From fall 1998 – spring 2002, I taught journalism and advised the student newspaper at a mainly Black and Hispanic community college in South-Central LA. I later turned my experiences into a book called Blackspanic College. This excerpt recalls where I was on 9/11:
Fall semester, 2001
On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I awoke to my clock radio, which was tuned to National Public Radio. Still in a dreamlike state, I heard somber voices saying something about an airplane crashing into the World Trade Center, a second plane smashing into the other tower, the Pentagon being struck by a third, and that every airplane over the entire country was being grounded. At first I thought it was an updated version of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio hoax. I rolled over and turned on the TV, where every channel was showing the Twin Towers crumbling, on a loop. My heart sank. This was real.
I checked my emotions and was relieved I wasn’t feeling a flicker of guilty glee that Wall Street yuppies and the military industrial complex had just taken a hit. We may not like to admit it, but sometimes we secretly root for the bad guys — Bonnie and Clyde, the Unibomber, O.J. — so toppling the dual symbols of capitalist America and poking a hole in the Pentagon could easily have stirred up some anti-American sentiments left over from Vietnam that were recently inflamed by the bizarro election in Florida, U.S. Supreme Court putsch and ascendancy of the right-lurching Bush II junta.
9/11 was one bodacious move. But as I lay there gaping at the TV, all I was feeling was dread. And it was with a sense of shame that I realized, at that moment at least, I was glad that Bush and the ruthless rattlesnakes around him, rather than wishy-washy Al Gore — whom I’d voted for — was in the White House. Suddenly, I didn’t want my mommy, I wanted my daddy.
I wondered what the students at Southwest College were feeling, and tore myself away from the TV to rush out to the campus for my afternoon classes and to rev up my students for the biggest story they would ever cover. I should have known better. By the time I got to the campus, it was nearly deserted.
Finally, one of my new students arrived. I’d assigned Lakita to cover a Black Student Union meeting previously scheduled for that morning. At the time it seemed like a fairly simple meeting story,although I didn’t understand why a school that was 80 percent black needed a BSU (except as a place for former student body presidents to go, as June had become the head of the BSU after losing the rescheduled ASO election to Willie). But Lakita had tears in her eyes and said she couldn’t write the story.
“Why not?” I asked, thinking she was probably upset by the terrorist attacks.
“Because the meeting was all about you.”
“Me?” I said, incredulously. “What are you talking about?”
Before entering journalism grad school in 1987, I took a summer job writing press releases for the Illinois State Fair in Springfield, and by extension, the administration of Gov. James R. Thompson. It gave me pause, because in a few months I would become a news intern, reporting on the administration I was accepting a paycheck from. Worrying about a potential conflict of interest or appearance of impropriety may seem quaint today, when a Republican political consultant like Roger Ailes can claim the cable news channel he runs, Fox News, is “fair and balanced,” or a civil rights activist like the Rev. Al Sharpton can organize a protest rally for the family of Florida “stand your ground” shooting victim Trayvon Martin, and then “report” on the rally on his MSNBC show. In my case, I wasn’t overly concerned that a temporary state government job would compromise my objectivity. But maybe I should have been, because it did change my perspective on the difference between being objective and, well, fair. Dedicated to Jim Skilbeck, 1949-2002.
There must have been 500 people packed around the railing of the stinky smelly Swine Barn show arena at the Illinois State Fair. Waving my press pass, I pushed through the crowd and entered the media area, joining about 30 reporters lugging notebooks, microphones and cameras. Everyone was focused on a swarthy suburban Chicago man, who was down on all fours in the straw and dirt, snorting like a pig. The Hog Calling Contest was but one of the many “stories” I covered during my brief tenure as a press officer for the fair. In addition to the hog callers, I got to see the Biggest Boar, Pork King Cook-off and Sale of Champions. Not to mention the harness racing and Grandstand shows. Or backstage hot tub.
Not that everything was bucolic. The hours were long, the pay minimal, and there were also the ethical considerations. Two terms generally at odds with the journalistic profession are “patronage” and “public relations,” and my job was both. Having been a reporter and freelancer, I figured I was well qualified to write for the fair. But I never would have gotten the job if it weren’t for my friend Jim Skilbeck, whose title was special assistant to Gov. James R. Thompson. Jim and I met in 1976, when Thompson was first running for governor, as a moderate Republican. I was a student reporter at the Daily Egyptian, and Jim was an assistant press secretary for the former Chicago federal prosecutor who had shined his star by putting away some big names, including a former governor, and early in his career, “sick” comedian Lenny Bruce.
Jim had orchestrated a campaign swing through southern Illinois, and had invited the DE to send a student reporter to ride in the candidate’s RV from a cafe in Herrin to an American Legion hall in Anna, about 40 miles. I drew the assignment, and during the ride, I asked the candidate whether he favored decriminalizing marijuana. I thought I had him in a bind — if Thompson said he was against easing pot laws, it could turn off SIU students, but if he said he was for it, he might piss off the law-and-order folks in Herrin and Anna. But he casually batted my question aside, saying sometimes leaders should lead and other times they should follow the will of the people, which at the time was anti-pot.
When I got my first journalism job, at the Illinois Times, I saw
Jim at a Springfield pub and started to introduce myself, but he
remembered my name and what I’d asked his boss on the bus. Some
years after that we ran into each other on the strip in Carbondale,
tipped a few beers and took a shining to each other. He became my
token conservative friend and I was his token liberal friend, though
truth be told, our political views weren’t that far apart.
At age 38, Skilbeck had become Thompson’s “senior aide,” the staffer who had been with him the longest, and one of the perks that came with being the governor’s senior aide was the clout to use the patronage system to give friends jobs. In most cases, “friends” meant political friends, card-carrying members of the party in power, people who had donated money or worked for candidates. Having never donated a dime nor lifted a finger to help any politician, and having voted against Thompson in 1982, I didn’t fit into the category of political friend. But there is a subcategory of patronage, also frowned on by journalists, called nepotism, in which non-political
relatives and friends of people in power get jobs, and it was my honor
to be Jim’s friend.
Over the years we occasionally joked about him getting me
a patronage job — I would be abandoning my journalistic ethics,
and he would be using his clout to hire someone with absolutely no
Republican credentials. But it wasn’t until I returned to Springfield
to enter the Public Affairs Reporting graduate program at Sangamon
State University (now University of Illinois Springfield) that either
of us took the idea seriously. It was expediency, impulse and a bit of
perversity that prompted me to ask Jim if there might be a temporary
state job in Springfield over the summer to ease my transition to grad
His face lit up. “You could write press releases for the State Fair,”
he said. Jim’s face always lit up when he talked about the fair. It was
the part of his job that he loved the most, and he literally lived on the
fairgrounds during the event. I had never shared his enthusiasm for
the exposition, but I’d never been through the experience, either.
“I guess I’d be writing a lot of stories about livestock contests,”
I said skeptically.
“That’s about it,” he said. “But you’d be at the fair.”
It was a tough call. Since in six months I’d be interning with a
news bureau that covered the governor, I didn’t want to compromise
my objectivity or credibility by taking a job in his administration.
But I really needed the money, and besides, there was something
irresistibly naughty about slipping over to the other side for a couple
of months and having a fling as a patronage flack.
The State Fair Press Office was a creature that came to life just
two months out of the year. When I was there, it consisted of three
other writers and an editor, who happened to be a former PAR grad
student. In addition, there were two photographers and a photo editor,
two messengers and two coordinators in charge of press credentials.
The supervisor was Mia Jazo, a bright and energetic woman in her
late 20s who had just taken over the job. Her boss was Mark Randal,
the press secretary for the Ag Department.
As I became acquainted with my co-workers and those in other
departments, I couldn’t resist asking them, “who got you your job?”
Judging from the vague and guarded responses, I wasn’t the only one
sensitive about being a patronage worker. But after some winking
and prodding, it usually came out that if they didn’t know someone
who was someone, their parents or someone else knew someone who
was someone. Some I didn’t have to ask, like one young fellow with
the same last name as a senior official in the Ag Department, who
was briefly with our office until his nocturnal golf cart escapades got
him transferred to another division.
Shortly after meeting the other writers — three intelligent and attractive females half my age — Mia asked us to write down which venues we wanted to cover and left us together in a room. Here it comes, I thought to myself. Livestock City. But I was in for a surprise. “I want to cover beef,” piped up one of the women. “No, I want beef,” said another.
“OK, then I get to cover pork,” said the first. “I wanted pork,”
complained the third. “But that’s OK. I’ll take sheep and goats.”
My mouth dropped open. “You … like … livestock?” I blurted in bewilderment. “Sure,” they responded in unison
“Bless you my children,” I said.
Next came an icy pause. Finally, the one who got beef spoke: “So what’s the matter with livestock?” she demanded.
