Friday, January 1, 2021

Not a Christmas Letter

Not a Christmas Letter

Just about every year since my wife Linda and I got married back in 1975, I’ve written a Christmas Letter. In it I’d tell all our friends and family members who weren’t living close to us about what Linda and I had been doing that past year.  I’d talk about the vacations we’d taken and the charming and wonderful things our daughter Lillian and granddaughter Lucy do.  I’d tell people too about my writing projects and how they were going, the poems and essays and novels I’d published and the novels I was working on.  

And I’d always find a little bit of space in these Christmas Letters to talk about the funny things that had happened to us.  I’d talk about trying to fix a pipe in a sink that just wouldn’t stay fixed, or I’d go on and on about the day we found our lost cat Valley, but it didn’t turn out to be our cat Valley at all.  

I always liked writing these Christmas Letters because they were a way of thinking back on the experiences of the past year and enjoying them all over again.

I didn’t write a Christmas Letter this year, and I bet you know why.

This is the year I don’t want to remember.  

It’s this COVID pandemic with its 340,000 deaths here in the US and 1.8 million deaths worldwide.  The pandemic kept me from writing the Christmas Letter.

This pandemic only started officially here in the United States at the beginning of February when the Trump Administration announced a nationwide public health emergency, but it feels like it’s been here longer than that.  It feels like it started ten years ago or maybe twenty years ago.  It feels like it’s always been here since I was a kid riding my bicycle down Division Street.  Sometimes, it even feels like all my good and happy memories from my life way before the pandemic have been colored gray and squeezed tight by the pandemic.  

I know that this isn’t really true.  The pandemic with all its disappointments and frustrations and painful changes and illnesses and sufferings and deaths hasn’t always been here.  It just feels that way as I sit in my home and think about all the life that I and everybody else in the world today has missed this year.  It feels that way as I think about the family members and friends I haven’t seen this last year. It feels that way as I watch the news every morning and see reports about the difficulties the medical professionals are having distributing the COVID vaccine.  It feels that way as I read about President Trump’s endless whining about how he hasn’t lost the election.  It feels like that as I watch the people I love struggle to maintain some cheer in the face of all this.

Sure, I know it will get better.  After every apocalyptic pandemic in mankind’s history, there was always a revival of life and love and humanity.  

I just want to know when.


My latest column for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the oldest Polish newspaper in America.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Our First Christmases after the War

 Our First Christmases after the

We had Christmas in the refugee camps in Germany after the war.  I don’t remember them, of course.  I was just a baby and a toddler then.  But we had Christmas.  I know because somewhere my parents found someone who had a camera, and they took pictures of our Christmases in the camps.  In one of them, I’m a naked baby, lying on my tummy underneath a ragged Christmas tree and smiling a big beautiful baby smile. The following year, my parents took a photo of my sister Danusha and me sitting in front of a tree holding what looks like a rubber ball.  In the last photo I have from that time, I’m sitting on a rocking horse my dad made for me on my third Christmas.  I’m looking very very pleased.

My fourth Christmas wasn’t as happy.  It took place on a farm outside of Buffalo, New York, where my parents were working to pay off their passage to America from the refugee camps.  There’s not much I remember about that Christmas, only the cold and the snow and my mother’s complaints about both of them.  She hated the cold.  It reminded her of the winters in Germany during the war when she was a slave laborer.  She said that their winters broke the souls of old people and left children frozen like wheat stalks in the fields, hollow reeds that the winds and ice blew through.  The cold in Buffalo was just as bad, she said.  She talked about the wooden shoes she wore in the work camps in Germany and how cold the frozen ground was on her skin as she dug for beets. She knew nothing about America but thought that maybe farther west in Chicago there wouldn’t be so much snow.

She was wrong about the snow in Chicago.  That first winter in Chicago, I remember standing on a street corner on Milwaukee Avenue with my father.  We watched cars struggling in the street to get around a green bus that was sunk into white hill as tall as a cow.  

