Thursday, March 5, 2015

Old Chicago

I spent the first 13 years of my life growing up in Bolingbrook, Illinois, a suburb just southwest of Chicago.

Nowadays Bolingbrook is a teeming little metropolis all its own, but when I was a kid growing up in the 1960s things were very different there.  Of course it was MUCH smaller, less populated, comprised of just a couple of tract home subdivisions, very modest pre-fab starter homes for young baby boomers looking for some elbow room to raise their families.  The (then recently completed) Eisenhower expressway, or Interstate 55, provided a fresh new artery to and from the city for commuters, and my parents were one of those young couples looking to take advantage. Both born and raised in the city of Chicago, they decided it wasn't where they wanted to raise my 2 older sisters and I.

Looking back it was a good call on their part. In 1962 my parents had themselves a brand new split-level ranch with a grassy yard (eventually), and I got to have a pretty idyllic early childhood in most respects, free to roam unsupervised from an early age. We had plenty of friends since Bolingbrook was a planned community and everyone was moving there for more or less the same reason. in fact at one point they couldn't build schools fast enough so they started busing students to nearby Romeoville until they could catch up.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.

By 1965 there was growing interest and local pressure to incorporate Bolingbrook into a municipality. Among other benefits, it would secure funds from the county, taxes to provide the residents there with their own schools, police, and fire departments. Up until then they were still reliant on nearby Lemont, which was a bit far for comfort.  Incorporating was a big step but it marked the official beginning of our small village.  My mom was one of the first trustees and organized the town parades, my dad became one of the first of a handful of uniformed cops, then later a volunteer fireman.  They were innocent and formative years and we got to enjoy the best of them, even as we watched the town grow around us. By the early 70s new subdivisions were popping up seemingly overnight, like mushrooms in a cow pasture. More schools, even our first shopping plaza with a Zayre (the Wal-Mart of its time), an A&P grocery store, a Walgreens, ..and Bolingbrook's first fast food burger joint; Mr. Quick.  We still had to drive to Romeoville or Downers Grove if we wanted to go out to the movies, but hey; if you had a color TV and good reception you never had to leave your house.
It was suburban utopia.

Then around 1973 somebody had the idea of building the world's first indoor amusement park.

I'm not exactly sure who's responsible for this, nobody is saying now.  A group of venture capitalists or retail developers perhaps, I just know it wasn't anybody living in Bolingbrook.  Bolingbrook just happened to be where they decided to build it, right on a huge tract of secured open farmland at I55 and Rt 53. Location, location, location! 

At first blush an indoor amusement park sounds like a GREAT idea, especially in the mid-west where we get ice and snow and sometimes just lousy weather.  We already did have a few amusement parks in the Chicago burbs like Adventureland, Kiddie Land, Santa's Village, but they were a drive away and only open during the summer. This place would be super close and open year-round! For most, certainly the kids, it was a 'win-win'.

But there were problems with the world's first indoor amusement park.
For starters, it wasn't terribly park-like. It turns out when you shoe-horn a bunch of amusement park rides into an indoor space the size of an airplane hangar it doesn't leave much room or natural light for any greenery. It was a cavernous artificial environment of steel and concrete, with a dome at the very top center, a single rim of windows circling the top of the ceiling and rotunda. That was the only natural light, the rest was artificial industrial lighting. Practical, but not very warm and inviting. 
One of the major things to consider in this scenario is what happens when all of these steel thrill rides and screaming kids are placed in this expansive enclosed environment. The resulting mind-numbing echo that creates, and the irritating din that constantly reverberated throughout the place was enough to flay your nerves. Clearly, they didn't consider the acoustics in a place like this. And who is going to say to their kid; 'honey, I know you're excited but don't scream on the roller coaster. it makes daddy's ears bleed.'
So to help the parents and grown-ups out they decided to put a full bar in the park, a beer garden where folks could sit down and drink alcohol while their kids could go run around and scream.  What's not to like?
Now, to get to the amusement park area in the center you had to navigate a gauntlet of about 100 boutique stores that completely surrounded the park inside, walking all the way around back to get in.  Okay, I get it. I realize it was a clever way to show shoppers all the wares Old Chicago's stores had to offer, even if a family just came for the rides they might be drawn into a cute little shop or two along the way. Marketing, right? The problem was that most of these boutiques stood unoccupied and vacant after Old Chicago opened, the monthly leases being high enough to keep store owners wary of investing in space there.  And because the overall motif of the mall area was based on vintage Chicago storefronts, complete with period looking lamp posts and park benches, the ersatz and completely windowless environment of the mall made the whole place seem like a movie sound stage. Especially if one glanced up to see the fake overhead lighting and unfinished ceiling. The impression it gave was not at all friendly, in fact it was a creepy feeling you had to shake off by the time you got to the rides.
And as if all this wasn't enough, the massive building itself suffered from cut corners, to save money and make deadlines. There were structural issues, electrical problems, water leaks.  The place was brand new but was already becoming infested with rats and mice from adjacent farmlands.

In spite of all this, Old Chicago officially opened to the public on June 17th 1975.
I should add; by that time my folks sold their home in Bolingbrook and moved the family to Channahon further South on I55. My mom continued to work for the village and my dad spent the last couple of years there as the police & fire commissioner, but they saw the writing on the wall and sensed it was a harbinger of things to come. It was time to leave.

Old Chicago's opening was a big deal in the local media with TV commercials featuring a dramatic exterior helicopter shot of a showgirl, precariously perched atop the buildings' dome, tap dancing.

