Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Fair Weather - Memories From My Inner Cubs Fan

My grandfather spent much of his retirement watching Cubs games on WGN. His comfy armchair faced a 19 inch black and white television in his apartment on Rascher Avenue, less than three miles from Wrigley Field. He went to games occasionally, but mostly opted for Jack Brickhouse’s play-by-play in his “box seat” just off of Clark Street. It came with a kitchen, a refrigerator stocked with Schlitz beer and a private bathroom.

My wife’s grandmother took her and her sibs to Cubs games, where they sipped her home-brewed unsweetened Kool Aid and built lasting memories. Maybe my grandfather didn’t like other people’s children. Or maybe he overdid it with the Schlitz at the games and grandma intervened to shield us from that lasting memory. Or did they only serve Hamms at Wrigley? Well, when you’re out of Schlitz, you’re out of beer…

Although he never took me to a game, he did bring me a pin that he got at the ballpark on Ernie Banks Day in 1964. I still have it. I knew that Ernie was a legendary player, and I recall six years later filming his 500th home run with a super 8 movie camera pointed at an instant replay on TV. As you might imagine, the quality is awful. You can barely read “Hey Hey” flashing at the bottom of the screen. My dad thought Ernie was pretty special.

My dad loved the Cubs. I associate his fatal heart condition with the colossal disappointment now known to sports historians as simply 1969. He played baseball as a young man and taught me the basics in our small back yard in Park Ridge. Recently my son thanked me for passing on those skills to him and my daughter Melissa. Eric was playing on a Tucson team recently where he noticed a severe lack in the areas of throwing, catching and hitting. You’re welcome Eric and Melissa. Thanks Dad!

The truly strange thing that occurred at my father’s funeral will hopefully not be repeated at mine. Please consider this the eulogy-equivalent directive of a living will. The minister who was recruited (drafted you might say) to say a few words at Dad’s service interviewed us for a few minutes the day before. I guess we mentioned sports, because it became the epitaph for my father’s life.

“Carl, lover of baseball.”

My mom, sister and I did double takes at each other, grief-stricken, appalled, and on the verge of a much needed uncontrollable burst of laughter. What the heck?!

Autographed Twice - Click to Enlarge

But back to Park Ridge and more pleasant memories. My then living dad surprised me one evening in 1965 by suggesting that we go meet Ron Santo at the grand opening of his new pizzeria. I was ten and Santo was 25. Both of us were children, I realize now that I look back, sprinting toward home in my third 25. But he was a celebrity, a baseball star, a golden glove and a genuinely nice guy. We would later find out that he was already suffering the effects of insulin-dependent diabetes, but that night he came out of the kitchen at Santo’s, smiling and wiping the flour from his pizza-making hands on a dusty white apron.

“Are you a Cubs fan?” he asked me. The Cubs hat and jacket were subtle clues. I went speechless, nodding my head in a repeat of the silent Santa experience I’ve written about earlier in this blog. Hmmm. Santa. Santo. Vastly different heroes for sure.

He personalized an autographed photo of himself crouching and ready to scoop up a ground ball at third, and a miniature souvenir baseball bat that I will bequeath and not sell on eBay.

“Hey Glenn, come on out here” he shouted, looking back over his shoulder at the kitchen door. Glenn Beckert pushed through the swinging doors, also up to his elbows in white powder. He signed a photo for me as well. I was star-struck. Short of Ernie Banks coming out of the kitchen, I was face to face with two thirds of one of the greatest infield combinations in the game. Santo to Beckert to Banks for the double play. Amazing!

Years later I brought Ron’s old photo to an autograph event at a local Target store.

“Oh, look how I used to sign my name,” commented the much older Santo, signing the image for a second time.

So life continued for the beleaguered Cubbies. We grew older and a bit more despondent. Along came 1984. And then a series of “next years.” And then a brief period known for steroid-driven, Sosa-crushing home runs and broken records throughout baseball. It was exciting, but ended abruptly on June 4, 2003 with a corked bat, an eight game suspension and our departure as a family of followers to the Chicago White Sox.

