Monthly Archives: March 2010

BIG STAR

For the sake of argument, I do not live in Chicago, and I have not lived inside the actual city at anytime in my life that I can remember.  I was born in Chicago which in effect would make me a native Chicagoan, but we moved out to Villa Park before I entered school, so my first real memories only date back to then.  Currently, I reside in the far south-west suburb of Bolingbrook, which would mean absolutely nothing to most people if it were not also the home of one of the most infamous ex-cop husbands of a missing woman.  And to answer the question, yes I have met him.  Ok, so not actually met.  I stood beside him while waiting for my oldest daughter to meet me after a Christmas concert at the high school.  I didn’t realize until it was too late just why there was that open space right in the middle of the crowded lobby.

All this extraneous crap aside, I do consider myself a Chicagoan, and if asked outside of the state of Illinois where I live, for simplicity, I will say Chicago.  I know this drives many folks who actually live within the confines of the actual city of Chicago a little nuts, but if I find myself in a conversation with someone from this area, I will clarify my situation.  The reason I still consider myself a Chicagoan is because unlike many people who grew up in the suburbs, I have always made the city a part of my life.  I have had friends who would not travel to the city unless absolutely necessary.  And even then they would be reluctant.  I work in the city, and I attend sports events and concerts in the city, but if this were the only extent of my city travels, it still might not be enough to stake a claim as a Chicagoan.  I can honestly say that I love the city of Chicago, and although I don’t actually reside there, I do consider it my home.  I am comfortable walking the streets and searching for those out-of-the-way spots that make the city what it is.  This past Monday, Maureen and I found a real gem.  A small little place that is so unassuming that we missed it on our first pass, but with a big name.  Big Star.

Officially in the Wicker Park Neighborhood, just south of the Damen stop of the Blue Line, Big Star is a mexican restaurant that is nestled in the shell of an old service station.  The name of the restaurant is painted on the outside of the building like an old grocery store advertisement, and the old plain theme carries right through the front door.  It looked like the inside of a garage with bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling and muted grey painted brick walls that almost perfectly matched the concrete floors.  The only thing missing was the naked women on the Bosch Tool calendar.  But in the middle of this garage where the Jiffy Lube rack should have been, there was a large wooden bar.

We were greeted at the door by a casually dressed hostess who told us that the restaurant was cash only.  Luckily she also pointed out the cash machine conveniently located directly to our right.  For a Monday night at around 5:30 the place was already quite packed, but we were able to find two seats at the bar near the sound system that consisted of an old record player just a step above a Close ‘N Play, and very similar to what I recall having in my old basement apartment back in college.  The playlist for the day consisted of scratchy albums by the likes of Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn. 

We had read about this place in Time Out Chicago, a local magazine that touted the best of all things Chicago, and the draw of the pork belly tacos is what brought us here.  Like the decor, the menu was also quite simple and to the point with very few choices to make.  Maureen ordered a Margareta that was not too shy on the power and I opted for the $1 Schlitz on tap.  Of course it only came in a 7 oz glass, but it was still the deal of the day, unless you optioned for the $2 Blatz can.  Before our tacos arrived, we ordered what I can only describe as a hubcap full of chips which were homemade and freshly pulled from the oil, then topped with sea salt and lime juice.  I kept things traditional and ordered just the aforementioned pork belly tacos, while Maureen adventured into braised lamb tacos and pork shoulder tacos with pineapple.  Everything was very good, and we both decided it was worth another visit.  It was even vegetarian friendly so my sister Laura could join us for the fish or pepper tacos.  We figured our food bill was all of about $17, the tacos were $3 each while the stack of chips that were too much for just the two of us to finish were just $2.  Although we did continue to snack on them long after our stomachs told us we should stop.  Once you added in our drinks, our total bill was $33.  As always, it is those damn drinks that drive up the bill.

As we gathered ourselves up to leave, others were already jockeying to take our place at the bar, and it was almost inevitable that we were going to get a little too friendly with the other patrons that were now double parked looking for a space to eat.  For those who don’t want the challenge of inside dinning, there is also a convenient walk up window where to go orders can be placed.  With that lumbering full feeling in our guts, Maureen and I headed north into the Bucktown area to walk off our meal.  We stopped and watch a little kickball game that was in progress at a small park before finding ourselves looking in store windows with more space than clothes.  Maureen pointed out the obvious to me.  The less clothes in the store, the more expensive they will be.  We finally settled down in a tavern called Lemmings for a couple more beers before heading back to the car.

These are the type of dates that make me feel like the city is also my home.  Maureen is a true Chicagoan, a south-sider born and bred.  She is adjusting to her new life out in the suburbs, but it is only a matter of time before we relocate back into the city itself.  If I had not gotten married right out of college, I would have settled down in the city along with many of my friends.  It may take me another ten years, but I will become a true city guy someday. 

