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Monthly Archives: February 2013

Thank You, Lindy

Thank You, Lindy

The entire city of Buffalo was reeling after hearing the sudden news of the firing of Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff on Wednesday. Yes, the entire city had been calling for it, but the city’s reaction isn’t one which is usually heard among fans who have been begging for his head. Instead of a huffing “good riddance,” Buffalo gave him a sendoff worthy of a beloved President. Ruff, after all, wasn’t a retread coach grabbed by a team looking to build on the cheap. He was the coach of the Sabres for 16 years and a true member of the community. He was also a great coach who was, if anything, guilty of complacency. He had been around for too long, and his message was clearly falling onto the deaf ears of his players.

The instigator of the firing had been a lackluster game against the Winnipeg Jets. Although the hockey season has only just started, the Winnipeg game had the definite feel of a must-win game because the Sabres had started slow and gotten routinely pummeled by the best teams in the East. The Winnipeg game was the beginning of a stretch of games against the East’s dregs, in which the Sabres could have proved themselves at least a competitive playoff team. They failed miserably. Wednesday night, to wash out the aftertaste of the loss in Winnipeg, I caught the NBC Sports Rivalry Night game between the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins. The Flyers/Pens game proved destined for the league archives. These were two of the best teams in the league, Stanley Cup contenders, and ferocious rivals who can’t stand each other. The game was an exciting, high-powered race which featured heavy hits and fights, a two-goal comeback in the first period, a six-goal third period which carried the threat of overtime, Wayne Simmonds picking up a Gordie Howe hat trick (one goal, one assist, and one fighting penalty) with a second goal, and two goals around the final two minutes, including Jakob Voracek’s game-winner for Philadelphia, which clinched a 6-5 victory.

As I watched that ice war, I couldn’t help but remember back to the earlier, better days of Ruff’s tenure, when the Sabres regularly battered their way through games just like it. When Ruff was first hired back in 1997, he was actually hated by a wide portion of the fanbase. After all, the coach the team had fired, Ted Nolan, had brought back a hard-fighting, aggressive brand of hockey which had pulled the then-lost Sabres out of the woods. When Nolan arrived, the Sabres had talent, but no direction and were therefore just good enough to not be written off. When Nolan left, the Sabres had the best goalie in the world with Dominick Hasek and were seen as real contenders. The problem was that Hasek and Nolan weren’t getting along very well, and while most Buffalo fans believed Nolan – who had won the Jack Adams Trophy – was more responsible for the team’s recent success than Hasek, Hasek was the marquee player. Needless to say, management thought otherwise so it was Nolan’s head that rolled. In came Ruff.

It took only one season for Ruff to silence all doubters. In the 1998 season, he took the very young and inexperienced Sabres to the Conference Finals. They were overmatched by a more skilled and experienced Washington Capitals team, but Ruff didn’t let that slow him down. He one-upped himself in the 1999 season by returning to the Conference Finals, where he was without the aid of Hasek for the first two games. The Sabres matched up with the Toronto Maple Leafs, a more talented team favored to return to the Finals for the first time since 1967. The Sabres and Leafs had split the first two games in the series, but the games told more than the 1-1 series tie after those first two: In the first game, Toronto had given up a lead to lose. In the second, the Leafs scored two first period goals which were 18 seconds apart, a buffer which they turned out to really need. In the third game, Hasek was back, Buffalo won decisively, and Toronto was never in the series again. For the first time in my life, the concept of my team playing for the Stanley Cup was more than an abstract expression used to describe hockey’s ultimate end. The Sabres were really in the Finals. They lost to a far more objectively talented Dallas Stars team, but that’s more in the NHL archives than anything. The vast majority of NHL fans believe the Sabres were robbed by a bad call. The Cup-winning goal was so controversial that even Brett Hull – who scored it and defends its legality – admits the Sabres were royally shafted by the way the cited rules were set up.

Lindy Ruff went on to lead the Sabres through their greatest years, winning a Prince of Wales Trophy, a Jack Adams Award, and a Presidents’ Trophy. The Sabres were a model of stability through Ruff’s guiding hand, and Ruff was the one thing about the Sabres that never capsized. He saw the on-ice team through multiple ownership changes, including one in which the NHL took over from crooked owner who was arrested. After the post-2005 lockout rule changes, Ruff’s teams became the emulated model of the new, wide-open NHL offense.