Ironically, the Sox manager at the time, Ozzie Guillen, has been quoted as saying, “Everyone cheats in baseball. You’re not cheating if you don’t get caught.” Cheating or not, the Sox took the World Series two years later. It was a short wait for a big win in a family of very excited new fans, especially when compared with the Cubs. My father, lover of baseball, was born in 1911 and lived his entire life without enjoying a Cubs World Series win.

But now it’s 2016. There’s something in the air again. Curses be damned, the new Cubs don’t even seem to be aware they’re not supposed to be succeeding in the playoffs. It’s the kind of magical, crazy energy we felt last year. And in the words of one of my kids’ coaches at a tournament years ago, spoken with a smile and a shrug,

“Somebody’s got to win…”

A recent limo ride to O’Hare airport found us in the back seat of a car driven by a very pleasant and talkative older man. He made the usual small talk, then asked us if we were Cubs fans. We explained our position to the clearly disappointed driver, who proceeded to reveal that his son plays for the Cubs.

“Kyle Hendricks,” he said, glancing in the rear view mirror for a reaction.

That we had never heard of this potential Cy Young candidate spoke clearly to our ignorance of the modern Cubs team. We wondered if our driver was just making things up, but later saw him on a post-game sports show, down on the field with his arm around Kyle’s shoulder after a particularly amazing playoff performance.

Holy Mackerel!

So for now, whether you prefer the Sox or the Cubs, Chicago has a team in the playoffs, and they really need our support. Let us all cross our fingers and repeat the pledge for one our fine city's baseball teams:

I pledge allegiance to the Cubs
And the generations of Chicagoans
Who stand by their heroes in Wrigley Field
Ron Santo, Ernie Banks
With bleacher bums and ivy
Hey! Hey!

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Collector - Part One

Betty watched Kurt Lindstrom roll a large plastic trash barrel around the building’s business office. The barrel was gray and sounded like all four of its wheels needed oil. She’d get Bruno to attend to that later. Kurt emptied wastebaskets and wiped off large wooden desks and table tops with a soiled dust rag. An upright vacuum cleaner was parked strategically near Liz Hayden, the office receptionist, who offered a flirty smile as he went by.

“Mister Morretti wants to see you,” announced Betty.

“Ok,” said Kurt as he nervously approached the corner office with his trash barrel.

“No honey, leave that out here,” she added as Kurt approached the threshold. The door marked a boundary between the resilient carpeting of the outer office and luxurious shag that muffled sound in the executive’s chamber. Kurt stepped gingerly onto the soft expanse.

“Siddown,” said Morretti. He pointed to one of a pair of high-backed leather chairs in front of his massive mahogany desk and waved his secretary away.

Betty had a son about Kurt’s age and felt her protective instincts surge. She exited and winked to ease his obvious tension, closing the office door behind her. Kurt cautiously settled into the designated chair across from the building owner. He felt as if his t-shirt and jeans were an affront to the expensive furniture, and eased carefully into his seat.

“Blanco came to see me today. Frankie Blanco from suite 110. Know him?”

“Yes sir, I clean his office.”

“Said something about a beer can. You know anything about that?”

Kurt squirmed as he considered his response. The story seemed ridiculous, even to a college kid working a summer job. But many things about this job were expanding his limited world-view. There was Bruno, the aging German handyman who incessantly made lecherous and heavily accented remarks to most of the building’s female tenants. And Norm, the personal trainer from the building’s health club, a Mister Illinois contestant who was lecherous in his own way, offering Kurt private time in the club under his supervision. Kurt glanced briefly at a framed photo of Morretti’s daughter Carla on the back-desk. Pretty. Rich. Arrogant. She had been in the office several times. Her sidelong glances made it clear that compared with her, Kurt was of the servant class.

