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Flashing back on Joe Pepitone and the "party central" of my Chicago youth
I tend not to write about baseball at Jagged Time Lapse — but as far as ballplayers go, Joe Pepitone was pretty damn “rock and roll,” so I figure he qualifies for inclusion here…
Pepi’s passing earlier this week bummed me out pretty badly, and not just because he was one of my all-time favorite baseball players (and all-time favorite MLB characters). Unlike fellow 70s icons Dock Ellis, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, Oscar Gamble and Dick Allen — all of whom also meant a lot to me, and whose deaths also totally tore me up — I actually knew Pepi a little bit, thanks to an interview I did with him for Rolling Stone in the summer of 2015, and the several uproarious phone conversations we had in its wake. (I have to say that it was extremely gratifying to see outlets like the Associate Press and The New York Times quoting from our RS interview in their recent Pepi obits.)
I can’t say I knew him well, of course, but I enjoyed the hell out of our chats, and got the distinct feeling that Joe did, too. He was a complicated dude, still obviously bearing the scars of a toxic and traumatic childhood that he wound up spending way too much of his life trying to laugh, fish and fuck away. But he was also a very sweet guy, humble, hilarious, huge-hearted and totally real; there was no pretense at all with Joe Pepitone, unless you counted his ridiculous hairpieces — but even those seemed about as funny to him as they did to me. I just hope he truly found some peace before he left this world.
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Pepi had his greatest successes as a New York Yankee, but it’s his three years as a Chicago Cub — from the middle of the 1970 season to the middle of 1973 — that fascinate me the most. I love Cubs-era Pepitone because of his connection to (and maybe even embodiment of) a time and place that I missed out on, but also came close enough to get a whiff of: Chicago’s swingin’ singles nexus of Rush, State and Division streets in the 1970s.
During the two-plus decades I spent as a Los Angeles resident, whenever I was traveling and someone would ask me where I was from, I always said “Chicago”. Not because I was overly proud of my Chicago upbringing — the first two times I left the Windy City, I did so because I definitely felt the need to get the hell away from there — but because everyone loves Chicago. (Or at least, they did before gun violence in the city’s most deprived neighborhoods became a favorite right-wing whataboutism talking point, but I digress.)
Saying that you were from L.A. immediately brought certain assumptions and prejudices into play, but saying you were from Chicago never failed to garner you a welcoming pat on the back. Because Chicago had a reputation for good times and good people, a reputation everyone I met who had actually visited there was happy to corroborate — especially if they’d had good times on Rush or Division.
That area of town, just a stumble and puke from the monied Gold Coast, is still quite a magnet for the booze brigade. But back in the 1970s, it was the place in Chicago to party. In The Captain & Me, the book I wrote with Ron Blomberg about Thurman Munson, Ron talks about how he and his Yankees teammates would always make a beeline for Rush Street once they’d finished playing the White Sox on the South Side. And since Wrigleyville wasn’t yet the sort of “entertainment district” it became once the Cubs installed lights at Wrigley Field in 1988, it wasn’t uncommon for Cubs players and their opponents to hit the bars on Rush, State and Division once their day games were done.
Joe Pepitone even briefly owned a bar at 12 E. Division, the wonderfully-named Joe Pepitone’s Thing. Many of his Cubs teammates hung out there, at least until the establishment became implicated in a drug ring that was supposedly being run out of the bars along the street, and Joe Pepitone’s Thing was pronounced off-limits by the Cubs front office. Pepi always denied that anything untoward was going on at his place, but the bad publicity ultimately doomed the joint. (The headline below is pretty funny though, especially in light of all the raunchy sex that takes place in his wonderfully lurid 1975 memoir, Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud. It’s honestly a miracle that he didn’t bust his “thing”.)
Joe Pepitone’s Thing was long gone by the time my mom, sister and I moved to Chicago in the last week of 1979, but its former neighborhood was still very much “party central” at that point. And while I was way too young to get into the Rush Street bars and discos, I walked past them every day on my way to and from Ogden Elementary during the first half of 1980, and it was impossible to not pick up on the sleazy, alcohol-drenched, cocaine-encrusted vibe that permeated the neighborhood. Which, I have to admit, was actually kind of thrilling.
That spring, once the weather warmed up, my 8th grade friends and I would usually walk up State Street during our lunch hour to grab a slice of Sicilian-style pizza at Thick Pan Alley on Division, where talk about Pete Townshend’s new solo album or somebody’s new bong was as common as 8th grade gossip about who “liked” who. On the way back, if we had time, we’d duck into Downtown Records & Tapes to flip through the new releases, and maybe pick up the latest WLS-AM countdown chart.
