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The Order of Oddfish

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I am Rick Kogan

December 29, 2013

On December 14, 2013 I performed at Christopher Piatt’s Paper Machete Show (“Chicago’s Weekly Live Magazine”) at the Green Mill. As a longtime fan and admirer of legendary Chicago newspaperman Rick Kogan, a man who’s seen and done it all in Chicago, I decided to do my piece as if I were he, if only to imitate his famously gravelly voice.

The audio is below; my part starts at 14:45. The transcript follows. Some of it might be obscure for non-Chicagoans. Thanks to Christopher Piatt for inviting me and Rick Kogan for his (I hope) indulgence.



Hello there. I’m Rick Kogan of the Chicago Tribune.

Christmas is almost upon us in this stormy, husky, brawling city of big shoulders, which means it’s time for another “Kogan’s Christmas Corner,” in which I take off my newspaperman’s hat—a hat I’ve worn for over 50 years at the Daily News, the Sun-Times, the Tribune—and I loosen my broadcaster’s tie—a tie I’ve worn for decades on WGN, WBBM, and WBEZ—and I even remove my jeweled titanium codpiece, which is not yet associated with an achievement—and answer emails from listeners asking that annual conundrum: what gift do you get for the person who is just a nightmare to buy for?

The first email comes from Diane Kordowski of Bridgeport.

Dear Kogan’s Christmas Corner,

My grandmother is in her late seventies. She doesn’t have room in her house for extra bric-a-brac. If anything, she’s trying to get rid of stuff! Still, Nana would be heartbroken if I didn’t get her a gift. What to do?


Well, Diane, I’ll always remember this.

December 1983 and I’m standing outside the Billy Goat with one Mike Royko, who was then, and always will be, pound for pound, dollar for dollar, the best newspaperman in America. Royko had seemed preoccupied all night, and even though it was snowing hard enough to get Jane Byrne re-elected, Royko and I were outside smoking, not outside because of some ban, but because back inside, Studs and Ebert had once again stripped to the waist, slathered their bare chests with hot cooking grease, and were grappling on the countertop, with the rude animal spirits of young bucks in their prime, the natural horseplay of this hard-drinking, two-fisted, grubby, glorious town—I was flush with victory, my pocket bulging with the severed pinky-toe of an impertinent David Mamet—then Royko turned to me, snow glittering behind him in the blackness, his eyes haunted—terrified—he began to speak—but then the door flung open, it was a breathless, nearly nude Ebert, with Studs in a headlock, roaring at us to come back inside or we’d get the “thumbs-down treatment,” we all knew what that meant, we’d all had that done to us before, so we headed back in, and the drinking began anew, and went all night long.

Those were the good times.

I never found out what Royko was trying to tell me, that night. It never seemed the right time to bring it up again. And yet I remember the way his face looked. The peculiar geometry of his head. His eyes, suddenly nightmarish.

So Diane, that’s what I would get for Nana. The unspeakable terror locked deep in the heart of famous columnist Mike Royko. A truth so horrifying, he could not tell it even to his best friend. When you find out what it is, please drop me a line at rkogan@tribune.com.

The next email comes from Patrick O’Connell of Old Town.

Dear Kogan’s Christmas Corner,

My son is 15. He’s into musicals, World of Warcraft, Manchester United, and tumblr. I don’t understand half of what he likes! Half the gifts I give him wind up ignored. Any ideas?


Patrick, your email hit close to home. I too grew up in Old Town. Nowadays Old Town might be more of a neighborhood of web designers than Grabowskis, but when I was a boy, it was vintage workingman’s Chicago: hardboiled eggs soaked in Old Style for breakfast, piggyback rides with Nelson Algren at lunchtime, an Italian beef sandwich with Bernie Sahlins backstage at the Second City for supper, and 16 inch softball in the alleys until sundown —and no gloves, where are you from, Winnetka?—anyway, back in 2002 Studs and I were walking around Old Town after our weekly poker game with Congressman Dan Rostenkowski and Liz Phair, who was still smarting from the tepid reception of “Whitechocolatespaceegg,” a fine, fine album. But for some strange reason, all the taverns seemed to be closed. A strange electricity was in the air, the distant rumble of thunder, and massive, gravid clouds bearing down on our heads like our own inescapable pasts—when Studs and I chanced upon a glittering Oriental shrine I’d never seen before, seemingly constructed of alien obsidian, eldritch stonework curling in upon itself in nightmarish geometries, the incalculable architecture of a madman—and in the center of that monstrous sepulcher, a simple wooden door.

As if in a dream, my fingers moved toward the door. Studs yanked my hand back, and hissed at me, “Rick Kogan—don’t touch it—for the love of God man, walk away from this abomination before it’s too late.”

But I would not be deterred. Studs averted his gaze. I opened the door—and closed it.

Studs whispered, “What did you see, Rick Kogan?” I answered, with a short bark of a laugh, “Nothing, Studs Terkel—it was nothing at all.”

We made our way home in shaken silence, our plans for drinks and companionship forgotten. Studs knew I was lying.

I was.