“He said something last night” Kurt began, shaking himself from his wandering thoughts. Moretti settled back in his chair, elbows on his armrests and fingertips together like a Zen pose, or a strangle hold.

Kurt related the events of the previous night.

 “Mister Blanco was still in his office. I was cleaning like usual and went in to empty his trash.”

* * * *

“Hey asshole. Where’s my beer can?” Blanco blurted.

“Excuse me?”

“I had a beer can on my desk. Now it’s gone. Where is it?”

Frankie Blanco ran a legitimate insurance business since his release from prison eight years earlier. Moretti leased him office space as a favor to his older brother Tony, but he clearly disliked the younger Blanco. At five foot six, what Frankie lacked in height, he made up for in aggression and threats.

“Mister Blanco, I saw an empty can on your desk the other night. I thought about throwing it away but decided I’d better not. Then I saw it in your trash the next day so I tossed it. It’s gone.”

“Yeah right, you stole it. I want it back,” he said slowly, then paused and added menacingly, “I collect things.”

Kurt looked away nervously. He was not a thief. He had no interest in beer cans but knew that some of his friends had begun collecting them when they went away to school.

“I told you I don’t have it,” Kurt said softly, and rolled his plastic trash barrel into the next room.

“You stole my beer can!” Blanco shouted from his office.

Ordinarily, an empty beer can would have gone unnoticed as Kurt made his rounds. Office trash tended to be pretty uninteresting. But a week earlier, as the contents of Blanco’s can spilled into the larger barrel, something caught Kurt’s eye. A flash of glossy color amidst the white papers and crumpled assortment of the day’s waste. Pictures. A stack of pictures carelessly tossed upside down into the can. Upside down until Kurt turned the can over for emptying. Naked pictures. Kurt scooped them up and stuffed them into a black plastic garbage bag for later examination. From that point on, Kurt paid closer attention to Blanco’s trash.

Later that evening in a vacant office, Kurt pulled the stack of Polaroids from the plastic bag tucked into his cleaning supplies.

“Holy shit,” he muttered under his breath, then went looking for his buddy Don, who was working on another floor.

Don directed him to a darkened office across from the elevators. His own cleaning equipment was already inside. He had been wasting time reading magazines and talking on the phone. The entire college crew rushed through their work each night in order to create free time, often spent together in a safe office on one of the building’s four floors.

“Show me,” said Don, eager to see Kurt’s treasure.

“Oh man, you gotta get rid of these,” he said as he went through the pile. “Blanco would kill you if he knew.”

“Seriously, he’ll kill you, he’s crazy! He’s a fucking mobster Kurt.”

Kurt took the pictures home for safekeeping. For insurance. After all, he was dealing with the mob.

* * * *

“So, that’s why I knew I’d seen the beer can in his trash,” finished Kurt.

Moretti frowned as he considered the story. He looked carefully at Kurt, slowly tapped his fingertips together, sat upright and leaned forward.

“I like the way you think, kid. You still have the pictures?”

Kurt was somewhat ashamed to admit he had kept them. The stack of photos depicted Blanco and his secretary having some after-hours office fun, sans clothing. They appeared to be drunk, though the stupid looks on their faces could easily have been their natural demeanor. They frolicked, taking turns snapping instant pictures of each other in awkward positions on the office furniture. Neither had a good body, which made the resulting images that much more amusing, or embarrassing.

“Yes,” Kurt nodded.

“Bring them to me tomorrow,” said Moretti. “You can go now.”

Sensing Kurt’s concern, he added, “And don’t worry about Blanco. Get one of the other guys to clean his office for a couple days. I got your back.”

To Be Continued

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Morning Rounds – Part 2 – Psyched

The pleasant chat I had with our last patient on morning one of my phlebotomy rotation left me with my guard down. Maybe blood drawing wasn’t such a terrible job after all.

We took the elevator to the fifth floor. As the doors opened it was noticeably darker than other floors, and eerily quiet. Even my trainer spoke in hushed tones.

