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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Where is Mohammed?

I am not referring to the Mohammed the Prophet. I am referring to Mohammed, the panhandler who hangs out in front of the Metra Station at Riverside Plaza in Chicago.

Mohammed has a cool strategy. He sits on an old milk crate right in the flow of foot traffic. Everyone who exits through the revolving doors at Madison and Riverside Plaza must glance at him as they dodge past. Mohammed never says a word to anyone - he just holds his cup and looks into the faces of the people. If he locks eyes with you, you are toast.

Mohammed is older. He tells me he is 68 and that is possible. His hair is white, and he lets it grow out in a mid-1970's 'fro. He has a longish goatee. He is a blue-eyed African American man. His eyes are set deeply and his gaze is full of meaning. He has a very slight hint of a smile on his lips at all times - sort of an ironic little smile. If it is cold or wet, he throws a yellow hooded jacket over his shoulders and head.

I stormed past Mohammed for weeks when I resumed my train commuting to Chicago's Loop. I sometimes engage with panhandlers, but usually not during my march to the office in the morning. One morning, I looked at Mohammed and he locked on me. No words passed, but I dropped a bill in his cup. Soon, dropping alms in Mohammed's cup became part of my daily ritual.

After a few weeks, I worked up the courage to ask him his name. After that, we greeted each other in the morning. We even small-talked about the weather, the Bears, whatever. He told me that he stays with a friend in the projects - doesn't have his own place right now. He once said to me, "Today's my birthday!" This is how I learned that he is 68.

Well, I haven't seen Mohammed at his spot for many days. Where did he go? I miss this guy and I am worried about him. Can a guy named Mohammed take a Christmas break?

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Wall of Water

I have lived in Southeast Asia. The family stayed in Singapore, but I wandered the region, spending lots of time in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. I have been to Penang and Phuket, places now swamped by the tsunami. During my time in the area (1984-1987), I connected with lots of local people, but time and distance has disconnected us. Were some of my old friends smashed against the wall of water?

Nature always holds the trump card. Earthquakes and tsunamis, along with hurricanes and floods, represent larger risks than most human evils. It will take a long time for terrorists to top the death toll created by the seas crashing into the coasts of Southeast and South Asia.

There haven't been very many tsunamis in the Indian Ocean. Massive natural calamities have occurred in odd places before. There was a massive earthquake in the St. Louis area early in the 19th century, but I bet most St. Louisians don't worry about getting shaken to death. So is the earth is teeming with forces that could cause a fatal rupture in an unexpected location? And even with all of our learning and science, we could just get a big Game Over surprise? Is fatalism the only rational approach to life on this instable planet?

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Boxing Day

In the USofA, we don 't pay attention to Boxing Day. It is the day after Christmas, the Feast of St. Stephen (the first Christian martyr). The term may come from the opening of church poor boxes that day; maybe from the earthenware boxes with which boy apprentices collected money at the doors of their masters' clients back in Victorian England. When I was a kid, I thought that it referred to stressed-out dysfunctional family members engaging in post-Christmas fisticuffs. Here at the Mr. G household, we are hosting a family party today - the turkey is in the oven, and I need to make a run to the liquor store. Mr. G's in-laws enjoy their fermented beverages.

Our Christmas was satisfying - not overdone. Christmas Day was fun for the little girlies and relaxing for the missus and me. We went to Quaker Meeting on Christmas Eve - silent worship, with some beautiful violin music and candlelight. After the Meeting, I hit Bill's Blues Bar, which was surprisingly full. There was a solo pianist/accordianist playing - Radoslav Lorkovic. Radoslav was born in Croatia in the late 1950's and came to the U.S. when he was 6 - he settled in Iowa City, IA. Iowa City is a hotbed of the blues - who knew? Radoslav's classical music career got sidetracked into the blues, and he has stayed on that track for the most part. He is a very accomplished musician, and he has had some brushes with fame (played on the Prairie Home Companion). Mr. G had to blow some harmonica with this guy. So I ended Christmas Eve wrapped up in the blues again - which was appropriate, since we lost Fred.

A small shrine had been erected at Bill's Blues Bar - a shrine to Fred the Mailman. On most days, Fred spent time after work at Bill's, enjoying a couple of Crown Royals after his shift as a mail carrier. He was a cheerful fella and much loved by the Bill's Blues Bar community. Fred missed his shift at the post office on Tuesday. Since he was single, his pals didn't know who to call to check up on him. On Wednesday, they found him in his apartment, dead of a heart attack at the age of 51. Fred was a big, affable ex-football playing black guy with a lot of friends. Fred's friends had spent some time at Bill's on Christmas Eve, building the shrine and drinking Crown Royal. Fred had planned to throw a Christmas party for his buddies at Bill's on Christmas Eve...

