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He Used To Be A Bad Ass

5 Aug

I lost a friend today…his name was Mike Furlan…known as Big Mike or 9 Toes to his friends. He was such a cool dude and a real character with a colorful past. He had a laugh that could fill a room. I wrote this story about him in 2001 and it got published. Mike got a kick out of that. I’d like to share it with you as most of it is in his words…this is the story of Big Mike…

He Used To Be A Bad Ass

“I’ll bet I’m the only guy you know who’s been shot, stabbed, hit by a car, run over by a truck, and died once,” he said to me, and he laughed that big, contagious, belly laugh that is only Big Mike’s. Even now at fifty-three and crippled by surgeries and arthritis, he is an imposing man at six foot one and 300 pounds. Ever the warrior, he laughed and said, “Everybody teases me now you know, because I don’t move the way I used to and I keep telling them, hey I still got ten minutes. I’m down to ten minutes, but I still got ten minutes.”

This once subculture warrior is now the older, gentler Mike. I look at him never guessing at the wild and somewhat shady side of his nature. The warrior he once was is now a lovable, funny, gentle giant with barely a whisper of the man who was once so deeply entrenced in the subculture of clubs, bars, and violence.

“You heard of living on the wrong side of the tracks?” he asked. “Well, I grew up on the tracks.”

Born in 1948, he grew up on the south side of Chicago, on a dead-end street, in the 400 block of Harding Avenue. At the dead end was a wall built up by about eight or ten feet of railroad ties, and over the top were the tracks. It was a small, cramped neighborhood, houses one on top of the other, and no room for anything.

“We had a little empty lot we called ‘the prairie.’ We used to play baseball there. And then we got too big for that and we had to move somewhere else, and then we got too big for that and then we had to go to the playground. And then we had to quit playing hardball because we broke some windows, so we had to use a softball. Over the fence was a home run, and then it was hit the wall was a homerun. Then it was you get it on the roof, it’s a homerun. Then it was you get it on the roof you’re out and you gotta go get the ball yourself” and he broke out with a laugh.

The neighborhood was rich in a history of mobsters like John Dillinger and mafiosos like Sammy Giancanna. “Somewhat shady, but a nice neighborhood,” he said.

When Dillinger would hide out in his neighborhood, Big Mike’s father, as a boy, would go to the store for him. A local restaurant hosted lunch for gangsters almost on a daily basis. He belonged to a community with an underworld mentality that became “normal” for him and for most others in his neighborhood. he was part of a “clique” as he calls it of local guys called the Chicago Avenue Jokers.

“It wasn’t a gang; there was no joining. There were no meetings. It just was.” If there were trouble within a six-block radius, they would show up. “The old ladies would walk down the street and didn’t have to worry about nothin’. We protect; you know it’s our neighborhood. Now you need a gun if you go into that neighborhood.”

In 1963-64, when Mike was about fifteen or sixteen the neighborhood started changing from white to black. It was during the civil rights era and he remembers vividly the riots, the burning of Madison Avenue, and the machine gun nests on Chicago Avenue. He was caught up in the prejudice that seemed part of the fabric of the neighborhood, and of the times. He was kicked out of grammar school for collecting fifty cents a week from all the black kids at school.

I asked him if he felt that way about black people now and thankfully, he said no; today he’s exactly the opposite. He now has many black friends, and with age and experience he has come to respect all people as humans just like anyone else.

“What made you the guy who took money from the black kids, instead of the guy who walked down the street with them to make sure no one kicked their ass?” I asked.

He replied, “I don’t know. It was just the way things were back then.”

He was stabbed on his twenty-first birthday, which he thought ironic since his dad had also gotten stabbed on his own twenty-first birthday. “I got into a fight and was stabbed by some black guys,” he said. “After that I kind of got away from there. A friend of mine went to prison for a long time and I moved out here on January 19, 1970. I remember the date, because I drove him to jail.”

Mike had spent summers in Lake Bluff at his aunt’s house as a boy and decided he’d move up to Lake County for a change of scenery. He started hanging out at a bar where he had been going since he was fifteen called The Mousetrap in Park City. After a while, the owners offered him a job as a bouncer. He worked there off and on for the next seventeen years.