More notable than that, though, is that with the 1998 run to the Conference Finals, Buffalo’s old sports guard shifted slightly. Buffalo was exclusively a football city for most of my life. While the Sabres had a lot of fans, it was the Bills who owned the city, a fact which was reinforced by the late 80’s when they actually started repaying their fans for years of crappy football. The Bills rose to become an NFL power and dominated throughout the 90’s. By 1998, though, the team was starting to slide a little. They were still a great team, but their star quarterback was retired and the rest of the core was aging. The team hadn’t won a playoff game in a few years. As the Bills slowly drifted into the wayward spiral that passes for them these days, Ruff was pulling the Sabres together. After endless years of first round playoff purgatory, the Sabres were finally causing real damage in deep playoff runs, and the idea that our humble little team could bring home the Stanley Cup didn’t seem like a far-flung fantasy. Buffalo was suddenly paying closer attention to the Sabres than it ever had in my life. The first time I thought the city’s sports mentality was starting to drift was during my 1998 prom, which coincided with a second round playoff game against the Montreal Canadiens. The deejay was regularly cutting into his set to announce the score, which was our cue to cheer since the Sabres were usually ahead. The Sabres ended up winning the game and ultimately sweeping Montreal.

Sabres gear was popping up more and more for the 1999 Stanley Cup. In the meantime, the Bills’ 1999 season ended with what is, at this date, their most recent playoff appearance. They played a wild card game against the Tennessee Titans which was lost on the famous Music City Miracle (or as we call it, The Forward Lateral). Part of the appeal of the Sabres during this time was the fact that they had no superstars outside of Hasek. The team was the NHL’s island of unwanteds and misfits, low-salary workaday joes with nothing to lose, everything to prove, and a world to win. As a reflection of Buffalo’s blue collar lifestyle, the Sabres began marketing themselves as The Hardest-Working Team in Hockey. They lacked real talent in just about every way, but Ruff’s coaching got the players to gell and play as a single unit in a way few NHL teams did. The late 90’s/early millennial teams came off as townies, guys with little to offer besides their bodies. Yet, they played to the few strengths they had, and went above what their talents otherwise would have allowed. They were able to win games against the NHL’s best just because they didn’t quit – in fact, their playoff trademark back then was the way they turned playoff games into multiple-overtime endurance contests.

When the new rules were implemented after the 2005 lockout, the Sabres were written off. Lindy Ruff had other ideas. Instead of being the sick prey for the wolves, the Sabres became the model team of the post-lockout NHL. They adjusted to the new rules very quickly and emphasized a playing style based on up-tempo speed. The style brought them back to the Conference Finals against the Carolina Hurricanes, one of the classic playoff series. The Sabres did the city proud that year despite losing because they dueled to the end with a banged-up defense against a team that had spent the year walking all over them. Ruff walked off with his Jack Adams Award and took the Sabres to the Presidents’ Trophy the following season, where they lost in the Conference Finals again, this time to the Ottawa Senators. Unfortunately, that was really the final great hurrah for the Ruff Era. After that year, general manager Darcy Regier – who was hired at the same time as Ruff and has been considerably worse at his job than Ruff ever was at coaching – let the team’s marquee star players go. A 2010 division title was a pleasant surprise. It was also an aberration, as the Sabres lost the first round to the Boston Bruins. By the next year, Ruff – as well as Regier – was seen as his team’s greatest obstacle.

Lindy Ruff’s firing meant something to Buffalo. Ruff became the very embodiment of the team, through the good and the bad. He always took responsibility for his team’s failures and mistakes. His 16 years meant something to me, because his 16 years of responsibility for my team’s well-being is just a hair over half of my life so far. Lindy Ruff team’s helped bring me through my own formative years. The Sabres are kind of my family team; we adopted them back when I was very young and playing little league hockey. They’re one thing my family really agrees on. My father is a fan, even though he’s loathe to admit it. (He admitted to cheering in his car on Wednesday upon hearing the news of Ruff’s firing.) My sister is also a fan; even though she’s forgotten it, she was always the loudest at games, and like every other properly raised Buffalo kid, she loved Rob Ray. Some of my little league teams were invited to Buffalo Memorial Auditorium to play between periods at games, in front of 17,000 spectators – those were some of the coolest experiences of my life. I also became a huge fan of the Montreal Canadiens (my first team with Cazenovia was called the Canadiens, and our sponsors sent us little knicknacks of the real Montreal Canadiens, so my teammates and I believed we were an extension of them) and, of course, the Chicago Blackhawks. But it’s the Sabres who remain my definitive team, for better or worse, and Lindy Ruff is a massive part of that. Hell, he played for them for ten years before he was ever even a coach.

Ruff thanked the organization and fans at his final press conference. He truly is a Buffalo guy. He raised his kids in this city and will continue to live here. Thank YOU, Lindy Ruff. I’ll be pulling for you, no matter where you coach. You’ll always have a place in Buffalo, and in the hearts of every Sabres fan.

