A Book That Changed My Life

I’ve been asked to speak at a Literacy Works event called “A Book That Changed My Life.” Choosing which book to talk about was a daunting task; do I choose the book that was a large influence or a book that I have read dozens of times? How to choose a single book; it’s like choosing which breath is your favorite? The answer is always, the next one.

IMG_1064When I was young, my mother would read from a book called “Children’s Stories of the Bible (from the Old and New Testaments).” I loved the stories and the pictures that came with them. I would read them on my own when I was old enough and it was the closest I ever came to religious instruction. It’s traveled with me for the past 40 years. The morals and lessons within still flow through me.

Speaking strictly from a science-fiction point-of-view, I adored the book “Dune.” It’s smart about ecology, politics and religion and somehow still filled with intrigue and adventure. There’s a talent that the Bene Gesserit sect uses called The Voice. It’s a kind of martial art that involves using the precise word, timbre, volume and projection to virtually command the chosen target. It wasn’t a super-power per se, it was something learned. So I took it upon myself to teach myself The Voice. I would attempt to use It when speaking with teachers and friends. I never got as powerful as the Bene Gesserits, but for a amateur (particularly a male) I did alright.

 

My sister had a Big Book of Horse Stories or some such and flipping through it I read two stories; “Black Beauty” (eh) and “Silver Blaze,” a Sherlock Holmes story about a missing horse. I was enraptured with this detective and sought out his other adventures. I’ve read the entire canon several times over, usually about twice a year. I bought this collection in early eighties and it’s been IMG_1065with me ever since.

For most of my life I was obsessed with true crime stories; especially serial killers. I know far too much about serial killers, but I stopped my obsession sometime in the early 90s. Why? It got too much. It was too much of a burden. I met a girl and she was doing her Masters on serial murder and had received some FBI files. We traded books and papers and it was then that I had had enough. The bad thing about having so many cases and horrors in your  mind is that eventually that’s all you can see and envision. I read a conspiracy-oriented book on the Son of Sam murders and a book on Jack the Ripper; they both had photographs of murder scenes that are, sadly, burned into my memory and I wish they weren’t there. I even purged my library of my serial killer books.

“John Adams” by David McCullough was an eye-opener. Being a lifelong fan of our second president I have read several biographies about John Adams but this was the very first that felt like the writer actually liked him. I cannot tell you how pleasing the entire book was to me.

But that’s not why you came to the theater tonight, is it?

The book I chose to speak about at the Literacy Works event is called “Superman: from the 30s to the 80s.” After so many books, why this one? I grew up with mostly Batman, ghost and World War 2 comics. When my brother need surgery my aunt asked me what kind of books would he want and I suggested comic books, which was a lie. He wasn’t into comics, but I was. I was a 12 year old asshole. So, I wasn’t too interested in Superman, with his flashy powers and bright colors, but I came to love him.

In the beginning, he was more grassroots with more mundane (but still super!) powers. In the very first issue, he stops a lynching and beats up a husband in a domestic dispute. In the very second issue, he goes to Europe and makes generals fight in the trenches; the fear defeats their bloodlust and they all realize they’ve been fighting, not for ideals, but for munitions profits. And this was in 1938.

IMG_1073Ultimately, what enraptured me about Superman is his elevated altruism. It’s not just concern for the well-being of others that motivates him; it’s the astounding restraint that he shows. He could simply rule the Earth or enjoy his life in quiet splendor but instead he cares for the Earth. Not like a parent, not like pets, but like a wiser, more experienced brother. He’s not super intelligent, he doesn’t have all the answers, and I like that. He learns hard truths along the way and moral dilemmas are more difficult for him than a dozen laser beams.

Superman, with all his powers and abilities (and they’ve waxed and waned over the decades) has chosen not to be bully, to not live in the comfort that a less generous philosopher might take advantage of. He has chosen to serve all living beings.

 

Superman: “I can only tell you what I believe, Diana. humankind has to be allowed to climb to its own destiny. We can’t carry them there.”

Flash: “But that’s what she’s saying. What’s the point? Why should they need us at all?”

Superman: “To catch them if they fall.”

-JLA #4

 

To secretly use your powers for good, is something I strongly believe in. I don’t have any super powers, so I use what I have been given to help others. Opening a door, helping someone with a package, a word of comfort or support it is these little things that make us a kinder, better society. It’s the people who go above and beyond the call of community that enrich us all. The people who donate time and money to causes that empower and enrich our world. Things like food pantries, homeless shelters and literacy programs this is how we catch each other when we fall.

Could we be better at these things? Could we do more? Of course, but we’re not Superman are we? We’re just plain ole humans who dream of flying.

