Saul Bellow, Kosher Pickles and The Aluminum Fortress (2006)
by Bruce Matteson
I read two of Bob’s books before I met him. He was a friend of my sister’s, so the books, which she sent to me, were autographed. Bob didn’t know me from a box of old magazines, but he knew my sister well enough to use the entire blank spot on the flyleaf of his book to extol her virtues.
So the first story I told Bob when I met him was about the phone call my ex-wife made to my folks when we broke up, in which she proceeded to spend the better part of an hour going on and on about what a schmuck loser their son was. She was still going strong when my father interrupted her to say, “Honey, we’ve known him quite a bit longer than you have. You don’t need to tell us.”
And so I told Bob, “Bob, she’s my sister. I’ve known her longer than you have. You don’t need to tell me she’s a national treasure.”
Bob once said to me, “I like that you are so forward, Bruce, I’m going to put you in one of my books.”
And here I am. Still, forward. That brings us back to the subject of national treasures. That would be Bob and his books. It’s Bob, his family, his stores, and his life.
Bob speaks to all readers, with a unique, candid style, about real life. But he speaks volumes to those who have been roughed up and knocked around, a little or a lot. His message is nourishment. Getting knocked down is nothing. Getting back up is everything. Now, I am rather thick-headed, and as a result, I’ve spent a lot of my life addressing shots with the wrong club, so to speak. I spend way to much time reading the green before I find my ball.
But a wound self-inflicted isn’t necessarily painless, so, like the song says, “I’m no stranger to the blues.” A good story is like an intellectual band-aid. Bob’s books are like emotional full-body casts. With Bob, you see a guy, moving at warp speed from the time he was in grade school, foregoing childhood to play on the adult field while still a pup, catching one bad break and curveball after another.
Still he stands, against all odds, beaten up, but not beaten, bent, but unbroken, dented, but still on the road. No wonder he made it into the Chicago Newsboy’s Hall of Fame. Well … he would have if there was one. He quite literally wrote the book. It would be enough to stand up and cheer for his victory over cancer, his newspaper distribution empire carved out of nothing with his two bare fists and his marvelous, one-of-a-kind, out-of-print old magazine store.
But to know Bob’s crowning achievements, you would have to meet his beautiful, talented, and accomplished children: Sarah, David, Rachel and Lisa. Characteristically prolific, Bob didn’t bring just one star into the world, he brought his own galaxy. Or maybe he’s just lucky in love and is riding on his wife Joyce’s coattails.
The thing is, the night skies are brighter because of the Katzman clan. Read Bob’s Books. Prepare to get up. Prepare to fight back.
Reflections on Bruce Matteson, by Bob Katzman
Bruce kills elks.
I ate an elk steak at a landmark 100-year-old Denver, Colorado wild game restaurant once, but I didn’t hunt it down, shoot, skin and slaughter it.
No, I’m more comfortable on the least bloody end of the food chain. I don’t even want my waiter to bite me, although I believe that service is available at select locations.
I met Bruce Matteson at my synagogue in northern Illinois, where I have met some of the coolest Christians ever. Who knew? Maybe those Christians were … chosen … to be there. All I know for certain is that Rana Matteson, our resident warm and lovely red-headed Irish person who is a member there, thought that I might find her brother interesting, and that he comes to visit her every so often, when he wants to dehydrate from the torrential rains in Oregon.
But … not during the elk-hunting season, of course.
Rana gave me Bruce’s number, and suggested that I call him because she thought he and I might have a lot in common. Rana is way too lovable to say “no” to, so I called him late one evening. “What could I possibly have in common with a man who shoots unarmed fellow mammals?” I was thinking to myself as I dialed his number. Memories of poor Bambi’s dead mom echoed through my mind and I felt a tear gathering in my eye. Sniff, sniff.
Well, the answer is: everything.
