Chapter 18 – My Story – Life Without Radio
Something is wrong with Duluth. There is a difference between the city of Duluth and every other city in every other place in the world. Murry Warmath referred to Duluth as the city “130 miles north of the United States of America.” Esthetically, socially, economically and meteorogically, what Omsk is to Russia, Duluth is to the United States. Dozens of Hollywood movies have derogatory references to the city. Even Sinclair Lewis sliced and diced the city. In that novel a sensational event was changing from the brown suit to the gray the contents of the pockets. In Duluth. Someone should list of all the movies, books, plays, and musicals with snide and demeaning Duluth references. It will never be done because the effect would be too depressing to the compiler. If Gertrude Stein had visited Duluth, instead of Oakland she may have been referring to Duluth when she said, “There is no there there.”
All this animus toward the Zenith City isn't an accident. It didn't arise out of whole cloth. Where there is smoke there is fire. At least twice in my life I have forgotten or ignored what was so patently obvious about Duluth and once again saw the city through the eyes of a child.
As a kid I was mesmerized by this ersatz city by the bay. That's Duluth by the way. To me, Duluth was an adventure. I could have been Frank Buck capturing exotic animals around the world or Lucky Lindy flying the Atlantic and I wouldn't have been as excited as I was when I made my treks to the downtown of what I considered, the Big City. Often in the summer and on Saturdays throughout the year, spending the day in Duluth was like a drug. I never tired of finding an excuse to to downtown for Saturday matinée at the Lyceum at 5th Avenue West & Superior Street or the Norshor farther east. Especially, the Lyceum theater. My Dad never tired of telling me the wonderful history and his special memories of the golden age of vaudeville at the Lyceum. He saw Jack Benny and the Marx Brothers at the Lyceum. (Of course he also saw Billie and Lillian Shaw, Ben Benny, and Millicent Mower. Some people we remember. Some we forget.) When I was eight or nine years old, I would take the bus to Downtown Duluth, the dollar in my pocket enough to entertain me for the entire day. If the adventure began in Cloquet, first thing in the morning, I'd be at Tulip John's waiting for the Greyhound. The bus was 35 cents round-trip. Ever suspicious, John Antioho who stare at me with a gimlet eye as he gave me the change from the dollar, certain the money was some sort of ill-gotten gain. When the bus from the Twin Cities lumbered down Cloquet Avenue and turned right on 9th Street, my heart beat as hard as the diesel engine in that very bus. The anticipation was almost more than I could bare. The realization more than I could absorb. On a good day the bus was the two-level behemoth that impressed my 8 year old eyes like a 747 impressed us in the 70's. (I don't know WHAT impresses 8 year olds today.)
This bus wasn't a true double-decker in the red London bus style but actually a two-level bus. When you climbed on board there were several rows of seats at the driver level. A little staircase went up to the higher level and the rest of the seats. My favorite was the first row on the upper level. I was too short to see out the mini-windshield in front of me but if I stood I could. (Picture of bus if you are interested in the Pictures Page)
Out onto Highway 61, the bus roared through Scanlon (sometimes stopping), and through Esko before stopping midway to Duluth, in Nopeming. Nopeming wasn't really a city. It was the site of a hospital for people with tuberculosis. At first, fearing contagion, I would try holding my breath while in Nopeming, but as I got older I realized that I was as likely to catch the disease from furtive gasps for oxygen as from regular breathing. Back on 61, down Thompson Hill and along Grand Avenue much of the travel time was spent on Duluth city streets before swinging into the Michigan Street bus-parking and debarkation area. Up the steps and out the door, I was in Duluth.
The Lyceum Theater was across the street from the bus station, but before the show started there were other adventures to be had. Down Superior Street was the “Macy's” of 1950's Duluth, The Glass Block. I always stopped to browse. When I was with my parents or Grandmother, we'd sometimes eat in the basement restaurant, but I never ate there when I was alone. That was because the Glass Block Coffee Shop practice was to put strangers together so every table or booth was full. Eight year old boys don't like sitting with strangers. I still don't which is one reason I never go to Benny Hana unless i have six people with me.
A few doors down the street was Woolworth's. Woolworth's had a lunch counter. If it wasn't a special day I might have a BLT, but most days I passed. The main reason for the visit was just to inhale. The smell of the hot oil frying raw peanuts and cashews was over-powering and as exhilarating as an evening of ganja and Cheetos. What a wonderful sensation was lost when we started getting our nuts from cellophane or aluminum foil bags and the grease was replaced by dry roasting. All this didn't matter though because I knew where I was going and I only had 65 cents and the luxury of cashews wasn't on my program. I was heading to Joe Huey's.
