Saturday, October 30, 2004

Saga of the Pumpkin, Part II

Having spent the better part of two work days assisting in the scooping of seeds (which roasted quite nicely) and neglecting the class action database, the pumpkin was complete. He sat in front of a simulated Munch sky, his gray head not anything like the classic screaming man. But the hands were at his pate, Home Alone style, and his face was aghast so the possibility did exist that someone might understand the concept (“I have to stop being a perfectionist,” says my coworker, tooting her own bent horn). Anyway, it looked like it took effort, which is all that matters in a pumpkin carving competition. Concept comes second to craftsmanship. The judges of these events most likely have never read any philosophy.

We brought the thing to the lobb, being careful not get the still wet paint on our work attire. As we set up the screaming gourd, I checked out the competition for a second time. A few more pumpkins had been added to the display. One looked pretty damn cool as far as I was concerned. A perfectly round head with a dead look—Xs for eyes and a crooked mouth—was submerged in a blue trash bag full of water. Strewn about the gruesome spectacle were dead flowers and candles. It was the closest anyone in the building had come to creating something disturbing. That, to me, is what Halloween is all about. I proclaimed my love for that pumpkin on the spot.

“Are you crazy?” asked my coworker. “I’m a little offended by that.”

Apparently she was not alone. One of the security guards (a judge) agreed that the display was morbid and strange and should not be included. He said something about kids seeing it. Dear lord, I am so sick of children ruining everything.

They wanted to censor the pumpkin. They thought about it, looked over the rules of the contest and determined that there was no way they could ask that the drowned pumpkin be removed. It wasn’t as though someone had carved a racial slur on the thing. They would just have to be disturbed for a few days.

“It happens,” I said. “I’ve been disturbed my whole life.” No one laughed.

If I were a betting man I’d let it all ride on the Ray Charles pumpkin. The good folks on the sixteenth floor painted Brother Ray’s famous mug on their pumpkin and added a tiny piano and several sketches and photos of the legend, making a simple Halloween contest into a tribute to the recently departed idol. There was no way anyone was going to beat that. Not only was he a revered figure, but he had just died and the damn biopic film was to be released on the day of the judging. Ray was on everyone’s mind already. Scores of yuppies ventured to Starbucks to get a copy of the best of Ray Charles to go with their lattes and scones. They were all afraid of being seen as newcomers to the music of a man they mostly knew only from The Blues Brothers movie. To the judges eyes, not voting for the Ray pumpkin would have been disrespectful, a slap in the face of the great singer. Somewhere up above, a blind piano man was smiling down on 111 West Washington.

One day to go and my coworker and I ventured back to the lobby to see if anyone had anything to say regarding the screaming pumpkin.

“If we win this thing I’m claiming fifty dollars in Starbucks for myself,” she said. I make some remark about not counting our chickens before they hatch. “Oh, we’re wining something,” she said, a bullhead full of ugly confidence.

I looked this woman over. Early thirties—like me, but she looks at least a half dozen years my senior. One working eye from some vague medical condition she developed in her youth. I have heard her tell the story once or twice but can’t recall the details. I usually zone out when she speaks for more than two minutes. Her style of dress walks just behind the current fashions, resulting in a semi contemporary look that is never quite right. She wears a shawl—which is quite trendy at the moment—but on her, as on all the Midwestern white women who have sadly co-opted this look, it is ridiculous. Her face is caked with unnatural looking foundation in an attempt to erase wrinkles and years. Her one good eye sports too much makeup and the other is concealed behind a band-aid patch covered, of course, in face powder. I have no clue as to her original hair color but I know it cannot be the spectrum of highlights and mouse browns falling flatly from her scalp. She says something about all the effort she put into the pumpkin and how she more than any of us deserves the coupons she is sure we will net. I imagine her severed head on one of the display tables, a candle burning behind her empty eye socket, her mouth twisted into a death smile, her checks bloated from the collected fluid and collapsed veins. She would surely make a grand Jack-O-Lantern.