And then I too will probably snub my nose up at all those suburban folks that call themselves Chicagoans.

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I Want to Ride My Bicycle

When I was much younger, and probable half my current size, I rode my bike everywhere.  I am not exaggerating.  And it wasn’t just me, most of the kids did the same thing.  There really wasn’t much right in our neighborhood, so if we wanted anything it ment hoofing it to the store or jumping on your bike.  We were very mobile.  There was a 7-11 up President Street at Roosevelt Road, but most often we would head down Briarcliffe, cutting through a few residential areas, to the Frank’s Finer Foods down on Butterfield road.  It was a little shopping area with a number of stores including an ice cream shop called Zipzee’s. 

We lived on the very south side of Wheaton, and it was not uncommon for us to ride downtown to the movie theatre or the record store.  We only had one public pool in town way back then, so if we wanted to take a swim we either had to catch a bus, or ride all the way to Northside Park to meet up with friends.  As the name may indicate, it was all the way on the other side of town, at least four or five miles.  But this would be a regular workout for our bikes.  On a number of occasions, my friend Jimmy and I would ride to the train station at College Avenue and take the train downtown Chicago.  But don’t tell my mom that.  I don’t think we ever asked permission.  Once downtown, we would walk to where ever we wanted to go. 

This was what summer was all about.  Jumping on your bike and just heading out to God knows where.  You let the day take you there and your bike was your only tool to accomplish this task.  Just make sure you were home before sundown and you were in the clear.  Our longest bike adventure was one afternoon when Jimmy and I decided we wanted to figure out if you could get to Chicago by using The Illinois Prairie Path, a series of bike paths and trails that followed the train tracks through the western suburbs.  We didn’t make it to Chicago, the path made a sudden dead-end near the train station in Berkeley, but we did kill a day and had a fun adventure along the way.

I bring all of this up because I am currently in a battle with my son about baseball practice.  He has practice just twice a week right now, and now that the weather has warmed up they are outside at a local park.  The only problem is that in order to get enough time with the kids, the practice starts at 5.  When Alex realized that there was a conflict with the time I get home from work, usually around 6, and the time he had to be at practice, he was a bit stymied.  My response was to look him in the face and tell him to ride his bike.  He looked at me as if I had just told him practice sliding in glass underwear.

Let’s face it, kids are lazy these days, and we as parents are to blame.  We have made it too easy for kids to get around.  They are involved in too many activities, and anytime they need to be somewhere we just hop in the car and take them there.  They have video games and i-pods and a gazillion stations to choose from on the tv sets they all have in their rooms.  (I will say that I refused to hook up the cable in my kids rooms, but both Alex and Molly do have DVD players and watch movies in their rooms.)  The park where Alex has to practice is two miles from our home.  The main ride is a straight shot up a residential street that has bike lanes on either side, and also side walks if he prefered to ride out of the street.  He would need to cross one “busy” street, but there is a stoplight at that corner, and by 13 he had better have figured out how to cross with the light.

To make matters worse, he has found himself an ally in his battle not to ride his bike.  His mother.  She has decided that it is too dangerous for him to make this trip on his bike.  I understand that it is a mother’s prerogative to worry about her children, but we are talking about a 13-year-old here.  He will be 14 in July.  He will be starting high school next year.  In a couple of years he will want to be driving, and I for one don’t see how he can drive on a “busy” street if we can’t even trust him to cross one.  Alex’s mother is making this an issue about safety, but it is simply a fact that Alex does not want to ride his bike because he feels it is too far.  He is lazy.

Alex has a perfectly good bike.  Maureen’s father gave it to him, and sure, it is not brand new, but it is in great shape, and I don’t think I have ever seen him on it.  When I was talking to him about riding to practice, I pulled the bike out of the garage and made sure the tires were in good shape.  The back one was slightly flat, but it held air when I pumped it up.  And then I rode it!  Around our neighborhood a couple of times just to make sure everything was in working order.  The chain is good, the brakes work great.  I even checked the kickstand to make sure it was in working order.  And then I put it back in the garage, all ready for Alex if he needs it.  And it is still in the same spot.

I have washed my hands of this little fiasco.  On days when neither I nor Alex’s mother can take him to practice, I am leaving it up to the two of them to figure it out.  Alex has a cell phone and can call one of his friends if he needs a ride, or he can choose to skip practice if he can’t find a ride.  But I have done my part.  I made sure his bike was in working order and there for him if he needs it.  I won’t leave work early just to get him to practice on time.  If Maureen is home before he has to be there, I am sure she will help out, but she shouldn’t have to alter her schedule for this either.  If his baseball practice was really that important to him, he would do whatever it takes to get there.  And that includes riding his bike there.