At the corner of Superior Street and Lake Avenue, around the corner from the Hotel Metropole, was a Chinese restaurant with the best hot beef sandwich in town. For 40 cents. (Extra mashed potatoes were 10 cents and milk also a dime) If I splurged, that would leave me with only a nickel for the movie and the rest of the day. If i was short cash, it meant a visit to see Itzy Gotkins. I am getting ahead of my story. First, Joe Huey's. If you found a lump in your potatoes you got the meal free. I knew that because there was a sign that said so. Trying to avoid a trip to see Itzy, I always looked. There were some other peculiarities. I once saw someone leave the counter with a half glass of milk undrunk. That's when the waitress with a familiarity of purpose that suggested it wasn't the first time she had done this, retrieved the half-full glass of milk and emptied it back into the milk dispenser. I sensed there was something wrong with that so after that I had water or Coke. It really didn't matter because as a British woman I knew year later would have said, the hot beef was “to die for.....”
Itzy Gotkins was a former business colleague of my Dad. He stuttered. Whenever I overspent on lunch, he was always happy to say, “h-h-h-here's fif-fif-fif-ty cents.” or “H-h-h-have a bu-bu-bu-buck.” I am not make fun of this man. He was always nice to me and without his largess my days downtown would have been fiscally challenged more often than not.
After lunch and and since I was that far up Superior Street now was my chance to check out the Lionel Trains in the Sears-Roebuck basement. They also had an escalator and the ride on that was worth the walk. After dreaming of having all those trains in my basement, it was back to the Lyceum where admission was nine cents, and popcorn a dime. If I had scored at Itzy's I might spring another nickel for a Slow Poke. After a triple feature I try to catch the bus around seven but if I missed it the last bus left at 9:15. When I got home in the dark, I was replete with memories, satiated with adventure, and ready to do it again the next time I could wheedle a dollar from my Dad.
All these trivial memories are important because they contributed to this positive, nostalgic, and totally unrealistic attitude toward the city of Duluth. Twice in my life I moved there basing my decision on the excitement and satisfaction I remembered from my youth. Twice in my life I regretted the decision. The most recent loss of common sense was when I moved to Duluth to be closer to my family and spend my 'golden years'. (I think I'm going to vomit) I could have been as close if I moved to the Twin Cities. Or any other city in the state. Another time I ignored the known truth about Duluth and moved there to work for the L Brothers at WEBC. Either Duluth changed or I changed. The Lyceum was gone, Joe Huey's was history along with The Glass Block. Sear's was a casino, the Lionel trains long gone, and the wonderful odors wafting out of Woolworth's were only a memory. There was no there....there.
In 1978, the realization that I was not only out of work but stranded in this Minnesota Siberia was slow to develop. After waving back at the old ladies next door, I forced myself off the stoop and into my house. I took off the suit I was wearing and never wore it again. My exit from WEBC, bag and baggage was over before noon and that afternoon I made sure the Toranado was working and drove to Cloquet to let my brothers know the whole skinny. I left before dinner time. I wanted to be alone. I wasn't sad or depressed. In fact, there was a certain feeling of freedom. The next morning, I didn't have to get out of bed, shower,fluff, or douche before heading to the salt mine . It was more than just a vacation-feeling. I so hated working at WEBC, I would have been relieved and relaxed if a nuclear bomb had taken out the station. If ten or fifteen thousand Duluthians were atomized, well, you have to expect some collateral damage.
That night, for the first time since moving to my Duluth home, the old ladies from next door were guests. Like so many people who visit me where I actually live, they marveled at the pictures, books, chotzskis, and crap. It didn't take them long to figure out that without work, I would soon be moving on and over the next few weeks they intensified their friendship with me and proved to be a couple of wonderful and eccentric broads. Earlier that spring, just after that snow finally melted for good, I noticed a DeSoto parked in their driveway. It was about 10 years old but in fantastic condition. The rust you just expect on Minnesota cars was missing. I thought they had picked up a great used car. I learned later they had bought the car new and drained the oil and put it on blocks during the winter. It was a decade old and had 4100 miles on the odometer! Like I Sinclair Lewis said...brown to gray, life continues. That night with these first time visitors, of of the wonderfully odd little-old-ladies, reclined on this weird over-stuffed sofa I had and in her best Mae West imitation said, “Beulah, peel me a grape!”
The next morning, in the cold light of a new day I examined my options. The obvious was to go back to the Twin Cites. THAT wasn't going to happen. KSTP didn't want me back. I burned way too many bridges on University Avenue. I think I burned too many bridges all over town. I hadn't jocked in a little more than a year. I wasn't ready to be 'just a dj'. I believed my own hype. Also, once you've had a going-away-roast, how can you be back six months later? I didn't think of other cities or other radio stations at all. The truth be told, I was like Scarlett O'Hara on the staircase.