I stumble to the office. It is Friday the 29th of October, judgment day. I am feeling like warmed over slime; my eye is red and itching with what I fear is conjunctivitis (is my coworker contagious?). My head throbs and I yearn for coffee. A quick trip to Starbucks and I’m feeling slightly better. It is true: I am addicted, hooked on the corporate coffee much maligned by my young classmates. Last week I spilled out of Literature class and walked with a newly made friend from academia. I told her I was stopping for a quick cup of Joe and invited her to come along.

“You’re going in there?” she asked, pointing to Starbucks.

“Um… yeah.”

“Oh Vincent, don’t go to Starbucks, come on!”

“Where then? What else is around here?”

“7-11 or Dunkin Donuts, but not Starbucks.”

Head full of college-age ideology, she objected to the corporate coffee franchise, not realizing that Dunkin Donuts and 7-11 are, indeed, corporations themselves. Somehow there is a difference; I must have missed that memo.

But I digress.

A venti coffee and espresso later, I am behind my desk and ready to get back to the database. I like mindless work of this sort. Punch a few names and numbers into a spreadsheet and let the program do the magic. Little effort required. A well trained monkey could excel at this task. Eleven o'clock rolls around and I am on my way to the doctor to get my eye examined.

“What about the competition?” asks my coworker.

“It’ll be here when I get back.”

“I have to leave early today! I’m getting my house ready for a Halloween party! I need someone to be here to find out if we won!”

“I’ll be back, I promise.” I would have imagined ocular complications might generate some sympathy from her.

The doctors have no idea what is wrong with me. It might be pink eye, it might be an abrasion. It might be anything. I am told to stop rubbing my eye, wash my hands as much as I can and call them back on Monday if it does not improve. I return to the office feeling worse than I did before. I am one of those people who feel that if one leaves a doctor’s office without a prescription it was a waste of time.

When I get back to the office I see my voice mail message indicator lit like a Christmas tree. Two messages from my coworker telling me she will be calling back to see if we won. Wow, I would have forgotten had she not left TWO messages. Good thing she covered her bases. Lord knows dumb-ass Vince can’t remember anything unless this shrew is hammering it into his head. My disgust is at its peek and I consider doing something to her office. I could rub my eye and then rub her keyboard, hoping I do have conjunctivitis and it will spread to her good eye, blinding her temporarily. I could do all sorts of nasty things to the sweater she left behind. I could do all of this, but I let my conscience win and just leave her space alone.

2:14 P.M.

We snag third place, behind, of course, Brother Ray and a pumpkin fashioned into a UFO. I am amazed we did that well. My pick of the litter, the drowned head in a bag, did not even get an honorable mention. When I call my coworker and give her the news, she says, “Damn! The first place people will get the Starbucks coupons and we’ll be left with some other crap!”

My eye is sore and begs to be rubbed. Her eye is long gone, taking with it her depth perception but granting her another reason to play martyr. Ray’s eyes are also long gone, but he managed to be a genius without them. The world looks ugly and gray and I wonder if maybe it might look better covered in impenetrable black, like the coffee sitting in the nice white cup.


Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Saga of the Pumpkin, Part I

If you have ever worked in an office, you may be aware of the minor ways in which the powers practice deception. Whatever holiday besets mankind always results in some form of false jocularity manufactured to make the drones of the office forget that they are in hell. Around Christmas time it is inevitable that a tree (most often referred to as the “Holiday Tree” so as to offend) will pop up and a few complimentary coupons to the local convenience store will find their way onto the desks across the work-a-day world. Merry Christmas, enjoy the soda and cigarettes. Please accept this in place of a dental plan or profit sharing. More interesting is the Halloween practice of pumpkin carving, usually presented in the form of a competition.

For the past few years, I have been involved in the office pumpkin carving contest. I don’t know why, since I have no skill in cutting up gourds. I can hardly manage to draw a stick figure much less produce a Jack-O-Lantern of any merit. Still, each year some attorney will decide that my particular brand of “caustic humor” will lend itself to the competition and secure our office first prize. It has yet to happen.