I read Superman stories because at their very core they’re about hope and caring for each other. I read Superman stories not just because he’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to bend steel with his bare hands; I read Superman stories because he cares for us like I wish we all cared for each other. With the needless violence, pain and cruelty in the world sometimes I wish he was real. Sometimes I think, THIS is a job for Superman.

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3541

In 1995, I moved to Chicago to pursue improv greatness. I wanted to take classes at the Second City and the ImprovOlympic, specifically from this guy named Del Close. My college friend from New York, John Mulhern, had been aiding and abetting my weekend dalliances with Chicago improv and his group had even been kind enough to let me sit in with a few rehearsals where I did not completely disgrace myself.

ioback

The rear-entrance to 3541 N. Clark BEFORE the annex was added.

Classes for ImprovOlympic were just beginning at its new resident space at 3541 North Clark. The neighborhood at the time was empty, and I mean, M. Tea. Empty storefronts, a tiny bar, a small grocery. And that’s about it. There was Sluggers, Cubby Bear and Exedus. That’s it. John Barleycorn was a futon store. No Salt & Pepper, no Goose Island… After ImprovOlympic was up and running, the space to the left of it became El Pollo Loco. But everyone got sick after eating there so it closed up. There was a WrigleyDawg (great hot wings, brats, etc… oh! they had a Galaga machine. That was awesome) where Red Ivy is now.

 

During my level 1 class (which was simply called “Charna”) the July 1995 Chicago heatwave hit. John and I lived a few blocks from ImprovOlympic and like many people we were without electricity for several days. I had no job, no power, and it was 110 degrees for 5 days. One Saturday, with little sleep and less food, I was stumbling zombie-like through the neighborhood when I was discovered by Charna Halpern and her dog, Gracie. I told her my story and she invited me to come to ImprovOlympic. There was power there

The annex, under construction (photo taken 2/21/98!)

The annex, under construction (photo taken 2/21/98!)

and air-conditioning; she had paperwork and I could rest before our class later that day. What’s now the back of the cabaret (AKA The Hamlet Lounge) had several couches and she stashed me there with a blanket (it was that cold in there) and a pitcher of water. She would wake me in time for class. And I became, definitely not the first nor the last, one of Charna’s strays.

 

A few months later and I was in Del’s Monday class. At the time, the cleaning guy (Armando) only came Wednesdays and Saturdays mornings. So, by Monday, the place stank like, well, a bar. and cigarettes because you could still smoke in public back then. Del had undergone chemical aversion therapy for alcohol and the smell made him retch. So between the coughing from emphysema and the retching from the smell, we were getting every third word. I worked at Blockbuster and was off on Mondays, so I began going to class at 6pm so I could sweep and mop the entire cabaret. That began a personal tradition for me; I would sweep and mop before my team shows and I still do before Whirled News Tonight.

 

Me, cleaning up in the DCT bar. Note my "Central Perk" t-shirt. Oy.

Me, cleaning up in the DCT bar. Note my “Central Perk” t-shirt.

In my Level 2 class, I was told to commit to a character by my teacher Miles Stroth. I was in a break up scene and was told to get on my knees and beg, which I did and I stayed on my knees, following my scene partner around the stage. When the scene was over I stood and I had rubbed holes into the knees of my pants and friction burned my knees bloody. There were traces of my blood on the stage.

 

I began doing a lot of shows at iO and before each “big show” (usually a Halloween show or something based on Star Wars) I would sand, paint and lacquer the Del Close Theater stage. I did that two or three times. After the shows or classes (usually about 10pm back then) and I would stay and work till 3 or 4am. I know that stage pretty well.

 

Once, during Space Dreck, (the improvised Star Trek we did in 1996) I was Kirk and, of course, had my shirt off. As I squeezed by another cast member back stage, a random nail scratched me right about my left nipple and it bleed copiously. Which was weird because the show had just begun,,, why was Kirk bleeding? We were plagued by such continuity problems.

 

iO Christmas Party. Sometime in the 90s? Check out the schedule board. (Chin, Grondy, Cackowski, Mullaney, Gwinn)

During rehearsals for Jedi! the Tour De Force Musical, we rehearsed on Friday nights from 10pm – 2, maybe 3am. Only to reconvene at 10am on Saturday. I didn’t have keys to the building at the time so I simply slept in the green room to open the doors in 7 hours.

 

Behind the coat area in the Cabaret there is a door to the AC and furnace. Once, I was back there and stood too suddenly. I have a nice crater in my head flesh you can sink your finger in.

