Thursday, December 31, 2015

Just Breathe

I used to half-joke that I considered every day I lived past 21 to be a miracle, given the circumstances surrounding my childhood. I’m a quarter century past that high water mark now and long stopped referring to my adulthood as the exception to the rule. Since today is New Year’s Eve, the conditions are ideal for some added reflection.

A few months ago, I would have written that 2015 was marked by loss: not only a job, but some friendships I treasured not because of where they stood at the time and where they were going, but because I couldn’t let go of what those relationships used to be. Many of the wounds were self-inflicted. Pema Chödrön wrote: “As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution.”

I demanded resolution and, in doing so, opened myself to more conflict. My efforts to build bridges burned more down instead, and I reached a low point I hadn’t felt in years. The last time I felt this shitty was when I was 30; similar extenuating circumstances combined to form the same critical mass. Then, I ignored it by saddling my bike, pedaling until I was past the point of exhaustion, insulting everyone in my path and living in a state of arrested development. Now, I’ve been able to face this honestly and identify it for what it was.

Depression isn’t a word that’s spoken in my family. Growing up, we took the “rub a little dirt on it” approach to dealing with problems—some of us still do. The thing about seeing a therapist and truly putting in the work to improve oneself is it forces you to be honest about the issues holding you back. For me, it was the first time in my life I faced issues like anger, insecurity, inferiority and loneliness without my standard shield of sarcasm to attack others. That’s hard enough to do when you’re younger; try doing it in your mid-40s. Surprise! Old dogs can learn new tricks.

It also helps to have a good therapist. Mine is excellent. In our first sessions we worked on basic behavioral modifications, like taking five-to-ten minute breaks during the workday for myself. Another one was to simply breathe whenever my anxieties or obsessive tendencies arose. One of the seeming simplest tasks, that’s been among the hardest to master. When my brain was a muddy stew over the summer, I forgot to do that. During the summer sessions where I regaled my doc about my shitty weeks, her first question was always, "Did you take the time to breathe?" I allowed that I hadn't. She arched her eyebrows and didn't say anything; we both knew.

Eventually, I returned to the business of living again. I gave my new job an honest try and discovered the same instincts and lessons I learned at Chicagoist serve me well at Bisnow. This time, however, I know when enough is enough and when to walk away. I can shut down the laptop at any time. I stopped stewing in my funk and reached out to friends old and new, who were there all along with open arms.

All I had to do was breathe.

I make the same New Year’s resolution every year: I resolve to not make any resolutions. My rationale is that’s one resolution I can honestly keep. I’ve added another for 2016. I resolve to take steps back to breathe; to take the time to assess my surroundings. That will open me to new opportunities, interests, friends, romantic interests and overall growth.

I’m also hopeful there will be opportunities to repair some of the friendships that ended this year. This time, that isn’t tied with resolution or rose-colored memories of what was. Sometimes you just need space to heal. There’s an old military tradition where friends who have not seen or heard from each other for long periods of time never question their friendship. These friendships resume at the same time they left off regardless of distance, time and what transpired between them.

We call these friends "family."

PS I’m kicking off 2016 telling tales out of class with my pal Andrew Huff at his monthly “Tuesday Funk” 7:30 p.m. Jan. 5 at Hopleaf. If you’re free, y’all should show up. I’ve been spending some free time finally getting back to the task of writing more personal stories and looking for outlets for them. This will be a great way to dip my toes back into that pool. 

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

While You Weren't Looking...

Teachers at Healy Elementary in Bridgeport receive support from motorists during the 2012 Chicago teachers strike.

It seems as though Chicago is reaping a ton of bad karma lately. The actions of the Police Department are playing out on a national stage and are now the focus of a Justice Department Investigation. Rahm Emanuel’s carefully crafted national narrative as a take-charge, no-nonsense mayor has gone up in flames of the flash paper on which it was drafted. As I type this, protesters have blocked Congress Parkway demanding further justice in the police murders of LaQuan McDonald and Ronald Johnson. The drumbeat for the resignations of Emanuel and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez grow louder.

