Growing up

Bon Voyage, Capt’n Nemo


Almost half a century ago, the teenagers from St. Jerome’s were playing football at Sherwin Park on North Clark Street when a strange man came over and interrupted our game. He said he was about to open a sandwich shop nearby and we ought to check it out.

We did. This was the first of many encounters with Lou Ragusi who, to me, was always Capt’n Nemo.

Lou Ragusi at Capt’n Nemo’s in 1976.
(Sun Times photo)

I remember my initial reactions:

“This food is good.”

“This guy is nuts.”

He talked constantly and at high volume. He seemed to be arguing with his workers and they were arguing back. They all seemed to be having a good time. There was nothing like Nemo’s in the neighborhood at the time so I was sure he’d quickly fail.

48 years later, Capt’n Nemo’s is still there. Mr. Ragusi was real American entrepreneur.

Mr. Ragusi died on November 18 at age 88. Read the Sun-Times obituary.

Bon Voyage, Capt’n. I hope wherever you are, you are getting a free taste of soup and I hope it’s as good as Mrs. Nemo’s Split pea.

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Growing up

Worst birthday ever

I’ve had two really terrible birthdays in my life. The last of these was 36 years ago.

I was depressed because I had convinced myself everyone else had their life figured out by age 30.

Because I was only two years out of college (it’s a long story), had no money and wasn’t married, I felt like I was failing at life. Despite a nice party, I went into a major sulk and started my 30th year with one of the all-time great hangovers.

In time I saw I was doing fine. Eventually I realized life was pretty good. And it only continued to improve.

That was the last time my birthday made me depressed.

But, that was not the saddest birthday of my life. That was the day I turned ten.

November 25, 1963.

I had been excited about this birthday. It had a number with two digits! Big stuff.

There would be presents!



Lots of attention FOR ME!


It didn’t exactly work out that way. Three days before my birthday, in Dallas Texas, the President of the United States was murdered.

Suddenly, everyone I knew was sad. I was puzzled at first. After all, my parents were Nixon Republicans and I’d never heard a good word about President Kennedy spoken by either of them. So, I was surprised by my mother’s crying.

The assassination occurred on a Friday. Instead of preparations for my party, the weekend was spent in front of the television, where there was only one thing on; coverage of and reaction to, the assassination.

To a ten year old, there was a sameness to all I saw on the small black and white screen in our living room. I couldn’t understand why the news people kept repeating  information and showing the same pictures.

Things took a turn for the unexpected on Sunday, when alleged gunman Lee Harvey Oswald was, for reasons never adequately explained, marched through a crowded hallway at the police station, where he was shot by (choose one):

A) a distraught local resident,
B) a patriotic American,
C) a strip club owner who wanted to ensure Oswald didn’t implicate the Mafia.

There were presents and cake on my birthday (they’d already been purchased) but no joy. Rather than the attention I had anticipated, the focus was on President Kennedy’s funeral. The ceremony was overwhelmingly sad and, at times, sent chills down my spine, like when the riderless horse, with backward boots in the stirrups, was led down Pennsylvania Avenue as part of the funeral procession.


That weekend, I experienced crushing sadness for the first time. There would be more to come, of course. It was the first of those things that happen that make you think, “I will never get over this.”

And you don’t. Tragedy is indelible.

Yet, life goes on.

– – –

On the eve of my 66th birthday it was pointed out to me, “You’re just one “6” away from Satan.”

Is that any way for a child to talk to her father?

This will be a pretty good birthday. So will each of those to come.

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Brushes with greatness

That time I met The Greatest


(The first meeting between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston took place 55 years ago today. I’ve dug out this past posting to mark the anniversary).

In 1988, I took a round-trip train ride to New York City to visit my brother. On my return to Chicago, as I walked through the main room at Union Station, I was shocked to see the world’s most famous man.

Muhammad Ali was waiting for his luggage.

