The Day I Turned Old

The Day I Turned Old

My actual (as opposed to official) retirement began the day I walked into Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago and asked to volunteer for a few hours each weekday. I’d had a couple of rough years at my final payroller job and I thought volunteering would help lift me into a new way of thinking. Or, more precisely, I wanted a time-filler to keep from obsessing over the aftermath of the soul-crushing previous twenty-four months of my life.

Oh churches! There seem to be so many cries for help, until they try to find a job fit for you. I grabbed the first one offered and plunked myself down in front of a computer in the cubicle next to Vince, a friendly volunteer who was out of work but not yet retired. Our job: clean up the database. 

The database. Every pensioner I’ve met since my stint who looked to the church to help fill the first year’s lonely unproductive hours says the same thing.

“I started with the database.”

Vince knew what he was doing and in fact devised a formula and matrix for our work. I suppose it was simple. If you could pay attention. I couldn’t. At the end of each of my four hour stints, he’d spot-check my work and stay an extra hour or more to correct everything I tried to accomplish. Vince had an advantage—he was good at the game Concentration. He could spot a misspelled name in seconds-flat with his highly industrious mind.

The room next to the dreaded cubicles had been cleared of all furniture. It may have been the size of a football field. For about a year, having been diagnosed with PTSD due to the aforementioned job, my perception of size, space and time was like science fiction, all out of whack. 

One day, I heard an old Frankie Valli tune, “Sherry Baby” seeping under the door from that huge room. Of course I learned all the words—they’re pretty simple—as a teenager and never forgot them. 

“What’s going on in there?” I asked Vince. 

“Sher-er-ree, Sherr-ee, Baby…

“Oh, that’s the old people’s exercise class,” he said.

“Old people?”

“Yeah, ya’ know. CLL. The Center for Life and Learning.”

I didn’t, in fact, know. The church bulletin had notices about CLL but I never thought they were meant for me. Within the next few weeks, each day I grew grumpier and grumpier working on the database.

“Vince,” I said, “No offense, but I’d rather be in that room dancing around to “Sherry Baby” than sitting in front of a computer.” 

“Aw, yes, Regan,” he said, “But would it be as rewarding?”

Rewarding. Now there’s a loaded word. Did I really need to feel rewarded for the hours between sunrise and sunset? How about satisfied? Couldn’t I just feel satisfied?

Or, neutral?

“Vince. I’m logging out today and joining the exercise group tomorrow.”

And that day, that neutral day, is the day I turned old.

May Day! Mothering Rough Seas

For a few years, my son and I lived at the Jersey Shore with his stepfather, Jack, on the confluence of a fresh water river and a saltwater bay. The east-west Toms River begins in the swamps of the Pine Barrens, widens and swells its way east, eventually slamming into the Barnegat Bay. Sailors love the Toms River, especially during the summer’s prevailing southerlies.

I am not a sailor. 

In our family, swimming, passed down from one generation to the next, was a right of passage for a three-year old.  Water is in our blood. Our sandy backyard, bulkheaded rich brine that nourished vibrant sea creatures and, in turn, fed migratory bird colonies. Life on the water with my inquisitive six-year old was pure joy.

Jack arrived home one day with a used polystyrene Sunfish trailing his ’65 Mustang. For fifty dollars, the previous owner threw in a booklet on ‘how to sail’. A 1971 ad in Boating magazine called the thirty pound Sunfish the “Volkswagen of sailboats. A perfect learner’s boat” 

I called it a styrofoam bathtub.

Joe and I practiced our new book-learned sailing skills, 100 feet offshore, moored to the bulkhead. On our first untethered day at sea, Joe rigged the sails. We lulled away the dead calm until Joe spotted our German Shepherd swimming our way. As she approached the boat, I stood up, pointed toward shore and shouted “go home!” Which of course she did. She was, after all, a German Shepherd.

The next time Joe and I unmoored, we sailed expertly into the middle of the widest part of the river. We took turns at the tiller, successfully jibing and tacking as the wind took us west. But then we tacked to come back downriver. The sweet southerlies that had funneled us upriver suddenly turned on us like a mad dog turning on its master. The rogue wind bared its teeth. Thunderclouds whipped up the tide. And the sail luffed out of control. We. Were. Trapped.

