Ancient tortillas in a modern tortilla warmer.

A Mexican meal without tortillas is not really a Mexican meal. You can mix and match different entrees, but you always need tortillas with every meal. Tortillas have been around since Aztec times and are the equivalent of bread in many cultures. The tortilla, tlaxcalli to the Aztecs, is flat, round, made from corn, and may serve as a plate or an eating utensil such as a fork or spoon. When the Spaniards first encountered them, they called it a tortilla because it was circular like their Spanish dish of the same name.

Tortillas have always been part of my life. My father could eat a bowl of soup using only corn tortillas! My abuelita and mother were always heating up tortillas at the stove for every meal. They even made their own. They would use a rolling-pin to flatten the masa out, or in case of an emergency, a Coke bottle. My mother once bought an aluminum contraption that flattened the masa into a tortilla, but everyone agreed that they didn’t taste the same.

When we went to Mexico, I used to like going to the Tortillería to buy tortillas. They had a giant machine that would just make hundreds of hot tortillas for the customers waiting in line. You didn’t need directions to find the Tortillería because you would find it by following your nose. I would always eat at least one or two before I took the rest home.

Tortillas were also good for an afterschool snack. I’d sometimes come home and heat up some tortillas on the stove and eat them with butter. I rolled them up very tightly like a flauta. Sometimes I would eat them with just salt inside. Sometimes I would just heat them up and eat them plain. I really loved tortillas. When we kept the tortillas too long and they got hard, my mother would fry them and use them to make tostadas or chilaquiles. No tortilla was ever wasted in our home.

Occasionally, we ate flour tortillas, tortillas de harina, but they were always store-bought. We just preferred the taste of corn tortillas. Mexican restaurants use giant flour tortillas to make burritos. Other restaurants use them to make chicken wraps, where the “wrap” is actually a flour tortilla. Tortillas also evolved into the tortilla chips in Mexican restaurants, Frito’s corn chips, Tostitos, Doritos, thanks in no small part to capitalism.

I still have a comal to heat up my tortillas. Occasionally, I’ll eat them with cheddar cheese inside. Or I’ll eat them plain when I feel like reminiscing. But I definitely eat them when I make huevos con chorizo. I always keep a dozen corn tortillas in the freezer so I’ll have them whenever I crave them. They keep very well in the freezer and thaw out quickly in the microwave before I heat them up on my comal.

I can’t imagine life without tortillas!

Learning English

Holy Cross School

Since my parents came from Mexico, Spanish was my first language at home and we never spoke English. When I started kindergarten at Holy Cross School, I didn’t know any English. So when the Sister Mary Joseph talked, I did what the other kids did. I sat next to Bridget, the smartest and prettiest girl in the kindergarten. I didn’t understand Sister Joseph’s instructions because she spoke English, so I watched Bridget’s every movement. When Bridget took out her crayons, I took out my crayons. When Bridget took a nap, I took a nap. Kindergarten was not that complicated. When Bridget got up and got in line, I got up and got in line. But I got in trouble. Sister Joseph walked me back to my desk. I noticed that the entire kindergarten class was laughing. I had followed Bridget to get in line to go the girls room!

I always had a problem learning English. I didn’t quite understand everything correctly. I liked standing outside the corner bar. You see, they had a sign that read, “3 IDs required. No minors allowed.” I was always waiting to see these miners wearing helmets with lights on top to come to the bar. And then they’d get really mad because they weren’t allowed in the bar and start a fight with the bouncer because he wouldn’t let them in. But I never saw any miners try to get in. I guess that sign really worked.


Bridgeport, Chicago, Illinois

When I first moved to Bridgeport in 1986, I never thought of Bridgeport as a friendly neighborhood. In fact, as soon as I moved in, the Chicago White Sox announced that they were moving out. Bridgeport is the home to five Chicago mayors. When I moved there I found out why. When I went to change my address on my voter’s registration card, I found out I was voting since my date of birth. I had been living on an empty lot. In Bridgeport, if you didn’t vote a certain way, they did things to you. I didn’t vote the straight Democratic ticket, so they put a parking meter in front of my house. So I had three-hundred tickets. But I didn’t pay them. They put a Denver Boot on my car. It increased the value of my car. There was a bar around the corner that had an icon of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley. Richard Dah First. Every mayoral election, the icon sheds tears.

Good Night, Pat Brice

Just when I was seriously considering going back to standup comedy, I was suddenly reminded of why I quit standup comedy in the first place. I remember going to a different comedy club every night and driving all over Chicagoland. I performed at the following clubs at one time or another: Comedy Womb, Clout Club, Sally’s Stage, Who’s On First, Comedy Cottage (Rosemont and Merrillville, Indiana), Chuckles, and a few other places whose names I no longer remember. I enjoyed performing when everything went well, but dreaded those nights when I bombed. I also enjoyed the socializing with the other comedians afterwards. However, as fun and attractive as the Bohemian lifestyle was to me when I was younger, I knew I was living an unhealthy life. I had to undergo a lot of stress for just modest success. Well, eventually I found a safer, healthier job as a police officer in Chicago and left standup comedy behind. Of course, I occasionally feel the urge to return to the stage and perform.