I bit down hard on my tongue. “Not a thing,” I said lightly. “It’s just that all you’ve left for me is the harness racing, so I guess I’ll
have to take that.”
Covering the harness races mostly meant reporting the results at the end of the day, so when I wasn’t hanging out at the track, I helped cover events on the other “beats.” We reported on many of the same things as real reporters, but our jobs were mostly exercises in absurdity. Our press releases were sent to hundreds of print and broadcast media across the state and nation, but most got one cursory glance from a low echelon copy editor before getting tossed in the trash. Still, it was important that we got them right, because those that did get used sometimes were printed verbatim and unedited.
It hadn’t really sunk in for me before that the State Fair was under the Agriculture Department for a reason, and that most of the other patronage jobs went to people with an ag background who were far more qualified than I was to be working at the fair. Thanks to Jim, the Psychedelic Furs might perform for one night, but the meat and potatoes of the fair was the livestock show, one of the largest such expositions in the country. I might have known something about journalism, but my coworkers knew farm animals. They’d shown livestock in 4-H competitions and one wanted to become a farm reporter. They also knew about ag etiquette, and I soon learned to never call a hog a pig. I also learned that there are queens and there are queens. One of the writers had been a county Beef Queen, which was not a beauty contest, she emphasized, but a competition for a representative to promote the beef industry. She said she had also been an Angus Ebonette, whose job it was to go around to county fairs and hand out ribbons.
“Does the Angus Ebonette have to compete against other cattle princesses, like the Heifer Princess, before she can become the Beef
Queen?” I asked.
By the way she glared at me, I knew I’d stepped in something
again. “A heifer is a cow,” she corrected me.
There are two stages in the life cycle of a State Fair press officer. The first six weeks are slow and easy, with plenty of time to goof off, followed by a bacchanalian fortnight of nonstop workdays and all-night partying. The one major pre-fair event, or pseudo-event, that the Press Office was responsible for was a press tour, during which a couple hundred media representatives were given a ride-through of the fairgrounds on open air buses, with commentary from the fair superintendent, followed by a free lunch. Its purpose was to get reporters who usually cover crime and politics up to speed on what was new at the fairgrounds. The tour was also an attempt to stir up enthusiasm and good will among congenitally blasé reporters who thought that covering the fair was beneath their dignity.
The year I was there, the arrangements were more elaborate than usual. To promote the first year of parimutuel betting at the fair, a harness race was staged. The simulation included having the reporters place fake bets at a parimutuel window, and those who won got paid with oversized two-dollar bills with Gov. Thompson’s face in the center, which the media dubbed “Jim Bucks.”
The “Press Stakes” was Mia’s idea, and from a PR standpoint, it was a gem. The harness race gave the TV stations plenty of visuals, and subliminally, having the reporters place bets revved up their interest. The race turned out to be competitive, and as the six horses rounded the final turn in a pack and raced down the stretch, some of the normally laid-back reporters began to root their horses home. Even if most of the reporters didn’t bother to collect their Jim Bucks, they had not merely observed but experienced the emotional thrill of betting on a horse race, and that excitement came through in their stories.
Following the tour, the reporters retired to the Press Office patio
for their free lunch, and I was accosted by reporter Tom Atkins of
the alternative weekly Illinois Times, where I had once worked. He
wanted to know if there wasn’t something improper about providing
free food to people who were supposed to report objectively on the
Airily, I told him that if the reporters were willing to go through the drudgery of the annual press tour, the least we could do was provide them with something to eat afterwards. But Atkins’ question had rattled me, because I still had qualms about being a patronage flack, and I was getting some bitter satisfaction from watching other journalists lining up at the public trough, albeit to a far lesser degree than I.
The Press Office office was located on the third floor of the
dilapidated Illinois Building, behind a giant statue of Abe Lincoln
just inside the Main Gate. The third floor also provided workspaces
for about a half-dozen real news organizations covering the fair, including the State Journal-Register, Chicago Tribune and Tribune Radio Network. It was also the scene of daily press conferences with venerable Fair Superintendent Merle Miller, where the first order of business was to announce the previous day’s attendance and speculate on whether total attendance would break the magic number of one million again.
Press Office employees were issued the same press passes as the
real reporters, which gave us free access anywhere on the fairgrounds
until 6:30 p.m., and free admission for ourselves and a guest to stand
on the track during the Grandstand shows at night. Best of all, the
passes granted us golf cart privileges, and golf carts were the most
regal mode of transportation on the fairgrounds.
Flacks also have the pleasant but sometimes frustrating task of only reporting the good news and putting the best face on what few negatives pop up. For instance, as he had in previous years, Gov. Thompson showed up to eat the winning meal at the Pork King Cook-off. As he was stuffing his face with the winning butterfly pork chops and mugging for the photographers, Ben Kinningham of Tribune Radio poked his microphone through the throng and asked an unappetizing question: “Governor, what’s your reaction to the group in Chicago who want to chain themselves to the gate of your home to protest your stand on pending AIDS legislation?”
Between bites, Thompson said he would let them protest at his
house or talk with them at his office, but not both. “I believe the
private residence of public officials should remain private,” he said.
Next it was my turn. “I got another tough question for you, Governor,” I began. “How’s your lunch?”
The biggest hard news to come out of the fair was a Sunday
night storm that blew down tents, stranded riders on the aerial lift and
injured several people. The Press Office didn’t issue a press release
on that incident. Nor did we touch the porta potty scandal. Seems
a disgruntled bidder on the fair porta potty contract leaked a story,
appropriately to a newspaper nicknamed the “Urinal-Register,” that
the winning bidder’s potties were substandard and poorly maintained.
The newspaper’s ag reporter, Charlyn Fargo, “investigated” 30
of the potties and found some were without toilet paper, light bulbs
or proper drainage. Her story resulted in a state hearing on the potties
and a reprimand to the owner. But further investigation also revealed
that more than 100 of the toilets had been vandalized, or sabotaged,
casting suspicion on the bidder/leaker who stood to gain if the other
portable toilet company lost its state contract.
About a million people a year visit the Illinois State Fair. So
do thousands of horses, steers, cows, sheep, goats, chickens, rabbits,
pigeons, barrows and gilts. Their owners cart them around to fairs
all over the country, trying to earn premiums, stud fees and auction
proceeds. It’s also a time for the owners to get off the farm, socialize
with their peers and show off their products.
Livestock expositions may leave some city folk cold, or with
allergies, but for the thousands of farmers who attend the shows it
is a time to take pride in their industry. It’s also not a bad life for the
animals, considering the alternative. Take Dallas, the winner of the
fair’s Biggest Boar Contest. Dallas was destined to become sausage
until his gross obesity caught the eye of Marvin Caldwell of Littleton,
Illinois, whose hobby happened to be exhibiting heftiest hogs. The
half-ton Yorkshire got a reprieve from the slaughterhouse and instead
toured the county fair circuit, where adoring fans showered him with
affection just for mugging in his pen like the world’s biggest ham.
The climax of the livestock show was the Sale of Champions, a choreographed auction of the junior champion steer, barrow, wether, market pen and pen of rabbits, i.e., champion castrated bull, similarly altered hog and goat, three chickens and three rabbits, whose registered owners are 4-H members under 20 years old.
The “auction” was another of those pseudo-events for politicians, and especially the governor. The year before, Thompson’s daughter Samantha had purchased the champion rabbits (with Thompson campaign funds), to the feigned chagrin of her parents. This time Samantha was supposed to buy the champion hog, but something went wrong. As the bidding began, Skilbeck whispered to me that Samantha would buy the swine for about $9,000 — with the money coming from Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka — and the hog would be used for a promotion at Ditka’s Restaurant in Chicago, which featured pork chops.
But things got out of control. Mother Jayne was sitting next to
Samantha, cuing her to bid, but as the price neared and then cleared
$9,000, Big Jim took over the coaching. And when the bidding
reached $10,200, he physically restrained his precocious adolescent
from raising her hand again. The victorious bidder was farm reporter
Stu Ellis of radio station WSOY in Decatur, on behalf of the Friends
of Macon County 4-H. “I thought Ditka was supposed to buy the
barrow,” Ellis said, savoring the moment.
Typically, Skilbeck put a positive spin on the debacle. “It’s more
money for the seller,” he noted.
Golf Cart Derby
Like a political convention, everybody who’s anybody at the fair has at least one laminated pass, and those who are really somebody accumulate handfuls of cards, pins and decals, which they dangle from neck lanyards, or in some cases shoelaces. The passes grant their bearers various perks, including free parking, golf cart privileges and access to press areas. With the exception of the yellow security pass, the most coveted pass on the fairgrounds was the orange “All Access” pass, which in addition to all the other privileges, provided free admittance to the reviewing stand at Grandstand shows, and most importantly, nighttime access to the backstage compound on the infield, where the entertainers hung out and the real partying took place.