I told Molly that we could take a bike ride this weekend.  We have a bunch of paths around our town, and they stretch out for miles.  Maybe we will even ride out to the park where Alex has his practice.  There is a cool playground there, and a path around a lake near the baseball fields.  We can see if the beavers are back yet.  And the loons can not be far behind.  But there is just one problem.  My bike needs a little work.  The front tire is bent and probably needs to be replaced.  Oh well.  If I can’t get it fixed in time I will just use Alex’s bike.

It’s not like he’s using it.

Cereal Killer

Some time last week, Maureen had to work late and the kids were at their mothers, so I was actually left to my own devices and could eat absolutely anything I wanted for dinner.  Maureen called to check on me and she naturally asked what I had done about dinner.  I replied that I had a bowl of cereal.  Actually I had three, but I don’t think anyone was keeping track. Maureen seemed stunned.  She felt like a rotten girlfriend.  She wasn’t there, so I had to resort to eating cereal.  Like I couldn’t take care of myself.  You see, I didn’t have to eat cereal.  I wanted to eat cereal.

I am actually a pretty good cook.  I grill almost all summer, and even in the winter with the grill in the garage and the door open.  I fry up a mean zucchini just like my mama used to do.  And usually on a night when I have no kids I make something I know they won’t touch.  On a similar night recently when I was home alone, I made myself chicken livers and collard green.  Even Maureen turned her noise up at that one, but they turned out great.  One of my employees shared the leftovers with me the next day at work, and he thought they were very good too.  Of course, then again he was also  the guy who had me taste his Arkansas Squirrel Stew last year.  It was actually pretty tasty, although you had to be careful of the rib bones.  They could be a little sharp.

But on this night I chose to have several bowls of cereal for dinner.  My grain of choice that night was Honey Nut Cheerios.  But it really could have been almost anything.  I’m a bit of a cereal slut. Not very picky about the specifics as long as it goes well with some cold milk.  2% of course, anything less would be like putting water in the bowl.  I tend to stay away from the over sugared cereal.  Marshmallows belong in hot chocolate, not in my breakfast.  Rice Crispy Treats being the noted exception.  But I don’t float those in a bowl.  My love of a good bowl of cereal dates way back to my childhood.  I believe it was my sister Amy who would tell the tale of me and the six or seven bowls of cereal in one sitting.  I have a feeling it is a bit of a tall tale, but I can’t deny it was possible. In a head to head battle between me and a box of Golden Grahams, those honey coated crunchy little squares don’t stand a chance.

Cereal makes a good meal no matter what time of day, and even a great late night snack.  I have had many nights where sleep has failed to take a hold, where a quick trip to the pantry and a box of Frosted Mini-Wheats have done what no other sleep aid could.  I have not tried the other flavors of the Mini-Wheats.  Although I am sure they are delicious, I am a bit of a purist on this one.  And I don’t really have a favorite cereal, I am perfectly happy with whatever happens to be on sale at the time I am at the store.  Nothing fancy like those granola and berry mix things, just a plain box of Rice Chex or Corn Flakes are perfectly fine.  Maureen is fond of the Special K with the strawberries in it, but I haven’t given them a try yet.  It is not because I think I won’t like them, I’m afraid I will like them too much and Maureen may find me one morning hiding in the corner with the empty box.

Alex likes a good bowl of cereal too, but more like Calvin and Hobbes he is drawn to the Chocolate Covered Sugar Bombs.  The boxes with more sugar than cereal.  Fruity Pebbles, or Trix, or Fruit Loops.  Don’t take this as a slam against the sugar-coated cereals.  Give me a box of Honeycombs or Corn Pops and all bets are off.  Molly is the marshmallow cereal eater, and Alex will also partake in the Lucky Charms type of fare, but Molly does it all without milk.  Another one of those times when I think maybe we brought the wrong baby home.  Molly’s all time favorite is the Cinnamon Toast Crunch, again though, dry as a desert.  But not a bad choice for a favorite.  I don’t think I could pick a favorite if you asked me to.  There are so many choices and possibilities down the cereal aisle at the market, that I honestly think I could eat cereal for every meal every day of the week.  But then again, there are so many other good foods that I would miss if it ever come down to that.  Every once in a while I need those chicken livers too. 

That will be the night that Maureen and the kids eat cereal.

Signs

Nope, this is not going to be about the Mel Gibson movie, or even the song by The Five Man Electrical Band, although I may need to throw in a reference to the Tesla cover some where along the way.  This is about a very specific sign, and all the fuss that is has caused the city of Chicago before it has even been put up or approved. 

