Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Tiptoeing through the moral minefield of the young

     Sympathizing with yourself, or with those exactly like you, is not the laudable exercise of virtue that some seem to imagine it being, but ordinary selfishness disguised as morality. The trick is to have compassion for those different than yourself. 
     That’s much harder.
     None of this was in mind last week when an old pal showed up at the newspaper shepherding two dozen Canadian college students: bright, attentive multi-cultural kids bristling with enthusiasm.
     At first.
     Then I spoke.
     In my defense, I had asked my friend: What should I talk about?
     “Just be you,” he replied. Bad advice.
     This being Chicago, I figured, start with corruption. Start with Ed Burke, the lion of the City Council, hauled away by the feds last year for trying to jam his hand too far up the goose that was a bit too slow laying the next golden egg.
     “The scandal is what’s legal,” I said. They nodded. Condemnation is good.
     But finding fault in others, like lavishing sympathy on yourself, is too easy. The media is also part of a compromised system, I continued, influenced by proximity and the need for access. 

     Everything was swimming along. Maybe a bit dull, because my pal offered an idea:
     “Tell them about Barack Obama calling you from Africa,” he said.
     Sure! He had called to complain about something I wrote. I eagerly told the story, blundering into the briar patch of race, gender, and class. I could see them souring, one by one. The more I tried to twist free, to extricate myself, the deeper I sank.       Afterward, a few wouldn’t pose with me for a group photo. As if I were radioactive.
     Later, I asked my friend what had bothered the students most.
     I had, he replied, described women who stood on Cicero Avenue and exchanged sex for money as “hookers.” And newborns scourged by cocaine as “crack babies.” Instead of, I assume, ”sex workers” and, geez, I don’t know, “babies with special needs due to in utero narcotic use” or some such thing.
     The famous “cancel culture” we’ve heard so much about. One strike and you’re out. Big among college youth, trying to fight bigotry by unconsciously imitating its methods.

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Happy National Pancake Day!

Metropolitan Museum of Art
    Today is National Pancake Day, according to the International House of Pancakes, which should know. 
     Although, rooting around online, I see that Sept. 25 is also International Pancake Day, through some alternate system. So two then, like regular Easter and Greek Easter.
     I like pancakes—no big confession there, most people do. Though pancakes can get you into trouble. Georgie V's, a breakfast spot in Northbrook, lets you substitute pancakes instead of toast, a practice I've fallen into to satisfy my pancakes jones without eating too many. Now it's almost automatic, to ask for pancakes instead of toast. But eating breakfast in New York the weekend before last, I asked a waiter who was obviously straining the limits of his competence if I could have pancakes instead of toast. He shrugged and brought, along with my omelet, a huge plate piled with three pancakes the size of garbage can lids. I sent them away. 
      Given the special day, I thought I would do a kind of trust drop into the vault, assuming, over the years, I'd written something about pancakes. Boy, did I ever. The original title was "Quicker than heating them."

     Krusteaz Microwave Mini-Pancakes are silver dollar-sized flapjacks, sold fully cooked but frozen to be prepared in toaster ovens.
     I never gave them much thought, beyond a certain care to position each carefully upon the metal toaster oven rack, as they have a tendency to tilt and slip between the bars, plunging into the crumby nether-region of the toaster oven, becoming ruined.
     Never gave them thought, until now, that is, when, in a moment, they change into a vastly significant emotional totem on par with Proust's madeleine and lime tea.    

