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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Must Mention the White Sox

White Sox = World Champions. Now there is a statement that has not been true for a very long time. I plugged into the Sox when I hit the Chicago area in the late 1970's - I was at opening day in old Comiskey Park in 1977, cheered for the "South Side Hitmen" owned by Bill Veeck. Harry Carey and Jimmy Piersal were in the broadcast booth. Richie Zisk, Greg Luzinski, Oscar Gamble (with the cool 'fro). Chet Lemon, LaMar Hoyt on the mound, etc. etc. The shower in the center field bleachers. I followed the Sox with great interest until old Comiskey was pulled down in 1990. The new Sox Park is uggg-leee. I drifted away - I re-married, had two more children with my beautiful new wife, and found that baseball was not a high priority. But I missed the game. Forgive me - I even started going to see the Cubs because Wrigley Field is so marvelous. This past season has forced me to re-engage as a Sox fan.

The 2005 White Sox took off like a rocket - a 15 game lead at the beginning of September! Of course, none of the long-time Sox fans believed that this could continue, and it did not. The lead shrank to 1 1/2 games by the end of September. But the collective spines of the Sox stiffened and they won the division. Then real magic began - The World Champion Red Sox - swept out in 3 games; the former World Champion Angels - handled in 5 games; and the "never done nuthin" Astros - swept in 4. So Ozzie Guillen and his crew - Konerko, Dye, Podsednik, Crede, Garland, Garcia, Jenks, Uribe, and, yes, even Geoff Blum - have made all White Sox fans deliriously happy and connected to each other.

Why do we care about baseball or any team sport? Here is my theory - humans are gregarious creatures that crave community. We have organized in large urban mobs that make it hard to connect and love each other. Baseball teams (and football and basketball) are our proxies for the large extended families we all want. After the Sox became world champs, I could join a large family here in the Chicagoland area simply by wearing my Sox cap. Strangers smile at me and we have shared experiences that we can speak about together. White, black, Latino - we are family when we talk about Uribe's dive into the stands, Konerko's hitting, Dye's sterling offensive and defensive play. Yes, sports are a blessing to humans.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Getting Back to New Orleans

I am a member of the Evanston Meeting of Friends (Quakers) and we have been working to help a musical group in New Orleans. Shades of Praise is an inter-racial gospel choir in NOLA that was scattered across the country by Katrina. The Evanston Quakers received the following message from Allison, one of the members of the choir, who recently returned to the city:

"Sunday Oct 16th

As soon as I crossed into northern Mississippi, hours north of New Orleans, there were scores of trees down all along the highway and dozens of crews working to clear them. About two hours north of New Orleans, the green highway signs were bent over backwards. I had to whip my head around to get a glance at them upside down after passing them to identify my exit.

When I exited the highway, still an hour and a half north of New Orleans, most of the buildings from Poplarville to Covington had "blue roofs." That's the term for the tarps FEMA is stringing across the holes in people's roofs. until you can get a roofer to your house to fix it. Waiting for the roofer may take weeks. Waiting for FEMA can take almost as long. Lots of folks are risking the roof walk to strap up the huge blue tarps themselves.

Telephone lines were down across the road. Crews everywhere working to restore this and that. But the most shocking thing for me was arriving at Paula's in Covington. This beautiful home in a lovely wooded setting now looks like a logger's camp. Dozens of trees are down. Tractor tracks all over the yard where clearing of fallen trees has taken place. Paula assured me, "This looks like a natural disaster. New Orleans looks like a very unnatural disaster."

The next morning Paula accompanied me into New Orleans. Valerie and Alice were already at my house. Valerie wanted to be sure I would not see it for the first time by myself.

I took a route boarding the Industrial Canal, an area that never was very pretty. Now it was quite a bit less pretty and rather deserted.

My neighborhood was quite deserted. We pulled in front of the house. There was a huge pile of garbage out front. But the house had on it a colorful, handwritten sign that said, "Welcome home, Allison. Love, your house." Clearly the handiwork of Valerie and Alice.

The shutters were all flung open. I walked up the steps and my office was stripped bare, the floor covered in dust, and some of the sheet rock wall already torn out. This did not look like my house. This looked like an amazing architectural gem of a house in an abandoned town. A house that itself had been abandoned, but its mantle pieces, hard wood floors, and cypress columns were still stunning. "Somebody ought to fix this house up. What an amazing house," I kept thinking.
My friends had spared me the greatest shock. By arriving days before me, and stripping out as much moldy stuff as they could, the house didn't look like mine. It wasn't my house that sat there in ruins. Just this gorgeous architectural gem.