But the snow and cold in Chicago really didn’t matter that much because my parents found Polish friends there who we could celebrate Christmas with just as they did in Poland.  I remember that first Christmas in Chicago.  We were living in a small apartment near the Congress Theater on Christmas Eve, and my parents were preparing us for bed when they heard a knock on the door.  My father opened it and laughed and shouted to my sister Danusha and me to come quickly. There was someone there to see us.  

We ran to the door and there was a big man with a white beard and a fat belly and a red stocking cap on his head, and across his shoulder and down his back was an enormous blue bag filled with presents.  

And that wasn’t all.

Behind him were laughing children and their smiling parents carrying pots and bowls of food and a dish with oplatek on it.

Somehow Poland had found us in America.

This was my column this week in the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the oldest Polish newspaper in America.


Thursday, November 12, 2020

My Life After the Pandemic

 My Life after the Pandemic

This morning, I was sitting around watching the news shows, and all the news about the pandemic was bad, really bad. The scientists — who I trust although I know many don’t — were talking about how this COVID pandemic was just going to get worse in the next couple of months. They also said that probably the pandemic was going to be around with us for at least another year, maybe two.

It got me thinking about all the things I miss and all the things I would love to be doing if I didn’t have to stay quarantined in my house and practicing social distancing, and I suddenly had a dream, a vision you might call it, of what my first day of non-pandemic life would be like.

And here’s what that vision looked like.

After living with the pandemic since March of 2020, I woke up on the first post-pandemic morning and started singing and dancing and visiting the people I loved and the people I hated.

And then I ate enormous meals at three of my favorite restaurants and paid all the waiters and waitresses in kisses and paid the chefs in gold, and I hugged all the folks who were eating and asked them all to dance the bossa nova with me.

And then I went back home just for a minute and ate and drank and smoked and laughed and kept holy the Lord’s Day all in the same breath even though it wasn’t Sunday, and then I hopped on a subway and whistled at every single stop for no reason whatsoever.

And then I found some kid’s blue angelic tricycle right there in the street, and I rode it like I was riding to glory because I was, and I even stopped at one point to pick up a newspaper lying there in the street telling me the pandemic was over at last, and I tore it up and threw its little-bitty pieces into the street and into the wind.

And then I went to a Super Walmart and pretended to sell magic sparrows to all the people walking and dancing through the store that they had been dreaming about like me for so so long.

And then I put on my best strawberry-colored hat and wandered through midday downtown Chicago humming “the St. Louis blues” and passing out bouquets of flowers to everyone wandering the street with me.

And finally, I turned to the big old sun smiling down at me and everyone else and said, “Honey I’m yours.”

This piece originally appeared in the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the oldest Polish newspaper in America.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Election Year?

 Election Year?

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but this is an election year, a presidential election year. I post a lot on Facebook and Twitter about the election, and I get a lot of responses. All of them are adamant. The Biden supports are trashing Trump, and the Trump supporters are trashing Biden. This has been going on for about 4 years, and I expect it to go on for another four years, regardless of who wins.

For me, one of the interesting things about this whole Trash Fest is that when I was growing up I heard almost nothing about politics and elections.

My parents were largely uninterested in politics. They came over to America after World War II as Polish refugees, Displaced Persons. And as refugees, they took as much interest in American politics as they did in American sports or comic books. My mom and dad, like a lot of the DPs in my neighborhood, were too busy trying to figure out how to survive in this new world to put much time into reading up about Republicans or Democrats.

Don’t get me wrong. My parents knew there were elections and who the candidates were, and sometimes they even voiced an opinion. They liked Eisenhower a lot because he was the general who led the army that freed them from the German concentration and slave labor camps. They also liked John F. Kennedy because he was a Catholic, and that was something they shared with him. But other than that, my mom and dad weren’t interested in politics. I remember asking my dad once why he didn’t apply for US citizenship. He looked at me like I was a nutcase, and he said, “I was born a Polish citizen, and I will die a Polish citizen.” My mom, on the other hand, was a little more flexible about her politics. After I became a naturalized citizen in 1967, she asked me to help her become one too. I reminded her of what my dad was always saying about being born Polish and staying Polish, and I then asked her why she wanted to become a US citizen. She shrugged and just said, “I’ve been in this country for 19 years, and it’s time I become a citizen.”

