The bum who quoted Shakespeare

A new video from a Florida advocacy group features homeless people holding up signs that describe themselves, such as “I speak 4 languages” or “I was on the Buffalo Bills practice squad from 1998-2000.” It brings to mind an encounter I had with a homeless man more than thirty years ago in Spokane, where I went to college.

One night we were downtown at a rock club or jazz bar, and as we left the joint, a homeless panhandler in his fifties approached us. We gave the guy some change. He was perseverating, something about a suitcase. Nonsensically and unkindly, I started reciting from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part II, as I had recently memorized a good chunk of it.

I quoted Prince Hal, “Why doth the crown lie there upon his pillow, / Being so troublesome a bedfellow? / O polish’d perturbation! golden care! / That keep’st the ports of slumber open wide / To many a watchful night! sleep with it now!”

When I paused, glancing around for yucks among my friends, the bum responded with Henry VI’s words: “Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought: / I stay too long by thee, I weary thee. / Dost thou so hunger for mine empty chair / That thou wilt needs invest thee with my honours / Before thy hour be ripe? O foolish youth!”

He recited the entire soliloquy.

We punks looked at each other in amazement. I replied, “O, pardon me, my liege!”

We took the guy out for a midnight dinner at Denny’s. Maybe a Denver omelet and hash browns. That’s what I would have ordered in those days, if I’d had the money. The waitress shot hateful looks at us for crowding a smelly bum into our booth, but she didn’t kick us out. She slammed his silverware down, slopped the coffee cups in place. Then again, she was working night shift, maybe her feet were tired, and it’s not impossible she was only a couple rungs above homelessness herself. It turned out our panhandler had been some kind of electronics engineer in Minnesota, so he said. He told us he was mentally ill or had suffered a brain trauma (I can’t recall which) that prevented him from working. Lost his job. Drank to self-medicate. He wasn’t an actor, had just memorized Shakespeare.

We brought him back to our dorm and put him up in an empty room for the night. Crazy of us in retrospect, as it was a co-ed dorm and we knew nothing about the guy. But we figured he would appreciate a night off the streets. He kept talking about that suitcase, and we realized he really had lost it, his only possession other than a plastic bag with a few trinkets inside.

The next morning one of us with a car took the bum back downtown and bought him breakfast. I think they checked with the cops for the lost suitcase, but nothing turned up. That’s the last any of us saw of him.

I am touched by the lives revealed in the video. I doubt that most homeless people are former robot makers or NFL practice squad players, but some of the more modest signs are equally touching, telling of giving up one’s kids to keep them off the streets. As a reporter I would seek documentation for whatever claim a source might make, or leave it out of the story. But I know that, now in my fifties, if a college punk with a few beers in him threw some Shakespeare at me, I couldn’t respond as well as that panhandler.

Bless his soul, our poor tormented engineer, wherever he is, in the grave or still, improbably, on the earth.


Filed under Drama, Plays and screenplays, Poetry, Shakespeare, Theater

Life after a newspaper layoff: Sometimes it’s not a disaster

A former Tribune Co. reporter—laid off and struggling with cancer—writes to Romenesko about the pain of being having a career in journalism ended at age 45. She ripped through the 401K and ended up without a calling and feeling lost and betrayed.

I have tried to recover but am still bitter and angry at the dirty pool that was played. So many people I considered good friends, whose weddings and baby showers I attended, stabbed me right in the back.

I’m hardly alone. It was journalist against journalist when the rounds of layoffs happened, and people did vile things. I’m sure we all know some total sociopaths who have managed to hold onto their journalism jobs by beheading all their “friends.”

I have no idea where most of my coworkers went. Some have gone on to other jobs or lives, and some have just sunk to the bottom. One guy, this total straight arrow, has spent many nights in the drunk tank. I know another who is drugging himself to death. Others are just trying to live in a world that is diminished in every way—less money, less purpose, less reason to be here. I wonder how many involuntarily ex-journalists have attempted or committed suicide? That’s another story you’ll never see.