So the other day, I read about a young Chicago comedian who died: Patrick Healy Brice, 29, suddenly. He was about to have his own Internet radio program. But I can still recall him as a teenager raking leaves in Mayor Daley’s yard when he still lived in Bridgeport. Since I have lived most of my life in Chicago, I often find that I am somehow connected with a lot of other people in Chicago. Just by coincidence, I used to work with Pat’s father Bernie who was a police officer and bodyguard to the mayor. When Bernie read a Chicago Sun-Times profile of me, he started talking to me about my being a comedian. Somehow he was interested in this little tidbit of information about me.

Years later, Bernie told me proudly when his son started performing standup comedy. He told me all the clubs where his son was performing. When he went to see his son perform for the first time, his son told him, “Dad, I make a lot of jokes about my dad. But they’re not about you.” When Bernie retired from the police department, his son performed at his retirement party and he was very funny. He just kept working at comedy and kept getting better all the time. It’s a sad shame, but Good night, Pat Brice.

Dad, I'm not making jokes about you!

Bathroom graffiti

C'est une pipe

I have seen a lot of graffiti in public bathrooms over the years. Normally, I try to avoid public bathrooms altogether, but sometimes, nature calls at the most inopportune moments. I’ve used a lot of public restrooms over the years. Let’s just say that I’m a regular guy. Since I’m a voracious reader, I even read the graffiti while I’m sitting there. I remember a few gems more so than others.

I still remember, “Kilroy was here!” along with the drawing of Kilroy peering over the wall. I haven’t seen Kilroy in bathrooms in years and I really miss him. I always loved, “After every job, there’s always a little paperwork.” Another memorable piece of graffiti was the poem, “Here I sit / Lonely hearted / Tried to shit / But only farted!” Poetry doesn’t come any better than that! I still see this poem on bathroom walls from time to time. However, as a purist of bathroom graffiti, I hate when someone tries to improve on this classic poem. Anyone remember this poem scrawled over the urinal? “No matter how much you shake and dance / The last few drops are for your pants.” Where are the bathroom poets of yesteryear now?

Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, Mexico

I read a lot of graffiti in the Lincoln Hall bathroom at University of Illinois at Chicago. Once, above the toilet paper, I read, “Get your UIC diploma here.” When Wayne Gretsky was really popular, beneath “Jesus Saves” someone wrote, “But Gretsky gets the rebound and scores!” Years later, in the same bathroom, I read, “The graffiti isn’t as good as it was 1978. It turned out my friend Vito had written that when he returned to college–again.

Once I had to go really, really bad. So I was sitting down in a public restroom reading the graffiti on the wall. I heard someone enter the stall next to me. I read, “Tap foot for blowjob.” Only then did I realize that I was tapping my foot! I stopped tapping my foot immediately and hurried up out of there. Phew! That was close!

When I was a police officer, I witnessed a wonderful exchange among a series of bathroom graffiti artists. Someone wrote “Bob.” Then, underneath, someone else wrote “Bill.” Then, someone else put a plus sign between Bob and Bill: “Bob + Bill,” implying that they were a romantic item. But another bathroom poet who didn’t understand the nuances of subtlety added the obvious: “Bob + Bill are lovers.” The next addition, however, was a stroke of genius! I assume either Bob or Bill penned the following masterpiece of a conclusion so that the finished text read: “Bob + Bill are lovers of all God’s creatures great and small.”


Dr. D. has his head in the clouds again.

This morning, as I drove my son to work, I looked up at the clouds in the sky. They were very beautiful and comforting. Then, I realized that they looked exactly like the clouds from the opening credits to The Simpsons! Suddenly, the sky and the clouds looked so artificial. Well, I couldn’t return to my initial moment of awe and wonderment.

Sometimes I wonder if reality is real enough. Robin Williams had a comedy album titled, “Reality: What a concept!” I think he was onto something. I recalled a few other moments in my life that life just didn’t seem “real” enough.

I had a similar experience years ago in California. I was driving from 29 Palms to Los Angeles pondering the meaning of life, among other things. I was truly soul-searching. At the point where I began my descent from the Mojave Desert, I was at the same altitude as the clouds on the horizon. I could see the sun above the clouds and the sun’s rays as they exited the clouds underneath. The rays spread out diagonally below the clouds and onto the ground. I’ve seen God appear this way in a few movies. Then, I realized as beautiful as this scene was, it was just too unrealistic! I doubted that I could possibly be seeing this scene unfolding before me. I can recall seeing it even now.

I’m not sure what this entire experience means. Perhaps it’s a phenomenon like déjà vu, but I just don’t know the name. Reality: what a concept!