The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Posts tagged ‘friendship’


It held a quiet place of honor in our apartment, subtly nestled on one of the lower bookshelves in the living room, quietly waiting its time to be called to service.

The button box was a cube, approximately twenty inches on each side, crafted out of a smooth, dark green cloth material.  It had three drawers filled with all sorts of threads, wrapped tightly on their wooden spools, threads in a myriad of colors.  There were orange and fuchsia and blue spools, each of the same size though some had less thread on them than others as they had previously been used to repair various garments.  The largest spools held white and black thread – those colors being used most frequently.

In addition in the drawers filled with thread, a special place was reserved where there were sewing scissors and needles of all sorts of thicknesses and several simple thimbles, one made of brass, the other of silver.  But the top of the button box was where the true treasure existed.  It was a large hoard of buttons that had been painstakingly removed from garments that had been retired from service after long years of use.

Before old clothes were turned into rags with the pinking shears inside the button box, each button was carefully severed and added to the collection.  Of course, many of the buttons which came from my father’s shirts were simple white ones, but they had their own personality and individuality.  Some were pure white and as simple as they were, the ones which had formerly been used to button the shirt front were larger than the ones that fastened the collar.  Even among the white buttons there was variation.  Some had two holes for sewing and others had four.  And while some were resplendently devoid of color white, others were more of a bone shade.  The truth of this dispels the notion that, “All white buttons look alike.”  They don’t.

One night after dinner, our little family sat in the living room to watch that week’s episode of “The Milton Berle Show.”  Dad swung the doors open on the cabinet which housed our Dumont television and turned the dial to on, waiting for the set to warm up and readying himself to fiddle with the rabbit ears antenna on the top should the picture need adjustment.  But after several minutes, the familiar sound of the tubes warming up, getting ready to do their job and bring us an evening of entertainment was singularly absent.

Dad clicked the set off, waited a few seconds and then turned it back on again.  Sadly, no line appeared on the television, letting us know that the set was sufficiently warmed up so that we could soon expect to see Mr. Berle in all his zany madness.  The set was dead.  My father made the pronouncement, much to all of our regret.  So we played a game of Monopoly instead and I got to be the banker.

The following morning my mother called Gerhardt Schrader, the TV repairman.  I had only seen Mr. Schrader twice before when he had previously come by to fix our set.  He was a very pleasant man who seemed to know his craft quite well.  I liked him but I was particularly fascinated by the large mole which he had on his lower left jaw.  Mother told me, “Don’t stare at Mr. Schrader’s mole,” which only made my eyes gravitate towards it more anxiously.  In any event, he was booked up much of that day and asked if he could stop by between seven o’clock and seven-thirty or if that would interrupt our dinner.  (We normally ate at six so mom said that would be very convenient).

True to his word, our downstairs buzzer rang just at seven and we buzzed Mr. Schrader and his tool boxes in.  He promptly arrived at our apartment and headed directly for the set.

Like a skilled surgeon, he gently swiveled the cabinet away from the wall, pulled out a screwdriver and removed the pressed wood backing which protected all the tubes from exposure, set it aside and began examining the tubes in the rear of this most wonderful piece of entertainment.  He quickly identified the tube that was at fault, pulled it from the set, went into his tube box and found a replacement and swapped this new tube for the one that had burned out.  Before reattaching the rear panel to the back he switched on the set and much to our delight, the picture came on and everything was right as rain once again.

While Mr. Schrader was engaged in his surgical procedure, Grandma had gone into the kitchen, cut a large slice of the apple pie she had made earlier that day and returned with it and a cup of coffee to give Mr. Schrader as a special extra, “Thank you.”  Mr. Schrader apparently liked apple and other pies as well since he had quite a little extra belly on him.  And as she offered him and he gratefully accepted this treat, Grandma noticed that one of the buttons on his blue shirt, just above the navel, had been lost.  Through his pale blue shirt, Mr. Schrader’s undershirt was quite visible.

Grandma asked him, “Mr. Schrader, are you still a bachelor?”  He said that he was.  “Well, no wonder you have a button missing on your shirt.  No woman at home to take care of you.  You can’t go around like that.”  With that admonition, Grandma went into her clothes basket which contained the day’s load of clean wash, awaiting ironing, and pulled out a white terry cloth bathrobe.  She handed it to Mr. Schrader with the admonition that he was to go into our bathroom, change into the robe and hand her his blue shirt for repair.  Mr. Schrader didn’t have a moment to object before Grandma commanded him, “Now go.  Go.”    Mr. Schrader, sensing that this old woman meant business, dutifully took the bathrobe and I showed him the door to our bathroom.  He exited a few moments later, decently attired in the robe with his shirt in his hand.  Only then was he permitted to enjoy his pie and coffee.