In the blink of an eye, so much went through my mind:

  • The first fight (as Cassius Clay) with Sonny Liston which ended with the “unbeatable” Liston giving up and refusing to leave his corner for the seventh round.
  • Ali’s refusing to be inducted into the military on religious grounds, causing him to be stripped of his title and denied the right to fight in the US, until he prevailed in the US Supreme Court.
  • The “Rope-a-Dope” strategy that brought him a victory over the heavily favored George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire in 1974
  • His three battles with Joe Frazier, including  the 1975 classic “Thrilla in Manila.”

This man had been a huge part of my life and here he was, with no security to keep fans at a distance.

It was just Muhammad Ali and his assistant, waiting for their luggage.

I wanted Ali to know that he was one of my heroes. That I admired his greatness in the ring and his courage for standing up to the government. I wanted to tell him that he’d entertained and enthralled me since I was a boy.

I had to meet him.

As I got within about four steps of him, I lost my nerve and veered off to one side.

I tried to pull myself together, and approached again. This time, I got within about three steps, then lost my nerve a second time.

I mean this was not some mere mortal. This was Ali!

I knew I’d hate myself forever if I didn’t try again. As I got within two steps, Ali, who I was sure hadn’t noticed me on the first two passes, suddenly looked up, made an intense face and drew his fist back as if to throw a punch.

Time stood still.

Then he smiled that world-famous smile and extended his hand.

He never said a word, but shaking the hand that shook the world was one of the great thrills of my life.

He was the greatest.


McBarronBlog Bonus

Ali is the only person I’ve ever met who had met The Beatles. That 1964 get-together is remembered here.



Rx for Bears blues: YouTube


Last Sunday was a dark day for fans of Chicago’s NFL team. People who ordinarily think  realistic thoughts had allowed themselves to buy into the idea that this season’s Chicago Bears, who turned out to be much better than anyone expected, had a shot at the Super Bowl.

It was a  pipe dream that ended in the final seconds of Sunday’s playoff game, when kicker Cody Parkey, already holder of a record for hitting the uprights four times in a previous game, hit the upright (and the crossbar) one last time for the Bears.

Though I’ve given up on football, I saw the last few minutes of Sunday’s game and must admit the “double-doink” even made me sad. Those suffering from Bears Blues, need to know video mood elevators are plentiful on YouTube. Here are a few favorites.

The Payton Game

Every Bears fan depressed about last Sunday’s game should see the last play of the first game the Bears played following the death of the legendary Walter Payton. The 1999 Bears team, which was not very good, managed to hold their own against the much better Packers, led by future Hall of Famer, Brett Farvre.

Like last Sunday’s game, it came down to the final seconds. All the Packers needed to do was kick an easy field goal to win. (click the “watch on YouTube” link)

Another clip that always cheers me up comes from last season’s Cubs, who were one strike away from a 3-0 loss to the Nationals when rookie David Bote lived the dream of anyone who ever fantasized about batting with two out in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded. Listen for the sound of the ball hitting the bat. Beautiful.

Speaking of fantasies, Accountant Scott Foster got to live the dream of every boy who ever thought about playing for the Blackhawks when his perfunctory role as “emergency goalie” was upgraded after two goalies were injured on the same day. The 36-year old Foster, who hadn’t played anything but “beer league” hockey since leaving college, was sent into an NHL game with 14 minutes left and the Blackhawks leading 4-2.

Sports fans can relive past glories on Youtube as we wait for the next season of promise.

Speaking of which, pitchers and catchers report in less than six weeks.

Do you have any sports videos that help you beat the blues?

McBarronBlog Bonus

What’s more fun than unexpected sports excellence?

Kirk Gibson gives Dodgers an unexpected win in the 1988 World Series.

JoeCarter’s Game 7 walk-off home run to win the 1993 World Series

Ryne Sandburg homers twice off previously unhittable Bruce Sutter to help  the Cubs beat the Cardinals in “The Sandburg Game Game


Good public servants deserve to be paid


My wife and I recently stopped into the corner bar and grill for dinner. This being Chicago, the bartender immediately engaged us in a political conversation.

