Saturday, March 23, 2019

Flashback 2007: Favorite Ledes

At the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office, 1991 (Photo by Bob Davis)
     Thirty-two years ago today, I joined the staff of the Sun-Times. As in past years, I thought I would celebrate with something from the archive and found this, written for my 20th anniversary at the paper.  I've recently written a couple posts that were, well, "self-pity" is the term one reader used. Reading this again cured me of that. I've been very, very lucky, to have had this job. And despite all the changes in the industry—no more gift cards on our anniversaries—still feel blessed to do what I do. The stories following a few of these ledes have already been posted on the blog over the years; in that case, I have a link on the last few words, for those who feel like reading the full article.

     When Kenny Towers, long ago the editor of the Sun-Times, interviewed me for a job here, I was a magazine writer, freshly returned and still sunburned from weeks in Haiti, where I was writing an article on voodoo for The Atlantic.
     I was a little reluctant to join a newspaper—20 years ago Saturday—because I was not a hard news kind of guy.
     My main goal was not news, per se, but to find something unusual, perhaps even strange, and write about it. Especially important to me was trying to craft a good opening—"ledes" they're called in journalese—because if the beginning of a story is dull, it doesn't matter what comes later.
     So in addition to the $100 gift card my bosses were generous enough to give me, I thought I would celebrate my two decades here by revisiting the ledes from some of my favorite stories. Your indulgence is appreciated, as always:

                                                               - - -

     PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti—We were driving through bauxite country. The earth was red with the mineral, and our Jeep bucked and rattled over deep red ruts in the unpaved road.
     The bone-rattling eased a bit when we came to the streets of a small coastal town. Turning a sharp corner, we were stopped by a group of 50 young men, dancing wildly to a driving syncopation of drums, rattles, and whistles.
     Some wore bright masks, or had painted their faces. They flowed around the Jeep, hopping up and down, pointing their fingers at us through the open windows and chanting, in Creole, what my driver interpreted as, "You will die, you will die, you will die."
                                                             — April 19, 1987

                                                            - - -

     Dr. Bryan Foy gently scoops up the human heart and holds it, as he would a newborn chick, with one hand cupped underneath, one hand over the top.
     It is 1:24 a.m. at Illinois Masonic Medical Center, 836 W. Wellington. Foy turns, takes a step, and places the heart in a metal bowl of frozen slush. Taking a pair of long tweezers, he peers into the various orifices of the heart. It looks good.
                                                                —July 17, 1988

                                                            - - -

     Everything changed at 1:35 p.m.
     After hours of coffee, pizza, chat and routine treatment of cut noses and sore throats, the call came into the Christ Hospital emergency room Saturday afternoon: Two men with serious gunshot wounds were on their way.
     An operating room at Christ, soon to be the only hospital serving the South Side with an advanced trauma unit, was readied for surgery. . . . Doctors, interns and nurses gathered to map out plans.
     "Why don't we make the chest wound the 99?" said Dr. Joe Mueller, giving priority to a 33-year-old man who police told them by phone had been shot just above the heart. . . .
     Paramedics rushed in with the first victim. In agony, he tried to jump off the gurney. A dozen doctors and nurses held him down. Nurses slit off his pants while doctors began the "90-second survey," rolling him on his side to check for other wounds.
     The big man, with homemade tattoos, cursed the doctors, then cried out in pain.
     "Hold my hand, hold my hand," he said, and a nurse gripped his fingers.
                                                             — Jan. 15, 1990

                                                               - - -

     At 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, an alarm clock somewhere in a debris-strewn cornfield in Crest Hill began beeping, the call to a normal workday that was not to be, a day turned extraordinary by a tornado's vast, often bizarre power.
     The morning's light illuminated a skewed world. Objects thought of as massive were flung carelessly aside—refrigerators sat in the middle of fields, cars were not just smashed but tumbled and buffeted so they looked like crumpled balls of tinfoil.
                                                            —Aug. 30, 1990

