|A Different Kind of Stairway to Heaven
By Tim Egan
In the shadows of metallic and cement monstrosities that clutter the skyline in any
great city, you can almost time shattered lives and broken hearts by the incessant
ticking of life's pocket watch. And in a frozen, painfully blunt frame of time, this is
one family's tragic expense.
Although it was a Sunday ritual for many years, it had nothing to do with packing
up the children, standing angelic and humbly genuflecting during the right cue of a
church ceremony. The family would, however, load up the trusted and beginning
signs of rusted Oldsmobile on mid-afternoon Sundays and especially Holidays
heading for a visit with "Granny." In from the 'burbs, down I-290 and over to
Hubbard and Ogden. We would park across from an extinct Chicago original
slaughterhouse and walk in between the creaky and frail three-flats that were
erected sometime before 1901. Our destination was the second floor of a rear
building that was squeezed onto one lot with a faded replica of itself, standing gimp
kneed in front. Through the East side passageway, in a space allowing single file
only, the family could look to the left and see a 40 foot stairway that uninvitingly
ascended. The wood looked shabby and the structure wobbly under ten layers of
soiled grey paint; to a child, intimidating and massive - to an adult, safer to walk
But the zigzag stairway in the rear seemed almost twice as old, the wood warped
and worn in the middle. It smelled of long years and arduous, unrelenting Chicago
weather, a distinct aroma that only wood can acquire through blistering hot
summers and ice covered, bone chilled winters.
As a child, these trips were joyfully anticipated. Visiting "Granny" was the method,
but boy there were sure a lot of means. "The Bamboo Hut,' a candy store front for
some shady looking characters playing poker in the back, was a sure thing for a kid
who was locked into "Granny" for at least fifty cents or an even buck. "The Hut"
had all the best candy and provided a sugar high that would last until Tuesday
Another bonus for the senses was the ever-present need for "Granny" to have a
loaf of "Dago" bread from the Atlas Bakery on Grand Ave. The taste teasing smell
clutched your nasal passage two blocks away. Inside, you could see the flame
ovens producing the best bread in Chicago and it was the essence of fresh, warm in
At times the alley, historically a Chicago child's personal playground amidst the
garbage cans and garage doors, would be filled with cousins playing tag and tossing
a ball around. Sometimes, the mischievous would have army battles as realistic as
possible, using assorted fireworks to dismember plastic tanks and melt soldiers into
Peaceful times would find "Uncle Kenneth" leaning over the shaky wooden rail of
the second floor's porch, dropping change to nieces and nephews down below.
Somehow, he managed to always have enough for everyone and strategically
scatter the kids so even the little ones could snare their share. There were quiet,
sentimental times when dusk would come and we made sure all of our loved ones
were remembered. A bottle of bubbles would be hauled out of the bottom shelf of
the Kitchen's dented, tin cabinet and we would blow bubbles to the sky with
whispered messages inside for our "Uncle Raymond" in heaven.
At night, while the older kids were off exploring their worlds, I would spend hours
playing a mysterious board game that had at least half the pieces missing, but a
child's imagination always made a go of it.
But that was years or so it seems, lifetimes ago. And in this world of love, luck,
hate, and despair, that childlike imagination has been banished by the cruelties of
On a restless summer's night in August 1995, those wonderful memories of
innocence were covered in an impenetrable blanket of emotion covering ice,
forever. "Granny," a 91-year-old paternal grandmother of dozens and an
iron-willed woman, who buried a husband and two sons, crashed through the
shabby wooden railing of that godforsaken stairway. She fell to a horrible and
As a logical adult, the truth is known that a woman in her 90's will not be around to
see a five-year-old great-granddaughter be a grandmother. But as the voice calmly
explained the happenstance over the telephone it was an unforeseen shock, still
unbelievable to this day.
Looking down from the window of the third floor, an even greater shock hit with
powerful force and sectioned all the air from my lungs, claiming all my body's
energy. I could feel a sharp seizure of the muscles in the back of my neck. To see
the fragmented parts of wood, scattered on the grass like well placed fragments of
my dismantled heart, was the most trying moment of "Granny" and her passing.
