Great Gatsby Roulette

It was May of my senior year in college. Everybody was coasting, knowing either what they were going to be doing the next year, or that they’d be doing nothing. Except for one guy, Tom.

Tom had been accepted at medical school–Harvard, no less–so his future was pretty much mapped out for him, assuming he graduated from college first. Med schools are funny that way. They make you dot your “i’s” and cross your “t’s” before they let you cut body parts off cadavers and stick them in the purses of the secretaries.

Fitzgerald: “The road to med school goes through me.”


And so as we assembled for one of our last nights of drug-enhanced conviviality, we felt a general sense of relief and hopeful anticipation–except for Tom, whose face was clouded by a look that suggested he had a lot of work left to do.

“What’s eating you?” somebody finally asked.

”I need to finish one course in the humanities to graduate,” he said.

“So–what’s the big deal?” came the question from one to whom a course in literature was a day at the beach.

“I need to write a paper on The Great Gatsby,” Tom said.

“Christ, I’ve probably read that book for three courses the past four years,” said somebody else.

“Well I haven’t,” Tom said.

“Haven’t what?” I asked. “Haven’t read it three times?”

“Haven’t read it at all,” Tom said sheepishly.

Like many pre-med students, Tom had spent so much time taking organic chemistry and other hard science courses that he hadn’t had time to take any electives to round out his personality, and his heavy load of classes, labs, shooting pool, going to the race track and Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park and staying up all night playing poker had left him little time to read for pleasure.

“You’ve only got, like, two days, right?” a guy named Alan asked.

“One,” Tom replied, like a prisoner on death row who’s just finished his last meal.

A collective gulp of five Adam’s apples was heard. “You have to read it and write a paper about it . . . tonight?

He was silent for a moment. “You got it.”

The gloom that had, just a moment before, been one man’s burden spread like a contagious disease on the wings of a sneeze. We all felt terrible for Tom, but we were on the South Side of Chicago, home of Saul Alinsky, inspiration to generations of radicals and later even a President of the United States!

Saul Alinsky


What we had learned from the example of Alinsky was that there was a time for talk, and a time for radical social action to improve the everyday lives of ordinary people. We looked at each other and at Tom’s downcast head and as if by telepathy, formed a common purpose.

“We’ll help you write your paper!” someone said emphatically.

“Yeah–all of us–together!” said another.

“Guys–I couldn’t ask you to . . .” Tom began, but I cut him off. “You were there for me in Rocks and Stars,” the elementary science course for English majors, I said. “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have gotten that B that kept my grade point average where it needs to be in case I ever figure out what I’m going to do with my life.”

“You gotta work the shirt scene in there somewhere.”


Tom looked around the room and we could see his eyes misting over. “You–you would do that for me?” he asked, a lump in his throat.

“You’d do it for us, if you’d read the book and we hadn’t and we had screwed around like you and left the paper to the last minute,” somebody said.

By now Tom’s eyes were red. “You guys–you’re the greatest!” he said. He’d had a few beers.

“C’mon,” a guy named Bates said. “No time for emoting–we’ve got a lot of writing to do.”

As the only guy in the room who had mastered touch typing, I was assigned the role of scrivener. I loaded a manual typewriter with a sheet of white paper, rolled it up, and centered it for the title.

“Okay–’The Great Gatsby–colon,” I said. “What comes next, and it has to be a question.”

“Why’s that?” Tom asked.

“Because if it’s a question, you don’t have to have a thesis,” Bates said. “You’re just raising an issue . . . ”

” . . . for consideration by future generations of scholars,” said a guy named Jack.

“Uh, let’s see–Threat or Menace?” I offered.

“Too sociological. How about–’Process or Event’?” Jack suggested.

“You used that for your Haymarket Anarchist Bombing paper,” Bates said. “What about–’Icon or Shibboleth’?”

“Great,” I said and typed it in. “Okay–we’ve got to be organized, otherwise you’re going to drive me crazy,” I said. “We’ll go around the room–Russian Roulette style–and take turns. One sentence per person, then on to the next–okay?”

“I’m in,” said Bates, as he put on the Jefferson Airplane’s “Crown of Creation” album at a volume just slightly below the level that would attract the attention of a resident assistant.

“You really think that’s a good idea?” Tom said. “Don’t we have to like–concentrate?”

