My mom and I had many chats this summer when I visited her. For your information, she is 101 years old and that is relevant.
As happens less frequently, I ask her about some friend of hers. As the years passed, the answer was generally, the friend had died. This year she finally said, “they are all dead”. She means the friends from her youth, the friends of my parents I knew so well as I grew up, the friends she made in California where she lived part-time for 30 years, the friends she made at the retirement community she has lived in for 13 years. She means, they all died.
I asked her how she feels about that. She said, “why me?”.
I asked her if she meant that she felt guilty. She replied, “no, I just wonder, why me.”
Is death the end of suffering? I do not know anyone alive who does not suffer some. Buddha said desire and ignorance lie at the root of suffering. By desire, Buddhists refer to craving pleasure, material goods, and immortality, all of which are wants that can never be satisfied and desiring them can only bring suffering. Ignorance relates to not seeing the world as it actually is, especially the truth of impermanence.
Can we overcome our seeming human nature? Can we act in ways which are only wholesome and healthy, compassionate and kind? Or will our inclination/draw to unhealthy desire undermine our psychological and spiritual health.
The short comment from my mom sticks with me. Why me? Am I here to fulfill some purpose? Will I have regrets when I die? Should I practice meditation harder/longer? Should I be working pro bono for vets and immigrants? My friends are dying. Dear close friends are dead. Buddha taught that all things are impermanent. Nothing drives that home more than losing a loved one.
My mom is ready to die. Of that I am convinced. She did not live an active life. She was a housewife, mom, occasional golfer, card player, mahjong player and reader of many books and doer of crosswords. But that is no less remarkable than most folks I know.
Is hers a life well-lived? Will mine be more remarkable, more memorable or more fulfilling? Already I can ask, why me. Why are Susan, Gary, Jerry, Chuck and at least a dozen others dead and I am still here? Am I chosen? Lucky? Unlucky? Blessed?
I cannot afford to live to 101. I need to stay in the Now. If I do not know how I will die or when, I figure I better get busy answering, why me. I need to be in the moment, alive to the possibilities in this moment. That is a tall order but if I do not try, I will certainly not succeed. “Why me” is a question survivors ask. A question I think that can only be answered now. Insight meditation (Vipassana) is the only path I know to the big answers which arise in my emotional and spiritual quest.
I can say that I believe with certainty and despite my own inclinations, that the practice of compassion and kindness is a definite key to happiness and freedom from suffering. Beyond that I know not…….yet.
I remember standing outside the high school waiting for the bell to ring for. Until the bell rang students had to wait outside untill they unlocked the doors and let us proceed to our classrooms. 5 black boys approached from a gang called the Blackstone Rangers (Stones). I was a pipsqueak. I was 4’11” and I had Free Lunch stamped on my forehead and these guys wanted lunch at my expense. I didn’t know these guys, but they had a keen sense of smell and picked up the scent of my fear.
I needed to do something and fast. I sized them up and ran through my encyclopedia of bluffs and the first one that occurred to me was to act as if we were all together in this escapade. This normally doesn’t work for a little white Jewish kid about to be robbed. but I had spent a lot of time around guys like this and I am a good mimic. I could talk the talk even if I couldn’t walk the walk. I knew these guys were gang-bangers just from their look.
A gangster’s style was dress-casual. He wore lose fitting, almost baggy clothes. His shirt was an Italian knit and he wore pants with two pleats at the waist with room in the leg so that a gangster could pimp. Pimping was a way of walking with a kind of shuffle and slightly slouched and emanating attitude. They frequently wore narrow sunglasses that they had to look over the top of when talking.
The way this worked, when thugs approached, I would initiate the encounter by talking to them. I mean I knew damn well they planned to rob me, so I greeted them first, “Hey, what’s up?” (It is called, act as if.) Then I asked if “Anyone has seen JB.” See JB was the baddest kid around and a leader in the Stones and we went to grade school together. So I would got the jump on guys by asking for JB. The fact that I knew his name gave me credibility. so usually after that, they don’t ask for money. A rule of the streets was to not rob a friend of a gang leader.
