The late, great writer Pat Conroy knew how to paint a picture when it came to describing his hometown.
Not that he was the first to wax poetic about historic Charleston, South Carolina, as he did in his novel South of Broad. But who wouldn't want to grow up in a town filled with homes and buildings of classic architecture and a unique Southern charm populated by families whose centuries' old tales could be traced back to the days long before the Civil War.
From the stately elms to the other magnificent flora to the smell of the oh-so-green, green grass of home, Charleston seems like a sparkling gem, a place where you'd be proud to raise a family, a place you're almost expected to brag about to complete strangers, even if they don't give a damn.
But even as I read Conroy's remarkably descriptive work, I couldn't help but think that while Charleston may gleam, it's still located in a state where the fight to remove the Confederate flag from in front of the statehouse dragged on and on and on as each side dug in their heels.
So who really needs it?
And then there's the brilliant James Lee Burke, whose crime novels set in New Orleans and its environs have been on my must-read list for years and years. I'm reasonably sure he wasn't the first guy to write about N'awlins either, but I'm telling you he's the best. Just read one of his Dave Robicheaux novels and tell me I'm wrong. The guy is an absolute genius, a true American treasure who knows every nook, every cranny of the city and describes them with grace and elegant prose.
Even at that, I've never found New Orleans to be all that much fun after my first couple of visits. The food is great, but Bourbon Street is a grungy, filthy hellhole that attracts too many drunken imbeciles who don't know when to say when.
Again, who needs it?
Certainly not me.
I've got Steger, Illinois.
IT STILL SURPRISES me more than 65 years after the fact that so many people in the Chicago area still have no idea where Steger is. Jesus, it was founded in 1896. I've more or less given up telling people that's where I was raised because the minute you tell them you get back the look that suggests they don't know what hell you're talking about.
But then, I get that look on a wide variety of topics.
And even if you go to the trouble of saying it's about 40 miles due south of Chicago, they still look at you as if they don't know what south is.
Not that it's surprising.
I learned a long time ago that people don't give a shit about much of anything south of Chicago.
If you say you're from Highland Park or Deerfield or Winnetka or Lake Forest or any of the hoity-toity suburbs to the north, there's an immediate recognition.
Say you're from Hazel Crest or South Chicago Heights or Park Forest or Crete and you're generally considered to be white trash to some degree, depending on how many jacked-up cars can be found in your front lawn at any one time.
But I didn't know any of that when I was growing up. If I had, I no doubt would have told them to go fuck themselves. I've never cared much for people whose apparent mission in life is to put on airs in the mistaken belief they're somehow better than you because of an address.
So allow me to tell you about Steger.
As I grew up an only child in the '50s and '60s, we had two drugstores kitty corner from one another, a Kresge's dime store, a laundromat, a liquor store, a corner tap, a couple of barbershops, an American Legion, a gas station, a shoe store, a paper store, a Dari-Whip, and a bowling alley.
I might be missing a few things, but you get the picture.
So yes, the term small town America certainly fits here.
I don't remember if the one restaurant we had was always there, but I never remember eating at it. I'm pretty sure I wasn't missing anything.
And yes, there was an attached fire station and police station notable for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, the tiny cop house actually got plenty of attention because a prisoner perished in a fire, no mean trick since the fire equipment was within 5 feet.
I remember walking up to take a look at the damage when I was around 10 or so and not thinking much of it.
Today, I'd be thinking what kind of incredible numb nuts allows this to happen?
I would get the answer to that question a few years later when I would have my own dealings with Steger's finest, but I'll save that for now.
About the only other negative incident came when I was accused of shoplifting from the Kresge's. I recall that one of the managers, at least I think he was, came running out after me on 34 St., claiming that I had swiped some rubber bands.
Rubber-fucking bands. This jerkoff chased me because he thought I'd taken rubber bands? Cock spank.
I allowed him to frisk me. I can't help but thinking now that's all he really wanted to do in the first place. He found no stolen goods, but still told me I was banned from ever coming in the store again.
I'm not even sure that should qualify as punishment.
The protocol these days would probably be to call the parents, but no call was ever made, nor do I recall ever telling my mom and dad that this had happened. I like that policy.
I have no idea whatever became of this guy, but I'm thinking that his frisk was more than a little too vigorous. It's possible I'm just imagining that after all these years, but I have a feeling I wasn't the last kid he checked.
Why none of this made sense is that my grandmother worked at the paper store across the street and I could go and get anything that I wanted, which usually meant candy.
I didn't realize it at the time — probably because I was too busy shoving Hershey bars down my yap — that my grandmother was one of the sweetest people alive.