“Dude, you took too many science classes,” Bates said. “This is how creative-types do their thing.”

“First sentence–somebody, anybody,” I called out.  Bates had already taken a few tokes on a reefer on the quad below, so his creative juices were flowing freely.

“Uh, ‘The Great Gatsby is a seminal work that calls attention to, and plays upon, class distinctions that are customarily submerged beneath the surface in America due to the leveling pressure of democratic principles.’”

“Great start!” I exclaimed as I tapped out the opening lines. “Next.”

“The narrator, young Nick Carraway, serves as the . . . uh . . . sounding board for Fitzgerald’s critique of the American dream, as he is alternately attracted to and repulsed by the materialism with which Gatsby has surrounded himself,” Alan said.

“Got it–who’s next?”

“I guess me,” Jack said. ‘Carraway is sucked into’ . . .”

“Scratch that,” Bates said. “Not high-toned enough. Say ‘Carraway is drawn into Gatsby’s life’–something like that.”

“Okay,” Jack said, a bit peevishly I thought. Pride of authorship. “‘Carraway is drawn into Gatsby’s life because he is second cousin to Daisy Buchanan, whom Gatsby desires because she is from a social class above his, and thus unattainable.”

I looked over at Tom as I typed and noticed that his mouth was hanging open. “You guys are–incredible!” he said, a big smile on his face.

“Why don’t you take a turn?” Bates asked, as he passed the joint to Tom.

“Me? But . . . I only read the first chapter!”

“That’s enough man–go ahead,” Bates said. “Give it a shot!”

Tom inhaled, held his breath for a moment, then opened his mouth to allow the smoke to escape, along with these words. “In this respect, Daisy represents the American Dream, always luring us onward, always receding as we draw near it.”

Arnold Rothstein, fictionalized as Meyer Wolfsheim


“See–you don’t need to read the book,” I said. “It’s in the air you breathe.”

We continued in that vein for several hours until we had collectively banged out three pages–double-spaced, inch-and-a-half margins–of the most bogus symbol-spotting literary claptrap that ever issued from the mind of an American undergraduate. As we wrapped things up with the obligatory analytical pecking and poking at the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, I pulled the last sheet of paper out of the typewriter, and everyone gathered around to admire our work.

“You know,” Bates said as took a final hit on what was left of the joint, “it’s true what they say about art having a cathartic effect.”

“Yeah,” Tom said. He was a little blissed out, but recovered enough to realize he may have missed something. “What exactly does that mean?”

“I dunno,” Bates said. “But it sounded good.”

Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Chicago: Not Just for Toddling Anymore.”

Quitting Smack

It was the early 70’s. The Vietnam War was just coming off its peak, and the traffic of young men back and forth between America and Southeast Asia brought new, cheap and exotic goods back to the states for consumption by those deferred, rejected or too young to fight. The products of that trade consisted primarily of stereo equipment–cool-looking Pioneer brand speakers were one particularly hot item–and heroin.

Listen to Blue Cheer through these bad boys and your brain will never be the same.


I was introduced to heroin–a/k/a smack, junk–by my friend Bobby, when we worked at his father’s appliance store. Bobby had a big brother Tommy, who was right in the middle of the draftable bandwith. Tommy knew more than his share of servicemen returned or on leave from Vietnam, and one day Bobby surprised me in the delivery truck by unfolding an aluminum foil package containing brown powder.

“Dig this,” he said, or something similarly prideful as he showed me the stuff.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Heroin–from Vietnam. You want to try some?”

I knew of the dangers of heroin–addiction, a life of crime and so forth. On the other hand, a number of the men and women I looked up to were known users, current or former: Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Lenny Bruce, Keith Richards, Durward Kirby, William Burroughs, Ben Franklin.

Ben Franklin, stone junkie.


Just kidding; I threw Durward Kirby in there just to make sure you hadn’t nodded off. As junkies are wont to do.

“Will I get . . . hooked?” I asked nervously.

“No way, not from one snort.”

That sounded promising. “You mean you don’t have to shoot it up?”

“Nope. Tommy tells me up the nose is the safe, easy responsible way to take heroin.”

That sounded good to me, but we had a refrigerator to deliver, so I stopped him as he rolled up a dollar bill. “You’re going to do it now–before the last install?” I asked.

