Monday, December 10, 2018

Department of Coffee and Social Affairs

     Philip Johnson's 190 South LaSalle is one of my favorite buildings in Chicago, from its funky, post-modern summit to the vast, gold barrel-vaulted lobby.  It's a whimsical shrine to mammon.
     So when I walk by, I can't help glancing inside. And on Friday, I was rewarded by a view of this oddly-named coffee shop: "Department of Coffee and Social Affairs" For one confused second, I thought it was some kind of Kafkaesque goverment bureau, so perfectly is its quasi-official name suited to the vastness of the building. Though actually it's part of a chain started in London in 2010.
     I had time, and a need for caffeine, so sauntered in. I've been trying to get a good cup of espresso lately—prodded by memories of tiny cups of steaming perfection in Italy—and ordered a cup, just to see what they could do. Not much, I'm afraid. With all the money and creativity expended on the location, the decor and the name, they just couldn't get the ball those last few yards and score on the product itself. The espresso had that familiar wrong note—maybe try a finer grind and longer pull; just a suggestion. Not a complete waste: the clerks were friendly, the room grand enough, a pleasant place to stand and ponder why something the humblest snack bar in Florence can manage to serve up for $1.50 eludes the fanciest American coffee shops charging twice as much. It can't be that hard. Can it? Does anyone know anywhere in Chicago to get a decent cup of espresso? Tell me, please.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Flashback 2008: The FBI hauls away Rod Blagojevich

Prison scene, by Francesco Piranesi (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
     Ten years ago today, FBI agents burst into Rod Blagojevich's Lincoln Park home at dawn and dragged the governor away in handcuffs. He remains in prison, a reminder that refusing to recognize your crime magnifies your punishment. It can be argued that Blagojevich wasn't guilty of anything beyond the vile horse-trading that goes on every day in politics at every level. But that isn't true. He was guilty of hubris, and stupidity: he did his vile horse trading into an open FBI wiretap, one that he knew was there, or at least should have suspected was there, and carried his shake-downs beyond the implied into the unescapable. And I had forgotten about him lashing out at Children's Memorial Hospital because its CEO didn't give him money. He should rot in jail for that alone. 
     I had seen the arrest coming—during the election I wrote that the race was really between Judy Baar Topinka and Pat Quinn, since Rod might end up in prison. But still it came as a shock and I think I processed it fairly well, raising the oft-repeated trope of four out of our past eight governors being in prison. I think it's sweet that I naively ran over to the Thompson Center, expecting some outward sign of our inner rot. I've kept the section headings the column had at the time. 


     As if the Tribune Co. filing for bankruptcy protection on Monday weren't shock enough for one week, today the FBI arrested Gov. Blagojevich and accused him of trying to sell the vacant U.S. Senate seat from Illinois.
     My God.
     The storm clouds were gathering around the self-proclaimed reformer for months. And yet news of the governor's sudden arrest was met with open-mouthed shock.
     I hurried over to the Thompson Center, where the state government offices are located.
     Silly me, I expected that stunned state workers might be congregating in small groups, pressing their palms to their cheeks in alarm.
     No way. Business as usual, in more ways than one. If these charges stick—and the feds do not arrest a sitting governor at dawn unless they feel confident about a case—Blagojevich will be the fourth Illinois governor to go to prison in the past 35 years (for those at home keeping score: George Ryan is in the slammer now for bribery; Dan Walker in the late 1980s for his role in the savings and loan mess, and Otto Kerner in the mid-1970s in the racetrack stock scandal).
     If Blagojevich ends up in a cell next to Ryan, that will mean four of our past eight governors have gone to prison. We're batting .500. That's a lousy average.
     And Blagojevich will be the worst of the bunch, not only because he alone was busted while still in power, but his alleged crime—trying to sell a seat in the U.S. Senate—dwarfs the penny-ante pocket lining of the others.
     There was no commotion at the Thompson Center. People lined up behind the metal detectors—we're better at screening those who would blow up the government from without than those who wreck it from within.
     Near the elevators, a big sign, "HAPPY HOLIDAYS" in red letters, two feet high.
     Underneath, "Governor Rod Blagojevich," written in an unmistakable cash green.