The building presents each office with a fresh pumpkin and a deadline. We have a week to come up with a concept and see it through. First prize this year is $150 dollars in Starbucks coupons. Considering I spend that much on coffee in one week, this is truly a coveted prize.

My ideas never get through. Once I decided to go with a Magritte reference, simply writing, “This is Not a Pumpkin” in French over the orange skin of the bulbous gourd. Sadly, no one in my office or any of the judges cared for my attempts to make a pumpkin into a piece of surreal art. Coworkers have dismissed other ideas as well. I wanted to hack off pieces of a pumpkin and place them around a store bought pumpkin pie. This was vetoed inside of two minutes. Proving myself to be somewhat prophetic, someone else did exactly that and snagged third prize.

This year I suggested my office go with a political theme and carve George W. Bush’s face into the pumpkin. From there, we could set up a tarp and invite the viewers to spit on the pumpkin or deface it in whatever way they saw fit. At the end of the competition, we would smash the thing with a baseball bat, much to what I believed would be the delighted eyes of the judges. I was thinking big. Normally I am not this politically active, but it seemed to me that a lot of people would rally around the concept. Hell, it may have even made the back page of some college rag. Predictably, my suggestion was rejected.

In place of my idea, a coworker decided to cut the thing up to look like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”. While I am fan of his expressionist works, it seems as though it has been done before. Still, it is better than the witch idea they went with last year.

As I toil in the fields of lawyerland, people buzz about my workspace painting the hollowed Halloween icon and looking for highlighters and markers, all to try and reproduce the classic image of a man screaming in front of a fiery sky. I am anxious to see the result. Early this morning, I went downstairs with my colleague to take a gander at the first entries. So far, there are only three that we must topple. The first is a classic triangle eyes and jagged mouth design, the second looks like a turkey and the third is painted and affixed with butterfly wings.

Quote my ambitious coworker: “I’m scared. That bug is going to be tough to beat.”

We shall see.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004


A note taped to the street light on the corner of Ogden and Polk:

“My god, my earth goddess, our family has a night crier, gentlemen read this, she has deep sleep through the nights.

“My god, my earth goddess, our family has a night crier, gentlemen read this, she has deep sleep through the nights.

“My god, my earth goddess, our family has a night crier, gentlemen read this, she has deep sleep through the nights.”

I love my city.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Rock Star Club

In the years since the 20th century turned into the 21st, I have tried my best to remain faithful to my old lover, rock and roll. Sadly, it has been difficult. She has come back to me in the guise of a cheap harlot or, at best, a sad, tired hag. The radio is a graveyard of nostalgia and recycling and, when it comes to music, I have little patience for either.

Rock and Roll is dying and I guess I don’t really care. It’s hard to, given the current crop of bands that crouch under this umbrella. For Christ’s sake, I heard a song by Hoobastank—a band everyone, including Rolling Stone, is falling over themselves to celebrate—and it made me physically ill. It’s the Strokes all over again. Every few years some band comes around and the irrelevant magazines bend over for them and try and convince the less savvy that they are the saviors of rock and roll. If this is true, I say let the bitch die already.

I admit: my tastes lean toward the strange. I love experimentation in music. I consider Mr. Bungle and the Boredoms to be the best music to come out of the 90’s. Over the course of 2004, I have listened to The Conet Project, Phillip Glass and Shut Up, Little Man! more than I have listened to my Van Halen or even Naked Raygun CD’s. I think Japanese noise projects like Merzbow have something to say. The most conventional band I listen to on a regular basis is Blonde Redhead. So yeah, at the risk of sounding like some avant-garde snob, I think I have pretty odd discs in my library. Some call my taste in music weird, I call it refined.