For inside that little door was the desiccated, disembodied head of Mike Royko—its eyes aflame with hideous green light, rattling with unspeakable energy in its cage of damnation, its lips trying—vainly—to say the secret it could not tell me, so long ago.

So Patrick of Old Town, that’s what I would get for your son. The monstrous disembodied head of famous columnist Mike Royko, its eyes on fire, its mouth gibbering the unspeakable. If we’re lucky, maybe your son will post that unspeakable secret on his tumblr, before committing himself, you, and your entire family to the flames. When he does, please send me the link at rkogan@tribune.com.

Our last email comes from Teresa Vasquez of Humboldt Park. It reads,

Dear Kogan’s Christmas Corner,

I’m a landlord. Last Christmas my tenants, young artist types, surprised me with an elaborate blown-glass nativity scene they’d made themselves. It was way over-the-top and not my style—still, I feel I should reciprocate somehow this year. Any ideas for appropriate stocking stuffers?


Teresa, the year was 1998 and I was skeet shooting in Back of the Yards with Del Close.

We were standing on the roof of St. Joseph’s Church on Hermitage and 48th, I had a modified Mossburg model 500 shotgun I’d bought in a pawn shop downstate and Del had a fancy Browning BT-99 that Harold Ramis had given him as a gag gift for IO’s 15th anniversary. We were firing at clay discs about 5 inches in diameter, 2 inches thick, each emblazoned with a satanic emblem Del had designed himself and arranged to have thrown from launchers operated by the syndicate of homeless wizards and IO team members Del kept at his beck and call, but to tell you the truth I just wasn’t feeling it.

I hadn’t slept in days.

My life had become a waking nightmare.

Every morning, I open my refrigerator door for milk for my Cracklin’ Oat Bran, and there he is, between the Mott’s applesauce and last night’s doggy bag from Ruth’s Chris—the disembodied head of Mike Royko, gibbering. I go to work, I open my desk drawer, and there is he is, between my unfinished novel and a boxed set of the best of Richard Marx, the disembodied head of Mike Royko, shrieking hideously. I take the Red Line and look out the window and there he is, between Grand and Lake, Mike Royko’s head floating in the darkness, his eyes flaming, following me home, floating over my bed all through the night, glowing in the blackness, staring at me with his flaming eyes, and now he is here, I see him coming right at me, out of the sky, his mouth opens with an unholy gabbling, I shriek, I fire the shotgun—and in an explosion of light, Mike Royko’s demonic head disintegrates into dozens of rotten chunks, splatters all around me, and yet simultaneously expands into a massive glowing cloud, envelops me, enters me, I shriek, “What have I done, oh what have I, Rick Kogan, done? What have I done, Eli, Eli, Lama sabachthani?”

I looked around. Del was gone. The homeless wizards, gone. The IO teams were playing zip-zap-zop in front of some confused, unhappy schoolchildren. I was alone on the roof of the church, in the evening’s gloaming. I signaled to Audrey Niffenegger, and she brought around my rickshaw. As I watched Niffenegger’s magnificent porcelain shoulders flex, pulling my rickshaw up Ashland, I realized that Mike Royko was not trying to tell me a secret, but ask me a question—a question, I now knew, that had entered deep inside me—slid inside my guts as ineluctably as cold iron—and turned some secret lock, opened some horrible door—I whispered, “Mike?”

There was no reply but the cold wind coming off of Lake Michigan.

So Teresa, for a stocking stuffer might I suggest the demonic severed head of Mike Royko, a disembodied skull that will haunt you every day, looming around every corner, following you down every street—always present but chillingly unseen—asking you the question no man dare answer. You can pick it up from me directly, free of charge. Drop me a line at rkogan@tribune.com.

The question . . .

Rick Kogan. Born in Chicago. Rick Kogan, raised in Chicago. Rick Kogan, more than 5000 bylines in the Tribune. 8 books by Rick Kogan, Rick Kogan Chicago’s Best Reporter 1999, Rick Kogan Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame 2003—

And after all that, to have my life be the subject of a dippy comedy bit by some no-name jagoff, read to a bunch of drunks grab-assing at the Green Mill on a Saturday afternoon—

My generation, we were giants! Our Chicago was real! What did you do last night—see some crappy band at the Empty Bottle and then vomit into someone’s mouth while you’re making out with them at the Continental? I DID IT FIRST, IN ’76, BUT OUR CONTINENTAL WAS JUST A BUNCH OF POTATO CHIP BAGS BEING BLOWN ABOUT BY THE WIND IN A VACANT LOT, and I was vomiting into the mouth of a bicurious Gary Sinise.

I don’t know. Sometimes I think the disembodied head of Mike Royko is right. We live our lives, some of us might become slightly famous, and yet after you’re dead, 20, 30 years—no one remembers you. I’ve watched them all go. Algren. Royko. Studs. Ebert. Ann Landers. We’re all just sliding down the drain together, holding on to each other the best we can as we slip into a fiery pit. Kind of like that scene at the end of Toy Story 3. My daughter Fiona watched it the other day. Scared the shit out of her.

Scares the shit out of me, too.

If you want to talk about it, drop me a line at rkogan@tribune.com.