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Beer for Christmas

Many people like to drink beer when the weather is hot and sticky, but I seem to increase my consumption around Christmas time. I have posted a photo of my favorite cheap Midwestern beer - Old Style. There was a time when this beer was dominant in Chicago, but the Anheuser Busch juggernaut squashed Old Style's market share. This beer is the liquid version of white bread - empty calories, fills the space, does the job. It is a superb blue collar beverage and at an average cost of 50 cents per can, a heckuva deal. You can still buy an Old Style at Wrigley, but at 10 times the supermarket price.

Beer is a marvelous invention. Someone famous once said, "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." This is an interesting thought. I do believe that I will head out to the bar tonight - if might be God's will that I do so.

Cheap Midwestern Beer Posted by Hello

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Short Day

We have sun in Chicago on this Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. There are plenty of empty seats on the Metra train to the Loop today - many folks have begun their holiday break. I plan to try hard to be productive - it will be a challenge. I sometimes believe that the hardest part of working is trying to make it happen when you are distracted, bored and tired. This is what I am today.

At 4:48 A.M., my alarm clock began to grind. I stumbled into my workout clothes and made it to the McGaw YMCA at about 5:13 am. As I walked in, the desk guy, Tom, handed me a Christmas card. Now this is a guy who is at that Y desk every day by 4:15 am. He is unfailingly cheerful, greets everyone by name, and usually has a clever/amusing comment to toss our way as we trudge through the turnstyles. Tom is a paunchy guy with meager white fringe on his head and a luxurious white beard. He shaves his beard about once every 4 months - it is a terrifying to see his naked face. Tom brings light into many lives without thinking about it.

So I lifted weights today. Fifty year old weightlifters suffer quite a bit more than twenty-five year old weightlifters. My lats ache and my bones are tired. I have bought into the theory that exercise is the fountain of youth. Maybe this is true. But I feel quite aged after I have pushed myself through the weight routine.

I had to turn away from today's news - push it away. The horror, the horror! We are coming up on the birthday of Jesus Christ, and people are dying in large groups in many locations - 24 Americans in Iraq today. I am not a political idealogue; I listen with amazement at my liberal and conservative friends and their firm positions. George Bush may be wrong; he may be right. But right or wrong, the suffering is very hard to bear. And the Iraqis take the heaviest blows - murdered by their fellow Iraqis. Sadam's evil spirit still is creating havoc in Iraq. There is hard pounding going on - who can pound the longest?

Monday, December 20, 2004

Christmas and the One-Eyed Cat

When Christmas approaches at Mr. G's homestead, the threat level moves from Yellow to Orange. We put up additional barricades and implement more aggressive security routines to protect an important "soft target" - the Christmas tree. Our Golden Retriever has mellowed into doggy middle age and is no longer a credible threat to the decorations. But there are two plotters remaining - a terrorist Papillon puppy and a one-eyed cat.

I am an involuntary keeper of pets. My three womenfolk bring creatures into the house. When I protest, the floodgates open. I have yet to stand firm as the oceans of little girl grief smash into me. I tell myself "Okay, this time I will not cave in; this time I will implement my decision mercilessly and teach these girls that I am not to be ignored." This is akin the an ice cube saying "Okay, I will not melt this time - I am going to sit here in the sun and remain solid and square." So we have two cats, two dogs and a hamster. The critter population has declined - we used to have three cats, but one decided to move out when we brought the terrorist puppy into the house. We also used to have dozens of fish in three different tanks, a leopard gecko, a rabbit, two gerbils (which were very tasty treats for the cats) and a fire-bellied toad. I am happy that we free of this infestation of small, smelly creatures.

The one-eyed cat actually has two eyes - the left eye is diseased, bulges out of the socket and is a milky white color. This startling problem is caused by Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP), which is an incurable, fatal disease caused by a coronavirus. My girls found this cat and its litter-mate at the local Pet Smart, where someone had abandoned a litter on the doorstep. The one eyed-cat lost its sister last summer - FIP caused its belly to blow up like a small balloon and I had it put down. The one-eyed cat, called "Jade," is defying the odds. She continues to eat, sleep and behave more or less like a normal cat. She doesn't see well, obviously. Her energy level is a bit low and she is a runty creature. But she continues to live and has a darn good attitude, all things considered. Jade still bats the Christmas tree ornaments around, when she sees them.

