I was surprised when my phone dinged one Friday evening in late September, alerting me to an unexpected text from my friend Mark.
“You riding tomorrow?”
“I don’t have a plan… Whatchagot?”
“Nothing except looks to be an exceptional day to ride.”
Mark and I are both seasoned motorcyclists who appreciate how quickly the riding season can conclude as the fall season progresses toward winter. We texted back and forth a few times, sharing possibilities, and then decided to meet up near my home for a familiar run down old Route 66.
Technically, the Mother Road began at the intersection of Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. Me, I’ve always picked it up from Joliet and turned around in Pontiac. It’s a nice little day ride for motorcyclists. I’ve written about various aspects of this little stretch of the Mother Road before and for the sake of not being redundant, I strive to share some different angles each time. Please, enjoy the ride…
After meeting up with Mark and part of his family near my home in Plainfield, we picked up old Route 66 in the city of Joliet, as part of modern day Illinois Highway 53. As we rode out of Joliet and south toward Elwood, I thought about my mother-and-father-in-law, who drove out to California via Route 66 on their honeymoon, back in the late 1940’s. While on their trip, Jack (my father-in-law) shot some footage using an 8mm move camera that he had. Some years ago, as a gift, my wife and I had the films transferred onto VHS tapes, the modern technology of the day. I enjoyed watching all that footage and listening to my in-laws tell stories about their trip. That experience is what sparked my genuine interest in the Mother Road. Prior to that, Route 66 was just the name of a TV show from the 1960’s when I was growing up.
The first time I ever ran this part of Route 66 was via motorcycle, following a gentleman named Jim, who had ridden the entirety of the Mother Road on an organized tour. Jim took great pleasure in sharing this local portion of Route 66, from Joliet to Pontiac. He frequently included a stop at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, to which he referred as his future home. We briefly rolled through the cemetery on this run, but did not stop and took no photographs. I will say it’s a solemn site to behold.
Where we did begin taking photos was in the town of Gardner, which is home to two structures of historic significance. One is a two-celled jailhouse that was built in 1906 and used until the 1930’s. The other is a streetcar-style diner that has been preserved and donated to the town. I had been to the jail once before but for some reason hadn’t walked over to look at the diner. Both structures are worth stopping to see.
We also stopped at a restored Standard Oil station outside of Odell. This is a must-see for anyone into historic filling station architecture. I should also point out that there is another significant gas station in Dwight. Although that one isn’t as architecturally interesting as this Standard station, it holds its own place as the last operating Texaco station on Route 66.
There is another interesting stretch during which you will see segments of an older road running parallel to the current two-lane blacktop. That’s the original Mother Road and there is at least one spot where you can legally pull onto a piece of it and take photos. There is an old barn off in the distance with a Meramec Caverns ad painted on the side of it. We didn’t stop this time but it’s there and you’ll see it.
I frequently conclude my excursions on this portion of the Mother Road at the Route 66 Association of Illinois Hall of Fame & Museum in Pontiac. It’s worth stopping for, if you’re at all into this sort of thing. With two floors of exhibits inside and a few goodies outside as well. Check out the VW bus as well as the hippie land yacht that once belonged to the late artist Bob Waldmire. Or the 1960’s radio station replica. Or the 1940’s home display. I just eat this stuff up every time I go there.
It’s not that there isn’t more to see further downstate — or across the rest of the USA to California, for that matter. I’ve seen other bits of historic Route 66, including an excellent museum down in Lebanon, MO. But the stretch of it that I’ve described here is my little bit of old Route 66.
Before heading back toward home, my friends and I walked over to the square in downtown Pontiac for a bite of lunch at the Acres Inn. Although the dining room was closed due to pandemic precautions, they did offer curbside ordering and outdoor seating. For a relatively small café and beer bar, Acres Inn offers a nice variety of items on their menu. I thoroughly enjoyed my smashed double cheeseburger, accompanied by house-made potato chips — I’m a sucker for homemade chips — and washed down with a lovely craft lager.
The sun was shining and there was much laughter in the air as we enjoyed our meal together. After that, we walked back to the bikes, rolled out toward Interstate 55, and headed for home. Before the rest of my group peeled off, a couple of exits before mine, I immersed myself in the sensations of riding the open road on a sunny and warm afternoon realizing that Mark had been right all along. It really had been an exceptional day to ride.
The last time I took a solo motorcycle trip of any consequence was in 2013. Things happened that caused me to stop doing solo runs. The magazine for which I wrote about my two-wheeled experiences folded. I had started riding with a pillion companion and since I’m not a particularly good “alone” person, I decided I liked two-up touring better. Sometimes time got tight, sometimes money got tight, and for whatever other reasons, I had stopped even thinking about going off on solo runs.
As the Italians say, i tempi cambiano, which literally translates to the times change. Sometime last fall, my pillion companion went away and within months, a global pandemic ensured that nobody of sound mind would be socializing much for a while. Fortunately for me, the industry in which I work was deemed essential by the state of Illinois, so I never had to stop earning my living. Others have not been so fortunate. Still, socializing, on or off my motorcycle, wasn’t gonna happen. I even took up social drinking online. That took a little getting used to but then so does everything when it comes to change. Oh, things have loosened up some but still, every organized event that I usually attend during the spring and summer months, was cancelled this year. I had taken a few day rides, with my motorcyclist son and/or with friends, but that was the extent of it… until last week.
My son works for a Chicago-based design, fabrication, and print firm called Redbox Workshop, which produces exhibits and environments for a variety of applications across the United States and around the world. He is currently managing a build out in Kansas City and is living and working out there pretty much through the months of August and September. Before he left, we had toyed around with the idea of me riding out to visit him and once he was out there, I decided to have a go at it. After seven years, it was high time for me to get on my bike, alone, and just leave everything behind, if only for a few days.
I was looking at five days, every one of them with daytime temps reaching the upper 90’s and not a drop of rain in the forecast. What could go wrong? As long as I stayed hydrated on the inside and lathered up with sunscreen on the outside, neither of which I was known for doing, I should be fine. So on the bright and sunny morning of Friday, August 21, I set out on Miss Scarlett, my trusty American-made full dresser touring bike. From my home in Plainfield, I ran down Interstate 55, a thoroughly unremarkable (other than the fact that it replaced a portion of historic U.S. 66) stretch of four-and-six-lane divided highway adorned with potholes and deteriorated lane seams. When I got to Springfield, I hung a right onto Interstate 72 and headed toward my intended mid-point lunch break in Hannibal, MO.
Ah, Hannibal! When I was younger, I had a crazy, single aunt who used to throw my sisters and me into the back of her station wagon and take us to all sorts of interesting places across most of the contiguous 48 United States and a good number of Canadian provinces, too. She introduced me to Hannibal, the boyhood home of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known to most by his pen name Mark Twain. To be honest, my first visit to Hannibal was interesting enough but hadn’t meant much to me. As the years progressed, though, I came to recognize Sam Clemens as an influence on my own writing. I have visited Hannibal many times over the past few decades, plus Florida, Missouri, where Sam was born, Hartford, Connecticut, where Sam built quite a showplace of a home for him and his family to live, and Elmira, New York, where the Clemens family kept a summer home and where they are buried. So you see, stopping in Hannibal that Friday meant more to me than just a lunch stop.
After a quick walk around, I decided to stop at a pleasant-looking storefront diner downtown called Greater Days. I was looking for a nice place to grab a good burger and I wasn’t disappointed. Greater Days is not a fancy joint, not a bar, just a nice little diner run by two very nice people. The decor runs along the sort of thing one might find in any small town America gift shop. Okay, maybe a small town America Christian gift shop, but not overstated in any way, shape, or form. The owners are delightful, a “seasoned” couple originally from Illinois. I found this out because the chef and I compared notes when he stopped by my table to greet me. My lunch, a blue cheese bacon burger on a homemade bun with a side of seasoned, cubed potatoes, was freshly prepared and quite tasty. I was delighted and I said as much before heading out on my way back to my bike.
Right next door to Greater Days is a shop to which I have been two or three times before, Native American Trading Co. If you are into Native American arts, crafts, gifts and goods, you might enjoy stopping here. I always do. The people at this shop are very pleasant and they have an extensive selection of merchandise with something for almost every budget.