Access to the infield was through a tunnel beneath the racetrack, which had a security guard at both ends. The tunnel came out beneath the stage, where there were dressing rooms, a modest dining area with picnic tables and catered food, and offices for the stage crew. Behind the stage and inside a rickety picket fence was the compound itself, where my friend Jim and some of the other fair organizers lived in three recreation vehicles and a travel bus. Each night a bevy of friends, sycophants and potential conquests trekked backstage to make merry.
There was a large and inviting Jacuzzi that created a minor flap. The official objection was that image-wise the hot tub appeared decadent, and would reflect negatively on the governor if it found its way into the newspapers. On a more visceral level, there was concern that the hot tub filters might become clogged with illicit ejaculates.
But backstage turned out to be pretty tame. The major diversions were free booze, watching groupies trying to board that night’s band’s bus, and intermittent displays of pyrotechnics. In earlier times backstage may have been more risqué, but as one backstage vet noted, “nothing goes on anymore because backstage has become a very public place.” But it was also an oasis from the franticness of the fair, both a command post and getaway, where fair officials, spouses and friends, including a few media people, could go off the record, blow off steam and talk out of school.
Without an orange pass, the only way to get backstage at night
was to be escorted by someone who had one. My efforts to procure
an orange pass were stymied because before being laminated, they
had the names of the people they were issued to written on the backs.
Toward the end of the fair, I told Jim it was getting to be a hassle for
me to find an escort every night, and asked if there wasn’t a simpler
We were standing in an RV in the compound that served as his
home during the fair, and he picked up an orange pass that happened
to by lying on a table. “Take this,” he said and tossed it to me.
When I turned it over, it read, “Governor Jim Thompson 1-A.” I
held the pass gingerly. “You sure about this?” I asked.
“Don’t worry,” Skilbeck said. “He doesn’t need it.”
On the last night of the fair, the annual Golf Cart Derby took
place on “the world’s fastest dirt oval mile.” The event had become
quite competitive. The previous year, members of President Reagan’s
Secret Service detail and staff participated, and someone broke an
arm. About midnight, entertainment manager Mike DuBois appeared
with a bullhorn and hummed the call to post. “Drivers, start your golf
carts,” he crackled over the bullhorn.
About a dozen carts with drivers and riders lined up in front of
the Grandstand and took off to the accompaniment of bottle rockets.
In the minutes it took the carts to circle the track, a length of toilet
paper was unrolled across the finish line, and spectators shook up
beers to spray on the winner. That year’s race had a ringer in it, as a
cart that had been a dog all week was surreptitiously souped up by
the fair’s press secretary. Ridden by two female photographers, the
fillies finished 100 yards ahead of the rest of the field.
The fair was over, and so was my job. I began taking journalism and government classes at SSU, where the subject of patronage came up periodically, causing me to cringe. But I didn’t feel like my interlude as a patronage flack had turned me into a partisan. Rather, it gave me a deeper insight into how state government works, and in many cases doesn’t work.
Besides, long before I accepted a favor from Skilbeck, my objectivity had been compromised by our friendship. I could no longer view him as a faceless news source, but as a flesh and blood human being, with feelings and a personal life that could be affected by what I wrote. And it occurred to me that maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. That when reporting on criminals, celebrities and politicians, instead of viewing them as grist for the daily news grind, they should be treated like human beings. That doesn’t mean pulling punches or fudging facts, but reporting on them fairly, without cheap shots. It means objectivity with a heart, and I make no apologies for that.
Some of Jim Bruno & Friends, from left: Terry Mueller, guitar; Mark Soljacich, guitar; Russ Ward, drums; Jim Bruno, guitar and vocals; Dean Milano, bass and vocals; Joe C Castrejon, harmonica; and Robbie Stokes, guitar.
“It’s great to be back in Champaign … just kidding,” Jim Bruno quipped at the start of his bittersweet reunion concert Sept. 17 at the Varsity Center in Carbondale.
Billed “Jim Bruno & Friends,” the lineup included surviving members of some of the hottest bands during the heyday of the Carbondale music scene in the 1960s and ’70s, including Devil’s Kitchen, Scuttlebucket, Pontiac Jones, and the Dixie Diesels. Bruno is a singer, songwriter and acoustic guitarist who lives in the San Francisco area. But he got his start in Carbondale during the 1970s, performing with another aspiring singer and guitar player named Shawn Colvin.
Carbondale in the ’60s and ’70s had been a special time for a lot of baby boomers like myself — I was born there in 1951 and went to Southern Illinois University. (I’d also written a book, called “Carbondale After Dark,” about the protesting and partying during that era on the town’s notorious strip.) One of the best and most lasting things about the ’60s was its socially conscious rock music. The bands that played that music in Carbondale were a big part of what had made the town special, and the musicians performing at the concert had been in many of those bands. Attention must be paid.
Besides, my generation has reached an age that musician Paul Simon calls “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” and spending an evening basking in music and memories from the springtime of my life sounded downright cathartic. Alas, I didn’t think I’d be able to attend. I’d just been to Carbondale to partake in native rituals during a total eclipse of the sun. Then Irmageddon struck, and I, my brother, his girlfriend, and their Yorkie, fled South Florida in my car to Atlanta. We could have continued on to St. Louis, where I could have stayed with friends and family, looked up an old girlfriend, and gone to the concert. Instead, we languished in a hotel in Atlanta for nearly a week before returning Friday. The hurricane had spared our condos.
On Saturday, perhaps suffering from car lag, I got a bad case of the coulda shoulda wouldas. I began to kick myself for not having gone to St. Louis and the concert. That regret triggered an avalanche of other regrets, which are far too numerous, banal and excruciating for me to list here. As I sunk ever deeper into my funk, I actually tried to will myself back in time and make a deal with a God I didn’t believe in.
Earlier that day I’d written to my Facebook friends that I was sorry I wouldn’t be at that night’s concert. When I thought the show was starting, I decided to torture myself some more and got back on Facebook to see if anyone was posting photos or video from the event. Instead, high school classmate and Carbondale guitarist Bill Carter had sent a cryptic reply to my earlier message. He said the concert wasn’t until the next night.
Holy crap. If I hopped a plane, I could still make the show. I knew I’d simply made one of those “wrong day” errors that we all do sometimes. But given my agitated state of mind, it was hard for me not to read something more cosmic into the situation. Even if I hadn’t willed myself back in time, or a God I didn’t believe in hadn’t called my bluff, I had been given one of life’s most precious moments — a second chance. A do-over. I could torture myself for another day about what might have been, or I could take action to erase one small regret in my life.
I checked the airlines, and sure enough, there was a reasonably priced morning flight that would get me to St. Louis in time for the 7:30 p.m. concert. Around 3 a.m. I texted the same “team” I had watched the eclipse with. Mark Kerwath, a high school friend and guitarist who lives on the Merrimac River, provided the transportation. Ruth Ann Levinson, the widow of another high school friend, who plays bass, sings with a group called the Free Range Chicks, and lives south of Makanda, provided the place to stay. It was short notice, but they came through. Mark picked me up at the airport, and around 5 p.m. we met up with Ruth Ann behind the Varsity Center.
Terry Mueller, the author, and “Tawl” Paul Frederick. Photo by Ruth Ann Levinson.
There, we ran into Carbondale icon and blues singer “Tawl” Paul Frederick, who was sitting on a gas meter, sipping a drink and smoking a cigarette. When someone suggested he might blow himself up, he growled that he’d done a lot riskier things and was still here. True that. The former frontman for Pontiac Jones circa 1972 still performs with Slappin Henry Blue (including townies Bill Carter, guitar; T. Thomas, bass; and Charlie Morrill, drums), which over the past quarter century had become the unofficial house band at venerable PK’s on the strip. When I introduced myself to Tawl Paul, he enveloped my hand in a Trumpian grip, said he’d been following my exploits on Facebook, then something about Santa Claus and sitting on his knee.
“I see you made it,” Robbie Stokes, another relic of the Carbondale music scene, hollered when he rolled up in a vehicle. I think Robbie is the best guitar player in the world, but I’m biased. We both went to University High School (Pulliam Hall) in the 1960s, and I was smitten by his first band, the Viscounts, which played a combination of surf and British Invasion music. His next band was Om, and then Devil’s Kitchen, with Brett Champlin, Bob Laughton and Steve Sweigart. They fused folk and psychedelic rock into a sound that took them to San Francisco in 1968, where they played in legendary venues like the Family Dog, Fillmore, and Whisky A Go Go, opening for and playing with members of the Grateful Dead and other San Fran bands. After returning to Carbondale two years later, Robbie played in a gazillion local groups including Coal Kitchen, Vision, Dr. Bombay, St. Stephen’s Blues, Four on the Floor, and the Venturis. He also became a sound technician and founded Robco Audio, which mixes sound for Hangar 9, Shryock Auditorium and many other places.