I thought about her when I became a grandfather for the first time, which just happens to be one of the most extraordinary experiences of anyone's life. The birth of Tyler Joseph Boers on St. Patrick's Day in 2003 forever enriched my life to a point I would have never imagined, just as did the other four grandchildren who were to follow.
Anyway, the fact my grandmother would later marry the Steger equivalent of Mayberry's Otis Campbell no doubt created a stir I didn't know about.
This guy was a drunk's drunk, someone who according to many spent plenty of nights in his car sleeping one off. And, I have to assume, at times he probably drove it with the proverbial snootful.
Still, while I would later learn that he could be a mean drunk upon occasion, he always was good to me, which at the time meant he showed no inclination to frisk me.
The only other hazard around town that immediately comes to mind was from a guy everyone called Titchy.
I can't remember his real name because there's a chance I never really knew it. I also understand that in today's world you'd never get away with poking fun at someone's disability. Sorry, but Titchy it is. And no, I never found out what ailed him. But I never really asked.
Here's what I knew from an early age: people were deathly afraid of him behind the wheel of his beat-up blue Chevrolet.
I recall standing on the north side of 34 Street and watching this guy come barreling down the old main drag. More than once you'd see him crossing the center line and getting into the other lane, or perhaps he'd be veering towards the curb. He was a pinball wizard.
A victim of apparent spasmodic reactions in both of his arms and apparently his head, his driving was unpredictable and dangerous. It was kind of like you had access to a puppet show at 50 miles per hour. And while some in town insisted that he had a driver's license, no one could figure out how he passed the test.
Again, I don't know what became of him, although I suppose stunt driving might have been his true calling. Someone should have called Joie Chitwood. You might have to look that one up.
At any rate, I hope you're getting the picture here. I don't think Steger was all that different from many of the small towns in America in the mid-1950s. The one thing I can assure you is that we didn't hear from countless social workers, psychologists, and other experts about the dos and don'ts of raising children.
I kind of think that's a good thing. I'm not opposed to getting help for those who need it, but I would later learn that some plain old common sense could do wonders.
Besides, who's to really say if one generation is better than the next?
I was a product of parents who were part of what was to become known as The Greatest Generation. Pretty hard to beat that.
Do you want to argue about the success of the Baby Boomers vs. the Millennials? Have fun. If people today are convinced they're raising the best and the brightest kids in the history of mankind because of the all the parental advice out there, good for them. Even if they're impossibly full of shit.
We always wanted our four kids to learn to think for themselves, to have a strong moral compass, and to understand that life isn't always going to be a smooth ride, that how you cope with the difficult times says much more about you as a person than how you act when things are going well.
But I'm not about to lecture anyone on good parenting. You can be a terrific parent and wind up with a kid (or kids) who are impossible shitheads.
I just wish that so many of the fumble-fucks out there didn't have so many idiot children. I also wish that Titchy had been a safer, more considerate driver. Today, he'd look just like one of those idiots texting while they're driving.CHAPTER 2
I'm not positive when I first heard there were plans to start an all-sports radio station in Chicago, although there had been a few whispers here and there in the first couple months of 1991.
Did it pique my interest? Sure did. But I don't recall seeking any detailed information. About the only thing I knew for sure was that Dan McNeil was supposedly involved. While the producer for Chet Coppock's show, McNeil and I had worked a few shows together when Coppock was on vacation. I'd been a semi-regular with Chet when I was covering the Bulls and later when I wrote a column.
Thing is, there wasn't much feedback on what we'd done. But then I didn't expect much considering Coppock's audience didn't come within light years of matching his ego.
Later in the decade, 1988 to be more precise, I worked for more than three years on The Sportswriters Sunday afternoons on WGN radio, which was the city's AM monster at the time. But I didn't think that spending a few hours with my old running buddy Dave van Dyck of the SunTimes, the colorful Bill Jauss of the Chicago Tribune, and legendary host Ben Bentley had a damn thing to do with 'GN being king of the hill. But it was a thing, especially with Bentley, who, even if it was the height of Bears season or the coldest day of the year, always fretted during breaks, wondering when we were going to get to the Cubs.
As for the earlier shows I'd done with Danny, they might have been good, they might have been have been bad or, perhaps, just okay. I never knew and never spent a moment worrying about it. We always had fun. That's what mattered most.
And at no point during any of this did I suspect, nor particularly crave, making a career change to radio. There just wasn't the opportunity to be had and I didn't even pretend to know much about the medium, unless you count being able to turn one on and off as a strength.