Amid all this, another chicken has come home to roost. The Chicago Teachers Union began voting today on a strike authorization. Odds are solid that, if you’re the parent of a Chicago Public Schools student, you’ll be looking for a babysitter in a few short months. Those of you reading this thinking, “didn’t they just strike a while back?” and wondering why they may walk out again, haven’t been paying attention to how the mayor and his allies have treated the teachers union since signing that 2012 contract.

Here are the Cliff’s Notes: almost immediately after settling the strike, Emanuel and the Chicago School Board orchestrated the closing of 50 neighborhood schools, the largest mass public school closures in American history. CPS laid off teachers in each of the years following the strike, citing a need to balance the system’s budget. The district increased class sizes, added an hour to the school day and cut funding and services at neighborhood schools, effectively making teachers glorified babysitters. The “safe passage” program intended to protect students making the trek from shuttered schools to schools outside of their neighborhoods was met with varying results, and incidents of violence in the safe passage zones. 

Meanwhile, the school board asked for—and received—the maximum property tax levy allowable to help balance its budgets and promptly pissed it away. It’s dipped into capital expenses and used voodoo economics to present balanced budgets to City Council. Public resources that could have been used to strengthen neighborhood schools continued to be funneled to charter schools and IB programs which perform as well, if not worse, than district schools. Former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty in a kickback scheme related to a no-bid contract. Conflicts of interest have arisen with members of the mayor’s hand-picked school board and companies (in which they have a vested financial stake) doing business with the district. Debt swapping schemes initiated by former school board chair David Vitale have eroded CPS’ bond rating. Gov. Bruce Rauner, who emerged from the 2012 strike as one of the most hawkish anti-union agitators, offered CPS pension relief in exchange for a property tax freeze, union busting measures, limits on public workers’ rights to compensation and a new education funding formula one can safely assume won’t work out in the neighborhood schools’ favor.

Yet, CTU is seen as the villain by some. As with most Chicago political landmines, it’s rooted in racism. From the Wilson wagons of the 1960s to the voluntary busing programs of the late 1970s, Chicago Public Schools has reflected the hyper-segregation of the city proper. We see and hear black CPS students speaking in stilted language and we crow they aren’t “getting the education my tax dollars are supposed to be funding.” We see mostly black and Hispanic teachers picketing and protesting and assume they should shut the fuck up, be thankful they weren’t among the layoffs and get back to work. CTU president Karen Lewis, who managed to whip a previously disorganized rank and file into a unified force, and still remains the only labor leader to beat Emanuel at the bargaining table, is viciously attacked for her gender, her race, her appearance and her politics. 

Organized labor has been under siege for years, teacher unions especially. We’ve been trained as a society over the decades to beatify teachers for doing the Lord’s Work in teaching Johnny to read, but condemn teachers unions as the root cause of why Johnny isn’t reading at his grade level. CPS failed to meet the pension payment obligations it agreed to under previous contracts with CTU for years, but it’s the teachers union that’s seen as a greedy drain on resources. That plotline is once again rearing its matted, rotten head. 

Here is what CPS is offering CTU in its current negotiations:  a 7 percent pay cut over three years; eliminating the lane and step compensation system for teachers; and massive increases to health care and pension contributions. CPS will not budge on decreasing class sizes, will not cut standardized testing and won’t discuss a lack of wraparound services and clinicians at neighborhood schools. The combination of the pay cut and increased teacher contributions to healthcare and pension payments would amount to teachers actually seeing a 17-20 percent cut in average salary over the course of a proposed four-year deal.

Emanuel, who's waged a war on public education since his first inauguration, is already working to shape the discussion in the public eye. He’s made the media rounds bellowing that a strike authorization vote “distracts from the solution.” Emanuel is a plutocrat who aligns closer to Rauner than the common man, so knowing how organized labor works may be a stretch for him. A union’s power is in its ability to withhold work. Unions don’t look to strike; they’re fighting for an equitable labor system. CTU knows first-hand what obstacles stand between your children and the quality education the city is supposed to provide. And the union isn’t one of them.