Another old school chum, Terry Mueller, let us through a back door of the Varsity to have a look around. Terry is one of the unsung heroes of the Carbondale music scene. For many years, he and Bill Carter ran Golden Frets, the town’s primo music store and repair shop. He’s also played guitar and mandolin in a variety of bands, including the original Dixie Diesels.
The Varsity movie theater is a Carbondale relic in its own right. Built in 1940 as a thousand-seat auditorium with balcony for colored folks, it was later split into upper and lower theaters. The building also housed four storefronts and a corner grill. While installing a third screen that replaced the stores in 1981, a construction fire heavily damaged the entire building, and destroyed the main auditorium. Also, the building’s art deco facade was replaced by an ugly stone wall. The theater closed in 2003 and was vacant until 2008, when the nonprofit Jackson County Stage Company acquired the property and turned it into a performing arts center. The third theater is used to stage plays, and the balcony theater was recently renovated and reopened for movies as well as live performances. Some of the original features do remain, including inlaid glass tiles between the balcony steps, and the striking, V-shaped marquee. The theater’s board is trying to raise $3.5 million to rebuild the main auditorium and restore the exterior to its 1940’s art deco glory.
The Varsity Theater as it looked in 1979. — Photo by Karen Majewski.
Terry led us to the balcony theater, where Jim Bruno and Charlie Morrill were doing a sound check. Charlie is a veteran Carbondale drummer with many Carbondale bands, including the Dixie Diesels. Charlie plays drums like a good baseball umpire — he does his job so smoothly that you hardly notice he’s there. He was using the same burgundy drum set he’s had since high school, which was appropriate for the occasion.
We looked inside the ground-floor theaters and saw the three surviving members of Scuttlebucket/Pontiac Jones: Russ Ward, drums and banjo; Dean Milano, bass and vocals; and Mike Potter, guitar, mandolin and bass. Only the late Pete Special was missing. I knew Mike, a quiet, gentle and talented musician, from childhood — he went to Murphysboro High. I’d never met Dean and Russ, who now live and play music in the Chicago area, but in recent years we’d become Facebook friends.
In high school, Dean, Russ and Pete crossed paths playing in bands in the west suburbs of Chicago. Dean and Russ were in a high school band called Grope, while one of Special’s first bands included a drummer named John Belushi. After Dean enrolled at SIU in 1972, and inspired by groups like The Band, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the three moved into a dilapidated house in Carterville, their own Big Pink, where they became Pontiac Jones. They also played bluegrass as Scuttlebucket. After southern Illinois native Terry Ogolini (tenor saxophone), and Chicago Vietnam vet Tawl Paul Frederick (charisma) joined the band, it took off. In addition to playing downtown bars and out-of-town roadhouses, they opened for Paul Butterfield and Leo Kotke at Shryock Auditorium, and Luther Allison at Kilo’s (Carrie’s), a rowdy roadhouse outside Murphysboro.
The band split up in 1975, partly because the bars, including Merlin’s (Golden Gauntlet/TJ McFly’s), went disco and replaced bands with deejays and recorded music. Dean returned to the Chicago area and became a folksinger. Russ and his wife, Diane, also returned to the burbs, where they started a family. Mike helped start the country swing band Dixie Diesels with Brad Davis, a former drummer turned guitarist and singer from the country music trio “Ronnie and the Bossmen.” When the Diesels, including Brad Valentine, Willie Wainright, Ralph “Radar” Hurst, and Shawn Colvin, moved to Austin, Mike went along. He still lives there, where he’s a musician and paints evocative pictures of music legends.
In the early ’70s, Special and Ogolini had discovered “300 pounds of heavenly joy,” Larry “Big Twist” Nolan, playing drums and singing in a three-piece country/R&B band at a rural honky-tonk called Lyin’ Sam’s; he was one of the few blacks playing the roadhouse circuit in southern Illinois. After Twist died in 1990, Special told the Chicago Reader, “When we saw Twist we said, ‘My God, that’s the real thing!’ … He was everything we admired and looked up to; he had that magic.”
Twist, who is believed to have been born in 1937 in Terre Haute, Indiana, had been living for many years in Murphysboro. He began sitting in on some of Pontiac Jones’ gigs, and when the band broke up, Special and Ogolini started a new band with Twist, drummer Denny Best, and a group of black musicians — including singer Martin “Big Larry” Allbritton, keyboardist Ronald West, Sr., and bass player Ron “Tango” West, Jr. — who called themselves the Mellow Fellows. In the 1950s, the Mellow Fellows had been the house band at the New Orleans Bourbon Street Night Club, a famed bawdyhouse in Colp owned by “Ma” Hatchett and her son Junior.
Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows became Carbondale’s premier band until they moved to Chicago in 1978, where they played at blues clubs, toured with The Band and released several R&B albums. After Twist died of complications from diabetes in 1990, the band continued for a few years with Big Larry out front. Then Special got to play with The Band and fronted his own band before his untimely death from a heart attack in 2014. Other Mellow Fellows, including Ogolini, now bill themselves as the Chicago Rhythm and Blues Kings.
Carbondale’s “honky tonk heroes” posing for the cover of nonSequitur magazine in the summer of 1976. 1st row: Larry “Big Twist” Nolan, Jackie “Slo-Jack” Soljacich, Ronny West, Sr. 2nd row: Robbie Stokes, Mick “Rock”, Terry Ogolini, Bob Valentine, Ronald “Tango” West, Jr., Shawn Colvin, Martin “Big Larry” Allbritton, Pete Special, Scott Koerting. 3rd row: Rusty “Radar” Hurst, Kirk Opyt (obscured), Willie Wainright, Mike Potter, Randy Bradle, Denny Best, Bill Desmond, Mark Kerwath and Steve Rodely. Photo by Chuck Fishman.
The reconstituted Pontiac Jones were doing some last-minute rehearsing, so after a brief conversation, my team headed up to Thai Taste in the historic Brush building at Main and Illinois Avenue, where we had a tasty meal despite the fact that days before a car had crashed through the wall facing Main Street. By now you are probably wondering if I’ll ever get around to reviewing the concert. But before I do, let me say that by this point in my mini odyssey, I had realized the show wasn’t going to be as epic as I had built up in my mind.
First of all, it was being held in the balcony theater, which was too small for there to be a mass gathering of Carbondale blasts from the past like I had imagined. Second, there had been a similar reunion show, organized by Bruno and with many of the same musicians, plus a few more, the year before, at the Old Feed Store in Cobden, so it wasn’t a singular event. (Many of the musicians also performed the day before at Blue Sky Vineyard in Makanda and Yellow Moon Cafe in Cobden.) And third, the quality and quantity of Carbondale band members from the 1970s who would not be there meant it could never be the ultimate harmonic convergence, so to speak.
The number of Carbondale musicians from that era who have passed on is enough to fill an Academy Awards Show obit reel, starting with Big Larry (1937-2017), who died just days before the concert. As mentioned, Twist (1937-1990) and Special (1952-2014), had been the soul and heart of Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows. Others no longer with us include the voice of the Dixie Diesels, Brad Davis (1952-2009); Skid City Blues Band guitarist Jack “Slo-Jack” Soljacich (1953-1999); and Coal Kitchen vocalist Carla Peyton (1947-2005), who would have added some gender as well as color diversity to the lineup.
Those still alive but not at the show included saxophonist Kevin Cox of Springfield, IL, who also performed with Coal Kitchen and just about every other Southern Illinois band since the Egyptian Combo; the aforementioned Bill Carter; T. Thomas, who had played with Katie and the Smokers; Greta Mitchell (Tristram), harmonica and keyboards for Skid City, among others (she still performs in New York City); and Billy Desmond, also of Skid City, who now fronts for Billy D and the Hoodoos out of Portland, Oregon. Also: Russell “Radar” Hearst (Dixie Diesels); Terry Ogolini (Big Twist, Pontiac Jones); Alfredo Jahn, (Vision); keyboardist and high school friend and keyboardist Gus Pappelis (oom pah music at Das Fass); and, of course, Grammy winner Shawn Colvin.
No matter. From the moment Bruno and his band walked on stage, he set a mellow mood with his Champaign quip and laconic patter. The smaller venue had great acoustics and provided a more intimate listening experience for the audience. In addition to Bruno, who sang and played acoustic guitar, his cousin, Mark Soljacich (brother of the late “Slo-Jack” Soljacich) played electric guitar; Brian Sandstrom, who was in the Shawn Colvin Band and Skid City, played bass, and on drums, steady Charlie Morrill.