                                                                 - - -

     They all end up here. All the clumsy drunks and the cocky felons; the innocent bystanders and the gang-bangers who flash the wrong sign. Everyone who dies in the street, dies by the grim forms of violence, dies alone and unknown.
     Whatever the cause, they are brought to the same address: 2121 West Harrison St. They are brought through the same side entrance to the same room: Room 174. They are weighed on the same big stainless steel scale. A mop and an industrial wringer bucket always wait nearby.
                                                           —Sept. 10, 1991

                                                                    - - -

     Jenny has sparkling blue eyes, a small, upturned nose and a cascade of curly blond hair tumbling over her right shoulder.
     With a rhinestone nail charm centered on each red fingernail, a dab of blush at her decolletage, and deftly applied make-up, it's easy to believe her when she says she spent three hours getting ready to go out.
     The shimmery blue and silver dress is custom-made, she says, and it's easy to believe that, too, since with the spike heels, Jenny tops out at perhaps 6-foot-7.
      "I'm a bigger girl, I know," she says, smiling radiantly. "I can't go out to a mall -- hey, I've got a football player's shoulders."
      So instead, Jenny has come here, to a banquet hall on the Northwest Side of Chicago, where the city's tiny, secretive transvestite community is having one of its many regular social functions. . . .
                                                          —May 24, 1992

                                                                   - - -

      Al Giacchetti is cruising for hookers.
      He slows his car on a Cicero side-street as two carelessly dressed women at the curb eye him. He stops the car. The two women saunter over.
     "Hey, honey," says a heavyset woman, who seems to be high, climbing in the car. The other woman is more cautious. "You're not the police are you?" she says, hanging back.
      "No, are you?" lies Giacchetti, who actually is the police, a member of the Cook County sheriff's police vice squad, helping wage law enforcement's nightly stalemate with prostitution.
                                                       —Aug. 21, 1995

                                                                      - - -

     Too bad you didn't stop by the Chicago Commission on Animal Care and Control and adopt that gray-and-white kitty I saw there the other day, because now Jennifer Harnisch has to kill it.
     And killing kitties is hard. . . .
                                                       —Oct. 11, 1998

                                                                      - - -

     The man could run. Everything else -- the fame, the money, the NFL records, the Super Bowl ring, the bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame—flowed from that essential fact. Walter Payton ran beautifully, with power, grace, intelligence and a certain poetry that left onlookers amazed and hulking linemen grabbing at thin air. He died shortly past noon Monday at his South Barrington home after a yearlong battle with a disease from which he could not run. 
                                                      Nov. 2, 1999 

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 18, 2007

Friday, March 22, 2019

Dinner-Less Dinner’s roots in Chicago go back nearly 100 years

The Foodless Banquet, Drake Hotel, Dec. 21, 1921

     The quicker a published mistake can be corrected, the better.
     That might be an antique attitude, a musty journalistic convention that has outlived its utility in our online wordstorm, too much of which borders on pure hallucination.
     A year ago I wrote about a novel fundraising campaign, the “Dinner-Less Dinner” of The Ark, a Chicago social service agency aiding poor Jews, bringing food to shut ins and such. That costs money, and by collecting money for a dinner that is never held, they do away with the bother and expense of renting a ballroom, warming up chicken fingers, pampering Chaka Khan. They send out a disc of chocolate and a donation card. Supporters get to eat chocolate and do not have to dress up, go downtown, and decide how much to bid on a basket of gourmet pasta and olive oil at the Silent Auction. Everybody wins.  

     Last year I asked where the idea came from; executive director Marc J. Swatez said:
     “It goes back to the 1990s. We had a development director who saw an article about a New York charity that did it.”
     That’s as wrong as a carnival owner saying they got the idea for a Ferris wheel from some ride manufacturer in New York 20 years ago. There’s a richer story, right here in Chicago, as the folks at the Spertus Museum were happy to inform me.

