POST-OP WEEK 62
week of April 5
I grew up with a florist across the street. It was, apparently, a business that had been grandfathered into our residential neighborhood long before and many of the neighbors hated it. I’m not sure why. I always thought it was cool for some reason. It was just a house with a little connected shop and two greenhouses attached. The second greenhouse was across the street from our driveway, so there wasn’t a house there, we wouldn’t look out our window and see people in their living room, we’d look out and see green growing inside a cool, glass house.
I don’t know if I’d hang out there or I just went there with my mom to buy flowers all the time, but I remember nosing around the plants on their shelves, warming in the sun. I always liked the smell of the greenery in the flower cooler, too. The whole place. I bought some flowers last weekend (for my cousin who’s in the hospital) and the florist smell brought it all rushing back.
I always thought it was cool to just walk across the street to pick up my flowers for a dance or whatever…
It was a family business run by the father. He retired or died and his son started running the place. They slowly started “cutting up” the place. First one greenhouse got torn down (I remember the sound of all that glass breaking) and a regular house put up in its place. Then they separated is family home form the flower shop itself and the son moved across the street on the other side of my sister and brother-in-law.
My brother-in-law didn’t get along with the son. They’d yell at each other across the bushes. So neighborly.
Eventually, they tore everything down and the neighbors who didn’t want a business in their residential area finally got their way. That’s progress.
A family, I’ll call them the D-family, lived three or four doors down. Mr. and Mrs. D were an older couple, I always thought, though I don’t know how old exactly, older than my parents certainly. They had four boys, all of them older than me, two or three of them I don’t think I ever met. I hung out with the youngest a little bit, not much. I can remember being in their house a couple of times, their small kitchen, Mrs. D cooking dinner. Mrs. D gave me some of her son’s HO scale army men to keep. I don’t know if he was done with them.
Mr. D was a furrier. Imagine that. He had a small store in our suburb, in town. Yeah, suburb had a furrier. He’d make mink coats or whatever. I remember visiting his little workshop, watching the men sewing pelts.
Mr. D was one of my dad’s drinkin’ buddies, his nearby drinkin’ buddies. He had a thick, accent and he was missing the ends of at least two fingers and his thumb. I don’t know if he said so, but I always thought he lost them in WWII, blown off by a hand grenade. He had a regular left hand, but his index and middle finger were missing a knuckle and there were pointy remnants of fingernails sticking out of the stubby ends. Is thumb was like that, too. I couldn’t help but stare at them when he’d come over. I always wondered which side he fought on, accent and all. My active imagination thought, maybe, he could’ve been a prison guard.
He used to give us “deals” on fur coats and all sorts of other fur things. My mom had three minks— short, full-length. A little wrap-around deal (is that a stole?). He made my two older sisters a couple of muffs (they were big, I think, back in the 60s), I had an ethnic, sheep’s skin vest. We even had a mink, clip-on bow tie…
Mrs. D was catholic and went to St Mary’s church, two blocks down, every day. Mr. D was also one of the most bigoted people I’ve met, before or since. My dad was a bigot, he’d curse at Sanford and Son, telling us to change the channel because he couldn’t stand watching those N-words, etc, etc. But the Mr. and Mrs. D were worse.
I was in my front yard the day Mr. D told a black man who was going door to door, trying to sell magazines or whatever— he told the guy to leave, get out of our town because “we” didn’t like “his kind.”
The furrier went under at some point. I think Mr. D died (or Nazi hunters finally caught up with him!) or had a stroke and his kids didn’t want to be furriers.
POST-OP WEEK 63
week of April 12
I was a limo driver for 13 months back in 1990 or so.
Like a lot of jobs I had, I fell into it. The comedy group got a gig at Arlington Racetrack (or the other race track) to perform at the Boat Show. It was cold, January maybe. We were to be the opening act for a stand-up named Rocky La Porte. It was booked by the owner of a club we performed in a lot, called the Funny Firm (it’s no longer in business, like a lot of comedy clubs we used to play). Later, in a radio interview, Rocky recounted this gig as the worst one of his career.