Now if that doesn’t seem like much of a plan, it wasn’t but I had a back up bluff. That next part was to act as if I could fight. I acted like I would want nothing more than to have these guys mess with me so then I could whoop someone’s butt. Totally grounded in fantasy! Fact is if you acted first you might throw them off balance psychologically long enough to get in the school. One way to do this is as they approached I would ask them for some money and act huffy when they don’t got it. So the 5 spread out in a semi-circle in front of me. They arrroached me intending to secure compliance and get my money or pounce. I know I have to make eye contact and hide fear. So I stare at the closest one and ask “Hey, someone got a quarter?” The reply “Huh? Are you out of your mind boy?”, (a reasonable assumption when a small white boy tries to coerce several young black boys out of “spare change”) I would reply along the lines of “Hell yea, I’m out of my mind. better believe it! So who got a quarter? Don’t be tight. man. Someone give it up. don’t be cheap, help a dude out man.”
I was not only a small white boy, but I was dressed preppy. The uniform style of dress amongst my peers was Brooks Brothers button down shirts, khaki pants with cuffs dark socks and Bass Weejun penny loafers. I might have been slightly more convincing if I dressed like the white thugs we called greasers. Anyways, if that bluff failed….run.
This particular encounter just typifies the type of incidents that took place regularly in my neighborhood. This time it ended with the five boys walking away, heads nodding in bewilderment and wonder about what exactly had just happened and who the hell was I. These encounters would have the hair on the back of my neck stand up. My palms would be quietly sweaty. My heart would beat so loud I thought anyone near by could hear it.
Amazingly, for me, acting like a teenage Jewish kid was much more difficult. At least acting like a “cool” Jewish kid. The encyclopedia of bluffs was quite useless in this realm. I arrived to high school from a grade school that was over 50% black. In grade school I had taken to speaking the language of my black peers. So, in high school I had to learn to minimize my inclination to mimic the sound and speech of a young black boy who had emigrated to Chicago from Knoxville TN.
Many of the Jewish kids in my high school were in organized fraternities and sororities which were comprised mostly of Jewish kids. I have never met anyone outside of Chicago’s south side who had these clubs in their Chicago area high school. It seemed important to be accepted into this fraternity environment. I can’t tell you why but it did. My older brother had been in a fraternity, but I didn’t like him much. For sure I desperately wanted to be cool. But the reality was, I was too young and too awkward to blend in well. Fraternities just didn’t place a value on having members who were 12-year-old, freshmen, short, non-athletic, jive talking and not particularly affluent. I was 3 years away from a driving permit, and my body wouldn’t see pubic hair in the immediate future.
It took about 6 months of lobbying to be accepted into the second lowest-ranked fraternity in school. Ranks were based on the number of cool guys you had in the fraternity and gentiles and blacks were not considered cool and don’t count. I suspect most non-Jews were invited to join to bolster the athletic standing of the group (Ringers). My fraternity was considered just slightly cooler than the one fraternity that accepted both people of color and gentiles. But my membership resulted in 2 friendships that span over 43 years so I consider it a good investment.
Anyway the point is I had a harder time passing in my natural state for what I was (the little Jew kid) than passing as something I wasn’t and didn’t appear to be (the little black kid).
I can’t tell you the first thing about being with a sorority girl as I was barely able to negotiate being a preteen boy in a teenage world much less hope to date girls. I had no business being in high school. I wasn’t a good student or mature beyond my years. Hard to say if I was even age appropriate as I had no way to determine that. I had gotten ahead in school through some stubbornness, luck (bad/good), timing and mistakes. So while most kids had already consummated their childhood before going to high school, I was still wrapping up my juvenile affairs. bar mitzvah, puberty, walking, you know the basics. There is much more to this story. I was on a trajectory which would lead me to 5 failed years of high school and becoming a drop-out. It was the precursor to becoming a real criminal. But here is an insight. I got sick and tired of being picked on. Not only was I robbed the first day of each of the three Chicago high schools I attended, I was assaulted my first day of college preparatory boarding school in New Hampshire. In the sophomore year I was brutally attacked and nearly drowned by a rabid anti-Semite Palestinian student. I promised myself that someday I would get a gun and I would end the reign of terror of bullying and getting robbed which seemed to summarize my early years.
