Happy Birthday to Me
There's an old cliche that I hear more and more as I grow older. Supposedly it started with the American actress Bette Davis, but I'm pretty sure the cliche was around long before that. People are always telling me that "Growing old ain't for sissies."
Like with most cliches, there's definitely some truth to it.
I remember the first time I became aware of what it must be like being old. I was twelve years old. My parents had invited a friend of theirs over for dinner. My mom and dad had known this guy ever since we came to America as DPs after the war. He was our neighbor, a Polish American who emigrated here just before the First World War. The night I remember when I first became aware of old age, he was in his late 60s, and after dinner he and my parents were sitting in the living room talking about old times. At some point, he excused himself and tried to stand up to go to the bathroom, but he couldn't stand up. His knees for some reason had given out, and he needed a hand from my dad and me to help him out of his chair.
I couldn't believe it. I had known this guy for years, and he always struck me as a bull of a man, large and strong and tough. In fact in his early twenties he had been a boxer, a fighter. He loved to talk about the fights he fought, the punishment to his body he overcame over and over. And suddenly, there he was, sitting in an easy chair in our living room and struggling to lift himself up.
I remember afterwards asking my dad why his friend couldn't stand up, and I remember my dad saying in Polish, "That's what happens when you get old."
I've just turned 72, and I'm beginning at last to understand what my dad meant.
My left knee is busted. My hearing aids hear more than I do. My blurry eyes can't focus. My feet are floppy. My heart is ruined. My sex drive only runs in reverse. My sense of balance is unbalanced. My sleep is broken up every night by 3 or 4 toilet trips. My voice goes in and out. My memory doesn't remember yesterday. My face is my father's. Finally, I'm an old man!
But there are things at 72 that I can still do. I can still sing the songs I love. I can still read. I can still swim and argue and joke. I can still hug and kiss the people I truly love, my wife, my daughter, and my granddaughter. And I can still do the things I love: I can eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, look at the clouds, and dream about tomorrow.
My latest column for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy.
Tuesday, June 9, 2020
Growing up in Chicago in the late 1960s, I felt that the world was always on the edge of protests and riots.
This feeling started in 1966 when I was 18 years old and living just east of Humboldt Park. One day early in June, Mayor Richard J. Daley announced there was going to be a week-long celebration of Puerto Rican culture and people. It turned into a riot on Division Street that lasted 3 days. I remember squad cars and sirens everywhere and cops threatening to beat us if we didn’t stay in our homes.
Less than two years later, Martin Luther King’s assasination sparked a series of riots on the Southside that resulted in 11 deaths, 500 injuries, and more than 2,100 arrests in two days of rioting. Five months later, there were the Democratic Convention riots, and two years after that the Kent State killings where the National Guard’s killing of four students fueled riots on college campuses all over the city. These, of course, weren’t the only protests and riots in Chicago. These were just the big ones.
I was involved with some of these protests. Starting in 1966, I actively protested against the Vietnam War. I marched and picketed, and once I even rioted.
Most of the time, these protests were peaceful. We would gather at Grant Park and listen to speakers telling us how wrong the war was, or we would march up State Street with signs that said no more war. But sometimes the protests became violent.
Why did they become violent? Sometimes, they became violent as a response to cops being violent. One time, we were picketing the University of Illinois’ ROTC building at the corner of Halsted and Roosevelt, and the cops there started breaking windows on the first floor of the building with their billy clubs. Some of the protesters ran to safety, others started throwing rocks and bricks at the cops, breaking even more windows.
I'm not saying the cops are always to blame. I also saw protesters become rioters without any kind of provocation, breaking windows, throwing rocks, starting fires. Why did they become rioters? I think they were people who wanted violence. I knew some of these rioters. The protest was just an excuse to be violent for them.
After the 1968 Martin Luther King riots, the City of Chicago set up a committee to look into the riots. One of the things they determined was that one of the causes of the riots was “a spontaneous overflow of pent-up aggressions.”
That statement comes close to summing up what I learned from my years of protesting. I learned the majority of the protesters and a majority of the police officers understood why they were there. The protestors wanted you to know that something in our society is not right, and the police officers wanted the protesters to know that protesting is okay up to a certain point. I learned also that there’s a minority of protesters and police officers who wanted to express their “pent-up aggression.” They wanted to throw bricks and burn things and bust heads and shoot tear gas because it made them feel alive.