“We have to make sure we take OUT everything we bring IN. You know, tourniquets and stuff,” she said.

“Oh, and no bandaids. We can’t use bandaids.”

My puzzled look did the speaking for me.

“Sometimes they eat them.”

I didn’t know if she was serious, but nodded my head, and emotionally buckled up for a wild ride.

“Oh, and put your ID away once we clear security. If you need to use your name, it’s first name only,” she added.

We were granted admission to the psych ward through a set of locked doors at the end of the elevator banks, by a security guard who checked our IDs and nodded his approval. More silence. He never spoke.

The first requisition was for a woman in room 511, across from the nurse’s station. Some silent pleasantries were exchanged with the nurses on duty, almost as if to say, “I know where you are. I’ve got your back.” My stomach was in knots.

Jane Doe was sleeping. Seriously, this patient was a Jane Doe. She was young, in her twenties I would guess. Lying on her right side facing away from us, the room illuminated only by an upward facing fluorescent light at the head of her bed, she remained motionless when we repeatedly called her name. The scene was straight out of a Halloween movie. You know, the one where as soon as you get close a knife-wielding psychopath lunges from under the covers. My trainer resisted the urge to touch or shake the sleeping patient, and was about to get a nurse for assistance when the girl stirred, yawned and said, “Oh, good morning.”

The draw went extremely well, but the patient’s thin and fragile veins required a bit of extra time with a tourniquet applied to allow her blood pressure to swell them sufficiently to puncture. We wished her a nice day and then headed to the next patient.

“Oh shoot, we forgot the tourniquet!” said my partner. “Can you go get it?”

I reluctantly agreed, and sheepishly re-entered 511, spotting the flattened rubber band on Jane Doe’s dining tray.

“We forgot this,” I said in hushed tones, reaching out to grab the tourniquet. She just smiled and nodded, as if she knew I was afraid.

“That went well,” I said when I returned to the hall.

“Yeah, they’re usually ok. Ok, now 522.”

By now the sun was coming up on the east side of the building, streaming through open drapes on Patient 522, who sat up in bed, cheerfully chatting with two orderlies and a nurse. He was a scruffy little guy, hidden almost to his bearded chin under a white sheet, only his head uncovered. I wasn’t able to see the full leather restraints that shackled his arms and legs to the bedframe under the covers.

We introduced ourselves, told him why we’d come and made small talk about the weather. My partner approached the left side of the bed with her supplies and prepared the tubes and other materials for the draw, laying them out carefully on the movable bedside dining table. And then she raised the needle from its hidden position behind the carryall.

If you’ve never seen someone go berserk, it’s quite a stunning display.

522 exploded into screams and yelled, thrashing from head to toe and side to side. The sheet seemingly flew away, leaving him exposed in his hospital gown, straining against the restraints, spitting, eyes bulging and shouting that he was going to kill us. The muscles and ligaments in his forearms looked as if they might snap.

The presence of the orderlies now made sense. The nurse tried to talk him down, and my partner held up her hands to indicate there was no harm intended. The orderlies grabbed his shoulders and nodded for us to proceed.

I stood aside, stunned. My partner approached several times, but there was just no way to get a needle in his vein, even if you could ignore the string of profanities and the volume of his outrage. He was moving too much and would have been injured if a vein could even be located.

My partner backed off and shook her head at the nurse. She agreed.

“It’s okay,” my trainer said to 522, “We’re done with you.”

“WELL I’M NOT DONE WITH YOU!” he promised as we walked away.

“I…AM…NOT…DONE…WITH…YOU!!!” he screamed, over and over.

We met the nurse in the hall. She apologized, as if any of this was her fault.

“I’M NOT DONE WITH YOU…” his voice trailed off as the door to 522 was closed by an unseen hand.

The nurse looked back at the room and exhaled. “He has homicidal tendencies,” she confessed. “You tried, it’s ok.”

On day three of my rotation I called in sick.