I did not linger in Hannibal, although I wanted to. Everybody I saw in town seemed to be enjoying the day and some of the street-side pub patios looked very inviting. Still, I had another 230 miles ahead of me before I could stop for the day and it wasn’t getting any cooler out. In hindsight, this would have been an awesome time to reapply sunblock.
As I rode across the state of Missouri on U.S. 36, I found myself wishing I’d had my pillion photographer with me. Between the wooded areas, ridges, bluffs, and rolling farmland, America was all around me. How I wish I had photos of all that to share with you! Every so often, the air would become filled with a new scent. Newly mown grass. Dense woods. A fresh breeze off a small lake. A naturally fertilized cow pasture. As I surveyed the countryside, mile after mile, I thought about the people I’d seen and spoken with so far that day. That’s when it really hit home for me: One cannot truly experience America by scrolling on their electronic devices.
I pulled into my hotel in Overland Park right around supper time, hot, sweaty, a bit sore, and more than a little fatigued, both mentally and physically. I wasn’t used to long runs anymore. Still, I was happy to be alive. Thanks to modern technology driven by a global pandemic, my check-in process was done completely without human contact. Using my Hilton Honors App, I was able to check in a day in advance, enable my phone as my room key, chat with the front desk and eventually, check out. The app was ultra simple and easy to use, and I understand why they developed all these contactless features, yet I have real concerns about the long-term implications for hospitality workers who make their living by interacting with travelers. In all candor, I appreciate that human touch more than I do whiz-bang technological functionality.
My son drove out to pick me up and take me into the city for supper. We went to a delightful Creole place called Jazz Kitchen, where John proceeded to ensure that I would be overfed almost to the point of being in pain. We started with hurricanes and voodoo crawfish tails, then moved on to our main dishes (I had a blackened chicken fettuccine alfredo that was so tasty, I simply could not stop eating it), and finished up with bread pudding plus a plate of beignets, compliments of Toffee, our awesome server who is also a fan of my son. I loved every minute of it.
On Saturday, my son came back and picked me up in time for lunch, along with his roommate and another co-worker. I had told him that I wanted a hamburger from someplace I couldn’t find by staying home. My son did not disappoint. Hayes Hamburgers and Chili is a small place with a big following. Open only for curbside pickup, due to the pandemic situation, they accept no credit cards. We phoned in our order ponied up cash for all the food, and then went across the street, through an apartment complex, and into a municipal park where we sat down outside of a small baseball field and ate out fill. A nice little taste of America — and it was delicious.
We spent all of Saturday afternoon at the National WWI Museum and Memorial following a recommendation from a very good friend of John and me. We were expecting a nice, little collection of exhibits and artifacts. Instead we were overwhelmed by what turned out to be the most comprehensive collection of WWI objects in the world. We viewed exhibits, spoke with volunteers, learned much, and appreciated all of it. We remained through five o’clock, closing time, and had to depart without visiting the gift shop. No worries, we were back the next morning to collect up our mementos and souvenirs. This museum and memorial is a must-see for any war history buff. It’s the sort of place one must experience in order to understand.
After dropping off John’s coworkers Saturday evening, he and I decided that we weren’t hungry enough to eat another full meal. So instead, we went to a place not far from my hotel called Louie’s Wine Dive and Kitchen, where we enjoyed a couple of “small plate” appetizers, drank a fair amount of red wine, and philosophized into the night. Louie’s is a nice enough place but the tab we ran up for one wine flight, one bottle of Zinfandel, and two appetizers was more than I have paid for some good dinners and drinks elsewhere. Still, we enjoyed ourselves immensely.
Sunday was my last day in the Kansas City area and my last day visiting with my son John. That morning, after John scooped me up in Overland Park and then joined up with three of his coworkers, we descended upon the WWI Museum store, as planned, before going over to the original Q39 Kansas City BBQ Restaurant in midtown. The food was extraordinarily good, with a very pleasant beer selection to pair with it. On a more personal note, I really enjoyed hanging with these young gentlemen for a while. By including me in their conversations about food, drink, work, people, music, and more, they made me feel younger again. You know, like one of them. That was very cool.
This may sound a little nuts but my wife Karen had urged John and me to go find Kansas City’s Central Library Parking Garage. Why? Because of the Community Bookshelf that adorns the south wall of said parking structure. It’s a thing to behold that looks like a giant bookshelf of popular titles. My photos don’t really do the place justice.
As we were looking for a place to park John’s truck in the Library District, we spotted a bronze likeness of Mark Twain sitting on a park bench. My son immediately suggested that given my affinity for the author, we should go capture a quick meetup between Sam Clemens and myself after first shooting the community bookshelf. And so we did.
Alas, by suppertime, we were still so full of barbecue, we opted to skip supper altogether. John dropped me off at my hotel and thus ended our weekend visit. He had to go to work in the morning and I needed to head on to my next stop. Still, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t felt the familiar pangs of loneliness creeping in that Sunday evening.
By now you might be wondering why I chose to stay in Overland Park when my son and his compadres were being housed on the Missouri side of Kansas City proper and nearly all that we saw and did were on that side. Well, I’ll tell you. While I have ridden my motorcycle in the state of Missouri a number of times now, I had not previously ridden in the state of Kansas. Now I have. Besides, I knew Overland Park to be one of the nicer suburbs of the KC metro and on top of all that, I found an excellent value in the hotel in which I stayed.
I awoke on Monday morning as I often do, with a sense of purpose. The day had promised to be as hot and humid as ever and I was about to cross Missouri again, but not to go home, not just yet. I had a personal mission to fulfill, one that I had put off long enough. But first, I had to get out of the Kansas City metro. And before doing that, I had to have breakfast.
It was not lost on me that Missouri has something wonderful that Illinois utterly lacks: Waffle House locations. Don’t judge. I love Waffle House, at least in part because it’s something I don’t have at home. In fact, I hope they never come to (northern) Illinois because then they wouldn’t be special to me. Like so many others that have come to town from elsewhere, they might then become just another chain.
But there I was, in Waffle House country. There are fifteen Waffle House locations in and around Kansas City and I hit the jackpot at their Lee’s Summit location. Friendliest staff I could ask for, they all seemed to be having a grand old time greeting people, serving up breakfast after breakfast, and otherwise just working their butts off. I sat down at the counter, which had been marked off so that only every other stool was available, and ordered my usual — a pecan waffle, large bacon, and black coffee — along with a big old orange juice to help soothe my sinuses, which had been a little quirky lately. Through a minor mishap on the grill, the crew had ended up with one too many orders of sausage patties and after first offering them to an elderly farmer-type gentleman two stools to my left, my waitress called out to me from up the counter, “How about you, sir, would you like an order of sausage for free?” Now I ask you, what else could I say to such generosity?
“Sure!” And so there I was, chowing down on my usual, plus OJ, plus two nicely prepared sausage patties. But wait, there’s more! Upon finishing, I remasked myself and stepped over to the register to pay my tab. A young, equally masked lady stepped up to the register to assist me and motioning out the window with her head as she worked the register, she asked me, “Is that your motorcycle?”
“Wanna’ come back after work and give me a ride on it?” Who knows, maybe it was be kind to old guys day. I had to smile, even if nobody could see it through my respiratory barrier.
“I would love to, but I’ll be back in Illinois by then,” I replied.
“You riding that all the way?” She seemed incredulous but I had neither the heart nor the time to tell this sweet child just how far Miss Scarlett and I have roamed together, so I just nodded and laughed as I paid my tab. We were all wishing each other well as I left, quite happy and well-fed.
Man, it was hot out there! I spent most of that Monday running Interstate 70 toward St. Louis and no matter how hard I tried to stay sunblocked and hydrated, it felt like a losing battle. I drank water at every stop, but released most of it through my pores out on the open road. Reapplying sunblock actually stung my skin every time. But wait, there’s more! About halfway across the state, I became aware of an intense burning sensation on my calves, mainly the right one, which was closest to the engine’s exhaust. After a while, this escalated from annoying discomfort to searing pain.What could I do? I still had many miles to go. Repositioning my legs helped a little but a prior experience piloting Miss Scarlett across Wyoming in a severe crosswind told me that the damage had already been done. I rode on.