I’m not sure why she ever became a citizen. She never took an interest in politics after she was naturalized. I remember asking her who she was going to vote for in local elections and in the national elections, and she’d just shrug again and say, “I’ll decide the day I go to the polling place.”

Me and politics?

I’m just the opposite of my parents. After being naturalized in 1967, I’ve voted in every single election I could. I not only voted, I also tried to encourage other people to vote. I’ve volunteered to work on voting phone banks, and I’ve gone door to door reminding people to vote, and I’ve stood outside supermarkets and walmarts handing out leaflets.

I feel it’s the absolute responsibility of every citizen to vote. As Chicago Mayor William Hale Thompson once suggested, we should all vote early and often.

My latest column for Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the oldest Polish newspaper in America.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

August 14, 2020 — 134th Day in Quarantine

August 14, 2020 — 134th Day in Quarantine 

It’s been raining for about 80 days.  I look out my window and see the gray wetness on the street, on the leaves on the trees, on my car sitting parked in the driveway.  The sky is gray too.  The only blue I see is in the shirt I wear most days and the cup I put my coffee in.  It’s summer and soon it will be fall, but all I can do is sit here waiting for the rain to stop falling.  I can’t mow, can’t walk in my garden, can’t sit on the back porch and drink wine.  The sun has left and gone to some other part of the solar system.  

My 11-year-old granddaughter Lulu who lives with us is tired of the rain too.  She’s built herself a fortress in the rec room downstairs out of some old card tables and blankets.  Days, she sits in her fortress and plays with her stuffed animals or reads to them from a Harry Potter book.  Nights, she tries to sleep down there.  She’s put a sleeping bag on the floor of the rec room and lies down. Lying there, she can hear the rain falling outside.  A lot of nights, it keeps her awake. She pulls her stuffed animals closer and prays for it to stop.  It doesn’t. 

My daughter Lillian, her mom, pretends she doesn’t hear the rain.  Most days and evenings, she’s on her computer, zooming with the people she works with.  They talk about the work they have to do now because the rain is falling and falling. Like my daughter, they pretend they don’t hear the rain either, but I know they do.  I can see it in the way they lean into their laptops for their zooms.  Sometimes, my daughter or one of her co-workers will laugh about something, but I know they’re just laughing to cover up the sound of the rain falling against the windows.

My wife Linda hears the rain too.  She knows it’s been falling for as long as it’s been falling, but she’s not like me.  She thinks it will stop falling someday.  Maybe not soon, but someday.  Someday it will stop.  She’s planning for that day.  She sits in her easy chair with her laptop looking for vacations to the beaches in Virginia and North Carolina, cruises to the Bahamas, and weekends in New York City. She’s waiting for the day the rain stops, and she can drive up to Connecticut to bring her parents back here to visit.  She knows the rain has been falling there too.


My latest column for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy.


Monday, August 3, 2020

Great News!

The New York Times reviewed my new mystery Little Altar Boy, the 2nd Hank and Marvin mystery, and they liked it!
Here’s what reviewer Marilyn Stasio says,
In his novels, John Guzlowski — the son of Polish slave laborers in Nazi Germany — reimagines the 1950s Chicago neighborhood he was raised in, a place shaped by immigrants and strivers. LITTLE ALTAR BOY (Kasva Press, 323 pp., paper, $14.95) once again features Hank Purcell and Marvin Bondarowicz, the two veteran cops whom we met in “Suitcase Charlie” and are happy to see again.
This time out Guzlowski is taking on pedophilia among the clergy, and it’s not pretty. Sister Mary Philomena, a nun at St. Fidelis Parish, shows up at Purcell’s home one snowy winter night. “I need your help,” she tells him. “There’s something terrible happening. I saw it today … and it stopped me like a death.” What she witnessed was a priest molesting an altar boy, a terrified sixth grader.
A few days later, the nun is found stabbed to death in the cellar of the convent. In the classic procedural that follows, the cops choke down their own cynicism (“People don’t take that kind of accusation against priests seriously. Never have, never will”) to investigate a crime that officially doesn’t exist.