The last time CTU voted to authorize a strike, it had widespread support from the public. Things haven’t improved in the past three years and I’m certain they’ll find solidarity from those of us who remember when a quality education could be obtained in a Chicago public school.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

We Must Do Better

I’ve debated weighing in on the LaQuan McDonald murder and cover-up ever since the video was released. If you're reading this, you know what I ultimately decided. But I felt it prudent to be measured in my response, this being the age of the hot take and all. Even as I file this, I’m not sure it's worth sharing. But that’s never stopped me before.

Am I angry? I am. And that anger can help one dig a deep hole when processing thoughts on a subject such as this. The calls for Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to resign in the wake of the dash cam video’s release grow by the minute. While their resignations would be a welcome holiday gift for those of us calling for justice, it won’t solve the problems that will continue to exist after they’re gone. In some cases, their resignations would worsen some of the existing circumstances. 

It’s like the hydra: cut off one head and two will grow to take its place.

I’m talking about issues like the culture of silence in the Chicago Police Department that enables the actions of police officers like McDonald’s killer Jason Van Dyke, and Dante Servin, acquitted of killing Rekia Boyd when he blindly fired into a crowd of people in an alley. Or the 10 percent of Chicago police officers with multiple misconduct charges on their records, who account for 30 percent of all complaints, who almost always walk away scot-free. CPD’s “no snitch” policy is as bad, if not worse, than the one they’re trying to break in black neighborhoods.

I’m talking about issues like the multiple independent reviews of police shootings that are deemed justifiable, from 21-year-old Tamir Rice’s murder in Cleveland to the several instances debated (and I use the term loosely) by CPD’s Independent Police Review Authority.

I’m talking about issues like the militarization of police departments across the country the past quarter-century. The motto “to serve and protect” has largely been abandoned. Police officers these days act more like an occupying force than one sworn to keep the peace and preserve life, even those of the criminals they arrest. Foot patrols have given way to armored vehicles, SUVs, surveillance equipment and LRADs, and cops like Van Dyke who unload an entire clip into a teen walking away from him.

I’m talking about issues like allowing police unions to intimidate critics and simultaneously claim persecution, as NYPD Patrolman’s Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch has recently. Or to control media narratives whenever an officer fires his weapon, as Chicago Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Pat Camden does at the scene of every shooting involving a police officer.

I’m talking about issues such as how media outlets with limited resources accept the nonsense coming from Camden’s mouth as gospel.

I’m talking about the issue of how CPD may be overworked and stressed out, thanks to the hundreds of millions of dollars in overtime pay the past four years, that is the linchpin of former Superintendent Garry McCarthy’s crimefighting initiative. Or the FOP’s claim the Police Department is understaffed, despite a 2012 report showing Chicago has the most police officers per capita of all major American cities.

I’m talking about issues involving the goosing crime stats to give politicians, if not the public, the perception the city is making headway on major crime.

I’m talking about the tone deafness of Emanuel, who said last week the culture needed to change, then immediately headed to Millennium Park to light the city Christmas tree. Or how his administration waited until after he was re-elected to approve the $5 million settlement with LaQuan McDonald’s parents. Or how the City Law Department fought to prevent the video from being released.

I’m talking about the vindictiveness of Anita Alvarez, a “tough on crime” prosecutor who regularly refuses to investigate misconduct cases involving CPD or the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. A prosecutor who almost never doubts the thoroughness of police investigations, even as actual evidence—from the David Koschman cover-up to McDonald—are examples of why she should.
I’m talking about neighbors and residents who justify their ignorance and intolerance of what’s happening by bringing up bogeymen like “black on black crime” or “why don’t they protest in their own neighborhoods?” (They do. Every day.)

I’m talking about the issue of Chicago’s historic and ongoing hyper-segregation that leads neighbors and residents to take a “NIMBY” attitude.