The first set showcased several songs Bruno wrote for his latest album, “Long Short Story.” With a voice that’s not as hard as early Bob Dylan, nor as soft as Paul Simon, Bruno writes what I would call existential love songs. He started the set with a tune appropriate for the occasion, “We’ll Always Remember Tonight,” and later followed up with a song about regret, called “Don’t Listen.” Especially strong was a lyrical ballad called “Marie,” which was enhanced by Soljacich’s note-bending guitar work. Midway through the set, Bruno announced that the author of “Carbondale After Dark” was in the audience, prompting a smattering of applause as I slouched down in my seat, embarrassed and pleased beyond joy.
The reconstituted Scuttlebucket took the stage for the second set, with Russ Ward on banjo, Dean Milano on bass, Mike Potter on acoustic guitar, Terry Mueller on mandolin, and Charlie Morrill back on drums. They began with an old folk standard, “On the Banks of the Ohio,” but I got chills when they next performed “They Call the Wind Mariah,” with Terry’s nimble mandolin playing and powerful vocals by Dean. The song comes from the Lerner and Loewe Broadway musical “Paint your Wagon,” but of course my generation remembers The Smothers Brothers folksong version best. To honor Brad Davis of the Dixie Diesels, they played a couple of Merle Haggard tunes, “White Line Fever” and “The Fugitive.”
For their Pontiac Jones tribute, Russ moved to drums, while Mike, Terry, and Robbie Stokes played electric guitars to compensate for the absence of Special and Ogolini. To excited applause, out strode Tawl Paul, and the band launched into “St. James Infirmary Blues.” Tawl Paul has a unique delivery style, which is part Cab Calloway and part Joe Cocker. Nowadays he sits for some of his performances, but this night he stood. The all-too-short set included two other Pontiac Jones standards, Howlin’ Wolf’s “Wang Dang Doodle,” and “The Weight” by The Band. (Later, Russ reminisced that “St. James Infirmary” had been their “show stopper.” “We started it slow, sort of like this impromptu version, but then kicked it up into a fast rocker. Mike, Pete Special and Terry Ogolini used to tear up the solos,” he recalled.)
Bruno returned with his acoustic guitar for the third set, which was a Carbondale all-star jam that included Mueller, Soljacich, and Stokes on electric guitars, Sandstrom on bass and Morrill on drums, plus “Joe “C” Castrejon on harmonica. Castrejon owns the current music store in Carbondale, Sound Core.
They limbered up with “I Ain’t Got You,” the much-covered 1955 R&B classic by Jimmy Reed, and then played the dance song “Hand Jive,” fittingly, because that had been the last song The Band played at their reunion concert in 1983. Some of the women in the audience began to freestyle on the stoop next to the projection booth, and when the band played another feel-good song, “Hey Baby” (I want to know if you’ll be my girl), a few danced to the front of the stage, to the delight of the crowd.
Next came the highlight of the evening for me. “All Along the Watchtower” was not only a Dylan song, but my favorite tune the Shawn Colvin Band played back in the day. It was the one song I had hoped to hear that night, but thought it would be too cheesy to request. When I recognized the opening chords, I grabbed my iPhone, which had about 7 percent battery left, and began to shoot video. Upside down. But I got it.
It had been a Trump-free evening, thankfully. No jokes and no allusions to 45. On the other hand, the times they aren’t a changin’. The country is as polarized now as it was in the 1960s, split over issues such as civil rights, foreign wars, and a president some say is a crook and a liar. Apocalyptic times. And when the band at the Varsity launched into a 7-minute rendition of the apocalyptic “Watchtower,” I was transported, if not in time, then in feeling, in passion.
Jim sang the verses and Charlie and Brian kept the beat, while Terry, Mark and Robbie traded guitar licks, and Joe C riffed on his harp. The players were loose and kept improvising, extending the song beyond its expected end. Soljacich said something to Bruno and they cracked up laughing. Then Dean Milano appeared on stage, whispered to Bruno, and stepped up to a mic. He raised his arms to get the guitarists to let him take a verse. They almost sputtered to a stop, but were immediately lifted as Dean growled, “All along the watchtower, Princes kept the view…” Sounding more like Hendrix than Dylan, he poured himself into the lyrics. And when he got to “the wind began to howl,” he let loose with an Old Testament howl that brought down the house. Reinvigorated by Dean’s singing, the guitarists reached another crescendo that kept going until Charlie finally ended the revelry with a crash of cymbals.
By the end of the concert, the performers had given their all. But I still wanted more. Throughout the evening, I had been inquiring, “where’s the party?” and nobody seemed to know. Then, I think it was Russ, said he heard where there might be a gathering, and I rolled my eyes at my own stupidity. Where else could an after party for a reunion of old Carbondale bands possibly be held except at the strip’s ultimate relic, the unsinkable PK’s? So my team toked up, I mean walked up, to PK’s, which was nearly empty on a Sunday night. Then the various band members and entourage trickled in, and we partied like it was 1969, if you can believe that.
At one point I was sitting at the bar next to Bruno, and we got to talking about Shawn Colvin. Back in the 1970s, he’d helped Shawn get her start. He set up her first gigs, played in bands with her and wrote songs for her, in Carbondale and the Bay Area, before she relocated to New York and began writing her own songs. They were also a thing for a while. Anyway, he told me about the first time he met Shawn, which was around 1975, at an annual musician campout at SIU ethnomusicologist and folk museum curator Dale Whiteside’s farm. “Lots of music around campfires,” Jim recalled. It got late and he found himself stranded on the farm without a coat or place to sleep. Shawn and her female roommate had a cozy tent, so he went up to her and asked if he could bunk with them for the night. And she said, “dream on.”
Dream on indeed. I reckon I’ll just have to live with my regrets, just as I’ll never be able to recapture my youth. But for one night I could wallow in some ’70s flashbacks, hear the music, share the memories, and mingle with other ghosts of Carbondale past. Was it worth the trip? Hell yes.
The writer and date having photo taken with Dick Gregory for $10. Gregory’s nephew, comedian Mark Gregory, is at top right.
Dick Gregory died Aug. 19, 2017, in Washington, D.C.
Before Richard Pryor, before Eddie Murphy, and before Chris Rock, Whoopi Goldberg and Dave Chappelle, there was Dick Gregory, who in the 1950s and ’60s smashed through the color barrier separating black comedians from white audiences. Once dubbed the black Mort Sahl for his political humor, he is one of the lesser-known pioneer black comedians — or, as he would say, comedians who happened to be black — in large part because he put activism ahead of show business.
On March 26, 2017, the 84-year-old comic, civil rights activist, author and holistic health advocate performed for one of the last times before his death, at a nearly full house at the Improv in West Palm Beach. It was kind of like going to see Bob Dylan, or back in the day, Lenny Bruce. You go to pay your respects, hope they do their best, but prepare for something less, which is what happened at the Improv.
Not that the audience was disappointed. We got to see vintage Gregory. Feisty, contrary, racial, cosmological and conspiratorial. Lots of MFs, b- and n-words. (His nephew, rising comedian Mark Gregory, who served as Gregory’s warmup act, chose to go with the anachronistic “Negro” instead.)
Black, or what in the 1950s were called Negro comedians, took two new paths to break into the mainstream — the old path was self-denigration, as epitomized by Stepin Fetchit. Some of Gregory’s peers, like Bill Cosby, avoided controversial subjects and kept things folksy, similar to Will Rogers, Bob Hope or Jerry Seinfeld. Others, like Godfrey Cambridge and Gregory, took the riskier route of social satire, tapping into a strain of American humor that runs through Mark Twain, Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. Actually, it’s more a matter of degree. To some extent, all comedians combine what might be called silly and serious humor. Like most people, entertainers try to find a combination of representing and assimilating that works for them, professionally and personally.
Richard Claxton Gregory was born into poverty on Oct. 12, 1932, in St. Louis, Missouri. He became a track standout at Sumner High School, and in 1951 he got an athletic scholarship to attend Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, before and after being drafted into the Korean War. (This writer was born and went to college in Carbondale, and local lore has it that Gregory was the first black person to integrate the town’s Varsity Theater, by refusing to sit in the balcony.)
ABC Close Up Report – Walk in My Shoes (1961). Nicholas Webster’s documentary explores the state of urban black America, featuring what may be Dick Gregory’s first TV appearance. His segment begins at (15:16), but there’s also footage of Malcolm X, CORE founder James Farmer, and regular people discussing race and sex, among other issues.
Gregory left school before graduating and moved to Chicago, where he worked at $5-a-night comedy gigs and met his wife, Lil. They had 11 children, including one who died shortly after birth. Because of his busy schedule, he admits to having been an absent father. His stock line is, “Jack the Ripper had a father. Hitler had a father. Don’t talk to me about family.”
He got his big break in 1961, when Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner took a liking to his sardonic takes on race and current events, and hired him for an extended stay at the Playboy Club. Gregory’s disarming sense of humor enabled whites to laugh, sometimes at themselves, while being confronted with inconvenient truths. An example of one of his early jokes is on his website: “Segregation is not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?”