We were in an empty, metal convention center crammed with boats on the first floor and people milling around gawking at them. We were above all this, on the level running along this where the bathrooms were, in the middle of a big, echo-y space. They put a riser up for us and some folding chairs facing that for the audience, what there was of one, to sit. There were no signs announcing us, nothing to explain why we were there. Boat people, tired of walking around happened upon some chairs and sat down to rest their feet— oh, hey what’re these guys doing up here, let’s see... We’d played worse.
The club owner who booked the gig felt badly or something for putting us through that, so he hired a limo to take us there from the Funny Firm, wait for us, then take us back. There might’ve only been two guys in the group at this point in our history: another guy and me. We had a female driver, I don’t know if this had anything to do with why I started talking to her about limo driving and how to get a job with her company. She wasn’t a babe or anything, but I wonder if it had been a guy driver, would I have chatted him up? Hm.
She told me if I was interested, I should go talk to her boss, etc. and gave me her business card. I called within a day or two and went in. I didn’t know this at the time but the car was from Delaware Cars & Limos, the highest-class limo company in Chicago (this coming from other limo people I talked to). They were out of the Westin hotel on North Michigan Avenue (on Delaware St!). I talked to the dispatcher or maybe it was one of the owners, told him the driver sent me, etc. He gave me an application and a test I had to take home and fill out. It was a “you pick up a passenger at ______, how do you get him to ______” “Where is the ____ Club in Chicago” kind of test. It was open book, you could use maps, whatever you needed. There was no Internet or GPS in those days, so you were on your own.
I took the test back to them, they graded it, and told me I could have the job right after I got my chauffer’s license. That was a long, tough class full of cab drivers (it’s the same license). I passed that, then had to get fingerprinted, and have my background checked. Eventually, I made it through all the gauntlets and hurdles and became a limo driver! I had to wear a suit but not a hat.
The company kept all their cars, sedans, stretches, and rental cars down in the third sub-basement of the hotel. The first day on the job they told me to go downstairs and drive up a stretch. Just like that.
There was this vertical conveyor belt sort of personal elevator thing that must’ve been a throwback from the 20s because it was really dangerous— just a handle to hold on to and a ridge to put your feet on a heavy cloth belt continuously moving at a fair clip. The idea was to stand real near it and when a handle came by, you grabbed onto it. A split second later, a foot step came around and you jumped on that. If I remember correctly, you could take it up or down, through a small hole in the floor to the next level of the garage. When you got to where you wanted to go, you had to jump off real fast because the belt kept moving around a wheel and into the other direction.
So I take this thing down and get into the limo the boss told me to drive. Everything was tight down in the sub-basements— cement poles and other cars way too close in. The only way to get the cars up was on a corkscrew parking ramp. No one told me if a limo fit on them, but I assumed they got them down there somehow so I could probably get them up the ramp again. I took the ramp slowly, watching the side mirrors, keeping the front end from scraping the guardrails, listening for any crunching noises. Eventually I pulled the car out onto the street. The boss was pleasingly surprised. (Though they took money out of my paycheck every week as a security deposit against damage!)
I worked the day shift, coming in at 7:00am. My wife would drive me downtown from or apartment in Logan Square. I was supposed to get off at 3, but sometimes it’d run long. Since we were the day shift, we got a lot of businessmen going to meetings or needing rides to the airport. We didn’t get a lot of “pleasure trips,” or partiers. We didn’t do many weddings and we NEVER did school dances. We had new cars, Lincolns mostly and a few Cadillacs; they sold them off when they reached two years old.
The other drivers were a mixed bunch: old and younger, black and white, lifers and guys who were doing this for money while they worked as actors at night. There was one guy who carried a bible around everywhere, but he kept his religion to himself unless you asked him about it. A few of the guys were ex-substance abusers who may or may not have fallen off the wagon. One guy was always scoping out the women on the streets as he drove around until one day he hit a nanny crossing the street, I’m sure because he was “distracted.” The owners’ names were Tom and Dick. There was no Harry. The dispatcher was this little gay guy, very funny, who worked the desk and the two-way radio.
It was mostly carting people from here to there, nothing special. But then every once in a while, the fare would be different.
