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Chicago, Without Eddie

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It just hit me that it's two years this month since my friend Ed Reardon died. A lot has changed since then. I haven't smoked since the day of his wake, which would please Eddie; but I've been working out a lot, which would deepen his suspicion that I'm a borderline yuppie. The rest of his pals have had a hard time getting along. We stopped going to Laschet's bar and we can't agree on one we all like. Paul admitted to Tony and me that since Ed died he hasn't once felt that exultation he used to feel before our nights at the tavern. It didn't hurt our feelings. We knew just what he meant. Re-reading this remembrance of Eddie that I wrote just after he died, it occurred to me that maybe you will too. --DM

One of the great thrills in the life of former Chicago paramedic Ed Reardon was meeting his hero Studs Terkel and later becoming one of his favorite interview subjects, appearing in a couple of the books.

Much later I was also lucky enough to meet Studs Terkel, and in the first conversation I had with him I mentioned I was friends with Ed Reardon. "How do you know Ed Reardon?" Terkel demanded.

Eddie was sick with congestive heart failure when I met him, about seven years ago. By then he'd had a heart attack, quit working, lost his wind and sold his sailboat.

I never knew what I was missing, but I always knew what I was getting.

If Eddie loved you, he called you "darlin'." One time, late at night in Laschet's bar, I was talking about my mother and he was talking about his son and he was moved to reach over and grab my ear lobe and hold it and tell me through his gap-toothed grin and with a mist in his big eyes, "You're a good boy." I was 33, and I believed him.

Eddie could make you feel like a boy, because he grew up in Chicago in the 1950s in an old neighborhood. He casually called taverns "saloons" and $10 bills "sawbucks" (and $20s "double sawbucks"). Eddie was three generations in one.

Which gave him more than old words -- it gave him old wisdom. Once, with my first baby on the way, I was fretting about what kind of parent I would be. Eddie cut me off short. He told me there's no such thing as "parenting," as some series of techniques, some bag of tricks. "Your kid gets you for 18 years. If that's good, good. If it's bad, bad. That's it." (A reassuring message to me, since I already knew I was a good boy.)

Eddie's genuineness sometimes made it a little difficult to be with him, at least in the beginning of the evening. When he asked me what was going on in my life, I actually had to know. Patter didn't work. If I was going to engage Eddie, I had to know just exactly what I was happy about, what was bothering me, what I was looking forward to. If I didn't always know those things when I started talking to Eddie, I always knew them by closing time.

Magic happened with Eddie. One afternoon he and I were alone in a saloon that had an old-fashioned pay phone. He was explaining to me how, as a kid, he used to poke the wire with a paperclip and make calls for free. Then the phone rang. I walked over and picked it up. It was for Eddie -- it was a friend who had talked to Eddie's wife Jeri who had heard from Eddie's doctor that some recent tests revealed his bad heart wasn't beating right, and he needed to go to the hospital right away to get a pacemaker installed. I panicked. Eddie insisted we had time for one more Heineken and a Marlboro Light, before they "put a Duncan yoyo in my chest."

That was the old paramedic talking. He knew the body and the brain as appliances, made of wires and pipes and water and meat. "Do I believe in a life after? I have no idea," he told Terkel in Will the Circle Be Unbroken. "I really believe that what I am is not this body. I know how quick this body turns to garbage."

He might have treated his body like garbage, but he kept close track of every bad thing he ever put into his soul. He didn't have many regrets, but the few he had were permanent and he talked about them often -- usually in the context of begging his friends not to make the same mistakes.

The only frustration I ever had with Eddie -- he didn't dwell on what his friends might be, and we didn't waste a lot of time thinking about how to improve him -- was his one real area of insecurity. Despite his wide reading, I think he worried that college-educated minds were somehow better organized than the pile of books in his head. This notion frustrated Eddie's writer friends; we all wanted him to write, partly in order to fill his quiet days but mostly because we wanted to read his writing. We wanted him to turn his oral genius and his deep feeling -- he told me stories about his life that make me cry when I retell them -- into something we could hand to other people.

Maybe it was this same insecurity that caused Ed to pretend to know a little bit more about some matters than he actually did. He thought of himself, for instance, as something of an expert on Native American history. Once he and a friend were driving on a Wisconsin reservation and they were arguing about which tribe owned it. They stopped at a gas station and asked the teenaged attendant what tribe he belonged to; the answer contradicted Ed's opinion, and, back in the car, Eddie grumped, "Aw, what does he know? He's just a kid."

I've got lots of friends and family who live in places with better climates and prettier terrain than Chicago. When they've occasionally asked me why I insist on living on this cold, crowded slab, I haven't stammered about the architecture or the cultural institutions or the rich history. I know that the best answer I could give them is an evening with Ed Reardon in a smoky saloon.

What am I going to tell them now?

David Murray blogs regularly at Writing Boots.