As anyone in Chicago knows, that is unless you have been living under on very big serious rock, the Cubs have changed ownership over the past winter.  Formerly owned by the mega media franchise of The Tribune Company, the new owners are the Ricketts family led by oldest brother Tom Ricketts.  The Ricketts family amassed a large fortune through stock trading and the formation of Ameritrade by father J. Joseph Ricketts.  Their family fortune exceeds $1 billion and they ranked at #371 on the  current Forbes 400 list.  They are also self-proclaimed Cubs fans.

When the new ownership took over, there was a lot of hope from the Cubs fans who have watched their team flounder for too many years.  They took this as a sign that change was coming, and that once out of the control of a corporation, the family aspect of the new owners would push them to achieve the long missing World Series Championship.  The new owners even seem to embraced this concept in their early advertising campaign.  In a vague reference to the more than 100 year “Cubs Curse”, they unveiled billboard signs and newspaper adds that declared 2010 as Cubs Year 1.  A bold move that almost seems to promise those long time suffering fans the change they expect.  But this is still not the sign I am talking about.

Although the Ricketts seem to present themselves as a “Family” organization, this does not mean they are not just as corporate minded as the Tribune Company.  These people are very smart, and very good at making money.  They did not drop $900 million on the team and Wrigley Field on a whim.  They expect to make money from their investment.  And that brings us up to the topic of this entry.  The Ricketts intend to sell a red illuminated sign behind the bleachers in Wrigley Field.  The signage is being sold to the beleaguered Toyota Car Company, and some estimations have the selling price for this sign at about two or three million dollars a year.  This type of advertising is standard at most ballparks, and the marketing dollars they produce add millions to a teams bottom line.  Part of the controversy comes from Wrigley Fields status as a “landmark” in Chicago, and the sign must be approved by the Landmark Commission before it can be erected.  44th Ward Alderman Tom Tunney has already spoken out against the sign. 

Cubs fans seem to be split on the idea, much as they were back in 1988 when lights were put up at the field that previously only played day games.  But the almighty dollar won out back then, although night games are still limited at Wrigley as part of a lights compromise.  The Cubs are only scheduled to play 26 of their 81 home games this season in the evening hours, compared to 59 evening games being played by their crosstown rivals the Chicago White Sox.  More money can be made on national broadcast of evening games, and with less of these games available, there is less revenue available for the new owners.

If the Ricketts family intends to see this franchise through to a championship, eventually they will have to address the aging Wrigley Field.  It has been reported that millions has already been spent on much needed renovations to the concourse and restrooms of the 95 year-old structure, but how much longer can this type of money be sunk into this dinosaur if additional revenue cannot be found.  Yankee Stadium was torn down in 2008, and the Red Sox ownership has been courting the idea of a new stadium on and off for years.  Fenway Park houses several illuminated signs much bigger than the proposed Toyota sign to help with their advertising dollars, but still they have had to consider ways to improve revenue in a limited space, including the possibility of a New Fenway Park.  But both New York and Boston had plans to rebuild there stadiums near the original parks.  That is an option that does not exist for the Cubs.  The neighborhood structure that is so much a part of the draw at Wrigley Field would also prevent building a new park in the same area.  And the landmark status of the field prevents any major renovation of the existing park.

Before their first season has even begun, the Ricketts are trying to flex their new muscles.  If they are successful in getting their new sign approved, you can be sure others will follow to block out the scenery there at Wrigley Field.  Some will protest and say it destroys the feel of the ballpark.  But then those same people better bite their tongues when the lost revenue results in another lost season.  The armchair owners are the first to criticize the tough decisions that actually go into the day-to-day operations of a professional sports franchise, but now that there is an actual fan owner in place at the top of the Cubs organization, lets see how quickly those same fans turn on them if the team doesn’t produce on the field.  If the Ricketts get their sign, they better be ready to take the team all the way.

This may only be Year 1 of the Ricketts reign over the Cubs, but they will not be given another 100 years to finally pull off a championship.

The Ugly Truth

It is that time of year when the weather has turned, and we can almost see winter fading away in the rear view mirror.  There is still the chance we will see snow again, in Chicago, even as late as April.  From our very young school days, we were all taught that March comes in like a lion but goes out like a lamb, but what they failed to teach us was that March is also a very ugly month.  This is not intended to be a metaphor, take a look around.  It is ugly out there.

Although most of the snow is gone, in most bigger parking lots there are still those jagged piles of melting snow that were pushed to one end of the parking lot, covered in that black slime that comes from God knows where, and what is left along the sides of most streets is all the crap and garbage that has been collecting over the winter.  The grass is all brown from the long winter of no sun, and in my neck of the woods, rabbit turds cover most of the ground around the naked bushes and shrubs.  The streets themselves are ripped up and full of potholes from all the salt and plow trucks, and there are still way more gloomy days than sunny ones even though the temperature is on the rise.