I drove a Miss America around once, from one publicity gig to another. I picked up Peggy Fleming from O’Hare, back when you could park the car and come to the gate, holding on of those “limo driver signs” that you could write on with a marker: FLEMING. I took Dave Brubeck, the jazz pianist, back from the hospital when he got ill during a Chicago gig. I drove parts of Jim Belushi’s wedding party to and from his wedding (it was his second, but not his last). I picked up Garry Marshall, producer of such hits as Laverne and Shirley to the airport. I drove to Milwaukee to pick up one of the stars of the Bob Newhart’s second sit-com and take him to his Chicago hotel (remember: “I’m Larry and this is my brother Darryl and this is my other brother Darryl…” I drove one of the Darryls.) I drove Big Daddy Kane, the “famous” rap artist, to a TV shoot on the South side, even though I had never heard of him. I drove sports figures and B-level TV stars. But, mostly, I took regular people to regular things, businessmen to business meetings.
I picked up this one family— a father, mother, and their grown son —on the tarmac at Midway (that was cool) from their chartered jet and took them around as they tried to sell shopping malls or get money for them or something. All I could hear was their thick, New Jersey accents swearing at each other the whole time. “I don’t give a shit, what he says…” “What the fuck makes you think I give a shit…” to each other, about other people, never about me. They were nice to me; they gave me a $50. tip on top of my regular tip.
I got a frantic call from my boss one day, over the radio. I was waiting outside the hotel in a stretch Lincoln when he tells me to go someone’s condo and pick up a set of golf clubs, hurry. It seems one of our drivers took a customer to a golf outing/business meeting way out in the western suburbs but forgot to put the guy’s clubs in his trunk. I stopped by the customer’s place on Oak Street and got them from the doorman, I put them in the backseat for some reason, instead of the trunk; I thought it’d be funnier, I guess, like they were my passengers. My boss got on the radio again and told me to get to the golf course “as fast as I could,” he’d pay for the ticket, if I got one.
So I zipped from Oak Street, as fast as I could, to the Eisenhower and put the pedal own. It was the middle of the day so traffic was fairly light. I got the limo up to 80, 90 miles an hour, weaving in and out of traffic. At times I looked down I had pinned the speedometer to its maximum of 120!
The dispatcher asked me to keep him posted on my progress by telling him the cross-streets as I passed under them. Every ten, twenty seconds I’d announce another one: I’m at Austin… I’m at Harlem… 1st avenue… (Later the other drivers told me they couldn’t imagine how fast I was going because they were listening in on my broadcasts (it was an open channel, so we all heard what everyone was doing), hearing me announce those streets.) I finally got to the golf course, pulling up in front of the guy who’s yelling at my boss into his cell. I pull his clubs from the backseat and hand them to him and he dashed off. And he didn’t even say thanks…
I was done with my shift and wanted to go home. A lot of the drivers loved doing double shifts; they were a sleep-deprived bunch. But I liked to go home when my 8 or 10 hours were done to my wife with our first baby on the way. Anyway, we get a call last minute, ordering 6 or 7 limos at Nick’s Fishmarket to pick up some local TV executives who were celebrating a big ratings season that year… He got some night shift drivers but he’s trying to use day drivers, too, so he doesn’t run out.
These were business types, most of them lived in the suburbs that needed a designated driver. The boss promises me the shortest run; I can drive the person who lives the closest. I get there and a bunch of suits are laughing for no reason and staggering, saying their goodbyes, as they pour out of Nick’s door and into our cars. They ask around for the person who lives close by and turns out to be this woman, mid- to late-40s, in a nice business suit: shirt, high heels with hose. She looks a little out of it, but she gets into the back seat sort of on her own. There you go, Walter, take ‘er away. One of her colleagues tells me her address; she lives in a condo off Oak Street, a posh neighborhood 10, 15 blocks away.
She’s not talking as a drive but I can see her in the rearview mirror slumping farther and farther down in the seat. When I finally get to her circle drive of her condo building, I run around the back of the car and open her door but she doesn’t move. I tell her we’re here! But she doesn’t move. I realize then that I’m going to have to touch this woman I met ten minutes ago, probably grab her under the arms and pull her out of the car.