PR stunts like this were captivating but it was evident early on the place struggled for business. The attraction to the amusement park had a grand enough start but crowds tapered off pretty quickly.  I suspect partly for the reasons mentioned earlier, but also Marriott's Great America (now Six Flags) had opened for business that following Summer. Although it was way up in the North burb of Gurnee, it was a sprawling and ambitious theme park that immediately overshadowed any thrills Old Chicago could offer.  And of course Great America was very green and park-like, enough to make Old Chicago seem even more bleak by comparison.  They tried adding more rides but that didn't seem to help much.
The amusement park at Old Chicago was even used for a scene in Brian De Palma's 1978 movie 'The Fury' featuring a tragic ride incident caused by telekinesis. Prescient, because quickly there were real accidents occurring, fires, and even fatal injuries.  A high-wire trapeze artist fell to his death in front of a watching crowd. It's like the place had a curse.
The boutique and gift stores weren't taking hold so the constant atmosphere of the shopping mall was ghostly and ominous, with long stretches of shuttered vacant storefronts.   They realized they had to diversify somehow to bring in more money, so they started staging and promoting rock concerts in the amusement park.  The problem there was that it wasn't an accommodating enough venue for any respectable band to play.  Old Chicago would get bands like The Willie Aames Band (the kid actor from TV's 'Eight Is Enough'.  ..yeah, I know), or Gary U.S. Bonds, or Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart, which was comprised of half of The Monkees.
Not exactly Fleetwood Mac or Aerosmith.  Not even close.

Old Chicago officially closed its doors in March of 1980, just 5 years after opening.  The rides were sold off to other amusement parks and what stores they had closed for good.  For a few years other developers tried to do something with the gigantic building.  A movie sound stage, a casino, a business complex, .. but nothing proposed came to fruition for one reason or another and in 1986 the entire place was bulldozed. The world's first indoor amusement park was completely erased from the local landscape as if it had never been there, rather unceremoniously, like an embarrassing secret swept under the rug. An auto auction lot now occupies the same space, the only remaining vestige being its address; 200 Old Chicago Drive.

In fact, if you go on Wikipedia and look up Bolingbrook, Illinois and its history, absolutely no mention is made of Old Chicago, not even a footnote about 'the world's first indoor amusement park'.
.. They do mention Bolingbrook's park district having the nation's first 'wave pool' in 1982,
.. They even mention Drew Peterson as a notable resident.
Drew Peterson!!
.. like it's okay being associated with a psychopathic wife-murdering cop,  just please don't say anything about that fucking indoor amusement park.
What a cross to bear ..

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Holiday Inn: flies & lounge lizards

In spite of all the latitude we were allowed while working at the Inn I was pretty conscientious about doing my job well.  Washing dishes was monkey work and all we had to focus on was cleaning stuff and putting it away, the only challenge was managing volume. Aside from the dining room traffic there were meetings, banquets and receptions. Sometimes sizable, and more than a few at once, so I made a game out of seeing how fast and efficiently I could get everything done. It made the time pass quickly.

But when it was dead slow, and there wasn't any extra work to do, we had other ways to kill time.  Someone might suggest a game of 'Blind Creamer', we'd fill our apron pockets with Half n Halfs and push through into the large banquet room next door.  With the lights off it was pitch dark in there, except for a sliver of light coming in from the kitchen area.  We'd take sides of the room and try pelting each other with creamers which, if slightly peeled open before throwing, burst like squibs on impact.  It was like paintball in the dark, the drawback of course being that we'd have to clean up all the misses.  Usually it was worth it.
Then there was the baseball field right next to the Inn that we'd take advantage of when not in use by the local leagues. It even had lights for night games, and sometimes we'd bring lawn chairs up on the roof, drink beer, and watch the league teams play.  It was a short climb up a drain pipe to the flat gravel roof, no one could see us, and the view was perfect.
Or if Billy and Pat were working they'd entertain each other (and consequently everyone in the kitchen) by cursing at each other in Donald Duck voices.  Who knew?  Even back then it was a dying skill, but these 2 had it down, and would go at it like a couple of drunken sailors.

But the kitchen sport that clearly dominated that Summer season was 'Fly Vigilante', a game that evolved naturally from having so many flies in the kitchen area.  Pest strips didn't do enough, and we weren't allowed bug spray because there was food all around, so we found some cheap swatters and carried them in our belts like weapons. And when things were quiet we'd go on a 'crusade'.  It was about speed and technique (the in-flight kill, the cluster), and for a goofy time-killer it didn't go unappreciated by the waitstaff who were as annoyed by the flies as we were.
But pretty quickly the challenge turned to catching them by hand.  Like white-trash ninjas, it became a discipline of heightened stealth and efficiency.  Snatch from the side, a tight squeeze, and drop.  A 2-grab was not uncommon, and occasionally I'd score one in-flight, (..which probably would've been called a 'Brundle', if only..).  That's when the industrial bug-zapper came into play.  It had been there all along, located over the exit door to the loading dock, and apparently functioned fine.  But it didn't seem to attract enough of the flies, so we started disposing of our catches by manually pitching them into its electrified maws.   For one thing, sometimes that squeeze wasn't tight enough, and there were those that got away.  The zapper ensured a crispy death with its satisfying spark and snap.
I actually stopped squeezing, sadistically pitching them in while still alive.