I’m talking about the complete breakdown in the checks and balances between this city’s executive and legislative branches of government that has allowed the mayor to act as an Elective Majesty for as long as I’ve been alive, with the exception of four years in the 1980s.

We can do better. We must do better. I vote like clockwork because, evidence to the contrary, I believe in the power of the ballot. I believe sustained protests can effect positive change. I believe politicians who consider their seats to be family heirlooms should regularly have the fear of having to find honest work instilled in them every four years. I believe in One Chicago, in Building a New Chicago in the neighborhoods that need the boost the most.

If we lose that belief, everyone loses.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Second Act

Whenever I tell someone I work from home, I always hear the same answer: “That must be so cool, to not have to leave the house for work.”

While working from home does have its advantages, it isn’t quite living the dream. The reality is more complicated.  It can be isolating, and folks who work from home can be susceptible to depression, anxiety, and see their social skills erode. If you’re like me and your anxiety already is at a high idle, you need to stay vigilant, or else you move straight from the desk to a tearful 90-minute nap, because you’re emotionally drained after the work day is done.

After I was fired from Chicagoist in March, I wanted a change from that routine. I cast a wide net with my job search. I wanted to stay in local media, but the current local journalism landscape meant most of the plum jobs were gone as fast as they were posted; the rest were filled at a snail’s pace, as companies had multiple vacancies in their professional hierarchies. So I extended my reach to marketing, public relations, content development and the nonprofit sector. My resume was polished to a new penny shine.

One thing I hoped for, regardless—after five years of mostly working from home, I dreamed of a job in an office, surrounded by peers, with a commute and the occasional bad lunch at my desk, followed by a mid-afternoon coma while counting down the hours to quitting time. 

So how did I wind up with another job requiring me to work from home? The answer, in short, was that it felt right. My now editor-in-chief, a charming woman with a languid Georgia accent, and a descendant of Southern newspaper royalty, said this wasn’t for everyone when we first spoke. What was supposed to be a 20-minute chat turned into an hour-long phone call where we discussed our backgrounds, individual writing and editing philosophies, and our mutual desire to be a part of something with the potential for growth. There were some stumbles in the weeks after I accepted the job, compounded by the other upheavals in my life. But in talking with her, I realized, like Chicagoist a half-decade prior, it was an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up.

The struggles were evident as soon as I started my writing tryout. The language of commercial real estate (and of this publication) was as foreign to me as speaking Esperanto, and I resisted learning it, from the onset. It’s fast-paced, requires attention to detail, and the learning curve is steep and fast. My editors realized I was green and were patient, knowing they took a chance on someone with no business writing experience. From my perspective, I realized how much I allowed by reporting skills to deteriorate. My first drafts—even reblogs—were sloppy and required multiple edits before they were fit for publication. Doubt as to whether I had the ability to do this job set in deep and became a driving factor in my summer of weltschmerz. I would lash out at what I believed was nitpicking of my copy, which frustrated my editors. I ended my work days in fits of crying, yelling into pillows, and bad eating habits.

Eventually, it reached a point where, as I sat in the quiet room of Bridgeport Coffee House on a mid-August day, I considered reaching out to the Evanston law office where I first dreamed of becoming a full-time writer, to see it they had work. You had a hell of a run, the doubts screamed in my head. There’s no shame in going back. That night, I told my friend Michelle of my decision. “It’s good that you came to this decision early,” she said. While Michelle rarely offers advice aloud, the look on her face told a different story. “Don’t make a rash decision. You’re going through a lot, professionally and personally, and you’ll get through this the way you always have. You’re a fighter—fight.”

The next day I returned to work more composed, determined to get through the day without incident and doing the job to the best of my abilities. I spent the weekend soul searching and dedicated to taking control of this situation for the first time. The next week I pounded phones; incessantly emailed a growing list of contacts; turned in sharper, tighter copy; laid out a detailed editorial calendar to my editors that was greeted with enthusiasm; and listened to their advice. Around the same time, I started to receive analytics showing the growth of my page views, and how I progressed learning the language of business reporting. I’ve learned to trust my editors, and they have put their faith in me to do the job I’ve been hired to do, to the best of my abilities. The doubts began to recede and, though there are some days where they return with a vengeance, those moments are exceedingly rare. Like any good reporter, I’m finding the meat on the bone I want to eat, and trusting once again that if I find something interesting, readers will, as well.