     I'm sitting in the kitchen, taking my coffee and scanning the newspaper before my traditional bolt for the train. Ross, 9, enters stage left and invites me to whip him up a batch of fresh pancakes.
     "Not this morning," I say. "I've got to be at the train in 10 minutes."
     He shrugs and proceeds to the freezer. "OK," he says, removing a blue plastic bag of Krusteaz. "I'll eat these." He takes one from the bag. "I'll have the first one frozen."
     He begins to eat the frozen disc.
     "Stop!" I yell, leaping to my feet. "You can't do that!"
     I have reached the age of 44 years without the concept of eating frozen pancakes ever crossing my mind, and it seems like a gross violation of our middle class norms, akin to shooting heroin.
     "Mom lets us," he explains, having been joined by Kent, 7, who helps himself to the bag.
     My life is dissolving around me.
     "Honeeeeeeeeeey!" I call, in a reedy, adenoidal whine, bounding up the stairs to the bedroom. "Do you let the boys eat frozen pancakes?"
     "Just the one," she says, as if quantity is the issue. I open my mouth to reply, but how can I articulate what I am trying to do? What my life is all about? To fight with all my strength against the sucking hellmouth of exhausted lower middle class existence, of resisting the inclination to pack the kids off to school in sweatpants and stained T-shirts, a rim of jelly around their lips, of my wife shuffling around the house all day in her frayed pink bathrobe, dropping glowing ash onto the carpet while I sit on the front porch in my underwear drinking Fiesta Scotch out of a Flintstones glass.
     I can't muster a word; she delivers the coup de grace.
     "Don't you remember, Elaine used to do it."
     Elaine is the beautiful, poised, teenage daughter of our best friends, whose lives are so grounded in sophisticated good sense and rational living that I can never quite fathom why they spend time with a pack of flailing lunatics such as ourselves. Frankly, I sometimes worry that they do out of some kind of Christian mission—that their church encourages them to befriend dysfunctional families.
     Defeated, retortless, I wander downstairs, back into the kitchen. And here is the odd part. I feel happy—happier than I have in weeks of head-in-a-vise tension and pit-of-the-stomach anxiety, the tarantella of work and writing and phone calls and crap. I relax, smile, and let go of my dream. We are never going to be the type of people who drive new cars or wear thick expensive sweaters or live in a clean house. We are going to wade through piles of soiled laundry, kicking aside garbage, shouting at each other as we dig around in the cluttered freezer for our next mouthful of frozen pancake.
     And I'm OK with that.
     I notice a Krusteaz pancake on the floor and bend down to pick it up. I hold it to my nose, draw in its pleasing, chilly vanilla wafer smell, and nearly pop it into my mouth and begin chewing. Instead, I toss it into the sink.
     We do not eat off the floor. Not yet, anyway.

Closing shot

     Later, at the office, in the editorial board meeting, I recount my pancake adventure to a colleague, a bit of that solidarity-building I normally fail so miserably at. I finish and sit back, waiting for her reciprocal confession, for her to laughingly admit some similar domestic failing—letting her toddlers suck on bricks of frozen peas perhaps.
     Her response—though you see it coming, don't you?—shocks me.
     "I wouldn't let those in my house," she says, narrowing her eyes in disgust and shivering at the thought.
     Desperate to find some way to elevate my status after my unwise admission, I say, "For years, I wouldn't let my wife buy that bagged lettuce."
     "Of course not," my colleague snaps, shaming me into silence. "It's not as fresh."

       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 22, 2004

Monday, February 24, 2020

The last thing you ever need to read about Rod Blagojevich

Whitney Museum
     If I must ....
     But really: Does Rod Blagojevich require explaining? Is it not abundantly clear? Do we have to belabor the obvious?
     When news broke last Tuesday that our nation’s No. 1 corrupt egomaniac, Donald Trump, had granted clemency to Illinois’ imprisoned corrupt egomaniac, Rod Blagojevich, I was talking to a group of college students who stopped by the paper — I have a column worked up about that discomfort, but it’ll have to wait, since the public is clamoring for more Rod.
     ”Nada on ... the sprung grey-haired guv?” challenged a regular reader, one of a number to inquire. “What gives?”
     What gives is the latest act of a sad and tawdry long-running tragi-farce, a dismal freak show starring the animate political corpse of our former governor who, in fine chicken-with-its-head-cut-off style, emerged from distant confinement to run in circles around the media spotlight, emitting horrid wet, sputtering semi-clucks out of its stump of a neck.
     We should turn away in revulsion. But reporters are jostling at the brimming trough for their interchangeable exclusives. Not to blame them. It’s in the blood. As I stood at the city desk, blinking at the news, my editor asked if I wanted to opine. I didn’t. Analyzing Blago is like doing color commentary for a coin toss. But the fire bell rings, the old engine horse stirs from its straw.
     Two minutes later I was back in my office, consulting Kipling to remind myself which self-serving bromides Blagojevich was sure to spout, when my boss ambled over and observed that my colleague Mark Brown was already on the job.