If there was a live act in the lounge we might watch a set from the back, which promised entertainment.  Disco and yacht rock were still riding their crest so the music was delightfully awful, plus in (what was then) the era of 'Murph & The Magic Tones'  a Holiday Inn lounge was thee venue for genuine schmaltz.  No question; that Blues Brothers' scene was frighteningly accurate.
The performer that still looms large in my memory was an acoustic troubadour who called himself; Chuck Mann.  Chuck was a Gordon Lightfoot wannabe in the worst way, to the point of self-parody;  quaffed helmet hair, sideburns, mustache, tight jeans and rayon shirt (too open, of course). He seemed sincere, and he actually could sing and play pretty competently, he was just hilariously derivative and unoriginal.  No great sin, unless one took issue with how much of a player he was with the ladies. Clearly Chuck was one to sow his seeds of music and love before ramblin' on to the next town, and he was always trying to seduce some woman in the bar.  Not the Inn waitresses though, they were hip to his ways and thought he was creepy. 
Mostly we thought Chuck was funny, but unintentionally so.  One late evening after work my pal Terry and I were talking by the pool when Chuck came out of the bar and sat with us.  He had finished his last set and invited us both to share a joint with him.   There was no one around so he just sparked up and we started chatting.  Most of his talking had to do with the women he was interested in (bedding), or his travel itinerary. Chuck would typically play a 6 week run, then drive to the next motel lounge on his schedule, always staying in a guest room.  Terry and I nodded politely as we'd toke and pass.  It actually seemed like a smart gig.   When Chuck divulged that he was considering changing his name Terry and I perked up.
"..Yeah, you know 'Chuck Mann' sounds a little too obvious.  ..I'm thinking about the name 'Austin'."
"..Yeah, 'Chuck Austin' sounds kinda cool." we both agreed in mock approval.   "No," he corrected;  "Austin Mann."   I had to cover my outburst of laughter by coughing on a hit. Terry managed to stay composed, ..but we agreed later that the only way to top that would be if he also changed his middle name to; 'Six-Million-Dollar'.
..Or would that be too obvious?

For the most part it was a pretty great Summer, and I'm just skimming on some specific memories, but thinking back now; I never thought I was having that much fun fighting boredom. As far as I knew, all of us were making the best of where we were at the time.  I knew that a lot of what we did to pass the time was stupid shit, irresponsible and sometimes dangerous. We weren't looking for trouble, we didn't even prank on each other, which would have been par in other similar situations.  Guys that age love breaking each others balls for fun.  At worst, we were happy to enjoy a cheap laugh at the folly of others, and I'll end this post by offering an incident involving the bug zapper as a classic example;
On one slow evening early that Autumn, Scott (the porter on duty), made the casual observation that the thing had been up there forever, and looked like it had never been cleaned or even emptied.  He was probably right about that, it was a big old green beast and had an aged patina of airborne grease.  Looking up at the bottom panel, he figured on unscrewing the wing nuts that were holding it in place and began lowering the tray from above.  Yes, Scott was trying to be as careful as possible, dropping it evenly, but he didn't notice that one side of the tray was hooked and before he realized what was happening, thousands of dead bugs rained down directly onto his head, face and shoulders.
The involuntarily spastic, convulsive dance that it unleashed was worthy of the applause it garnered from us. 
It truly was a gift to witness, ..and yes; Scott was able to laugh about it too.


Friday, June 17, 2011

The Holiday Inn: Cars in the Summer of '78

I started working at the Holiday Inn as a busboy in the restaurant, which was the first position available. It was a much more subdued and formal setting than 'Bogdan's'', quiet and dimly lit, with rustic touches, like a steakhouse. But they served a full menu from 6 am to 11 pm, and would do a tremendous amount of business on evenings and weekends.  The dining room was always kept cool and dry, which was a relief since busboys, waiters and porters had to work in black slacks, tie and shoes, and white dress shirt, we just came from church.  And it got warm back in the kitchen area.
But that gig didn't last long.  Busing tables while dressed for a funeral became a drag, pretty quickly. Especially spending almost the entire shift on my feet.  I didn't care about the nice tip cut from the servers, I didn't care about the air-conditioning.  I wanted to join the motley crew in the kitchen and as soon as there was an opening I switched to dish washing.

When I got out of the dining room things changed for the better.  I preferred working with the kitchen staff and there was no dress-code for dishwashers, just an optional stock white apron.  We could come to work in shorts, tank top, and sneakers, and I often did. The massive stainless steel dishwasher kicked out lots of steam, and by the middle of summer it got pretty hot back there. The workload could be grueling too. On weekend mornings it was common for them to serve over 400 for breakfast, and aside from the dining room dishes I'd have to scrub a mountain of pots and pans.  But I didn't care. I could listen to music while I worked, and I would finish my shift by cooling off in the pool right around the corner.  No changing, just kick off my Keds, drop my shirt and dive off the board.
Another thing that changed for the better was that I was no longer chained to the dining room.  And as long as all the work was caught up we could hang out back in the delivery lot, or even roam the grounds. That enabled us to get in on whatever was going on during that particular shift, and there was always something happening. I started making more friends at the Inn and saw more of my pal Terry, who was always working as porter (relegated to the more formal attire, but played smart with black sneakers).  On day shifts he'd park his 1971 Charger back near the maintenance shed, in the shade, where he could wash and polish it after work.  Its stereo would typically be pounding out the fresh releases of that Summer;  Heaven Tonight, Power Age, Some Girls, The Cars.

A lot of the guys that worked at the Inn had nice vehicles for the time.  It was the late 70s, and even though our jobs paid little we could still afford used American luxury and muscle.   Mostly early 70s Dodges, Chevys, and Pontiacs, ...all past their prime but presentable. Mike the bartender drove a sweet '61 Corvette, but that was the exception.  Some guys had beaters they were proud of.  Glen the dishwasher was a Ford Mustang freak, and didn't seem to mind that the '67 he owned was a bucket of bolts that barely ran.  It appeared to have leprosy and was dubbed the 'Rustang'. 
I went through a couple of troublesome cars (a '67 Cougar, then a '71 Monte Carlo) before settling on a 1975 Ford Elite.   A luxurious version of the Gran Torino, it offered a well-appointed interior of wood and velour, 351 engine, and a very cushy ride.  It was only a few years old and still a gorgeous car with a deep burgundy color, chrome trim, vinyl roof, and spoked wheel covers.