In our house, over the past few days, it has also been a little ugly.  I had to take my son’s i-pod away for a week because of a bad grade in Music.  He was caught cheating on a test and was given a zero.  The test was worth 100 points.  The really sad thing is the teacher informed me that Alex was supplying most of his answers to another student, and was given a chance to admit what had happened, but he chose not to.  I have a feeling the exchange of information was not as one-sided as the teacher thought, so I am fine with the punishment that was issued.  He was after all, indeed cheating, and he was also stupid enough to get caught.  He is a smart kid, and I hope he learns his lesson.  I really don’t want to have to make a habit of confiscating his i-pod.  I don’t even know how to use the damn thing, so it does me no good.

Maureen has been working some extra shifts away from school to keep up with the bills and to make payments on our upcoming wedding.  She has been in a little bit of an ugly mood herself, and I didn’t make things better last night by making a bad joke about sending off our invitations on Evite.  This of course made her cry, and I just looked like a big dick.  Not the first time that has happened.  We went to bed without the usual goodnight talk, and I could still tell she was upset this morning.  I am sure the Evite thing is not the whole story, and as I pushed a little to figure out what was wrong she subtly told me to mind my own business.  I agreed to drop it, but told her I expected her home tonight as her old cheery self.  She said something about me dismounting a firetruck, minus a few letters.

So March continues on its ugly way.  But in many ways, this ugliness is necessary.  Things can not be perfect all the time, and it is this ugly months that help define our Spring and Summer.  Without the dirt and garbage and wetness, the flowers and the grass can not begin their journey towards Summer.  The trees and the bushes are now bare, but soon they will start to bud.  We already have some bulbs starting to break ground in our front yard, and I am hoping to get enough of a fence up this weekend to keep the rabbits from making a Spring snack of them.  Our tomato and pepper plants are sitting in a window upstairs, and they are starting to sprout also.  In a couple of weeks we will put them in bigger pots and nurse them in those until the ground outside is ready for planting. 

By the end of the week, Alex will have his i-pod back and Maureen and I will have forgotten all about our own ugliness.  But just like the month of March, relationships need a little bit of ugly time too.  It is how we learn to deal with these ugly times that will define our relationship and our marriage.  I certainly don’t like that we went to bed last night with things unresolved, but sometimes that is just how things have to be.  Hopefully this bout of ugliness will pass soon, and we can get back to enjoying our time and each others company.  We will make it through the month of March.  Spring is right around the corner, and it should be a real good April.

But I will keep a hold onto that firetruck just in case.

I’ve Got the Music in Me

As I look back at many of the posts I have made here, it suddenly occurred to me that music has really made a profound effect on my life.  Except for a brief time in Junior High and High School when I played the bass, I am not really musically inclined as far as an instrument.  To be painfully honest, I stunk.  But music overall has such an effect on people, and I find as I write, many of my memories somehow hook back to what music I was listening to at the time.  This is something the advertising world has known forever, and why jingles were created in the first place.  Music creates memories, and these types of memories stay with us much longer because of the association to the music.  But where does our musical taste come from? 

As we grow older our music preference is defined by many factors.  I have always considered my musical taste to be quite eclectic.  But to figure out where it developed, I have to look to my youth and what influences created in my mind what I consider good music.  Of course there are the obvious choices of the media, both television and radio.  Certainly Molly’s preference for Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift were driven by what she sees and hears on the boob tube, but she also has a fondness for the song Surrender by Cheap Trick because I have played it so many times it has become a favorite of hers too.

So to answer this question for myself, I have come up with another Top Ten list, but this one is a little different.  It was also quite difficult, because these are not necessarily my favorite, but what I feel had the most effect on developing my musical taste as it is today.  I have come up with the Top Ten Albums from my youth, that had the biggest effect on creating my current musical appreciation.  Since I was most interested in what music influenced me before I started on my own musical journey, I reduced the choices to only music that was produced before I entered high school, so nothing before 1979 has been included.  Also, the music had to be contained in an Album format.  Not just a single song or a 45.  (Note to readers:  If you don’t know what a 45 is, please keep it to yourself.  I feel old enough just mentioning that I entered high school over 30 years ago.)