I circumvented St. Louis and once on the Illinois side, left the interstates behind for Illinois 3, a nice ribbon of mainly two-lane blacktop that took me farther and farther south. Eventually I came to Illinois 149, which would take me east to Murphysboro, where via highway 13, I continued on to Carbondale, where I would spend my final night on this road trip. These state roads were beautiful motorcycle roads, with easy sweeping curves and pleasant elevation changes, but I was too fatigued to fully appreciate them. Perhaps someday I will return.
I’ll spare you the graphic details but once settled in for the night, I confirmed that I had incurred a substantial second-degree burn to my right calf, a burn from which I am still slowly and painfully recovering as I write this, more than a week later. But let’s talk about Tuesday morning and the reason I’d taken this odd detour to southern Illinois from Kansas City.
I was eighteen year old when I first saw Big Twist and The Mellow Fellows perform. I was a college freshman and the band had been scheduled to play a Friday afternoon “Grill Concert” at Marquette University’s Brooks Memorial Union, which has long since been torn down. I was a regular at those free Friday afternoon concerts but had never heard of this band before. That quickly changed.
At the appointed time, the band came out on the stage and began to play. There was a guitarist, a bassist, drummer, keyboardist, and a two-or-three-piece horns section (I would later discover that some parts of the band evolved over time). Their sound was decidedly R&B with a touch of jazz and this band was tight, very precise in their playing.
After the band’s instrumental opening set, the front man walked out. Big Twist had a certain presence that filled the room — and I’m not just talking about his physical stature. Admittedly, they didn’t call him big for nothing. This guy was tall and… large. He wore a light-colored fedora hat and a silky suit. When he began to sing, his baritone voice complemented that band in ways I will not even attempt to describe. That was Big Twist.
After the concert, deep into my cups but so taken with the music I’d heard, I walked a dozen or so blocks to Radio Doctors, the premier record store of the day in downtown Milwaukee. Sure enough, they had an LP record album by Big Twist and The Mellow Fellows, their first ever, on the independent Flying Fish label. I took the record back to my dorm and played it over and over.
A year later, Big Twist and The Mellow Fellows came to my school to perform again. This time I was expressly there to see them play. I got there early and while the crew was still setting up, Big Twist walked out onto the floor and stood near one corner in front of the stage. People began going up and talking to him. I asked a friend to watch my beer as I did likewise. When my turn came, I extended my hand up and out, saying, “I saw you here last year and I just wanna’ say, I really enjoy your music.”
Twist looked down at me and gave me a warm, sincere smile. Then reaching down and closing a big, meaty fist over my hand (which isn’t small), he said just one word: “Alright!” That made my entire afternoon.
Over the years that followed, I saw the band perform numerous times, up in Milwaukee and at clubs down by my Chicagoland home. I introduced a number of friends, both from school and back home, to the music of Big Twist and The Mellow Fellows by dragging them to the concerts. In my own small way, I had become an evangelist for the band and made a few converts in the process.
It was my mother who broke the news to me of Larry “Big Twist” Nolan’s passing on March 14, 1990. I was not quite 29 years old at the time; he was 52. Bear in mind, this was still a largely analog world. I had no internet access, no smart phone to provide the latest news in near-real time. My dear mother spent a good deal of time in the kitchen, preparing delicious meals and listening to talk radio as she did. That’s why she was the first in our family to know. She told me and the Chicago Tribune confirmed it on March 15. As I understood it, Larry Nolan had died of heart failure, having endured kidney dialysis for over two years. And like many musicians of the day, obtaining health insurance coverage was difficult, even for the number one draw on the nightclub circuit. All I remember is that I felt empty inside. How foolish are we to be repeatedly duped into believing that there will always be a next time?
Once the information age had come around, sooner or later I began looking for more information about Big Twist and where he had been buried. There was none to be found but every so many years, I would try again. The gravesite super site, findagrave.com, had nothing, at least not at the time. I contacted his last recording label, Alligator Records. Somebody there thought he’d been buried where he’d been born, in Terre Haute, Indiana. At some point, I tried emailing Pete Special, the band’s co-founder, director, and guitarist. No reply. Only recently, I discovered that Pete had died in 2014 and it’s entirely possible that I sent the email after that. I even asked my eldest sister Maria, a career librarian, to see what she could find. She conducted a right and proper search but still found no information about where Twist might be buried.
I let the matter go for a while but never forgot. Then a few years ago, perhaps with the sharing of some resurfaced video on social media, I lamented my failed attempts to find that burial place. Lo and behold, a Facebook friend named Lori, who has sewn many patches onto my motorcycle vest, responded with a link to the information I had been seeking for years. As it turns out, she had dated the band’s trumpet player at one time. I was elated, to say the least, and vowed to visit that grave, located in the southern Illinois town of Murphysboro. Perhaps during a future run to Memphis.
More years passed and still I hadn’t made that trip. Then last month, while planning my solo run to Kansas City, it occurred to me that if on my way back, I veered southeast instead of east, I wouldn’t be that far from Murphysboro. And so I planned my detour.
I used Google Maps to survey the Tower Grove Cemetery. It was bigger than I’d hoped it would be, with no apparent directory or contact information available. How would I find this grave? I reached out to a total stranger named Paul Hoyt, who had put Larry Nolan’s grave on FindAGrave back in 2013. Perhaps he would recall the location.
Well, he did more than that. On a Sunday evening, this total stranger and his wife returned to Tower Grove, located the grave, took additional photos, and made them available to me, along with the latitude and longitude coordinates. Then, as an additional gesture of kindness, Paul transferred the FindAGrave record over to me because he sensed I had a stronger connection to Larry Nolan than did he as a cemetery photographer hobbyist. I will forever remember this act of kindness.
When I left Carbondale on Tuesday morning, the day promised to be as hot and humid as ever. I took the twenty-minute ride to the cemetery and had to smile as I passed the sign that reads, “Murphysboro, Ripe With Possibilties!” My personal mantra for decades was been, “Imagine the possibilities,” and I took that colorful sign as an indication that this one possibility, which I had envisioned for three decades, was about to come to fruition.
The Tower Grove Cemetery can be found on Murphysboro Lake Road, just north of Illinois Highway 149, one of the roads I had taken to get to Carbondale the night before. I was a little concerned about riding Miss Scarlett down into the cemetery, the drives of which appeared to consist of narrow two-track (it turned out to be badly deteriorated asphalt), so I parked around the corner at Mi Patio, a local Mexican restaurant, and walked into the cemetery.
I found the marker easily, thanks to the information Paul had provided. I sat by the grave for a short while, contemplating all that had transpired in order for me to be there. Sweat was pouring from my face as I shot a quick video for my Facebook friends. Then, after turning and thanking Larry “Big Twist” Nolan for all the joy he’d brought me, I walked back to my motorcycle, mounted up, and headed for home.
Seven or so hours later, I arrived at home, once again hot, sore, burnt, and spent yet in my mind, I was was already reviewing and preparing all that I would share with you here. In all, I’d run just over 1,200 miles and even though I’d been gone for five days, Miss Scarlett and I had covered those miles in three of them (I did no riding while visiting in Kansas City), so roughly 400 miles per day.
If you are still reading this, I am grateful to you for having come along all this way. You are the reason I wrote this. Thanks for hanging with me.
My last post, My Apolitical Take on Masking, went over like a lead balloon with my readers. Okay, I get that. I’m neither a health and science writer nor a political writer, so that was a bit of a curveball. Fair enough.
These have been most unusual times for many of us, in so many ways. I have close friends who are not yet able to articulate their fears about what has been going on in their lives. I am sympathetic to them because I have things going on in my own life that I don’t talk about, either. Moreover, circumstances are such that I have a deal of free, solitary, discretionary time, during my evenings and weekends, that I assure you, I never wanted to have. But I have it. So I did what any writer would do… er. well, almost.