Working at the Inn enabled the car culture its perks.  We had the option of washing and waxing our rides by the maintenance shed, all the free towels we could use at our disposal, and a gigantic animated neon sign in front that would cast its glow over our buffed-out beauties.
The 'Great Sign' really was deserving of its name. The iconic beacon of affordable and reliable hospitality, as intended by Kemmons Wilson himself. That shining beast could be seen from a mile away and it bathed the entire front lot in luminous neon.
Even if we weren't pulling a work shift we might meet up there at one point during an evening.  Someone would have their car stereo blaring, there would be Frisbees flying, some smoking and drinking and general teenage (mis)behavior. A number of us were under age but kept coolers in our trunks that we'd stock with beer (next to the stacks of towels).
There was always someone of age willing to buy liquor for us, and there was always plenty of free ice from any number of complementary machines spread around the premises.

At the risk of sounding like Ray Liotta in 'Goodfellas', it really was a situation where we took advantage wherever we could and exploited every avenue possible.  The more creative, the better.  We weren't out to rob the place blind, we just saw all of these opportunities to make our time there a little easier or a lot less boring.  And it wasn't just us.  It was pervasive throughout the Inn because it had been going on for years, and anyone that knew didn't seem to mind.  Some of the waitresses had set themselves up with complete dinnerware settings, including napkins, tablecloths, silverware ..whatever they needed at home.  It was all tasteful stuff and there was so much of it in back stock, no one ever noticed.
But with all the petty pilfering about we still didn't see the Inn as a racket, as much as it was an orchard of fruits for the picking.  And plenty of it was ripe and low-hanging.     

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Holiday Inn: Hired

The second job I ever held was working at a Holiday Inn motel at Interstate 55 in Joliet, Il.    I started there at the beginning of June 1978, and worked there for about a year and a half. About the same length of time as my first job. But whenever I look back at my experience at Holiday Inn it always seems like I worked there much longer.
Partly because I ended up working so many different jobs, and also because so much happened while I was there.  Almost all of it fun. 

Let's face it, when you're a teenager growing up in the burbs ANY job you get is going to pay low wage.  Between paychecks, about enough for gas money and a trip to the record store. Maybe an Aerosmith concert.  So the attraction for any employment prospects to a 17 year old lie more in factors like;  "Is the work easy?", "Are the people cool?", "Is there a sweet employee discount?"  There HAVE to be some perks involved, however small.   
Sometimes those perks are inherent and obvious (Tasty Freeze job = free ice cream), sometimes they're less obvious and sublime. But when mined by creative and resourceful people, a seemingly boring place of business can become the gift that keeps on giving.

This particular place of business was a prime example of the latter.
To begin with, it had everything a major franchise motel could have.  The main building included an elegant full-menu restaurant with a fireplace, and an immense back kitchen that also catered to 3 banquet rooms for conventions and wedding receptions. A swanky bar lounge with a small stage and dance floor,  and a tastefully furnished lobby where guests would check in.  All of this, including the front desk and a handful of small offices, was laid out in a sprawling single-story building of stone, steel and glass.

All of the guest rooms were in 3 separate 2-story 'wings' that stood beyond the main building, framing a massive open courtyard with grassy lawns, manicured evergreens, and a patio area with heated pool and diving board.
All the rooms were outside access. And depending on which side of the wing you were staying on, your door opened to the parking lot (that ultimately surrounded the joint), or the center courtyard.  The end of one of these wings housed the laundry facilities, another held storage and maintenance.

Essentially, this was a full-service compound.  Everything needed to fully accommodate and entertain very large numbers of people.     

Another factor that played a part was that this Holiday Inn was old and used.
It was opened in the late 50s, and the mid-century style and decor reflected that.  It even had the classic neon 'Holiday Inn' sign, with the marquee that was changed by hand.  Now the place would be considered very retro and hip, but back in 1978 it was simply dated and showing signs of wear.  It had done tons of steady business over the past 20 years and was now a somewhat neglected workhorse in the chain. It looked a little weathered and faded, and could've used some remodeling.  But because of its convenient location it continued to endure the crowds.  Not only hosting road-weary vacationing families and truckers, but the restaurant, bar, and banquet rooms were frequently patronized by locals.

Holiday Inn at I55, Joliet Il. circa 1965

The management consisted of an 'Innkeeper', and day-managers for the restaurant/bar, banquet booking, grounds/maintenance, and housekeeping.  With few exceptions the entire place was run and operated by people in their teens and 20s. And as long as all the work was done those who were in any position of authority just turned a blind eye to any screwing off.   It wasn't that they didn't care about performance. They just understood these jobs paid shit, and sometimes it got slow and dull.  So as long as it didn't come back to bite them, whatever else was fine.  The bottom rule was;  keep the wheels greased and turning.  As long as the place looked clean, kept making a profit, and no guests complained, we stayed off corporate's radar.  Everybody wins.

Over the years this enabled a culture of mischief and debauchery that always rumbled beneath the surface. And everyone that worked there became complicit to some degree.  ..Everyone except the Innkeeper, who was hired by the corporate office. These poor company stiffs would get transferred from franchise to franchise, randomly like game pawns, and they were never around long enough to realize what was going on.
They couldn't be trusted, and had to be kept in the dark at all cost.

Of course I didn't know all of this when I applied for a job there. 
My pal Terry, who I worked with at Bogdan's, had a couple of friends who worked at the Inn.  ..Not that he knew much more than I, it just prompted the serendipitous visit that would affect both our destinies. 
We had been out riding around in Terry's car on an early evening in May, having had a few beers celebrating the end of the school term, and deciding to see my High School's graduation ceremony. A girl we worked with was getting her diploma, and we swung by to watch and say hi afterward.  We didn't have any plans beyond that, just driving around getting stoned and cranking some tunes, when he suggested dropping by the Inn. Just to see who was working that evening.
By the time we got there we were pretty baked, and I was feeling paranoid.  We both walked past the front desk and to the restaurant, where Terry knew the hostess; Kathy.  They chatted for a bit and he motioned for us both to go back into the kitchen area to see his friends, who were there washing dishes.