It now looks like Jade will live through Christmas. I was fearful that we would be scheduling her euthanasia right about now - definitely not a cheerful Yuletide activity. I consider Jade's continued survival to be a Christmas gift from the God of cats.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Jammin' on a Cold Thursday

There is lots of music being created in the Chicago area on a Thursday night. Up north in Highwood, there is a blues jam at Pops for Champagne led by Carl Davis. At Bill's Blues, there is a jazz jam session led by Mike Finnerty. There are also blues sessions at the Harlem Avenue Lunge in Berwyn and at Rosa's Lounge on the West Side of Chicago. I have visited them all. This past Thursday, I hit Pops and Bill's Blues.

The jam at Pops is a comfortable, laid-back affair. The place was just about empty when I arrived at 9:45 p.m. Highwood used to be a dicey town. It was where the sailors from the Great Lakes Naval Base would go to get into trouble. Back in the late 1970's it was full of sleazy bars and sleazier people. As the affluence spread past the borders of Lake Forest into Lake Bluff, Highwood morphed into a fancy dining and entertainment destination. At Pops on Thursday nights, the patrons consist of middle aged wealthy types and a few younger folks that are probably the offspring of the wealthy older folks. It is not an ethnically diverse crowd. Carl Davis, the jam leader, is an accomplished guitarist and has a yawping style of singing that evokes the old rockers - Elvis, Carl Perkins, the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly. Carl is too young to have ever heard a live performance from this group of singers. The other guitarist is Shoji Naito - a fabulous blues musician, born and raised in Japan. Shoji has been bitten badly by the blues bug - he left his home and came to Chicago to drink in the music from its source. He plays guitar, bass and harmonica - and he plays them with skill and heart. The jammers are mostly harmonica players from the Old Town School Monday night harp class. Shoji is a stalwart of the Monday night class, and his pals show up to play with him. Dexter, the drummer, is subtle and solid. I sat in for three tunes, had a beer and hit the road, heading south.

Bill's Blues Bar is a smallish room - much smaller than Pops for Champagne. Since it is in Evanston, the crowd is not homgeneous. There were a couple of private equity guys from Kenilworth, an old black fella from Belize, some Northwestern students and a motley collection of jazz players. The only female in the joint was the bartender. Mike Finnerty is a large, intense tenor saxophonist. He has been part of the Chicago jazz scene for decades. When Mike runs a jam, it is organized and disciplined - friendly, but not loose. One of the better trumpet players in Chicago was playing - a 50-ish guy named Nick. Nick is a schoolteacher who freelances around town playing a range of gigs. He gave up the life of a traveling jazz musician to create and tend to a family. I see Nick at various places in Evanston. He is usually with his young daughter.

Finnerty always calls a blues for me. After that, I try to play jazz with him. I am no jazz player - I can fake it if the changes aren't too complicated. When the clock struck 1 a.m., I escaped and ran home.

A jam session is like a musical version of a bowling night or a pick-up basketball at the Y. You get together with some folks; you might know some well, but others are complete strangers. You quickly enter into a group endeavor that entails a high level of communication. With luck, it works and it is great fun. Then you leave - you might not ever see some of your jam bandmates again.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Mr. G - Photo by Rick Trankle

Mr. G blowing over the background noise. Posted by Hello

The Background Noise is Deafening

I am having difficulties with the world's "background noise." The background noise is generated by all the troubles we see/hear on a daily basis - the homeless guy with his mangy dog sitting on the sidewalk at Franklin and Madison, holding out a cup; the latest 9 U.S. soldiers blown to pieces in Iraq; the thousands starving in the Sudan; today's terrorist "threat level," the relentless Christmas consumption orgy all around us. I turn away from the background noise every day, block it out, push it down. This is a reasonable coping strategy, but I feel guilty about it. I am not doing anything to quiet the noise. And the noise makes it difficult for me to hear the music in my life. For me, the music comes from hearth and home, from the connections with my fellow harmonica nerds, from the support of my partners in my firm, from working up a good sweat on the footpaths.

New Year's Resolution - do something to quiet the noise.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Non-Musical Performances

In the musical world, performers tend to work from a chart (a written or unwritten piece of music). In many forms of music, the performers' improvisation augments the chart. In blues and jazz, the chart is often a sideshow; the improvisation is the main event. This is true in other types of performances, too.

As an investment banker, I listen to lots of presentations. Today, I listened to Carol Tome', Chief Financial Officer of The Home Depot, present to a large group of Chicago business people. She had a "chart" -- the ubiquitous Power Point pitch. She managed the pitch quite well. She also was a great improvisor; she added lots of spur-of-the-moment comments and handled some fairly pointed questions with aplomb. And she drew in the audience. She established a pattern of tension and release that is the hallmark of good music (and good speeches).