Shortly before we graduated that June, our school had a special outing for all us 8th graders, where we actually got to have lunch and dance all afternoon at one of the posher discos on Division. (It was either BBC or Snuggery, I can’t remember which.) This probably wasn’t the best or safest idea, given how much coke dust the place must have been covered in, but everyone had a good time — at least, we did once we convinced the DJ to play some new wave music. My friends were all firmly in the anti-disco camp, and flat-out refused to dance to “Funkytown” and whatever other big dance hits were happening at the time. But once he put on “Rock Lobster” by the B-52s, we all hit the parquet floor and went absolutely nuts.
Back in 1980, my friends and I couldn’t wait until we were old enough to hang out in those bars and discos, where we envisioned ourselves getting totally wasted and picking up lotsa chicks. Of course, by the time we were actually of legal drinking age (or close enough to pass with a good fake ID), we avoided Rush and Division like the plague; what had once seemed groovy and titillating now just seemed tawdry and gross. It wasn’t until I returned to Chicago in 2015 that I actually went out of my way to revisit the area — to see what still remained there from my youth and what memories those streets and storefronts might conjure up. I still steered clear of Rush and Division during “prime time,” but I always found it pretty interesting to step into a serious blast from the past like The Lodge for a late afternoon drink.
Looking back, some of my happiest memories from my last go-round in Chicago involved re-tracing my footsteps of 40+ years earlier around the Gold Coast and its adjacent neighborhoods, mentally cataloging all that had been lost since then, but also reveling in the places that were still there. A cocktail at Le Coq D’Or in the Drake Hotel was my absolute favorite; it felt like a blessed sacrament, a “welcome back” and a ticket into a world I had only been able to fantasize about being part of when I was a kid. As much as I loved our Andersonville neighborhood, part of me always hoped that my ship would come in and bring my Chicago experience full circle by allowing my wife and I to move into some sweet little Gold Coast pad.
In the summer of 2015, when I posted some “extras” from our RS interview on my blog, I had just moved back to Chicago after being away for over 20 years — and I wrote at the time that I hoped my return to the Windy City would last substantially longer than Joe’s stormy stint with the Cubs. My two previous incarnations as a Chicagoan had been as a troubled teen, and then as a struggling twenty-something musician; but when I wrote that blog entry, I truly hoped and believed that living in Chicago as a fully-formed adult would turn out to be a more rewarding and ultimately happier experience than my previous two times there.
Alas, for many reasons, this sadly turned out not to be the case. I loved the city, loved being back on my old stomping grounds with my old friends, and returning to Chicago certainly allowed me to finally banish (or at least come to terms with) some of the ghosts and demons I’d carried with me since my Windy City youth. And yet, the many things that I tried to get going there — from full-time jobs to consulting gigs to book proposals to musical projects — never seemed to pan out. I began to feel like my presence there was somehow cursed.
I loved Chicago, and still do. When it became obvious to me in 2018 that “The City of Big Shoulders” had once again become the city of dead-ends, and that I would once again be better off pursuing my dreams elsewhere, it fucking broke my heart. And when Joe Pepitone died this week, and I belatedly realized that my ill-fated final attempt to make a go of it in Chicago had lasted about exactly as long as his ultimately ill-fated sojourn with the Cubs… well, my heart kinda broke all over again in the same place.
But then I look at this ridiculous 1971 photo of Joe, and I have to smile. This was taken outside of the Executive House on the northern edge of The Loop, where he lived during his time with the Cubs. He looks like an undercover cop here, and he’s sitting on the same bike that he would occasionally ride into the Cubs’ clubhouse just to piss off Leo Durocher. (Don’t know who his friend is, but I like her style too.) It’s truly a classic Pepi pic.
Chicago didn’t work out for Pepi or me, but we each came away from the place with some amazing memories. “I think about it now and I laugh,” he told me, flashing back on his days as a Nehru jacket-wearing fashion plate. And really, that’s ultimately the only attitude you can take with any of this stuff; there are so many wonderful recollections from my Chicago days in the ‘80s, ‘90s and even the late ‘10s that can still make me smile and laugh, and that feels a whole helluva lot better than crying.
Rest In Peace, Joe. Thanks for reminding me to laugh.