I’ve been taking a poetry class. Not so that I could begin spewing out love sonnets — although that would be something — but because I wanted to push my boundaries further with regard to the way I use words to convey not just thoughts and ideas but also emotions and sensory experiences. Poetry.
The course I’m taking recently had a session on metaphor and included a writing prompt on crafting a conceit, where the entire poem becomes an extended metaphor. My readers can breathe easy because I didn’t write a poem about masking. No, I wrote something I called The Ride. It did okay in peer review, so I thought I’d share it here.
On the evening of Friday, March 13, 2020, I drove to Berwyn, Illinois to meet up with a friend of mine. We started with supper at Capri Ristorante on Roosevelt Road and then walked next door to Fitzgerald’s to catch an awesome performance by Chicago bluesman Toronzo Cannon. On that day, fourteen new cases of the novel coronavirus called COVID-19 were reported in Illinois, bringing the statewide total to 46. Nobody outside of the healthcare field was masking in public yet, although I’m sure some people had already stopped doing things like going out for dinner and attending night club concerts.
On that day, Governor J.B. Pritzker had announced statewide short-term school and casino closures through March 30. More telling was an announcement that day by the Archdiocese of Chicago that public masses would cease beginning March 14. The thought had crossed my mind that the show might get canceled in view of developing circumstances but Fitzgerald’s stayed open and I was there. The only thing out of the ordinary that I observed, other than there possibly being a smaller crowd than usual (but not small), was the presence of a hand sanitizer station just inside the front door. The show was great and as far as I know, I didn’t get sick from having gone.
Of course we all know that things only escalated from there. The number of confirmed cases rose, deaths began to occur, short-term closures became long-term closures, and were expanded to include more businesses, institutions, and gatherings. By May 1, we had a statewide mask mandate but a number of communities had already put requirements in place by then. Throughout all this came the rise of individualistic rants against forced shut-downs and mandates of any kind, including masking. Somewhere along the line, a minority of the population began to mix politics into the pandemic health crisis. I guess that was inevitable, given the already toxic political culture in which the US finds itself, but I still find it pathetic.
I wish I could find the words to express how much I have come to detest politics, especially party politics. I identify as neither Democrat nor Republican. Can’t get far enough away from either. I think the current Republican president has substantial character flaws. On the other hand, I voted against his Democrat predecessor. Twice. I see the upcoming presidential election pretty much the same way I have viewed the last three: a case of two poor choices who are there not on any absolute merit of their own but by virtue of their perceived chances of beating the opponent. This time around we began with a field of many and if all plays out as well-planned by the two pathetic parties, it will all come down to a choice between two geriatric white guys — dumb and dumber. I hope I have made my political stance clear. Now let’s talk about masking, which is not and should not be political at all.
When it became apparent to me that I would have to wear some sort of face covering to do things like go grocery shopping, I took one look at the mask shortage of the time, as well as the exorbitant prices being charged by anybody who had some to sell, and immediately went to my drawerful of biker bandannas. I discovered that I could tie one of these on bandito style and with a simple bit of folding, have four layers of cotton fabric covering my nose and mouth. Sure, there was a little bit of a struggle to keep it in place, especially if I turned my head to look at something on a store shelf, but I got the hang of it after a while. I even conditioned myself not to be so hyperaware of my breathing while wearing a mask. That took a little effort because at first, it was all but impossible for me to breathe normally while wearing the darned thing. What I found harder to deal with was talking to people — or to be more accurate, listening to them. I have a form of hearing impairment that makes speech recognition challenging and I have come to compensate for that by reading lips. That’s difficult to do when everybody has their mouth covered. But again, I have adapted and life goes on.
My work life never stopped because the industry in which I work was deemed essential by the state. We have followed CDC and state guidelines to the best of our abilities, prohibiting face-to-face visits, both inbound and outbound, permitting remote working when and where feasible, and enforcing a variety of hygiene best practices. I have only worked remotely on a few occasions and even held a few virtual social hours on Friday evenings. But for the most part, I chose to be with the rest of my office team and also to set an example. I am a vice president at a company that employs people to work outdoors in order to provide our essential services. They are required to wear a variety of PPE, including masks when and where required according to state guidelines. In my heart, it just wouldn’t feel right for them to have to be out there, potentially exposed to the virus, while I stayed hidden in my house. We have daily cleaning routines, promote frequent handwashing, and even imported our own hand sanitizer when it was still difficult to obtain. Still, we never mandated mask use in the office and very few people have ever worn one there. We are prepared to strengthen or ease up on our in-office practices as the situation continues to evolve but to date, we have not yet had an employee out with COVID-19 symptoms.
At first it seemed like the COVID curve had begun to flatten but then things began to go the other way. Thanks to a variety of variables, some of which may have been preventable, the pandemic threat appears to be far from over. Misinformation abounds, the finger-pointing never stops, and people continue to die. From all appearances, the need to protect ourselves from this virus is going to continue for a while. Here in Illinois, it hasn’t been as bad as in some other states. More businesses have reopened, with restrictions and precautions in place. While my bandanna seemed fine for the occasional jaunt to the grocery store or gas station convenience mart, I didn’t think it would work so well at my local gym, which has reopened. Besides, all my friends and family members were already using disposable or reusable masks, usually the latter, so I decided to step up without making a huge investment. The option I went with is a mask made by Hanes — that’s right, the underwear people. The product appears to be made out of cotton tee shirt fabric and features three layers of fabric and nonelastic ear loops. They are washable, up to ten times, per the package label, and are sold in packs of ten for $20. For me they work just fine but I couldn’t live with the ear loops so I use a couple of split key rings and an elastic hair loop to convert my mask for behind-the-neck fitment. This set-up works for me.
A few thoughts about masking while doing physical work. Me, I come from a long line of sweaters on my mother’s side. I’ll swear I could break into a sweat just by looking hard at something. Put me on an elliptical trainer or rowing machine and don’t be surprised if it appears to be raining all around me. Now slap three layers of cotton fabric across my mouth and nose… yeah, it gets pretty damp pretty quick. But it still allows enough airflow through the layers so that I don’t feel like I’m being waterboarded.
Another interesting point: The gym I go to requires its staff to wear masks but not its members. This seems odd to me in view of all the other precautions they have in place. Every other cardio machine is taped off, as are the water fountains. Gallons of hand sanitizer are placed throughout the facility, along with bottles of purple disinfectant and rolls of brown paper toweling for wiping down the machines before and after use. Plexiglass shields are set up all along the front counter and the gym is cashless. Yet members don’t have to mask up. I do, my choice. Some others do as well. Most do not. Again, it’s not required. Nobody gives me shit for wearing one and I don’t give anyone shit for not wearing one. I am fairly sure, though, that each of us thinks the other looks goofy by their respective choice.
My dentist office opened up last month. You want to talk about potential exposure to a respiratory virus believed to be largely spread via the droplets they travel on? This profession has it if any does. My last appointment got canceled back in April, when the dental office shut down to all but emergency work. I had no clue how long of a wait I was in for to get back into my six-month routine but I got lucky last week. See, I had put in for some time off well in advance in order to take an annual bike trip with a loved one. That trip didn’t happen and I was plenty down about that but lo and behold, my dentist had a last-minute cancellation and they called me to ask if I could come in. A blessing in disguise? Hey, I stopped believing in accidents years ago.
It’s not like it used to be. I got prescreened the day before. Then per instructions, I phoned from my car when I arrived. Shilpa, my hygienist for the day, was ready for me so I was invited to come in. The empty waiting room only had a few chairs in it, well spaced out, and there was not a magazine in sight. I think those are a thing of the past. Per instructions, I wore my mask into and out of the “op”. PPE-wise, the staff has been wearing masks, gloves, and eye shields for as long as I’ve been going there (now 30+ years). The only difference I saw this time was that Shilpa donned a full face shield instead of the little glasses. Otherwise it was business as usual.
In the end, I’ll gladly don a mask when asked to do so or when I deem it necessary. I’ll also gladly leave it off if it’s not a requirement and I deem it unnecessary. In both cases, I’m not having a cow over the matter but in both cases I am being a law-abiding grownup. I am also very fond of the businesses I choose to support. If all I have to do to keep them open is put on a mask and/or observe distancing guidance, I got no problem with that. All the more so if that’s all I have to do to help keep my fellow man/woman alive and healthy. To me it just makes sense.