From the Playboy Club, he began playing better venues, like San Francisco’s hungry i, and got on Jack Parr and other TV shows. In 1963, his first autobiography, “Nigger,” was published and became a best seller. (In the book, he says he chose the title so that whenever his mother heard the word in the future, she’d “know they are advertising my book.”)
But then he pulled a Dave Chappelle and withdrew from the spotlight. Inspired by leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he joined the Civil Rights Movement and used his celebrity status to address such issues as segregation and voter registration. While contemporaries like Cosby, Cambridge and Nipsy Russell were getting their shots at stardom, Gregory was protesting world hunger and other issues. He went on dozens of fasts, sometimes lasting more than 40 days, and for two-and-a-half years he ate no solid food to protest the Vietnam War.
He ran against Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1966, and as a write-in candidate for president in 1968. According to his website, “After the assassinations of King, President John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy, Gregory became increasingly convinced of the existence of political conspiracies.” With JFK conspiracy theorist Mark Lane, in 1971 Gregory co-wrote “Code Name Zorro: The Murder of Martin Luther King Jr.”
In 1973, Gregory moved his family to Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the once overweight smoker became a nutritional consultant. He says he first became a vegetarian after seeing his pregnant wife kicked by a cop, and not having the courage to fight back. He vowed that he would never “participate in the destruction of any animal that never harmed me.” In the 1980s, he founded a company that sold weight-loss products, and he drew media attention when he started a fat farm in Ft. Walton, Fla., for the morbidly obese.
In 1996, he returned to stand-up with a well-received one-man show, “Dick Gregory Live!” Also in 1996, he picketed CIA Headquarters to protest allegations that the agency had started the crack epidemic by smuggling cocaine into South-Central Los Angeles. He was arrested, as he has been many times over the years.
In 2000, Gregory was diagnosed with lymphoma, a deadly form of cancer. That same year, a three-and-a-half-hour tribute was held in his honor at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., hosted by Bill Cosby, with appearances by Coretta Scott King, Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes, Cicely Tyson, and Marion Barry, among others. Refusing chemotherapy, he used alternative medicine to beat the disease, and became a lecturer on diet and ethics.
Wikipedia lists 16 albums and 16 books on his resume, but according to the IMDB website, he has never been in a major motion picture, although he has appeared as himself in several documentaries. His film credits include Rev. Slocum in “Panther” (1995), a bathroom attendant in “The Hot Chick” (2002), and a blind panhandler in the TV show “Reno 911” (2004). Nevertheless, in 2015 he received a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for Live Theatre/Performance.
To the end, he maintained a grueling schedule of up to 150 shows, lectures and interviews a year, many of which are on YouTube, and he had an active Twitter account. Before coming to West Palm Beach, he was at the Improv in Houston, and from Florida he headed to New York City, for two shows at Caroline’s on Broadway.
At the Improv at West Palm Beach, Gregory was, in a word, grouchy. When introduced to the mainly older and black audience, the comedy icon didn’t appear for several minutes, apparently because he was in the restroom. Once he doddered on stage and slumped into a chair, he began muttering. When a woman sitting about 10 rows back shouted that she couldn’t hear him, he snapped back, “you shoulda sat closer,” which got a laugh.
He acknowledged his age but bristled at the term “elderly.” “I’m just old,” he said.
He talked about race, religion, sex and politics, including Obama and Trump. He said he was disappointed that Obama hadn’t gotten more done when he was in the White House, but that comparing him to Trump forever destroys the myth of white superiority.
He made many other wry observations, but like Lenny Bruce, he was less funny the more he indulged his obsession — for Bruce, it was his legal woes, in Gregory’s case, the many conspiracy and dietary theories he has accumulated over the years. He still thinks “agents” are out to get him, and that Oswald didn’t kill JFK.
He had brought along numerous visual aids, including newspaper clippings, magazine covers and photos of himself with MLK and Muhammad Ali, which he used to tell vignettes. He kept saying, “and finally,” but then he would move on to more stories. In an odd reversal, it was as if the performer didn’t want the more than two-hour show to end more than the audience didn’t.
This half-hour clip from Gregory’s March 3 show in New Orleans is similar to the one in West Palm Beach.
Despite the unevenness of his performance, it was great to see a comedy legend still pushing the envelope, still as controversial and incisive as ever. Every comedian who traffics in ethnic humor today — black, white, brown, yellow or mixed — owes a debt to Gregory for paving the way. On the same day as his show, he posted a tweet that described how much the world has changed, and not changed, over the course of his life:
What did the nut job who gunned down 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando have in common with the Tunisian thug who ran over 84 people in France, the Muslim couple who blew away 14 people at a Christmas party in San Bernardino, the two black guys who killed eight cops in Dallas and Baton Rouge, the white supremacist who slew nine people at a black church in South Carolina, Brexit voters, Black Lives Matter, Bernie Bros, Hillary Haters and Trumpanistas?
They were angry. Upset. Outraged. Whatever. Black, white, brown, gay, Jew, Christian and Muslim, nowadays it seems like everyone’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. Even though unemployment, illegal immigration and crime are down, ISIS is on the run and Osama bin Laden is dead, nearly two-thirds of Americans tell pollsters they think the country is “on the wrong track.” Who or what is to blame for this discrepancy between perceived and objective reality?
There’s no shortage of suspects. Fatal officer-involved shootings also involving unarmed blacks have some people concerned, while others are just as perturbed by the loss of white privilege. Weak Obama, bellicose politicians, religious extremists, immigration, insanity, income inequality, too many/not enough guns, ISIS, PC, LGBTQ, globalization, climate change, nationalism, populism, sexism, racism, and perhaps a perfect storm of all of the above.
To that list must be added relentless media hype and internet trolling. Like burning fossil fuels, the sheer volume of vitriol spewing from the 24-hour news cycle and Facebook et al. has to be having an effect on the national mood. The question is what kind? Gotcha journalism and online hate speech may act as psychological pressure-release valves, enabling people to vent their angst in relatively benign ways. Or, they may help gin up a critical mass of fear, anger and hate that leads to conflict and polarization. As a general rule, too much of anything isn’t good, and if recent events are any judge, too much anger endlessly amplified and echoed through the media does not appear to be having a beneficent impact on civilization.
Unless you happen to be Donald Trump. The billionaire businessman turned Republican presidential nominee is hardly the first to attempt to channel base instincts into political power. Indeed, the strategy is as old as politics (and religion) itself. No matter what the meme says, when it comes to politics, love seldom trumps hate. And the more riled up people get, the more likely they are to self-radicalize, or at least vote to throw the bums out.
The final ingredient in a witch’s brew that can conjure a Donald Trump (or Bernie Sanders) is you. You as in you and I. You and I and every other member of society. Instead of letting shock jocks and attack ads push our buttons, what if we just stopped playing the blame game?
But encouraging people to buck up is not good politics. The textbook case occurred in 1979, when skyrocketing oil prices had Americans in such a funk that in a televised address, President Jimmy Carter told them they were suffering from a “crisis of confidence … that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.” His antidote was to “have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this nation.” It became known as his “malaise” speech, although he never used the word, and he was widely ridiculed for being preachy and trying to blame the voters for his own failings. The result was Ronald Reagan.
Which makes it all the more remarkable when a politician tries to tell voters to calm down. Barely noticed at this summer’s Democratic National Convention was the cavalcade of Broadway stars who sang the 1965 Burt Bacharach/Hal David standard “What the World Needs Now is Love.” But it’s a theme that has been repeatedly struck by both President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump, not so much.
For example, after three police officers were gunned down July 17 in Baton Rouge, Trump employed the politics of fear by tweeting, “President Obama just had a news conference, but he doesn’t have a clue. Our country is a divided crime scene, and it will only get worse!”
At said news conference, the president had pulled a Carter and noted, “We don’t need inflammatory rhetoric. We don’t need careless accusations thrown around to score political points or advance an agenda. We need to temper our words and open our hearts. All of us.”
Ten days earlier, after five police officers were assassinated in Dallas, former Sec. of State Clinton expressed similar sentiments, telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “We can’t be engaging in hateful rhetoric or incitement of violence … we need to be bringing people together, and I’ve said on the campaign trail repeatedly, we need more love and kindness, and I know that’s not usually what presidential candidates say, but I believe it and I’m going to be speaking about it from now all the way into the White House and beyond.”
It’s easy to accuse Trump of demagoguery, since he’s so obvious about it, but both sides are trying to scare people into believing this year’s election has apocalyptic implications — if crooked Hillary wins, she’ll force us to accept free stuff while taking away our guns, and if Trump wins, he might nuke The New York Times. But believe it or not, neither candidate is as bad as they say.