Alice, Valerie, and Paula watched me wander through the house, worried looks on their faces. But it wasn't till I opened one of the bathroom cabinets and saw my stuff in there. That's when the shock started to set in. I recognized this stuff. It was my stuff. What was it doing here????

Oh. this is my house.. and it was a mess!

I didn't know where to start. My toiletries were in a heap of mold at the bottom of the cabinet. Should I try to wipe each off? Throw them out? Leave them? What was I supposed to do?

Valerie gave me instructions. "Allison" she said gently, "the next step is to start wiping the mold off the antiques. We've carried them all out to the driveway. They look largely salvageable. Some will definitely need some expert care. But the next thing we need to do is to wipe off the antiques."

So I started.

I've been working on the house for 4 days now, usually with Valerie, sometimes with other friends. And everyday the garbage pile in front of the house has gotten bigger. What was I able to salvage? Well, look around your house at everything that is at least one foot off the ground. Most of this I was able to salvage. Most of my books, CDs, and clothes. (Although the clothes have required multiple washings with ammonia to get the mold smell out). My shoes are history as is all my upholstered furniture.. My mattresses and pillows must be tossed because of mold spore contamination, but my bedding is largely salvageable because it can be washed. My artwork, my knick knacks, dishes, and some pots and pans are OK. And then (there was) an assortment of useless items that I happened to have stored in plastic bins. One bin full of sarongs. One bin full of little purses. One bin full of gloves and scarves. And some of the antiques look salvageable, with a fair amount of professional help.

So suddenly I find myself moving. moving out of my house. but moving to nowhere. I don't have anywhere to move this stuff. And there are no available self-storage units for 50-100 miles around New Orleans. But I've got to get it all out as fast as I can lest this stuff, too, contracts mold. And also to give the house more chance to breathe. I have no electricity, and I won't have power until I get the house completely rewired. So the only hope for getting rid of the mold in the house is to tear out the wet sheet rock, tear out the cabinets, and leave the windows open.

I keep praying it won't rain.

And New Orleans is barely able to support a mold remediation project of this size. I'd say only about 1/8 of the stores that are on "high ground" are now open (and high ground accounts for only about ¢® of the entire city). And those stores that are open have only reduced hours. If I don't get to the grocery store by 4:00, it closes. And the lines are long.

For the first three days, I kept missing my opportunities to get to a store. Luckily Alice had done some major shopping in Houston and had stocked us with plenty of bleach, ammonia, gloves, masks, hand-sanitizer, etc. etc. And friends kept inviting me over to eat, or brought sandwiches by the house. Had they not, I wouldn't have eaten.

New Orleans is a sad, sad place. Even in Uptown, which was the least affected, every house has a refrigerator and a great deal of debris in front of it. Trees are down all over the place, and blue roofs abound. And Lakeview, which was one of the hardest hit, is completely brown. There is barely a living thing in Lakeview. By the second day there, I was so grateful to drive back across the lake to the "logging camp" where the birds are chirping and everyone is not walking around with a drooping head.

Last night there was a gathering of the Shades of Praise. There are about 20 of us back in town. We've been working hard to help every member of Shades of Praise to come back. Finding apartments, paying rental deposits when necessary, getting people some cash so they can buy a few basic household items. 20 out of 65 is a huge accomplishment, and I was overjoyed to see who was in attendance at the gathering. I got some of the biggest hugs I've ever gotten in my life. And for the first time I was in a room full of people, half of whom had lost much more than I had. Gary, after hugging me said, "How's your house?" I shook my head sadly. "How's yours?" I asked. "Gone," he said. "But more importantly," he asked, "how are all your loved ones?" "Fine, fine" I answered, as tears welled up in my eyes. Little did he know that he was one of the loved ones I had been worried about the most.

The Shades are all accounted for now, but we won't rest until all, who want to be, are back in New Orleans. Last night, the 20 of us stood in a circle, held hands, and with Al's familiar accompaniment, we sang, "Let Your presence fill this place." Tears rolled down our faces.