My Barton Fink Moment

My Barton Fink Moment

It seems funny to be writing about this right now, since I’m basically just taking to my blog to brag about my progress. Seems like I already did something similar once a few months back to complain about my writer’s block. As some of those who have been reading know, I’ve been working on a book that I describe as a “video game autobiography.” It’s my own life as seen through the lens of many of the video games I’ve played throughout my life. In my last entry about my progress of this thing, I wondered about my Barton Fink Moment of Enlightenment.

Barton Fink was a movie from the Coen Brothers, released in 1991. It’s about a man named Barton Fink who takes a large contract from a movie studio to write scripts, checking into a hotel to write his first assignment for the suits – a script about wrestling. With only that generalized concept to work with, Barton develops the world’s nastiest, most ill-timed case of writer’s block. Little goofy wave-off things become huge distractions, and Barton isn’t even able to peck out the first line of script he was ordered to write. Eventually he is given a box by a man in one of the other rooms whose real identity is more than the insurance salesman he was claiming to be. Without opening the box, Barton finds his moment of enlightenment, sits at his typewriter, and flushes out an entire script in a single sitting.

I’ve finally reached that point. After many months of fighting with both distractions and “distractions,” I was recently able to finish a whopping five chapters in the last three weeks. It won’t be very much longer now, and if my other little writing projects don’t get in the way too much, I can have this manuscript finished by the end of March, at the latest.

What to actually do with it is going to be a whole other matter. I know I’m going to try to get it published, or self-published, even. I do have to recall my favorite writer character in a movie again, though, because in his flash of inspiration, the script Barton pounded out – which he called the most important thing he’s ever written – wasn’t exactly what the suits had in mind. Barton technically did just as his boss asked and wrote a movie about wrestling. “Wrestling,” however, proves to be a pretty broad term, and so Barton managed to parlay the idea of a script about an ancient Greek sport into a script about a man wrestling with his conscience. Or, in the words of his employer, “a fruity movie about suffering.”

In my last post about my writing troubles, I alluded to one of my favorite writers, Hunter S. Thompson. His renowned masterpiece of American literature, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, started as an everyday article about a motorcycle race and grew out of that when Thompson realized the impracticality of covering a motorcycle race. The Vegas line on such a thing happening to my own humble little work is a billion to one against. The bigger issue is the fact that I’m revealing myself to a (potentially) very wide audience through publication. It seemed like a distant concept in in the final few weeks of 2010 when I started writing, but now the idea is a little scary.

Faith and Final Fantasy

Faith and Final Fantasy

This is a chapter from my book.

Final Fantasy X

Final Fantasy X was more or less an impulse buy. I was at Media Play one morning, talking to a friend who happened to be working as one of the clerks there. That was something I did pretty regularly to help make her clerk job a bit more bearable, and I would usually show up around the time the store opened so there would be a minimum of traffic for her to fend off while talking to me. I had had an interview at a nearby Sears for a job her own walking away left open, and my school was only about a half hour walk away, so I would sometimes pop in to say hello. The day I bought Final Fantasy X was the very day it started to show up in the bin for the Playstation 2 Greatest Hits collection. It was $20 now, and since I had liked or loved most of the games in the series to that point, I decided to go ahead and take a stab at it.

I never quite learned to develop the fondness for Final Fantasy X that I had for Final Fantasy IX or Final Fantasy IV from the Chronicles package. Maybe those two games had spoiled me, because it had been a long time since I played Final Fantasy VII, which was basically my gateway into the series. Final Fantasy X was a radical departure from the way the games themselves were made. The Playstation games had contained vastly updated graphics, but Final Fantasy X utilized voice acting, traditional turn-based combat, and had a heavier reliance on CGI cutscenes than any of the other games in the series I had played before. It also allowed the players to switch their characters during combat, which had never been done before in the series. I liked the customization system, the grid sphere, because of the convenience of it.

The main story was a little thin, but Final Fantasy X found a particular resonation to me for one reason: It was the first video game I had ever played in which the characters were openly confronted with the idea of questioning long-held sacred traditions. At the time I started playing Final Fantasy X, the whole idea of doing that in my personal life was becoming tantamount to the way I had decided to live. The game’s plot revolves around the main character, Tidus, fighting off a giant monster eating his hometown and being thrust 1000 years into the future upon doing so. The game opened with the monster fight and Tidus’s little time adventure. Tidus was a star player in a sport called blitzball, and one of the earliest scenes in the game shows a character performing a prayer. Tidus recognized the prayer as a sign that players in his sport gave to each other in his own time. Final Fantasy X certainly didn’t take very long to get to the core of what it was really about.

The main villain of the game, as introduced to me, was simply called Sin. He was the giant monster in the beginning, and the the people from the game’s world believed him to be the manifestation of their sins against their god. It also confronted evangelism, and the idea of hypocrisy within the church.