Whether or not they have been brainwashed by a vast right-wing conspiracy, Hillary haters have three main beefs: that she is a congenital liar; has bad judgement; and is a bitch. In 1996, when Clinton was the first lady, now-deceased Times columnist and Nixon speechwriter William Safire became the first to call her a “congenital liar” in a column about her prevarications regarding missing legal papers, financial dealings in Arkansas, and staff changes in the White House travel office. Today, she is most often accused of lying about Benghazi and emails. The problem is that like Israel, Hillary is held to a higher standard than other politicians, for whom spinning and dissembling are pretty much part of their job descriptions.
Her judgement, or lack thereof, is often evidenced by then-Sen. Clinton’s 2002 vote, barely a year after 9/11, along with 76 other senators, to authorize President George W. Bush to use military force against Iraq. Bad call, as she has since conceded, but not one to disqualify her from becoming commander-in-chief. It’s harder to address the bitch factor, as it’s part sexist and part Freudian. Some dislike her because she’s shrill and has a cackling laugh, or is overly ambitious and ruthless, while others, whether consciously or not, view her not as a victim but an enabler to her husband’s many tawdry affairs. The fact that she stuck with her philandering husband really galls some people, even though it’s nobody’s business but her own.
Meantime, while Trumpism has exposed flaws in the American political system, the media and the voters themselves, if Trump were to win the election, it would not necessarily mean the end of the world. For one thing, if conservatives, liberals and the mainstream media are all apoplectic over the Donald, he must be doing something right. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that compared to the other candidates in the Republican primary, he’s a stark raving moderate.
True, Trump has said some intemperate to bizarre things about Obama’s nativity, Hillary’s health, immigrants, women, Muslims, Mexican-American judges, Gold Star moms, POWs, disabled reporters, rigged elections, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, NATO, nuclear proliferation and torture that go way beyond politically incorrect, and a Trump campaign event feels less like a rally than a beer hall putsch. But much of Trump’s bigotry may simply be political theater, or as The Times said of another rising political star in 1922, “bait to catch masses of followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic, and in line for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes.” OK, the rising political star The Times was referring to was Adolf Hitler, so maybe that’s not a good example.
In fact, Trump is less like Hitler than another Aryan, action star Arnold Schwarzenegger, who in 2003 co-opted a similar mood of anger and frustration in California to be elected governor, twice. Taking advantage of a sham energy shortage created by Enron, and Gov. Gray Davis annoying voters by increasing vehicle tag fees to balance the state budget, conservative operatives orchestrated a successful petition drive to trigger a gubernatorial recall election. But it was political novice Schwarzenegger who seized the spotlight when he went on The Tonight Show and told Jay Leno he was tossing his hat in the ring. Although Schwarzenegger had no previous government experience, California survived his administration.
The candidates’ supporters aren’t as evil as they’ve been portrayed, either. The right’s disdain for the left goes back to at least 1969, when then-Vice President Spiro Agnew, in reference to the Vietnam antiwar movement, opined that, “A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” The left is no less contemptuous of conservative, working class Americans.
It’s ironic, as well as fitting, that the original white Angle-Saxon Protestants who built this country on the subversive premise that all men are created equal should suffer the same fate as the native Americans they displaced. Annihilation by modernity. As their number dwindles to less than 50 percent of the populace by 2040, they are losing not just their privilege but their jobs, dignity, status, morality, culture, history, even their flag. Little wonder they are attracted to a blunt, politically incorrect bully who thumbs his nose at the political, media and intellectual elites, and promises to make America great again. Still, it’s hard to imagine how someone who epitomized yuppie scum in the 1980s could become a redneck messiah today. Go figure.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The Golden Rule comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament. The Hebrew Bible has a similar commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Comparable ideas have been expressed in the Koran, the Analects of Confucius and many other cultures. If each of us tried to be less angry and more empathetic, more loving, there’s no guarantee it would stop a single terrorist, break the gridlock in Congress, or in any other way change the world for the better. Then again, it couldn’t hurt.
This video describes some of the history of Brush Towers, and cites “Carbondale After Dark” at about the 5 minute mark. It also claims the dorms are supposed to be torn down, but according to Stephen Hall of Murphysboro, the master plan referred to in the video “is actually just a bid from an outside architectural firm made to an Administration and Board of Trustees who are all gone now. The towers will be around for the foreseeable future.”
“Southern Illinois University Dorm Life in 1970,” by then-student Sharon Norris, has interior shots of Brush Towers.
As soon as I heard about Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who was passing as black, I asked my Facebook friends if Bruce Jenner can decide to be female, why can’t Dolezal decide to be black?
One friend’s response was succinct, if politically incorrect: “Because she isn’t, and neither is he.” Another friend noted it should actually be easier, since there is “less genetic distance between black and white than between the sexes.”
Others have raised the same question, and those who applaud Jenner but condemn Dolezal have been tying themselves in knots trying to explain the difference. From a common sense point of view, Dolezal is white because her parents are white, and Jenner is male because he has sperm, among other things. Yet Jenner has been treated like a hero for trying to become a female, while Dolezal has been treated like a black woman caught trying to pass as white — she’s been called a scam artist and liar and shunned by both races. But people with mental disorders should be neither praised nor vilified, and both may have psychological issues.
Dolezal may have a variation of Munchausen syndrome. WebMD describes Munchausen as a “factitious disorder, a mental disorder in which a person repeatedly and deliberately acts as if he or she has a physical or mental illness when he or she is not really sick. Munchausen syndrome is considered a mental illness because it is associated with severe emotional difficulties.” I don’t mean to infer that being black is a disease, but rather, that the motives of someone who pretends to have cancer or be black are similar — a pathological desire to gain attention and sympathy, i.e., to be perceived as a victim.
Most people have no problem accepting that Dolezal may be a little kooky, but to make the same assertion about Jenner risks severe blowback from the LGBT community and their supporters. However, Jenner may have gender dysphoria, which WebMD describes as a condition in which people “feel strongly that they are not the gender they physically appear to be.” Notice how gingerly WebMD deals with this subject, saying “physically appear to be” rather than “are.” The website also goes out of its way to state that “the mismatch between body and internal sense of gender is not a mental illness,” although it is also associated with severe emotional difficulties, including stress, anxiety and depression. And like those with Munchausen, people with gender dysphoria can be very insistent and persuasive that their feelings are real.
One of those who has called gender dysphoria a mental illness is Dr. Paul McHugh, the former chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital, which in the 1960s became the first American medical center to do “sex-reassignment surgery.” In a 2014 commentary in the Wall Street Journal, McHugh said the hospital stopped the practice after studies found that patients who underwent the procedure had as many problems with “psycho-social adjustments” as those who didn’t have the surgery.
McHugh noted other studies have found that about 40 percent of those who had reassignment surgery attempted suicide, which is 20 times higher than the rate among the general population, and that 70 percent to 80 percent of children who expressed transgender feelings “spontaneously lost those feelings” as they grew up. (A significant number of people who “transition” to the opposite sex later regret the decision and try to reverse the process, which is called detransitioning or retransitioning.) McHugh asserted that “policy makers and the media are doing no favors either to the public or the transgendered by treating their confusions as a right in need of defending rather than as a mental disorder that deserves understanding, treatment and prevention.”
However, there is another way to view what Dolezal and Jenner are doing that makes them seem no more crazy than women with breast implants or men with hair plugs. After Dolezal got outed by her parents, given the gotcha treatment by the media and the blogosphere, made the butt of comedians’ jokes, resigned as the Spokane, Washington, NAACP chapter head and lost her teaching job, she explained that whether or not she is biologically African American, she simply “identifies” as black. She also said she empathizes with Caitlyn Jenner, raising intriguing questions regarding sexual as well as racial identities. But she mostly fell off the radar after the racist massacre of nine people at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the ensuing furor over the Confederate battle flag.
As Dr. McHugh noted, “‘Sex change’ is biologically impossible. People who undergo sex-reassignment surgery do not change from men to women or vice versa. Rather, they become feminized men or masculinized women.” Although Jenner can’t biologically become a female, many say he has a civil right to live his life as a woman — to change his appearance and social identity. Dolezal can’t change her parentage, but why doesn’t she have the same right to look, act and live life as a black person without being ridiculed or discriminated against?
A third Facebook friend, who is not a fan of gays, blacks, the president or the chosen people, answered my query facetiously: “And why can’t Obama decide he’s a Jew?” But he has a point. Once genetics is separated from gender or race, what is left is mostly cultural.
As former basketball star and sometime social commentator Kareem Abdul-Jabbar noted in a recent essay for Time magazine, many anthropologists, geneticists, sociologists and psychologists agree that race is “not a scientific entity but a myth.” In the essay, titled “Let Rachel Dolezal Be as Black as She Wants to Be,” Jabbar went on the say, “What we use to determine race is really nothing more than some haphazard physical characteristics, cultural histories, and social conventions that distinguish one group from another … As far as Dolezal is concerned, technically, since there is no such thing as race, she’s merely selected a cultural preference of which cultural group she most identifies with.”