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Gnome Scale

     Frame of reference is so important. 
     Earlier this week, the Sun-Times had a cover story whose headline, "Why some neighbors hate 'Windy City Rehab,'" left me initially wondering how there could be a TV show shot in Chicago about addicts seeking sobriety without my knowing about it. 
     And then I began reading: Ohhh, that kind of rehab. Of houses. 
     There's usually humor to be found in that confusion. My pal Rob, a straight-laced NU classmate, was having his apartment gutted—his family moved to a hotel while the work was being done. During that time, I loved looking gravely at mutual friends and announcing, "Rob's going through a difficult rehab ... he had to move out of the house," and watching their faces. 
     Frame of reference can be less funny. Over another friend's house for dinner this week, and the cute little kids were brought out for introductions. 
    "How old are you?" my wife asked the little boy. He formed his index finger and thumb into an O so he would splay the other three fingers. He meant, "Three" but for a queasy moment the only thing I saw was the white power sign I've seen 25 times online. 
    One last example.
     We had a very windy day last week. And this is the funny part. My wife came home, saw that our three garden gnomes were down, and her first thought was this: that some mischievous child had kicked them over. Forgetting that our street hasn't had a mischievous child doing anything anywhere for about a dozen years, since our own boys were racing their bikes up and down the block.
     So her frame of reference: mischievous kids, and perhaps a tad of guilt over being the sort of people who prominently display garden gnomes. 
     I came home, saw the gnomes down, and my first thought was this: "the Beaufort Scale had been usurped." You know the Beaufort Scale, the 0-12 measure of wind force, a handy way to describe hurricanes and such.
    Always struck me as a little dry. The storm was a "9." Ho-hum. How much better to say, "Did you hear the wind last night? It was a 3 Gnomer for sure!"
     Here is where I would dig into the history of lawn gnomes. Fortunately, that has already been done—this article traces them back to Roman Times, with an emphasis on Germany and its tradition of trolls, etc., and a highlight that in 17th century England there was a job known as "ornamental hermit," whose duties were to live in a shack on the grounds of vast estates and go to seed in a picturesque fashion, to let their hair grow, their clothes decay, and lurk around in the distance. 
     You know, that doesn't sound like a half bad job. 


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

No quit in the boy

      Yesterday's post on quitting was something unusual. The back story is, I'm working on this big profile that's running Sunday, one of those rare collaborative efforts that requires conversations and team meetings and  careful calibration and fuss. There wasn't any gas in the tank for a post, so I grabbed this one I really intended to run should the day come when I decided to scale back the blog, made it less final, and put it up.
     It drew a good amount of reaction, and one line from regular reader Chris Wood resonated:
     "You're no quitter," he said. 

    And I thought, "Yeah, damn, he's right. I'm not." Which is a good thing, generally, I suppose. The unstated assumption that by not quitting you therefore go on to win. Pretty to think so. Growing up during the Vietnam War has to put a different spin on quitting—sometimes it's the smart thing to do, lest you end up Ahab and his crew on the bottom of the sea.  Sometimes quitting saves you from something worse. 
     In that famous line of Churchill's—"Never give in, never, never, never–never, in nothing, great or small, large or petty" people tend to overlook the next few words, "never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.” But when is giving up sensible? That's the sticking point.
     I'm the one who used to say, "You can never fail as a writer: you either quit or succeed." And I suppose the success is in the doing of the thing, which is certainly true in my case. You can still win without ever standing on a podium; in fact, many people are pulled down by the weight of their accolades. I've seen it happen.
     Thinking about this, I remembered a moment related to my older boy. We were in Indian Guides—the last year they used the name, speaking of quitting. So Ross was about 7. We were at a summer camp, with cabins and a dining hall. There was a climbing tower, a mammoth assemblage of lashed together telephone poles, 47 feet tall. They had rigged up two stations, to move the crowd along, and the boys would climb at each, belayed by a rope. What happened is the kid would get five or 10 feet, if that, then give up, tap out and be belayed back down to the ground.
     Not my boy. He would climb a few feet, cling there like a monkey, gather himself, then push onward. For, oh, half an hour. Meanwhile generations of kids at the other station—I hesitate to put a number on it—5, 10, 15—attempted the climb, gave up after a minute or less, and were returned to Earth.
     My kid, like me not gifted athletically, had something that can be even more useful.
     "There's no quit in that boy," I said, marveling, head tipped back, squinting up at him with the other dads. It seemed to take forever, and at times I wish he would quit. There was almost something unseemly in this outsized determination. Eventually he attained the summit—I'm tempted to say he was the only kid to do so, but I don't recall that as a fact. I only remember that he did while most kids didn't.
     He must have gotten that from somewhere. It is true that one of my favorite quotes from the Great Cham of Literature, Samuel Johnson, is: "I will be conquered; I will not capitulate." That sounds like a plan though, now that I think of it, whether the end comes by defeat or surrender, the end result is still the same.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