This is a poignant and bitter piece, and my hat is off to Charlie Madigan for calling it to my attention and reaching out to the author.

In reading it, however, I realize how lucky I am. What the ex-reporter describes was not my experience when I was laid off nearly five years ago at age 49. The day I was told to clear out my desk, I felt exhilarated. (Admittedly, I did not have cancer.) The sole supporter of a family can’t just up and quit a job, but, hell, when you’re thrown out, there’s no choice. And after you walk the plank, the horizons are limitless.

As I watched the SS Chicago Tribune sail along, circling at sea, listing to starboard, smoke pouring from the portholes as the bosses frantically shoved people off, I thought, I’m better off out here. It was bracing. No sharks. My family and I could go anywhere. I had just backed out of what probably would have turned into a job offer teaching journalism in India, and I could have called them back, but my reasons for not going hadn’t changed.

Nonna was great. She said, “We lived through far worse in Russia. We can get through this. Remember the ruble crisis?” Of course. The value of our wages collapsed. Shelves were bare in the stores. People were panicking and buying massive bags of flour in Vladivostok. But nobody starved, and a few weeks later, the papers were chock full of recipes for pancakes, dumplings and other flour-heavy foods.

I don’t share this journalist’s sense that backstabbers played any role in costing me my job. I was middle-aged and better paid than someone two decades younger would have been. In every industry, mid- and late-career people are the most expensive and the first to go.

The Trib is a paper with a great history, talented staff, and many strengths, but it also was in decline. And it always was an editors’ paper. I worked for several great editors there, but the Trib was also a hard place to sell a story idea to. (Or maybe it was just me.) I had many ideas turned down that I could easily have sold when I was freelancing, starting with day one in 2003, when I wanted to write an op-ed about our move to Chicago. A TSA agent had yanked our 10-day-old baby out of Nonna’s hands and patted the newborn down for explosives. No, thanks, I was told. Not of interest. The New York Times, which published something like seven op-eds of mine, would have taken it.

Like the Romenesko contributor, I found it a little unsettling no longer to receive invitations to social events from some journalist friends, but I had expected that, too, having once been one of those pariahs known as a boss. Then again, the Elmhurst Press Club–a jokey name for a group of reporters who gathered for a beer every once in a while, continued to invite me and other out-of-work ex-Tribsters along. I faded out only because I didn’t like driving back to Oak Park after drinking.

In the end, I was lucky. I finished a novel and found an agent (if not yet a publisher). I taught a graduate workshop in fiction and mentored students for a semester. I freelanced and did a fiction residency. Right now, for four weeks, I am again a writer-in-residence, this time with a literary organization in Brussels, and delivering journalism lectures to two universities while I’m at it. I’m taking the train to London this weekend to interview a former investor in the Russian shipping industry for a nonfiction book I’m working on.

As for my full-time job, I ended up at a great company at Ragan Communications—a place that (go figure) likes the way I write. We produce trade publications for people in PR and corporate communications. The job may not be as sexy as reporting for the Chicago Tribune, but it’s a good place to work, with colleagues I greatly admire. Two years ago, I made an ill-advised lurch into PR, mainly because I wanted to get closer to my parents in California, who are full-time caregivers for my disabled younger brother. I hated the job and was lousy at it. How had I not seen that coming? Maybe because I got the job offer the day before Christmas and had to start Jan. 4, leaving no time for thoughtful consideraton.

Never mind; I quit PR within weeks. Unemployed again! But our CEO Mark Ragan forgave all and hired me back. We turned around and moved back to Chicagoland. Few wives would have tolerated two cross-country moves in three months, so again, I lucked out. And Ragan has its perks. In December, I got to go on a reporting junket to Rome, something I couldn’t have done at the Trib.

Forgive me if it sounds heartless to mention all that in response to an ex-journalist’s cri de coeur. I have had many down times, too, if nothing like the nightmares this reporter lays out. I bring all this up only to offer a different perspective to those journalists living in fear of the next round of layoffs. Sometimes, as this writer makes clear, a layoff is a disaster. But often something better awaits you.