Top Ten Albums Responsible for My Musical Taste

10 – Grease  –  Movie Soundtrack  –  1978

In the early summer of 1978, I went on my very first “date”.  She was an older woman, I was only an eighth grader and she would be entering high school in the fall.  Her name was Cindy, and we would meet up at the Wheaton pool or downtown, and this “date” if you could call it one was to The Wheaton Theater to see Grease.  The reason I reluctantly call it a “date” is because we were accompanied by her church youth group and a couple of chaperons, but I guess in those days it was about as close to a “date” as a couple of kids from Wheaton were going to get.  It was also an interesting choice for a youth group, and the discussion afterwords was quite interesting also.  But the movie and the soundtrack became a big hit, and the double record set was played over and over again in our house, even after it became scratchy and skipped.  Although my younger sisters Marney and Amy probably never saw the film in its original release, the creation of the VHS recorder brought in right into our home for years to come.  The movie and soundtrack album had quite the cultural effect on an entire generation, and for good or bad, it probably has a place on many peoples list.

9  –  Bridge Over Troubled Water  –  Simon & Garfunkel  –  1970

This was one of the albums my mom and dad had in that old stereo cabinet in the basement.  Besides the title song, the album also contained Keep the Customer Satisfied, The Boxer, and one of my favorites, Cecilia.  Although it was widely reported that the duo fought constantly while producing the album, the production is almost flawless.  But there was one added item that puts this recording on my list, and that was a live recording of the Everly Brothers hit Bye Bye, Love.  For me, it was this live track that set the stage for my appreciation of live concert recordings.  Over the years, I have owned several Live Albums and have a great admiration for the art of playing in front of a live audience, something I was never able to accomplish on my own.  But thanks to the wonderful world of karaoke, I can be seen belting out a few tunes every now and then.

8  –  The Partridge Family Album  –  The Partridge Family  –  1970

Ok, so we all know, The Partridge Family didn’t really perform on this album.  Yes, David Cassidy and Shirley Jones provided vocals, but all of the music and most of the harmony singing was done by studio musicians who got little if any credit.  But in this case it was not so much the music as the whole package that was being provided.  Basically, The Partridge Family was today’s Hannah Montana.  We actually had two different Partridge Family records in our house, but this album with I Think I Love You and I Can Feel Your Heartbeat was the one I listened to more.  We also had several other teen heart-throb albums like Donny Osmond, Andy Gibb, and Bobby Sherman, but they didn’t have the same overall effect, although if I were choosing single songs, I Just Want to be Your Everything might have made the cut.

7  –  Never Mind the Bollocks  –  Sex Pistols  –  1977

I have to admit that this one is a bit of a cheat.  I never owned this album, but what I did have was an orange cassette tape that Jimmy Schmitz recorded for me from his older brothers record collection.  It did include all the great recordings off this album like God Save the Queen, Anarchy in the U.K., and E.M.I., but it also had several tracks from other Sex Pistols recordings like the cover version of the Eddie Cochran classic C’mon Everybody from the soundtrack to The Great Rock N Roll Swindle and the Sid Vicious covers of My Way and Something Else.  That little cassette with its poor quality recording got a lot of playtime though, and was often heard in my old college apartment.  I have a feeling if I looked around in some of those boxes in the basement that haven’t been opened in years, that little orange cassette might still be around.

6  –  You Get What You Play For  –  REO Speedwagon  –  1977

In the years before REO Speedwagon became pop rock superstars with such hits as Keep On Loving You and Can’t Fight This Feeling they were actually a kick ass rock band.  This was a live double record set, and it included some of the biggest hits you would never hear on the radio, although they did get some airplay on WLUP.  The album included Keep Pushin’, 157 Riverside Avenue, Golden Country, and their biggest hit at that time, Ridin’ the Storm Out.  It wasn’t until 1978 that the band had its first real taste of mainstream success with the album You Can Tune a Piano but You Can’t Tuna Fish which spawned two moderate hits with Time for Me to Fly and Roll with the Changes.  But it was the 1980 mega hit album Hi Infidelity that skyrocketed REO Speedwagon to the top of the charts.  Unfortunately, by that time I had stopped listening to them, but I would still break out this album every now and then.

5  –  Lights Out  –  UFO  –  1977

I really don’t recall where this album came from, I believe I borrowed it from a friend and never returned it.  It had to have been from Rob or Darren.  They were two of the condo-kids I hung around with and got in trouble with every now and then.  It was my introduction to heavy metal, but as history tells us, I backed the wrong horse in this race.  Michael Schenker was only 18 when he joined UFO after a brief stint with his brother’s band The Scorpions.  He spoke no English, but musically they hit it off right from the start.  The album Lights Out was the hight of the bands American success, managing to peak at number 23 on the album chart, but it failed to produce any hit singles.  I also owned the bands 1979 live album Strangers in the Night, but since I bought that album while in high school I excluded it from the list.  For me, the highlight of this album was the last track, Love to Love.  The song ran almost eight minutes, but it was worth every second of it.