I had turned into a religious conservative as a kid, at least in secret, because my church had been teaching repetitious passages to be taken at face value. (My parents are NOT responsible.) Most of the folks there also had a very askew idea of the way the younger culture and real world worked, and a lot of what was preached there was extremely dated. I soaked it up mostly because I was a little kid and all the adults I trusted all seemed to be saying this “God” character existed. He also appeared to have written – or at least inspired – a history book about supermen who could actually talk with this god, and apparently were able to ask him to level cities, create swarms of frogs, flood the world, and cause complete darkness. People who were immune to fire and being eaten by lions and could rip apart temples. This god apparently had a son who was sent to be killed to redeem us from sins we hadn’t committed. Who was I to question all this? The church was giving me the impression that the answer to that question was “someone asking for a good smiting, that’s who.”

It was all well and good back when I was eight years old, but I had noticed a few inconsistencies with my science classes by the time I was about 13. I also noticed a few small discrepancies with the scriptures that weren’t sitting very well, either. Even though I was naturally curious, well, I didn’t want to get smitten. My questions couldn’t stay buried forever, though, and by the time I was 19, I had rejected my originally taught religion for an entirely different religion which was soon causing the same questions and therefore, the very same set of problems I had with my old religion. By the time I was 23, I was done. God, religion, and the idea of needing religion to teach morals and values were dead to me.

Final Fantasy X was projecting a lot of my thoughts onto a disc, and that was important to me because Buffalo is uber-religious and South Buffalo even more so. Although the religion presented in Final Fantasy X wasn’t the one I had been taught growing up, it was a relief to me because it made me feel like I wasn’t just being crazy. Maybe it was a little weird taking this kind of comfort from a damned video game, but video games are programmed by people, and in this case it felt like the people doing the programming were encouraging me to think. Besides, in a witch-hunt city like Buffalo, I had to take whatever I could get. In a city where a popular way to discipline kids was to tell them they would be sent to live at Father Baker’s boys’ home (Father Nelson Baker was a Catholic Priest who was renowned for helping the poor and is currently under consideration for sainthood), most people didn’t dig the idea of difficult theological questions and would wave them off using the usual answers: Pray more, read the Bible more, or go to hell. My mother was the only person in the neighborhood who was receptive to my questioning, so that made for a very suppressing atmosphere for me within the city. In an atmosphere like that, Final Fantasy X became something of an important release for me, as well as a good place to run and hide.

I’m still playing Final Fantasy X sporadically. My interest started to wane a little bit because I had other games on my plate, and when Final Fantasy X suddenly took a steep curve into far more difficult territory, I decided there wasn’t any point to frustrating myself over it when there were plenty of other good games there. In spite of the poorly-done difficulty curve, though, Final Fantasy X is still a game I can count on to be there for a very unusual religious reason.

The Prodigal Agnostic

The Prodigal Agnostic

I had prepared a tongue-in-cheek lecture about The Sanctity of Convenience for the ministers of both churches I visited on my lone Sunday in Chicago. Both churches – Friendship Presbyterian Church and Grace Commons – were located in the far northwest sections of Chicago itself, making both of them a huge pain in the ass to get to. Friendship required me to take the Red Line south all the way to Jackson, which was the only place I could make an immediate transfer over to the Blue Line, which I would ride north for a half hour all the way to Jefferson Park before catching the Northwestern Highway bus, which only came along every 45 minutes on weekends. Yeah, I had to leave pretty early in order to get there by the 10:30 starting time. The most direct route was by Metra, but that didn’t leave until 10:30.

My friend Shawna had been installed as the minister at Friendship. Both of us were members of Grace Commons, and I was eager to see how Shawna’s ministry at Friendship compared to the unique worships I had come to know back there. Plus I just hadn’t seen Shawna in a long time, and I felt like a surprise walk-in would probably be in order. 

Soon after my return from that trip to Chicago, I heard it said that the best way to see how welcoming your church congregation is is to walk around the place pretending to be new. If that’s a good test, Friendship passed it with flying colors. I had barely walked through the door when I was greeted and welcomed by two of the parishioners before even seeing Shawna. After telling them who I was an why I was there, they were happy to take me to her. I hadn’t told Shawna – or anyone at all – that I would be visiting, so there was a genuine surprise in her voice when she looked up and saw me. 