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Sunday, February 23, 2020

Flashback 2003: Bernie Neistein, 87, former state senator

Bernie Neistein
     Two memories of the late State Sen. Bernie Neistein, who popped up in yesterday's post about Nate Perlstein. First we are sitting in big chairs the lobby of the Carlisle, a fancy Gold Coast condo. He has a cigar in his mouth but isn't smoking it, and is giving me the lowdown on politicians.
    "They're all crooked, all of 'em," he says, jabbing a thick finger in the air for emphasis. And then stops, a realization dawning, a smile breaking out in his jowly face. 
     "Except Paul Simon!" he adds.
     I loved that. The second, he's invited us to hear him play violin at the Loop synagogue. It didn't seem an invitation that one turned down, so Edie and I show up to hear him play. He plays, there are bagels and lox involved. That's it.
     This obit is a reminder that while Republicans might be refining corruption to an art form, they certainly did not invent it.

     What was state Sen. Bernie Neistein like? When a city worker who lived in Mr. Neistein's precinct, along with his wife and mother-in-law, all made the mistake one election of voting for a Republican, Mr. Neistein didn't just stop after having the man fired.
     "I bought the two-flat they were living in and watched as the guy and his wife and their kid and her mother were thrown out on the sidewalk," he told a reporter in 1999. "Later, I sold the building at a $500 loss. It was worth every penny."
     Mr. Neistein, 87, the last of the West Side Machine bosses, a man who grew wealthy doing exactly what the Democratic Machine wanted, died Friday at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
     For the last several decades, he was a colorful, even beloved figure on the Chicago scene—a gravelly voiced, cigar-chomping, homburg hat-wearing old pol telling tales of political mud fights. He also was a professional-quality violinist and a contributor to several charities.
     His persona largely effaced his earlier reputation as absentee West Side slumlord who ran the 20th Ward as his "personal plantation."
     "He had the biggest heart of anyone I know and did more for more people than anyone I know," said his nephew Norman Berger. "I do know that until the moment he took his last breath, he was a loyal and committed Democrat and believed strongly in the principles of the Democratic Party."
     There were also allegations that Mr. Neistein was the mob's front man in Springfield, as he made a fortune buying up real estate in the path of the proposed Eisenhower Expressway and didn't care who knew it.
     But he never went to jail.
     The only official censure he ever got was in 1989, for giving a $10,000 loan to Judge Reginald Holzer. Holzer was sentenced to 18 years in prison for that and other convictions related to the Greylord probe. Mr. Neistein's law license was suspended for 30 months.
     "He did so much for so many people in making the city great that while people may have written articles criticizing him, that completely takes the focus off the greatness of this man," his nephew said.
     He was born Bernard S. Neistein on the West Side on Aug. 15, 1916. His father was a Russian-Jewish tailor.
     He graduated from Marshall High School in 1932 and received his law degree from DePaul University Law School in 1937. At age 20, he was the youngest DePaul Law graduate up to that time, his family said. World War II interrupted his career—he served for two and a half years in the U.S. Army in Europe and was known for smuggling kosher salami and sharing it with the troops, according to his nephew.
     He became a bailiff in Municipal Court in 1954, and two years later he ran for state representative in the 16th District and won. He later became a state senator for 16 years.
     In the early 1970s, political reformers challenged Mr. Neistein's lock on the West Side.
     "The 29th Ward, in the middle of the decaying West Side, has been the personal plantation of former state Sen. Bernard S. Neistein for 13 years," began a 1973 article in Chicago Today. "As Democratic committeeman, he has controlled both parties in the ward as well as jobs and votes."
     But his daughter Evaly Jerome described him as a "very gregarious man, very warm, funny, generous and loving father and grandfather."
     Survivors also include five grandchildren and two older sisters.
     Services will be at 10 a.m. today at the Weinstein Family Services, 111 Skokie Blvd., in Wilmette. Burial will follow in Waldheim Cemetery, 1400 Des Plaines Ave., Forest Park.
               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 5, 2003

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Flashback 1993: A Star in PR—Perlstein an Old-Style Success

Nate Perlstein, left, and Sen. Bernie Neistein at the Cambridge House in 1993.
(Photo by Robert A. Davis, used with permission)
     Before I snapped a photo of the filing cabinets in my closet for yesterday's column, I did pause, and consider whether. should whisk away the Marilyn Monroe pin-up that has been there, gee, forever, so as not to get caught up in the jaws of some kind of unimaginable social media blowback over a 70-year-old slice of cheesecake. But I decided that was being skittish. The photo is tame, relatively, and I should take the risk. Only one person remarked upon it out—my old pal Bill Zwecker, noting he had the same copy, and we both got it from the same person: the late, great publicist Nate Perlstein. Which inspired me to dig up this profile I wrote about him, 27 years ago. Perlstein died in 1995. Neistein died in 2003. He was also a character; I think I'll print my eye-opening obituary of him tomorrow. The Cambridge House, at Ohio and St. Clair, closed in 2006. It's a different world.