While Mr. Schrader was changing, Grandma had whisked the button box from its resting place.  She had opened the lid and had assembled an army of white buttons so that she could commence her repair job as soon as the patient was presented to her.  Mr. Schrader handed her his shirt and she immediately began sorting through the buttons she had assembled, diligently looking to find an exact match.

After discarding a few she found one that was perfect and she began threading her needle.  On went the brass thimble and in no time at all she had fixed Mr. Schrader’s shirt, faster than he had been able to eat his pie or drink his coffee.  As I looked at Grandma I saw a sigh of contentment come over her.  It was as though she was relieved that she had been able to right an irreparable wrong and that gave her a great sense of peace.  Mr. Schrader finished his desert and complimented Grandma on her pie.  He waived his normal charge for making a “house call” and only charged my father for the tube he had replaced and went on his way after changing back into his work shirt and returning the bathrobe to Grandma who promptly put it in the hamper with clothes that needed washing.

Several months later, one of my friends named Betty, the girl in the building next door, saw my mother on the street and asked if I would be allowed to join her family for an event that was being held at the Bierhaus about a half mile from our apartments.  There was a wonderful band that was coming all the way from Leipzig and her parents asked if I could join them for dinner and an evening of traditional German songs.  My mother agreed – knowing that these were very nice people – and wanting me to experience music in its many expressions.

The night of the event came and I was all dressed up for the occasion.  Mom delivered me to the Knecht’s and Mr. and Mrs. Knecht, Betty and I began our fifteen minute walk to the Bierhaus.  It was a beautiful late September evening.

The Bierhaus was full of people – all speaking German.  I was glad that I had the Knechts as my guardians because I couldn’t understand a thing that people were saying, other than them.  And then, over in the corner, I spotted Mr. Schrader.  Like everyone there he seemed to be enjoying himself, actively engaged in a conversation with another man while he swung around his half full frosted beer stein, managing to keep all its contents inside.

I remembered my mother’s admonition, “Don’t stare at his mole.”  That turned out not to be difficult, because my eye was fixed elsewhere – on the missing button from his dress shirt under which I could plainly see his white undershirt.  It was in the same place as the missing button which Grandma had repaired.  I began to think, perhaps there’s something about Mr. Schrader’s shirt and his belly which just don’t get along.  I still hold that opinion.

Mr. Schrader came over to our little group.  Apparently he knew Mr. Knecht quite well.  As I later found out, the Knechts used Mr. Schrader when their television needed repair.  He was apparently the television repairman to the neighborhood.

The two men began speaking in German and having a very good laugh together.  Fortunately, Betty translated for me.  She told me that Mr. Schrader told the story about how Grandma had repaired his button when he had made his house call to us.  When he had finished telling Mr. Knecht the story, he turned to me, noticing that my eyes kept gravitating to the space where there had once been a button and said, “Please don’t tell your Grandmother about my missing button.  Let’s just keep this our little secret, okay?”  And I never did because I knew it would have broken her heart.


“In order to have a friend you must first be a friend.”

– Juwannadoright


A few days ago at our afternoon outing at the dog park, Gracie and I met up with several of the regulars whom we see there.  As usual, Jade who is a thirty-five pound mixed breed rescue dog saw me and came over, jumped up on her hind legs, resting her front paws on my knees and I bent down so that she might administer the obligatory and enthusiastic face-licking.

She and Gracie get along well – but I wouldn’t describe them as pals.  Their common bond is me and I think that Jade must have heard the expression, “The friend of a friend is my friend.”

As it turned out that particular outing, a new dog was introduced into the mix.  He was a puppy about ten months old and was very exuberant in his wanting to play.  Unfortunately, he hasn’t yet acquired the social grace of understanding the difference between “play” and “aggressive play”.  For whatever reason he decided that Gracie was the apple of his eye and he was going to “play” with her  – whether she wanted to or not.

At first, Gracie was content simply eluding him as she could easily outrun him.   Being the lady that she is, she thought that should be sufficient to let this puppy know she really had no interest in playing with him.  The newcomer was not in the least deterred and would come up to her and grab hold of her lengthy head hair and pull down on this.  She was patient with him – but she was clearly annoyed by this behavior.

She came over and lay down next to me as I sat on the grass.  The intruder was not put off by this but continued to pull at the hair on her ears – doing so hard enough to cause her to yelp.  At that point I loosened his teeth from her ear and shooed him away.  But he returned and continued to bite at Gracie’s leg.

Then our mutual friend, Jade began observing the goings-on.  When the puppy again attacked Gracie she got in the act.  She ran over to the puppy who was fifty percent heavier than she and got right in his face and began barking furiously at him to stop.  She was defending the friend of her friend from further attack.

The puppy, with my encouragement, finally released his grip and wandered off.  Gracie looked at me gratefully – and Jade came up to me for a second face licking and I gave her a big hug for her devotion to the both of us.