4  –  Excitable Boy  –  Warren Zevon  –  1978

In a past post, I have already spoke of my fondness for Warren Zevon.  This is the album that started that fascination, and I still own a CD copy today.  There is not a song on this album I don’t like.  Roland the Headless Thomson Gunner, Lawyers, Guns and Money, Accidentally Like a Martyr, and of course Werewolves of London just to name a few.  This was my older sister Carrie’s record, but it somehow just kept finding it’s was to my room.  I remember telling one of the older high school girls that worked with me at The Popcorn Store that I liked Warren Zevon, and she was very impressed with my adult taste in music.  I don’t rember her name, but she was even older than Cindy.  I guess I had quite a way with the older women.  A bit of an excitable boy myself.

3  –  Jesus Christ Superstar  –  Original Cast Recording  –  1970

In the case of Jesus Christ Superstar, the recording came before the broadway production, and it was a hit.  Much darker than the other gospel inspired musical of the same time Godspell, it followed the struggles between Judas and Jesus leading right up to the crucifixion.  Even at a young age, I was not all that religious, but the music and lyrics of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber were breathtaking.  Murray Head’s rendition of Heaven on Their Minds still gives me goosebumps when I hear it, and Yvonne Elliman’s vocals on I Don’t Know How to Love Him can only be described as classic.  This album alone is probably most responsible for the path I took through college and my pursuit of the theatre.  Things did not turn out like I had hoped so long ago, but if anything could bring me out of theatre retirement it would be the chance to perform King Herod’s Song in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar.

2  – Pearl  –  Janis Joplin  –  1971

Another album that I managed to snag from my mom and dads stereo cabinet, I remember thinking my parents were not this cool.  They must have picked this up by mistake.  At a very young age, it quickly became one of my favorites.  At the time I was unaware of the circumstances behind Janis Joplin, or that she had died of a heroin overdose before this album was even released.  I only knew she was a cool looking chick and she sang like nothing I had ever heard before.  Mercedes-Benz, Cry Baby, and Get it While You Can are some of the greatest bluesy recordings I have ever heard, and do I even need to mention Me and Bobby McGee.  I have passed my amazement of Janis’ talent onto my kids.  Stephanie had heard so much of her music, that one year she decided she wanted to be Janis Joplin for Halloween.  She was by far, the coolest kid on the block that year.

1  –  Infinity  – Journey  –  1978

This album makes the number one spot for one reason.  It is the first album I ever bought on my own.  A trip downtown to The Flip Side with a little of that paper route money, and my life with music had just begun.  Similar to REO Speedwagon, Journey was an unknown rock band before Steve Perry turned the band into a more pop friendly force in the early eighties.  But this record was pure rock-n-roll and had production values ahead of its time.  A hit on the FM band and most notably WLUP in Chicago, the complex layers in the tracks made the songs too complex to be enjoyed on the pop dominated AM radio.  This album was my coming of age.  It opened the door to other great albums of the time like Heaven Tonight by Cheap Trick and London Calling by The Clash. 

Bonus Track  –  The Age of Aquarius  –  The 5th Dimension  –  1969

As I was putting this list together, I so wanted to include this album, but it really was just a one hit wonder for me.  Or should I say two hits in one song.  Of course I am talking about the undeniable hit Age of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.  What I didn’t know back then was that the songs that I was so drawn to were lifted right from another musical, this time the hippy inspired rock musical Hair.  But it was Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. that made this version so great to listen to.  Another of my parents lost stereo cabinet classics, this album did get listened to quite a bit down in the basement.

Winter Wonderland

I have never used the QuickPress option yet, so I thought I would give it a try. I had mentioned before how Alex has gotten a lot taller since the summer, well here is the proof.

This is a picture of Alex and me over the summer at a White Sox game.

And this is me and the kids just last month standing in the middle of our frozen lake up in Wisconsin. By this summer, I might just be looking up to him. I’ll just have to sweep the knees then.

Sentimental Journey

I will be the first to admit that I sometimes have a bit of a sentimental streak.  I think it has been pretty obvious with some of the things I write.  But I sometimes forget that not everyone wants to take that trip down memory lane with me.  In particular, I am speaking about Maureen and the kids. 

After not feeling well Friday night and Saturday, I decided that I needed to get out of the house.  The weather was a little overcast, but not too cold for a Sunday morning near the end of February. My walk down to the end of the driveway to retrieve the Sunday paper made the desire to go for a walk even stronger.  Once I got back to the kitchen, and after Maureen scolded me for going outside in just my shorts while sick, I announced to the gang that I felt like taking a trip to downtown Wheaton to pick up some popcorn.  I was pretty much met by three blank stares.