We sat down for a few minutes before the service so I could get her semi-caught up. She had to cut that initial chat short; she was the minister, after all, and she did have a congregation to minister to. The church was in an old Metra station, and most of the regular parishioners had apparently decided to stay home and not risk competing with the ice storm scheduled to hit during the afternoon. Shawna is an artist, and she has also shared many of the same fascinations and frustrations with religion that I have. At one church she was briefly part of, she painted large colorful murals over the course of services which were later displayed in an exhibit at Loyola University’s art gallery. That made it a little surprising when I was presented with a service folder which went through a very traditional service layout, with hymns and prayers and responsive readings. There was even a sermon, and Shawna has never come off on me as the sermon type. After the service, she explained that a lot of her parishioners were older folks from two separate churches who would have bristled at anything too different from a format they had known and loved for years. 

Of the descriptions of my current situation and future plans, Shawna received the brunt of the details. She noticed a marked change in my attitude – probably a result of my frustration and rage – which was finally giving me an intensity and focus which she had never really seen from me before. I went over my feelings about Buffalo, which she could relate to because she felt much the same way about her native Iowa. 

I had plans for the early afternoon, but opted to ditch them when the CTA started trolling me. The transit people had apparently decided to up and ditch the train for 40 minutes, and so I had to wait that long at Armitage to go anywhere. By the time the train finally arrived, my faith in the CTA’s ability to get me to both places I was going within reasonable time was shot, so I scrapped my early afternoon plans and decided to just head straight up to the far northern end of Western Avenue. Friendship had an out-of-the-way location, but on the way back to my lodging, Shawna had filled me in to the fact that the Blue Line’s Harlem stop was only a few blocks away from her church. (Funny how the CTA website failed to mention that.) Grace Commons took me almost the entire distance north on the Brown Line, then even further north on the bus before I had to get off a little north of Devon and hoof it the rest of the way. By then, the storm we had been warned about all day had hit. And it was STILL an hour early, although that wasn’t such a big deal to me because I figured I could walk in and help get the space set up, like I used to. It was just my luck that the door happened to be locked, so I took shelter under the roof outcropping and waited for someone to show. That someone turned out to be the new intern, Sarah, who took me into the office where Nanette had been sitting all along. Needless to say, I suddenly regretted not ringing the doorbell.

The setting had an unorthodox feel by the standards of Grace Commons. My little Chicago church had merged with a second congregation, and Nanette was playing minister to them both. Grace Commons had taken up residence after it was forced out of its last home in the Rumble Arts Center, and it was a little jarring to see the place take up a new spot in a real church. Of course, that was because I wasn’t used to such a thing. I’m not religious, and I always thought part of the appeal of Grace Commons was the aesthetic atmosphere; the NNWAC building and Rumble Arts Center both had atmospheres which encouraged visitors to create and challenge a church orthodoxy which the regulars had largely rejected. The setting of an actual church came off a bit stuffy. The feeling was elevated by the fact that there wasn’t very much setting up to do. Everything had already been arranged, so there wasn’t much to do outside of sitting in Nanette’s office drinking tea, catching up, and letting Sarah get to know me a bit better. (She came off as a little suspicious when she first spotted me outside.) I told Nanette that Shawna had said hello, and said that the service at Friendship had been shockingly traditional. Nanette said that her own morning service was also very traditional.

Fortunately, the service at Grace Commons didn’t lose anything. That week Grace Commons was scheduled to do poetry vespers, in which poems were read and music was improvised. The poetry readings involved the parishioners now more than ever; instead of pre-assigning poems just before the service began the way we did back when I was still living in Chicago, we read around the room so people would be allowed to read as much as they wanted. It was saddening that more people didn’t show up. The ice storm was raging by the time the service began, and several people I was hoping to see didn’t bother making the trip. One person who did make the trip was Jay, a sometime-visitor to Grace Commons who I wasn’t able to see before leaving for Buffalo.

It was kind of odd seeing Shawna conduct worship the way she did, but Shawna herself hadn’t changed a bit. Shawna and her entire congregation all welcomed me into Friendship Presbyterian as if I was already one of their own – which, because of the theme and mission of the place, I’m sure I pretty much am. As for Grace Commons, I had been there since the old Wicker Park Grace days, and returning now always feels like a visit home.

A Tribute to Local Independent Musicians and My Most Unexpected Chicago Reunion

I’ve never met Robert Plant. Never shared a room or a building with him. I know we’ve been in the same country at a few points in our lives, and we might have intersected cities once or twice. On a personal level, though, Robert Plant is still a massive, thundering deity living over the hills and far away. He is to be heard and worshipped as he sits on his golden marble throne somewhere on the top of Mount Olympus, never to be touched by us lowly knaves.