We were in an apartment on the south side of Chicago, in Hyde Park. “I don’t know man. I never done nothing like that. What do you want from me? I don’t know man. I don’t do that kind of stuff.” So began my conversation with Tiny. Tiny had gotten it in his mind to rob a meat packing plant at 58th and Elizabeth Street. Someone on the inside had told him about a safe they had and how easy it would be to walk in with guns and take the cash. I am not sure why Tiny was asking me to partner up with him. Maybe it was because I had a car, or guns or because I was a full time (non-violent) criminal. But this was an area I never intended to venture into. I tended to stay away from crimes against persons. Burglary was my main criminal enterprise, and we burglars avoid people when working, because they are a source of detection and apprehension.
Whatever the reason, I was listening to this proposition. Tiny had been a mentor of mine in the underworld. He was a car thief and knew how to run a “chop shop” where they cut stolen cars up and sell the parts for more than the car would sell for whole. It was easier to avoid arrest if you were selling only the parts. I was about 18 and he had 10 years on me and seemed philosophically wise in the ways of the streets. He also was an imposing figure. He was 6’3, 350 pounds of black man. He was a product of the Chicago’s west side ghetto. So to my wayward mind he had experience and credibility and so I listened. He laughed profusely and joked and danced frequently. But when it came to crime he was all business.
The plan was to go to the area of the plant where we would park my car about a half block away. We were going to knock on the packing house door and ask to buy some meat. There was going to be 3-5 employees and we were gonna draw down on them and take the cash from the safe. We discussed it at length. I tried to persuade him away from the idea. But I never said everything I was really thinking. Cause then I would have told him the idea scared the hell out of me. He allayed all my spoken concerns and so the deal was sealed.
When the agreed day arrived I drove us to the plant. We parked near by in a vacant lot, car facing towards the street so we would just have to jump in and drive right out. I had two handguns. One didn’t function at all. But we brought it for its persuasion value. Tiny had another handgun.
I convinced Tiny to stop at a corner tavern so we could get a drink. I wasn’t 21 yet but we never had trouble getting me liquor in ghetto bars. We had a drink. My hands were shaking and I was nauseous with fear. I suggested another drink but Tiny said no, we had to get going. He had gotten a call that day from someone on the inside that there was a lot of cash today and he was eager to get there. I glumly followed him down the street.
When we arrived at the plant, I got a worse feeling. The door had a peephole and when they answered the door they did in in such a way that I knew they clearly had been robbed before. The guy at the door didn’t want to open the door more than a crack. He ask “what do you want.” Tiny was in front of me telling him “we needed a large order of meat for a church we work for”. The guy was not opening the door enough for us to enter. He was being cautious. But Tiny just kept talking as he pushed on the door and the door began to give way. Tiny’s size was not to be denied. As he pushed on the door, I saw his jacket rise up above his hips and his gun was clearly visible to me. I tried to pull down his jacket from where I stood behind him. He signaled me to follow him in. As the door opened wider I could see that there were far more people inside than we had anticipated. Combine that with the fact that these people were obviously being cautious and it was probably because they had been robbed before.
I mean we were in a tough area. It was mixed zoning, inner city housing and commercial. When you had businesses in such close proximity to this many poor people, the stores usually got used to folks trying to rob them.
This wasn’t going the way I had envisioned it. I got even more scared if that were possible. So I went from trying to pull Tiny’s jacket over his gun to just pulling on his jacket in an attempt to prevent him from going in.
I said to Tiny, “screw them, they don’t want to sell us any meat. Let’s go somewhere else.” He looked back at me with daggers in his eyes.
I was being no more effective than the guy on the inside at deterring Tiny. I pulled harder and said loudly that we should just leave. I could see even more people walking around inside, everybody wearing white coats and white hard hats. More people meant more probability of something going amiss. And this is heavy prison time stuff.