     The Pucci suits have held up well. Red and white plaid elbows that once jostled celebrities in Booth One, bold linings once glimpsed by hotshots at the Chez Paree hide the decades nicely. Quality tailoring will do that.
     And Nate Perlstein, owner of the pricey suits, plus the white loafers, and the flashy pocket squares, and even a few silk ascots, is doing nicely, too. His legs aren't what they used to be, say when he was 80, so he no longer walks the 10 blocks from his Lake Shore Drive apartment to his office. 
But Perlstein, at 85, still gets around. As the oldest full-time publicist working in Chicago, if not the country, Perlstein makes his daily rounds, seeing old friends, subtly and not-so-subtly promoting clients, and in general holding the banner for a winking, handclasping, tell-'em-Charlie-sent-you world that once dominated Chicago business.
     At his age, a routine is vital. Every weekday about 4 a.m. Perlstein does stretching exercises—leg lifts, arm lifts. Gets the blood going.
     By the time he has showered and dressed—today a beige cashmere jacket, checkered slacks, a sweater vest—the sun is peeking over the lake.
     His living room is small but with a lot of history. Two framed montages of black and white publicity photos of Perlstein with all the greats: Danny Kaye, Eddie Cantor; Jane Russell, Cary Grant, Bob Hope. They clown in ways that celebrities never do today. There's Perlstein wearing an Indian headdress, a Tyrolean hat, a Hawaiian shirt. All the bottles in the pictures are Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer. Perlstein represented Pabst for decades. Coined the slogan "What'll you have?"
    It's 7 a.m. Perlstein is out the door. Someone is waiting for him next door, at 1040 N. Lake Shore. The Carlyle.
     There in the elegant lobby, settled quietly in a chair, waiting for Perlstein, is retired Sen. Bernie Neistein. A big shot. Everything about him says it—the big cigar, unlit, never leaving the mouth. Big gold Rolex. Big cufflinks. Monograms on the cuffs, rings on the pinkies. This guy is big.
     Usually they are joined by Kup, but today he phones his apologies. A cold.
     The Cadillac appears outside. A black Coupe De Ville. No one is in a hurry. Eventually they drive to the Cambridge House on Ohio Street. The senator parks right under a "Tow Zone' sign. Big. They sit at the counter. They don't order. Food just comes. Perlstein has oatmeal. The senator, a melon with lemon.
     Nine a.m. The senator drops Perlstein off at the corner of Michigan and Wacker. Perlstein walks into Paul Harvey's eye-popping suite of offices like he owns the place. The staff says hello. The famous radio broadcaster rises to greet him.
     They are the oldest of friends. As they talk, Harvey, without missing a beat, takes a comb and straightens Perlstein's unruly hair.
     "Every day it seems we have something of substance to discuss," says Harvey. Perlstein would never—he points out, never—take advantage of a friendship, but sometimes what he has to say ends up on Harvey's show. It is the way public relations used to work.
He is coy with Harvey, but Perlstein knows how to pitch a story when necessary.
     "He pushes," says another radio friend, Orion Samuelson, WGN's farm reporter. "He doesn't let go. He can push pretty hard."
     Perlstein was born in 1908 on the Near Northwest Side, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. As long as he can remember, Perlstein wanted to be a publicist.
     "All my life, I had a feeling about being creative," he says. "I would see an ad, and I would come up with a better idea."
     Perlstein got his break at the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition, convincing Walter Winchell to ride to the Pabst Blue Ribbon Casino in a horse-drawn surrey. It took a bit of, umm, truth management to pull it off.
     "They weren't going to let the surrey into the fair," says Perlstein. "I said, 'Do you know who that is in there? It's Walter Winchell, and he's on his way to meet the president of the United States.' They let him in."
     For 17 golden years, Perlstein lived in the Ambassador West Hotel when he wasn't circling the world, squiring big-name talent hyping Pabst beer. He lunched with Cary Grant. He drove Al Jolson around in the Cadillac convertible that Perlstein kept on the West Coast for just such a purpose.
     "He was like a cult figure in our family," says his nephew, Michael Perlstein, of his lifelong bachelor uncle. "He was the guy who would bring you a magic set, something unusual. Uncle Nate was always traveling. He was in Europe. He was in Hawaii. He was here, there and everywhere and always with a couple of showgirls on his arm."
     There are too many stories to tell. Perlstein arranging for Marilyn Monroe to pose for a 1950 Pabst calendar, which led to her appearing in Playboy. The time Groucho Marx got an actor into a card game so he could go out with the guy's wife. How Tallulah Bankhead once auditioned to announce New York Giants baseball games, using a salt shaker as a mike while she described an imaginary game.
     The present is less colorful, but by no means harsh. Perlstein has an office at Porter/Novelli, with a view of the NBC Tower. He does pro bono work for charities, and Porter/Novelli gives him work as a consultant.
     The Cadillacs are gone. The starlets who once held his elbow are grandmothers, or gone. But Perlstein is still very much here. He has a job, and friends, and wouldn't dream of retiring. He loves his life too much for that.
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 26, 1993