     U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said it all when he summed up the governor's "appalling" conduct:
     "Gov. Blagojevich has taken us to truly a new low," said Fitzgerald in his press conference today. "He attempted to sell a Senate seat."
     Nor was that all. Each detail jars more than the next. Blagojevich had a raft of other "pay-for-play" shakedown schemes. He tried to pull back $8 million for Children's Memorial Hospital because its CEO wouldn't contribute to his campaign coffers. He was stealing from sick children. He tried to get members of the Tribune editorial board fired.
     The actions that led to these charges transpired within the past few weeks—that's the most incredible part of all—long after a rational corrupt official would know that the heat is on and he should lie low. Any idiot, any speeding driver with half a brain, at least slows down when he passes a squad car with a radar gun out.
     Blago sped up. What could he have been thinking? And what should we be thinking now?
     "This is a moment of truth in Illinois," said Fitzgerald.
     Indeed it is. What next? We owe it to ourselves and to our children to be shocked, to be embarrassed, to be outraged and to look hard at this obscenity of governance—Blagojevich may be the man going to jail, but many others have a hand in this system. Every time a scandal erupts, we vow this time will be the end. If this doesn't lead to reform, nothing ever will.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times Dec. 9, 2008

Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Saturday Snapshot #18

The first time I went to Paris, I was 17. Workers at the Louvre happened to be on strike, and the great museum was closed. This I refused to accept, not until I went up to the museum and tugged on the locked doors with all my teenage might.
Thus I have a pre-existing sympathy to those who visit distant cities and are denied access to artist wonders. I noticed this powerful photograph by my Facebook friend Mia Jung, and asked her if I could repost it here with a few words of hers. She writes:

"The Republic"
     I took my daughter for a college visit and softball camp near Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago. It was going to be a busy week for me and I had an assignment due for a photography class I am taking, so I decided to tackle a part of the assignment while my daughter was at the camp. With only about an hour and a half at my disposal, I did some online research and found that there is a Daniel Chester French sculpture in Philly’s Fairmount Park. Perfect!
Daniel Chester French is the artist who sculpted the impressive 65-foot tall gilded statue called “The Republic.” The title may not mean anything to you, but if you have seen photos of Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition, then you have seen that beautiful work of art towering over the Great Basin.     
       The sculpture that sits in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park is an earlier work by French entitled “Law, Prosperity, and Power” (1880). It used to sit atop the U.S. Post Office and Federal Building in the City of Brotherly Love until the building was destroyed in 1937, when the statue was moved to its current location. I thought it would be perfect for my assignment, which was to pick a piece of public art and photograph it from varying perspectives (lie down on the ground and shoot up, walk around it, etc.).
     After checking out the park on Google maps and not seeing an actual parking lot in the vicinity of the statue, I called the Association for Public Art in Philadelphia to check on my options. The kind lady I spoke with said I should park at the Mann Music Center and that the art work was a short walk up a hill. Ok, all set!
     When I reached the park, a police officer told me I could park on a through-street and walk anywhere I wanted to. I parked and walked over to the Mann Center, but it was closed. Fencing prevented me from walking up the hill and behind the Center to where the statue is situated. I walked back to my car and drove around the Center and up the hill, parking in a driveway with my hazards on in case anyone came along. I discovered that the statue was enclosed in the fencing that runs around the entire Center and every single gate had a padlock on it. I couldn’t get close enough to shoot the varying perspectives that were required for the assignment, but that’s not what got me steamed. I can always find art work closer to home to shoot.
     What made me angry is that a piece of “public art,” owned by the citizens of Philadelphia, has been made inaccessible. When I got back to Illinois, I hit Google maps again and looked more closely at the aerial views. The fencing could have easily been erected to leave the sculpture exposed, but the decision was made to lock it in on the grounds of the Mann Music Center, rendering it only accessible when the Center is open (it is a summer outdoor concert venue).
     I took this picture of the art work with bars and padlock visible as an expression of my disgust over its inaccessibility. I posted it to the Facebook page of the Association for Public Art, which ironically touts Philadelphia’s “Museum Without Walls” program and they wrote:

     Association for Public Art We appreciate you bringing this to our attention. For a variety of reasons beyond our control, sites and contexts for works of public art can change over time. We worked with the City of Philadelphia to re-install "Law, Prosperity, and Power" in 1937, prior to the Mann Music Center’s construction and a fence was more recently installed as part of their renovations. We are sorry to learn of your disappointment and have updated our website to reflect the variable accessibility of the work. We do hope that you were able to experience some of the other incredible public art throughout the city. Thank you again for reaching out.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Are you eating enough cheesecake?