Tiny realized I wasn’t going in and so he retreated. But was he mad. He called me a punk for days. Weeks. He got some of our friends together another day and they did the job. They sat around spending money on drugs and alcohol, wouldn’t share with me because I was a punk. I remember visiting the apartment in Hyde Park that they were hold up in and partying. That had a big BBQ spread from the local bbq house. They were watching a new television. I came in and made small talk like any other time. “hey, let me have some ribs.” Tiny replied “Fuck you punk. We got this sticking up the plant. You didn’t do shit, you don’t get shit.” The hair on the back of my neck stood up. He was fronting me off in front of everyone. This would get ugly if I made a wrong move. I acted like it was no big deal, not hungry, don’t need your food. “Screw it, I’ll get my own ribs. I’m out. Later to this” With that I slinked away.
My rep definitely went down a notch or two. But it wasn’t too much longer when Tiny invited me to take a road across Illinois with my illegal M1 semi-auto rifle that I had bought on the streets. It was an ominous piece of work with a big 30 round banana magazine, a folding stock, flash suppressor, and telescopic sight. Tiny wanted to drive south and pull a series of armed robberies. His explanation was that with my rifle looking so intimidating, no one would challenge us and we could clean up. I was surprised he was asking me and I considered the good effect this would have in restoring my reputation. But I didn’t see any reason I wouldn’t be just as scared as I had been before. So I took a pass.
A postscript to this relationship is years later, Tiny got arrested and went to federal prison for a bank robbery. I had not become a lawyer yet so I couldn’t help him. Before he left I asked him if he was scared. Tiny asked “what would I be scared of?” He looked at me quizzically. I said if I had to go to prison I would be scared. Tiny started to laugh….”if I was as small as you I probably would be scared. Big as I am, ain’t nothing gonna happen to me in prison son, so don’t worry about me.” He passed up on giving up his co-conspirators. Even though they got away with the money and never sent him any, he stuck by the code, No snitching! He told me he thought he knew who ratted him out, a friend of ours from the hood. But he said there wasn’t anything he could do about it now, and he had no proof.
He did come out of prison an older and more subdued man. Got a job as a janitor at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. He died in his 50s of diabetes related causes. All that weight wore his body out. I was his lawyer in the end. We were suing the Chicago Transit Authority bus company for not securing him properly in his wheelchair during a visit to the doctor. When the bus stopped abruptly he fell and was injured when the stitches split on his recently amputated leg.
Some day I’ll write about Tiny’s first LSD trip. Or how he knocked Gene Rogers out at the University Church. Or how we tried to……..oh hell……. I feel like crying, I am out of here.
If you didn’t know Chuck and you have come across this writing, excuse me. Chuck died suddenly. Just shy of 60 years of age, he had struggled with addiction for several years. He died while actively participating in 12 step recovery. Likely he died of causes related to his health. I am to speak at the memorial for him today. In anticipation I wrote of him and for him….
I assume that Chuck skated into heaven, Valhalla etc. without a glitch. But there is a possibility that there were obstacles to Chuck’s passage. Like most people Chuck had a flawed character. The most prominent flaw was his proclivity for substance abuse. In his addiction he harbored thoughts and feelings that were negative and destructive. These thoughts ate at his core and caused many a day to be spent in darkness, abiding only his demons. When these demons of darkness descended upon him, he surrendered to his defects of character. However, we would not be here if addiction summed up Chuck’s life.
What really characterized Chuck was his propensity to care for, provide for and stand by people in need. Even people who were in better straits than Chuck were treated to his grace and his generosity. No one was beneath him and no one undeserving of his affection and charity. People who I would never have lifted a hand to help because I saw no value in them, he would reach out to. In the depths of his addiction he would take time out to offer solace and sustenance. It was a remarkable thing to see and hear.
We spoke for hours about justice and kindness. We spoke about spiritual bankruptcy and the consequences. We spoke about life’s trials and tribulations. Life’s joys and life’s disappointments. He wanted to be pure. He deeply desired to be free of his resentments all the while nurturing them and strengthening them. He manifested powerlessness in every breath. Honesty eluded him and then slammed him against the wall.
We are gathered and in doing so present the argument, the defense that demands that Chuck is entitled to admission to the finest club the afterlife has to offer. The evidence of his actions in the balance persuades us to stand by, advocate for and remember our friend.