This being the case, I must put the band Rock Star Club high on my list of favorites, not of this year, not of this generation, but of all time. Their music consistently moves me and makes me remember that rock and roll is capable of being something quite extraordinary. In a bland FM world of the sickeningly ordinary, this is quite a statement. They make honest music without pretension, without irony and without ego. Okay, the live show has some ego and the stage attire might suggest subtle irony, but I don’t feel the need to retract the previous statement. Rock Star Club is the only band that can play a show in cowboy hats and throw up devil signs and make it seem genuine. When they say, “Give us 30 minutes and we’ll give you the best rock show you’ve seen all year” I not only believe it, I believe they believe it. Is this arrogant? Well, Ali said, “It ain’t bragging if it’s true.” Having seen the Club perform many times, I can say that it ain’t bragging.

I first caught wind of this amazing band in 1999 when Loyola’s radio station played as much of the classic America Needs Rock Star Club as they could without violating FCC regulations. It planted the seed that would become an obsession, culminating with The Entertainer, a disc I have played so many times it has become the soundtrack to my early 30’s. The first night I got the CD I played it 13 times in a row. No foolin'. I was (to use a cliché, which is really the only appropriate way to convey this) blown away by the power of the songs, the introspective lyrics, the honest-to-god delivery and the tight structure of every moment of the record. Every song flows brilliantly into the next and each listen gets better. I was inspired to contact these local gods and gush like the fan boy creep I was (am).

I had the grand pleasure of interviewing 3/4’s the band before a show at Subterranean. We shared beers and I let them ramble for a few hours, after which they took the stage and played one of the best shows I have ever seen. Somehow I managed to whittle down the evening’s chaos into a printable interview, which can be read here:

2004 brings to the world a new release from this mammoth band. Bienvenidos a Grand y Western consists of five songs showcasing a part of Chicago tourists don’t see. It is a document of love to the Ukrainian Village, the food, the people and the joy of the deceptively simple music known as rock and roll. A tight, professional recording of some damn fine music, it is a welcome addition to the Rock Star Club cannon. It features the song “Short Arm”, a favorite of mine that I have been hearing for years at shows. Thankfully, I now have a recorded version to call my own. Follow my example and get your own copy.

I have done my best to share with the world what remains something of a secret. I have made copies of the Club’s music for friends, bought them CDs and begged them to join me at concerts. I have told just about everyone I know about the band. I have interviewed them and reviewed their CDs for Night Times, hoping that the few people who go to that site would buy a CD and tell their friends. I don’t know that I have made a difference, but I’ve tried. And I will continue to do so as long as these guys continue making amazing music.

As long as Rock Star Club exists I’ll say it: long live rock and roll. Go to and join the RSC Army.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Copywrite, me.

The problem with guys like Picasso is that they spread themselves too thin. When I first met the guy he was trying to be a painter. After a few years of minor success and tremendous failure, he switched to photography but not without trying his hand at music, writing poems and even a little bit of acting. I can't really say if he had any talent as a painter, but I do know that he was absolutely dreadful in every other artistic pursuit. He should have just stuck to painting. He might have gotten somewhere. Anyway, he seemed good at conning a bunch of people into believing that he was a genuine artist, and I guess that’s all that really matters. It’s not how good you are, it’s how good others think you to be. Maybe.

This problem of spreading oneself too thin translates into everyone's life. I'm no different. I have tried and failed at just about everything there is. I was a lousy cab driver, a laughable dockworker, and a train wreck as a postal employee. I was once a college student, but a monkey might have had more success. The hard reality is that I have never been much good at anything with one distinct exception: I was quite good at working for Virgil. His directions were vague, his motives suspect, but he always sent me to where I needed to be.

I was actually quite good at doing drugs. I feel I should mention that.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Blonde Redhead

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson, one of my favorite living authors, madwoman of the modern novel, creator of at least one book that made me shiver and nearly cry, has her own web site. This excites me. Here are some nice bits. Read them, and more, in full at

“Do we trivialise our lives? Do we get lost in the trivial at the expense of the real? The media does good work reporting world news, but we’d have to admit that most of the rest of what fills papers and TV, is not the stuff of sanity. How much celebrity gossip do we need?”