One last thought… Despite appearances fed to us by the media, there really isn’t a political argument to be made for either masking or resisting masking. I have a number of ultra-conservative friends who are also immunocompromised and will absolutely tear into anyone who is “too stupid to put a mask on.” They don’t see a political issue; they see a life-and-death issue. I also have a number of ultra-progressive friends who are relatively easygoing about masking up. It’s probably not so much that they don’t care as they aren’t Pharisees. Of course the bigger question that some of you may be asking right now is, how can people on both extremes, political and otherwise, all be friends of mine and true friends at that? Easy. That’s not how I choose my true friends.
As I indicated I would do last week (see For the Love of Poopy’s), I met up with a couple of friends last Saturday morning and rode out to Poopy’s in Savanna, This post is going to be short on pictures and videos because (a) the only pillion photographer who matters was not on board to take the road shots, which I only wish I could share with you and (b) it never strikes me to take advantage of some photo ops when they arise. But in lieu of excellent visuals, I will share my story, if only because it seems to be worth telling.
The two gents I rode with are experienced riders whom I got to know from two different facets of my life on two wheels. “Johnny B” is a retired music teacher who lives in the next town over from mine but whom I met as a regular attendee of the Midwest Motorcycle Rally, which is held hundreds of miles from our respective homes. Still, I’m glad we met. John has a knack for knowing which roads to take and where the good food is to be had. this is something that comes from experience. He may not be one to smile and pose for the camera but John is an asset to any riding group and has helped me out on more than one occasion.
Mark and I go back, not only in terms of years but also in terms of our previous lives. He was a motorcycle mechanic — and a darned good one — at Fox Valley Cycles, the best Honda motorcycle dealership in west suburban Chicagoland and also the sponsor of the Illini Free Spirit Riders, of which I was once president. Mark and I have both moved on since then but have somehow managed to remain friends for the decade-plus that has since followed.
We met up at a gas station, where I introduced my two friends to each other, and then headed out on US Highway 30, aka the Lincoln Highway, toward the Mississippi River and Savanna, home of Poopy’s Pub and Grub. Skies were sunny and the temperature was seventyish, with just the slightest cool breeze.
Folks, this was the first ride of any real distance I have taken this year. I could get into why but that would detract from the real story here. Just know that I went, that I needed to go, and that it was wonderful. There’s just something about being out on the road with friends. I can’t begin to tell you how quickly my day-to-day concerns faded away as I motored on, cool breeze in my face, iTunes blasting out on my sound system. As I am known to do, I greeted all the farm animals as I rode past..
“Hello, dairy cows!”
“Well hello there, beef cattle!”
There was this one point along US 30 where a group of turbines from an upcoming wind farm seemed to have been set up perfectly along our line of sight as we approached, the huge blades moving to some unheard symphony of flowing air mass. As much as I wish I could share photos or a video clip with you, I was equally glad nobody was there to hear me moments later when I’d caught my self singing along at the top of my lungs to whatever song had been blasting out on my stereo. I probably wasn’t singing in tune but what can I say, I’d been caught up in the moment.
In what seemed like no time at all, we’d run the 115 miles or so to arrive at “Illinois’ Biggest Biker destination.” Interestingly enough, Poopy’s wasn’t all that crowded when we pulled in, right around the 11:00 hour, which made it easy for our merry trio to claim some prime seating along the main outdoor bar. Perched upon our padded toilet seat bar stools, we ate, drank, traded stories and people watched. It just felt so great to be alive!
All the while, more and more bikes were pulling in, but the area never felt overcrowded, mainly because there is a lot of room outside (and even in) at Poopy’s. Nobody was wearing a mask but then again, nobody was in my face, either. I was okay with that.
As we sat there chatting and admiring the young, beautiful bartenders who were working harder and harder to take care of everybody, I spotted Andy Pesek, who had organized the “Poopy’s COVID Relief” event, enjoying what looked like a fine cigar while seated at a card table that had been set up by one of the big garage doors, all of which had been opened on such a pleasant, sunny day. I walked over and introduced myself before dropping my donation envelope into the bucket on the table.
That’s pretty much it as far as the “event” goes. There was no big, formal parade, no raucus anti-tyranny rally, no political ranting of any kind that me and my half-deaf ears could pick up. What I did hear was plenty of laughter. I think most people understood why we were there — to enjoy the day and enjoy life while supporting a unique business that we had come to love and appreciate.
One highpoint of my day occurred while I was walking across the premises and spotted a face that I had seen before, on the news as well as social media. He smiled as I look at him and so I felt compelled to ask, “Are you Poopy?”
His smile grew as he nodded at me, responding, “I’m Poopy.”
We chatted briefly and I thanked Mr. Promenschenkel for having shared my last blog post the week before. He seemed pleased to give me a moment of his time and came across as being quite genuine. Just as we were about to head our separate ways, I asked if we could get a quick photo. Poopy clapped an arm on my shoulder and exclaimed, “Sure, let’s do it!” The resulting selfie came out a little blurred but mere words can’t express how much I appreciated our chance meeting.
All the while, more and more bikes rolled in. We departed well before mid-afternoon. Part of me wanted to stay and check out the live music, maybe see if the bikini pool bar next to the stage area would liven up, but a larger part of me wanted to ride home sober. And that’s what we did.
My only regret? I did not reapply sunblock before making the return trip. My face, neck, and especially my arms got a little burned but not so bad. I think John, Mark and I had a nice day together. Things being as they are, I’m just not sure what the rest of this riding season holds for me but if I can get even a few more rides in like this one, I will be so grateful.
Located on Illinois Route 84 near the southern edge of the city of Savanna, Poopy’s bills itself as “Illinois’ Biggest Biker Destination” and for good reason. The place is huge. The place is fun. And the place has earned its reputation as a worthy venue for motorcyclists to visit for food, beverages, and a wide variety of entertainment. Its owner, Kevin Promenschenkel, earned the nickname “Poopy” at a young age when a wayward bird let him have it, twice, during a Little League baseball game. The name stuck and the rest, as they say, is history.
Well it seems history is being made again. Promenschenkel has been busy doing everything in his power to keep his business afloat during these trying times, including participating in a lawsuit against the state, asking his loyal customers to support him by ordering Poopy’s merchandise online, and most recently, opening the venue for Memorial Day weekend — a major weekend for his business, filled with events and entertainment. This was a violation of our governor’s current stay-at-home order, but with the support of county and local authorities, not to mention many loyal bikers who came from miles around, Poopy’s did indeed open. In addition to all this, a motorcycle fundraising run has been organized to provide direct relief to Poopy in this time of need. I intend to participate in that fundraiser, assuming Mother Nature cooperates and I have people willing to ride out to Savanna with me. I am doing this not because I have excess cash to give away but because I have a great deal of respect for Kevin Promenschenkel, am sympathetic to his situation, and feel compelled to help him out in this small way.
I’ve been stopping at Poopy’s since September of 2011. That’s the year my son went away to college in the Quad Cities area. A week or two after he left, I found myself missing the kid something awful and so decided to pay him a visit. My ride at the time was a silver metallic 2007 Honda ST1300, a sport touring rig that made short work of my 130-ish mile run out to the Mississippi River. After picking up my son, I asked if he had any interest in checking out this “Poopy’s” place that we’d heard others talk about. At the time, he wasn’t yet old enough to have anything stronger than a coke but the allure of visiting a real biker bar must have pressed his button that day. “Sure!” my son exclaimed and within minutes, he was onboard and we were headed north toward Savanna.
I should pause here and mention that Poopy’s is anything but a typical biker bar. Poopy’s is a destination, an experience unto itself. Sure, it has a bar — several, in fact — plus a restaurant featuring numerous namesake-themed items (e.g. “The Big Poop”), a gift shop, a parts counter, and more. They even had a tattoo parlor on the premises back when I first began going there. The outdoor portion of Poopy’s includes a sizable entertainment stage with overhead catwalk, a pool bar, even a campground. They host vehicle shows, combat sports events, and many, many concerts. As I said, Poopy’s is an experience unto itself and I have developed a deep sense of appreciation for this venue — and the man who built it — from the first time I set foot on the premises.