I traveled with Chuck, ate meals and meditated with him. He was no less a student of spiritual health than the Buddhist monks I lived with. What he lacked was discipline. What he lacked was focus. What was missing was the mental toughness that once came so readily to him when he was young. Of late he fought to reclaim memory, physical acuity and compassion. He battled to forgive and to be forgiven. Thus did his condition rob him of the ability to shine spiritually.
I sit in AA meetings and I hear various dead persons quoted ad infinitum for their wise homilies and aphorisms. Chuck will not be remembered thusly. His good words resonated in the moment but he wasn’t around long enough to be touted as an AA guru. But to the lives he touched, he will be remembered as a man with a strong moral compass and backbone who but for his addiction would have loomed far taller than his height restricted.
Chuck was born into a large family of 5 siblings. He often talked about how he didn’t need or have lots of friends in his early years because his family was full of kids. His mom is often described by Chuck and siblings as a rageaholic. His father as a solid hard-working man of the middle class. Chuck would excel in sports in high school and always lamented that he had to leave his high school in Amarillo, where he had friends and respect, to attend school elsewhere. He returned to Amarillo his last year but never seems to have recouped the status he felt he occupied in his earlier years. His college life was memorable for him. He loved to tell me what a great school Richland Community college was. He loved its diversity and campus life. Then it was onto U T where he created some bonds that would waver but endure the rest of his life. Sometimes described as a genius oftentimes described as a rascal, Chuck entertained and befuddled everyone in his world.
Nancy and he met early on but didn’t marry until later in life. While they didn’t have kids, they had dogs. The home would never be considered full unless there were their dogs yipping and leaping about.
When Chuck finally got sober his one certain daily task was to care for the dogs. And this he did with diligence. He knew that his wife Nanci would not abide his neglecting the dogs the same way he neglected himself. And he loved Nanci. He feared she would realize she was better off without him and leave. He fretted that his life would be empty without her. But like most people who drink and/or drug he couldn’t stop the train once it left the station. He could not help disappointing loved ones as his addiction gave no quarter. A masterful liar in the beginning, Nanci says he finally gave up the lies and just resigned himself to being an addict. Henceforth, when I met him, he would confess, upon interrogation, to his slips. I was amazed that he could relapse at night and be at a meeting the next morning. I was stunned that he could have nothing left in his addiction, no friends, money or health and yet return there after fellowshipping each morning with us. Why were we not enough to keep him sober? Who is this man to frustrate my every attempt to carry the message? Equally important is why did I bother after repeatedly babysitting him through his detoxification?
Chuck lured his loved ones back with a hug and a puppy dog face. And his sincere remorse after each slip and the guilt he expressed made me stay the course. It kept Nanci by his side. It drew everyone here to his side despite the frustration and anger we felt with each failure.
Unlike many addicts though Chuck had a distinguishing feature about him. In the depths of his addiction, despite self-will run riot, he never forgot the less fortunate and he was always willing to help a friend. When I was an addict I never had time for anyone outside my immediate family. I stayed cloistered. But Chuck would always make the offer. I would say to him, you worthless asshole, what can you do to help me. You cannot help yourself. And he would hang his head and say half apologetically, I know, but I’ll do what I can”.
And in this way did we find ourselves driving to Tucson to see my family and detox Chuck. He was by my side 18 hours a day. Trying to help and getting berated at every turn because his idea of helping was most people’s idea of hindering. He wanted to help perfectly and in so doing was a nuisance. Paralyzed by his wannabe perfection, we would throw our hands up and take the task back from Chuck. His addicted mind could not perform what his heart so wanted to do. I offered him every resource, tool, and support that I could think of and muster. He was a drowning man who could not be certain enough he wanted to live to grab the life raft. He flailed about in the water. I would get mouthfuls of splashed water trying to reach him. I would swear off trying and then swim again towards him for one more attempt.
We were both tired of his struggle. He begged me not to give up on him. I threatened to kill him for his own good. If not for Nanci and his love for her I think he and I could have reached an agreement to finish him off.
