Michael James :
Gifts from the Great Spirit, tripping in NOLA, leaping forward & following a rainbow, 1975-’77

As the rain poured down and we cradled ourselves in the palm of a giant southern oak, Katy and I shook hands and committed to giving this restaurant thing a try.

james 8 - heartland patio

Heartland Café patio, Chicago, September 1976. Photos by Michael James from his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.

By Michael James | The Rag Blog | June 15, 2014

[In this series, Michael James is sharing images from his rich past, accompanied by reflections about — and inspired by — those images. These photos will be included in his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.]

Our lives became intertwined when I met Katy Hogan in October 1975 on the mezzanine at the Midland Hotel and shared a joint during a Holly Near concert. This was a good thing, one of the best things in my life. The Vietnam War was over. So, too, the rigorous day-to-day organizing and politics of life in Rising Up Angry was slowly coming to a close. I was exploring my next moves.

Katy and I ran many miles together up and down the lakefront during that beautiful fall, on tracks at Loyola University, Reiss Park, Amundsen Park, and Lincoln Belmont YMCA. Together we ran Chicago’s first modern marathon in 1977.

Pictures from the Long Haul

Katy introduced me to a broader circle of activists, educators, and politicians, to her family and friends, and to a deeper understanding of Chicago — its politics, history, and ongoing struggle with racism. A Southwest Side Chicago girl who attended Queen of Peace and Mundelein, Katy had worked summers in City Hall and was both rebellious and adventurous.

I worked at B & F Turgeon Trucking on Parnell Avenue, in the Mayor Daley stronghold of Bridgeport. I loved being a dockhand, unloading and loading trucks, a grunt throwing boxes and talking with fellow workers and fellow RUA members Tim Berg and Mike McGraw.

Mike was out of Kelly High School and his band Killin’ Floor performed at our Peoples Dances. That job influenced my thoughts on developing a progressive economy, thoughts I expanded and solidified while teaching the class “Organizing for Social Change” at Columbia College.

My thinking included “educating to liberate,” and with Katy and Tim Berg we started a magazine distribution outfit: Freedom Road Delivery Company (FRDC). This business flowed from years of producing and distributing Rising Up Angry. Our new line of rags covered our interest in politics, culture, and sport. They included Sunrise, Crawdaddy, New Age, Ramparts, Latin NY, and Runner’s World.

Throughout the fall and winter of 1975-1976 we did weekly route work distributing positive literature to the masses. And we produced cultural events similar to the Peoples Dances put on by Cooperative Energy Supply at the Midland Hotel. Under the FRDC banner we moved to the Germania Club near North and Clark. We put on a number of good shows with bluesman Bob Riedy, rockers Robin Steele, and a Blues to Bluegrass show with Hy Thurman, a southern kid active with JOIN, the Young Patriots Organization, and early RUA. These shows were fun but did not make real money “for the cause,” a major motivation for producing them.

I yelled, ‘Hanrahan, we know what you did, you killed Fred.’

After teaching a class and checking out a debate at Columbia College between Republican gubernatorial candidates Jim Thompson and Richard Cooper, Katy and I spotted States Attorney Ed Hanrahan on the street. He had organized the assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, who was asleep in his bed when he was murdered by the Chicago Police. I yelled, “Hanrahan, we know what you did, you killed Fred.” He was clearly flustered and upset.

james 6 - cipc crew

South Water Street Market, Chicago 1976. Above: Members of the Greater Illinois Peoples’ Coop. Below: Salesmen watched over by lion on the wall.

james 5 - salesmen
I spent two weekends in Boston doing EST (Erhard Seminar Training) at the encouragement of my high school squeeze Susan Lum, who was Werner Erhard’s secretary at the time. Going into the training I vowed not to let this consciousness technology mess with me too much. I questioned my trainer Landon Carter on the theme of taking responsibility for what happens to us. I asked, “Are you saying the Vietnamese are responsible for the bombs being dropped on them?”

He clearly didn’t want to deal with that, though a number of people approached me during lunch to share their support. I knew the Vietnamese did a fine job taking on that challenge. Even so, I did enjoy my EST experience; it helped me take more things in stride instead of engaging in the often wasted and misspent energy and angst of getting worked up over things on which I had no immediate influence. It enhanced my way of being and working in the world.

While in Boston I checked out the macrobiotic restaurant Seventh Inn. My most basic food roots grew from the cooking of my mom, my grandmothers Anne and Ethel, and a babysitter named Bobbi who baked bread and apple pies. My tastes mirror those of my dad — varied and voracious. I like meat, beans, diners, food in bars, and food cooked by friends’ mothers. I like finding new things, one of the best being my first Italian sausage with grilled peppers and onions at the St. Anthony’s Fair in Saugatuck, then the Italian section of my hometown of Westport, Connecticut.