I’m having fun again with the keyboard. I’m finding myself interjecting my personality into my reporting, which was one of the things that these folks liked about me from the onset. Most important, I’m able to leave work behind me at the end of the day. I spent far too long letting my job description define who I am, when I’m so much more. Not having to worry about that in my downtime has been a revelation. 

Journalism, at its foundation, is a simple endeavor—report on who, what, when, where, why and how; and get the facts right. It's equal parts science and art, but the balancing act is simple. Remember that, and you can do the job, and find satisfaction in it. Hunter S Thompson wrote, “Although I don't feel that it's at all necessary to tell you how I feel about the principle of individuality, I know that I'm going to have to spend the rest of my life expressing it one way or another, and I think that I'll accomplish more by expressing it on the keys of a typewriter than by letting it express itself in sudden outbursts of frustrated violence.”

Writing, for me, has been as much a therapeutic tool and a salvation, as an art form. And it will continue to be, long after I stop earning the right to be paid for the endeavor. It’s just nice to feel comfortable in my skin again and enter the day with clear eyes and a full heart.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Farewell, Columbia House!

Filmed Entertainment, the parent company of the Columbia House Record and Tape Club, filed for bankruptcy Monday. I owe my nascent music development to taking full advantage of Columbia House's "any 13 records for a penny" promotion and I'm sure I and scores of other kids put our parents' credit rating at risk by not reading the fine print.

Following is a story I wrote a few years back I performed at CHIRP Radio's "The First Time" reading series. It involves my mother, religion and Columbia House. Enjoy.


Like many people who came of age in the late 70s and early 80s, I took advantage of the Columbia House Record Club and their “12 albums for a penny” introductory offers. It was a cherry high that hooked you, like your first sip, puff, snort, or lick that had you begging for more. I had imagination and a resourcefulness that bordered on the criminal-uncanny for a 10-year-old-and soon sent in multiple sheets, pennies super-glued to them, with different names. I ordered records under Chuck Sudo, Charles Sudo, Sr., Sue Dough, Richard J. Daley, Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb, Maurice Gibb, Andy Gibb, Ace Frehley, Captain Marvel, Captain America, Frank N. Stein, Young Frankenstein, Benjamin Grimm, Bruce Banner, David Banner, The Incredible Hulk, Sheriff Lobo and, finally, simply CHUCK. (Spelled with a backward “k.”)

I hadn’t read the fine print thoroughly, however, and before long my mother asked “Captain Marvel” how he was going to pay for $300 in mail order record purchases. She decided I needed some discipline in my life but, instead of taking a brush or belt to my ass, she thought some religion was necessary.

Between 1974 and 1979, our home was a single parent household. When my mother wasn’t working to keep a roof over our heads, she turned to organized religion as a surrogate father, a means of discipline, and a babysitter when corporal punishment wasn’t enough. By the time I was 12, I had been baptized as a Jehovah’s Witnesses, Evangelical Lutheran, Pentecostal, Episcopalian, Seventh Day Adventist Church of Christ and three different types of Baptists.

But the First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana was the only church she knew of that had the capability to bus people to worship. This appealed to my mother greatly when she welcomed “Brother Jim” into our home in the winter of 1979, when the combination of the record house scam and my painting the faces of my KISS action figures with flesh colored model paint because “I wanted to know what KISS looked like without the makeup” proved too much for her to ignore.