“I'll think about that tomorrow, because tomorrow is another day.”
And there were adventures to be had. In that July of 1978, Amtrak was running a daily train between Duluth and the Twin Cities. What excited me was the experiment they were trying at the time. Rail service between Minneapolis/St. Paul was reduced with the advent of Amtrak to a train arriving from Seattle/Portland and all points west in mid-morning and continuing to Chicago and the return train arriving from Chicago around 11PM heading to the West Coast on the old Great Northern line. To improve service the train left Duluth at 5:30pm for the Twin Cites and continued on to Chicago with over-night Pullman sleeper service. A similar train left Chicago in the evening and after passing through the Twin Cities arrived in Duluth in late morning. The result was service in both directions morning and afternoon between Minneapolis and Duluth and the Twin Cities and Chicago. If you know anything about me, you know I will go anywhere, do anything, suffer indignities and financial collapse, just to ride a train. There was a writer who commented that hearing a train whistle she was overcome with a desire to go wherever it was going. The train beckoned me.
Before the month was out, I was on the train heading to Chicago where I was going to meet the train to New York City. What a wonderful adventure. How serendipitous my departure from WEBC.
It was on this trip that Mesa Kincaid tried to poison me. I had a compartment but the food service was poor. I mentioned to Mesa that she should grab me some goodies and meet me at the station. Jokingly, I told here I wouldn't have time for a real visit and she should just drop off the goodies and leave. She must have been offended because I have long suspected the basket from the Lincoln Deli was tampered by Mesa Borgia...er, Kincaid. Honestly, there must have been 50 dollars in Deli goodies in that basic and after scarfing at least 20 dollars worth, by the time the train reached LaCrosse, my intestinal distress was in full form. In addition to the stomach ache, the chills and sweats and the frequent visits to the communal bathroom, sleep didn't come as the train rattled and shook through Wisconsin. At some point early in the morning, I fell asleep and didn't wake until the porter knocked on the door informing me the train had been in the station for an hour. Since I didn't see any bright lights or people beckoning, I shall assume I just slept and did not have a near-death experience. Luckily, my was strong and quickly felt better. I killed time in downtown Chicago with a movie. (I wasn't so much interested in lunch) By the time my train for New York was ready to leave, I was toxin free. The wonderful Stevie Perun was in Chicago visiting his Grandparents and since the trip to NYC was going to be short we met in Chicago and he joined me. I love being a tour director and New York City is the perfect place for tour directing. The train out of Chicago started off poorly. I was feeling fine, back to normal, and Steve and I hooked up and got aboard without complication. The compartment was roomy and although the Pullman car was old, it was in good shape. Except for the brakes. With every change of speed, the brakes emitted a loud screaming sound. It was so loud, so irregular, and so irritating I was beginning to wish I had some potato salad from the Lincoln Del to put me out of my misery. Thankfully, well before Cleveland, it stopped and sleeping was possible. The next morning, we had a great train breakfast in the diner and ate while the Hudson River sparkled in the morning sun on our right. We arrived at Grand Central and checked in before 10am at what was then called the Americana Hotel on 54th. Here comes an ironic and totally unintended and unanticipated event. Stevie and I were totally unaware that, at the exact same time we were going to be at THAT hotel, a radio-industry convention sponsored by one of the trade sheets was there also. It was a total surprise. Something we were not aware of until we ran into some record promotion guys from the Twin Cities in the lobby. Total surprise! Of course, Stevie, the ultimate radio-groupie (in a good sense) was thrilled. I went along for the ride. Not only were we invited to one or two of the banquets that were part of the convention, but Ron Geslin, the Twin Cities RCA rep was there and he and his wife and Stevie and I did some of the city tour together. I also was offered a job as a record promotion guy. I will admit I considered it for a few hours, but reality prevailed. When you get right down to it, I hated working at WEBC because (among other things) I didn't like being a salesman. All my insecurities and shyness made it a poor occupational choice. When you come right down to it, a record promotion guy is a salesman. I was smart enough (or lucky enough) not to jump from the frying pan into the fire.
