. I don’t like to give money to those who ask. Those who need it and don’t ask, I like to help. I still feel guilty about it.

I kept walking until I came to Congress Parkway, where I wanted to visit an Italian friend I had made when I first visited Chicago in May. I wanted to tell him about my trip to Sicily and southern Italy. He owns a shop called Café Gioia. I opened the big glass doors and saw a young man with a beard behind the counter.

“Is Enzo here today?” I asked.

“No, I’m sorry, he’s not here.”

“How about this weekend? Because I went to Italy two months ago and I wanted to talk to him about it.”

“He might be here Sunday,” said the young man with a pained expression on his face.

“How about Monday?”

“He’ll be here Monday for sure,” he said waving his hands in the air for emphasis.

Then he went behind the back wall as if he was checking something, and said, “Enzo might show up. Sometimes he is here on Fridays.”

Then he asked me what I wanted. I told him I’d like a scoop of the Stracciatella with cream and chocolate lace, and a scoop of the chocolate and banana. I hadn’t had gelato since I left Sorrento in early October. Enzo had told me in May how growing up he watched his grandfather make gelato and that his recipe and method is unique and the best I would have. He wasn’t lying. It was in the same rounded rectangle tubs like in Italy. The small clear fluorescent-colored cups and flat plastic spoons resembled the ones in Italy as well. It cost me $4.40. I gave him a five and told him to keep the change. If he knew Enzo, he was good by me. Besides, he gave me two generous scoops.

I sat at a two-seat table in the corner looking out of the big windows on Congress Parkway. I felt good eating my gelato. I thought about Italy and of my brother and my father and the small single-lane streets and mountains and blue water and it all made me thankful and happy. And I felt good thinking about freelancing for the Reader. But that would come later. I forgot I was by myself as I watched some pretty young women and holiday shoppers walk by, and saw the El glide with a roar on the elevated tracks as I tasted another spoonful.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Adjusting to City Life

I feel like I am living in a Choose Your Own Adventure book. There are no limits to the choices and opportunities you have in Chicago.

Eating is a perfect example. There are a handful of places I can order gyros and pizza and sandwiches and subs and so on. I’ve tried a variety of them. They have been good, but expensive without a job. So I go to the grocery store at least twice a week. I always buy water and sliced chicken breast and fruit and vegetables. They are the essence of my diet. I figure I pay a hundred dollars a month, 104 to be exact, for membership at a gym on Fullerton so I shouldn’t be working out and eating greasy. I’m on a high protein, low fat diet and I’m starting to see some muscles I didn’t know I had, especially around my stomach. Sorry to digress. Back to the choices. There are two large grocery stores, Jewel and Treasure Island. I’ve been going to Treasure Island because the lines are quicker and it is less crowded. I hate waiting. They’re open virtually all the time as is the gym I belong to. It seems like nothing is ever closed around here. Some of the pizza parlors and gyro shops never close. And CVS, which is right across the street, never closes either. One Tuesday night I couldn’t sleep so I strolled down the block. It was nearly four in the morning and there was a few dozen people carousing the bars on Division. One girl, about 30, stumbled into the elevator as I was getting out and she made a pass at me. I said hello and walked away. I walked to Walgreens and bought some NyQuill. Even more foreign to me than the late-night drinkers was the fact I waited in line at four a.m. in Walgreens. Chicago never sleeps either.

On weekends there is no point in trying to sleep early. You have to go out, or lay in your bed and listen to the taxis beeping their horns as they sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Friday and Saturday nights the beeping never stops. It’s like listening to an awful elementary school band practice. Of course there are the police and ambulance and fire truck sirens that ring out periodically every day. Those you can ignore and even become accustomed to. The horns continue to annoy you. And the more you drink and the later you stay out the less you care about the beeping. It usually does subside around four.

Besides that it is easy to catch a cab (unlike Boston where I waited for an hour freezing my butt off at two-thirty in the morning trying to find an empty taxi) the subway system, or El, runs virtually all the time. Driving drunk and getting home is not an issue for the most part. Living south of the Loop is a different story.