The boat, too light for wind-churned waters, threw us around like a sea monster. I reassured Joe we were safe since we were both good swimmers. 

“We can’t leave the boat,” pleaded Joe.

“We won’t!” I assured him. But truth is, he’d seen the thought to abandon the boat cross my brow. I could swim to shore with one arm around Joe’s chest but I couldn’t pull the Sunfish with the other. 

Private docks, woods and marinas dotted the riverfront. I spotted a sliver of sand and rowed furiously. We pulled the boat up, tied it to a tree and ran to the door of a stranger who drove us home. The next day the Coast Guard towed our Sunfish home. 

“No markings on this thing,” the officer said. 

“You should name her ‘May Day.’”

At twenty-seven years old, I had no reason to believe motherhood would come naturally. All my choices to that point had been daring, radical, reckless.  Only four years before, I’d taken LSD, left toddler Joe with his father and trekked to Woodstock in a station wagon full of Rolling Rock chugging hippies. I was separated from them on the first night while swooning over Richie Havens’ performance of “Freedom”. During the muddy aftermath, I smoked opium with a stranger and hitched a ride home with him to New Jersey.

Ancestral maternal instincts swelled up out of nowhere that first day battering around in the Sunfish on the roiling Toms River. No matter how afraid I was, I had to show no fear, lest my six year old become traumatized and frightened by open water for the rest of his life. 

“Let’s try again,” I announced one day and we eagerly sailed into the prevailing southerlies on a sunny calm morning. Upriver, nature turned against us again.

“We need help,” Joe shouted in the sea spray. And we beached the boat once more.

Our sailing adventures made for wild-eyed good stories with our friends and family, but I feared my recklessness may have given Joe a subconscious dread of the sea  into adulthood.

I needn’t have given it a second thought. In his fifties now, Joe and his family leave their midwestern flatlands to vacation on tropical seas—snorkeling, bodysurfing and scuba diving. 

But.

No sailing.

Seeing Jesus

In 1949 the Soviet Union started the Cold War by detonating its first atomic bomb, blockading Berlin, and pushing its way into Poland and Eastern Europe. The voices I heard swirling above my head at cocktail hour in our Washington home implied the Russians were coming for us. Everyone acted like this was the worst thing that could ever happen. 

Air raid drills were concocted by the federal government through the National Civil Defense Administration to protect people from incoming A-bombs. Common folk-wisdom said only cockroaches would survive a nuclear attack. Nevertheless teachers were required to conduct impromptu air raid drills. They shouted, Drop!—a signal for us to jump out of our seats, crawl under our desks, fall over our knees and cover our heads. The nuns added the instruction to recite Hail Marys aloud while on the floor. 

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

At seven, I didn’t understand the difference between a drill and the real event. I went to my death every time I huddled under that desk. I feared the A-Bomb was the worst thing that could ever happen. But, I was not. afraid. to die. 

This is it, I’d pray. This is the day I’m going to see Jesus.

I believed Mother Mary would grab me in her arms like she did baby Jesus and take me to heaven. Why did we practice to avoid such ecstasy? 

By the time third grade rolled around, I got used to not dying under the desk. Images of children who lived after their exposure to the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki appeared on our small black and white television. I saw that there were worse things than death. 

Our Catholic school teachers taught that Communists who ruled Mother Russia prohibited the celebration of  the Mass. The clergy declared this was the worst thing that could ever happen. We prayed for Catholic Russia.

At home, my two sisters and I made our own breakfasts and school lunches because my mother’s alcohol intake rendered her unconscious in the mornings. We often gathered around her bed trying to figure out if she was alive. Holy Mary, Mother of God. One of us would place a finger under her nostrils to feel her breath until, with one exhale, she’d confirm that the worst that could’ve happen, hadn’t—and we’d be off to knock on neighbors’ doors scrounging rides to school. 

Those early almost-worst-that-could-happen memories have inoculated me against the mau-mauing of present-day alarmists, naysayers and fear-mongers who sermonize about the death of our democracy. Yeah-but’ers and tsk-tsk’ers want us to heed their cynical creed that our country is hopelessly overrun with insurrectionists, sexual predators, corrupt politicians and gun-toting scofflaws.