So we drove back to Dallas from Tucson. Another 17 hour ride, 1000 miles with only ourselves for companionship. He lamented how everyone near and dear to him had fucked him over. How many times I heard this lament I cannot say. But this time I spoke with conviction and heart. I told him to stop! I told him to listen to me with every fiber of his body. And I related to him that I had been put in his life by God to help him. That I was his messenger and that God could not be any louder or any clearer. That God wanted him to let go of his resentments because they were killing him.
I believe in Karma. I believe as Buddhists do, that everyone and everything comes into our life as a result of cause and effect. I met Chuck because our lives dictated it. We needed each other. I needed to be taught patience and tolerance. I needed to be reminded of the power of unconditional love. He needed someone who would amplify the message that he had been told many times but couldn’t hear. My voice broke through the background noise of Chuck’s addiction. But for Nanci though, Chuck would have slipped and died in the abyss before I ever met him. But for her steadfastness and relentless love for Chuck he could not have mustered enough concern or esteem for himself to stay alive much less thrive. All of us here who offered a hand to Chuck would never have had the opportunity if not for Nanci. He just didn’t care enough about himself to have made the effort. The care and concern he showed all of us would never have shown through his craziness if he didn’t have Nanci at home waiting with love and compassion for his sick soul.
I do not expect to ever meet another person like Chuck in my life. I know everyone feels unique and I am sure you are. But Chuck will resonate with me always. I will revere him as my teacher. I will curse his untimely demise. I will lament the briefness of his sobriety. I will always celebrate his humor and presence. I will miss him at meetings, breakfast, on the road, at the dozen movies and the myriad of other places we ventured like Hamm’s Peach orchard. His seat will always be empty at the twice weekly meditation. His car will always be missing in his parking spot. But he will never be missing in my heart.
Thus do I say to the powers that be, God or Gods, to the gatekeepers of the heavens, my friend shall proceed unimpeded into your care! He has earned his place in a way few ever will. The content of his character even in the midst of great illness qualifies him for the status reserved for the deserving. His presence with his family and friends has come to an end. Let him now reside in the sunshine of God’s everlasting love.
I imagined Chuck sharing this Irish prayer with us
Don’t grieve for me, for now I’m free!
I follow the plan God laid for me.
I saw His face, I heard His call,
I took His hand and left it all…
I could not stay another day,
To love, to laugh, to work or play;
Tasks left undone must stay that way.
And if my parting has left a void,
Then fill it with remembered joy.
A friendship shared, a laugh, a kiss…
Ah yes, these things I, too, shall miss.
My life’s been full, I’ve savoured much:
Good times, good friends, a loved-one’s touch.
Perhaps my time seemed all too brief—
Don’t shorten yours with undue grief.
Be not burdened with tears of sorrow,
Enjoy the sunshine of the morrow.
And may we pray for Chuck Horn
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
And for those he left behind
May God give you…
For every storm, a rainbow,
For every tear, a smile,
For every care, a promise,
And a blessing in each trial.
For every problem life sends,
A faithful friend like Chuck to share,
For every sigh, a sweet song,
And an answer for each prayer.
When I was 17, in 1970, I was up to my eyeballs in illegal activity. I lived on the south side of Chicago. I would wake up around 9AM and about 10AM I would go out burglarizing apartments till 3PM with my partner in crime Tony James. This was the time of day most people were at work and their apartments sat empty. Then in the evening we would sell drugs we bought with the money we got from selling hot (as in stolen) merchandise. The pay phone at a local Persian restaurant (Ahmads} was the best way to contact me.
Sometime around this period I met Marshall Jackson, aka Tiny. Some who were around then will remember Tiny and no one who knew him will forget him. He was black, stood about 6′ 3″ and weighed about 350. He had a stutter and a bubbly, intense personality. He was10 years older than me, and he was a stone criminal also. We became quite close and I took him for a mentor as well as a friend. His specialty was stealing cars and chopping them up for sale. But like myself, he remained open to any criminal activity.
