He walks slowly these days—a kind of stoop-shouldered amble—his face reflecting the aches and pains of a 72-year-old body that’s been invaded by prostate cancer, Lyme disease and a mild stroke that still affects coordination.
By his own admission, he is no longer a top golfer, a dangerous fighter or an adventurous lover. His days as a con man are also behind him. But he is still a fine painter, writer, blogger and storyteller with a mind as sharp as a tack.
He is also a cantankerous, combative curmudgeon—downright nasty, in fact—if he takes exception to your behavior, intellect, judgment or politics.
And despite his age and infirmity, he is getting more famous by the day.
His name is Bruce Cameron Elliott, aka the “Geriatric Genius,” and he is now in the Shore magazine circulation area after purchasing a getaway house in a Northwest Indiana beach community that he asks me not to identify because he still has enemies. I’m not one of them, so I won’t. But he’s fair game for a column.
Bruce grew up restless and rebellious in a quirky family in a conservative white bread suburb west of Chicago. His passion for sports, art and literature was accompanied by a hatred of right wing politics, conventional norms and petty people. He worked hard to finish at the bottom of his high school class before heading west to join the radicals in the anti-war, free speech and civil rights movements that turned Berkeley, Calif., into a Mecca of ’60s activism.
Bruce says he eventually graduated with honors from Berkeley, but his California time also included jail time—a brief cameo in the can for fraud—that he still talks about with candor, and pride.
He also boasts about never having a real job because he didn’t need one. He got by as a hustler, a con man and a kept man.
He was a scratch golfer who hustled on Chicago area links, including the city’s preeminent African-American public course, Jackson Park, where guns were occasionally drawn to make a point. One of his hustles included a costume—wig, bandages and cane—to impersonate a feeble senior so he could qualify for discount golf rates. Before hitting 250-yard drives on one leg.
He is also an avid sports fan who’s taunted players and coaches from the best seats in the best arenas, a fighter whose hot temper sparked fisticuffs in bars and arrests at protest marches, and a raconteur whose close friends include iconic film critic Roger Ebert.
Finally, Bruce is an accomplished painter whose art fills Chicago’s prototypical “dive bar,” the Old Town Ale House, where he’s the proprietor, his wife Tobin the owner, and their daughter Gracie a bartender. How they got the bar is another story for another day.
Bruce paints portraits of Second City actors, local journalists, bar patrons and historical figures; raunchy sex scenes featuring regular customers engaged in debauchery; and a new oeuvre that's turned him into a small-time celebrity: The Nude Politician Series, which includes Sarah Palin, Rod Blagojevich, George Ryan, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Jesse Jackson Jr., Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachman and the new GOP darlings—John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan—all posing provocatively au naturel.
The pix are also sold as souvenirs—prints, ties and T-shirts—and he turned the Blago painting, a jailhouse scene that’s aptly titled Cavity Search, into a play—a black comedy—that’s been performed a few times.
The first political painting was a naked, gun-toting Palin standing on a polar bear rug, which reflects Bruce’s oversexed, hyper-politicized persona perfectly, as does a robust Facebook page dedicated to profanity-laced clashes with conservatives that almost draw blood.
There is also his acerbic “Geriatric Genius” blog that chronicles life in a bar filled with characters like “Street Jimmy,” the crack addict; “Ruben Nine Toes,” the amputee; “Hawkeye” the bouncer; and “Mr. and Mrs. Clown.”
Bruce, like the best scolds, suffers no fools and takes no prisoners. Violate his principles or his politics and you’ll be eviscerated verbally, in print, or both.
Earlier this year Ebert’s enormously popular blog labeled Bruce’s blog “must reading” and that caught the attention of globetrotting food critic Anthony Bourdain, who flew in to tape a TV segment on “Bruce’s Chicago” and then helped him land a contract for illustrated books based on the blog.
(Editor's Note: The Bruce Elliott Chicago episode will air on November 19th, the premiere of the second season of Anthony Bourdain's Layover.)
The author-to-be, displaying his trademark braggadocio-as-shtick, predicts it will be a bestseller as he basks in a burgeoning notoriety that’s turning the saloon on North Avenue just west of Wells into a must-visit on the celebrity circuit.
Bruce was a big fan of Chicago’s first African-American mayor, the late Harold Washington, a larger-than-life figure who once told the media mongrels who covered him that he was sui generis—one of a kind.
Harold was in fact unique. And so is Bruce. But don’t take my word for it. Stop by the Ale House, where he holds court most evenings, and join the party. But remember it’s X-rated. And wear a flak jacket.