Even though much of our life experiences took us in different directions, we discovered we both like the out-of-doors, in my case to camp and appreciate the beauty. In Bruce’s case, whenever he’s hungry. We both have worked extensively with our hands, for decades. He can skillfully lay an intricate wooden floor, or build and hang cabinets, or cut and install a granite counter for a kitchen. I have built wooden newsstands, one from decades ago that still stands, uncountable bookcases, including hundreds of running feet of them in my back-issue magazine store near Chicago. Bruce and I both know that quality really matters, in all kinds of materials and especially: tools.
Our first conversation was about tools and how having a fine sense of the delicacy of the kind of materials you’re working with matters a great deal, so you don’t ignorantly shatter or split it.
Maybe that wouldn’t be some other person’s first conversation, but in a short time, Bruce and I each felt like we were talking to ourselves. An excellent foundation on which to begin a relationship. I don’t expect it will split or shatter anytime soon. When one person who works with and loves the beauty, fragrance, texture, strength and versatility of wood meets another, a great deal of information has already been transmitted.
Bruce went to Vietnam in the 60’s and was literally “blown up” there, although not injured. A Viet Cong rocket went off nearby where he was clinging to a hillside, attempting to survive the uncountable bullets zipping all around him when the sudden concussion lifted him off the ground and sent him flying. That never happened to me, but the possibility of it happening to Bruce at any time, with far more fatal consequences is something you would never suspect is part of burly Bruce’s past, when you first meet him and discover his amiable, soft-spoken (and strange) Oregonian accent, his instant self-deprecating good humor and his virtually professional way of telling a very good story.
Lots of people think they can tell a good joke, or a captivating story. Very, very few people can really do that, in my experience. The problem is that all stories have a beginning, middle and end. Just three parts. Most people can handle the first part, but their chances of success with other two parts are debatable, as anyone who was ever cornered at a cocktail party by one of those uncertain storytellers could bitterly testify. A story needs an ending, and it should be worth waiting for. And it should be somewhat less than three hours long.
Bruce Matteson has that mission nailed. If he starts telling me a story, I abandon less worthy activities and wait silently (not a normal condition for me) to see where his tale will lead me. I’m never disappointed. I suspect there’s a book inside of Bruce gradually escaping, one keystroke at a time. A good one, too.
It is so rare to find a new good friend when you are no longer young, and are pretty set in your ways. Bruce’s and my aging contrariness and keen interest in very good food, match up pretty well. We also find ourselves frequently catching exciting double-feature movies in which most often, someone or something blows up, armies collide with each other and hundreds die, creatively, cowboys nuzzle their horses and shoot the women (or is it the other way around?) and very often, those classic movies are on opposite sides of town. We are very cultured and refined in our never ending pursuit of mindless violence and heaving bosoms. (Note to my dear wife: Only in the movies, Darling …)
About that elk …
The closest I’ve even come to combining two of Bruce’s experiences to create one of my own would be about six years ago, when I was leaving Colorado the very next morning after eating that interesting elk steak. There was a howling blizzard blanketing the entire Rocky Mountain territory, but in my infinite wisdom I chose to attempt to get to the airport anyway. On the trek there, with visibility at virtual zero, a huge semi-trailer truck roared out of the swirling ocean of the Big White, smashed into my tiny rental car at an irrational high speed and sent me rocketing out of control and spinning through the air. But then, that’s another story …
I think it was an elk.
It could have been a caribou. Or, maybe even an antelope. Or, a reindeer?
Hell, I don’t know. I’ve never shot anything. I could have been a giraffe for all I know. I’m a civilized urban Jew who thinks fatty, juicy corned beef sandwiches and chopped liver are health foods, so how am I supposed to keep track of what Bruce shoots?
I’ve heard that some people shoot squirrels and rabbits, and then speculate that they taste just like chicken. Well, Christ, why not eat a real chicken?
My Polish Grandma Celia made great broiled chicken, with onions, carrots, peppery spices and steaming baked potatoes, and not once did she taste her own cooking, cocking her head to the side, and squinting as she marveled,
“Say, Bobby, y’know…my broiled chicken tastes just like…squirrel!!”
God, I would have run screaming from the room! What a horrible thought!
So … I don’t know … It could have been an elk … or … maybe … a beaver?