 

Before there was an annex, Mike Click, Charna and I worked out of what is now the Training Center office for years. I would arrive first (around 9am) and then Mike, then Charna… we would rotate the two people in the office and the third person would work at the bar or go for lunch.

 

For many years, I had Halloween shows that culminated in a giant costume party. We felt bad about leaving a mess for the

The chase finale to Thriller Theater 1. It was the Scooby Gang, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown.

The chase finale to Thriller Theater 1. It was the Scooby Gang, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown.

cleaning man, so not only would we host the party we would clean up the DCT afterwards. I mean, all the garbage, mopping, etc… we would get out around 4am. We did that for years. And, you know what? I fucking loved it. A great Halloween party is like a show and vice versa.

 

I had a show called Dinner for Six, a small improvised romantic comedy. No one came to see it. Once it was just Charna Halpern and Susan Messing. One night it was five people from Close Quarters (which was running at the SC etc) After the show, Charna came up to me and said, “Don’t worry about the rent, just keep doing this kind of work.”

 

There have been nights where it has been 90 degrees in the theater. There have been nights where water floods the entire cabaret (I remember water up to my ankles as I looked directly at the… fusebox.. “Eh, if it was going to kill me I’d be dead by now…”) There have been great shows with no audience and awful shows with sold out houses. Within the walls of 3541 N. Clark I have hidden from stalkers, ex-girlfriends, ex-friends, myself, and reality. I have cried, ranted and raged both on-stage and off. There have pure crystal moments of unadulterated happiness and transcendental nirvana at that address. All of these things housed under one roof for the past twenty years, but the walls didn’t tell me they loved me. The stage didn’t tell me to keep pushing, to keep learning and growing… it was the people, the friends and lovers and colleagues that did that. It was the people that made it a home.

iO Christmas Party. Maybe 2002? Far right, Erica Reid. I'm having lunch with her on Tuesday.

iO Christmas Party. Maybe 2002? Far right, Erica Reid. I’m having lunch with her on Tuesday.

The treasured old memories will be where they belong; in our memories, in our hearts, as we go on to build new ones with friends old and new. Maybe it’s all the terrible chores and blood (both literal and figurative) that went into 3541 that make me relatively unsentimental but I can’t wait to see what we do with 1501 N. Kingsbury. A new sandbox! What wonders will be wrought?! I have so many shows in my brain and I can’t wait to do them all! I can’t wait to share them!

As a great poet once wrote,

Fish don’t fry in the kitchen;

Beans don’t burn on the grill.

Took a whole lotta tryin’

Just to get up that hill.

Now we’re up in the big leagues

Gettin’ our turn at bat.

As long as we live, it’s you and me baby

There ain’t nothin wrong with that.

No. There sure isn’t.

Aunt Anna

So there’s this.

Don’t give me your condolences, I wouldn’t know what to do with them. Please keep them and use them for you and yours. They make me uncomfortable.

“All-You-Can-Eat”-Dim-Sum-Lunch-at-Silver-Waves-Restaurant-1-1024x681As I was saying, my Aunt Anna passed away a few days ago which is coincidental because I was just telling one of my favorite stories of her to the crew/cast of “Day Drinking.” This is not that story but a much better one.

My Uncle Ben (Anna’s husband and my father’s older brother) was, shall we say, a friend of ours. Nothing too extravagant but, you know.

Anyhow, in my young adulthood, I was deeply in love with a beautiful girl named Peggy; she of the golden curly tresses, big green eyes and be-freckled face. As young Queens-dwellers are wont to do, we decided to take the 7 train into Chinatown. As is often the case in the Big City, we were seated at a large round table where there were already customers (a big ten seat table.) The three elder Chinese ladies were not happy with my choice of luncheon companion and it was readily apparent to Peggy and me. Racism and snide comments breach any language barrier. It didn’t really bother us, we enjoyed a snide comment ourselves and it looked like they were wrapping things up anyway.

Suddenly, my Aunt Anna appeared from no where! She was a grand dame of Chinatown and preceded to say hello to just about everyone in the restaurant. When she finally made it to our table she chatted (in Chinese) to our three table friends and then she eventually noticed me and a louder greeting there never was (I don’t see my family often). “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” I introduced her to Peggy and she was so nice and so welcoming to her. Aunt Anna introduced me and Peggy to her friends, our table companions and they (in Chinese) told her how they were talking about how handsome a couple we were (Anna later told me.) After much table side chatter Aunt Anna left and so did our table companions. Maybe 20 minutes later, Peggy and I asked for the bill and our three table companions had already paid it. And that’s the power of my Aunt Anna. It’s one of a few stories I have of her, but I love it.

Thanks Aunt Anna. Rest in Peace.