     Folks, the holiday season is upon us. A time to reflect on what's really important in our lives: our families, the great city of Chicago we live in and around, this marvelous country of ours, the United States of America, and of course, Eli's Cheesecake. 
     I try not to make assumptions about my readers. But my guess is, it might have been a while since you're had a slice of Eli's Cheesecake. Am I right? Nothing to be ashamed of. Life gets busy. People lose perspective, and forget what gives life savor and purpose, overlooking the place in the pantheon of perfection that smooth, creamy cheesecake holds.
    Me, I just had a slice of Eli's Cheesecake after lunch on Thursday, and it was delicious. The hardest part was choosing among the three, count 'em three varieties I had in my freezer. I chose strawberry, its bright red top harmonizing with the red stripes in our beloved American flag. An hour on the counter and it was at cool perfection for eating.
    I'll be honest, I usually save the cheesecake for my oldest boy, who just loves it. That's what cheesecake means to me: family, love, tradition. Home isn't home without cheesecake. 
    But cheesecake is meant to be eaten, and as significant as Eli's Cheesecake is to, say, the economic vitality of the state of Illinois, or the lofty position of Chicago among purveyors of our nation's beloved comestibles, we cannot lose sight of just how soul-shiveringly delicious Eli's Cheesecake truly is.
    That said, friends, let me draw your attention to the photograph. The special Eli's Illinois Bicentennial Cheesecake, star of our state's 200th birthday party on Navy Pier earlier this week. I don't have to identify the gentleman with him: Honest Abe Lincoln, whose affection for cheesecake is well-known.   
     Eli's Cheesecake has become synonymous, not only with love and family, but with Chicago, and with our most cherished values. That is only in part due of the inherent wonderfulness of Eli's Cheesecake, but also thanks to the tireless efforts of my friend, Marc Schulman, owner of Eli's and son of the founder.
       For those few people who don't instantly recognize the superlative nature of Eli's Cheesecake, its 30 varieties, one for every conceivable taste, how other cheesecakes just don't hold up, plus Eli's pantheon of non-cheesecake delights, such as thick, soft, delicious cookies, and those tiny, single serving fruit pies well, Marc is sure to remind them. 
    Sure, cynics might scoff. They could point out that, among Marc's many heroic efforts to bring knowledge of Eli's Cheesecake to those unfortunates who might lack awareness, is the paid advertising that Eli's has always sponsored on this blog. Let them scoff. There is no quality so pure, no democratic ideal so important that naysayers cannot find an argument against it.  I do not believe that financial considerations affect my view of cheesecake in the slightest. I loved it before I ever met Marc, love it during our many years of friendship and mutually-beneficial economic arrangement, and will continue to do so, long after his sponsorship ends, onward to the end of time. He did not ask me to write anything concerning cheesecake, but I was moved by that photograph to pen this spontaneous outpouring of my sincere heart.
    Nor does his sponsorship prevent me from turning my critical judgment about Eli's Cheesecake. Since absolute perfection is reserved for the Supreme Deity, it follows that even Eli's Cheesecake has a flaw, one I was reminded of while my wedge was diminishing before me today. When you are finished eating any given piece of cheesecake, a sign lights up in your head: "More cheesecake!" And it was only with difficulty, with an act of will on my part, to resist defrosting a second slice—another advantage to keeping it frozen, to deter spontaneous consumption. Cheesecake is not exactly a diet food. There, I said it.
    So let no one claim that my critical blade was dulled by commerce. Let complainers carp and dieters doubt, miserably nibbling at their celery. Me, I'm sticking with my family, my city, my country, the flag that represents it, and Eli's Cheesecake. If you do not, as I do, have three flavors in your freezer, then click at the convenient link at left and order one for yourself or for someone you love or, ideally, both. Or two. Or three. You will be glad you did, as will I. Do it now. 

Flashback 1999: Dec. 7, "Everybody was in their own grief"

Marine Cpl. Stanley Stephen Swiontek

     This story stayed with me and 17 years later I followed it up, visiting with Rosemary's brother, Rick.