The end result left me questioning life. I have never questioned death, almost freely
accepting that life must end at a certain point and things cannot live for eternity. In
order for new life to spawn, old life must be forfeited. Deaths lead to birth. My
question was the method. Why, if there is a benevolent God, would this supreme
being allow this death to happen in such a hideous manner?
I ask my mind this question with contempt and harden my heart with bitterness.
The answer to my question is easy, but not easily accepted. Life is good and life is
bad. In order to survive the cruel side of the world, you have to accept that in life
you will without doubt meet hardship. A person needs to rely on perseverance,
knowledge and faith in life itself.
At her funeral, the priest giving the eulogy remarked about the Irish people and
humor. "Granny" could project anger, fear, sarcasm and force, all with a lopsided
grin and unique laugh. Humor is a key to life and its survival. A great example of
this truth comes from Irish literature, most recently featured in Thomas Cahill's;
How The Irish Saved Civilization. "Belief grew strong that the one thing the Devil
cannot bear is ... laughter."
Standing at stoic attention next to her coffin as the funeral ended, I reverently
peeled off the white pallbearer's gloves. I raised two fingers to my lips, pressing
firmly against them, then laid them on metal that will hold her for eternity. As tears
welled behind sunglassed eyes and over gritted teeth, I knew this was not the final
goodbye. I stood sad, but remembered something about her - a whistle, her whistle.
It wasn't a song or powerful melodic tone that whimsies music to your ears. It was
the strangest damn sound I've ever heard anyone make, but it was her
sound. Every time I think of that strange pitch coming from the kitchen
as she made tea or baked a ham, I smile. Sometimes I laugh.
My Island, My Island...My @$*#%!
By Tim Egan
A portion of the following essay was published in TRAVELERS'
TALES in March 2000. TRAVELERS' TALES is a series of books
that include writings by heavy players such as P.J. O'Rourke and
"My Island...", "My Island..." Those words are
often endured at the beginning of literary essays,
soft spoken speeches and well witted poetry on the
topic of Ireland.
The tone of saying "My Island," in my opinion, was
truly self-indulgent. How can one gluttonous person
harbor all that is magical, mystical and Ireland was
first handed to me as a dream, told in the endearing
brogue of my grandparents who came to America in
the 1920's. Ireland came to be a reality when a
group of Irish friends living in America invited me to
stay with their families back on the West Coast of
Ireland in Galway. My first impression of Ireland
my eyes and heard the voices of my ancestors as
clear as the pitch of green you can only find in
Once in Galway and it being the rainier of months,
November, I broke out the long oilskin coat you can
find on any cowboy mending fences or herding
cattle. The strange part is, I'm from Chicago, and
the stranger part indeed was the looks on the faces
from the native Irish. Instead of looking like John
Wayne coming home to forget his worries in "The
Quiet Man," I was more the image of an onerous
Clint Eastwood stalking the cobbled streets. Trying
to offset first impressions, I decided I would buy the
house a drink in the first pub I entered. My Irish
friend and first guide told me bluntly; "Keep your
money in your pocket and don't be buying anybody
a drink, ya eedjit."
I felt myself in for a long month of outsidership
during my trip and I kept thinking about all the "My
island ...this" and "My island... that," references. I
thought to myself, "My island, my bollocks." But it
doesn't take long to fit in with the Irish.
The best and most memorable part of Ireland is the
people. It could happen in Dublin's Temple Bar or in
a far off the map pub that has only four stools and a
roaring turf fire. It may start with a hello or better
yet, a song. A young lady may grace your ears with
a sweet Gaelic ballad or an "old fella" may bandy
about with a poem. Or perhaps an impromptu "live
session" may burst out with a fiddle and bodhran.
You may even be treated to the precision and
discipline of Irish step dancing, an art form that has
taken the world by storm.
In words, "Welcome to Ireland."