I go to the doorman for help but he’s having no part of it. I’m on my own. I guide her by her shoulders out through the car door and somehow pull her to her feet. Her head is wobbly and her legs can barely hold her up. I grab her around the waist and pull her toward me as we walk through the front door to the elevators. The doorman gets involved at least enough to tell me her condo number and we head up. She’s muttering the whole time as we limp down the small hallway to her door. She has enough awareness to get her keys out of her purse and stick one in the lock.
Her muttering gets louder, “fuggghhk!” she says. “Whad the fuggghck, I can’t get the ke—” I reach over to try and help her and, between the two of us, somehow we broke the key off in the lock. “Awww, fucgghh!”
That’s when she staggers backward, bends her head down and throws up on the carpet, her shoes, and mine. “Aawww, fuck it.” She slides down the wall onto the floor and goes limp. This is before everyone had a cellphone, so I had to leave her there and go down and get the doorman— who said he couldn’t help me. I went down to my limo and called the dispatcher who called a locksmith who eventually opened the lock in a second with the twist of his wrist. I paid him with my own cash and he watched me lift my new buddy off the floor and drag her to her bed, which luckily was near the door, and dump her: business suit, high heels and all. I think I got home around nine or ten. The next day, my boss reimbursed me for the locksmith because the woman paid him. Ah, executives!
Then there was the fare that made my life flash before my eyes…
I picked up this kid, I don’t remember where. It was the middle of the afternoon. He’s dressed like a rapper wannabe: big jacket, ball cap on sideways, that kind of thing. He’s got two black guys with him. Not wanting to be a racist, I think nothing of this at first. His credit card cleared, my boss set this up, what could happen? He has me drive him to a house in a fairly rundown neighborhood and park. They go inside for five, ten minutes and come out. He tells me where to go next, another house, they go inside. I’m getting the impression this white kid wannabe is trying to impress his drug-dealing buddies. Or maybe I’m just a racist.
I get a call from my dispatcher telling me the credit card he’s using is his parents’, they’re not exactly reporting it stolen, but they don’t want him to use it, they’d wish he’d come home. The kid keeps telling me, “It’s okay, it’s cool, don’t worry, it’s okay.” We go to another house and they get out. All I’m thinking about is my pregnant wife at home waiting for me to pick her up so we can go to Lamaze class that night. Then I’m thinking about a bullet in the back of the head through that little limo window. “No, man, it’s cool.” We go to gas station so they can pick something up. I get on the radio and tell the dispatcher I’ve got a bad feeling about this. He asks if I want to get out of this fare and I say yes. He says I can tell the kid I need to be replaced by another driver.
The last place he wants me to take him is a hotel off of Michigan Ave. I drop him off and tell him another car will be by to continue their journey later. I don’t know what happened after that.
I ended up quitting that job suddenly, “by remote,” from a casino in Vegas after getting a call to come and write comedy for Jenny Jones’ “practice shows” on a Fox affiliate. I felt bad doing it that way, but they didn’t seem to mind. I think maybe they were used to people suddenly quitting.
POST-OP WEEK 64
week of April 19
My mom used to tell this story about the time she saved a little girl from drowning.
We used to belong to the private Swim Club in our town: a couple of pools and a diving board, you had to join and pay dues. My mom couldn’t swim, she never learned how, but she’d sit on the ledge of the middle pool, dangling her legs in the 3 feet of water.
She was doing that one day, talking to another woman when she happened to look the other way and see a little girl clinging to one of those blow-up rafts, the kind with the clear window in it to see the bottom.
The girl was kicking along when the raft flipped over. But she didn’t let go.
The girl’s mother was a few feet away with her back turned talking to someone and didn’t see her daughter in trouble. My mom could see her through the viewing window, with this real big look of panic on her face. My mom quickly reached over and turned the raft right side up so the girl was above water again. As my mom tells it, the girl’s mother finally noticed something was happening, turned around, and started yelling at my mom to leave her kid alone, etc…
My brother-in-law was trying to write off his single engine airplane as a business expense, I think, so there was a time when he started an aerial photography business. He came up with a name, had some business cards printed up, maybe even put an ad in the paper. But then he landed a couple of jobs… One place, then another, wanted photos of their office building or factory taken from above. (This was way before Google maps would let you see that from space with a click of your mouse.)
