Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

When Being Lithuanian Wasn’t Enough…by Robert M. Katzman

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bob at 3:32 pm on Sunday, July 12, 2020

On the eve on my 40th surgery, on my foot this time in August, I was reminded of a truly remarkable incident which occurred in mid-December, 1992. The date of the operation is significant as you will see. I was 42 at that time.

For about six months, there was at first a slight occurrence of burning in my left ankle, then that gradually increased, and since I was self-employed at that time, there was no possibility in asking for time off to find out what the problem was. After a while, by late Fall, the burning was constant and elevating my leg at work did no good. This was a mystery. I had never been injured on my ankle and was never involved with sports.

My main doctor, Lee Freedman, recommended that I see a specialist he knew about at the University of Chicago Medical Center, a Dr. Zukauskas. Dr. Freedman began to give me directions, but I assured him that I knew my way around Hyde Park pretty well, having been born there in 1950 and having started what became Bob’s Newsstand on August 21, 1965, where I worked seven days a week in order to pay all my expenses, and most of all, my tuition at the University of Chicago Laboratory School, or Lab School, for short.

It was famous place in America where experiments in innovative education were tried out and it was about one hundred years old. I’d tested to get in, but still had to pay full tuition because I wasn’t a child of the University’s faculty, nor brilliant enough to get a scholarship if they even offered that.

So, though that school was the chance of a lifetime for me to maybe actually learn something or become something, to go there meant–except for doing all my homework in the school’s library every day–to run the wooden newsstand I’d built at 51st and Lake Park meant getting up at 4 am to open it and deal with the truck drivers and rush hour, then race off to school on my bike, and return after 3:15 pm to resume running the place until the next rush hour was over by 7 pm. No dances, no sports, no parties, no girlfriend, no nothing.

School and work, every day of the year, including every holiday, or I could lose my precious Chicago license to operate on that corner. Chicago was the last city in America with four daily newspapers, and they were very powerful in those long ago days. Chicago allowed the newspapers to regulate the newsstand and therefore, all of the news vendors, like me.

Since the newsstand had to be open all day, I had hired a man to run it the summer before I became a sophomore, a Bill Reynolds. He was born on July 11,1896, had one arm and one leg, was 69 when I met him (an age which I finally achieved myself in 2019), and who originally operated that same corner newsstand in 1912 when he was 16, after being run over by a train. It was common then for disabled men to be given newsstand to run so they could support themselves. Chicago once had thousands of them.

He appeared like a wraith out of the mists of time to teach me everything he thought a boy should know to become a man, and that 19th Century mentoring went on for three years while I was in high school. So, yes, I was fifteen and had an employee, but no, this particular story is not about Bill. But I do still miss him. I had no idea that I would still be on that same corner for 17 more years after he was gone, until I was 35.

So yeah, I still knew where Hyde Park was, thirty-five years later.

After calling the University Medical center and getting an appointment and an x-ray of my burning ankle in mid-December, 1992, I was sitting in the dark wood office of the very tall, lanky and austere Dr. Zukauskas to make arrangements for my surgery. He was about twenty-five years older than I was, or about 67 at that moment.

A very serious man with little chit chat, he explained matter-of-factly that I had a relatively rare and extremely painful condition, it would be quickly relieved by surgery to remove the tiny bit of bone which was pressing on the nerve in my ankle, causing the extreme burning situation.

I asked him if we could do the surgery immediately because of not just the pain, but by my responsibilities of running a back-issue magazine store in Morton Grove, Illinois, called Magazine Memories. I had no employees at that point. The store was new, and my prayed for profit was still elusive.

The tall doctor shook his head and said no, he had a skiing vacation already booked for the Christmas holidays and was leaving on Saturday after my appointment with him. It would have to be next year, 1993.

This day I was sitting with him was a Thursday, however.

He was busily writing up whatever he needed to get the surgery done, when I quickly explained that I was self-employed, had a big deductable which was already satisfied for 1992, and that the financial clock starts over at Midnight, December 31, 1992. I would have to pay the entire cost of the surgery after my insurance paid whatever they were going to pay. I told the doctor that I couldn’t afford to do that. He shook his head. He didn’t look up.

He kept writing.

Desperate, I was seeking some way to pursuade him to make an exception for me. He kept writing. I could hear his pen scratching the white paper pad. Then I got an idea.

His name, Zukauskas, was Lithuanian. My ancestry was Lithuanian. My Grandmother Rose came to America in 1900 from Vilna or Kavna. I easily recognized that was what his name was, but also because Chicago had 250,000 Lithuanians living in Marquette Park at the time, so it wasn’t rare for a person to meet one of them. I decided to give that connection a shot.

“Say Doctor Zukauskas, I noticed that your name is Lithuanian and my Gramma Rose was Lithuanian, too. Maybe you could give another Lithuanian a break in this difficult situation?”

The good doctor didn’t look up. He said nothing. He kept writing.

I had no other arrows in my quiver, and was now doomed to owing a fortune to the University of Chicago Hospital just because of the ticking calendar.

Frustrated, besides the burning pain in my poor leg that would now go on for who knows how long, I began quietly talking to myself, listing my woes to the unknown…

“Man, I can’t escape Hyde Park’s orbit…I was born here…had transplant surgery here…I was married here…had my newsstand here for twenty years…went to the Lab School here…”

I heard his pen stop writing and heard the pen drop on the pad. I looked over at the doctor. He was staring at me, intently.

Maybe even incredulously.

“Mr Katzman, you went to Lab School?” When?”

