Street Smart Chicago

Dime Stories: The Baby Devils

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Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

By Tony Fitzpatrick

I always enjoy movies about evil children—”The Omen,” “The Bad Seed,” “The Other” and, of course, “The Exorcist,” featuring Linda Blair painting the local clergy from scrot to throat with green puke.

I love this kind of stuff. “Village of the Damned” and “Children of the Corn” also set me off into fits of laughter. In fact, all of the devil shit is hysterically funny to me. When I was a kid, there was a grade-Z stinker called “Mark of the Devil.” It might have been a Roger Corman movie that got made for about six dollars. They had an ingenious marketing campaign of handing out barf bags at the drive-in and the commercials cautioned the moviegoer to keep repeating to him or herself, “Remember, it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie.” Damned if the thing wasn’t a hit.

The old drive-in movies were chock full of evil kids and toys, as were the comics; “Creepy” and “Eerie” especially. Decades before Korn, Slipknot and Marilyn Manson, the comics were full of satanic little fuckers doing evil at the drop of a hat. “The  Demon Seed” and “Village of the Damned” come to mind; the latter with children adorned with bleach-blond page-boy haircuts that made them look more dopey than evil. Read the rest of this entry »

Dime Stories: Lessons From the Street Where I Live

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Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

By Tony Fitzpatrick

I live in Ukrainian Village. Some of my neighbors don’t even speak English. They like being among themselves. They are suspicious, clannish and, at times, paranoid and unfriendly. This doesn’t surprise me. A great many of my neighbors are from the Ukraine and lived under harsh totalitarian regimes, under a czar or a dictator. Many of them are old enough to remember the scourge of communism in their lives. They don’t much trust strangers: this is Chicago, a city of tribes and bone-deep grudges.

My neighbors have begun to thaw a bit. After all, it’s been four years. One lady brought me a sack of beets from her garden and, noticing that I had several bird feeders in my yard, told me the secret to attracting hummingbirds–red flowers and sugar water. She told me that only she had hummingbirds in this neighborhood even though the city “is lousy with them– you have to know how to attract them.” Read the rest of this entry »

Dime Stories: Our Fear of Gay Americans

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Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

By Tony Fitzpatrick

When I was a kid, and in a hurry to assert my masculinity, I made stupid remarks about gay people and indulged in the unfocused and thoughtlessly cruel bigotry of my peers. In other words, before I actually knew anyone who was gay. What I did not know is that there were gay people all around me and these remarks, however offhand, said a great deal more about me than anyone else. The words callow and stupid come to mind.

Thankfully, I came up in the world of art where there was no shortage of gay folks who wanted precisely the same things in life that I did. It opened my eyes and made me regret the stupidity and ignorance I’d harbored. A good many of these people were heroic: Dr. Ron Sable, the Chicago physician who was one of the first activists on the frontlines of the AIDS crisis in the mid-eighties, Larry Kramer, who loudly refused to let gay Americans become marginalized as lesser citizens, Danny Sotomayor, the late cartoonist and ACT UP activist—these were brave people who I was fortunate enough to have known and, in the face of their struggle, they made the rest of America change with them. The gay and lesbian community still struggles with ridiculous and arcane and draconian laws that other Americans stopped having to address a long time ago.

The right to marry, really? The religious right claims that gay marriage is a threat to the institution of marriage. These bigots helped stall the vote for the Marriage Equality Act, just this past week in Illinois. Read the rest of this entry »

Dime Stories: The Sad Business of Dreams

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Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

By Tony Fitzpatrick

In the canon of American literature of the last century, Nathanael West figures in a couple of times.

“Miss Lonelyhearts” is considered his signature work,  a novel of isolation and animal longing. My favorite has always been “The Day of the Locust,” which ends with Hollywood burning to the ground amidst a savage mob running amok and devouring all who would try and halt it. It was made into a movie starring Donald Sutherland, William Atherton and Karen Black. “The Day of the Locust” has it all: artists, wannabe starlets, midgets, cockfights, cowboys, darkness, hunger and desperation. Read the rest of this entry »

Dime Stories: The Magic of Nature

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Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

By Tony Fitzpatrick

Driving back from California through the desert, one is always cognizant of the hungry world that surrounds you. The desert may seem still, but beyond what you can see it is teeming with life: coyotes, owls, hawks, vultures and some genuinely scary-ass reptiles, thick western diamondbacks, prairie rattlers, gila monsters and sidewinders.

There are small boars called javelinas—ugly little fuckers who love-you-not. There are roadrunners who tear along the desert until they find a lizard to peck to death and devour. They are psycho-looking sons-of-bitches who remind us that for all of the cute photos of baby seals and shit like that, that nature is around-the-clock murder. Look into the eye of one of these ground-dwelling birds and one sees all of the madness in the world. Read the rest of this entry »

Dime Stories: A Day and Night in Tokyo

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TokyoBy Tony Fitzpatrick

In Tokyo, I took tons and tons of digital shots and I had no earthly fucking idea how to load them onto my computer, because I am a moron. I walked at least five miles a day all over Shinjuku and Shibuya and in the Ginza district. I also spent a little time in one of the parks that are gorgeous in Tokyo, and oddly quiet. Public space is revered in this city because there is so little of it and parks offer respite from the crowds. People are very quiet in the parks and these immaculately manicured places are sanctuary and lend themselves to reading and meditation. The trees are carefully pruned and sculpted and every park is tended to like a giant garden. They are beautiful.

