For decades, readers of The Herald-News were treated to the Runyonesque ramblings of columnist John Whiteside.
Whiteside would walk the streets of Joliet, haunt the jail and hold court in its greasy spoons in search of tales to tell, tales about Joliet's heroes and villains, winner and losers, the well-to-do and the down-and-out.
Mostly the down-and-out.
Whiteside got his best stuff when he'd venture into the back alleys and dives that most of us would as soon pass by. But then he knew the city like the back of his hand. And he carried a gun in his boot.
During my tenure in Joliet, I never had the chance to do much of that kind of slumming. Never got out of the office much. But that wasn't the case at some of my earlier jobs.
All of my Whitesidian adventures happened nearly 30 years ago – well past any statute of limitations – and more than 200 miles away, just across the state line. With that in mind, let me present my first installment of "Best-Loved White Trash Tales."
I got my first newspaper job in 1982 at a 1,200-circulation weekly in southeast Iowa. It paid $5 an hour. Now that might not seem like much now. At the time – the middle of the Reagan recession – it wasn't much either. So like any good husband, I forced my wife to look for work.
Jobs in rural Iowa back then were few and far between unless you knew how to repair tractors or neuter hogs, skills that Sara was sorely lacking in. So when an opportunity selling vacuum cleaners popped up 30 miles away in Burlington, she jumped on it.
As did a lot of other folks, many of whom lacked the usual job prerequisites that most businesses have come to expect – high school diplomas, permanent addresses and clean police records.
It was there we met Scott, and his ne'er-do-well buddy Brett. Scott was a charismatic individual. He had the gift of gab and sense of humor that could charm anyone. Particularly the ladies, who were drawn to his farm- boy physique and Tom Selleck porn stash.
Scott also had something else: a criminal record. He had spent time in the Iowa pen for – I kid you not – cattle rustling. Apparently one night he'd borrowed some steers from a neighbor. His alibi: the neighbor had borrowed them from him first. The cops didn't buy it.
For that matter, no one ever seemed to buy a vacuum cleaner from him, either. His main job seemed to be running errands for the boss, who turned out to be a far worse criminal (but that's another tale).
Now the vacuum cleaner game apparently involves a lot of drinking beer on the weekend, which is how I got to be friends with Scott and his idiot sidekick Brett. Since I actually had a paying job (one that paid $1.65 an hour more than the minimum wage), I was considered one of the most respectable and reliable guys they knew. So much so, that one night Scott called me up and asked for a favor.
"I'm in a little trouble with my probation officer, and I was wondering if you could help me out," he said. His solution: go fishing.
"Here's the plan," he said. "Brett will rent a boat, we'll all go out in the river (i.e., the Mississippi) and after a couple hours I'll jump out and swim over to Illinois. You and Brett tell the cops I drowned. They'll believe you. You're respectable."
"I think I'm gonna have to pass on that one, Scott," I said.
After that I didn't see him for a few weeks, until early one evening, when I got a phone call.
"Dude, I'm in a phone booth on the edge of Burlington. The cops are out searching the fields for me. They even got a helicopter. Can you come and pick me up? I'll drive your car up to Minnesota and abandon it there so you can get it back. You can tell the cops somebody stole it."
"I'll see what I can do," I said, hung up, and went back to watching TV. But after a couple hours, I felt guilty and drove up to Burlington. Scott wasn't there, and neither were the cops.
A few months later, when Sara and I went to visit him in prison, I apologized for not coming to his rescue.
"Oh, don't worry about that," Scott replied. "The cops nailed me as soon as I got off the phone."
Top that one, Whiteside.
• Bill Wimbiscus is a former editor and reporter at The Herald-News who, except for a 2007 speeding ticket, has a clean police record.