My son and I had ourselves a grand old time that day. Using my phone, our waitress took a great photo of us while we waited for our lunch. We walked the premises, admired the unique decor and ambiance, bought a few souvenirs, including my lucky Poopy’s bottle opener, and vowed to return.
And so we have returned a number of times. Not nearly often enough, because I don’t live nearby, but whenever the opportunity presents itself — and always with friends. I’ve made lunch stops, brunch stops, and “you just gotta’ come and check this place out” stops. And Poopy’s never disappoints.
My last trip there was a few years ago. My most favorite pillion companion in the world and I had ridden out to Iowa over Labor Day weekend to meet up with some friends from a few different states. During a wonderful all-day ride that we took, the group had planned to visit Poopy’s for a mid-afternoon lunch. As we approached and entered the parking lot, my beloved friend rolled video, creating a very nice memento. We sat outside for quite some time, enjoying the live music, good food, and each other’s excellent company on that fine late-summer afternoon. Indeed, it’s been too long since I have enjoyed such a time at Poopy’s.
And so on Saturday, June 6, 2020, I hope to join whatever companions I can assemble and ride west for the day. My motives have been questioned on several counts by different individuals. Without naming names, here are their questions and my answers.
Aren’t you afraid of getting sick… or worse? No. As the result of having worked in an essential service industry, I never stopped working during this pandemic. I have taken reasonable precautions, both at work and at home. And yes, I wear a bandanna face covering every time I go to the grocery store, pharmacy, etc. I will not likely go indoors on this trip and if I do, I’ll just don my bandanna. Also, as an avid motorcyclist, I am accustomed to tolerating a certain amount of risk. Believe me, it’s not that I don’t care whether I die. It’s that I dread not living during whatever time I have left on this earth.
But Poopy is a blatant Trump fan! Are you one, too??? Does it matter? This is a fundraiser event for Poopy’s, not a political rally. Okay, here’s the plain truth: As an admitted member of the exhausted majority, I despise both the Democrat and Republican parties with a passion and in all candor, my opinion of “45” is less than glowing right now. But I am a real Poopy’s fan and therefore a fan of the man who has put so much of himself into that institution. Although I have never met Poopy in person, I like him and I suspect that if we drank together long enough, we would depart as friends. In short, I respect Kevin Promenschenkel and given that I, too, would not have been prepared to go more than a few weeks without an income stream, I am inclined to help him.
You’re just a badass biker with no respect for authority. I hope you get sick! Good day to you, too, ma’am! Yes, I am a biker. No, I am not. Okay, it depends on whom you ask and how that person defines the term. I am an avid motorcyclist and I have ridden across the country. My current ride is a 2012 Victory Vision Tour, a big-inch “full dresser” American V-twin, and I am no more loyal to any one motorcycle brand than I am to any political party. So there we are. If you fault me for riding a motorcycle, for respecting other riders regardless of what they ride, or for advocating for motorcyclist rights in general, then I am guilty as charged and your opinion does not move me.
In the end, I think it would be a dirty shame if Poopy’s were to disappear as the result of this horrific pandemic event and the shut-down of our economy — indeed of our society as we know it. I’m sure many businesses will not return as the result, through no fault of the independent owners themselves. So if I can help out one of them, this one in particular, by riding with friends for a few hundred miles on a Saturday and dropping some money in the till, I will gladly do so.
Whether you agree with me or not, I respect you for having read this far. And as always, thank you for hanging with me.
Many years ago, I worked with a guy named Gene. A genuine, likable man, Gene had been the warehouse manager at a Chicago-based business where I ran purchasing, customer service, and marketing (it was a smaller company at the time). Our job roles were such that we were each constantly orchestrating projects and processes that affected the other.
Over the course of fourteen years, Gene and I came to know each other very well and we got along famously, yet it was inevitable that from time to time, one of us would do something that displeased the other, to put it mildly. Between the two of us, Gene was much more even-tempered. He was older and more experienced than me, plus he had survived a bleeding ulcer that nearly killed him. As such, he had learned to keep a more even keel, no matter what happened in the course of our day-to-day business dealings.
Back then, and for decades that followed, I was not nearly so even-keeled. Whenever I got angry, frustrated, or overwhelmed, it showed. It showed at once. You would see it in my eyes, a silent flare of intense, negative energy. For whatever reason, I continued to let things get to me and in no time at all, I was the one munching antacids like candy. Gene picked up on this and in his own simple-yet-subtle way, helped me avoid earning an ulcer of my own. How?
After a while, without explaining why he was doing so, Gene would use a code phrase to alert me that I was about to receive potentially upsetting news. Before delivering the blow, so to speak, he would look me in the eye, smile gently and say, “Now don’t get mad.” When he first began using this phrase, I would indeed get mad but after a while, I became conditioned to steel myself for whatever came out of his mouth next. Simple, right? But it worked.
To become frustrated, angry, upset, whatever, is an emotional response to some sort of stimulus. Whether that stimulus takes the form of an external event that actually happened or something that was merely imagined is quite immaterial. In either case, the stimulus is very real. And a negative response, especially one left unchecked, is rarely if ever a good thing for anyone involved.
Case in point, I have spent decades letting my emotional response be my first response in environments where individuals looked to me for leadership, support, and guidance. Bad idea. In doing so, I let them down every time. Mind you, I did no favors for myself, either. In letting my emotions get the best of me time and time again, I sabotaged my own career and probably derailed the career paths of a few others in the process.
It’s not only about business, either. I can recall another instance when, following an abrupt breakup with a person very near and dear to me, I woke up the next morning so emotionally distraught that I repeatedly (and quite painfully) sliced into my face while shaving, as the result of my inability to control my own shaking hands. Let those words sink in: my inability to control. To be controlled by one’s emotional state instead of the other way around, that’s such a bad place for anybody to be. To whose advantage my rage? I’ll tell you: nobody! Nobody at all.
Emotional responses, positive or negative, come from within. They have nothing to do with whatever happens — actual or perceived — out there. Good days, bad days, nice people, mean people, good fortune, misfortune, sunshine, rainstorms… stimulus. It’s all bullshit. Only you can determine your response. And your response is everything because that more than anything determines your results.
I’ve learned a little trick, if you’re interested, a four-step method to crafting a more structured response to whatever stimulus may hit you. I developed this with the help of two valued mentors and several published sources. It’s simple, yet effective. Check it out. Whenever you sense something causing you to lose your cool…
Stop — Slam on the brakes. Call a time out. Do whatever you have to do in order to prevent any reaction at all, if only for the moment.
Analyze — What has actually happened? Gather any real facts you have and weigh whatever options you can identify.
Choose — Out of all the responses you have available to you, which is the best choice? Act on it.
Close — After you have resolved whatever the problem was, then decide how you feel about it. By then, much if not all of that initial flare of emotions will have passed. And since the issue has already been acted upon, the world has already moved on. So should you.
Will this work every time? Unlikely. But with practice, we all learn. We can all get better.
Hey, have you stuck with me through this entire post? I’m grateful. Thank you for hanging with me.
On a cold winter night in the early ’90s, my daughter Teresa came into this world. My wife Karen and I had been waiting for her, enduring nearly 24 hours of induced labor for naught. You see, our daughter has had a stubborn streak since before birth and to this day, we argue over which one of us she gets it from. And so we were taken to an operating room, where two surgeons were preparing to take our first child by force. We did not yet know whether we were having a boy or a girl, so we had names picked out for each possible outcome. Back then there were only two possibilities, male or female, and we were ready for either. Some of the dialogue going on in the O.R. was priceless.
“I feel like I’m gonna fall off this table.”
“That’s normal. We won’t let you fall off.”
“I think I’m starting to shiver. I feel so cold.”
“That’s just the anesthesia. It’s perfectly normal.”
“I feel like I might throw up.”
“That’s perfectly normal. You’re fine!”