“I want to spend less time in England because I am upset by our anti-Europeanism, and of course, by Blair and his Bush-mongering. I still do not believe that the war was right, or that Britain should have been part of it. For women in Iraq, the situation appears to be worse than it was under Saddam. True, a lot of fuss is being made of the 25% allocation of seats to women on the ruling council, but as Iraq’s population is 60% woman, this is hardly proportional representation.

Women are being forced back into the home and into wearing the full-length burkha. We have to remember that before Saddam came to power, Iraq was the most progressive of the Middle Eastern States. Even under Saddam, women had equal opportunities, not that anyone had much in the way of any opportunity. Saddam’s Iraq was secular; the new Iraq is turning fiercely Fundamentalist.

Which is a long way round of me saying that I admire France for taking a stand against the war and against the USA. There is much about the USA that I love, but it is not good for one country to hold such power unopposed. The great strength of Europe is that it is not a vast continent, but a group of countries. There must be debate, there must be division of opinion. I don’t want to live in Little America, I want to live in Europe and to be European - that means debate.”

“I continually break my narratives. Nothing depresses me more than seeing a page with no breaks in it. It's such a lot to read, apart from anything else. I like the spaces and the pauses that you can make. I think it's also important to offer these forceful interruptions to people's concentration, because the problem with a running narrative is that people skip. We all do. You're looking for the story. The language becomes something which simply conveys meaning, and not something in its own right. I believe it should be something in its own right, and that it needs to be concentrated on, just in the way that poetry does, without looking for the next bit of the story. Otherwise reading becomes faintly pornographic doesn't it? Because you just look for the next bit of excitement. So what I try to do always, is remind the reader that they are reading. That this is something which demands concentration. It's not like watching television.”

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Tom Waits: A Personal History

Quite possibly the only musician whose work I continually go back to, Tom Waits has always been there for me and is back strong. I first heard his brand of quasi-beatnik jazz as a child when my uncle spun me his copy of Nighthawks at the Diner. It sounded unlike anything I had ever heard. The record is pretty much Tom with a small jazz combo scatting and laying down half-drunken poetry in the all American tradition of his then hero, Kerouac. As an eleven-year-old boy, this should not have impacted me in the least. I should have gone about my Van Halen worshipping and forgotten all about the gravel-voiced bohemian singing about eggs and sausage and the El train sounding like the ghost of Gene Krupa with an overhead cam and glass packs.

This was the year 1984. My brother and I, both thoroughly amused by our impression of Tom Waits, found a cassette copy of Nighthawks and also saw that Mr. Waits had a new release called Swordfistrombones. I bought a copy of that as well. Anyone familiar with Tom’s music knows that these two records are eons apart and in two completely different universes. Needless to say, I was none too impressed with Mr. Waits’ other offering.

Cut to 1989. Rediscovering Swordfishtrombones, and coming to the conclusion that it was a work of genius, led me to what would become my favorite record of perhaps all time, Rain Dogs. By the time Bone Machine came out, I was fully obsessed with all things Tom Waits. I bought hats so I could look like Tom. I drank bourbon and chain smoked. I threw away so many guitar driven 80’s records in favor of jazz and the avant-garde. I dreamt of jumping into a half-dead convertible and gunning it down the freeway toward New Orleans. I quoted Tom endlessly, raising a glass and toasting, “Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends.”

Following the landmark Bone Machine-- with its junk yard orchestra and found percussion sounds coming straight from the farm where there was, indeed, a murder in the red barn-- came The Black Rider. One of my friends described this as the most hopeless record he’d ever had the pleasure of discovering. I don’t know that I agree, but The Black Rider is certainly a dark, strange recording full of those chances and daring arrangements that typify Waits’ Island recordings. Some see it as bleak, others as merely playful, but just about everyone agrees that it is something special. What could be better than a Faustian musical written by Waits based on text by William S. Burroughs and staged by Robert Wilson? Answer: not much, goddamnit. At that point, I thought Tom could do no wrong.