I welcome comments from anyone who has a different perspective, but as I am traveling this weekend, it may take a day or so before I approve them.

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Women, books, Dr. Tom Dooley, and quality IKEA furnishings

Kid ponders "Before I Sleep: The Last Days of Dr. Tom Dooley" at IKEA furniture store.

Kid ponders “Before I Sleep: The Last Days of Dr. Tom Dooley” at IKEA quality furniture store.

Yesterday we celebrated International Women’s Day by visiting a Swedish store that sells furniture you can crumble into kitty litter in your hands, with a cafe famous for its horse meatballs (or horsemeat balls?) served with lingonberry jam.

Why? Did we go to IKEA, you mean? If the furniture’s so cheap? Because Nonna wanted to, that’s why. And they do sell other stuff. So we got her International Women’s Day present there. Plus, the 99-cent breakfast was free, which means we drove 48 miles round-trip to get $2.97 cents’ worth of food. But there was horse sausage, so it was worth it.

Pictured, the kid drops into narcoleptic state with prop: a copy of Before I Sleep: The Last Days of Dr. Tom Dooley, by James Monahan. It was stuck in a stack of books supporting the base of an IKEA lamp, because it’s cool and stylish and Nordic to place lamps, salt shakers, TVs, gerbil cages, diaper pails, and so forth on books. I was shooting pics of our kid to tweet, as we were suckers for a contest that offered a coupon for a thousand dollars’ worth of furniture you can beat into sawdust against any household surface, pet, or family member.

Tom Dooley. Physician working among Vietnamese and Laotian refugees in the 1950s. Humanitarian. Saint? Spook? Or not? Lord knows. Not the same guy who was supposed to hang down his head and die, but dying young, anyway. He succumbed to cancer in 1961 at 34 years old.

I can feel guilty about anything, so I chose to feel guilty for joining Crümbleables of Stockholm in disrespecting both books and a great humanitarian with my photo-mockery. Tom Dooley would have absolved me, though. I was sure of it. Had a sense of humor. Paused while vaccinating children long enough the crack up over jokes involving the final days of once-famous people.

So instead I felt a little sorry for Dooley biographer James Monahan, even more forgotten than his subject, the book that he wept over, as he wrote it, now sitting on a plank of IKEA shelving that doubles as a hot breakfast cereal (crumble in your hands; add milk, salt, horse grease, and brown sugar; boil), all in order to appeal to the aesthetics of Norsemen who like roasting themselves pink in banyas and whose most famous export is a vodka whose name is a synonym for arbitrary, autocratic, tsarist, despotic, dictatorial, monocratic, tyrannical, arrant, blank, blooming [chiefly British], bodacious, categorical, complete, consummate, cotton-picking, etc., per Merriam-Webster. Absolut, I mean. Is this the eventual fate of all books in the end? To sit on an IKEA surface that might be crushed to talcum powder under their weight? Then again, Monahan’s Dooley book is probably read more often at quality Swedish furniture stores than mine are in the libraries. That made me feel better.

Also, Nonna got two things made of iron. Which you can bend, if you’re Superman, but doesn’t crumble.

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Snow shovels and the perils of winter

So, I’m walking home in a blizzard, reflecting on the soft winter beauty of another six or eight inches of snow, how it covers all the squirted yellow holes in the white embankments along the sidewalks and buries another generation of frozen dog turds. Two guys are coming my way, carrying snow shovels on their shoulders.

I’m an American. I say “hi” to everybody I pass. It’s in our genes. So I do—just as the first guy turns around to say, “What?” to his buddy.

WHAM! He hits me in the eye with the corner of his snow shovel. I fall to my knees and nearly black out. The darkness dissolves into a swarm of horseflies on a corpse, which become whiteflies in flight, and then start falling again as snowflakes, and I am kneeling in fresh snow on a white night, clutching a chain that someone strung up along the edge of his yard in case anyone needed help to avoid toppling over.

“Oh! Shit! Wow! Sorry! Are you all right?”