Meanwhile, I’m clutching my wife’s hand, cowering behind an imaginary “blue field” boundary under warning that if I crossed the field, all progress would halt while they resterilized the entire room before starting over again.
“Hey, Karen, have you had your appendix removed?”
“That’s funny, it’s not where it’s supposed to be… Oh, wait a minute, here it is!”
After what seemed like forever, the team extracted an offspring and exclaimed, “It’s a girl!”
“We have a Teresa,” I announced to my wife with a quivering voice as our new daughter uttered her first cry. One doesn’t forget moments like that.
I have fond memories of including my growing family in one of my favorite activities, road trips. When Teresa was just six months old, we spent a week up in Door County with some dear college friends and their own toddler daughter. We rented a small house right on the shore of Sturgeon Bay for just a few hundred dollars (try doing that today). It was an awesome time for all involved and as I recall, that was the week Teresa learned to pull herself up and take steps while holding furniture. We also found her climbing up a flight of stairs. We returned to Door County once, many years later, but instead of camping, we stayed at a wonderful motel in Baileys Harbor on the Lake Michigan side. A year or two later, joined by our new son, we went visiting relatives in Philadelphia and New Jersey. It was fun showing off our new offspring. I also got to see my grandmother alive one last time. More than anything else, I recall saying goodbye and telling Grandma I loved her, knowing that in all likelihood we would not see each other again. The sun was shining as I walked out of the nursing home, fighting back tears and holding on to my kids with an odd-yet-comforting sense of gratitude.
There were camping trips, too. I used to have a boat, a 17-foot bowrider that we would trailer up to Calumet County Park on the eastern shore of Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. I really liked that secluded park, but it didn’t seem to like us very much. Some of the worst weather I’ve ever experienced happened during various stays there. The very last time we visited, Teresa slipped off a slippery rock in the lake and broke one of her adult teeth on the same large stone. Years later we spent a weekend camping at Devil’s Lake State Park, possibly my favorite park in the entire state. We even brought the dog. The weather was perfect and we all seemed to have a great time. Why we never returned is a mystery.
I would be remiss not to mention my daughter’s fascination with, make-up, costumes, the performing arts, and art in general throughout her life. My son pursued acting in high school, college, post-graduate studies, and then professionally only because his big sister had been so active in theater during their middle school years and drew him in. Teresa took numerous art classes in college and went to cosmetology school after graduating, in order to help pay for her grad school tuition. Today she is my hairdresser — and a very capable one — but she is about to obtain her Masters in Social Work so I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to boast about that.
I’ve been a motorcycle fanatic since my preschool years but didn’t truly become a motorcyclist until I was 43 years old. When I got into motorcycling, Teresa naturally followed, as did her brother before long. We attended the Chicago International Motorcycle Show year after year, religiously rode together in the Chicagoland Ride for Kids charity event, and took a few overnight motorcycle road trips. When they were old enough, Teresa and her brother John went halfsies on an old Kawasaki Vulcan 500. In the years that have followed, he has ridden more and more, she less and less, for personal reasons. Still, Teresa and I have made enough two-wheeled memories to last a lifetime.
So many memories of all kinds, really. I recall the birthdays, Teresa’s first day of kindergarten, grade school, middle school, high school. and college. And of course, I remember the graduations. Each was a milestone. Each served to remind me that my little one was growing up. Some were harder than others — the day she went off to college, for example. I have never had a good poker face, so when a dear friend of mine asked what was up, I was honest with him about what had been bothering me.
I’ll never forget the advice he gave me that day. His eyes fixed on mine with a warm look of understanding as he said, “We spend all of their lives preparing them for this, for adulthood. Then one day, it happens.”
Life happens. Some of it hits me harder than others, I guess. My daughter recently became engaged. This event was not entirely unexpected but you see, it was just a few short years ago, on a cold winter night in the early ’90s, that I heard my little one utter her first cry. Such is the bittersweet passage of time.
I’m not a good alone person. As a result, I am passionate about sharing my experiences, whether that be watching a good movie, eating a delicious meal, or traveling. These are things I enjoy doing with friends and loved ones. When I do such things alone, the experiences hold less meaning for me unless and until I can find a way to share them. This is in part why I have befriended social media and why I have embraced blogging for years.
I have had the good fortune to visit Baja California in Mexico a couple of times in the last two years. I was there on business both times but what I want to share with you here are some of the experiences I had while I wasn’t conducting business. I want to tell you about some of the cool places I visited and the wonderful people I encountered. Making these visits has changed the way I look at Mexico and sharing this with you makes it all more meaningful to me.
My travel companions and I crossed the border from San Diego into Tijuana and vice versa. Before taking the first of these trips, my only experience with Mexico had been a brief excursion into Tijuana in 1975. I was 14 years old at the time and a San Diego bus tour that I was on took us across the border for a couple of hours. The bus tour had been pretty awesome but I didn’t think much of Mexico based on what I had seen. At the time, unemployment in Mexico was around 30%. To put that into perspective, 10% has long been considered the threshold for an economic depression. So there I was, a sheltered, white bread, chicken shit, suburban boy witnessing real poverty for the first time. I saw small children as well as extremely old people begging in the streets — and largely being ignored by passers-by as if they didn’t even exist. That bothered me greatly in 1975. It still bothers me today.
We weren’t ever in Tijuana long but I did see more of the city than I had in 1974. Yes, I did encounter a few beggars but very few. In fact, I regularly see more widespread begging in Chicago than I saw there. Once out of the city, I was at once impressed by the vast surrounding terrain, which can best be described as rugged. Very hilly, almost mountainous, with lots of immense boulders everywhere. And since we were still near the border, there was the ever-present steel barrier, none of which looked new. In fact, everybody seemed oblivious to it. In the city, we drove right alongside it at times. Out in the country, I could see the barrier off in the distance from the highway we were on. Many people from both sides cross the border between Mexico and California daily, many of them commuting to and from work, from both sides. I saw nothing sensational about it.
What I did find sensational, in Tijuana and elsewhere, was the fantastic food being served up by local street vendors. A few of my associates, those who visit Mexico with some regularity, seem to know which vendors offer the best fare. I was never disappointed. In fact, I was usually blown away by the fresh ingredients and awesome flavors these vendors serve up. One cannot overlook the value, either. We often ate like kings for the equivalent of relatively few American dollars.
One day I was riding along with the eldest of my company’s founders, the only one who was born in Mexico, and I learned a lot about him, the area we were traveling through, and the people who live there. “Today you are seeing real Mexico,” Ruben told me, “not what the tourists see.” He pointed to some people selling goods at one intersection and to others who were performing at another. At one point the company elder asked, “Do you see anybody begging?”
“No,” I replied. “I see people selling things. I see people performing on some corners.”
“People do what they can to make a little money. They don’t need much. They aren’t rich, but everybody seems happy.” I nodded in acknowledgment.
We talked about our respective heritages for a while. After a momentary hesitation, Ruben asked me a question that made me pause: “Do you… I don’t know… Do you mind working for Mexicans?”
I smiled at the question and gave the most honest answer I could. “No. Do you mind having an Italian working for your company?” We looked at each other and laughed out loud. It was genuine laughter and that made me feel good.
Here is something else I hadn’t known before I started making these trips: Baja California is home to Mexico’s wine country. In all candor, I hadn’t even known Mexico has a wine country. Well, they do and some of their wines are quite excellent. If you’re interested in such things, google “Ruta del Vino, Baja California.” We drove part of Ruta del Vino, flanked on both sides by vineyards and olive groves, to visit a wonderful little winery called Cava Mora. I was positively enchanted from the moment I set foot on the property.
As I understand it, Señor Mora was born in Mexico but spent a great deal of his life living in California and for a while was a competitive surfer. The man speaks fluent Spanish but when he spoke to me, in perfect English, I could hear Southern California in his voice. His wines are exquisite red blends, quite full-bodied with a delightful nose and deep flavor. During our last visit, after tasting wine in the cave, we went to the sipping room up above and enjoyed a bottle of wine along with a plate of cheeses, bread, olives, and spreads. There was music playing in the background and the sun was shining outside. I’m telling you, a man could get used to a place like that.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk a little bit about the people I’ve met and hung out with during our visits, some of whom originate from the same part of Mexico as the elder of whom I spoke earlier. They are a genuinely welcoming sort. Some speak perfect English, others speak it more like my Italian parents did. A few spoke little English at all, yet we communicated effortlessly. And at some point during each visit, there was a feast featuring way too much food, ample drink, music, laughter, and a certain closeness that mere words cannot quite capture.