And what if these are apocalyptic times? So what? So were the 1950’s. I’ve been here before. 

Mother Mary may be out of commission these days, but I still dream of seeing Jesus.

IRL (In Real Life)

IRL (In Real Life)

One of the first gifts I received from my grandson, CJ, was his framed eighth grade self-portrait. He filled the center of a twelve by sixteen inch paper canvas with his life-size face, neck and shoulders, probably as instructed by his teacher. The background is a collage of his own black & white photos, trees and fences, angled every which way. The drawing portrays what he looked like at thirteen years old. 

Except he painted himself cobalt blue. 

This painting hangs from a hook on the wall-to-wall bookcase in my living room. CJ is fair-skinned with reddish-blonde hair. I’ve never asked him why he painted himself cobalt blue. As far as I know, he wasn’t imitating Picasso’s blue period. No one knew about the blue people of Kentucky until the 2019 publication “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek.” After hearing so many ads for Blue Man Group on TV, CJ expressed interest in seeing them live on stage. But it was an interest, not an obsession.


Cobalt blue, used for centuries by the Chinese for their blue and white pottery, is the epitome of coolness; dark, deep, and mysterious. It’s the color of the evening sky in winter, clear twilight boosted by the unseen sun from below the horizon. CJ’s not the only creative to fancy cobalt. J. M. W. Turner, Renoir, Claude Monet, and van Gogh all favored its compatibility with other colors. Remember Maxfield Parrish’s famous Daybreak? He used cobalt blue mixtures for the skyscape. 

Public opinion polls show blue as the favorite color of both men and women. And yet, a case of the blues refers to feelings of sadness. My parents used the term, the blues, to announce their alcoholic hangovers. 

Thanks to old African American traditions, the blues generally signify sadness without despair. Pastor Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago preaches about a blue note faith, one that’s rooted in letting dark times exist side-by-side with hope. Moss teaches his congregation to let these dark moody blues move around them while they practice dancing in the dark. This practice keeps the blues from turning to hopelessness and death by despair.

For the past ten years CJ’s self-portrait has hung where I see it everyday. He’s melded into my unconscious seeing. He looks the same to me. But as I write this and inspect him further, I see the cobalt blue has faded to dark teal. Teal is a modern color, one not seen in art before the twentieth century. It has no meaning really, except a lot of European TV shows use teal interiors and costumes. It makes the actors look better. 

In real life, CJ’s hair has turned brown, but I still think of him as reddish blonde, just as his self-portrait will always be cobalt blue. We don’t see each other often in these isolating covid days. He’s in those perilous twenties where the blues start taking root.

I hope he’s dancing in the dark.

Was She a Racist?

Adele pulled herself out of alcoholism, made a small fortune in real estate and provided shelter and security for her four children and husband. I met the whole family at an evangelical christian church in the early 1970s. As my role model for a brief time, she showed me how to survive in the extremist Christian cult. Neither of us belonged. We tripped over the threshold searching for a deeper understanding of the word “God”, and got sucked in. 

She rejected the White male elders’ biblical interpretation that wives should not work, that the man is the head of the hosehold. I trusted her. She was on her third marriage; she convinced me that financial independence was the first step to freedom if I wanted to get out of my violent second marriage.

 The ease of Adele’s sales skills to prospective homebuyers enthralled me. I wanted to be like her. I studied and finally earned my own real estate license while working as an unpaid apprentice to Adele in a planned development.  Month after month with no salary and no prospects, I persevered, supported by my husband’s income and buoyed by Adele’s words: “You only need one sale.”

One day a couple in a splendid new car parked in front of the office. I ran out to greet them, showed them the model, obtained qualifying information, and walked them around the grounds to view the plots. The couple, Princeton University professors, picked out their dream house-to-be, and I called the owner of the development announcing my first sale. The owner arrived with a blank contract as the couple discussed their choice of bathroom tiles. I envisioned thousands of dollars exploding in my mailbox.

Since high school, I’d been politically active, and at age twenty-seven, I had no evidence to suggest that America wasn’t heeding the call to social and racial change espoused by John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. It never occurred to me that people thought any other way.