Friday, February 21, 2020

Filing cabinet files: Not all is up in the cloud

Despite technology, filing cabinets are still great for
stashing stuff. And for displaying Miss Blue Ribbon
 1950, as portrayed by a young actress named
 Marilyn Monroe
     In the closet of my office at home are a pair of twin beauties: two tall, black, four-drawer HON filing cabinets, stuffed with a vast accumulation of material from past decades: press releases, clips, letters, notes, photographs, blueprints, even a baseball.
     Last November, either digging something out or jamming something in, I had a thought: filing cabinets. Now there’s an industry you just don’t see analyzed in the paper much. I wonder how the whole computer situation affects their business. Are all our files up in the cloud now?
     Only one way to find out.
     “Dear Ben:” I wrote to Benjamin Daufeldt, marketing manager at The HON Company in Muscatine, Iowa. “This is the slowest pitch, straight down the pipe, that you’re ever going to get...”
     I introduced myself, then cut to the chase.
     “I want to write a column on filing cabinets in general and HON in particular. ... I’d like to talk to somebody at HON next week about filing cabinets, and perhaps visit your showroom at the Merchandise Mart.”
     Daufeldt got back to me quickly. I had reached out at a bad time.

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Thursday, February 20, 2020

Sign of the times

     There is a first time for everything.
     For me, the first inclusive construction sign, "MEN AND WOMEN AT WORK" was spied last Sunday on a hoarding around a new building going up at 60 Charlton Street in Soho, next to the Four Points Sheraton we were staying at.
     Of course.
     Female construction workers are still a rarity: 3.4 percent, according to The Institute for Women's Policy Research, though that rises to 1 in 10 if you consider back office and administrative roles in the construction rate.  Women, perhaps surprisingly, enjoy more equity in construction, being paid 94 cents for every dollar earned by a man (compared to 81 cents on the dollar generally).
    The signs were introduced in September, 2018, by Plaza Construction as part of their "female-friendly initiative," according to the New York Post.
   I like the signs because they are an example of positive usage: trying to change attitudes by changing your own behavior, rather than hectoring others to change theirs. I assume Plaza Construction doesn't go around yanking down less enlightened "Men at Work" signs. 
    Speaking of the new building, it inspires a funny moment when we first checked in. The clerk gave us a room on the 16th floor. We went to it, set down our bags, opened the curtains, and saw four construction workers, at eye level, on a scaffolding 10 feet away. My wife waved at them. One waved back.
    The room was loud. My wife and I looked at each other, picked up our bags, and went back downstairs and asked for another room. The Four Points clerk was very nice about it, and gave us a room on the 20th floor, on the opposite side of the building. We went up to that, dropped our bags, and realized that it was far, far louder than the first room had been. 
     "But this is the last time," I told my wife as we went downstairs. The Four Points clerk was, again, incredibly nice returning key cards to the first room to us. Now it seemed much quieter, by comparison, and noise never bothered us. We slept like babes.