And there is no better feeling than being young in a city filled with other young, intelligent good-looking people. The women, even in the winter, dress well and look good. Granted most of the women I run into are white, they’ve been very friendly and approachable. Midwestern women seem to know that they are going to be hit on and unlike other parts of the country, they play the game too. Maybe it’s because I am white and I look like most of the other guys in the bars. Maybe they know I’m trying to have a good time just like they are. Maybe they feel like a small fish in a big pond too. Maybe it’s because in a big city you don’t know most people you come in contact with so meeting new people and chatting with strangers is the norm. Sure, everyone has a friend or a group they hang out with, but the cliquish attitude doesn’t seem as pronounced here as the small towns and cities I’ve lived in. Then again, Chicago is very segregated by neighborhoods and ethnicities. Still, I never felt like I didn’t belong at the bars I’ve gone to.

People are very polite in this city and have good manners. The homeless are no exception. They ask you for spare change, but never in a demanding way. Every now and then you might run into one who is drunk and upset, but that’s an anomaly. The homeless I have seen wish me a happy holiday and say have a nice day though I don’t give them change usually. There is one man who is different from the other homeless men. In fact he isn’t homeless but he is in front of Walgreens almost every day asking for change. I kept seeing him and he reminded me of Eddie Murphy in Coming to America. He exuded a bright smile and happiness toward passers by. Oh, there is one other thing. He has no feet. He lost them both in the past two years because of diabetes. He sits outside Walgreens in the cold and windy weather. He recently showed up with a red Chicago Blackhawks jacket and a red Chicago Bulls hat. He pulled the jacket hood over the brim on his hat when the wind starting slicing into his skin like a knife. It has dropped into the teens during the day and the wind makes it feel twice as cold. On days like that, he only is around for a few hours, accepting any change someone will give him. He hasn’t been able to get a job since he lost his feet, he told me the other day at lunch. I naturally treated him. We ate at a sandwich shop across the street. He said he lives on 105th Street and comes up to the Gold Coast because it lifts his spirits. He lived in the infamous Cabrini Green projects for seven years growing up. He is 36 now and balding and can’t find a job since he lost his feet. He said he worked at a Jewish funeral home and it changed his view about Jews. All the stereotypes are wrong, he said. I plan on writing a story about his life. Not everyone loses their feet and smiles about it. Not everyone lived in a YMCA before they lost their feet. But Hyson Brown did, and I know if I do the story right it will be a success. Patience and effort. Those two things are the formula for success once you have something to write about. Like Hemingway said, I would write about the entire world if I had enough time. The city is always moving and changing. Still some things never change. I have to find more people like Brown to write about.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

A City of Champions

Baseball fans from the south side waited eighty-eight years for the White Sox to win the World Series. I waited two days.

Of course I wasn’t a White Sox fan, but I rooted for them. It was one more excuse to go out for drinks on a Wednesday night. Even though it ended well, my night didn’t begin well. I figured the Sox were playing for the title so I should head to the south side. The White Sox play on 35th Street, the south side. The Cubs play on the north side. I didn’t know the subway system too well at the time and took it down to 63rd Street because I was trying to get to Hyde Park and drink around there. I got off the subway and walked to a gas station and realized if I went anywhere I may not come back alive. It was dark and I was the only white person in sight. A black man at the gas station pulled his car up to one of the pumps and approached me, “Could you spare me some change for gas? I’ll give you a ride wherever you want.” I told him I was sorry and that I couldn’t help him. Then I said, Go Sox as he walked away. He turned around and said, Go Sox, we’re going to sweep ‘em tonight! I walked back to the subway and headed back to my neighborhood. Police had blocked off the section of bars on Division Street in anticipation of a Sox win. I went into Butch McGuire’s, a locals bar with lots of decorations and a good-sized model train that ran on the tracks that were attached by small poles to the ceiling. It is usually busy, and that night obviously was no exception. I had some drinks and began talking with a few guys who said they were from St. Louis and were Cardinals fans. One of them had a Sox hat. He said he had to by default because he didn’t want to get beat up. I guess I was doing the same thing, only I didn’t have any Sox apparel on.