“You live around here? I’m gonna to run for alderman.” 

He explained his philosophy, which sounded fine, then added what he believed would close the deal:

“…and I won’t accept a salary.” 

It’s a thing. Would-be public servants grandly announce they won’t accept payment from taxpayers. They will work for us “for free.”

This promise is intended to win public trust and admiration, though anyone familiar with the history of Illinois politicians knows official compensation is mere tip money for those who take graft seriously.

A current list of high-profile government employees claiming to be doing taxpayers a favor by  working for free includes President Donald Trump, First Daughter, Ivanka Trump, First Son-in-law, Jared Kushner, US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and, closer to home, soon to be ex-Illinois Governor, Bruce Rauner.

We can add to the list the next governor of Illinois.

Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, a billionaire who pumped a record $171.5 million of his personal fortune into his winning campaign for Illinois governor, will forgo his state salary, his staff said.

Considering state government’s annual spending is nearly $38.5 billion, the $177,412 annual salary Illinois pays its governors is a drop in the bucket. But the Hyatt hotel heir takes office next year facing steep financial challenges — the state’s sitting on at least $7.5 billion in unpaid bills — and refusing a salary sends a message to lawmakers and voters as he starts addressing them.

The only good news about Rauner’s bad governing is that we got it for free. He didn’t accept his governor’s salary.


Remember, the state owes $130 billion borrowed from the state pension systems and expects to take in $36.7 billion, so the impact of the governor’s refusal of payment is infinitesimal.

With J.B. Pritzker, we’re again getting a governor “free of charge.” Will he be better? He’d almost have to be. But like Rauner four years ago, he has no record. We’ll have to see.

Sadly, this idea of getting a public servant “at no cost you YOU!” is likely to become more popular. That’s bad for democracy.

In my years working for teachers and education support employees, I often heard from school board members who were focused exclusively on taxpayers while paying lip service to student needs. These folks balked at the notion school employees should be treated as professionals, suggesting teaching is a “calling,” and therefore not an activity for which the teacher’s education, training and experience should be fairly compensated.

That was wrong. It is always wrong. If you want qualified, competent people who care enough to do their very best and take on important responsibilities, you have to pay them. You should want to pay them.

We shouldn’t let the Bruce Rauner disaster obscure the fact that delivering important public service is real work, deserving of fair compensation.

If J.B. Pritzker can get Illinois on the right track, he will be worth far more than the salary we aren’t paying him.

McBarronBlog Bonus:

Despite the corruption and incompetence, about 25 percent of American voters remain loyal to Donald Trump, proving the producers of The Apprentice did a great job creating his undeserved reputation as a tough, decisive, successful businessman.

Read all about it.



Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, Mrs. McGinley


There are no chairs in the hallway outside the Social Security/Medicare office on Chicago’s northwest side. Nevertheless, arriving well before the office opens has benefits; standing for the better part of an hour is a small price to pay for those hoping to get necessary business completed so they can get on with their day.

I was fifth in line on Friday, getting there about an hour before the 9am opening. Very quickly, I got to discuss my Medicare issues with an expert.

I had needlessly dreaded this visit. The woman assisting me, who wore a badge reading “Mrs. McGinley,” could not have been farther removed from the stereotype of the uncaring civil servant. Our conversation lasted about 20 minutes and, when it was over, I understood all I needed to know about my Medicare benefits and costs.

She helped me immensely and efficiently. I was and am grateful.

Since President Trump forced the federal government “shutdown” on Friday night, I’ve been thinking a lot about Mrs. McGinley. I’ve read comments online about the affected federal employees; “They’ll eventually get their money” “This is no big deal,” etc…

It’s certainly a big deal for civil servants who, at Christmas, unexpectedly will have their paychecks delayed. It’s interesting to note that, though this political theater is supposedly due to Trump’s strong feelings about border security, 54,000 border protection agents will be working for free over Christmas.