And then came Mule Variations. A lackluster record full of self-parody, I never really cottoned on to this CD. I was mostly grateful that it resulted in Tom touring and coming to Chicago. Sure, those songs sounded a lot better live, but going back to the source never seemed an option. Every time I heard “Eyeball Kid” or “Big In Japan” I remembered the initial disappointment and that realization that no one is infallible. I was prepared to be let down by parents, friends, lovers, presidents and god, but hearing that CD was like learning there is no Santa Claus. When Alice and Blood Money came out on the same day I was thrilled, but (both better than Mule Variations) that one-two punch was still more like a couple of near misses.

I suppose it is important to never have expectations. The Epitaph/Anti records had let me down and so I did not get all aflutter over the news that Real Gone was coming. I read advanced reviews and took in the words I have so often seen associated with Tom Waits. Raspy vocals, eclectic arrangements, songs about farms, the circus and soldiers-- in short, a collection full of, as Waits’ wife and collaborator likes to say, Grim Reapers and Grand Weepers. I had the madman Xtop fish the record from the oh so plentiful internet and burn me a copy. Now, Xtop is a big fan of Mule Variations and Alice. He does not seem to understand my disappointment. We differ on this point, but I think we both agree that Real Gone is the strongest Waits recording in many goddamn years.

I cannot fully express how happy this disc makes me. “Hoist that Rag” is blissful noise with Waits barking those three words and sounding more menacing then any death metal vocalist. “Sins of My Father” is eleven minutes of quiet reckoning and dark exploration. “Top of the Hill”, “Don’t Go Into That Barn” and “Shake It” all move around Waits’ beat-boxing chants like snakes slithering through black blood. Even “Circus”, a song akin to so many spoken word curiosities for which Waits is famous, is a fresh source of oddball fun. I usually grow to dislike these offerings, as Waits will never top “9th and Hennepin” in my book, but “Circus” comes a lot closer then “What’s He Building?” Songs like “Green Grass” and “Make it Rain” elevate me, as I know they will regardless of what will happen in my life, insuring that I will always have a friend in Tom Waits. They are already up there for me, in that same lofty place as “Jockey Full of Bourbon”, “Tango ‘till They’re Sore”, “Shore Leave”, “Ruby’s Arms”, “Anywhere I Lay My Head”, “Black Wings”, “Invitation to the Blues”, “Temptation”, “I’ll Shoot the Moon”, and “Strange Weather”. I am ashamed that my love for Waits waned slightly these past years. Tom, please forgive me. Take me back into your twisted arms. I'll gladly meet you by the knuckles of the skinny boned tree.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Rodney Passes On

"I had this joke: `I played hide and seek; they wouldn't even look for me.' To make it work better, you look for something to put in front of it: I was so poor, I was so dumb, so this, so that. I thought, `Now what fits that joke?' Well, `No one liked me' was all right. But then I thought, a more profound thing would be, `I get no respect.'"

Rest in peace, funny man.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Don't we all?

Just now, this very hour, I went to Starbucks (I’m not proud of it, I just wanted some coffee) and heard a little old man with a thick, African accent yell across the room, “I want passion!”

Apparently this is the name of one Starbucks’ teas. Still, I thought his statement was quite appropriate.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

E. M. Cioran

From The Trouble With Being Born:

"I have always sought out landscapes that proceeded God. Whence my weekness for Chaos."

"If instead of expanding you, putting you in a state of energetic euphoria, your ordeals depress and embitter you, you can be sure you have no spiritual vocation."

"Every friendship is an inconspicuous drama, a series of subtle wounds."

"Write books only if you are going to say in them the things you would never dare confide to anyone."

"The more you live, the less useful it seems to have lived."

"Not to be born is undoubtedly the best plan of all. Unfortunately it is within no one's reach."