Now I was reading Paul Bragg, the trainer of Hollywood stars who wrote about fasting, eating meat or fish three times a week, consuming apple cider vinegar, and his plan to live to 100. (Unfortunately he drowned in an Hawaiian undertow in his 80’s.) Adele Davis provided inspiration, guidance, and a taste for health shakes and brewer’s yeast. And Frances Moore Lappé was a big influence. In her Diet for a Small Planet she encouraged respect for efforts to meet our planetary protein needs from sources other than animals.

I had heard about macrobiotics and Michio Kushi, who introduced the U.S. to George Oshawa’s views on a diet of regional foods with an emphasis on grains and vegetables (except the “nightshades”: eggplant, tomatoes and peppers). At Seventh Inn I watched the famed macrobiotic teacher — who was also eating alone — chain smoking cigarettes.

To this day I love miso soup and the condiment gamashio (roasted sesame seeds and sea salt), both of which I first had that evening. Macrobiotics really caught my attention when I read that after the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki the circle of death grew daily but passed over patients and personnel in a hospital who ate a traditional Japanese diet of miso, brown rice, and seaweed.

That fall I also received a special gift from the Great Spirit!
james 1 - coya

New Daughter Coya, Gift from the Great Spirit, Chicago, Fall 1977.

That fall I also received a special gift from the Great Spirit! I learned I had a daughter, the first of what would become three girls in my growing brood. Less than a year earlier I had danced well into the night with a woman named Leslie at a Salsedo Press party. Now she shared she had a baby; either her former husband or I was the father.

I knew in my heart I was the lucky guy, even before I saw a picture of this beautiful child and before taking the paternity test Leslie requested. I started to get to know my daughter. A naming ceremony was held in my Uptown apartment. My pal Patrix pierced her ears and she was named Coya, after an Incan princess. Coya Paz grew up in Peru, Columbia, Ecuador, and Maryland, and eventually reloctated to Chicago after college, to pursue drama and theater.

At the end of 1975 I wrote myself a note: “Time for some serious leaps forward.” In another note to myself I said, “1976: year to make our minds & bodies healthy and strong.”

That winter Katy and I worked on our physical, spiritual, and activist development. We’d run from Greenview down Montrose and then up or down the Lake, including up and over Cricket Hill. David Meggyesy came to town and we hung out with sports newscaster Tim Weigel. David and I taught a class we called Sports, Consciousness, and Social Change at Columbia College, in which we connected the Movement and the world of sport.

Columbia’s physical-plant guy was Jake Caref, a Polish Jew who had fought fascism as member of the USSR’s Red Army. He introduced me to the Russian Bath House on Division Street, with its glorious yet punishing heat and a wonderful cold pool plunge. That winter I got my first massage from Luis Bautista, who went by Louie when he was the drummer in a rockin’ country band at the Jubilee on Montrose Avenue near Kenmore.

james - 7 print shop

Printshop crew, Columbia College, Chicago 1976.

We were getting closer to opening up a joint, considering all aspects of such a move: where to do it, with whom, and what to call it. We continued to explore the healthy foods scene and visited Chicago’s healthy food pioneers Rainbow Grocery, Sherwyn’s Health Foods, Tree of Life, Kay Stepkin’s Bread Shop, jazzman Brad “Sparrow” Parker’s place on Armitage, and Oz and Leonard’s Herbanite Restaurant on Halsted.

Oz and Leonard gave us the sacred recipe for what became the Heartland Herb Flyer tea — peppermint leaves, lemon grass, raspberry leaves and rose hips. When I taught at Columbia I hit Kramer’s, the old-line health food store on Wabash, drinking many carrot-beet-and-celery juices from their industrial Norwalk juicer.

Other stopping places were Eva’s Country Kitchen on Leland for biscuits and gravy, Laurie’s Pizza on Broadway at Foster, where I scarfed down Julienne Salads, the Pergolisi Coffee House, and Chester’s Hamburger King. Chester’s is the beloved Japanese greasy spoon that was so inspirational to me for its warmth, semblance of home cooking, low prices, filling meals, friendliness, kindness, and customer diversity — all manner of folks, from Cubs coaches, dope dealers, body workers, cops, and hot rod mechanics, who represent all races and many ethnic groups.

Katy and I began a road trip that integrated these explorations and our thoughts about creating our own joint.