"Everyone, everywhere, gets up, and goes home"

     Twitter continually gives you the opportunity to endorse the ideas of strangers without really thinking about them.
     I was scrolling through the assortment of news and trivia, bleats and bullying last week when I came upon a Tweet from someone I was familiar with, but not on Twitter: Yoko Ono, who I guess nowadays must be identified as the Japanese artist who married Beatle John Lennon:

     Sounds good by me. Because discouragement comes, efforts flag, especially toward the tail end of your 50s. Collapsing across the finish line just doesn't seem an option any more. There is no finish line. Death maybe.
     So you keep doing it and doing it and doing it until ... what? You pop? Discouragement comes up on your from behind and tackles you, hard, into the ground?

     Maybe there are other options. 
     There's a beautiful poem by Jennifer Michael Hecht. Brief—just a dozen lines—married to the cumbersome title “On the Strength of All Conviction and the Stamina of Love.”
     It begins:

Sometimes I think
we could have gone on.
All of us. Trying. Forever.
     As a writer, I really value the "we" and the "all of us" in the above. We are not isolated at our looms and wheels and keyboards, but together, a cohort, a mass, a team. Some doing better than others, sure, but all of us unified in our dreams, our effort.
     Then Hecht moves the ball.
But they didn’t fill
the deserts with pyramids.
They just built some. Some.
     Changing the dynamic. We aren't the artisans we fancy ourselves to be; we're slaves. Rolling the giant slabs of our ambition up these improvised ramps. Our sun-burnt cheeks pressed hard against the rough surface of the task, heaving with all our might. The idea of a pyramid-chocked desert seems fantastic, futile, silly.
     Then we leap from ancient Egypt to today in a single bound.

They’re not still out there,
building them now. Everyone,
everywhere, gets up, and goes home.
     Which sounds so enticing. The negation of a whimsical image straight from Billy Collins—all of those workers still out there, Giza abuzz with activity, masses of slaves, ropes, pulleys, new pyramids going up to this day, somehow overlooked by the indifferent world. 
     And that final "home"—who doesn't want to go home? The place where, as Robert Frost said so heartbreakingly, "the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."
     Honestly, I read the poem and, inspired, thought of posting it here and quitting the blog cold after five years. Here, figure this out, good-bye. 
Because whatever the world wants, this obviously is not it. Five years is plenty. 
      But then, I'm doing it for myself, because it's fun and not terribly demanding, really. I'd miss it. And maybe you'd miss it too. So on we go. Leading to the end of Hecht's poem, something of a rebuke, a twist to make us think harder about what has gone before. 
Yet we must not
Diabolize time. Right?
We must not curse the passage of time. 
     Why not? Time certainly won't care. Maybe because it's futile. There's a lot of that going around. 
     Anyway, that's enough for today. See you tomorrow. And tomorrow. And tomorrow after that....