Tiny had very few white people he liked growing up in Lawndale on the West Side. He was enamored with our neighborhood and the young white kids in Hyde Park. White kids here had grown up in this wonderfully ethnically diverse community and exhibited little of the racism he was used to. He concluded he had misjudged us as a race. He thought the general lack of street smarts and the open nature of Hyde Park whites was endearing. It became his neighborhood.
Tiny taught me a lot about being a criminal. He taught me the advanced rules of intimidation, deception, and manipulation. He introduced me to car repair shops where we hung out and bought and sold stolen goods. Tiny was fascinated with all the drugs we young bloods were doing. Our hood was one of those which early dove deep into recreational drugs. His knowledge of drugs until then was limited to his girlfriend’s heroin addiction.
Tiny acquainted me with his criminal pals and I introduced him to mine. But I also introduced him to the Blue Gargoyle coffeehouse at the University Church for the Disciples of Christ and the Reverend Loel Callahan. Loel had befriended me and subsequently convinced me to help him launch an alternative youth program (non-religious) at the church, which was located in the shadow of the University of Chicago.
So, I recruited Tiny and all my other street pals to hang out at the church and help out with our youth program there. That is a whole ‘nother story. Adding his pals definitely strained the notion of “youth” add increased the mean age of the group. But lest you get the wrong idea, we were a mix of teens some who were straight-laced, drug free, high school students and many like me, street kids. We had two things in common, intelligent and a sincere desire in the improvement of the human condition.
So, Tiny and I shared adventures. Panhandling bail money for friends at a nightclub called Alices Restaurant on the North Side, hitting blues bars, camping in Missouri, stealing credit cards and saving damsels in distress. If you knew Gene Rogers, you would be interested in the night Tiny knocked him the fuck out for messing with university students at the Blue Gargoyle.
I can’t do justice to what such a relationship was like and the indelible impression it left on me. We had a bunch of laughs, at jokes and at danger. Tiny took me for my first (and last) armed robbery. at a meat-packing plant on the south side. Supposed to be easy in and out, just show our guns, grab the cash from the safe and go. But the man at the door of the plant seemed suspicious of us from the git and reluctant to let us in. Tiny nicely pushed on the door while chatting friendly about how we just wanted to buy some meat. The man tried to dig in and keep the door from opening wide, but his feet were sliding backwards as he lost the pushing match. Nothing felt right and so I yanked hard to stop Tiny which aborted our heist.
Tiny took a long time to forgive me. He had to round up a new crew to finish the job another day. He gave me a chance to redeem myself later and offered me the opportunity go on an armed robbery spree across Illinois. He wanted me to bring my quite ominous M1 military carbine which had a folding stock, a telescopic sight, flash suppressor and a 30 round magazine. His theory was that no one would resist us if we displayed my rifle. I had to admit to him that in my heart I was really just a property crimes kind of guy and not cut out for armed robberies.
As I was saying earlier, Tiny became involved in the youth program at the Blue Gargoyle and was usually there with his pals to provide security when our youth group put on an event, like a dance. Because of the church location, it was not uncommon to find Disciples and Stones in attendance. For the uninitiated, those were the two large, very large, black gangs on Chicago’s south side. Tiny had this way of walking into conflict and deescalating it. His size was so persuasive that I saw him stop gang violence with a smile.
But we didn’t physically hurt innocents. Neither Tiny nor I liked bullies. Hard to explain but we stood together against violent predators who we encountered trying to hurt those we perceived as weaker. He used his size and demeanor to calm some folks but others like the aforementioned Gene, he beat into submission. The opportunities to use our street smarts and strength were manifold. Tiny taught me that if you have to mete out a whooping, make sure you do so convincingly thus do you discourage comeback. He taught me to refrain from making threats of revenge, because you increase the probability of getting caught while getting said revenge. He said, “do not threaten, just do”.
It was new years eve about 1971 when I accompanied Tiny and another older pal, Butch, on their first hallucinogenic LSD trip. It started in Hyde Park at a party at my friend Norman Nakama’s apartment, with a bunch of drunk, stoned and tripping hippies. My friend Preston somehow talked my 2 pals, definitely not hippie, into taking the LSD. I joined in, but it was far from my first trip.