This is actually just fine with me for the most part. I like Robert Plant a lot, and love his work whether he’s there playing it himself or with Jimmy Page, Alison Krauss, Strange Sensation, or the immortal band that put him on the map, Led Zeppelin. I own many of his albums, including the maligned Dreamland; the classic Principle of Moments; the severely underrated Mighty Rearranger; and the anthemic Walking into Clarksdale, which he created with his old bandmate Page. Beyond the incredible music, though, what would a guy like Robert Plant have to offer a humble dayworker such as myself? I have no doubt that Plant loves each and every one of his fans, but for a trendsetting bigshot of a musician like him, it probably gets tiring to hear from millions of people – some whom are truly nuts – how they own all your work and are obsessed with House of Cards as if those millions of other fans didn’t exist. If we were to end up sitting next to each other on the Amtrak, I’m fair sure I would struggle to find any kind of common ground on which to base any casual conversation. (Although I would be sure to ask “Dude, you’re Robert Plant! Why are you riding the Amtrak? In business class, no less?”) Don’t get me wrong; if I was ever offered an opportunity to meet Robert Plant one-on-one, I would take it. Then afterward, we would both return to our agreed-upon roles: Me as the starry-eyed fan looking up from a ground level containing thousands of others just like me and him as Thor moonlighting as a musician. I pay ticket money, he plays In the Mood, and we go on with our lives.

I started following local bands when I was in my mid-teens, after cursory reads of the local entertainment section of the newspaper revealed a world of hidden music I wasn’t aware of. At local festivals, I started becoming more attentive of the bands I was watching. McCarthyism was an early favorite of mine, and I later learned of the music of Kilbrannan and moe. Upon my return, one of the first things my best friend did was take me out for St. Patrick’s Day in South Buffalo, where we spent the night jamming to the unique musical stylings of Penny Whiskey, a band that rose from the ashes of Kilbrannan after their breakup a few years ago. During the St. Patrick’s season in South Buffalo, in the Goin’ South Irish Feis, Jackdaw is a hot ticket. In my last few years before I moved out of Buffalo, going down to the Buffalo Irish Center to hear live music became a way for me to socialize; albeit only to an extent, because at that point I had alienated myself beyond most human contact and didn’t know quite how to socialize with people.

It wasn’t until Chicago that I began to really appreciate the small-time, independent local acts and the color they brought to the neighborhood. Moving there, I was clueless about the local culture, and knew that I was going to have to learn about it if I was to be anything more than a hermit. After living in the city for a few months, I joined a political group which happened to be renting space in the NNWAC building in Bucktown. Our meetings happened to overlap with music nights on Mondays, when one of the local bands would play in the front of the building while my group sweated in the back. Leaving the group after some seven months freed up my schedule to finally visit the NNWAC building on a Monday to listen to the music and take in the show. I quickly came to like the crowd there; I also loved the fact that the bands were always up for a chat with the audiences, and willing to play with us; I would shout the occasional mock request immediately after a set closed for a Rush song. (Usually it was By-Tor and the Snow Dog. One band cleverly responded by teasing me about their second act being nothing but a Rush medley.)

As I took in more of the local sights and music, I got to better know what the performance venues looked like, and I became a regular at a weekly talent night in what a friend described to me as an underground art gallery. The place was called Quennect4, and it was so rebellious that it wasn’t even registered, meaning it didn’t exist to the powers that be. It was housed in the ruins of a business which didn’t exist anymore, which all meant the Police could (and a couple of times, did) raid it. They were so secretive, they encouraged people to stay inside to smoke in a designated smoking area. The up and coming bands around Chicago got to know me there. One band once asked me to go onstage and play bass with them, but I had to say no on the entirely reasonable ground of “I don’t play bass. Or anything else, for that matter.”

The connections between musicians and audiences in small indie venues are always more personal. Starting out playing in a small place, I imagine it’s hard for musicians to think of themselves as Robert Plant or Bono. There’s no security row to block the people at the show from the stage, and those small shows – especially when they feature bands that haven’t yet made names for themselves – have much more of an anything goes atmosphere. The invitation to play bass at Q4 made me love the place, and I loved it all the more a few minutes later when a random audience member audibly said “Fuck it, I’m gonna go up there and play some bass,” and then did just that. Playing a show in the middle of 60,000-seat Soldier Field, standing some seven feet above the front row where you can’t see anything but tops of peoples’ heads, might have a disconnecting feeling. Everything is carefully organized and choreographed, and the highly alert security forces are all prepared to throw you out for moshing when you should have been waving a lighter. For the indie bands, it’s just between them and complete trust in an audience so close, you can feel the afterburn of their Jack Daniel’s shots.