“Ugh. Jeez!”

“Shit! Man! I didn’t mean to!”

“I know.” I pull off my glove and explore my eye socket. Still there. No blood. All right. I scoop up snow and hold it to my eye. He grabs my arm and helps me up.

“Your eye? Let me look at it. Ain’t bleeding.”



“Kind of.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right.”

“Good night.”

“Ugh. Yeah, good night.”

I trudge home. If there’s a lesson in this, beyond the value of a good pratfall, it’s how unlikely it is that I will successfully disarm the next madman who wanders into a mall or a movie theater and starts taking out people with a snow shovel.

Later I get out our own shovel, and I work with a neighbor to clear out the parking lot out behind our condo, because the guys the association hired, identity unknown, left heaps of snow that prevent us from getting our cars back in. It feels good to shovel, even though I worked out in the morning. The shiner, though, turns out to be disappointingly meager. Just a touch of red, like the eye shadow of a Chinese opera singer, the ones whose voices sound like you’re twisting the tail of a cat.

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Filed under Winter

Beasts of the Eastern Wild


The conflict between Russia and Ukraine is now embodied in two boxers. Twitter users have been spreading a photo of Russian boxer Nikolai “Beast from the East” Valuev, the 7-foot-1, 320-pound former heavyweight champ, as he towers over a pro-Russian crowd outside a government building in the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol, where gunmen seized the regional parliament.

“I arrived in Sevastopol to support residents of Crimea. Friends, Russia is with you!” Valuev wrote on Twitter.

Rival Vitali “Dr. Iron Fist” Klitschko, the 6-foot-7 Ukrainian who once called Valuev a “chicken,” is a parliamentarian who is part of the movement that toppled the government in Kiev last weekend. Calls for the two to duke it out are resounding across Twitter.

Back in 2004, when the Orange Revolution was underway in Kiev, I wrote a story on the support Klitschko was finding in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village. Ukrainian President Yanukovich, recently ousted again, was reviled by most Chicago Ukrainians (as he is now), and Klitchko’s World Boxing Council title match against British slugger Danny Williams symbolized something greater for the Ukrainian people.

The windows of Nikolai Baranovsky’s electronics shop on Chicago Avenue tell the story of two fights that have fired the imagination of Ukrainians around the world.

On one side is a poster of presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, whose supporters have protested in Kiev to overturn the results of an election that was ruled fraudulent.

Nearby is a poster for Vitali Klitschko, a 6-foot-7 Ukrainian heavyweight who will defend his World Boxing Council title against British slugger Danny Williams in Las Vegas on Saturday.

On the streets of Chicago’s Ukrainian Village, Klitschko’s fight has taken on a deep symbolism in a time of renewed national pride–particularly since Klitschko, 33, is a backer of Yushchenko’s populist battle against the official winner, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. A new election will be held Dec. 26. …

In a conference call in 2004, Klitschko praised the street demonstrators and said he hoped his fight would inspire them and draw attention to Ukraine. As I wrote for the Trib:

Ukraine is struggling because the leaders who once were communists have changed their colors and now claim to be democratic, Vitali Klitschko told reporters. But their way of governing hasn’t changed, he said.

“That is why there are millions of people coming outside in the street to demonstrate peacefully,” the champion said. “Nobody drinks alcohol. It has been very peaceful. After every one of my fights in Ukraine, they hear me speak about freedom, liberty and free press, but now it is hopefully happening.”

This time around it wasn’t so peaceful, but Klitschko was part of the opposition in the parliament that unseated Yanukovych.