We left HP and headed to downtown Chicago for the holiday celebration. It was a horror show with drunks fighting, the crowd swelling, and the police pushing back on the surging crowd as you neared the epicenter at the corner of State and Randolph, by the Marshall Field building. The crowd was so big it swallowed Tiny up, beyond my grasp. That freaked me out, so I grabbed Butch till the clock struck midnight and the crowd dispersed. After most people had walked off, there was Tiny, his eyes closed and swaying with the crowd that was no longer there. I remember Chicago was so cold that night and Tiny was generating so much heat that when he took off his cap his head was smoking.
Having recovered Tiny, we headed back to my Hyde Park apartment. I lived alone at the end of a parking lot of a supermarket. My furniture consisted of 3 chairs and a piece of foam rubber that I slept on and a stereo. We had a few hours of hallucinogenic chat as Tiny and Butch strolled through their minds now turned psychedelic.
Many a night of fun like this was followed by our usual morning ritual. Breakfast(!) at some ghetto shack for large amounts of bacon, eggs and toast or the 3 of us would buy and cook a couple of pounds of bacon, 2 loaves of bread and a couple of dozen eggs to cook up.
But, one night he took his new found affection for whites and headed with some pals to a neighborhood carnival in a white community known as Back of the Yards. BOYs was a white stronghold in Chicago. VERY racist. Tiny described for me the next day how that turned out. Some white guys started trouble and when the fight started it “seemed like the entire place jumped on us”. He said that, “I was continually throwing guys off my back and constantly fighting my way to the others to help them”. He said it took a while before the police could push back the crowd and escort our friends from the carnival. I chastised him for going off on his own to such a hostile place. Tiny, delightfully naive in his own way, declared that he would be more selective in the future about what white people he hung around.
Gosh, we sure had a bunch of adventures. Tiny taught me how to power shift my 1965 Chevy Impala 396 Super Sport. That is shifting through all gears with the accelerator pedal held continuously to the floor. A mutual friend of ours had personally stitched together my car interior in a white leather, diamond, tuck and roll design. .
It had a custom green paint job with gold flakes shot in and a white vinyl top and tinted windows. I do not have any photos of my ride but included the photos as samples of the style .
He knew I had his back and I knew he had mine I relied upon his size and he upon my wits. He knew I exploited his size to our advantage and he used my whiteness to gain admission to situations he could then exploit. So we explored a lot of dangerous territory together with our merry band of fellow criminal pranksters.
We went separate ways eventually, but kept in touch. Years later he told me that he and some of the guys had talked about kidnapping me for ransom since my family had money. We never discussed whether they planned to kill me to protect their identities but I am sure it was part of the discussion. He also admitted he had harbored a grudging respect and even fear of some other street pals I ran with occasionally who had a propensity for violence.
When Tiny was in his 40s, he got caught and prosecuted for a bank robbery in Uptown. By then I was a social worker with street kids. We hung out some before he went off to prison. He was very stoic about his fate, wouldn’t give the names of his accomplices in exchange for a lighter sentence. He was sent to a federal hospital prison because he had diabetes and suffered from chronic pain which was the result of a stomach bypass back when the stapled your stomach.
When he came out of prison he was older, calmer and sicker. He took a job as a janitor at the Museum of Science and Industry and bought a used funeral hearse and painted it bright yellow as his daily transport. He slowly started to lose his battle with his diabetes. In his early 50s, his right leg was amputated because his circulation suffered.
I was now a lawyer and he my client because a Chicago transit authority bus improperly secured him on a return trip from the hospital. A sudden stop by the transport, threw him to the ground and ruptured his stitches where he had just had his leg amputated.
Before I could resolve his personal injury claim, he died. His brother told me he suffered badly in the end as further amputations were needed. He died in the hospital.
At the funeral I saw and sat with some of the old gang, most I had not seen in many years. We scoffed as we listened to a eulogy that was sterilized for public consumption.
Some day I will recollect more. Nothing learned in those days ever went to waste. My skills as a social worker and lawyer were well-served by my time spent with Marshall Jackson aka Tiny. So many lived so fast and died too young.