Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Mike & me

     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. 
Tim Weigel
     Now Weigel was a bright and affable man. He had gone to Yale, surprising for a journalist, never mind a TV sports personality. He had also been movie critic Gene Siskel's roommate. 
    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. 
Mike Royko
    Oh. Right. Television. Sports. I can be so naive sometimes. 
     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. 


  1. I know this column is primarily a nostalgic stroll through Roykoland, but for me the interesting part is the part about drinking and smoking and watching football in the garage. I remember beer. I don't miss it or any other kind of alcohol. I remember tobacco. I don't miss any form of it. I remember the Bears. They used to play football. I can't really say that I miss football either. Now hanging out in the garage I understand. I have a 15 year old garage and a 107 year old house. Guess which I'll miss if I ever move. Priorities.

    1. I still love beer, cigars and the Bears.

    2. The Bears abstinence is probably temporary for me. They can't suck forever. What I really miss is basketball. Too bad the Bulls aren't playing this year. The alcohol and tobacco I'm done with. Same creator that built Neil. Probably slapped both of us together on a Monday. Too bad the lemon-law doesn't apply.

  2. As I was reading it seemed, oh no a story of unprovable sexual harassment allegations. Well I have an off topic story, where I managed to scare the living daylights out of a young lady. One morning the office was empty when a manufacturers sales rep stopped by to drop of a catalog and datasheets. The neighborhood wasn't too bad but because homeless people had a tendency to wander in I always lock the door, it was a deadbolt with no latch. We talked a bit, and I left for a few minutes to the back room and got an inventory list. We said our goodbyes, she was shaking like a leaf when we shook hands, well someone had too much coffee that morning. Unlocking the door she pushed past me and ran away, well someone was late for their next appointment. At that time we had sublet a section of our front office to our accountant, whose parents had recently passed away. His apartment wasn't big enough to hold all the possessions, so he was sorting through boxes in the office. Later I noticed he had set out collector plates with paintings of teary eyed clowns holding balloons. This was at a time when morbid details of John Wayne Gacy were in the news. She probably thought I was a serial killer, fortunately for me there were no repercussions.

  3. Replies
    1. No longer there. I heard from the employee in question and, well, I'm just not that big of a bastard that I can withstand a heartfelt plea for mercy. I didn't imagine the person in question would either find out or care. But I was wrong.

    2. Understood. Classy and compassionate choice.

    3. Wow, bummer. Glad I got to see the original version, but it's nice that you changed it. Coey was right about that kicker at the end though -- that was cherce!

    4. Wow. Takes some of the oomph out of the story, but goes to show you how popular your blog has become. And what a nice guy you are after all.


  4. Bernies story in the comments is funnier ! I loved Roykos column and writing, I have a real fondness for newspaper columnists - but I knew enough guys like that to know there had to be rough edges people glossed over. Everyone has some, some are much worse than others.

  5. Royko could be a mean prick, both professionally and personally. And, as with so many who are creatively slashing with their insults, he was pathologically intolerant of the least criticism directed at himself.

    That said, I would spend a lot of money I can't really afford just to see two or three columns from him about Trump and his supporters.

    1. I think our guy can slash with the best of them and is far superior to Royko in his ability to absorb constructive criticism and ward off the destructive variety. Royko at his best could not better Steinberg in condemning Trump and his quislings, even if he does spare an unfortunate helpless ignoramus from time to time.


  6. "A mean drunk." I've known a few who were mean only when not drunk. The old problem of confounding the creator with his work. One of the Mitford girls reported that Herr Hitler was always a charming host. And that Field Marshal Goering was always the life of the party.


  7. Long-time lurker and native Chicagoan, with a Royko story that's I had to attempt to post. Worked in the old S-t/CDN "wire room" (the early faxes and the clattering teletypes) in the mid-Seventies, until the CDN went under in '78. Saw Royko almost every shift, but never had the nerve to talk to him when he held court in the newsroom...too intimidating, too much like the Mafosi "boys" that one of my connected uncles knew. Closest I ever got to Royko was side-by-side in the men's room at the Goat, where the "mean drunk" also had that famous stool with his name on it. Nobody ever dared to sit on it. One night, a Trib pressman did so. Mike walked in. Trib guy wouldn't vacate. Royko got physical, and had his clock cleaned. True story.

  8. I don't think we need Royko to help criticize Trump. It's too easy. I would like to see the Gun Owner of the Year award come back. What, we can make fun of gun-loving idiots? Used to be able to.


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