Valuev is widely regarded as a towering monster. Twitter users are scoffing at his Neanderthal appearance. But boxing promoter Trayce Zimmermann of Trayce ZPR offers a reminder that you can’t judge a boxer by his mug. (Politics, on the other hand, are fair game.) Trayce wrote to me on Facebook:

Valuev was quite misunderstood and often viewed as a freak. Very well read and educated, he was very shy, due, I think, to his gigantism. Always a devastating puncher and formidable simply because of his size, he had a good run as champion and KO’d Monte Barrett in the 11th round at the Allstate Arena in 2006. Don King (and I) did an extensive media tour here to promote the bout including a press conference at the top of the Sears Tower. “Two Giants.” DK tried for years to make a fight between his Russian and either Klitschko brother. I doubt Valuev would return to the ring now. He’s too smart and likely doesn’t need the money. Certainly, VK won’t ever fight again. He’s too busy fighting the biggest fight.

She adds that one of the few words Valuev knew in English was “Macy’s,” and he went shopping in suburban Oak Brook.

He loved to shop for his wife and kids. Clothes. Of course, he couldn’t find anything at all for himself. I felt sorry for him. People were always staring at him like a circus freak.

The world, and not just boxing fans, is interested in seeing how this fight ends.

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Filed under Politics, Russia

“It comes from God”: the trial of Joseph Brodsky

brodskyThere’s a fascinating read up at The New England Review: Frida Abramovna Vigdorova’s transcript of the 1964 trial of Joseph Brodsky, translated by Michael R. Katz. It ends with the judge pronouncing this sentence on the future Nobel laureate: “Brodsky will be sent to remote locations for a period of five years of forced labor.” And the guards, passing the defense counsel, sneer, “So? You lost the case, comrade lawyer!”

I found this particularly telling as an example of the clash between the state and the individual writer:

JUDGE: How long did you work at the factory?

BRODSKY: A year.

JUDGE: As what?

BRODSKY: A milling-machine operator.

JUDGE: And, in general, what is your specific occupation?

BRODSKY: Poet. Poet-translator.

JUDGE: And who said you’re a poet? Who ranked you among poets

BRODSKY: No one. (Unsolicited) Who ranked me as a member of the human race?

JUDGE: Did you study for this?

BRODSKY: Study for what?

JUDGE: To become a poet. Did you attend some university where people are trained … where they’re taught…

BRODSKY: I didn’t think it was a matter of education.

JUDGE: How, then?

BRODSKY: I think that … (perplexed) it comes from God…

JUDGE: Do you have any petitions for the court?

BRODSKY: I’d like to know why I was arrested.

JUDGE: That’s a question, not a petition.

BRODSKY: Then I have no petitions.

Read the whole thing.

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Filed under Books, Poetry, Writing


I have wanted a complete Oxford English Dictionary since I was 17 and I lived in Sydney with the Bishops, who had one that they regularly consulted. Now I finally own one, the same compact edition with four pages reproduced on every leaf.
For years I did without an OED, what with the moves abroad, my status as an impoverished small-town reporter, or my lazy reliance on American Heritage. Then ten years ago, after we returned to the States from Cyprus, I found out you could get free access online with an Oak Park Public Library card, so I never bothered to buy my own OED.

Last year, the library canceled its online subscription to the dictionary, citing budget constraints. This happened even as they remodeled the ground floor and added a lounge that is so unused, they had to place a Ping-Pong table in there to lure people in. (Maybe they should distribute free blankets for nappers and hobos.) When I complained, they told me the subscription was too expensive and hardly anybody used it.

Why, I use it every day, I said.

We value your opinion, they said.

Filled with righteous indignation, I FOIed the remodeling budget and the OED metrics. Turns out they were right: They got fewer than 30 look-ups a month. And the cost (I’ve lost their lawyer’s email) was pretty high for a service whose customer base amounted to: me. So much for my plan to write a stinging letter to the editor of the local weekly. (“Sirs: On behalf of aggrieved writers everywhere, I wish to register my indignation at the priorities of our public library.”)

But now, thanks to an Amazon gift card from our older kid, I have my own OED, complete with case and the little drawer containing the squarish magnifying glass.

The word “working,” by the way, only dates to the 1300s. “Work” first appeared in 971. Not that that’s really relevant; I inherited Working from German immigrants, the Werkingers, who were apparently confused about how best to blend in when they arrived in Pennsylvania.

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Filed under Books, Editing, Fiction, Writing