The first thing I noticed as we pushing through the doors was a cool mist swirling near the floor, rolling in from the back area.  Accompanying this was the sound of Black Sabbath's; Iron Man, that seemed to be echoing from a boombox. Terry and I round the corner to find his 2 friends standing around a floor drain, pouring a bucket of water over large chunks of dry ice.  There was thick fog everywhere back there,  as if they were trying to stage a rock show. 
The head cook made them stop short of turning off the lights and using flashlights as light-sabers.
But that was really enough for Terry and I and we both asked for job applications.
I remember both of us laughing uncontrollably for a moment while we filled them out.  After all, we already had fun jobs working at Bogdan's.  ..And we were both pretty trashed.  To top that, when Kathy handed us the applications, she could TELL we were both wasted.

But that's ultimately what sealed the deal, really.  Because when she asked us if we could start working there in a couple of weeks,  I realized she didn't care.
On some level, I knew Terry and I had just been invited to the party.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

My First Job

I got my first paying job at age 16, busing tables and washing dishes at an independent family restaurant in Joliet, Il. called; Bogdan's Magic Palace.  The owners, in a father/son partnership, opened it to the public in 1977, and it was a combination diner/ice cream parlour & magic shop.  It was a pretty genius idea at the time.  People would come in for some tasty lunch or dinner, a malted shake or some other soda fountain creation, and stand the good chance of getting a little table magic entertainment by a professional magician.

Most of the interior was carpeted restaurant space, with vinyl-upholstered booths and diner tables. The wall decor featured old-fashioned sconce lights, and several large, framed promotional Magic posters from the early 20th century.  Houdini, Thurson, Harry Blackstone Sr.  Then there was a glass counter and display case near the front register where magic tricks were demonstrated and sold by Dave, the son and co-owner in this venture.  There were some shelves with larger stage effects on display, and though the magic shop only occupied a small fraction of the restaurant, the stuff Dave chose to stock was professional quality magic.  Always a couple of inexpensive Marshall Brodien type starter sets on hand for quick sale, but the bulk of his inventory was a selected cross-section of great card, coin, and close-up magic.

Also near the entrance was a colorfully painted upright player piano, that would occasionally be switched on to entertain the patrons.  The front of it had a large glass pane that allowed you to see its inner workings as it cranked away some Scott Joplin ragtime.  It did sound glorious.   
..And I would be remiss if I did not mention the centerpiece mascot of this family establishment;
a 6 1/2 foot tall animatronic clown that stood just inside the entrance, where it would slowly twist back and forth, raising its right arm each time in a dead robotic salute. As if to say;  "Come on in and join the fun!!"
It looked like a life-sized Zippy the pinhead, with a conical dunce hat, painted lifeless eyes and hideous fixed grin, like Gwynplaine.  It exemplified 'creepy clown', and on some dead rainy nights it was an unsettling presence.  After all, it was standing right by the door.  And if it, by some bizarre freak occurrence, ever came to life and went 'Pennywise'?  Well, the only other way out was through the back, which opened to a labyrinth of hallways with locked doors.
On those nights the clown's perpetual wave seemed to say; "..If I could grasp a butcher knife, this is how I would be stabbing you repeatedly."

But those slow nights could be fun too, and sometimes Dave would entertain us with some sleight of hand magic, or we'd play with some of the joke novelties that were sold (did you know that a whoopie cushion bursts with a really loud 'POW!' if you sit on it hard enough?).  One night I volunteered to break out of Dave's straight-jacket.  He had one on the premises that he used in his act, and he strapped me in pretty well.  It took me a good 8 minutes, but I put on my best Tony Curtis and wriggled out of it like Houdini.
Obviously, Bogdan's Magic Palace was especially popular for kids' birthday parties.  And this was not lost on the magician, who would routinely produce the birthday child's free hot fudge sundae via magic box.  This decorative rectangular box was mounted on a single pole stand, and it had an open front and a door on the back. There was a light that illuminated the inside, and kids would gape in wonderment as they'd watch the birthday dessert slowly fade into view, "right before their very eyes!"  Then Dave would open the back door and remove the sundae for the birthday child to eat.
Dave designed the illusion, which was an enhanced version of a classic mirror production box.
It was actually pretty cool the way it worked.  

Not long into the 18 months I worked there I earned enough to buy my first car, a 1967 Chevy Malibu.  It was a piece of shit for which I only paid $200, but it was all mine and it got me to and from work.
I also made a few friends while I worked there. One of the short-order cooks employed there was a guy named Dino.  Dino was a wiry black dude in his 40s who lived on the East side of Joliet, and he was a character to work with.  He'd sit and read Khalil Gibran during his break, and occasionally one of his many 'lady friends' would drop by for a brief visit. It didn't take long to realize either Dino was a serious hound or he did some pimping on the side (or both).
Dino also regularly came to work stocked with a couple of joints in his wallet, and would spark up in the walk-in freezer. I discovered this by walking in one night, and surprised him in mid-toke.  He then gained my confidence by getting me so high I could barely finish my work shift.
But the drive home sure was fun that night.