In the top of the ninth inning, with the Sox one out away, a die-hard Sox fan at the end of the bar began a chant, “One More Out! One More Out!” Everyone was chanting along. Then he chanted, “One More Strike! One More Strike!” Then everyone clapped and cheered and started high-fiving one another. I joined in. It just felt right. I saw the guy who had been leading the chant with his hand on his forehead. His wife and brother were hugging him as he cried.

I went back to my apartment to get my camera. It had begun to rain and fans were jumping around in the street and celebrating. The cops didn’t look too amused. In the elevator I met a man with a Sox cap and jersey. He said he’s lived all thirty-six years of his life in Chicago and that “I’ve been waiting my entire life for this.” And he added, “It hasn’t sunk in yet. I’m sure it will when I get outside and see other Sox fans in the street.”

I took photos and video of the celebration. When I returned to my room at midnight I decided it was pointless to get to sleep with all the beeping. Even on the 14th floor. There was bumper-to-bumper traffic everywhere I looked with cars beeping to the beat of “Let’s Go Sox!” The sound was deafening at times. Three guys in their early twenties had white T-Shirts that said “Go South Side” in black letters on the back. They had taken off their jackets to show off their shirts even though they were getting soaked from the cold rain. They were all too happy to worry about it. They went up to each car as it passed and either pointed their fingers and said “Go Sox” or something like that, or they gave high-fives and shook hands of the moving passengers. One cop kept pushing them back when they’d approach a moving car. They weren’t deterred. On the other side of the street I saw a young man with a broom and he swept the sidewalk over and over again, doing a dance as he swept. Then he’d raise the broom in the air and cheer out something. It was hard to hear with so many horns beeping.

I drank well the rest of the night at a bar near Butch’s. It wasn’t hard talking to and meeting people. Everyone seemed in a good mood, especially with the amount of beer and mixed drinks served.

When I visited the city in May I saw many people wearing Cubs hats and hardly anyone with Sox hats. After the World Series, it was the complete opposite. It was as if the entire city had converted. Well, not the entire city. I told Kenny, who is a Cubs fan, about my observation. “Man, fuck the Sox,” he said. “Yeah, that’s one thing about this city, people are a bit fair weather fans with baseball and the Bulls. But the Bears are different. People will always root for the Bears no matter what.” We had been to a Bulls home-opener and they were down by twenty-five points in the third quarter. You could hear almost hear a pin drop in the United Center. Fans were hunched over and seemed bored. Then the Bulls came back and tied the game in regulation and won in overtime. The place went crazy as I heard a middle-aged man behind me yelling everyone exited, “Undefeated! First place! We’re in first place!” Everyone likes a champion and Chicago is no different in that regard. Sox apparel could be seen in the darndest places. There were large Sox hats on the heads of the lion statues outside the Chicago Institute of Art as well as on the head of a giant Picasso sculpture in downtown. It didn’t look right.

Friday, November 4, 2005

Moving to Chicago

I had more questions than answers when I left my native Danbury, Conn., and drove west. I didn’t know what I was going to do to earn money other than write. And I didn’t have a job? I didn’t know where I was going to live. I only knew one good friend, and he lived in the first suburb west of the city. I knew, however, I wanted to live in a big city while I was in my twenties. And I knew I wanted that city to be in Chicago even though I had only visited it for a long weekend that prior May.

So in late October, while the World Series was underway, I drove to Chicago in an SUV I had rented. I had sold my car before the move because I knew I wanted to live in the city and use public transportation. The SUV had plenty of room. I actually should have packed some more items such as pots and pans. They are useful.

At any rate, I moved to the Windy City with the intention of becoming a great writer. No one ever moves by choice away from his family to a big city to be less accomplished. I use the word accomplished instead of the word success. Modern society uses the word success to relate to one’s happiness and achievements in life. But success refers to financial well-being. I wanted to have the feeling of achievement that money can’t buy, that great feeling of accomplishment. I also was single and figuring there are over a million women in Chicago. I felt I might find someone that is compatible.