Bobby’s face took on a look of deep thought as he considered the issue of timing. “I don’t know. I think it’s like acid or pot–it takes a while to kick in. I think we should do it beforehand.”

“We’ll have you set up in a jiffy, Mrs. McKelvey . . . bluagh!”


I figured he knew what he was doing–he was the crazy one, after all, not me–so we took turns snorting lines of equal volume, then drove over to the house of an old woman who’d bought a brand, spanking new frost-free refrigerator.

We got the appliance out of the truck, with me pulling the dolly and Tommy doing his best to avoid heavy lifting; I, after all, was the former middle linebacker, while he was the kind of kid who’d lie on his stomach while everybody else was doing push-ups in gym class.

We got the refrigerator up the porch stairs when I felt even the semblance of effort from Tommy’s end cease. I heard a noise like a sink backing up, and saw Tommy puking his guts out over the railing onto the shrubs below.

“Jesus–are you all right?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” He leaned against the rail, whiter than the underbelly of a trout, and tried to collect himself.

“You’re not going to die or anything, are you?”

“No, I feel better now. Must have been the cheeseburger I ate for lunch.”

I looked at him to make sure, then rang the doorbell. At this point, I was clearly the more presentable of the two representatives of the appliance store on the porch.

The old woman greeted us and showed us into the kitchen, where what should have been a routine hook-up job was made more difficult by the effects of the drug that supplies pushers around the globe with their daily bread.

“Would you boys like some lemonade?” I recall her saying as I tried to properly position the refrigerator, using a bubble level. My guess is given my condition, she never saw a well-formed ice cube out of her freezer compartment until the day she died.

“No ma’am, but thanks,” I said, trying to bring the transaction to a conclusion. I got her to sign the receipt and we headed off to the truck, with Tommy a festive combination of green, blue and white hues.

Bob Seger


We went back to Tommy’s place–his parents weren’t home–and listened to “Stone Junkie” by Curtis Mayfield, over and over. I don’t think it was by choice; back in the day, as they say, a properly screwed-up record player would repeat an album over and over again until you got up to turn it off. Which, if you’re on heroin, you’re incapable of doing.

That was the sort of trouble you could get into in a small town in the summer, surrounded by kids who were, in the words of the Bob Seger song of the time, young and restless and bored. When I returned to college at the University Chicago in the fall, I genuinely believed I would never get near the stuff again, but I fell in with a bad crowd; pre-med students.

There is probably no more daring group of drug consumers among the undergraduates of this country than the boys who will some day become men with the power to dispense pharmaceutical products to average schmoes like you and me. Their willingness to risk their lives by exposing themselves to drugs in varying dosages, or dubious purity, and unknown origin is admirable. By the time they get their long white coats and stethoscopes they will have sampled just about every item in the Physician’s Desk Reference pharmacopoeia–and then some. It’s almost saintly, when you think about it; these guys wouldn’t expose a patient to a substance they hadn’t tried–in highly excessive quantities–first.

I had immediate credibility with the Doogie Howsers avant la lettre; I had not only taken heroin, I’d installed a major, big-ticket item “white goods” appliance while under its influence. I wasn’t some tyro, I was–as Jimi Hendrix might say–experienced. A drug kingpin among mere wanton boys.

Leopold and Loeb: I named my cats after them.


Why, you might ask, was a group of high-SAT scoring undergraduates driven to such desperate pastimes? I can’t answer that. Perhaps it was because we lived in the dormitory that had housed Leopold and Loeb, the UofC thrill-killers whom Clarence Darrow spared from the electric chair after their botched attempt to commit the perfect crime. With that sort of aura permeating the halls, you needed to do something more dramatic than play “Gimme Shelter” so loud the graduate dorm monitor told you to turn it down in order to assert your innately stupid young manhood.

Curtis Mayfield


But these guys were serious technicians, not two kids slurping stuff up their noses in a delivery van. They had hypodermic needles and syringes, and could calibrate dosages with precision. I trusted them the way you trust your family doctor. If your family doctor sells controlled substances out the back door.