My plan for now is to stay in Covington with Paula and Jim. They have a couple extra bedrooms, and Paula has agreed to move her office out of one of them so I can live here. They also have a little attic storage space where I can stash my ridiculous abundance of artwork, knick knacks, and bin of small purses. I talked this morning with my sister about the antiques to try to determine the real value of each. I may send some to her, and some to my cousin. I definitely want to travel
lighter. Several times a day I mutter something about the ridiculous amount of stuff I own. Valerie keeps reminding me that compared to most people, I have very little stuff. But right now, if I had my druthers, I'd have just a little condo in the sky.

To those of you who have contributed to Shades of Praise, thank you, thank you, thank you!!!! Shades is the bright spot in all this for me.Rebuilding New Orleans will be hard and oftentimes very sad work. Shades of Praise is my source of hope and joy, laughter and song. A couple of you emailed and asked how you could contribute. The easiest way is through our web site at

Please forgive me for not answering all your emails individually. I am still quite overwhelmed with emails and phone calls. Paula's phone isn't working (actually her number is ringing at someone else's house!) and I am running through my cell phone minutes fast just in talking to adjusters, calling my credit card company, figuring out where I can get my mail, etc. etc. I hope that this email is a reasonable, if somewhat less than satisfying response.

I love you all dearly. And please please know that it is your love and support and all your offers of help, that have helped me to trust. to know that no matter what (and this was a darned big "what"), I will be OK, I will be taken care of, and I will be loved. Thank you!


Sunday, October 16, 2005

L. C. Walker with Tom Crivellone - Photo by Robert Pasenko
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L.C. Walker - Gone Too Soon

He was only 53 years old - 53, for God's sake. In a blink, he was gone, felled by a massive coronary. Yes, he was not buff - built for comfort, not for speed, to quote Willie Dixon. But he was not out of control, he was a pretty clean guy for a bluesman - no terrible habits. Lawrence Cornell Walker was a huge personality, a deep soul and blues singer, an entertainer that ranked with the best ever produced here in Chicago. He was a mentor to many musicians in this town. And he was always up for a gig - money didn't matter, the size of the crowd didn't matter, all that mattered was the music and the passion.

L.C. was the front man for two blue-collar blues bands in Chicago - Two for the Blues and Trouble No More. He also performed with a myriad of other R&B and blues groups in Chicago. L.C. Walker had a smile for friends and strangers alike. He had many interests beyond music. He was a hot bowler, a strong chess player, a self-taught computer geek, and a devoted parent. He became a parent via marriage - five stepsons, I believe. He worked for 16 years for the U.S. Postal Service, and walked away to build a life free of a bureaucratic master.

I am writing as if L.C. was one of my best friends. I learned most of this at his memorial service. He was a blues buddy, but I didn't know him that well. I keep a list of people that I want to know better; L.C. Walker was at the top of the list. I thought I had plenty of time to act on my intent. L.C. fell, and I am left with regrets and a lesson - if you intend to do something, ACT NOW!

L.C. Walker's memorial service was packed last Friday. It was an amazing to see how many lives this man touched - black and white, young and old, male and female. The Chicago blues community was out in force, but so were L.C.'s bowling partners, his neighbors, his extended family. After the service, a bunch of the mourners headed to a bowling alley in Blue Island to roll some games in honor of the deceased. L.C. Walker was booked at Bill's Blues in Evanston that Friday night with Two for the Blues. L.C.'s partner, guitarist Tom Crivellone, bravely went on with the show. Toronzo Cannon sat in - he was tight with L.C. Walker, and he is another bluesman with a "regular guy" job (L.C. worked for the post office, Toronzo drives a bus for the Chicago Transit Authority). The club was jammed; emotions ran hot and high; I drank too much and that was the right thing to do.

L.C. Walker didn't make much money singing the blues. He could care less about that. His goal was to make as much music as possible, to generate as much joy as possible, to convert strangers into friends.

Good bye, L.C. Maybe we can spend time together on the other side.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Nature and Humans

Mother Nature can be accused of piling it on us lately. The tsunami in Asia, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, mudslides in Guatemala and now this terrible earthquake in Kashmir! The human race is under siege! It has been a tough, tough year.

Add on the man-made catastrophes, and the list becomes truly daunting. Genocide in Darfur, Islamo-facist attacks in Britain, the Iraq war, narco-terrorism in Latin America.....our current era seems very precarious.