These are the people we need to watch out for.
Friday, June 5, 2020
The Wall Street Journal loved it!
Here’s what they said:
John Guzlowski’s powerful “Little Altar Boy” (Kasva Press, 323 pages, $14.95) centers on the fatal stabbing of a Chicago nun. Set in 1967, Mr. Guzlowski’s latest takes place a decade after events in his equally memorable “Suitcase Charlie,” which also featured Windy City detective Hank Purcell and his partner Marvin Bondarowicz.
The victim was beloved—saintly, some say. She had made a recent secret visit to Purcell’s home to alert him to the pedophiliac conduct of a parish priest. Did that confidential revelation prompt her murder? The priest in question seems to have a solid alibi, as does everyone else in the nun’s circumscribed world.
As he sorts out the nun’s killing, Hank is beyond distracted by the recent disappearance of his 19-year-old daughter, who had fallen into bad company. All this takes place right after Christmas, as snowfall covers Chicago with a sort of spiritual malaise. “He needed a miracle—maybe a few of them at once,” Hank thinks. What he gets instead is another dead body.
As Hank and his partner Marvin drive from one neighborhood to another, seeking information in rectories and blues clubs and drug dealers’ pads, Hank admits to himself: “He felt like a failure and a fool, like a man drowning in his own weakness and inadequacy.” But it’s also Hank’s habit to see a mission through to its end, however dire the consequences, cold the comfort, and irrevocable the harm to his family life and psychic health.
Friday, April 24, 2020
My Mother and Her Ukrainian Neighbors
Tens of thousands of Poles in Eastern Poland were killed between 1943 and 1944 by Ukrainian Nationalists working with the Germans. July 11 was the day of the worst killing, a day when the Ukrainian Nationalists attacked 100 or so villages. That was seventy-six years ago.
Much of my mother’s family was killed during this period by her Ukrainian neighbors. Her mother was murdered, her sister was raped and killed, her sister's baby kicked to death. My mother, a girl of 19 at the time, was able to survive by breaking through a window and running into a forest to hide. She was found a couple days later by German soldiers. They put my mother and a lot of the surviving Poles from her village in boxcars and shipped them to slave labor camps in Germany. She spent the next 2 years in those camps. After the war she was afraid to go back to her village.
She was afraid that what happened to her brother who survived the war would happen to her. When the war ended, he went back on a United Nations sponsored train to that section of Poland that had been taken over by the Russians and made a part of the Ukraine, and when he got off the train, there were Russian soldiers there who arrested him and put him on another train and sent him to a prison camp in Siberia. He died there.
My mom and my dad made a trip to Poland in 1988. They went back to her village to see if they could find the graves of her mom and sister and the sister's baby. There were no graves. The men who did the killing didn't take the time to dig graves and put up crosses or markers. They probably just threw the Polish dead into a pit and shoveled dirt over them
During that trip, my mom actually made it to her old house, the one where the killing took place. She knocked on the door and when someone answered her knocking, she introduced herself and told them that she had lived in this house when she was a girl, before the killings.
The person who answered the door, a Ukrainian fellow about my mom's age, said that he had been living in the house all his life and he didn't know her and didn't know what she was talking about.
My mom left and never went back.
This is my latest column for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the oldest Polish newspaper in America.
Wednesday, April 22, 2020
A Letter to My Mother
I know you’ve been gone a long time now, almost 15 years, but I dreamt I was with you again last night.
It was in the old house in Chicago, the one on Potomac Avenue, the first one I remember the number for.
You planted flowers there in the backyard where there had never been flowers, watered them with the water that fell from the sky. The flowers were so red and yellow and blue that you loved to just sit on the porch and watch them.
You washed my hair with that water too. You said it would keep me young and help me grow tall and smart and loving. I was too young to know what all those words really meant, but I believed you.
Autumn came finally, and the rain fell grayer and harder, and then there was snow, so much snow, and you put the snow in a dishpan and melted it and washed my hair with it.
You said the water from snow was just as pure as the water from the rain.
Years later in your last house in Arizona, the one I still remember the number for, I washed your hair with water from the sink. You didn’t complain. You understood. You knew that there was no rain in the desert, no snow either.