And so I became–off and on, over a period of months–a more-or-less regular user of heroin. You learned to spot other users; the willowy blond in 20th Century French Drama with the little bruises on her feet, where she had to shoot up because she couldn’t find a vein in the crook of her arm and didn’t want the marks to show on her hands. We had gone out on a couple of dates the year before–then she discovered she knew more about jazz than I did. She ended up becoming an anchorwoman in L.A.

With that descent into the hell of heroin, dramatic changes in my life occurred. I got involved in a steady relationship for the first time in years. My grades improved dramatically; straight A’s in Aesthetics and Ethics–bringing me closer to Phi Beta Kappa than I’d ever been before. Those hopes were dashed when I earned my customary B in Genetics, but I had an excuse–my high school biology teacher had gone walkabout when he suddenly came down with amnesia. When my girlfriend broke up with me, a girl I’d been friends with in high school sent me a postcard saying she was coming through town, and we hooked up. I was rolling in it; the Big H, horse, whatever you wanted to call it–it was like pixie dust!

But despite all the positive changes that heroin produced in my life, I knew I couldn’t continue to use it as a crutch that helped me focus on my studies and improve my interpersonal skills. For me, smack had one fatal flaw; it was expensive, and was starting to crimp my budget for record albums. That’s right; the most powerfully-addictive drug known to man was no match for my deep-seated cheapness.

And so I sit before you–actually, before my computer–clean and sober tonight. Straight edge, hard core, as they say. I went cold turkey and got the monkey off my back, to mix my animal metaphors. I can laugh about it now, sure, but back then it was a serious thing. I still can’t believe how close I came to a life of complete and utter degradation, dissolution, and depravity.

If I’d done just a little better in Genetics, today I’d be one of those dorks wearing a Phi Beta Kappa key in his lapel.

Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Chicago: Not Just for Toddlin’ Anymore.”

Talkin’ Feline Leopold & Loeb Blues

In Chicago town, I had two cats;
Kittens, sprightly, genuine brats.
I named them for thrill killers known ‘round the globe
by their last names only: Leopold and Loeb.


At night they’d crawl into bed with me–
had no girlfriend then, there was lots of space free.
And there they would cuddle, seeking warmth from the cold,
two tuxedo felines, named Loeb and Leopold.

One night one of them—I can’t remember which–
decided to snuggle so tight that I itched.
I asked him what gave, and out the words came:
“So how exactly did we come by our names?”


I inhaled a bit, the moment had come:
They were now in their teens, I couldn’t play dumb.
I propped each one upon a knee
and recounted how their monikers came to be.

“Long ago,” I began, “in the Windy City,
A crime was committed that wasn’t pretty.
Two students at the college that I now attend
Decided a young boy’s life to end.”


They gasped, horror-stricken, and looked at each other;
They were incredulous, the two be-whiskered brothers.
“Why’d they do that?” one of them asked,
while the other looked on, completely aghast.

“They wanted to prove that they were so smart
that they could perfect the murderer’s art.
They both possessed brains of the sort you well know;
The type that attends the U of Chicago.”


They knew in an instant whereof I had spoken;
They’d heard bon mots that I spent like tokens,
Offending acquaintances both left and right
With callous disregard on a dinner party night.

“Say no more,” Leopold said.
“I know exactly why the kid’s dead.
O’erweening intelligence, a shrunken heart,
You guys think you’re soooo damn smart.”


“Yeah,” said Loeb.  “They thought it was funishment
to make like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment.
“Your undergrad Supermen read too much Dostoevsky,
Instead they should imitate Alexander Nevsky.”

That’s the kind of cats I was raising;
Moral, upstanding, platitude-praising.
Or at least that’s the impression they like to leave
when you walked in the door from a drunken eve.

“Excuse me,” I said, with uncommon candor,
“You’re in no position to utter this slander.”
Their whiskers bristled, they took offense,
I couldn’t believe cats could be so dense.


“And what,” asked Loeb, “do you mean by that?”
Have you ever been grilled by such a cat?
“I mean just this,” I said with aplomb,
And then I dropped my behavioral bomb:

“Men and cats are the only two sort
who will kill another animal purely for sport,
So before you roll your eyes at me there,
Take a look in the mirror at the cats you see there.”

They were taken aback, and then back some more.
The circled their bods ‘round my apartment floor.
And then they sheepishly admitted their vice:
“Well, we do like to play with those stupid mice.”