On Thursday, February 26, Katy and I began a road trip that integrated these explorations and our thoughts about creating our own joint. I taught my Columbia class that day, in which I had students write how they saw the USA in relationship with the world, both in its contemporary state and while they were growing up. By 5 p.m. Katy and I were in a Pontiac Firebird I bought from my friend Polly Pryor in Connecticut, heading south to New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA) for Mardi Gras. A pretty sunset, Illinois dark earth, a salad in a place near Cairo; before dawn we hit Memphis, the home of Steve Lockwood, our fellow-activist friend out of SDS in East Lansing.

james 3 - writing

Writing on the Wall, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1976.

Later that day at sunset we stopped at a KOA campground in Wesson, Mississippi, and did yoga. Then, smoked up, we went running on a dirt road, when suddenly both of us heard a prolonged, loud roar and rumble. A train? A vehicle? Farm machinery? A space ship? We never did discover its source. Then we had what seemed a mystical experience. It had gotten dark, and suddenly cattle were running to us and with us from both sides. This spiritual period was getting interesting. A few years later my Mississippi-born artist stepfather Euclid Shook said, “Ahh sure, Mike, they do that — thought you were gonna feed ‘em.”

Arriving in NOLA after 10 that night, we were abruptly and quickly rousted by the police as we tried to sleep in a park. We were grateful to find refuge in the backyard of some guys living on Roberts Street, friends of someone Katy knew. In the morning we walked Bourbon Street, had coffee and beignets at Café Du Monde, talked to street performers, watched the antics of drunks, and rode the same trolley used in the film Streetcar Named Desire.

Then we drove around New Orleans. We found costumes at a Red White & Blue used clothing store. Katy would be the Indian maiden in a faux deerskin fringed shirt, and I a cowboy country rocker in a red-trimmed and sequined blue sport jacket. Dressed in these outfits, we caught beads and medallions thrown from passing floats, one featuring Alice Cooper. Most thrilling was moving through the streets, feeling joy and strength as we followed Southern University’s marching band. They were Wow!

james 2 - backstreet

Backstreet, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1976.

After doing laundry and drinking coffee at Corky’s in a black shopping center on Sunday morning, we dropped mescaline. This all-natural psychedelic enhanced a wonderful day. A highlight was when we agreed to a serious leap forward based on building strong, healthy minds and bodies.

We were up in a tree in City Park, built during the era of the great Works Progress Administration (WPA). As the rain poured down, we cradled ourselves in the palm of a giant southern oak that seemed to give us lessons and guidance. Then and there Katy and I shook hands and committed to giving this restaurant thing a try “for two years” — oh, how little did we know! — and climbed back down to earth.

As our psychedelic trip continued, we did our best steps while following a black marching band doing the soul strut.

As our psychedelic trip continued, we did our best steps while following a black marching band doing the soul strut. We ate hot gumbo, reveled in more drinking and dancing, and sipped late night coffee at Café Du Monde.

By 10 a.m. Monday we headed north out of town. We stopped for a tour of Memphis, then continued home to Chicago to follow through on our agreement to open a restaurant we would call “Sweet Home Chicago’s Heartland Café.” Now we needed to find a place.

In high school I had fantasized about a little collection of businesses that would encompass things I thought were cool: a photo store and art gallery, a gym, a record store, and a hot rod garage and body shop. I don’t recall a food element being in the mix. I would call it “Gaylord’s House of Cool” and that was sort of what I had been going for back when we tried renting a four-story building at Kenmore and Belmont.

The store would feature cool and hip goods from around the globe, a restaurant, a bar, a dance hall and a gym. Our prospective new landlord said we would have to pay the insurance on the building. This requirement was one of many business realities Katy and I would come to learn about, but at the time it seemed an obstacle.

So there we were hanging out back at Chester’s, where we ran into Jack Bornoff, a pal of mine. Upon hearing of our dilemma, he said, “I know a place you can get — Lackey’s Steak House in Rogers Park.” Katy knew the joint; she had been there where Gene Lackey cooked up steaks on a home stove in the back, then performed bluegrass for his customers. Now Lackey was gone and a kid named Chip who had taken over had closed it.

We invited our fellow Freedom Road Delivery partner Tim Berg to go in on the Heartland but he declined (and today is a progressive Christian who sells insurance). We also invited my ex-wife Stormy to be a partner and come into the kitchen with us. She said yes, which opened the door for her mom Jean to become our first employee — adding her maturity and people skills to the founders’ mix.

On a rainy Saturday afternoon we met the cement contractor and building owner Alex Berger at the corner of Glenwood and Lunt in Rogers Park. The building was big, with four storefronts facing south on Lunt. Lackey’s occupied the two to the east, and a radio/TV repair shop and the Independent Voters of Illinois rented the two to the west.