The owner hemmed and hawed, saying he wasn’t sure he could provide the couple their tile choice, or carpet, or kitchen cabinets. Still, nothing about his interaction with this couple seemed unusually negative, at least not to me. They signed a contract contingent on later negotiations for the decor.

The whole project slowed, then halted. Adele claimed the money ran out, thanked me for my sweat equity, and found me a part-time job making stained-glass lamps.

A few months later, I stood at my mailbox reading a legal notice naming me and the owner in a civil rights lawsuit for discrimination against the Black couple from Princeton. Adele brought me a news article saying the NAACP was testing the efficacy of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 by sending Black couples to White neighborhoods to purchase homes.

“See?” Adele said. “They were shills.”

It never went to court. I crawled away from my adulation of Adele. And left the real estate business.

First Grade Gun

First Grade Gun

Tyrone bragged that his friend brought a gun to school. In the six months I’d known him he’d told me a few tales, like he and his little brother went to Winter Wonderland at Navy Pier. He didn’t have a little brother, but I often held my confrontational tongue with him in an effort to give him space to be himself. I thought if I earned his trust, eventually he’d stop trying to beguile me with fanciful stories.

He was my seven year-old charge in a weekly volunteer tutoring program. During our first getting-to-know-you session we followed a Q & A script developed by the program administrators. We both had dogs. He had a baby sister. I had grandchildren. He went to a school on Chicago’s west side. I was not sure who mothered him. He mentioned an aunt and a grandmother. He proudly mentioned his father. He wasn’t explicit, and looked away in silence when I pressed for details, what does he do? I eased off to save him from having to think up a story. And really, I didn’t want to know.

The tutoring session consists of helping kids with their homework, creating art projects and playing board games. Tyrone didn’t need help with homework. I guided him while he wrote down answers to math problems and filled in words in sentences. He never got anything wrong, and I praised him for being so smart. I helped him put his homework neatly in his backpack. When I started to reach in and straighten other things in his backpack, he balked at that intrusion. He often hid a football or basketball in there and feared others would see. I surmised he was prohibited from bringing balls to school, and he thought they may be forbidden at tutoring as well. Maybe he was afraid for other reasons.

When I quizzed him about the details of the gun, he said he saw it in his friend’s backpack, that his friend found it in ththe backyard and that it had bullets in it. I asked if he told his teacher. “No! He’s my best friend!”

Research finds youth from risk-filled backgrounds who successfully transition to the adult world of employment and good citizenship have had the consistent presence of a caring adult. Tutoring programs give kids this opportunity. As a first-time tutor, I attended orientation where consistency and trust were emphasized.

I connected with Tyrone in summer camp. Some kids would point to volunteers and brag, “That’s my tutor!” Having no information about what a tutor is, Tyrone asked me to be his tutor. Yes, I committed to years-long care and support of Tyrone beginning that fall.

I doubted Tyrone’s tale about the gun, but gun-in-school carries weight. I couldn’t  bear it alone. I consulted with a supervisor. She knew Tyrone’s caregiver.

“I’ll take care of it,” she said.

The next week he came to tutoring with his sidestep story: his friend brought gum to school. When next I arrived for duty, Tyrone was absent. I knew he’d not return. He dropped out of tutoring and so did I.

Was I right in reporting Tyrone’s story? I doubted myself for months. I switched my volunteering from one-on-one tutoring to leading groups of first graders in meditation. A supervisor caught me in the hall one evening and casually mentioned the gun was no tale.

Tyrone’s friend had walked into first grade with a loaded hand gun in his backpack.

Vampire Portrait

Vampire Portrait

The portrait represented my not-surprisingly-sad six-year-old self. People told me as far back as I can remember that I looked sad. Some would even ask why I looked so sad. How does a small child answer such a question?

The oil painting, a three-by-four foot gothic with a gilded oil-rubbed frame looked like an antique. I have a vague recollection of my mother taking my two sisters and I to the artist’s home in Washington, DC, where we had moved for a few years after World War II. We all sat for separate portraits. Mine was the only one the artist completed before my father ran out of money. The artist gave them all to my mother nonetheless and it was one more reason for me to feel superior to my two sisters – my portrait was the best.