While you waited for your hair to dry, you told me stories you never told me before. You told me about your sister and the time she visited Lvov, the candy she found on the seat of the train, about your pet pig Carolina and how much you loved just sitting with her in the forest and watching the leaves fall in the coolness that followed those long summers. You told me about the war too, about the day the Germans came to your home in the forest west of Lvov and killed your mother and your sister and your sister’s baby. You told me too that the German soldiers did other things that you still could not tell me about even though I was a grown man and a university professor.
I listened to your stories that I had never heard before and knew you like I had never known you, and when you asked me again where the water came from, I told you that I had collected it from the clouds.
Monday, April 13, 2020
Here’s my most recent column for the Polish Daily News. It’s a piece on aloneness during the pandemic:
This pandemic is like nothing I’ve ever experienced or seen before. I’ve lived through life in a refugee camp, blizzards, tornados, polio scares, hurricanes, atomic bomb drills, race riots, 9/11, blackouts that lasted for weeks, and the deaths of my parents and best friends. And none of that has prepared me for this.
For the last three weeks, I’ve been self-quarantined in my home here in Lynchburg, Virginia, with my wife and my daughter and my granddaughter. We’re all here waiting for something to end and not knowing really if it ever will.
And what do we do while we wait?
The number one thing is that we try to ignore that there is a pandemic.
We try to ignore the fact that the restaurants in town are closed except for curbside pickup, that the parks are closed or closing, that the churches and schools and libraries and museums are closed, that the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus rises here and throughout the US by about 20%, that people are dying here and across the world from some kind of virus that no one has any understanding of.
We try to ignore the fact that we haven’t seen any of our friends in three weeks, that the people we used to get together with every weekend for some laughs and some wine and some talk are suddenly so far away in their own confinement.
We try to ignore the fact that we are alone.
I’ve been alone in the past. In my 20s, I loved to go hitchhiking and camping alone. I’d pack a backpack and stand on the side of a highway until I got a ride to some wilderness in Montana or Idaho where I would be alone for a week or two weeks, but that aloneness was nothing like this aloneness. I knew that there were other people in the wilderness with me, and I knew too that all I had to do if the aloneness got to be too much for me was walk out of the wilderness and stick my thumb out and catch a ride back home to my home in Chicago. I was alone, but the aloneness was an aloneness that was temporary. It was an aloneness I could put an end to pretty easily. It was an aloneness I welcomed into my life, and it was an aloneness I could say. “so long to.”
This aloneness that I’m feeling in this pandemic is nothing like that. It’s an aloneness surrounded by a mystery, an aloneness in a wilderness we can’t just walk out of when we get tired of being alone.
Monday, March 30, 2020
The End of the World
My father used to say this all the time. As a joke. He had seen the world end once before with his own eyes. He had been in Buchenwald concentration camp for 4 years during World War II. There he had seen his friends crucified, hanged, frozen to death. After the war, he had spent 6 years in a refugee camp in Germany, waiting for some country to welcome him and our family in.
And still he joked that the world was ending. Whenever anybody complained about anything, he’d start in joking about how it was the end of the world.
As a kid, if I lost my favorite cats-eye marble or my oldest baseball, I’d get teary-eyed. And that’s when my dad would start. He would shake his head, put on a pretend frown, and say in Polish, “świat się kończy.”
The world is ending.
What could I do with the sorrow I felt? I shrugged like he did and said the same thing he said, “świat się kończy.”
I’d say that and move on to the next bit of life I needed to live even if I couldn’t find my favorite marble or that special baseball.
Sometimes while watching the stuff about the coronavirus pandemic on the news, I feel like I’m hearing over and over that our world is ending. In fact, journalists and commentators and even politicians are actually saying this. They’re saying that the world we now know and live in is coming to an end and it will never ever be the same, not in our lifetime or the lifetimes of our kids and our grandkids.
Is the world ending?
I don’t know.
What I do know is that I took a walk this morning with my granddaughter Lulu. It sure didn’t feel like the world was ending. The spring sun was there, brighter and warmer than it’s been in months, and I heard sparrows and finches chattering about what they were eating. Up the street, four kids were balancing themselves on a curb and seeing who could walk the longest without falling. A moment later, a mother and her toddler walked past us on the other side of the street. The mom was holding her daughter’s hand, and her daughter was pointing at some yellow flowers that had just started blooming.
świat się kończy?