After making many new acquaintances in Galway, I
ventured down to County Mayo to visit a friend
who owned a pub. In Newport the view from THE
CLEW BAY LODGE spans over a small road and
past an authentic Irish rock wall, a boundary that
surrounds a rolling meadow of that unique Irish
shade of green, complete with grazing cattle. The
rich, thick grass blankets the view straight up to the
top of a hill, on which the other side awaits the sea.
With strong eyesight and through the graying sky,
you can even take in the distant white caps,
randomly erupting over the top of the water. Giving
your sites a 180-degree turn, you can absorb Croagh
Patrick, a West Coast religious destination that
attracts tourists by the droves.
In return for the visit, my friend Martin made
another dream come true by accidentally locking me
inside his pub for 10 hours. During my sequestered
time, I managed to perfect the pour of a Guinness
pint and spend about 60 pounds in the pay phone.
Not only was there a bad connection but the Irish
pay phones matter of factly take your money up
front. During my expensive and tolling call to a
female friend back in Galway, I managed to tell her
that I was coming back to Galway soon, but I
couldn't get a ride in Mayo. As the phone crackled
with static, I spoke louder; "I can't get a ride in
Mayo!" The damn phone went dead and I
vigorously cursed the telecommunications in
Ireland. That was until I was informed what
"getting a ride" in Ireland meant. It did take some
explaining to my female friend, but it ended up, as
most things do in Ireland, with a laugh.
There is one non-laughing matter in Ireland, though,
"The Troubles" in Northern Ireland. In recent
months those tourists traveling in Northern Ireland
witnessed something spectacular and I, as luck as
my eternal guide, was one of those graced. I
couldn't believe my eyes when I first viewed the
border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. As the
bus approached the once intimidating and telltale
sign of militaristic involvement, the checkpoint, it
stood abandoned. The rebel inside of me felt
cheated, as though I was looking forward to being
harassed by the English soldiers or rousted by the
Royal Irish Constabulary. The politician within was
overjoyed to see the checkpoint resemble an
abandoned ghost town, aside from the prying eyes
of surveillance cameras.
The "Irish" inside me, the indulgent one that
righteously barriers the rebel and the politician, was
just happy a wonderfully creamy and smooth
Guinness was waiting for me on the opposite side,
whoever was pulling the pint.
While politics and the presence of Ireland's historic
violent curse could never affect the romantic effect
Ireland can have on someone, it's easy to separate
the two. And no matter a person's stance on political
unrest in Northern Ireland or the rest of the world, it
takes an Irishman to put life into perspective. The
legendary singer, Christy Moore, once vocalized;
"Everyone down in the graveyard votes the same."
With that in mind, a person can put aside politics
and even dark history, in order to absorb all that is
Ireland, a place that promotes cerebrality.
Onto Dublin you can behold Ireland's hub of
metropolitan history. It is a city that has witnessed
the "Uprising Of 1916" that eventually led to a
declaration of the Irish Republic. Dublin also plays
host to everything from the Guinness Brewery to
Trinity College, which houses the coveted and
incredible BOOK OF KELLS, the "illuminated
manuscript" of the four gospels that dates back to
the 8th Century. It also has the city life any urban
fun seeker can grasp in each hand. Dublin's fair city
isn't just a place where the crooned about Molly
Malone died of a fever. (And when you're in Dublin
it's easy to see how Miss Malone caught that fever
as her statue salutes her barely clothed chest.)
Still the breathtaking mountain ranges and scenery,
the revered Book of Kells and bullet carved columns
of the General Post Office on O'Connell Street in
Dublin are only a portion of Ireland.
Ireland is important for many reasons and in a way,
my own self-pertaining significance, I've cheated
life. I've lived out a once thought of impossible
dream. I've touched Ireland's soil, breathed its air
and marveled in its beauty.
Life's problems seem dwarfed compared to my Irish
In tune or not, I've sang and maybe by misstep, but
with good intentions, I have danced heartily. Self
indulgence be damned, I know no picture can ever
replace in my heart, what "My Island" means to me.
| By Tim Egan
There is an epidemic of crime in America that goes unnoticed and without
prosecution everyday in our cities, but it's not the sale of illegal narcotics or
bribing of public officials and not even prostitution. Whether the community
believes this act is against the law or just defies morality, it is more painful than a
root canal and ten times more annoying the an inflamed hemorrhoid.