I was painted from the waist up seated in a mahogany armchair. Dressed in black velvet with a rounded white lace collar, I held a doll similar to the one my father gave me when I had to stay home from school with the mumps. He bought her in the gift shop of the hotel where we lived when we were evicted from our home. The painting’s forest green background mimicked the dark green velvet of the doll’s coat.

Our family moved around the Midwest for many years before my mother left my father in 1960 – Terre Haute and Indianapolis, St. Louis and Clayton, Chicago and Lake Forest. Those childhood portraits made it through all the evictions, storages and moving vans until I finally got married and my mother gave me my portrait. I hauled it through my own two marriages, divorces and geography. Wherever I hung it, someone inevitably asked who was that sad little girl. I once wanted to rid myself of it when a friend said, “It’s your heirloom.” And so I brought it to a new home in Chicago, where I returned after a stint in Washington, DC during the Bill Clinton years.

My home of 15 years is the first condominium where I’ve had a storage locker. I don’t have a lot of storage items. I figure if you can’t wear it, sit on it, or hang it on the wall, there’s no point in keeping it. For a few years my sad childhood likeness laid in darkness in the basement next to some pictures of my grandchildren and a large suitcase.

Then one day, I needed the suitcase for a two-week trip to San Sebastian, Spain with my California friend Cappi Quigley. I thought I’d bring the portrait upstairs while retrieving the luggage. I couldn’t find the keys to the locker’s padlock so I asked Marcel the building engineer to meet me in the lobby with a bolt cutter. We descended to the basement where Marcel unlocked the steel door to Locker Room B. We located the locker assigned to my condo unit.

The padlock was gone and so were all the contents of the locker.

My Secret Years

My Secret Years

The Secret Years by Regan Burke

It’s been 40 years since I left the marriage. I had been sober for almost a year, he for three. We met in Alcoholics Anonymous. I was a hippie and he had been in the Army during the Korean War. We told ourselves we’d bridge our generational, cultural and intellectual divide with love. I brought my delightful six-year-old son, Joe, into the marriage.

A small group of spiritual seekers in AA brought us to a cozy bible study that recruited
prospective believers to a Sunday service replete with emotional, old-fashioned hymns. I made deep friendships there. Kind and accepting fellowship was new to me. I’d grown up thinking sarcastic banter and raging all-night arguments with ever-present booze qualified as chit-chat. My addiction got off to an early start as the legal drinking age was not adhered to in my family.

When I got sober, I hungered for a new family with a clear consistent recipe for living. I easily succumbed to the succor of an evangelical Christian cult. This authoritarian, bible-thumping church required women to submit to their husbands – even when the husbands battered the wives. I returned every time to a husband who tried to smack me into the kind of wife he saw in his neighborhood growing up. I craved God’s love through the approval of the church elders but I had a wild, willful, rule-breaking past that was hard to tame, no matter how hard my husband tried. To this day, the congenial backslapping that people use to emphasize the punchline of their stories, can trigger in me a subconscious fight-or-flight response.

th-1The day of the fight, I raged around the house rattling anything in my path when I discovered the husband had walked out with our joint checkbook. He was going to drain the account. I climbed into my 1963 Volkswagen bus and headed to the bank. There he was in the strip mall parking lot slinking into his 1970 Ford Mustang. I floored my van and slammed right into the back of his Mustang. He tore out down the two-lane highway. I pursued him, crashing into him every time he slowed down.

Eventually I was able to get up enough steam to bulldoze him off the road and cram him into a tree. The impact forced all the doors in the van to fly open, but otherwise there wasth-2 no damage to me or my vehicle. I turned around and drove the speed limit home, parked my van, went inside and fell into bed, believing I had killed him. I slipped into a deep sleep relieved from the cares of all the world.

I was awakened by two elders from the church. The husband escaped unharmed.They had spoken to the police, vouched for my good character and vowed to admit me to a mental institution immediately. No charges were filed. I spent three months in the Christian Health Care Center in Wyckoff, NJ. My son Joe stayed with a church family. The marriage lasted another two years.

Ancestral Tree Worship and Carl Jung

Ancestral Tree Worship and Carl Jung
A crow caws in the gingko tree on the corner. The rising sun shines through the outdoor tree branches. Their shadows dapple my bedroom walls.