Totally surprised, I awoke from my stuper and responded,

“1964 to 1968”.

He kept staring at me.

“Me, too.” he responded.

“When?” I asked him robotically.

He replied, “1939 to 1943”.

He suddenly stood up, walked over to a black telephone on his wall and I heard him say these words, now twenty-eight years ago but still magical and yes, emotional to a much older me:

“Mary-Anne, could you please find some time for me tomorrow to do an emergency operation on a Mr. Robert Katzman’s left ankle? I know it’s last minute, but this is important for me…

“You found some open time? Oh, great, thank you. Have a good night.”

Doctor Zukauskas walked over to me where I was still silently sitting, stunned, him towering over me like tall Lithuanians commonly were. Then he spoke, while offering to shake my hand, and then unexpectedly, smiling at me for the first time:

“Mr Katzman, we Lab kids gotta look out for each other, right? See you at 8 am sharp tomorrow morning.”

And then he turned and walked into another part of his office.

Stunned, I sat there, disbelieving what I’d heard him say,

“…we Lab kids gotta look out for each other, right?”

I didn’t know I was part of a cult, some secret tribe. Lab Kids?

Nobody liked me at Lab School, and there were 600 kids in the entire high school. Maybe classes were more intimate in 1939, before World War Two.

I slowly got up and walked out of his office, my head buzzing.

Well, ok, maybe my being Lithuanian wasn’t enough to unfreeze his heart, but I would never dream that both of us being alumni of that tiny school would be so important to Dr. Zukauskas.

I was there the next morning, had the surgery and was in a cast for six weeks. It was very difficult learning to use crutches in the snow and the slush.

Recently, I have begun to feel the same burning in my right leg. I know that surgery will be inevitable, number 41 in this case. Good thing I’m 70 and on social security now.

But regardless, the now familiar to me burning reminded me of that amazing doctor, about what mattered to him, and about the stress of the evidently hopeless money situation in that freezing December, 1992.

Though he is likely gone now, or if not, 95 years old, I thought to myself,

“God bless you Dr. Zukauskas.”

And then, though I never dreamed this thought would form in my mind, or these words tumble from my lips…

“And,…um…God bless you, too…Lab School.”

Even though my being Lithuanian wasn’t enough, sometimes, things do work themselves out.

(Note: My present day foot surgeon, easily young enough to be my son, took careful x-rays of my right ankle and determined that it was not a duplicate bone structure situation at all, and no surgery was necessary. From his name, I knew he was Czech. I guess I’m gonna have to stay in the Eastern European Podiatry community.

I told my new young doc that I had been to Prague, but like my other (older) doc years ago, this didn’t seem to matter to him. So, my 1992 Lithuanian surgical situation remains unique and wnderful, and still, mysterious.)


Publishing News! 

Bob Katzman’s two new true Chicago books are now for sale, from him! Vol. One: A Savage Heart  and Vol. Two: Fighting Words

Gritty, violent, friendship, classic American entrepreneurship love, death, heartbreak and the real dirt about surviving in a completely corrupt major city under the Chicago Machine. More history and about one man’s life than a person may imagine.

Please visit my new website: https://www.dontgoquietlypress.com If a person doesn’t want to use PayPaI, I also have a PO Box & I ship anywhere in America.

Send me a money order with your return and contact info. I will get your books to you within ten days. Here’s complete information on how to buy my books:

Vol 1: A Savage Heart and Vol. 2: Fighting Words My books weigh almost 2 pounds each, with about 525 pages each and there are a total together of 79 stories and story/poems.

Robert M. Katzman Don’t Go Quietly Press PO Box 44287 Racine, Wis. 53404-9998                                                                                                                    (262)752-3333, 8AM–7PM

Books cost $29.95 each, plus shipping

For: (1)$3.95; (2)$5.95; (3)$7.95; (4)$8.95 (5)$9.95;(6) $10.95

(7) $11.95; (8) $12.95; (9)$13.95 (10)$15.95 (15)$19.95

Shipping by air to most of Europe, due to the weight of my books is $99.00

I am also for hire if anyone wants me to read my work and answer questions in the Chicago/Milwaukee area. Schools should call me for quantity discounts for 30 or more books. Also: businesses, bookstores, private organizations or churches and so on.

My Fighting Words Publishing Co. four original books, published between 2004 and 2007 are now out-of-print. I still have some left and will periodically offer them for sale on my new website.  My hour-long story reading at WGTD 91.1 NPR Kenosha, Wis is now a podcast. The interview and story can be heard here:

Speaking of Our Words June 30th, 2017 With special guest star and featured writer Bob Katzman. Bob reads his memoir, “”Audrey, Pink Bunny Slippers, Her Cat and the God’s Eye”. Your comments are welcome, below, and please tell others I can be found here as a writer. I can also be hired as a speaker for organizations, etc, both here and in Europe. Seeking an agent. robertmkatzman@gmail.com Poet & Storyteller for hire for organizations, schools or private events   www.DifferentSlants.com to view recent and older examples of my work


Comment by Don Larson

July 12, 2020 @ 8:41 pm

Hi Bob,

Great story about your on-the-spot perseverance in the moment it was required.

I hope you feel better soon.

Warmest regards,


Comment by David Griesemer

July 16, 2020 @ 3:40 pm

Zukauskas would have finished high school in the middle of the war, a bitter-sweet time for him and his classmates. Adding to it, the occupation of his ancestral home.

That day in his office, powerful memories may have welled up. And perhaps an appreciation of the shortness of life.

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