Moral:  Those who live in cat houses shouldn’t throw stones.

As Families Tighten Belts, “Distressed” Jeans Feel the Pinch

OAK PARK, Illinois. Martha Reznik is the mother of a teenaged son, Todd, whose summer growth spurt means a trip to the mall for new clothes as the school year looms ahead. “He shot up like a weed,” she says as she picks through sale items on a display table inside Lochner’s, an off-price retailer here. “We tried spraying him with Round-Up,” the popular weed and grass killer, she notes, ”but it apparently doesn’t work on similes.”

Todd’s dad is between jobs following a round of layoffs at Modern Moosehead Indemnity Company, the insurance company where he worked for ten years, so the family needs to cut back in an area that is sacred to Todd; “distressed”-look clothing that has been pre-washed, torn or otherwise made to appear as if it has already been worn or damaged.

Roundup: Works only on literal, not figurative weeds.


“Mom, you don’t understand,” Todd says as his mother throws a non-distressed t-shirt priced at $4.99 into her cart, rejecting a Chicago Bears throwback distressed shirt that retails for $24.99. “If my clothes look new, the other kids will think I’m poor.”

Brand, spanking-new faded, worn-appearance t-shirt.


“Honey, we need to cut back,” Martha says consolingly to her anxious son, for whom matters of social status among his peers are far more important than the mere legal tender it would take to keep him in fashion.

He grudgingly concedes on the t-shirt, hoping to maintain some shred of dignity when it comes to the most important item in any teenaged boy’s wardrobe–his blue jeans. “My jeans are a reflection of who I am,” he says to this reporter, who pretends to care. “If they don’t look like I worked in them for three years in some blue-collar job while listening to Bruce Springsteen, the kids who drive BMW’s to school will look down their noses at me.”

Ashley: “Sorry Todd. I could never go out with someone who can’t afford to buy expensive genuine fake
po’ boy jeans!”


But his mother is insistent, and passes up a pair of Seven7 Distressed Jeans marked down to $49 for a pair of Dickies, the style worn by working men with actual jobs, for $16.

“Mom, you can’t!” Todd groans, but his mother ignores him as she heads towards the winter coats, passing up a $159 scuffed bomber jacket for a similar but less stylish model for $72. “Ashley”–Todd’s girlfriend–”is going to dump me if she sees me wearing new-looking clothes. Don’t make me!”

It’s a “teaching moment” for the mother, who puts her hand on her son’s shoulder and tries to look into his downcast eyes. “Todd, sweetie,” she says. “Ashley’s a very nice girl, but you’ll learn in life that the fundamental values are the most important.”

“Like what?” Todd says, his face flush with emotion that he tries to conceal from other teens in the store.

“If a woman is only attracted to you because you look poor, she probably won’t stick by you when you can’t afford to anymore.”

Freedonia Offers to Replace England in EU

NGORZSKL, Freedonia.  Freedonian officials are tired this morning after an all-night vigil they kept in a state of anticipation and suspense, fueled by oglitz, this land-locked European country’s bitter variation of coffee.  “It is very functional,” said Ngli Zolitwk, the nation’s first female Prime Minister, of the highly-caffeinated native drink.  “What you don’t finish can be used to strip furniture, or unclog sluggishly-flowing sinks,” she says as she stifles a yawn.

The occasion for staying up late was Zolitwk’s petition to the European Union to accept Freedonia in substitution for England, which voted to withdraw from the twenty-eight member political-economic body last week, leaving a “free space” of the sort that Freedonians incorporate into all aspects of their play.  “The hard-working women of our nation are entitled to a ‘free space’ one Saturday night of each month,” says Jnizko Uxbkel, Zolitwk’s chief press secretary.  “We live for these nights without sex, so we are well-prepared to fill  in for England if they have other political-economic bodies to bed down with.”

“I’d file a formal protest, but I need the fresh air.”

Freedonia has petitioned the EU for membership in the past, only to be turned down repeatedly as “Not Ready for International Organization.”  “They do not understand the mores of world diplomacy,” says Jean-Claude Malraux-Emilion, French attache to the EU as he closes his attache case.  “The came for their last interview with a bushel basket full or turnips and a live chicken.  We asked them to leave the chicken outside but they refused, since he was chief of their delegation.”