This led me to think of this week’s (Not Yet) Famous Quote:

“We humans could learn a great deal about fidelity and friendship by observing the actions of our companion dogs.”

– Juwannadoright


Today is the 30th anniversary of my friend Steve’s death.  He died from AIDS which he contracted through a blood transfusion he received during the course of an operation.   He was 28 years old.

We went on a picnic together to one of the beautiful forest preserves in Cook County and after we had finished eating and were enjoying the late spring day Steve looked at me and said, “I have something to tell you.  I have AIDS – and you might not want to be around me because you might be afraid of getting it.”

I was shocked and angry at this statement.  Shocked that he had contracted this disease and mad that he had gotten it as a result of the surgery he had undergone.  I was shocked that Steve thought me so shallow that I would abandon him and our friendship because of his illness and mad at myself that I might have ever given him a reason to believe that.

We hugged and we both cried.  At that point, having AIDS was a short-term death sentence without possibility of parole or reprieve.  I didn’t want to ask the question, “How much time do you have?” but I knew that it wasn’t going to be long.  As it turned out the disease took less than eight months to do its deadly work.

During the time between the picnic and his death, Steve and I grew even closer than we were before.  In that time I saw this handsome, athletic man go from 170 pounds to less than 110.  I saw the ravages of the disease sapping his strength, forcing him to leave his apartment where he lived alone, into hospital beds and finally into the hospice where he would die.

Steve struggled every day to wake to another day.  He didn’t easily relinquish his short life to the reaper.  But the death sentence had been pronounced and then it was executed.

At his funeral service I read this Dylan Thomas poem:


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

This post is dedicated with love to Steve and to all those who have died from AIDS. 

May you be in a better place.


Gloria and I worked together during the two years I held employment with the State of Illinois. She was our secretary. I would guess that, when I first met her, she was in her mid-fifties.

If there’s one thing that I miss most about her is the way that she would emphasize a point that she was making by saying, “Doncha know.” It was her trademark. She said it with an “oomph” that belied her generally quiet and reserved demeanor.

After two years of seeing how government “works” I had enough. I was off to make my mark on the world in my own business totally unaware that, in that effort, the world would leave some scars on me. But I never regretted the decision – or having gotten to know Gloria.

It would be an overstatement to say that we were bosom buddies, but we would speak to each other every few weeks. I always took her out to a nice dinner for her birthday as she did me and she always included me in the little annual Holiday party that she would host in her brownstone in Lincoln Park.

The menu and the guest list for these parties was always the same. There were eight of us. The Johnsons, the Whites, the Bartholomews, Gloria and me. Gloria always catered the dinner from Gaper’s and would order a nice fresh green salad, beef stroganoff with noodles and chicken marsala with risotto and lightly sauteed string beans. For desert there was a baba rum torte and lots of good strong coffee to help overcome the effects which we all experienced from the cocktail hour that preceded dinner.

It may sound a little boring to the more adventurous of you, having the same meal year after year (for more than twenty of them), but for me it became another wonderful tradition of the Holidays.

It was much like looking forward to the two to three feet of snow which inevitably fell the day of Gloria’s parties – but a lot warmer and more inviting. I thought of Gloria’s guests as part of an adopted extended family – if for only one night a year.

After desert and coffee, the eight of us would play a game. Whether it was hangman or charades (how untechnological you will say), or we would group into teams and play a board game. One year our after dinner activities were curtailed because the snow which was supposed to have fallen already had not. In fact, Chicago had not seen a snowflake for five days and the streets were unusually passable.

But as we began our after-dinner entertainment, suddenly we could see out the bay window of Gloria’s living room that Mother Nature had gotten back on schedule and a deluge of white was beginning its descent. The other guests decided to take their leave before the roads became difficult to navigate and bid their adieus.

I stayed behind and offered to help Gloria clean up her little apartment, do the dishes and put away the leftovers. She was feeling a little under the weather that year and for the first time she agreed to my help.

We went into the kitchen and I realized suddenly what a mess eight people – even rather genteel people – could make. Gloria turned on the little portable television which sat on the counter facing the kitchen table at which she normally took her meals. As it happened the nightly news was on.

I began organizing the plates and the silverware so that I could start washing them. Gloria said, “Doncha know,” I’m feeling a little faint so I’m just going to rest for a moment. Why don’t you sit down and I’ll help you in a few minutes. But I had things under control and told her to take it easy and that I would keep washing while she rested.

As I was at my task, a story came on the news about a protest outside an abortion clinic. Gloria made a mad dash from her seat and turned off the television. I had never before seen her behave like his and I was startled. But I didn’t say anything. This was a Gloria whom I didn’t know.