There were also some weird customer moments, the most memorable surrounding a family that came in about once a month, regularly.  The family was comprised of a mom and dad, 5 unruly kids, and their grandparents.  They appeared to be a farm family by the way they were dressed, the dad in bib overalls and flannel shirt, the mom in baggy jeans and flannel shirt.  All of them had bad haircuts. Even the girls.  The grandparents were the give-away though, and they all looked like members of the Joad family.  And for whatever reason, they ALWAYS came in on a Wednesday night and ALWAYS ordered the broasted chicken for dinner.  Without variation. It's like it was their ritual chicken dinner family night on the town.
Dino referred to them as; 'the chicken family', and the name stuck. 
I mentioned their kids were unruly, and that was the source of some weirder moments.  As soon as they were done eating their dessert they would all jump out of their chairs and start running around the restaurant, making a lot of racket in the process. And the parents and grandparents would just sit there talking, belching, and smoking cigarettes, while all this went on. They'd be in there for a good 2 hours for dinner and dessert, then leave a colossal mess behind. And they were lousy tippers to boot. 
On more than one occasion Dave had to ask them to reign in their little mongrels or they'd be asked to leave.  ..And on one evening? One of their kids pulled the giant mechanical clown over on top of himself.
The damned thing toppled like a tree, falling right onto this little 9 year old white-trash brat and pinning him to the floor.  ..Like it just had enough and was intent on squashing, or molesting, ..whatever it took to give this child horrific nightmares.
The kid wasn't physically injured.  But the look on his face was pretty priceless.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Early Years group

Just over a year ago I found myself looking for old grade school classmates on Facebook.
..A pretty common activity for FB users. Especially when they're bored.

I spend my childhood growing up in Bolingbrook, Illinois. It's a pretty big suburb of Chicago these days, but when my family moved there in 1962 it was mostly cornfields. There were 2 small subdivisions of new inexpensive tract homes that comprised the village of Bolingbrook; Westbury and Colonial Village. Brand new houses there cost between $10,000 and $15,000. Modest but charming mid-century designs built by Dover Construction, about 8 models to choose from in their brochure.
There was one family-owned grocery store, one doctor (who made house calls), a barber shop and a penny candy store (which was only known as 'the little store'). For banking, post office, police and fire, we relied on nearby Lemont which was 15 minutes away.
In 1965 Bolingbrook was incorporated as a community and started providing their own police and fire protection. My dad was among the very first cops and firemen. My mom organized and helped run the Bolingbrook parades. There were 4th of July parades and open cookouts at the village firehouse, and a local ice cream truck that trolled the neighborhood. Every summer they would bring in a carnival with great rides, and every winter they'd have a Christmas decoration contest for the most Christmasy home (the house down our block always won). Spring would bring the smell of freshly-mowed lawns and charcoal barbecue. Fall would bring swarms of trick-or-treating kids out of the woodwork on Halloween, enduring long into the evening, door to door, block after block, reaping huge sacks of candy treasures at the end (and not those measly little mini-bars. I'm talking full-sized candy bars).
There were a lot of small-town activities organized with very little money. Mainly by families getting together and volunteering their time and energy. Picnics to pee-wee league ball.
Both of my parents were among the other few dozen young families who were always working to make their little hamlet a wonderful and safe place to raise a family.

It's a textbook case of charming small town America. And I got to be a part of it along with my 2 older sisters. It was serene and simple. And it was a wonderful place to grow up. My dad worked a lot sometimes, and we didn't have a lot of money, but we had everything we needed, a nice new split-level ranch home, a color TV, and room to roam on our bikes. Roam anywhere, completely unsupervised. ..Pretty free and blissful for a kid.

It was when the Old Chicago indoor amusement park came along, that my parents decided it was over for them.
Suburban sprawl was already encroaching the Southwest areas. Especially since the still recent I55 extension had replaced old Rt. 66. The commute into the city was now lightning fast, and more people looking to live outside the city saw Bolingbrook for what it was; a wonderful and safe place to raise a family. By the time we moved away in 1974 Bolingbrook had its own big box shopping mall, fast food restaurants, chain stores, ..and a number of new subdivisions had popped up like mushrooms in the once rich cornfields that cradled us. It was too much too soon. Schools couldn't be built fast enough and kids were bused to nearby Romeoville every day. The inexpensive condos that were built in the early 70s had quickly degenerated into Bolingbrook's first ghetto. Crime became more of an issue, and the building of Old Chicago was the writing on the wall for my folks.
They shopped for a home further South on I55, finding a lovely custom ranch in Channahon. And during the summer of '74 we moved, ..rather suddenly, it seemed. Just as I had finished the 7th grade.
I was 13.

I stayed in touch with my best friend Ted (whom I don't remember not being friends with), but being in a new house, new town, and new school provided plenty of distractions and opportunities for me as I moved into my teens. I made a number of new friends, and within a couple of years had started the next chapter of my life. My childhood in Bolingbrook, and the friends I made in school, became mostly memories.

"What hast thou wrought?"

So, I got a bug up my butt and, after finding a handful of old Bolingbrook friends I had lost touch with, started a Facebook group for us. I started scanning and posting old pictures from back then, and pages from a 1969 yearbook I had. Pretty soon others were doing the same. Friends started inviting their siblings and other old Bolingbrook classmates to the group, more old friends started popping up, and things began to blossom.
The group now has over 850 members, virtually all of whom lived (or still live) in the old sections of Bolingbrook. Many of them live throughout the country now, having families of their own. Most of them remember the early simpler years and have a great story to share, a detail to add, or a name forgotten. And it seems clear that it's been a lot of fun for them to come on and see who's there, look at the old photos, post a fond memory or announce some related news.
There are even senior citizens on there chiming in. Former village workers, trustees, and even Bolingbrook's current mayor is a member.

..All of this in one year.
It's pretty cool, I have to say.