The problem with his little scheme was that he had planned to get my ex-best friend to do this with him. Ex-best friend would make total sense: he could fly AND he was pretty good with a camera, just like my brother-in-law. Two peas in a pod, a double-threat— the flying shutterbugs. But then EBF went away to college or something and he wasn’t around. So, he was forced to ask me, you know, the professional photographer.
His first gig was some factory that wanted a portrait. We got to Midway early and my brother-in-law started taking the back door off the plane with a screwdriver. See— in most cases you’d probably shoot these pics from a helicopter or at least have some sort of special camera rig mounted on the bottom of the plane, maybe a remote-controlled deal. But he thought hanging out of a gaping hole in the plane would work just as well.
So, I strapped myself in real tight in the back while he took off and found our “target.” One belt, across my lap, no shoulder belt, pulled as tight as I could make it go. Takeoff looks very different from an open airplane door. Maybe this is why I fly commercial so well these days, because we’re INside the plane, with all the doors on.
When we finally reach the factory, my brother-in-law starts circling and I get my camera ready. That’s when I realize I can’t really stick my head out of the plane because we’re going about 120 mph. I do my best as he banks into a tight spiral over the place. I got my camera to my face, clicking away when the motion sickness kicks in and I have to stop and barf my sunny side up breakfast into a little bag. (That was the last time I ate before a photo flight; after that I went on an empty stomach.)
Years of changing film, in darkrooms, etc, helped keep me from barfing again as I reloaded the camera— I’d do it without looking down at the thing, looking out the open door, focusing on a spot in the distance, loading it blind —while he continued to circle.
His little enterprise lasted four or five more photo shoots before he called it quits. We shot Westlake Hospital, which is right in the glide path of O’Hare, I think. We shot a skyscraper downtown, which, I’m sure you couldn’t do nowadays. And the entire city of Woodstock, IL. (Because we had to fly so high, like a mile or so, to get that shot, he rented oxygen tanks. We both breathed through those little nose hoses you see in hospitals. It would’ve been cheaper and safer if we just used a wide-angle lens. (And trust me, it is freezing in the back seat of a doorless plane at 5,700 feet!)
POST-OP WEEK 65
week of April 26
I was driving my limo one day, on my way back from somewhere when we got a frantic call for eight cars to head to United headquarters in Elk Grove village as fast as we could because some executives were getting out of a meeting any minute and they all needed rides to the airport, ten minutes away— in separate cars…
I was out on the road when they diverted me there.
I’m not very good with directions as it is, so I’m driving with my huge map book on the seat next to me (no GPS remember), trying to figure out the exit. My wife was pregnant with our first. We knew it was a girl and we had picked out her name. I started thinking about them.
All of a sudden, driving on the interstate, it hits me that I’m going to be a father! I’m now going to be responsible for another person! I’m a limo driver, making 12-15 dollars an hour when I’m driving, nothing when I’m not driving! How am I ever going to do this?! Everything started to glass over. I was looking out the window, but not really seeing anything. Then I’d realize I’d missed my exit, miles past it. So I’d do a quick U-turn and head back the other way, looking for the exit. But then I’d start thinking about babies and fatherhood and I’d glass over again, seeing white everywhere… And miss my exit the other way! A couple of miles past that one, I’d come to reality again, U-turn and back.
I actually did that whole thing twice until I finally stopped, made myself pay attention and find the exit off the highway and to United headquarters.
I think that was an official panic attack…
The other drivers covered for me with our dispatcher, saying that I was already there, when I was still crisscrossing the highway. It ended up the United bigwigs didn’t come out right away. They didn’t come out until the NEXT DAY, at like 7 or 8 in the morning, the meeting lasted that long. The eight cars and eight drivers sat there all evening and into the night— we had lunch, then dinner, they played cards, I watched TV in the back of my limo, we all had a nice sleep, sitting up in the driver’s seat, 22 hours total, and then drove the eight executives the ten minutes to O’Hare…
diary continues in May 2010...