I wake early to catch the glory of each day’s wall art, to meditate with the trees in their seasons. Outside, Ozzy the dog and I stop long enough under the gingko tree to allow its fanning leaves to breathe a fresh day into our early morning walk.

th-1My favorite place is anywhere there are trees.

I love them for all the usual reasons: pretty, green, shade. The deciding factor on my condo purchase 15 years ago was the swaying branches outside the wall-to-wall windows. My home is on the 3rd floor of a 20-story high-rise overlooking Lake Michigan. When I first saw the place, the three ash trees in the parkway had reached a height equal to the 4th floor.

It was like living in a treehouse.th-3

Last year the City of Chicago’s Forestry crews euthanized my treehouse. The ashes were slowly killing themselves by feeding Emerald Ash Borers, those exotic hungry beetles from Asia. I mourn my ash trees. I thought they were immortal.

My mother, Agnes, taught me the pragmatism of trees. Stacy was born 11 years after me, and Agnes insisted I walk my baby sister around on sunny days. Her constant reminder stays with me, “Be sure you stop under the trees so the baby can see the shadows swaying.”

“Women should always have babies in the beginning of summer,” Agnes often said, “in case they are colicky, they will be soothed by leaves swaying in the trees.” She muttered “idiot” under her breath anytime another mother announced the birth of a baby in any month other than early summer.

And indeed, three of her four babies were born in May, June and July. She pretended she planned it that way.

My one and only baby, Joe, was born in May. His 1st summer was spent on his back under the trees outside in a baby carriage. Inside, he spent his time in a crib under a window of trees, syncopating his first gurgles with the sound of leaves rubbing together in the breeze.

Agnes was right about nature’s tranquilizer for infants, but she never claimed it worked for adults. She wouldn’t have been caught dead contributing such unsophisticated, sappy remedies to adult conversations. Her tranquilizers were beer and scotch and later, valium. She spent some of the last years of her life demented from these potions and gazing at the trees in verdant Vermont.604909-44011-10

Trees soothe me anywhere, in any season. Joe absorbs tree balm while minding his wooded property. Carl Jung tells us Agnes simply passed on the inheritance – the collective unconscious of Irish tree worship that supposes tree fairies live in high branches watching over us. My mother’s life was rooted in addiction that mimicked a life-sucking aphid. Yet, she uttered words that gave me and my son our love for trees, a priceless, ancient, tranquilizing inheritance.

IN MY MIND AT THE VIAGRA TRIANGLE BY REGAN BURKE

IN MY MIND AT THE VIAGRA TRIANGLE BY REGAN BURKE

They call it Viagra Triangle because old men gather on benches lining the sidewalks to ogle young women. It’s Mariano Park, at the confluence of State and Rush Streets in Chicago. The shaded, pie-shape park is surrounded by a hotel, a 57-story condominium and successful late-night restaurants.

I sit near the 100-year-old fountain with my Scottish Terrier, Ozzy. A young couple at a table next to me punch away on their cell phones. He’s dread-locked wearing jeans and a factory-faded t-shirt. She’s sandaled in a dated, longer-in-the-back orange dress; over-dyed black hair, sunglasses.

“Look! stock market’s up,” she says. “Dude, I should’ve bought that when you told me. 1237041_439591126154325_771983775_nWhat’s this? We never ordered a CT scan.”

She opens her laptop. “Look at this. It’s right there. How did they miss that in radiology?” Returning to her phone, she reads, “Dan says, ‘I remember now. I saw that on the X-ray and asked for a CT.’ That radiologist is a dumbass. He’s gonna be in big trouble.”

He nods. “Remember? We asked the patient about this?”

I wonder if they work at nearby Northwestern Hospital and if I know the poor patient.

An oversized white truck turns the corner at Rush and Bellevue. Big black letters on the side say, “We Buy Houses. Cash. Call 847… “. Do they mean they buy the contents of the houses and haul them away in that truck?

14903_701500873252390_6713285813608226359_nHere comes a German Shepherd tethered to a small athletic woman. Great. I’ll have to hold Ozzy tight. I wish he’d stop trying to defend me from big dogs.