Monday, March 18, 2019

"Fight hard for Judge Jeanine"

     The law has many concepts useful for the non-legal world. One of my favorites is "stipulate." When opposing sides in a case agree on a certain fact, or set of facts, they can stipulate those facts, meaning—if I understand correctly—that they don't have to argue over them. 
     "We will stipulate that my client was indeed in the store the morning it was robbed, but will show that he left without taking anything."
     Privately, I stipulate situations because I don't want to belabor them. Donald Trump is a liar, a bully and a fraud. This is clear to everyone it is ever going to be clear to, and anyone who doesn't see that by now never will. There is no need to wave around various examples of new lies, new examples of his beating up on the weak, fresh instances of chicanery. We get it. We've gotten it. We're going to get it. 
    Stipulating this allows a person thoroughly disgusted with our nation's dive into shame to divert his gaze from the oozing and grotesque horror unfolding hourly in Washington or, on the weekends, Florida. There is life outside of Trump's little shoebox diorama of a world, and I want to look at that. 
     There is a risk that the president will be tuned out so thoroughly, that the utter wrongness of his words and actions will be muted to a degree that is dangerous. We don't want to risk accepting his behavior by silence. We don't want to ignore the horror, repetitive though it may be. Sometimes we have to force ourselves to look, on general principles. As a patriotic duty. 
      Thus let me post a trio of his tweets Sunday, coming to the defense of a Fox host who was canned after suggesting that Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar couldn't be a good American because she wears a hijab. To read the president's tweets in chronological order, start from the bottom.

     This, 48 hours after 50 Muslims were slaughtered in New Zealand by a white nationalist who praised Trump before committing his atrocity.
      Judge Pirro was a Fox ranter—I can't comment on her because I've never seen her in action. But she seems to be among those mirroring Trump's thoughts back to him. Notice how the president of the United States calls for a TV host to be re-instated—itself a mile beneath the dignity of the presidency in normal times—then blames Fox News dumping her on the "Radical Left Democrats"—if they had control over Fox, one assumes the network would be sucked into the gaping hellmouth that opens up under it.
     In the second, a common theme: noticing the hatred they foment, against Muslims, against Hispanics, against whatever victim they've got their sights on at the moment, is "political correctness," a pearl-clutching collapse on the fainting couch of over-refinement.
    "Be strong & prosper, be weak & die." Where did he get that? It sounds like a snippet of Klingon philosophy that lodged in the Trumpian brain after watching "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." 

     And the third tweet. "Your competitors are jealous." Envy is a major motivating factor in the Trump world, second perhaps only to fear, so of course they see it everywhere they look. So many times I've heard from readers who can't wrap their head around opposing Trump for the aforementioned lies, bullying and fraud—it's just crrrrazy to them—nor perceive his valueless, pitiable life, but, dazzled by the gold-plated excess he wallows in, declare that those who oppose him are just "jealous" of his lux lifestyle. Like being Donald Trump were not a fate I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. 
     See why Trump is best ignored? Because if you don't, you have to think about this shit. And honestly, we haven't even parsed half of his grotesquely petty and sickening tweets on Sunday. With more certain to come today. I suppose we have to look, as punishment, for being part of a nation that permitted this. Then we have to look away. It's heartbreaking. 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Memento mori

     Rare is the weekend where I have to work. Well, except for Sunday mornings, when I usually write my Monday column. Except not this morning, because I'm so busy writing this big important project for the paper, the column got pushed aside. 
    I don't want to ignore the blog post though. However ... I can't say that after a day grinding at this task ideas are straining in their seats, waving their arms, going "Ooo, ooo! Me! Me!" 
     In addition. Maybe the slaughter of 50 Muslim worshippers in New Zealand makes the whole effort seem extra pointless. Social media, so stuffed with words as it is. Words, words, words. Suddenly words seem ... I almost said "cheap." But they're worse than cheap, aren't they? They're free, and worth every penny.
    Enough that I don't feel like adding more to them. 
    I do, however, have this photo I do not believe I have posted before. My wife and I were in Paris two years ago, visiting out oldest son at the Sorbonne, and we passed this florist on the Rue Monge in the 5th Arrondissement. Apt for spring, don't you think? Lovely to look at, colorful comfort in light of all the grim news. With perhaps a bit of apt symbolism tucked in, if you look hard.
    Oh okay: they're cut flowers. Which means the clock is ticking. Beautiful now. But later, soon, not so much.  Enjoy them while you can.