     Every Dec. 7 for the rest of her life, for years and years, after the war was over and most people turned to other matters, Rosemary Martinotti's mother took out her gold star, the star that meant you had lost a son in the war, and put it in the window.
     Then her mother passed away, and the responsibility for remembering fell to Rosemary. She keeps a picture of her brother, Marine Cpl. Stanley Stephen Swiontek, in her living room. She still has the little pillow, with fringes, and a poem about motherhood, and a picture of the U.S.S. Arizona, that Stanley brought home for Mother's Day, 1941, the last time she ever saw him.
     "What a great guy," remembers Martinotti, who is attending the city's ceremony today at Navy Pier remembering Pearl Harbor and honoring Swiontek and the six other Chicagoans who died aboard the Arizona. "We were thrilled whenever he would come home."
     Swiontek was 26 and a cook aboard the ship, but to the kids in Roseland, he was a big deal. His younger brothers and sisters adored him.
     "My brother Ted and I were the cabooses—the youngest of nine," she says. "We used to fight about who was going to polish the brass buttons on his uniform. We were just thrilled with this tall person. Ted would say, 'I'm going to polish his buttons,' and I would say, 'Then I'm going to polish his shoes.' "
     She was 12 years old when her brother took that last furlough.
     "You know what we loved doing? All the kids in the neighborhood?" she says. "We used to love sitting around in the backyard, and Stanley would tell us all these stories about being in the Marines, on the ship. We'd just sit there, going 'Wow!' We just ate it up."
     When the family heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked, it was almost as if they knew something bad had happened to Stanley.
     "All of a sudden, a pall came over the house. Everybody was in their own grief," she says. "We didn't hear anything for days. Then we got the telegram."
     The Arizona had sunk in nine minutes—1,100 men were trapped inside and most are still there, entombed. Stanley's family never even found out the circumstances of his death, only that he had won the right to sleep in that day.
     "He would have been on land otherwise," Martinotti says.
     Nothing was ever the same for her mother.
     "Ted and I often wondered what Christmas was going to be like," she says. "Because every year she went through her son's death on Dec. 7. It was so traumatic. My mother would get physically ill. It was exhausting. She never got a chance to truly and honestly get over it because they showed it, over and over again, every Dec. 7, the Arizona sinking, and she could picture her son, her favorite son, inside of it. It just tore her apart.
     "You see, if a mother's going to have a favorite son, then Stanley was her favorite, simply because he was so gentle. He was so handsome. He was so kind. He was just great.
     Alone among her family, Martinotti has never gone to Hawaii to see his ship.
     "I just couldn't do it," she said. "I still cry."
     But she is making a point of being at the ceremony today.
     "Because he meant so much to me. I was so proud of him. I'd say, 'That's my brother in that uniform.' "
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 7, 1999

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Menorah as middle finger

   Hanukkah began Sunday night. It's a more subdued holiday in our household, with the boys away at school. We did put up decorations, a kind of muscle memory. And exchanged gifts—Rolling Stones tickets! And we lit a menorah, which we stick in the window. That's actually my favorite part of the holiday. The world pushes hard against Jews, sometimes, and it's a small joy to push back in a small way, as I tried to describe in this column from 2004.

     Perhaps I'm just not in the holiday mood. But am I the only one to think that Hanukkah is a pretty second-rate holiday? A minor festival which, due to its unfortunate proximity to Christmas, has grown to enormous proportions, somewhat hideously, the way the frogs in the pond at a nuclear power plant might grow to the size of footstools. Hanukkah music is tinny compared to the beauty of Christmas carols—we're grinding out "Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel" while they've got "Silent Night." Those chocolate coins taste lousy. Dreidel is not a fun game. There's no tree. Ordinarily, Hanukkah would have the cultural significance of Tu B'shvat—Jewish Arbor Day, which you probably never heard of but would be a huge event if it and not Hanukkah fell in December.
     The only reason Hanukkah gets celebrated the way it does—with gifts and decorations and fuss—is to ape Christmas hoopla, as a sop to the kiddies, who otherwise would drive their parents crazy out of gift envy.
     Yes, I'll munch my share of latkes. And yes, lighting the menorah can be a nice moment, if the kids muster the self-control to stop yammering "presents, presents, presents" for a moment.
     And there is one aspect I truly savor, something very personal: when I take the lit menorah and set it in the front window, which I've always considered a vigorous "Up yours, we're still here" to all the anti-Semites over the centuries and prowling the outside world today.
     I softly mutter my own little blessing to those people, a two-word benediction I won't repeat here, as I set the brass menorah on the windowsill. A small, triumphant moment.
     So maybe Hanukkah isn't so bad after all. It must be my mood.
              —Originally published in the Sun-Times Dec. 10, 2004

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Flashback 2010: "The rich subtlety of sign language will knock you out"


     On a dare from a reader, I wrote an obituary for myself four years ago, and posted it yesterday on Facebook, part of my routine of tossing up old blog entries on their anniversary to garner a few dozen extra clicks. The piece mentioned, among the stories I had written, one about translating a show tune into American Sign Language, and another reader, with a deaf child, said he'd like to read that. I remembered liking the piece and dug it up.