Working class neighborhoods in Chicago, then as now, are fertile fields for members of the Northwest Indiana megachurch to offer their testimony and fill the pews. I’ve theorized over the years it’s because they specifically target families where English isn’t the primary language and the stressed-out heads of single parent homes. (They sure as hell aren’t pulling that shit in affluent neighborhoods.) Brother Jim had Mom at “We’ll bus him to church.” When he said that, Mom had a gleam in her eye as she thought about catching up on sleep, housekeeping, hanging with her girlfriends and maybe inviting gentlemen callers over without the possibility I would walk in on them.

Not wanting to seem like she was completely passing me off to the first warm body, Mom also attended church the first weekend and, satisfied I would be returned home in one (physical) piece, arranged for Brother Jim and his school bus to pick me up at 8 a.m. every Sunday. The church was an old department store converted into a house of worship in downtown Hammond and they bused in a melting pot laity in swarms. Mom’s constant switching of churches had given me a healthy skepticism for organized religion. The penchant of First Baptist Church members to dress themselves in the worst thrift store fashions and barber college hairstyles only strengthened my resistance.

Then there was the standard practice of missionaries like Brother Jim to speak in absolutes about something none of us will truly know about until we’re dead. He would sit beside me on rides to church and hand me Chick Cartoon tracts with titles like “The Choice,” “The Truth,” “Bad Bob” and “Back From the Dead” – as if they were suitable replacements the Batman comic books I kept in my backpack. The Chick Tracts, with their “accept Jesus or rot in Hell forever” options were certainly more violent in their depictions of Satan, the Lake of Fire and eternal torment. Whenever Brother Jim found me sneaking a peek at my comics, he would ask, “Why aren’t you reading your Bible? It’s the greatest story ever told.” Once I replied, “Have you read ‘The Laughing Fish?’ It’s the greatest Joker story ever told.”

Brother Jim would ask if I knew where I’d go when we died, which was a fucked-up thing to ask any kid under the age of 10. His favorite question, which he would use whenever he offered his testimony, was, “Did you know Hell is a million times hotter than the pilot light of your stove?”

Again, I was a bookish sort and the beginnings of the surly smartass I would become were evident even then. I would ask, “So it’s a constant one million, two thousand, four hundred degrees in Hell? Is it a dry heat?” Brother Jim would stammer, his eyes narrowing into beady embers of coal as he tried to resist the urge to smack the taste out of my mouth. He’d fashion a painful smile, almost like a rictus grin, to his face and say with a combination of arrogance and self-assuredness, “I know I’m not going to Hell. I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.”

“Pride is a deadly sin,” I interjected.

After church, there were games they would have us play on the bus rides back to Chicago, which were essentially fraternity hazings without the booze, drugs or date rape. Brother Jim would bring kids to the front of the bus to engage in nascent competitive eating contests. It seemed as though nothing was off limits in these competitions, but the staples always seemed to be baby food, worms, milk or soda chugging and goldfish. Not goldfish crackers. Goldfish. The objective was to eat until you had what competitive eaters nowadays call a “reversal of fortune.”With the Mexican and Puerto Rican kids who brought bottles of Malta El Sol champagne cola on the bus, there was always a reversal of fortune, especially if Brother Jim and his associates broke out the goldfish. When I pointed out to Brother Jim this was obvious gluttony, another cardinal sin, he gleefully dismissed my observation with, “But we’re doing this as soldiers of the Cross,” proving that anything can be excused if you crouch it in religion. “You’re eating these 15 jumbo goldfish until you puke in the name of Christ.”

Everyone had to participate eventually. It was after one of these eating contests a year into being buses every Sunday to Northwest Indiana like clockwork, as I was praying to the porcelain throne once I returned home, that Brother Jim, with my mother at his side, went through my record collection with the same zeal I did when I first put it together. His fingers worked down the crates and he would stop every third album or so and pull out one: my KISS records; my Cheap Trick records AC/DC’s “High Voltage,” Black Sabbath’s "Sabotage," Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain, Ted Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever,” Elvis Costello and the Attractions' “Armed Forces” and, curiously, Olivia Newton John’s "Totally Hot."

“Do You Know What ‘KISS’ Stands for, Chuck?” Brother Jim asked. Before I could answer, he replied “Knights in Satan’s Service.”