7000 North Glenwood Avenue was set back about 30 feet from the sidewalk and my first thought was, “Outdoor café” — at the time there were virtually none in Chicago. Suddenly, we received another sign from the Great Spirits: the sun broke through the clouds and a rainbow appeared overhead. Wow: What the hell! Let’s do it! Follow the rainbow!

Within days we made the deal with Berger, who threw in a month’s free rent and soon offered additional storefronts along Glenwood Avenue. The building has 10 units, and in time we would occupy all of them in what was to become the Heartland Café, General Store & Buffalo Bar and over time, the Red Line Tap, the Heartland Journal, and the Heartland Studio Theater.

james 4 - chesters

Chester’s Hamburger King dishwasher off work, Chicago, Spring 1977.

Having gotten this far in our venture, I took a run in the Firebird with sons David and Jesse to visit family in St. Petersburg, Florida. Katy went to the Bahamas for a yoga retreat. Then we three founding partners — myself, Katy and Stormy — took a research ride to Milwaukee to visit the dean of improvisational theater, Paul Sills, at Century Hall, and the natural food people at Fertile Earth.

Then we got to work.

Then we got to work. On Saturday, May 1, 1976, we three, along with Jean and the kids Chuck, David, and Jesse, plus a kid friend Maldo, filled a dumpster, tore things up, performed cartwheels and handstands for a little super-8 film footage, talked and imagined, and dreamed together about what was to come. We met Mickey, the bartender at Roy’s Bar next door. All this would become the Heartland Building when we bought the whole building, with its 10 units, three years later.

Bob MacFarland of Rainbow Grocery introduced us to South Water Street Market. He took us with him early one morning and introduced us to the tough-looking salesman we soon worked with. Bob also connected us with the Greater Illinois Peoples Coop (GIPC) for whole grains, brown rice, beans, and natural juices. For years we made the run to the market twice a week, hauling food to the far North Side.

We took the walls down to bare brick, used dry ice to pop the tiles on the floor, improved the kitchen, found and painted assorted tables and chairs. We got equipment and lighting out of the old Harrison Hotel that Columbia College had recently purchased for classrooms. Columbia president Mike Alexandroff and VP Burt Gall encouraged us as we began our new project.

We scoured restaurant supply houses for old dishware, preferably Buffalo China. Friends of Stormy macraméd the backs of reborn chairs. And neighbors, friends, and new friends came by daily, to help and to ask, “When you going to open?” We said, “Soon,” over and over.

And open we did. We had raised $4,000 from our own meager holdings, family, and friends. We were down to $200, so we went to the market in Katy’s ‘56 maroon Chevy, a car soon to receive notoriety in Andy Davis’s film Stony Island. We bought brown rice, wheat flour, cornmeal, and vegetables, then went to George Street for chicken legs and thighs. Art Davis, aka Chink, was busy in the kitchen. Everyone was busy. By late afternoon I was putting up signs: “Open in an hour and a half,” “…in one hour,” “…any moment.”

There was a single menu, handwritten in multicolored letters on large drawing paper. We offered bulgur wheat, tamari chicken, and vegetable; and stir-fry vegetables and brown rice, corn on the cob and salad, all inexpensive. Though ample, the menu included a short-lived offering: “If you’re still hungry and want seconds, just ask….”

Forty-three folks were seated, waiting, and ready to eat. Sometime between 6 and 7 on that wonderful summer night of August 11, 1976, in Sweet Home Chicago, capitol of America’s Heartland, we were in business. In a matter of days we opened for lunch — the first an impromptu one when Jim “Mac” McNamara and Ben Sandmel from the Quiet Night showed up. Soon we put tables outside. Before long we were open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, indoors and out, seven days a week. Word spread. Everybody was welcome! We got real busy.

Find more articles by Michael James, including previous installments of this series, “Pictures from the Long Haul,” on The Rag Blog.

[Michael James is a former SDS national officer, the founder of Rising Up Angry, co-founder of Chicago’s Heartland Café (1976 and still going), and co-host of the Saturday morning (9-10 a.m. CDT) Live from the Heartland radio show, here and on YouTube. He is reachable by one and all at michael@heartlandcafe.com. ]

This entry was posted in RagBlog and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Michael James :
Gifts from the Great Spirit, tripping in NOLA, leaping forward & following a rainbow, 1975-’77

  1. Worthog says:

    Good read. Thank you. Power to the people!

  2. Another fantastic installment! Thanks Fatback!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.