After my little scotch ordeal concluded on Monday, I thought it was time to reacquaint myself with Chicago’s musical underground. It had been awhile, after all. The quest to do that took me to a small pub called Schubas, which coincidentally took me right back to Southport. Schubas was holding a singer/songwriter showcase featuring the locals: MER, Johnny Perona, Scott Burdsall, Meagan Hickman, and Tim Stop as a featured artist. Although I tried to keep up with the Chicago indies, that group of names still didn’t mean very much to me. The one person onstage whose work I knew – who I knew – was a woman there to lend her vocals to Perona: Leslie Beukelman. I knew Leslie from back in those early music nights. Along with Nanette and the music night organizer, Rob Clearfield, Leslie was among the first people outside of work or politics I spent time around. While I met a lot of the musicians Rob brought into the sets, Leslie always stood out by virtue of her radiant smile and otherworldly singing voice.

After paying the cover, I quietly stepped into the Schubas showroom in the back and took a quick look around. The show hadn’t started yet, and the audience had apparently decided late arrival was fashionable. I returned to the front of the bar and ordered a beer; being a beer snob, I went with one of the local delicacies: Green Line, a brand of 312, named for the city’s area code. Taking my time sipping the frothy liquified hops, I returned to the still-sporadically-populated showroom and quietly looked around. There wasn’t anything unique or charming about it; it came off like the proverbial smoky room Journey probably had in mind when they penned Don’t Stop Believin’: Dark, standing room only, warmed largely through body heat. No smoke, though, because Chicago law forbade it. No wine or cheap perfume either, although the night was young. Its charm was in its charmless, no-frills, practical approach. I approached the deejay box along the right-side wall and leaned against it, hoping to appear inconspicuous. That effort was mooted because I was dressed like a giant white glo-stick. As far as going unnoticed went, I might as well have grown a pair of angel wings, because even that couldn’t possibly have made me more visible.

All of the musicians sounded excellent. I took a particular liking to Hickman and Stop (whose band was the second set), and in fact I was going to put my name on Hickman’s mail list but I got occupied doing other things. I talked with one of the other patrons, a friend of Hickman’s who was there to lend her his support. The crowd trickled in during the set, and by the time the songwriters were finished, there were enough people in the room for me to lose the musicians as they mingled and charmed while working the room. This was ultimately why I chose to start supporting the local indies, no matter where I lived. Off the stage, whatever divine aura that maybe existed was gone, and the musicians went right back to being the regular people from their neighborhoods. People who loved their music enough to want to create and share it with others, possibly over beer or coffee. There was a genuine affection between these artists and the people in the audience who had ponied up the money to see them.

Leslie sounded incredible, as she always did. She was allowed to sing one of her own songs, with which she killed the room. At some point, I stepped out to retrieve a scotch on rocks to calm my nerves a little bit. I wanted to jaunt out of the crowd and say hello, but I’m shy, very introverted, and not a big fan of self-embarrassment and I wasn’t sure if Leslie remembered me. Although Nanette and Rob both became valued and trusted friends, I hadn’t seen Leslie very often. Although we had spent a lot of time around each other way back when, it had been so long that I figured worst case scenario, she misses me and I don’t push it. Best case, she remembers my image vaguely and I have to jog her memory a little. I knew there was no threat of her snapping at me, because she had always exuded a naturally warm and sunny personality which could put a seasoned Marine drill Sergeant at ease. Yet, people losing patience with me and breaking keeps lingering as a fear, no matter who, and no matter how unreasonable. I’ve had this fear of Nanette, the last person on Earth who would verbally attack me. I was badly overthinking this whole scene, but a lifetime of being the outcast tends to do that. My head was still going at warp speed when Leslie reached the back of the room and we made eye contact.

She smiled. “Hey! Do you remember me? Leslie!”

Did I remember? How could I forget?

“You don’t make yourself an easy person to forget,” I said.

I meant every word of that. Leslie was still her cheerful, outgoing self for the next 20 minutes while we caught up. I chose to give her the nutshell version of the turn my life had taken rather than the full one. She came up with an endless number of questions to ask, and we talked about things from the sorry living state of Buffalo to our mutual friends to our own pasts in Chicago. I got comfortable enough to confess that I was a little surprised she remembered me so well. Musicians have to have good memories if you think about it. Leslie’s was at least as photographic as my own. She also appeared happy that I had come from a place all the way over in Lincoln Park just to see this show. I actually didn’t think of it as some major distance. What was it, four stops on the nearby Brown Line? Maybe five? It didn’t seem all that significant to me. Showing up didn’t exactly make me Marco Polo going to China.

Leslie had to go – she said she would be sticking around for a quick beer before heading out the door. I turned my immediate attention back to the stage, where Tim Stop came out and rocked his set. I left after awhile myself because I was busy the next day. Still, the night had been a good one. It had exhibited everything I loved about independent musicians and given me a reconnection with someone I had known from way back in the beginning, when everything in my life (and apparently hers too) was going right.

