There was a cold snap Christmas Eve, 1872 Chicago. The Windy City’s hosted more frigid events than you could count on one hand, had you still the fingers. The mercury dipped to -22F then. A long-forgotten newspaper offered a flowery damnation:
The Ice King: His
& Despotic Exercise
The 1872 text: “Boreas still persists in sending mercury to the lower end of the thermometer tube, thereby provoking Mr. Frost to lunch on people’s ears, and to insinuate himself where his company is not ardently desired. This persistent tyranny and despotic exercise of power is becoming well-nigh unbearable, and will shortly terminate in a cry of rebellion, if not in rebellious acts.”
My best pal Phil Lanier lives in Chicago. We still laugh and chat weekly for about 60 years now. We sing each other “Happy Birthday,” con gusto, now adding ribald and unflattering lyrics involving adult diapers, hair loss, weight gain, buying the 2-million-tablet jar of Viagra from Smart & Final but too weak to drag it up the few steps of the senior citizen van, adding questionable choices regarding children, pets and spouses.
The other day, when Lanier and I talked long distance? High 60s in Newhall. In Chicago? Cold enough to freeze the baculum off a woolly rhinoceros. I could hear strange sound effects, like dice rattling inside an empty tin coffee can. It was Philly Con Carne’s teeth, chattering. I asked Phil’s opinion.
“Going jogging later,” I said. “Should I just wear the T-shirt or take like a breathable light golf jacket in case it gets nippy?”
“Uz-zuz-zuz-zuz-zuz-zuz-zuz.” Phil confessed he was wearing all his clothes. And his wife’s. Simultaneously. His wife and three grown kids were currently playing hearts in the basement furnace and had no plans to leave before July.
“Use your words, Phil,” I instructed. “What are you trying to tell me?”
“Muh-muh-minus 145 with wind chill,” my best friend stuttered. Phil used to live in a tony Chicago suburb in an Andrew Lloyd Webber-designed house. I tell people this and they smugly correct me, asking if I were thinking of Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect? Nope. Phil’s house was built by the composer of Broadway show tunes. Understandably, the house design is like three lost dwarfs — Skimpy, Breezy and Campy. To save heating costs, Phil and his family moved to under Lake Michigan, where it’s a tolerable 33 degrees.
Plus, there’s a better class of people.
“Hey. Pal,” I asked innocently. I’m in shorts and a basketball jersey. “Is it cold back there?”
“Haaaaaaaaayyyyyy,” stammered Phil, not able to add the “T” and “E” to the abbreviated sentence of, “hate you…”
I reported on the February niceties Phil left behind. The beach. Barbecuing a steak in the back yard. I commiserated, trying to recall the last time I experienced white-outs or black ice in Canyon Country. I shared that I had watched a movie where a mountain man was lost in a blizzard and had to disembowel a cow then crawl inside the carcass so he wouldn’t freeze to death.
I asked my best friend: “You DO own a cow, Phil — don’t you?”
Then I blew into my cellphone to simulate a whistling arctic windstorm and called out, in an urgent, bass TV announcer’s voice: “SERGEANT PRESTON — of the — YUKON!!!”
Phil complained about not being able to feel his feet and asked questions about if it’s a bad sign when large blue chunks of your exposed flesh fall off.
I pointed out that neither our hero, Sgt. Preston, nor his sled dog, King, ever whined about a little snow.
I helped my friend by visiting YouTube and playing that Prince classic, “Raspberry Beret,” real loud. I held the phone toward the Midwest so Phil could dance away a cold so vicious, deadly and treacherous, it could be mistaken for Nancy Pelosi.
“Wait,” I said. “This’ll help.” I turned off Prince and started whistling a famous Hawaiian hula into the tele. Phil and I complained. He moped about Chicago’s Ice Age. I harped that too many young Valencia women had no shame and shouldn’t be wearing bikini tops in public.
We reminisced. Well. Me, mostly. Lanier was under 50 animal pelts and turning into a Swanson’s frozen TV dinner.
“Buddy. Remember how you got to Chicago in the first place?”
He did. Didn’t want to be reminded.
Decades earlier, Phil was offered a monster primo gig as L.A. creative director for Earth’s top ad agency. Phil didn’t know. They were grooming him for something more boffo-gigantor — World-Wide Creative Director. Not knowing, Phil took another job. In Chicago. You know. Inside the Arctic Circle?
“Remember later how shocked we were when we found out?” I asked, laughing.
“Please. Don’t…” Phil remembered. And shivered. “…tell anyone…”
The L.A./New York job paid $8 million.
Before deductions, that’s $154,000. Per week.
“Philly. I’m wretched at math. Help me out here. If you had taken the job for only FIVE years, how much is that? Phil? Let’s see. Eight million, times five, carry your aught…” I pretended to mumble calculations. “That can’t be right. Forty million dollars? Nooooo. Phil? You’d be worth $40 million and in your early 30s? Had you stayed, you’d be just now retiring. You’d be worth like Bill Gates, Dr. Dre AND that My Pillow Guy — combined. Right now, we’d be sitting side by side, in Malibu, watching the waves. Bathing beauties would be feeding us lobster and I would say, ‘No. A different bite. On a clean fork. This lobster’s scary. Hold me…’”
His voice a hoarse whisper, my best friend Phil Lanier muttered something into his cold, cold, cold, cold cellphone. It was hard to make out.
“Wolves,” I think he said…
John Boston is a local writer with 119 major awards, none of which need to be insulated from ice storms. If you have friends or family in winter-ravaged areas, please inform them Boston’s napping right now. In a hammock. Outside. In an orange grove.