I walked a great deal and saw a lot of Tokyo in a shopping district right by Shibuya. There is a youth culture that is hard to discern the look of; part punk, part slacker, part skate-kid. It is an amalgam of all of these things. I also stumbled onto something Japan really likes–buttons. They are bat-shit for buttons. Read the rest of this entry »

Dime Stories: Songbird for Nelson Algren

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Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

By Tony Fitzpatrick

I’ve made more than a few tributes to the great Chicago writer Nelson Algren. His shadow looms large over how I see the city. Algren, of course, is the steely realist who will not let us bullshit ourselves about who we are. He is also the soft heart who is full of the gambler’s optimism about who we could be. He was a master of the gray; the good in the bad and the bad in the good. He also leavened his often sad and tragic stories with wry humor. He is also aware of Chicago’s propensity for eating its own. He often remarked that Chicago could not “love you back” and went to his grave believing this.

This is why I get pissed when dipshits from somewhere else attempt to tell us who we are. In his lifetime Algren never let us forget our inequities and cruelties—he saw Chicago for what it was—never mind the cheap boosterism or the “swagger.” When the New York Times Book Review ran its hit piece disguised as a book review a couple of weeks ago it sent me searching for writers who lived here, and their testaments to that experience. Algren never went easy on Chicago. Neither did the oral histories of Studs Terkel or the novels of James T. Farrell. Mike Royko certainly cut the city no slack when it came to blowing the whistle on crooked aldermen, shysters and even the mayor. We’ve never wanted for social critics among our own. Though I suppose we should be grateful that an associate professor from DePaul weighs in and lets us know how deluded we are in our little burg. Read the rest of this entry »

Dime Stories: The Infernal Nod Machine of Hollywood Boulevard

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Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

By Tony Fitzpatrick

There is a not-very-good movie from the nineties that bears one lovely, elegiac passage about Hollywood Boulevard. It is an otherwise forgettable piece of grade-D chewing gum for the brain called “Jimmy Hollywood.” Luckily the moments of grace are the opening credits in which a blond-wigged Joe Pesci (never has a hair piece been a worse idea) walks the stars on Hollywood Boulevard with his eyes closed. As he stops at each one he says the name of the honored actor or actress under his feet—he knows them by heart—and by this time, without a word of exposition, we know him. He is an actor who never made it and never will and yet, in our hearts, in a weird way we begin to hold out hope for him. It doesn’t hurt that the music in the opening sequence is Robbie Robertson’s lovely “Soap-Box Preacher.” It’s appropriate this song is used: Pesci’s character, Jimmy Alto, is attending his church—Grauman’s Chinese Theatre—and he is practicing his act of faith, his stations of the cross—walking the stars and honoring those entombed in the cement forever. It is heartbreaking and hopeful in the same moment and, for any other film, would have and could have been a departure point for a wonderful story. Not this one though. Like Jimmy Hollywood, it never gets out of the gate.

When I first saw this film I thought it was an innocuous enough flight of whimsy and didn’t realize that, in Los Angeles, guys like Jimmy Hollywood actually exist. On my last visit there, I arranged a show of twenty-nine Chicago artists at East Hollywood’s La Luz de Jesus Gallery. Read the rest of this entry »

Dime Stories: For the Bad Men Who Built Our City

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Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

By Tony Fitzpatrick

“We’re bigger than US Steel.” —Hyman Roth to Michael Corleone in “The Godfather, Part II”

There is a scene in the movie “Bugsy,” in which Benjamin Siegel is standing in the middle of the Nevada desert taking a leak and, looks around, reading the landscape. He sees it: his future and the future of the American mob. There is not a goddamn thing out there other than scorpions and sagebrush, but in his mind’s eye, Siegel can see it: a utopia for sinners and gamblers, servicemen in need of relaxation, a neon-lit Sodom and Gomorrah where “we the people” could indulge our darker and more libertine impulses. And to Bugsy Siegel, Moe Dalitz, and other members of the Chicago, Cleveland and Kansas City mob, it was a place about a fundamental American thing—freedom. You want to gamble away the rent? Eat cheap prime rib? Get blown by a showgirl? Welcome sir, your room is ready. Read the rest of this entry »

Dime Stories: Godspeed Roger Ebert

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Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

By Tony Fitzpatrick

Los Angeles is rather beautiful at night—kind of a fleet dark animal festooned with signs and lights, as well as the never-ending roar of the automobile. It used to be hard for me to think of it as a city. It always seemed more like an endless labyrinth of smaller towns, a web of connected tribes—strip-mall-type architecture has not helped the place at all. But then you get these breathtaking views of the place lit up at night, which you can see from Laurel Canyon or Mulholland Drive, and you finally understand that the sprawl must be taken as a whole to be understood at all.

Therein lay the beauty of the place. My favorite ride in LA is Sunset Boulevard from the Pacific Coast Highway all the way downtown—in this thirty-mile stretch one can realize the American story, circumstance and appetite in a kind of shorthand. One goes from the Penthouse to the outhouse and back in a minute. One minute you’re in tony Bel Air and a few short minutes later you find yourself among the walking wounded of East Hollywood. You roll by SkyBar and the Whiskey A Go-Go, where young men in hair bands, twenty years past the expiration date of this musical idiom, are still playing gigs to try and jump-start a dream. The cynical may dismiss and laugh at them, but I find them weirdly heroic if a little naive. Read the rest of this entry »