Just this past weekend our group held a walking tour of old Colonial Village. My old neighborhood. It was a beautiful day, and a good turnout. The villages historic director met with us at the beginning and showed us the recently unveiled plans for a proposed history museum for the town, and gave us all a personal guided tour through the original police station; a 2 room farmhouse. It has been closed up for years and awaiting renovation, and will become part of the museum itself. Its interior will be entirely restored and completely re-staged as it was when first used back in the mid 60s.
It was the same police station my dad reported to when he was one of the first Bolingbrook cops.

The rest of the walk was like a trip back in time for us all. Virtually nothing had changed there, since Bolingbrook quickly sprawled as newer and nicer subdivisions were built. The trees were much bigger, and some of the houses needed repair, but many more of them were well-kept and maintained over the decades since. It was like walking through a living time capsule.
We finished our walking tour and gathered for a group photo near the 'little store' (now long gone) where we used to buy our penny candy. All in all it was a delightful day of reminiscing with old neighbors and even a couple of old classmates. Everyone had a great time, and it looks like we're going to schedule more of these walking tours in the future.

I did something good here. I think I should stick with it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

my colicky baby

Seeing my facebook friends with their cute lil' babies has been reminding me of my own children in their infancy. It really is a very special time, filled with wonder and delight. Everything changes. Partially because of the emotional uplift and the deep bonding, but partially because babies are high maintenance and demand a lot of care and attention.
Of course you know all of this stuff by now.
Sleep deprivation is one of the most common side-effects of newly acquired parenthood. Especially for mom. I did what I could for my own 2, but dad's not always enough and that's the way it is sometimes. Sleep deprivation can especially be a strain if a baby is colicky. For everyone. It's pretty common, but it can be even more hellish.
The colicky phase usually ends by 3 or 4 months, but can start anytime after birth.

My first was a colicky baby. Cerridwyn (or 'Dwynna' for short) didn't sleep through the night until she was 4 months old. We dealt with it pretty well, mainly because she was our first and we had no idea what to expect. Being new parents we kind of expected anything and everything. As far as we were concerned it was all wonderful.
Of course one of the inherent obstacles in putting a colicky daughter down to nap was lulling her to sleep, laying her in her crib and leaving the room quietly. Simply putting her in her crib awake was not an option. She would scream to the point of exploding. So if we could manage this much, it ensured everyone's chances of undisturbed sleep.

Unfortunately we lived in an old house with creaky floorboards, and doing this was next to impossible.
I would cradle her in my arms while feeding her, swaying steadily while seated in the rocking chair in her nursery. When she was out I would slowly stand and lie her down in her crib, carefully replacing the milk bottle with a pacifier, in mid-suckle, as to not disturb the rhythm.
If that went alright I would quietly tip-toe out of the room, carefully avoiding the known creaky spots on the floors. Once I made it out of the room and closed the door I was home free.
The scenario was almost identical to the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
If I could not replace the idol with a fake nipple, and tip-toe around the nasty spots, then 7 gates of hell would break loose.
And I would spend an eternity in that chamber.

Sometimes it did seem like an eternity.
And both of us would end up falling asleep in the rocking chair.

..She's going to be sweet 16 this October.

It does go fast, friends, so enjoy it as much as you can.
respectfully yours in parenthood,

Sunday, January 10, 2010

a glance back at the noughts;

A lot can happen in a decade.
A lot, and it passes so quickly. Barely a chance to say hello and goodbye.

a few highlights and dark patches;

- 2000: Spent Christmas of 1999 in the new house on Chase Ave. in Rogers Park.
Celebrated New Years Eve at the Metro with Jane and another couple. The Flaming Lips w/ a reunited Hum. Unbelievable show.

- 2001: I turn 40. Big party at Leona's. Very nice time. Find out my father has prostate cancer. Surgery follows.

- 2002: I begin training at Improv Olympic. Spend the next 9 months studying ensemble improvisation. The family adopts a stray Shih-Tsu and call her Lucy. My fathers' cancer returns. He begins chemo and radiation therapy sessions.

- 2003: My marriage to Jane ends after 13 years. I break ties with the community of people she associated with. I audition for an improv troupe and co-found International Stinger. I start smoking cigarettes again (oof!)

- 2004: My father passes away at age 69. My dog Ozzi has to be euthanized at age 15.
Focus on work, single parenthood, and improv. GREAT year of improv and Stinger. First DSIF, Monday Show rehearsals and first 8 week run.

- 2005: Lots of work, Spring trip to Disneyworld with my mom and the kids. More great improv with Stinger. We gain membership status at the Playground Theater and rank as a top troupe. Another glorious Monday Show run. Standing ovation at DSIF!

- 2006: Meet Leslie in September. Wonderful lady, good changes happening. Road trip to KC. Lots of good Stinger shows. . My dog Alma is put down. She was 16.

- 2007: Romantic year. Week-long trip to Philadelphia with Leslie in May, then to Tulum for a wedding in the Fall. Dwynna turns 13; officially a teenager. Work picks up on remodeling my home. Massive bathroom demo and remodel at my house. Last DSIF trip with Stinger. Coach Bob and member Stacey move to Portland.

- 2008: I adopt a stray cat, and call her Scully. Leslie moves in with me. Stinger goes to Toronto Improv Festival. I take a break from Improv after 6 years. Lots of work on the house. The country elects Obama as its first black President.

- 2009: Buy new Mac Pro, printer, 30" monitor. Invested in 3D software. Economy tanks, unexpected sewage issue, debts build to boiling point. Celebrate 10 years at 1340 West Chase Ave.

..Kind of a cursory examination I suppose. Some pretty sad times in there. A few intentionally not mentioned. And glorious moments too. Lots of them. All formative years, and much of it blurred by how quickly it has passed. Seemingly faster than any other decade in my life.
In fact, I know there will be things I'll remember later that didn't make the above summarization. Even special moments.