What did these public servants do to deserve this disrespect, this uncertainty?

Not a damn thing.

Because our hopelessly corrupt President seeks to distract us from investigations and resignations, Mrs. McGinley and her colleagues are pawns in a game of “Look over there!”

The far right has done a masterful job of ratcheting up resentment of government employees, charging the workers with essentially stealing from taxpayers for advocating for reasonable pay and benefits in exchange for providing services we all need.

People like Mrs. McGinley seem to take it all in stride. While suggesting I follow-up my visit with a phone call to Medicare she added, under her breath, “If there’s anyone answering the phone next week.”

But, once the shutdown ends, she and her two million federal colleagues will continue to answer the phone. They’ll do it because it’s their job to help us, whether we appreciate them or not.

Thank you, Mrs. McGinley. And Merry Christmas.

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(Updated) When a political leader dies, especially when the death is not a surprise, reaction arrives in predictable waves. Straight news reports give way to biographical assessments, which are almost always laudatory.  Overwhelming praise is soon replaced by reassessment and, inevitably, by disparagement.

So it is with George Herbert Walker Bush, 41st President of the United States, who died November 30 at 94.

In addition to a recounting of Bush 41 accomplishments, it’s been rightly pointed out that, as President, GHW Bush made some bad decisions or allowed terrible things to be done on his watch.

He made the reckless decision to put the uniquely unqualified Dan Quayle a “heartbeat away from the presidency. ”

His 1988 presidential campaign was extremely divisive.

Under the tutelage of hardballers Roger Ailes, James Baker and Lee Atwater, Bush impugned the Americanism of his opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, the son of Greek immigrants, and pandered to prejudice in making hay of Dukakis’ honorable decision to accept a Massachusetts Supreme Court judgment that deemed mandatory pledge-of-allegiance recitals in public schools to be unconstitutional. “What is it about the Pledge of Allegiance that upsets him so much?” Bush taunted. Then came the Willie Horton ads that hyped the scare-story of an African-American criminal, released on furlough from a Massachusetts prison, who raped a woman and assaulted her husband. Never mind that Reagan, as governor of California, had signed a similar furlough bill.

Perhaps nothing Bush did as president was as indefensible as naming Clarence Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall on the US Supreme Court when there were much better qualified African American judges or legal scholars he could have chosen.

Yet, GHW Bush deserves our respect for his military service, for the many posts he held in government and, yes, for his single term as President.

If you have strong opinions about politics and policies, and you pay close attention to both, every President will disappoint you.

Every President.

Imagine if we had a president who cared nothing about uniting the country after a divisive election? A president who encouraged division?

Imagine if our Chief Executive was the kind of person who would take actions counter to American interests because he wanted to personally profit, or because he feared alienating his core constituency?

No patriotic American wants that.

Bush 41 was not that man. He foolishly took a “No new taxes” pledge but did what was best for the country by reneging on it.

When former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke won the Republican nomination for Governor of Louisiana, Bush got involved:

“When someone has a long record, an ugly record of racism and of bigotry, that record simply cannot be erased by the glib rhetoric of a political campaign,” Bush said of Duke. “So I believe David Duke is an insincere charlatan. I believe he’s attempting to hoodwink the voters of Louisiana, I believe he should be rejected for what he is and what he stands for.”

He had a memorable presidency. There was good and bad. Some presidents are better than others and 41 was probably somewhere near the middle.

He represents a time when we could have a president who you might not have voted for, and who held distinctly different political views from your own, but who was not an embarrassment and who did not represent a threat to the Constitution and the rule of law.

We’re hearing now from people who think those who are speaking respectfully of George H. W.  Bush have developed amnesia. They seem to think we don’t remember or don’t care about mistakes he made or that were made in his name.

That’s not true.

We’re just very aware of the present as well as the past.

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McBarronBlog Bonus