     You never know when the gray thunderheads of routine will part and a beam of something bright shine through; call it grace, beauty, whatever. Something that lingers.
     It isn't in the overheated, windowless office of the director of the International Center on Deafness & the Arts in Northbrook, listening to a detailed rendition of her career. Nor on a tour of the center. Nor seeing many photos of famous alumna Marlee Matlin. Nor even watching deaf students choreograph a dance from "West Side Story," being staged at the Centerlight Theatre this February.
     Just as I start wondering when I can politely grab my coat and bolt, we come into a cluttered work room. At a table sit Christine Erickson, the theater program director, Gina Matzkin, a costumer and longtime program participant, and a teenage girl, Lauren Holtz.
     Each has a ring binder open in front of her. They are in the midst of translating the lovely lyrics to "Somewhere" into American Sign Language.
     "Right now, we're struggling with the first two lines; 'There's a place for us/Somewhere, a place for us,' " says Erickson. "We're trying to give that a really nice picture."
     There is no American Sign Language sheet music for "West Side Story." Translating word-for-word doesn't work, because ASL is not a mere visual approximation of English, but a distinct language (popular, too -- about as many Americans speak ASL as speak Italian).

     "The words, 'There's a place for us,' " says Erickson. "The girl singing the song is not talking about it being for her and somebody else. What we're trying to figure out is, should she be signing 'us' meaning 'me and you,' or for 'them,' Tony and Maria, or for 'all of us.' It gets complicated."
     That it does. Take the third line, "Peace and quiet and open air." "This is going to be tricky. 'Peace' and 'quiet' are the same sign," explains Erickson, dusting her hands together and then spreading them apart, palms down.
     "I would prefer to keep 'peace' and do something else for 'quiet,' " Erickson says, suggesting the index-finger-to-lips gesture librarians are famous for, one that means, unsurprisingly, "hush" in ASL.
     "I like it," says Matzkin. Then there is the matter of keeping up with the beat. "Take my hand" is three syllables. The ASL symbol—one hand clapped over the other at your sternum —is one beat. The solution: break the gesture into three separate parts; the lower hand is presented, the upper hand claps over it, and the pair are drawn to the chest: Take my hand.
     "'Time to look, time to care,'—what does that mean?" asks Lauren, 15.
     "Life goes by so fast," says Erickson, shifting gears. "You have to stop, look around, spend time with the people you care about. What do you think it means?"
     "That," Lauren said, earnestly.
     We get into a discussion of ASL. There are regional accents—"Halloween," is signed differently in different parts of the country. People can sign loudly, softly, gently, strong. Men sign differently than women.
     In spring 2009, they did "Grease," which has a song going over various car parts.
     "I had to go home and ask my husband," says Matzkin (both are deaf). She signs "pistons"—a vigorous gesture of two fists driving up and down.
     "Somewhere" ends with a plaintive "Somehow/Someday/ Somewhere." They puzzle.
"You guys overuse the word 'some,' " Matzkin tells me (By "you guys" she means the hearing world. Deaf society is the most militant of the various groups with disabilities, and if anywhere here I give the impression that ASL is pretty, I apologize for the insult).
     They consider "True how, true day, true where."
     "I'm not in love with the 'true,' but it might work," says Matzkin.
     They end up with "Possible. Future. Out there"—each gesture a double pump that echoes the two syllables of "Somehow, someday, somewhere."
     "From the top," said Matzkin.
     Lauren stands up, an elfin girl in a purple leotard. The freshman at Hersey High School in Arlington Heights is a quick study, and nails the lyrics they have just worked out while the song plays on a boom box, gesturing faster than I can write it down: a finger to her lips for hush, signing "together" by making O's out of her thumbs and forefingers and locking them together, then the big finish.
     "Someday"—she signs "future," palm at her temple, then slicing out.
     "Somewhere"—she signs "out there," thrusting her right arm, straight out, then her left, a gesture of Evita-like triumph.
     That the above description does not drop your jaw in delight, if you are not struck by the moment's charm, the fault is mine, limited as I am to the written English language. If you saw Lauren Holtz sign "Somewhere" in ASL, you'd know what I mean.
     But we all must labor under our limitations.
                    —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 28, 2010