At the point of this event, Gloria and I had known each other for about ten years. She was a very private person. I had sensed that about her from the earliest moments we knew each other. And I never pried into her affairs.

I was not about to alter my behavior or make any comments about her turning off the television. So I was very surprised that she felt sufficiently confident to bring up the subject with me.

She said, “Doncha know, about two years before my mother’s death she told me something that really shocked me.”

She said that when my father and she were first married they had to struggle to survive and had decided to put off having a family until they could afford one. But mother got pregnant before that time had come. I was that baby.”

She told me that, even though it was illegal then, she considered having an abortion. And it’s very hard for me to hear anything on the subject. They talk about ‘procedures’ like it’s having a tooth pulled. And I always think, ‘I could have been that tooth that was pulled’.”

I went over to her and hugged her and we both began crying. After we embraced for a few minutes, we went back to clearing up the rest of the dishes and putting away the leftovers. Gloria and I never discussed the subject again.

I’ve replayed that Holiday party night in my mind thousands of times. I know that we have a tendency to look at the question of abortion in a clinical way. To Gloria, it was as personal as it could get.

That evening left me with a lingering, haunting feeling.

Had her mother made a different decision, the world would have been deprived of this caring and loving woman.  And I would have had one less friend.





It was a few weeks into my first year of college when I met Tim and Joe.

We were all from the eastern part of the country. Tim was from New Haven. He was of moderate height and had a somewhat brash demeanor. Joe was from Newport and looked like a blond version of “the Hulk.” However, despite his impressive size he was one of the most gentle and soft-spoken people I have ever known.

The three of us got along well and started spending what little extra time we had exploring the city of Chicago which was new to the three of us. One of those trips took us to the Clark Street Theater – a movie house that was in Chicago’s loop that specialized in running classic films.

The theater was open twenty-four hours a day and its standard schedule was to run double features back to back. It was a highly affordable evening of entertainment as the price of admission (with student ID) was only one dollar. The following Friday, they were going to start a Bogart festival. The two features that they were showing to kick this off were “Casablanca” and “The Maltese Falcon.” We decided to check it out.

We asked another classmate, Georgia who was a native Chicagoan, if she would like to accompany us. But she had plans to work on a paper. She did, however, warn us, “Whatever you do – don’t sit in the balcony. Strange and unusual things happen up there.” We were intrigued about her statement (to which she refused to add any details) but decided to follow her advice.

When we arrived at the theater, the main floor was tightly packed with movie-goers. We were unable to find three seats that were together. So we glanced up at the balcony which appeared to be sparsely populated. So of necessity, we took the stairs to the second floor and found three seats in the front row, Tim on the left, me in the middle and Joe on my right.

If you’re old enough you may remember that movie theaters frequently employed ushers. The Clark Street Theater was no exception. These young men were equipped with long-handled flashlights – but the purpose of this equipment was less to guide patrons to their seats than it was to wake up those street people who had come in to escape the fall weather and sleep overnight in the theater. The cost of general admission was two dollars – but the nearby flop houses on Harrison Street charged three dollars or more for a night’s rest.

Both Tim and Joe had seen Casablanca before but this was my first viewing of the film. I settled back hoping that it would live up to the enthusiastic reviews I had received from my two classmates.

We had gotten to the point in the film where Victor Laszlo goes to Rick’s office to ask him for the “letters of transit” so that he and Ilsa Lund can leave Morocco. At that point, a man wearing a raincoat (which he kept on) sat in the seat to Joe’s right.

Within a matter of seconds, timid Joe whispered past me to Tim, “Tim, there’s a hand on my leg.” Tim whispered back, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it.”

The movie continued with Laszlo and Rick exiting the office and standing at the top of the stairs of the cafe. The Nazi colonel had begun leading his troops in a militaristic march extolling the virtues of the fatherland. Laszlo looks at the bandleader and says, “Play ‘La Marseillaise.’ Play it.” At this point, Joe whispered with a lot of intensity and a certain desperation, “Tim, the hand is moving up my leg.” Again Tim responded, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.”

The free French in the cafe take up the singing of “La Marseillaise,” drowning out the Germans. At the conclusion of their singing the anthem, cheers emerge from the crowd and then there is a moment of cathartic silence.

At this point, at the top of his voice, Tim yelled out, “Hey, you. You take your hands off him. I saw him first and he’s mine!” As the man in the raincoat quickly ran from the balcony the entire theater burst into laughter. We watched the remainder of the film without event. When it ended we saw that seats were available on the main floor and we decided to watch “The Maltese Falcon” downstairs in the relative safety that it provided.

Casablanca” continues to be one of my favorite movies of all time. Because of what took place my first time viewing it I can say it holds a special place among my lifetime experiences.

The three of us formed a deep bond which has lasted many years – and to paraphrase Rick’s line to Louis in the movie’s final scene, “It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”


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