When I was 14 years old, I got my very first inside job at a little tiny store called The Popcorn Store.  I already had a pretty good resume for a freshman, I had two different paper routes, the local paper, The Daily Journal, was delivered after school, and in the morning there was the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times.   But this was to be my first “real” job, and I am not exaggerating when I say it was small store.  It was basically an alley that someone put a roof over, adding a front and back door.  Located ironically at 111 1/4 Front Street in downtown Wheaton, the only thing the store  sold was the popcorn and various penny candies.  The store was so small that there was only room for one person to move through it at a time, and my job was to make the popcorn, keep the candy shelf stocked and count up and collect money for the items being sold.

The popcorn was made in an old iron kettle that had to be cranked by hand, and this combined with the bin that held the popped corn took up enough space that even my small frame at the time had to turn sideways to get by.  The candy shelves were against the wall just in front of the popcorn station, and they included the basic Tootsie Roll, Jolly Rancher, and my favorite, the jelly fruit slices.  As you walked in the store, small white bags are available to fill with your desired candy, and the popcorn is served in similar white bags of various sized.

As I gathered up Alex and Molly to get ready for our journey, it was somewhat evident they were less than thrilled that I chose today for this trip.  Alex was mostly concerned that we might not make it back on time for the gold metal hockey game between the American team and the Canadians.  But the promise of some candy and popcorn seemed to be enough to get them out the door.  Our trip north up Naperville Road took us right past the empty shell that was Wheaton Central High School, and had I remembered to recharge my camera, I would have stopped to take a picture of the kids out in front of it. 

Downtown Wheaton was surprisingly busy for a Sunday afternoon, so we ended up circling around and parking on Wesley Street over near the old Cock Robin restaurant.  That sight is now a deli, but the old sign with the bird in the top hat still overlooks that corner.  At one time in my youth, the Cock Robin franchise was almost as well-known as Dairy Queen, and their signature square shaped ice cream cones were a tasty treat on a warm summer day.  As of a few years ago, there was still one remaining Cock Robin in Brookfield, but I am not sure if it is still in operation.  If it is still open, I may just have to drag the kids out there for a greasy double cheeseburger and strawberry ice cream soda.  That was my favorite treat whenever I stopped by.  Alex wanted to know if we could stop there after we got the popcorn.  When I reminded him that we wanted to get back home before the hockey game, he decided that ice cream would be a good reason to miss the start of the game.

Our walk down to Front Street brought us right past The Wheaton Theater.  I had read a number of articles about how there were attempts to restore the theater back to its original condition.  I have to admit it looked quite run down.  Many years ago, as the big mega theaters were being built, the theater had been divided into several screening rooms.  This was the fate of many of these suburban downtown movie houses, as single screen theaters just couldn’t keep up with the more advanced movie venues like the Ogden 6. 

As we walked I quickly became aware that there were a lot more restaurants in the downtown area than I had ever remembered, and this seemed to be the cause of the increased number of cars trying to find parking.  Many of the old stores have now been converted to various types of eating establishments, and it seems that Downtown Wheaton is now a popular after church brunch spot.  If I had known that, I might have started our journey earlier, and included a stop at one of them.  But maybe another time.  Won’t the kids be thrilled.

So when we finally arrived at The Popcorn Store it looked exactly the same, and the smell of the fresh popcorn was evident even outside.  As we entered the shop, it also looked exactly as I remembered.  I showed the kids the little white bags and told them to pick out a few treats.  There was another dad with three little girls also picking out candy items, so we had to wait our turn.  My treat of choice was some Bit-O-Honey, Sixlets, and those jelly fruit slices.  The candies were no longer a penny or two each, but most were still five or ten cents, with a few larger candy items on the top shelf.  The old kettle was popping fresh corn as we were there, and the young man standing next to it looked to be about 15 or 16 years old.  We handed him our bags, and he quickly counted them up writing a total on a sheet of paper next to him.  And since there is no cash register, he needed to check a tax chart taped to the wall.  This was also noted down on the paper.  Nothing had changed.  This was also the way I kept track of the daily sales over thirty years ago. 

We finished our walk, and on the way home I pointed out a few other old spots.  The store front that used to be our local record store, The Flip Side, my old Jr. High school which is now Edison Middle School, and a quick run through my old neighborhood on Casa Solana Drive.  I didn’t bore them with all the details, but when Alex mentioned to Maureen that this was not our first trip of this sort, she just laughed and told them next week we are going to her old stomping grounds.  This seemed like a much better deal to him, because he knows there is an Al’s Beef Stand near where Maureen grew up.

I guess italian beef trumps popcorn, but this will not be my last trip to The Popcorn Store.  I’m hoping in the warmer weather we can then add that ice cream into our trip.  The Plush Horse was right down on the next block, and although it has a new name, I am pretty sure I can con my kids back down my memory lane in exchange for a couple scoops of chocolate or New York Cherry.