Carol Tome' is in her late 40's and she has a lot of youthful exuberence. She joined The Home Depot is 1995, so she lived through the company's difficult transition from a decentralized entrepreneurial shop to a centralized professionally-managed place (with an ex-GE guy, Bob Nardelli, as CEO). I think she is the only senior executive that survived Nardelli's purge of the organization in 2001-2002. Chief financial officers can be a pretty dour bunch. Carol Tome' is the opposite of dour. She is a performer and she can improvise. I have a feeling that this woman will be CEO of a large organization someday.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Ed Wasserman - Summer 2004 Posted by Hello

Photo by Rick Trankle

Ed Wasserman and The Blues Harmonica Class

Since I was thinking about Ed Wasserman yesterday, I decided to drop in on his old stomping ground, the Monday 8 PM Chicago Blues Harmonica - Level 4 class. The class is held in a windowless basement room in the Old Town School of Folk Music on North Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. It is classic basement construction - concrete floor, cinder block walls. It isn't a glorious space, but Joe Filisko has converted it into a shrine to blues harmonica music and harmonica music in general. The walls are covered with images of blues harp players - album cover art, portraits of Little Walter, Big Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson I, Sonny Boy Williamson II, George "Harmonica" Smith, Papa Lightfoot, Billy Boy Arnold, Junior Wells - well, you get the idea. Joe Filisko is the leader of the class. He is also a big fish in the international harmonica world (a somewhat small pond, I suppose). All of us harmonica nerds are deeply devoted to Joe - he is the Master, the Grand Poobah of the Harp Cult.

Ed Wasserman always sat in the same seat for the years he spent in the blues harp classroom - third from the corner on the east side. Now that he has passed on, we try to leave that seat empty. He loved all types of music, especially the blues. Ed was dedicated and faithful. But dedication and faithfulness do not alway lead to brilliance. In truth, Ed's musical talent was modest. His harmonica skills didn't seem to improve much. His singing voice was thin and reedy. But he had a way of radiating quiet happiness - he was visibly delighted to be hanging out in the class, playing harmonica to the best of his ability. The guy never had a bad day in our class. His courage was inspiring; performance anxiety was not a problem for Ed. If he made mistakes in his performances, or just stunk up the joint, he didn't sulk or mope. He was never embarrassed. He just put it out there and smiled. And once in a while, he would uncork an amazing performance that floored us all.

One Monday night, Ed stood up and sang the following blues song:

I don't want no
No skinny woman
I want a woman
That's got a lotta........
(Hooo Lord)
I don't want no skinny woman; I wanna woman that's
gotta lot of meat.
We can roll all night long and this woman
wouldn't have to stop to eat.
(by John Lee Williamson circa 1943)

The whole class fell out. It would have made a rock laugh to see this tiny 75 year old guy singing about his lust for a meaty woman. And Ed just smiled and sat down calmly after he was done. It was just another happy day in class for ol' Ed.

Mr. G - 12/14/04

Monday, December 13, 2004

Ed Wasserman's Memorial Service

Ed Wasserman died in late October; his memorial service occurred on December 5, 2004. Ed was 76 years old, I believe, but I have only known him for the past 4 years or so. By all accounts, Ed was a remarkable person - first generation American, son of old Bolsheviks that emigrated to the U.S. from the Soviet Union, a hard-working psychiatrist and an old "leftie" from Hyde Park in Chicago. But I knew Ed as a harmonica player.

About ten years ago, Ed closed his private psychiatric practice (but still worked part time helping inmates in the Indiana prison system). He then signed up for the Chicago Blues Harmonica classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. The instructor for these classes is Joe Filisko, a world-renown harmonicist and harmonica craftsman. I met Ed when I joined the same class about four years ago. He had attended Joe's classes religously for ten years.

Ed's memorial service was at the United Electrical Union Hall on the west side of Chicago. It was a medium-sized hall - probably had a capacity of 150 people. The place was jammed. About 20 of Ed's fellow students from the Old Town School of Folk Music attended, and we played an old Gospel tune called "You Got to Move." Now, I love the harmonica, but 20 harmonica players trying to play the same tune in unison generally doesn't lead to an outstanding muscial experience. This time, however, we beat the odds and produced a haunting sound that generated an emotional response from Ed's gathered friends and family. Here was another example of an important human ceremony that became more intense by the addition of music.

I might have some more to say about Ed Wasserman.

Mr. G - 12/13/04