Mike has always been a worker. He has been fending for himself since he was seventeen. “How? I always had a job. It may have been a job for cash, but I always worked. I never had to steal, and I never sold drugs unless I wanted to, and we all did.”

Mike had been a drug user since early on, but never let it get in the way of going to work, or maybe it was part of the reason he went to work. “Where I went to work, there was always plenty of stuff to party with, and I got paid for doing it,” he said and then laughed. He eventually started working at three different bars at the same time. At one of the three bars where he worked Mike got shot. it’s a story I’ll never forget.

He had carried a gun every day straight for thirteen years. For some unknown reason, that night was the night he didn’t carry it. Mike and a group of friends were going to Chicago to a comedy club to do some drinking. For some reason he thought to himself, “Eh, I don’t need my gun.” So he left it at home and they went to the city.

When they returned, they went to a bar where he worked called Down the Street. It was an after hours bar open until six a.m.

“About eight or ten blacks tried to charge the door. There was a cover charge at the time. They figured they weren’t going to pay it because only pimps and whores were in there trying to hustle the sailors.” A fight broke out and they wound up outside in the parking lot. One of them pulled out a gun and shot Mike right in the chest. He didn’t know he was shot. It felt like someone had poked him in the chest. “And then I saw the blood and I got pissed off.”

He went inside and said to the bartender, “Joyce, give me a shot of amaretto.” All the while everyone was screaming, because he was a bloody mess. He downed the shot and went into action. “I went back out there and beat all seven of them. They were in the hospital longer than I was.”

In the ambulance the police officer put his index finger up to the second digit in the hole in his chest to stop the bleeding. Mike pushed his hand away and said, “What are you doing?” And the cop replied, “Well you’re bleeding.”

Mike replied, “Well , that  hurts, asshole!” And he laughed the whole time he told me the story.

He returned to work seven days to the day, after he got shot with a new outlook on life. “I got shot and I said fuck this, that’s enough. I had enough. That’s when I woke up I think. It took a few years after that to realize it and when I was about thirty-three years old I decided I couldn’t be doing this the rest of my life. So I started slowing down. Started slowing down. I took me another ten or eleven years to do it.” He still carries that bullet inside of him as a reminder.

Mike ran a strip joint for awhile. There were a massage parlor and an adult bookstore in the back that he ran as well. “Strippers live in their own minds,” he said to me. “They all think they’re gorgeous. They think they’re the best one.” He told me about the funniest things he saw while running the strip joint. Once, he heard women screaming in the back room and went to see what was going on. “Girls, what’s the problem?” he asked.

“That’s my G-string!” said the one, and the other said, “That’s my G-string.” He laughed and laughed and said, “Who the hell would fight over a sweaty, dirty G-string?”

Then there was the story of the man who wanted to know if it would be all right if he watched the movies wearing high heels. “Sure,” Mike said. “No one cares what you wear in there.” Then he saw the guy a little later wearing shorts, nylons, and high heels.

“Is this ok?” he asked again.

Again Mike’s reply was “No problem.”

He saw the guy one more time in a bra, slip and the nylons and heels. That time he told the guy, “That’s it. Get the hell out of here.”

Only he and his sister are left of his family. The man who was once young, vibrant and full of himself now finds himself as part of the older generation. I asked him how it felt, getting older and not being as bad as he used to be. “Part good, part bad” he answered. “It’s nice to slow down, but now I hurt so much with all the surgeries, broken bones, and the stab wound.”

What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned, I asked.

“Well, I’m still learning, but I do know that you have to watch out for things when you get older.” He then went on to say, “I had a lot of good times, growing up , partying. I’ve had a few loves, a few disappointments. You know, like anyone else. I’d do a few things over, not many, but a few. Like not getting broken up so much.”

This statement was followed by a smile that reached his eyes, and again the laughter. “Some things in life you’ve got to let happen, and some things you don’t.” He laughed again and said with a devilish look on his face, “Yeah, I used to be a bad ass. Now look at me. I can’t even walk!”

Go with God, Big Mike. You are loved and will be missed by all.