I would never say that I had a favorite reader. There are so many thoughtful voices and faithful followers, I'd hate to have to choose one.
But Chris Wood is right up there, if only for his regular Facebook posts showing photos of himself, watching the Bears game, enjoying a cigar and an Old Style in his garage—living the life, I tell myself whenever I see him lofting a brew, denied to me by a cruel and vengeful Creator.
So when he asked if I would tell a story I alluded to, about famed columnist Mike Royko threatening to break my legs, well, I gave it a shot. Then sat on it for a week. It was ... I don't know, nostalgic and slight and not up to my professional standards, such as they are.
But it's 9 p.m. on a Monday, and nothing better has presented itself. So here it is, at his request. The blame, of course, is entirely mine.
Tim Weigel invited me to dinner once.
I can't remember why. He drank at the Billy Goat, I drank at the Billy Goat, back in the days when you could still smoke in a bar, and we both did. Cigars. I hazily recall the cigars having something to do with our meeting. We asked each other about the cigars we were smoking, struck up a conversation, talked and drank and smoked cigars.
Anyway, we chatted, and became friends. I remember him coming over to my apartment in East Lake View to attend a cocktail party, in between the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts. I admired the brio of that.
He returned the favor, inviting me and my wife to dinner over at his home. The appointed day and hour came, and we drove to Evanston, where Weigel lived. I had his address written on a piece of paper, but was confused when I arrived at the spot where his house should have been.
Across the street was an enormous baronial mansion. That couldn't be it. Tim read the sports on TV. He wore loud jackets. On the other side of the street, more modest homes. But none the right address. I gazed at the address in my hand, puzzled.
This was in the early 1990s. Before children. Before GPS on cell phones. It had to be summer, because there was a man across the street, mowing his lawn. I approached him. Did Tim Weigel live around here? I asked.
Sure. He pointed at the baronial mansion.
We were greeted at the massive door, and the evening melted away from there. I seem to remember a wife, a radio personality of some sort. Tim had a EuroCave in his dining room—a special refrigerator for wine—that impressed me. We made use of it.
At one point Tim asked me about a certain former colleague of mine who had gone to work for Mike Royko, the top columnist in the city, then and forevermore. The colleague, well, I had better draw the veil here. I gave my opinion, which was not kind.
The conversation would have dissolved into memory but, unbeknownst to me, Tim had hired one of the Billy Goat's part-time bartenders as a bottle washer and general lackey back in his kitchen—an expansive, near-industrial kitchen, I seem to recall—and the bottle washer/lackey overheard that part of the conversation, which I discovered Monday, when the phone in my office rang.
It was Royko's employee. Not happy about my unkind assessment. I'd relate the direct language but, after 25 years, the specifics are lost. What is not is the sense that I had stuck my arm into a cage and it was now being chewed on.
The line went dead. The employee had hung up. I can still recall the oh-I-am-so-screwed feeling in my gut as I held the dead receiver.
I'll be frank; I don't tolerate bad blood well, but like to be at peace with everyone. Tranquility is the old man's milk, as Jefferson said, but certain young men like it too. Pour oil on the waters, I thought, and called back. I would apologize and placate the employee, so as not to hear my name called at the Goat one day, look up and get an ice pick in the eye.
I dialed the number for Royko's office.
Only the employee didn't answer the phone; Mike Royko did. Now he was yelling at me. I only recall two parts of the conversation. One was me pleading, "Aw, c'mon Mike, what has the world come to when a guy can't get tight with friends and bad-mouth the competition." Or words to that effect. And Royko saying that he would break my legs, probably break my fuckin' legs, if ... and I'm not sure what circumstances would trigger that. Maybe if I badmouthed his legman again. Maybe if he saw me again. I'm not sure.
In years to come, I would retell the story anyway, to grab at a certain whiff of authenticity, a kind of contact high. Royko was the real Chicago deal and I crossed paths with him enough for him to threaten me, which had to count for something. It wasn't as good as getting socked, wasn't Bernie Judge throwing a typewriter in the newsroom, but it would have to do.
To be honest, I never had the Royko-envy that so distorted other columnists' work. I would have liked to have had a decent exchange of words with him while he was alive, but quickly realized that it would never happen. After he died, when readers would write to me and tell me that I was no Mike Royko, I would write back and thank them, pointing out that Royko was a mean drunk—often, though he seemed to have his moments of warmth and decency with people who weren't me—and one of his sons ended up robbing a bank. It was an end that I worked quite hard to avoid, still do, and I'm glad someone noticed my success at it up to this point.
That's it. As I said, not much of a story.