The book is available at Amazon as a Kindle or a paperback. Just click here.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

The Neighborhood Division: Stories by Jeff Vande Zande

The Neighborhood Division: Stories by Jeff Vande Zande is the best book of fiction I’ve read in a long long time.  


I’ve been a serious reader of novels and short story collection for pretty much my entire adult life (55 years at least) but I haven’t read a book as good as this one in probably about 5 years, not since Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.


Vande Zande’s got what Donna Tartt’s got, an incredible sense of language, an ability to understand people, and a gift for creative narrative.  In each of the stories in this volume, Vande Zande writes of people facing real problems that separate them from the people in their communities.  In an early story called "The Long Run," for instance, he writes of a person lost while running in a new neighborhood.  His simple story of being lost quickly evolves into a metaphor for his relationship to his wife and his father and the person the main character understands or doesn’t understand himself to be.  Every other story in this collection is just as strong, just as satisfying.


I found this collection especially important in this time of pandemic because so many of the stories deal with isolation, real isolation and psychological isolation, and people trying to understand how they can make sense of the lives they are no longer connected to.  Reading the book was like getting live reports from the pandemic world around me.


Jeff Vande Zande is one great writer, and I’m going to read another of his books tomorrow.


Here's a piece of the story "The Long Run" that I mentioned earlier:


He kept running.


A block ahead, an old man turned out of a driveway toward him, moving meticulously behind a walking stick. Andy stopped a few feet in front of him.

“Do you know where this road goes?” he asked, pointing. The old man turned and looked down the street. “Well--”

“I’m just wondering if there’s a back way into the Alpine neighborhood.”


The man turned back toward Andy. He put both hands on his stick and leaned. “Which Alpine?”



He looked thoughtful. “I’m not sure where that one--”


The sweat on Andy’s upper lip began to cool. “It’s where the old boy scout camp used to




The old man smiled. “Okay. I know where you mean, now. I was a part of that camp when I was a kid.” His forehead furrowed. “There’s a back way, but you gotta know your way around. Better off just sticking to--”



Andy told him that he wanted to make a circle so he didn’t have to backtrack. “You said there’s a way?”

“There’s a way.” He turned again and pointed into the distance. “Just stay on Third. It’s going to twist you through some neighborhoods, but you’ll come out on Lee. Take a right on Lee and go past East Ridge. When you come to West Ridge, turn in there and follow it around to Maltby. Take Maltby to Hamburg and that should get you there, but--”

“Lee to West Ridge, West Ridge to Maltby and Maltby to Hamburg,” Andy recited.


The old man nodded, dabbing his fingertips at the snow in his eyebrows. “What do you think of our April weather?”

Andy launched back into his run. “It’s not too bad,” he called back over his shoulder.


He guessed that the houses along Third represented the older part of the town – what it used to be before all of the Alpine Terraces, Vistas, Ridges, and Views began to spring up. The homes around him were small, neat, and not separated by acres of lawn. A few men were on a roof pitching shingles into a dumpster in the driveway. A plastic Santa Claus was still tied to the chimney.

Andy’s sweat held a skin of warmth around him. The cold and snow in the air did nothing. Starting to climb a hill at the end of Third, he checked his watch. Twenty minutes. His thighs burned against the hill’s incline. He clapped his hands a few times, encouraging himself. “Come on,” he whispered, smiling.

Just past the crest of the hill the road came to a T intersection. Must be Lee, he thought, but the sign had too many letters. The words came into focus. Meadow Valley Lane.



Andy stopped and caught his breath. Meadow Valley Lane curved to the right on his left and curved to the left on his right. It was flanked in both directions by newer builds that had probably gone up within the last five years.

Where was Lee? Andy shivered. He’d stood still too long. Turning to the right, he started running again.



Here's a link to the Amazon site about The Neighborhood Division.  Just click here