People asked me the same question before I moved and even after I was settled in. Why Chicago? Why not, I often remarked. It’s a big city with all the pleasures and problems that big cities have. The architecture and museums and sites are world-class. There is an endless amount of food and entertainment. And the people. They are friendly for the most part, and there are so many different ethnic groups and classes of people. There are millions of stories waiting to be written. For someone who wants to write, why not sounds like a good answer. The other thing was the people I met from Chicago who visited the hotel I worked for in Colorado. They all adored Chicago. They all said it was the best city to live in. I read about the city and came to the same conclusion. Chicago it was. Chicago it is.

I drove straight through, stopping for gas and food on the long monotonous drive. It began raining in Ohio and at times I could barely see the road, staring at the white lines on the pavement in order to avoid trouble. Neither the rain nor the lack of vision bothered me. I made good time.

When I entered the Dan Ryan Expressway and crossed over the bridge into the city I had to pay a toll. Twice. It didn’t make sense to me. Before I entered the bridge I paid $2.50 and then as I was exiting it, I paid fifty cents. I asked the toll booth woman, a black lady, why they didn’t require drivers to pay three dollars and only stop once. That doesn’t make sense, I said. “That’s the truth,” she said. “I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because the tolls are owned by separate companies.” She was very polite and answered my query with no arrogance in her voice. New York as far as I could tell had more of a chip on its shoulder than Chicago. Everything seemed more genuine and sincere in Chicago, which later I could verify was an accurate assumption. The Hancock Building and Sears Tower were lit up in light purple at the top.

I arrived at my friend’s house in Oak Park and told him about the drive and went to bed. He was excited I was there. So was I. We both were tired. He woke up at five every morning, and I had a big day ahead of me as well, or so I thought.

Finding an apartment is an important decision. After all, you have to live there. Sometimes, as I’ve found out from moving around the country, important decisions can be made quickly. That is what happened when I decided to move into the Canterbury Court Apartments on State Street, near the corner of Division Street. From talking to a friend who had lived in the city, I decided I wanted to live in the Gold Coast. I had five or six apartments on my list. They were close to one another and took me only ten minutes or so to tour. Canterbury Court had been my first choice after looking online and talking to my friend. Besides, I had a good vibe from the general manager. She was a middle-aged woman with short, straight brown hair and always seemed to be smiling and in a good mood. In less than three hours I signed a lease with her and moved in. The apartment was fully furnished and I signed a three-month lease. It was almost too good to be true. Sure, it was not cheap, but for city standards not bad. I chose the room on the fourteenth floor with a view of Lake Michigan and the Hancock Building. The apartment had been built a long time ago and had seventeen stories. There was no thirteenth floor, the elevator went from twelve to fourteen. So technically I was on the thirteenth floor.

My friend in Oak Park, Kenny, helped me move all my stuff in. He was my one real friend at the time and still is one of my best friends. The first couple weeks I settled in and walked around the city and bought certain items I thought necessary for my apartment. Certain things in the city made life outside it feel outdated, like stores and shops being open at all hours. The CVS across the street never closed as did the gyro shop a few blocks down on Division Street. It was a great time. The weather wasn’t too cold; I wore jeans and sweatshirts. I enjoyed watching people scurrying to work or to a convenience store. It was such a big city. Such big opportunity. Still, I felt like a small fish in a big pond.

Thursday, June 2, 2005

Barack Obama at The Aspen Institute

The first time I had heard or seen Barack Obama was on my television. His charisma and articulation at the 2004 Democratic National Convention was refreshing to see from a politician. Then I saw him in person at the Aspen Institute a year later. He did not disappoint.

Barack Obama spoke in Aspen with articulation you’d expect from a man who served as the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. His eloquence and intelligence proved greater than the high expectations I had before the dialogue with Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson on Saturday evening.

Isaacson began the discussion by asking, “How does a skinny black guy with a funny name, born in Hawaii, mother from Kansas and father from Kenya, become the senator from Illinois?”

Obama told of his improbable rise, how his father left when he was 2 and how he only saw him once, at age 10. How his mother portrayed Barack’s father in “mythical terms” and it wasn’t until Barack reached college that he realized her idealistic portrayal of his father had shaped his thinking of how he viewed himself. “The starting premise for me that my mother instilled in me, and my father inadvertently instilled, was that everybody was the same.” He went on to elaborate that his understanding of the human condition evolved from growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia.