It is also interesting how quickly non-affected populations forget natural disasters. Guatemala had a horrible disaster in 1998 when Hurricane Mitch hit the country with 180 MPH winds - 9,000 people died from that storm. In January, 2001 India was hit with a huge earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people - does anyone here in Chicago remember those disasters?

The bluesman sayeth, "There is no sense worrying about the things you can't do nothin' about." "Mourn, rebuild, move on" is the credo of many people that survive natural disasters.

In Chicago, we don't have hurricanes or earthquakes. Our natural disasters are smallish events - a tornado or two, blizzards, heat waves. This is another reason why I love Chicago.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Lincoln, Nebraska

I traveled with my wife, two daughters and two dogs to the capital of Nebraska. We left Saturday in the late afternoon, the Volvo wagon packed to max capacity with people and animals (not to mention luggage). The event was my wife's exhibit at the Elder Gallery which is located on the Nebraska Wesleyan University campus. It was terrific to see my artsy wife's work featured in this large, attractive space. I took a picture of the large sign with her name on it. She has worked hard in obscurity, so it is a great day when she gets the recognition she deserves.

NWU is a nice little school, completely overshadowed by the gargantuan University of Nebraska. UN permeates everything in Lincoln, especially during football season. The Cornhuskers are 4-0. They spanked Maine and Wake Forest, then squeaked by Pitt and Kansas State. Next up is Texas Tech, who is ranked #7 I think. Husker Nation is all atwitter.

I expected Lincoln to be a pretty bland, landlocked, midwestern burg. I underestimated the "college town" effect. During my trip to the SuperValu grocery store, I saw tatooed Goth girls, fully cloaked Muslim women, muscled-up African Americans, an Asian family and some of the expected middle-aged and elderly white folks. This is a "blue" island in the "red" sea of Nebraska. UN is the largest employer in the area and the town has the liberal tilt and the cultural trappings of a larger city. And, of course, Lincoln is the home of an internationally famous institution, The Zoo Bar, a miraculous blues oasis in the flat wasteland between Chicago and the West Coast.

Since I was in Lincoln on Sunday and Monday, the Zoo Bar was quiet. It was closed completely on Sunday, and open for drinking only (no music) on Monday. I visited Monday afternoon around 5:30 to soak in the karma of the place. This is a long, narrow club - about as wide as three or four bowling lanes and as long as a single bowling lane. The stage area is small, but not ridiculously so. It can accommodate a band with 5 or 6 members with ease. The dominant decorating touch is the unique wall treatment - the Zoo Bar is plastered with old promotional posters dating back to its opening date (in 1973), and the featured artists are the "who's who" of the blues - B.B. King, Charlie Musselwhite, Lefty Dizz, Magic Slim, Luther Allison, James Harman, Eddy 'the Chief" Clearwater, and on and on. The second generation owner (youngish fella, close-cropped hair) was tending bar - he was friendly in a quiet way. There were only a few patrons hanging off the bar - clearly regular customers given the banter they exchanged with the bartender. My wife and I had a couple of drinks, small-talked with the bartender and bought Zoo Bar t-shirts.

We stayed at a strange motel near the interstate. It had an olde English motif (including a large plastic knight on horseback in the parking lot). The accommodations were adequate, but the place was haunted by a strange long-term resident. A long-haired late-50's guy, an amputee in a very speedy motorized wheelchair, buzzed around the place at all hours. I have a story about this man, but will save it for another day.

On Monday afternoon, we loaded up the rental truck with Connie's paintings; Connie drove the Volvo. We hit the road at 5:30 a.m. for the long drive back to Chicago. The posted speed limit was 75 MPH in Iowa; most people ignored that and put the hammer down. I am sure many of the folks that passed my truck were pushing triple digits. The gasoline conservation message has yet to reach the travelers on Interstate 80. We were home in time for dinner, our rumps and backs sore from the hours of sitting in the vehicles as they covered the 567 miles between Lincoln NE and Evanston IL.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Michael Coleman Rocks

Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater had to cancel tonight at Bill's Blues Bar, and he was replaced by Michael Coleman. Michael is one of those unsung blues guitar heroes in Chicago - he has a great singing voice, too. Mike has played with the greats, most notably James Cotton. His show was red hot. I sat in on a few tunes, but Michael was the Man - he had the crowd eating out of his hand.

Pray for the Chief...............They say it is a virus, but he is in the hospital.....