Yes, purchasing a new automobile. Just thinking about it makes a person cringe as
though a needle from a phonograph just ripped across an ancient LP (that's a long
playing record album for anyone under the age of 20).
Looking for a new car involves a process more unnerving than tax preparation and
it starts the minute you decide that paying "Al" at the service station $2,486 for a
new thing-a-ma-bob on your AMC Pacer just "ain't" worth it. So the first
step is opening the morning newspaper. Automobile dealers' newspaper ad's, holy
mother in search of the truth, should be censored by the Federal Communications
Commission. Forget trying to siphon through hours of Howard Stern tapes just to
fine him for saying an inappropriate four letter word, get searching through the
daily paper. These ads spew inaccuracy and entrapment better than a
Tele-Evangelist. It's pretty basic. They feature a pictured auto with four tires,
doors, bumpers, windows and other factory options; all for the low price of just a
few thousand dollars. "Hot damn," you think, "finally something in my price
range." And you go racing to the dealership, where the moment you walk through
the door, circling sharks make their path of attack.
Then comes the big, phony, rat-dung eating, "HI." Like they were your best
friends in the world. As if they would even spit on you in a bar or a restaurant if
they didn't recognize you as a potential sucker, eerrrr, client.
So you show your new best friend the wonderfully worded advertisement and he
acts like he's never even heard of a newspaper. "That's the basic model, no
extras," the guy says. Then you find out that factory options mean seats and an
extra is a freaking engine, which adds on about 4.6 million dollars to the price of
The next phase is to "step into" the salesman's "office," which is a plastic desk
along the window in a secession of about 30 other "offices." There are bathroom
stalls on trains that would make a better office, but on every desk in this galleon
office are the prerequisite pictures. They are mandatory and given to the sales
staff as they graduate from "ASU," Auto Screw-You University. There must be a
minimum of two pictures on each desk. If the sales person is male, one photo has
to be a gorgeous female, preferably in a wedding dress. The other can be a photo
of a pet or a couple's picture, preferably with big smiles in front of studio scenery.
"That's my wife Saundra and our puppy Sprinkles," is usually the line. The sales
staff fresh on the job has cheat sheets on the back of the plastic frames, just in
case they have a brain cramp. An investigation would uncover that most of the
pictures come with the damn frames.
After a few minutes of friendly banter, comes the test drive. Alone, secluded and
seduced by the aroma of new car; you have entered the salesman's lair. By the
time you get around the corner from the dealership, the salesman either recognizes
you from somewhere or went to school with your cousin. Anything to work an
Forgive this speculative piece for focusing mainly on car salesmen and not
salespeople. The majority of people working as sales personnel in the retail
automobile industry are male. This is not because of sexism, it's because the
majority of women are way too civil to hold such a scandalous position in the
workforce. Again, not to offend all the part-time housewives or professional
women wearing golf shirts and selling Saturns. You aren't truly considered car
salespeople because of the "No dicker sticker" and, honestly, the Saturn isn't a
real car because you can't fit two fully-grown adults into one and close the doors.
But in the end of this tumultuous ordeal, you sign away your existence on
approximately 971 pieces of paper and walk away in confusion. A couple of days
later a payment booklet arrives in the mail as thick as the yellow pages. Five years
down the road, you have finally paid off that wonderful new automobile with all
the latest luxuries, just to look in the driveway and realize you have a useless
piece of junk that is worth about as much as an AMC Pacer. The worst part is
when you trade it in. Keep one hand on your sanity and one hand on your wallet -
here you go again.
|Tim Egan and members of
Hillary Clinton representatives.
|Tim Egan, his older son Wedge
Donovan and Honorable Mr.
Jesse White secretary of state.
|Tim Egan, Bill Kurtis and
Museum of Contemporary Art at
J.F.K Award Ceremony.