Many of my train rides throughout the years have been one-way. Train going, airplane returning. We flew back to the Twin Cities. In the two weeks since wrapping up “Rob Sherwood” operations at WEBC I had memories of a great train-ride, being at death's door, hanging out in a great city, and no future and little ambition. The delights of Duluth and the ladies next door wasn't going to fulfill for long. I renewed my passport and headed to Europe. I have a penchant for visiting Europe when the weather was crap. This was only the second time I was in Europe when the weather was nice and I ended up staying longer then intended. While planning the trip, Pope Paul VI died and I thought it would be neat to be in at St. Peter's when the white smoke came out the chimney and the new pope was named. The Pope died in the beginning of August and I managed to be among the throng when Pope John Paul I (the First) became Pope on August 26th. If I had to rate the major tourist cities, Rome would be in the top three. Mainly, I judge cities by the food. German food wins for me every time. Italy has great food, of course, and usually places second. Czech food (really like German food) is great. Scandinavia and Spain have horrible food with an emphasis on seafood. That's why it is horrible to me. I don't like to eat anything that lives in the same water it goes to the bathroom in. Because of the crowds associated with the papal voting, the good museums and restaurants were packed. After a week or so, I was ready to visit some places I'd never before been. I got to Amsterdam and Northern Germany, spent five days in London and considered applying for visas to Hungary and Czechoslovakia when the news broke. After a papacy of only 33 days, The Smiling Pope, Pope John Paul the First was dead. I went back to Rome hoping to duplicate my earlier presence when the white smoke heralded Pope John Paul's election. It wasn't to be. The voting went on and I finally got bored with the whole thing. I was back in New York City when the white smoke came out of the chimney and the compromise Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II. (I did get to see him in person when he visited California)
Back on Wyoming Street in Duluth, I realized that in the months since leaving WEBC I was hemorrhaging money. I knew I wasn't staying in Duluth, but I didn't know where I was staying. I needed time to think. I didn't need to spend thousands of dollars more while doing it. Since my Dad died in March of that year, my brother and his wife had taken over that home. While deciding on the future, I could take over an old bedroom. All my junk went to storage (in a closed grocery store) and I spent the winter with family. It was one of the good things.
My brother Tim's first child was just two when my dad, his grandpa died. Do children really grasp the concept that 'grandpa is with Jesus'? My dad and this grandchild were very close. Dad was missing Mom and all the love he had to give was going to little Sean. Before Dad died, Tim and Kath and Sean were living in a little house with a long driveway. My Dad would visit daily and exiting his car and before going into the house, he'd toss the remains of the Tipperillos with the plastic tip, he smoked, into the snow bank. That Spring, his absence was evident as the snow bank melted and one by one the plastic Tipperillo tips appeared to remind everyone of the loss. At just the right time, we all moved in together and all the affection Sean had for his grandpa was transferred to his Uncle. And vice versa. When Tim and Kathy and I talk about those months together, it is clear to me now, how lucky I was to have had them. Sean is a wonderful nephew and his own boy is one of the reasons I came back to Minnesota in 2002. During the early part of 1979, I went to New York a couple of times, just for a change. I visited in the Twin Cities. I watched TV with Sean (The Muppet Show and The Chimeleski Band), read a lot of books, and lolled. As far as my former “friends” I had dropped off the face of the earth.
That is a sore point. A learning point. Going back to the movies, perhaps Gerald O'Hara had it right in GWTW when he said everything important is about family. Wait a minute! I think it was the land that he thought was so important. I should never have even started this analogy.
Why this absence of acquaintances? I don't know. Out of sight out of mind? All I know is that people I had spoken to daily, no longer called. Or wrote. Weeks went by with not a word from my 'social circle'. Was I actually 'de-friended' because I wasn't 'Rob Sherwood” any more? Were people embarrassed by my Duluth failure? Years later while working in Seattle/Tacoma I was again between engagements. Out of work. Idle. Someone I have mentioned many many times in My Story had advanced in his own career to the point where he was now a medium-major market program director. During my time in San Francisco and Tacoma/Seattle I probably spoke to him daily. I gave advice, acted as a sounding board, and thought of myself as a friend. I had no desire to work for him. During the 4-5 months I was idle I didn't get ONE phone call. Not one. When eventually I was back working at what would become my final foray in radio, I chose not to re-establish a phone relationship. It was all just too silly. And too shabby.
After that final radio station, another friend and colleague suggested I might want to join him in his new endeavors. At the time I was visiting with my family and planning a trip to California. Even though I wasn't seriously considering getting back in the saddle, a free trip west would have been nice. I was told that he'd get back to me with 'details' the next day. Ten years later I gave up deciding that phone call and 'details' were never going to come.
And just last year it happened again. A lunch, a suggestion, a promise to get in touch in a month or so with details. Hello?
I seriously think these radio friendships stumbled because the people involved were afraid I expected them to offer me a job. They didn't have to worry. They didn't need to offer me a job. I don't need no stinkin' job. I can deal with rejection. As time passed, some of them reappeared, some didn't.
“Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin' for, worth fightin' for, worth dyin' for, because it's the only thing that lasts.”
Thank you Gerald O'Hara but change that GWTW quote from 'land' to 'family' and you have it.
Coming in Chapter 19 – The Show Must Go On