“Is your dog friendly?” she asks with her gentle giant sniffing around.

“Sometimes,” I say. Ozzy growls and tries to wriggle to the ground. “Yours?”

“Oh yes. We got him for protection but he doesn’t even bark.”

“Protection from what?”

“Oh you know, intruders.”

Intruders? I don’t ask. I wonder if it’s experience or paranoia that motivates her. Ozzy springs off my lap and gets a sniff of the German before shifting his attention to an encroaching pigeon. I slacken the leash. Ozzy lunges. The pigeon flutters up and the German Shepherd crouches in fear. Jeez. They must have moved in from the suburbs.

Two young women in high heels and sleeveless, skin-tight dresses approach carrying Starbucks cups. They sit; the blonde crosses her long, bare legs sideways and leans back in the chair. They light up. An old man chomping on a cigar shouts from a nearby bench. “YOU CAN’T SMOKE HERE.”

“Oh yeah?” says the blonde, “What about you?”

“Mine’s not lit,” he says.

“Mind your own business,” she says.

“It is my business. YOU CAN’T SMOKE HERE.”

“Where’s the sign?” she says.

The brunette changes the subject. “When’s the new coffee shop opening?”

“Oh that,” he says. “Who knows? Fourth of July maybe. It’s pathetic. They’re turning the park into a yuppy Gold Coast hang-out.”

“I’m glad they’re cleaning the place up,” she says.

“Don’t leave your butts on the ground,” he says.

IN ANOTHER MIND AT THE VIAGRA TRIANGLE

The news isn’t so bad – just a little emphysema. Not bad for 75 years of hard living. “Okay, okay,” I told the doc. “I’ll stop smoking cigars.” Two hours and I’m finally outta there. It’s still nice out. I think I’ll walk over to the park and rest in the shade for a while.

Oh now look what’s happened. Why didn’t they start fixing up the coffee stand sooner. Now everyone is sitting outside with a mound of old green tarp spoiling the view. They never do anything right around here.

At least the benches are out. It looks like they got new tables and chairs. Humph. Not enough of them. What are those things over by the fountain, Adirondack chairs? In the middle of the city? Man, are they out of place. These people don’t know what the hell they’re doing.

I’m glad Ruth didn’t live to see this. She’d hate her favorite little park getting all gentrified. We used to sit right over there on Friday nights with the Bellevue neighbors. We laughed at everyone’s stories from their week at work and mulled over who was going where over the weekend. Everyone relied on Ruth to bring the newspaper’s list of events. And she was the one who spotted famous people walking by. God, I remember the night she eyed Reggie Jackson strolling around Rush Street with a big white girl on his arm. That must have been the summer of 1980 when the Yankees were here playing the White Sox. Ruth really loved the Sox.

This bench is new. Comfortable though. I’m going to chew on my cigar for a while. No, doc, I’m not going to light it. I just like the feel of it in the corner of my mouth. Yeah, it gets a little soggy and the juice from the tobacco seeps between my teeth back to my throat. But this can’t hurt anything. It’s the smoking, right? The damage to the lungs. Emphysema. I wonder if that’s as bad as lung cancer. Naw. The doc never said I’d die from emphysema. Anyway, I’m not lighting up.

Look at these two babes. What’s with those shoes? How can they walk on this old brick sidewalk in high heels? Ruth used to wear high heels. She gave them to the Salvation Army
when her arthritis got bad. I wonder if anyone ever bought them? She had great legs.

Oh shit, they’re sitting right in front of me and lighting up. I can’t stand it. I’m dying to light my cigar. Their smoke is too much. “Hey, you can’t smoke here!”

1005890_10151648151400606_1631618218_n“Oh yeah?” says the blonde, “What about you?”

“Mine’s not lit.”

“Mind your own business,” she says.

“It is my business. YOU CAN’T SMOKE HERE.”

“Where’s the sign?” she says.

The brunette wants to know when the new coffee shop is opening.

“That yuppie joint? Who knows? Fourth of July maybe. It’s pathetic. They should’ve done it before it got nice out.”

“I’m glad they’re cleaning the place up,” she says.

“Yeah. Hey, can I have a light?”