“And AC/DC stands for ‘After Christ, Devil Comes,’” he added.

I nodded at the direction of my Olivia Newton John record. “Why did you pull that one?” I asked.

“It's selling sex and demeaning to women,” Brother Jim said. “This woman is a painted slut.” 

This would be the only time in my life that the very safe and vanilla Olivia Newton John was referred to as a painted anything. The album cover for Totally Hot was Newton John in her “Bad Sandy” outfit from “Grease,” with the addition of a bandanna.

Brother Jim turned to my mother. “Shirley, with your permission, I’d like to bring these records to an event we have planned next week, during Sunday school.” She smiled at me and told Brother Jim, “I think we can accommodate that.”

My heart sank and I started to bawl like every bit of the 10-year-old I still was. Mom had the presence of mind to ask what the event was. Brother Jim’s rictus grin reappeared on his face as he patted me on the shoulder and said, “A record burning.” This caught Mom off guard and, as she looked at me snotting like a bull for the preservation of my ill-gotten booty, eyed Brother Jim the way I had for months. “It’ll be alright. You may think it’s only music, but you’ll thank me one day for ridding you of this sinful music,” he said.

As I waited for Brother Jim to tell me that dancing was an affront to God and possibly outlawed in Hammond, he started to gather the records he pulled from my collection into a tidy bundle.

My mother looked at this mind rapist, then me. Then she stopped Brother Jim and said, “we’ll have some records ready for you next week. I need some time to convince him this is the right thing to do.” She could have easily let him continue gathering his selections, the sting of my mail order larceny still fresh in her memory.

Brother Jim, recognizing he didn’t want to cross a mother bear, nodded, placed the records back and showed himself the door. I stopped blubbering and tried to thank Mom. Before I could utter anything, she whispered, “Not a word. How you conduct yourself the next seven days will determine if I give them those records.”

It wasn’t the opening I wanted, but it was enough for me to toe the line and behave as though the First Baptist Church’s teachings finally sank into my head. The day of the record burning arrived and, as the bus pulled in front of our home, mom handed me my backpack, in which I could feel the shape of album covers inside.

“Don’t open your backpack until it’s time to give the records to Brother Jim,” she said. I tried to hold in my emotions, but I couldn’t. Brother Jim tried his best to console me, but he came across like a snake oil salesman.

When we arrived in Hammond for Sunday school, the bonfire was already raging and I was instructed to get in line to offer my vinyl sacrifice. Brother Jim, probably sensing I would try to make a break for the bus, stayed at my side all the way until I reached the fire. It may not have been a million degrees hotter than a stove’s pilot light, but it was the epitome of Hell.

I reached the fire and Brother Jim said, “Okay, Chuck. Let her rip.” I unzipped my backpack, reach my hand inside and pulled out… my mother’s Carpenters and Donny and Marie records, and a vinyl copy of “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” I smiled and frisbied those pieces of shit right into the center of the bonfire. Jim was proud of me until he saw the Carpenters logo on the covers; then he realized my mother had granted clemency to my record collection. Although I’m sure he could have rationalized Karen Carpenter as impure somehow.

The bus ride back to Chicago was like riding on a cloud. We pulled up to our home, where Mom was waiting on the stoop with the man who would become my stepfather. Brother Jim told Mom I rose to the challenge like a man, but his face told a different story of a missionary who had victory snatched from his fingertips. He tried to confirm to pick me up the following Sunday, but Mom said, “I think we’re going to take a break next week.”

Brother Jim again didn’t try to overcome Mom’s objections and, if he did, the man at her side looked primed to stomp a mudhole in his ass and walk it dry. “I’ll call you in a couple of weeks, then,” he said.

He never did.

As the bus drove merged into Division Street traffic en route to the Kennedy expressway, the three of us sat on the stoop. The windows were open and I could hear the stereo drop a record on the turntable, as the power chords of Cheap Trick provided the music for the church’s unspoken retreat.