10,000, 20,000 and 50,000 Flemux notes, the fiat currency of Freedonia.


News of England’s withdrawal, which inspired the shorthand term “Brexit,” were brought to this tech-starved country by carrier pigeon since the lone dial-up modem in Godans Flez, often referred to as the “Silicon Valley of Freedonia,” was at the nation’s last-remaining Radio Shack outlet for repairs.  “They are a godsend, these pigeons,” says Grzil “Bud” Ftemskri, who was the first to receive the news.  “They bring you glad tidings from the air, then you bake them with a little turmeric at 350 degrees for dinner.”


My Lunch With a Nobel Prize-Winning Author

It isn’t every day I get to have lunch with a Nobel Prize-winning author. More frequently than I see Haley’s Comet, which last came through my neighborhood in 1986, and isn’t expected back for another 50 years, but still, it’s a big deal.

Haley’s Comet: “Stop by any time you’re in the neighborhood!”


So I’ll never forget the day in 1970 when I walked into the faculty club at the University of Chicago and saw Saul Bellow, author of The Adventures of Augie March, with its famous opening line: “I am an American, Chicago born–Chicago, that somber city–and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style.” Do not, I reminded myself, spill the soup.

Bellow: “Actually, I’m not hungry.”


I didn’t actually have lunch with Bellow. I had lunch beforehand, in the kitchen with the rest of the help. I’ll admit it–I was just a waiter, not a member of Bellow’s inner circle of friends. I wasn’t even a member of his circle of enemies, which may have been a slightly larger group, if one reads his works as romans a clef.

So I didn’t eat with Bellow, but I was at a lunch that he attended, which was as close as I’d ever been to literary fame at the time. And probably ever will be.

Joseph Conrad: “Bellow? Never heard of him, but then I’m already dead.”


I hadn’t, at that point in my life, actually read anything by Bellow. He wasn’t on the first-year reading list, and maybe he will never displace Faulkner, or Joseph Conrad, or Scott Fitzgerald. But he was a living, breathing novelist with an international reputation, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize six years later. It was all I could do not to rush up to him like some stupid Hollywood autograph hound and say “Mr. Bellow, you’re one of my biggest fans!”

“Why is that waiter staring at me?”


But I respected his privacy and stuck to my role, bringing out the food, filling water glasses, sneaking a peek at the two greatest hits underneath the blouse of the Barbra Streisand look-alike on my shift.

“Has anybody got any mint waxed floss?”


But I watched his every move, because I wanted to see how a famous novelist looked and acted in real life. Would he be ferocious, skewering the chalky professors at his table? Would he be captivating, regaling his listeners with stories of his years in Europe? How exactly is a minor living legend supposed to behave, I asked. Just in case I ever needed to know.

Dog-and-pony show


The answer? Bored. Bellow sat down at an empty table, crossed his legs, folded his hands in his lap, and looked around the room with an expression that said he’d rather be dead in a ditch than where he was just then. My guess is the luncheon was a dog-and-pony show for potential donors–just the way a guy who probably had to fend off high-brow literary women with a stick would want to spend his day.

Being a big-name author in academia isn’t a bad gig. You give a graduate seminar every semester, boff a couple of coeds–it’s in the contract, right after the “Whereas” clauses–get your picture on the cover of the alumni magazine. But you’re also there for some contact with actual human beings, like say a wealthy alumnus/alumna who’s written a first novel. You can just imagine how that would go:

BELLOW: Hello?

ALUM: Mr. Bellow, it’s Ed Fahrquar.

BELLOW: I have enough life insurance, thanks.

ALUM: No, from the UofC? The development office said I should feel free to call you.

BELLOW: I was taking a nap.

ALUM: Terrific. Say, I’ve just written my first novel, a coming of age story about a boy and his dog and their picaresque adventures hitch-hiking across America.

BELLOW: That’s . . . nice.

ALUM: You wouldn’t mind taking a look at it and telling me what you think, would you?

BELLOW: (To self: I could use some scrap paper for grocery lists.) Sure–send it over.