During such a feast, I was also introduced to a locally distilled spirit called mezcal. Like its distant cousin tequila, mezcal is made from agave but with far fewer geographic and botanical restrictions. My first taste of mezcal was poured from a recycled 2-liter soda bottle. That’s right, moonshine. The flavor was intense, to say nothing of the burn that followed. As I finished my double shot, one of the women uttered a remark from the kitchen that caused everybody to erupt in laughter. Turning to my mentor, I asked, “What did the woman say?”
“She said, ‘If you drink enough of this, you won’t need any blankets tonight.'” I looked at him and smiled as I finished my drink. He added, “By the way, you’re impressing the hell out of these people right now.”
In the end, there is always much hugging and well-wishing when the time comes to say goodbye and none of this is shallow courtesy. After only two visits, I get it. We are genuinely glad to see one another. We are genuinely sorry to say goodbye so soon. And we genuinely look forward to seeing each other again. To understand that dynamic is to get a glimpse of the organizational culture in which I work every day.
I am not a good alone person. That’s why if you have read all of this and looked at the photos and video clips along the way, I’m grateful. It all means more to me because you came along, at least for this little bit. Thanks for hanging with me.
From the moment I began teasing my Facebook friends with photos about the pot of chili I was making, inquiries and recipe requests began flowing in. And while I do boast about having certain secret ingredients in my various dishes, truth be told, I’m not all that secretive. There was only one problem: I seldom do recipes and my signature chili is definitely no exception. But I did promise a few people that I would write this article — to give them my non-recipe if you will — and I am a man of my word. So here goes.
For openers, let’s talk about the main ingredient in most chili recipes: the meat. Most chilis I have eaten, some of them extremely good, were made with finely ground meat. There’s nothing wrong with that. Heck, my own mother used hamburger meat (usually ground round) to make her chili. I used to do likewise until I discovered alternative methods. Some years ago, I was in downtown Indianapolis for a conference. A handful of associates and I decided to visit a chili bar for supper one night. We were doing sampler trays and at some point, I realized that the chili I was eating had not been made from hamburger but from finely chopped solid meat. This epiphany forever changed the way I make my chili.
My go-to meats are steak and lean pork, which I usually dice by hand. This takes time but the results are great. Now stop a moment and think about the sheer number of alternatives that can be found in that one sentence alone. Do I have to use beef and pork? Heck no. You can use any number of meats, alone or in combination. I have done many chilis using only beef. I have eaten very good chilis made using only chicken, only pork, and in one case, no meat at all. My friend Ann and I once made a phenomenal chili using lean pork and chicken thighs. I have friends who make venison chili and one who has even used squirrel meat. I’ve not tasted either, nor do I judge, but these variations further serve to illustrate the sheer depth and breadth of possibilities.
You don’t necessarily have to cut the meat by hand, either, although that method will give you the greatest amount of control over the size and shape of your cut pieces. Do you have a food processor? I have had good results using my ancient La Machine food processor to do my coarse chopping. You just have to be careful not to end up with puréed meat. A meat grinder with a coarse grind option will also work nicely. That’s what Ann and I used when we made our pork and chicken chili.
At this point, I am ready to season and brown my meat. While preheating my pan, I will season my meat while it is still in a bowl or spread out on my cutting board. Here is where I apply kosher salt, coarse-ground black pepper, cayenne pepper (coarse or fine, your choice), and a favorite meat seasoning or rub — which in my case is Mike’s All Purpose Seasoning. No, I am not the Mike who developed this line of seasoning products, but I did meet him once.
If I have concerns about grease, I may opt to brown my meat in a skillet and then transfer it, sans all the extra grease, to my chili pot. I typically use lean cuts of meat, though, in which case I’ll prepare the whole gig in one pot. I start with a hot pan, add a little peanut oil (prized for its high smoking point), and brown the meat over high heat so as to burn off all the water that will come from the meat as it cooks.
As the last of that water cooks off, I’ll add some finely chopped peppers and a generous portion of minced garlic. My wife cannot tolerate heat, so I use red bell pepper plus a few serrano peppers — in proportions that add more flavor than heat. When the weather allows, I may opt to roast the peppers outside, even adding a little wood smoke for added flavor.
Just as the meat begins to fry, i.e. as the edges begin to turn dark brown, I’ll lower the heat and add liquid. Here also is where you’ll add the rest of your chili seasonings, namely chili powder, cumin, and oregano — Mexican oregano if you have it. The proper ratio of chili powder to cumin is three-to-one. The oregano is added to taste. If I add three tablespoons of chili powder and one of cumin, I might toss in a teaspoon, less than two, of the oregano. You can always adjust later on. Stir it up to coat all the meat evenly as you begin to lower the heat.
Here come some more variables, each of them worthy. Sometimes I’ll simmer the meat in beer. During a recent trip to Mexico, I discovered a wonderful brew. Bohemia Oscura is a Vienna style beer with excellent flavor that would work very well for this purpose. Not a fan of beer? During a trip to Colorado, I met a lady at a winery who talked about simmering her chili meat in that winery’s medium-dry sherry. And so now, as often as not, I’ll simmer my beef and pork in a generous pour of amontillado.
The rest of my liquid generally comes in the form of stock — beef stock if I’m using beef, chicken stock if I’m using poultry, and vegetable stock if I were to ever make a vegetarian chili. Not all chilis incorporate tomato; that’s a very regional thing. Being from southern Italy, my mother put tomatoes in everything. Even the broth in her chicken soup was red. Being my mother’s son, I follow suit and use diced tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, or both in my chili. It’s not the dominant ingredient but its presence cannot be ignored. All the while, my chili continues to simmer.
Next, I add my beans and any other extras that are involved. Beans themselves are controversial, as some purists insist that they have no place in chili. Here again I defer to my chili influences, one being my mother and the other being a small chain of chili parlors in Milwaukee, where I went to college. My mom cooked the beans in her chili. The chili parlor, called Real Chili, served their chili over beans as an option. They also offered their chili over spaghetti and beans as another option, which I loved, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
What kind of beans? What do you got? Pinto beans are common, as are kidney beans, both light and dark. I’ve used them all. How about a combination? Each contributes its own color, texture, and flavor to the dish. That chicken and pork chili that Ann and I made included a medley of organic beans and it proved to be wonderful. I often add corn to my steak and pork chili. For the pork and chicken chili I’ve mentioned, we added hominy. You don’t need to add anything unless you want to.
Whatever bean(s) and extras you use, let the chili simmer for a while. How long depends on who you ask, but this simmering time allows the flavors to meld and the broth to reduce and thicken. As this happens, you taste and adjust the seasonings as you see fit. Bear in mind, as the liquid reduces, the seasoning flavors will become more concentrated. Don’t rush to add more salt early on. Need more heat? Add cayenne pepper or hot sauce (I may toss in a pour of Valentina or Tabasco at this point, depending on my needs). At this point, it becomes largely a matter of personal preference.
Once the chili reaches its desired state of doneness, as indicated by the thickness of the broth and satisfaction of the cook with its flavors, it’s time to put out the foundations, condiments, and sides. My mother never made chili mac, but influenced by the Real Chili parlors in Milwaukee, I have always served my chili on a bed of broken spaghetti. My condiments include shredded cheddar cheese, chopped fresh onion, oyster crackers, sour cream, and hot sauce. My favorite side is cornbread.
If you were expecting a more concise recipe, I hope you aren’t too disappointed. I have been making chili for a few decades now. Some have been better than others and in all candor, my results have become more consistent over time. I have reached a point now where even if I vary the base ingredients, i.e. the meat and bean choices, the end quality remains fairly consistent.
If you use any of the guidelines I’ve presented here, please let me know how your results turn out. And as always, thank you for hanging with me.