The one thing I could relate to was a decided lack of feedback from print or radio. Not that I ever expected to hear much in the way of hosannas or hate-yous in the snail mail era. That's what you call being conditioned to seldom hear a discouraging word. Or any other word for that matter.
When you'd worked at newspapers as long as I had, you got pretty used to the idea that only upon the rarest occasion does anyone in a position of power ever even say "nice job." The most you'd ever receive was an occasional nod and perhaps one of the paper's big shots actually recognized you in the hallway. Not likely, but it could happen.
And the lot of a desk guy is even worse if attention is what you seek.
For example, the first time I ran into the legendary Sun-Times columnist Irv Kupcinet at the paper was in the bathroom.
Old Irv barely grunted at me in 1980, which was soon after I started on the night sports desk. I walked away with the distinct impression Kup was kind of expecting me to hand him a paper towel.
As for Mike Royko, no doubt the greatest columnist in the history of the city, he walked right by me many, many times without saying a word. Good thing he wasn't moving fast enough to give him windburn.
It had to be just before I left the desk to take the Bulls beat that I was right behind Royko as he was getting a cup of coffee at a machine in the newsroom. Before the coffee stopped pouring, Royko suddenly started to keel over backwards. I grabbed him up, thinking that he was having some kind of health issue.
After I steadied him, Royko muttered what sounded to be a thank you, took his coffee, and shuffled back to his office. I kind of think that Royko might have been sloshed that night, hardly a surprise considering his reputation.
There were a few other nights when I'd see him at the Billy Goat Tavern, sitting at the corner of the bar looking in worse shape than most coma patients.
Let's leave it at this. I absolutely loved Royko's work. He might have been a good guy. I never found out. But then what I thought didn't matter much. With apologies to horse-racing maven Dave Feldman, Royko was The One and Only King.
I WAS BACK to writing features by 1991, "retiring" from the column after the relatively new guys running the Sun-Times accused me of writing a column about a Bears-Dallas game in which I had purportedly used overtones throughout that the Marlboro Man — he of the well-known ad campaign at the time — was gay. I couldn't believe it. I also couldn't believe that they didn't think the Marlboro Man was gay.
Rather than continue to argue what was clearly going to be a losing cause, I stepped back and told them that I would give up the job, one which had netted me three quick writing awards, including the 1989 Peter Lisagor award. In Chicago, you can't do any better.
Truth is, the timing was perfect. My son, Joe, had just embarked on what was going to be a terrific high school athletic career, and I'd always chafed a bit at the idea of being out of town so much. This was the perfect opportunity to grab back at least some of my life.
And if that weren't enough, how about the fact that the guy I would have to answer to: The one, the only Steve Rosenbloom, who was assignment editor for Toyland, as the sports department was known. For his part, Steve denies that ever happened. It happened. I loved him then and I love him now, especially in his role as the man behind Chicago's funniest Snark Tank.
I was covering Illinois sports and writing the occasional feature piece when I received a phone call from someone by the name of Seth Mason, who asked if I'd be willing to come in for an interview involving the all-sports radio station.
Mason, as I would later learn, had helped make WXRT-FM into one of radio's gold standards, along with Diamond Broadcast owner Dan Lee, who would turn out to be one of the best people I've ever known.
Despite some rather large changes in ownership, 'XRT remains the same great station to this very day, thanks to true legends like Lin Brehmer, Terri Hemmert, and Frank E. Lee, all of whom are still around.
At the time, 'XRT was located at 4949 W. Belmont in the city. Easy enough. I was told to just go west on Belmont off the Kennedy Expressway and look for the giant radio tower on my left-hand side.
Given those directions, how many people do you think would have managed to drive right by the building and go on for a couple of miles? Only when I realized that I was way beyond Central Ave. did it occur to me that I'd screwed up. Finally I turned the car around and headed back. And you know what I saw almost immediately? The tower. Idiot.
When I got back to the rather unimpressive light brick building on my right-hand side, I noticed a car coming out of a gated parking lot on my left.
That's for me I thought, quickly pulling in before the gate closed.
Of course, I would later have to have someone come out of the radio station to let me out because while it was indeed the 'XRT lot, you needed a clicker.
So I was already off to a roaring start.
As for Mason, he was completely cordial as we visited, even though I could tell he wasn't the world's greatest sports fan. In later years it was a delight to watch the interaction between McNeil and Mason. While I assumed there was a mutual respect, there were certainly some days when they clashed in a rather loud fashion. I would come to find out that was just Danny being Danny. I'm pretty sure Seth felt the same way. Talk about a guy who could keep his cool even under barrage. That was Seth.