Bellow’s aspect was distant, reserved, and everyone who passed by knew he was–famous. So no one joined him at first, which he appeared to prefer. He stared around the room, then took his butter knife, stood the pat of butter on his bread plate up on edge, and put his knife down again. After a while a few people sat down at his table, introduced themselves, and he broke into a slight smile, which did nothing to dispel his air of ill-suppressed discomfort. I was distracted for a moment by someone at another table and when I turned around, he was gone. The only evidence of his brief presence that remained was that pat of butter on its edge, as Bellow must have been the whole time he was there.


Butter Stonehenge

From this close encounter with fame, I took a lesson that has come in handy over the years. If you want to appear superior to everyone around you at a social gathering, look bored–and play with the stuff on your table! Here are a few of the techniques I’ve perfected that lend me an aura of literary snootiness at gala dinners, business lunches and power breakfasts:

Balance two forks on a toothpick: Snap a toothpick at its mid-point and stick one end in a salt shaker. (Of course you can use a pepper shaker, but you’ll have a hard time finding one because high-class joints all have those pepper mills that are the size of a bazooka.) Join the forks at the tines, and suspend on one end of the toothpick. Where are you going to find a toothpick in a faculty club of a major university, you ask? Just ask the Assistant Professor of Long-Haul Trucking sitting next to you.

Assistant Professor of Long-Haul Trucking, Harvard University


Balance your fork on your finger: If you can’t do the above-described trick, try this one, you klutz. Lay your fork right side up across your index finger at a right angle, and allow it to teeter-totter back and forth until it reaches equilibrium. Knives do not have a concave surface, and spoons are too light for this trick.

One out of three ain’t bad.


Drop a wine cork so that it stands up on an end. This trick is easier than it sounds. Hold the cork horizontally, so that it is parallel to the surface of the table, from a height of approximately two inches. My preferred grip is between the outstretched second and fourth fingers, although this leaves the middle finger pointing across at your tablemates, which may lead to misunderstandings. Hold the cork gently, then release both fingers at the same time. At first, if you succeed in making the cork pop back up on its end just one time in ten you’re doing fine. With practice, you should be able to do it in three tries or less, causing ingenue poetesses to look on you as a God of Belle Lettres.

“Do the wine cork trick again–it drives me wild!”


Matchbook field goals. You can’t smoke in most fancy restaurants and clubs anymore, but you can get a book of matches–what you’re supposed to use them for is not exactly clear. Stand the matchbook on its edge and flick across the table at finger goal-posts set up by a table-mate.

The cooperation of another bored person in your party is essential, but a Nobel Prize in Literature is optional.

Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Chicago: Not Just for Toddlin’ Anymore.”

Potheads Declare Victory in War on Drugs

DOWNERS GROVE, Ill.  Todd Schepper is a 55-year-old man who still lives in his parents’ basement in this suburb of Chicago, but today he’s on top of the world.  “We won,” he repeats quietly to himself as he walks past posters of his favorite rock bands and climbs the stairs into the bright light of his mother’s kitchen.  “I can’t believe it!”

Botticelli:  “I freaking give up.”


The cause of Schepper’s jubilation was a diplomatic cable he received from Michael Botticelli, the current U.S. “drug czar,” reading simply “The War on Drugs is over,” causing the stoned pothead and his friends to emerge from hiding in much the same manner that Japanese soldiers stumbled out of South Pacific caves long after World War II ended.

Down on Todd’s basement farm.

“Like the Viet Cong, middle-aged pot heads stuck to their home turf and conquered an invading force,” says Cornell Wilbur, a professor of military strategy at the Army War College.  “They operated in the dark, using only black lights and glowing Jimi Hendrix posters to guide them, and prevailed.”

The War on Drugs was actually not a declared war, much like the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam in which the U.S. became involved.  “We were just passing around a doobie listening to the Moody Blues when the first attack came,” recalls Chad Howard, who in 1970 loaned his friend Schepper an Iron Butterfly Greatest Hit album that was lost in the ensuing confusion as they scrambled upstairs to stockpile munchies in anticipation of a prolonged siege.

Moody Blues album:  What exactly is all that crap?

Schepper’s parents provided a vital lifeline of supplies over the next three decades, enabling the young men to remain in their bean bag chairs while their peers surrendered and were forced into boring, high-paying jobs.

President Obama will sign the peace treaty on behalf of the United States in a formal ceremony at The Head Shoppe, a purveyor of drug paraphernalia located in enemy territory on Chicago’s North Side.