Those who break cultural boundaries often become outcasts. But over time, boundaries change. Gays can now get married, so who knows, maybe transracialism will become the next civil rights frontier.
Florida potheads had their high hopes dashed election night when a ballot measure that would have legalized medical marijuana went up in smoke. Also dashed were the hopes of the former governor, Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist, that pot power might get enough liberals to the polls for him to unseat Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
As one tweeter noted, the happiest people in Florida today are weed dealers. The cannabis measure, Amendment 2, got 58 percent of the votes cast, but needed 60 percent to pass. Jodi James of the Florida Cannabis Action Network tried to look on the bright side. “Although Amendment 2 lost, medical marijuana won,” she said. “Over 57 percent of voters said yes — that is a mandate.”
Earlier this year, lawmakers legalized a strain of cannabis that doesn’t get people high for patients with a rare form of epilepsy. “When lawmakers head back to Tallahassee, we are seeking to expand the 2014 law to include all strains of cannabis, increase the disorders covered under the existing law and assure Medicaid dollars cover cannabis treatments,” she said.
While the pot amendment failed in Florida, voters in Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., approved legalizing marijuana for recreational as well as medicinal purposes. Attorney John Morgan, who bankrolled the Florida measure, was also upbeat about the results. “We may not have passed Amendment 2 tonight but make no mistake, tonight was a victory in the fight for medical marijuana in Florida,” he said. “The idea that marijuana is medicine and that those suffering and in pain should not be made criminals, received a larger share of the vote than the winner of the last six gubernatorial elections … and every presidential campaign in Florida for decades.”
He said the fight to legalize medical marijuana will move back to the Florida Legislature, and if lawmakers don’t pass a law in the 2015 session, the measure will be back on the 2016 ballot. “Compassion may have been delayed, but it is coming,” he said.
Crist, who is an attorney in Morgan’s law firm, lost to Scott by an even thinner margin than Amendment 2, 48 percent to 47 percent, about 80,000 votes out of 5.6 million cast. During his concession speech, Crist said he talked with Scott about accepting the Obamacare Medicaid expansion, which would provide an estimated 700,000 Floridians with health insurance, but Scott made no mention of the issue during his victory speech.
Both men had high disapproval ratings among voters, and the campaign was ugly. Crist accused Scott of being “too shady for the Sunshine State” because the health care company he headed paid a $1.7 billion fine for overbilling Medicare, while Scott focused on Crist’s party-switching. Like other Democratic candidates who chose to shun President Barack Obama because of his low approval ratings, Crist did not ask the president to campaign on his behalf. Some commentators suggested that may have turned off some Democratic voters, especially in black and Hispanic communities, making the difference in the race.
Republican incumbents also won the three other statewide races for Florida’s cabinet — attorney general, chief financial officer and commissioner of agriculture — by a comfortable 60-40 margin, meaning ex-felons who have served their parole and probation won’t be getting back their right to vote anytime soon. Under Florida’s constitution, the governor and cabinet determine whether ex-felons, mostly minorities, are allowed to vote, and during their previous term, they undid a rule Crist enacted that made it easier for ex-felons to regain their voting rights.
In addition to medical marijuana, two other amendments were on the ballot. Three-quarters of voters approved a measure that is supposed to ensure that state money allocated to restore Florida conservation and recreation lands is actually spent on conservation. A constitutional amendment that would have allowed a lame-duck governor, rather than the newly elected one, to choose new Supreme Court justices due to retire, received only 48 percent approval, well short of the 60 percent it needed to pass.
The amendment was created by the Republican-led Legislature, which called it a needed clarification, while Democrats claimed it was an attempt to pack the court with conservative Scott appointees. Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Quince, who are considered the most liberal justices on the court, must retire in 2019 because of a state requirement for mandatory judicial retirement at age 70.
If there is a silver lining for Democrats, it’s that their candidate, Maria Sachs, narrowly eked out a victory against Republican Ellyn Bogdanoff in state Senate District 34, which runs along the Treasure Coast between Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. The bitterly contested race was a rematch of 2012, when redistricting forced the two state senators to face off against each other. Had Bogdanoff won this time, Republicans would have had enough state senators to override a governor’s veto, but since Crist lost and Sachs won by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent, or 6,000 votes, that is largely problematical.
Altogether, the various campaigns raised nearly $111 million, making Florida’s midterm the most expensive in the nation, far exceeding the $86.6 million spent in Illinois. The Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who wants to build a resort casino in Florida, was the largest single out-of-state contributor, giving $1.5 million to the Republican Party of Florida and a whopping $5 million to oppose the medical marijuana amendment, canceling out the $6.5 million Morgan put into the Yes on 2 effort. Scott and the Republican-controlled Legislature oppose legalizing medical pot and “also control the fate of Adelson’s casino initiative,” the Miami Herald noted.
Robin Williams at a charity benefit in 2007 American comedian Robin Williams at “Stand Up for Heroes,” a comedy and music benefit organized by the Bob Woodruff Family Fund to raise money for injured U.S. servicemen.
I first heard about Robin Williams’ suicide from CNN’s smarmy Don Lemon, which made the news even more depressing. The world may be burning, but the latest induction into the Dead Comics Society soon took over the national consciousness, from cable news channels to the Twittersphere. Comic, actor, philanthropist, sometime substance abuser and full-time manic-depressive, from his most intimate friends and family to his legions of fans, people can’t help but wonder why such a beloved and talented genius would choose to check out now. The consensus is that his “demons” of depression got the best of him, and that more should be done to ensure that others don’t follow his path. But in the case of some celebrities, like Elvis and Marilyn, premature death can be a good career move. And there’s something to be said for controlling the time and place of one’s own demise, for going out on top. Especially when one is getting older.
Some have said Williams “was just 63 years old,” stretching the cliche well beyond reason. Sixty-three is a different kind of just, as in just plain old, well past the half-century mark, into the fourth quarter, and a lot older than most homo sapiens survived throughout history. I say this from the perspective of someone who was also born in 1951. Williams was a bigger man than I in every way I know of, except for one. He may have been more talented, loved, rich and famous, but when it came to age, we were tied.
I won’t presume to feel Williams’ pain, so speaking for myself, I’ll never run faster, jump higher, look better, be healthier, feel as passionate or have better sex than during my youth, which is as long gone as the ’60s, the 1960s, that is. With the passage of time, guilts, regrets, obligations, lost loves, lost friends, and mental and physical diminishments accumulate like barnacles, bogging down the soul. And it gets ever harder to outdo one’s former self.
In addition to Williams’ past upheavals in his personal life, his battles with drug and alcohol abuse and his 2009 heart surgery, Fox 411 reported he was haunted by the deaths of his friends Christopher Reeve, Andy Kaufman and John Belushi, and that he was in a funk about a faltering career. His latest comedy, “Angriest Man in Brooklyn” opened in May but quickly went to DVD. That same month, CBS canceled his TV comeback “The Crazy Ones” after a single season. In a way, “Crazy” attempted to recapture the magic of “Mork and Mindy” (1978-82), but he had outgrown the role, and it was painful to watch. After a few episodes I tuned out, as did most other viewers.
But his career was hardly over. Newser reports he will be in no fewer than four upcoming films: “Merry Friggin’ Christmas,” a road-trip film about a dysfunctional family; “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb,” in which he reprises his role as Teddy Roosevelt; “Boulevard,” a drama in which he plays a married man involved with a street hustler; and he will voice a dog in “Absolutely Anything,” a comedy about a teacher who gets supernatural powers from aliens. A sequel to “Mrs. Doubtfire” was also in development, but will probably be scrapped, according to Variety.
There’s been a lot of talk about suicide prevention, like early intervention, better recognition and more treatment for depression. But some treatments, like hospitalization, shock therapy and pills, are as depressing as depression. I can’t imagine Williams being as creative or happy on, say, Paxil. Some schizophrenics take “vacations” from their meds just to feel again. No pain, no gain. No agony, no ecstasy.
Teen suicide is tragic and stupid, because there’s no telling what the future may hold. But as “When I’m 64” becomes more than a song, the future begins to narrow. Williams lived a fuller life than most of us could ever dream, and achieved in one truncated lifetime more than most of us could accomplish in a dozen. He surely had more great performances in him, but he had brought so much joy to the world already. It’s selfish to expect any more from him. Sooner or later, our bodies tell us when we’ve had enough, and sometimes our minds do, too. Some people age more gracefully than others, Lauren Bacall certainly being one. Again, I have no idea why Robin Williams did what he did. All I know is that depression plus aging can be a drag.