My Search for the Perfect Scotch Whisky

Five hours… FIVE hours?! The real thoughts I was having about Amtrak as it pulled into Chicago Union Station after an epic delay were a lot more explicit and would make me look like a worse writer. The scheduled 10 AM arrival was kicked back to past 2 PM, and I had spent the past few days getting in touch with my old messenger friend Ty and looking up decent bicycle rental prices. I had even gone so far to make it a point to appear on the last Friday of the month, just so I would have a chance to ride in Critical Mass that very night. I even had my bicycle clothes along for the occasion, but if getting there five hours late wasn’t enough of an indicator that it wasn’t going to happen, the door slammed shut completely upon learning the hostel’s rental bicycles didn’t have lights or reflectors. 

It was a little heart-wrenching later on as I walked along Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park, when I spotted the handful of “massers” who braved the chilly January temperatures to ride anyway, giving a proverbial one-fingered salute to motorists and Ma Nature.

The delays took a harsher-than-expected toll on my personal rum stock as well. I had plans for Friday, after all; I considered them pretty important and wondered why Amtrak’s honchos didn’t. And the cold weather is certainly no excuse for their (mis)treatment of their train schedule and passengers. It was January on a line which started in Boston and ran through Albany, Syracuse, Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, and South Bend before hitting its ultimate destination of Chicago. This is a region in which people know how to deal with cold weather, and so dropping hours at a time into an unseen time void at the weather’s expense is no excuse. Hello, folks, welcome to The Great White Fucking North, where you can find people really easily who can make all weather-related transportation problems go away in…. Excuse me while I take a shot and calm down….

Most of my rum had found a new biological home by the time the train finally lurched the final few steps through the South Side. So the next thing I knew, I was now running all around Chicago, searching for a new source of liquid refreshment. There was a rumor about a great single malt scotch I heard which could only be found at Trader Joe’s, and I decided it was time to expand my palette a little. Such a thing could only ever happen to me, though, that none of the Trader Joe’s in Chicago seemed to be stocking it. It was time to hit the small-time booze stores in search of an alternative budget scotch which wasn’t Chivas Regal, Dewar’s, or (shudder) the turpentine known to barhands as Cutty Sark. Or the ubiquitous Johnnie Walker, for that matter, although I would offer a bit of clout on that one because only their Red Label is damned by adult beverage standards. Black Label is seen as hit or miss depending on the drinker (I’m pretty fond of it myself), and anything else is considered quality stuff. 

Recommendations kept coming up with scotches known primarily as the Glen brands: Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and Glenmorangie all came with high reputations, especially for beginner scotches. None of them were expensive, exactly, but they did cost more than I was willing to pay. A lot of the scotches I looked at seemed to come in fancy boxes and tins, like a thin bit of cardboard was a sign of prestige. Johnnie Walker Black Label briefly became my front runner, but I would have been happy to return home without it; I was paying money to drink the stuff in bars, after all. On the rocks, just because it’s everywhere. 

The problem with premium hard alcohol is that salespeople don’t bother to differentiate between what’s good or bad unless there’s a sale on hand. In the case of scotch, that means keeping you above $50, or $40 for their budget customers. Going into the various outlets in Chicago from Walgreen’s to generic corner dealers in downtown Chicago or the various neighborhoods didn’t really help that much. This is scotch, and one would think drink dealers would vary depending on whether the neighborhood was upscale or working class or immigrant. Nope! Every place offered something I would pay all my limbs for; variations of the various Glens; Johnnie Walker; and distilled turpentine. If I was lucky, I would encounter Famous Grouse or Grant’s. Those two had respectable reputations, but I didn’t trust the review sources. 

I had set out in search of a single malt, but at those prices on the budget I had set, single malts were highway robbery. It was a blend or nothing. 

I walked into an upscale store on Southport I spied from the El. One of the salespeople found me immediately, and I told her my conditions: Scotch, hopefully under $30. She presented me with all the standards, and for ten minutes we went back and forth about premium alcohol. She was always looking to make the sale; that’s what salespeople do. She also clearly knew a lot about the subject, and after our scotch discussion, we talked bourbon for a few minutes. Premium alcohol is a subject that is new to me, and I still have a palette to develop and a lot to learn on the subject. However, by the end of the discussion, I had established myself as a person whose knowledge should be respected, and when I spotted a scotch called Label 5 which was marked down to $20, she was honest to me. She went over advertisement law, saying the term “scotch whisky” could be used as a loophole, but “made in Scotland” couldn’t. She also said she didn’t know very much about Label 5, but she did convince me to take a chance. After explicitly warning her that her wares may well have been beyond my means, I plonked $20 and walked out laden with Label 5. 

I told a scotch drinker back at my hostel that I had a Label 5 which I bought for $20. He responded that it was a great scotch which he had never found for under $30. Can a customer be a highway robber?