But glancing back and looking ahead, this is about making better years ahead. Being with Leslie, and being with my children more. A better year, and a better future. Winds of change are blowing. Good ones.

So long, noughts. It has been quite a ride.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Broken plane

I was supposed to fly to Cleveland yesterday for a business meeting, and ended up not going because the plane broke down.

In spite of the fact that it was an early morning flight, with a return to Chicago later in the afternoon, I was looking forward to the short trip. A prominent high-end gift company was flying me out to meet with their lead design director and one of their top executives in the likelihood of establishing an ongoing consulting relationship. I would become one of their outside go-to guys for product design, ..which is good news, obviously. Some steady freelance work for me, and something outside the toy industry (which I do love, but after 17 years, gets a little monotonous). It will be nice to work some different muscles.

I had been emailing and speaking on the phone with the lead design director there, who as it turns out, is an old friend of mine from high school. We hadn't seen or heard from each other in the 30 years since, but I had noticed recently that he popped up on the Classmates website. His name is John Smith. Out of a sea of John Smiths in the world, I knew it was my friend since he was the only John Smith at Minooka Community High School, class of '79.
So I dropped him a note to say 'hi'.
I received a warm reply from him bringing me up to date on things at his end, and it turns out he pursued a career in illustration after graduating high school. Cut to now, and he's heading product development at the Things Remembered company. As I said, John and I were friends in high school. Even back then I had a good drawing hand and John had seen that I ran with it over the years. Along the way I had also acquired a lot of experience in product design, which is what he's now involved with every day.
Needless to say, our phone chats over the last couple of weeks have been fun. Certainly business talk and the potential of working together to create some beautiful stuff, but reconnecting after 30 years has been the icing on the cake. I was psyched for the meeting.
It was only going to be for a few hours, but meeting face to face with them would accomplish a lot.

So, I drove to O'Hare for my 7:42 flight, checked in, and boarded the jet, portfolio in hand.

And we sat there for 30 minutes, before they asked us to get off the plane.
There was a maintenance problem with the jet.
What's more, United didn't have a back-up jet available, and there were no other flights on which to put us.
We would have to sit and wait. Indefinitely. Until they fixed the plane, or got a stand-by flight.
My meeting time was quickly shot, because my return flight was at 3 PM.

I waited 2 hours before deciding to leave the airport and drive home. I phoned John and explained the situation, and he sympathized with my frustrations. There was nothing either of us could do except agree to reschedule our meeting, which is pending.

I may have dodged a bullet in avoiding a potential plane crash yesterday, but it doesn't inspire my confidence in United Airlines.

At least I didn't have any guitars to check in.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Confessions of a house geek: The Shitstorm

Seriously, waste and fecal matter need to be flushed out of any home, and mine is certainly no exception. Especially when there is a break in your sewer line and things start to get nasty inside from backup.
It happens to homeowners, and it happened to me back last month.

I had noticed my basement toilet was backing up, and the laundry sink wasn't draining. I called a friend of mine who handles my inside plumbing and heating and he suggested I call Power Plumbing to have my lines checked out. (I should note, I vetted this company well. They're highly rated and award-winning members of Angie's List)
Well, upon them coming out and doing a diagnostic with cameras and routers they found that my sewer pipe was half-filled with wet sand and silt. So much, that they couldn't get through it with their heaviest router. It had become impacted sludge.
There was a break in the middle of my back yard and they'd have to dig down, blow the pipe out with a jetter and replace the broken section.
Total cost; about $8000.


There was no doubt; it had to be done. It had to happen fast, and this was nothing to cut corners on. It was a nasty job and these guys were the pros to do it right. So I bit the bullet and had them do it, starting to figure out a way to pay for it over the next few months.
Well, they did the repair, and the sewer line was clean, but upon inspecting the rest of the lines coming out of the house they found another problem.
My old kitchen pipe that went out my basement wall and out to an old grease-trap (which I had tied to the main drain 7 years ago) had completely rusted away and dropped from its connection. Waste water was leaking into the soil next to my foundation, and the wet soil was leaching into the sewer line by the break.
This, they determined, was a source of the larger and ongoing issue. This was a separate problem from the broken clay pipe in my yard, and would require another dig next to my foundation. It was a major repair outside and a rerouting of the way my kitchen drains inside.
With part and labor, it would come to another $7500.

Oof! Again.

I honestly couldn't stand to watch the 2nd phase of the work, but it went fine and it's fixed now. The good news is that my 115 year old house actually drains and flushes better than it ever did. A mean feat for a house that was built before the advent of indoor plumbing.
(Yes, that's right.)
The house has been modernized into the 21st century. My sewer line from the house to the alley is also as clean as a whistle, and there are now 3 clean-outs in different places to allow easy access for any future maintenance.

And as much as $15,000 would've been better spent on a new roof (which my house sorely needs), I can save the receipts from this project and get some equity there when I eventually sell.

..and I am reconsidering my battles at this point.
I can console myself in that this incident is a once-in-a-lifetime expense for any homeowner. Like getting a new boiler. It's expensive, but you never have to do it again. But there are other expensive things that go wrong with houses this old, and I have to consider an exit strategy if things become too much.
There is still too much to do on this place before I can seriously consider putting it on the market for sale. It's in much better shape than when I bought it 10 years ago, but still; with the housing market being the way it is now, I wouldn't walk away with very much.

So, I'm looking at a refinance right now. I'm hoping there is enough additional equity to pay off the balance on this repair work, and take care of some other debt that has been accumulating.
I still have some grand plans for the place, but every project has to offer some serious potential in return investment or I just can't justify it.
I'm hoping to hang in for another 5 years. By then, the place should be at a finished stage, both of my kids will be done with school, and the real estate market should be in a better place.