“One of the wonderful things about America is that we come from these different ports and these different places and there is this sense that we can create ourselves, that our destiny is determined by us,” he said. After graduating from Columbia and Harvard Law, Obama created his own destiny, moving to Chicago in 1985 and working with church-based groups trying to improve living conditions in poor neighborhoods. “I moved there, not knowing a soul in Illinois and it turned out to be the greatest education I ever received,” said Obama. “The most important thing it taught me was that ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they are given the opportunity in order to get them.”

Although listening to him you gained the impression that he might run for president or a higher office in the future, he said the Democrat Party needs to stop thinking about the future elections and decide on what’s the best way to help the American people. “I don’t care how you spin things … if you haven’t done the hard intellectual work and have something say, you’re not going to win elections.” He did say when asked that he believes Hillary Clinton is currently the most likely candidate to win the Democrat’s nominee for president in 2008.

He said the three biggest concerns the Democrat Party should have are:

1) The global economy
2) Foreign policy
3) Faith and family values

“Democrats have to talk about faith, family and community in a way that weighs diversity in politics rather than excludes diversity in politics without feeling the importance to necessarily drop a quote from the bible in their speech. There’s got to be a certain authenticity when we talk about values.”

Another big issue Obama addressed involved the media. In one anecdote, he told how two guys were arguing and finally one guy gave up and said, “Well, I’m entitled to my own opinion.” The other guy said, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.” Obama said that the problem with mainstream media today is that it presents two opposing opinions, but then rarely clarifies the facts of the issue based on thorough research.

There were very poignant and funny moments during Obama’s dialogue with Isaacson that drew applause and laughter from what appeared to be a liberal white crowd. For instance, when asked about a justice replacing Sandra Day O’Connor and a possible Democrat filibuster, Obama said, “Well, I told my Democratic colleagues that there’s one way to prevent a president we don’t like, and that’s to win elections.” He went on to say, “My biggest hope is that the White House steps back and recognizes that they are representing the entire country.”

Here are some more Obama quotes on certain topics discussed:

Education: “Most importantly, No Child Left Behind did not speak to what I think is a critical issue in education, that is how do we encourage our best and brightest to continue teaching, and how do we substantially upgrade the pay and performance of the teaching profession.”

Decision for Iraq War: “When I was running, in the fall of 2002 … I said this is a bad idea. It certainly wasn’t because I didn’t think Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. I specifically said in a speech in Chicago, it was about six months before the war, I said, I’m not on the federal intelligence committee, but I don’t see any serious weapons of mass destruction. I don’t see Saddam connected to Al Qaida. This is going to cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives… and I think I’ve been pretty restrained in not saying, I told you so….”

Bush Administration: “This administration has been extraordinarily ineffective in its public polls. Some of that has to do with its policies... but some of it has to do with tone. In the same way that tone matters in the United States senate, tone matters in people’s day-to-day interaction with family…. Tone matters in international conflicts. And if our basic tone is one in which we are happy to lend help in other countries as long as they do exactly as their told, then eventually it will hurt us over the long scale....”

Tax Cuts: “You didn’t need those tax cuts and you weren’t even asking for them.”

Ways to Decrease the Deficit: “If we don’t get a hold of our healthcare costs over the private and government sector, I do not think we can solve our structural deficit problem.”

President Bush’s Persona and Beliefs: “I think when we get in trouble is when we lose … the element of doubt. There is a wonderful saying in scripture that if you can see what it is that your hoping for, it’s not hope. And part of the discrepancy by President Bush’s dialogue is he is so certain, so absolute in his views that he can’t admit that which he cannot see. He can’t admit the possibility that the other person has perspective that not only should be valued but may give him perspective on the topic. And so part of what I’m interested in is trying to reintroduce a sense of humility on what we talk about.”

Closing Remark by Obama, Quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

Afterward the lady sitting next to me seemed as impressed as I did listening to Obama. I told her I’m sure he’ll move up from his current position as a senator in Illinois. She said if politicians like him don’t move to higher positions “we’re doomed.” I couldn’t agree more.