Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Jury duty

     "Belts off, jackets off, pockets empty."
     In line at the Daley Center, last Thursday, 8:20 a.m., just another John Q. Citizen arriving early for his 8:30 summons .
     "Belts off, jackets off, pockets empty," a sheriff's deputy cries, to no one in particular, like a 19th century vender selling fruit off a cart.
     Juggling a cup of coffee, a briefcase, jacket and ID, I slide off my belt and coil it in a grey plastic bin, along with the fistful of change the letter told us to bring for vending machines.
     While most people to whom I mentioned my pending jury duty expressed sympathy, even pity, my mood is light. Anything that involves enforced idleness, reading and snacks can't be that bad.
"Belts off, jackets off, pockets empty."
    Putting my belt back on by a table past security, I try to make small talk with the guy arranging himself next to me.
    "Another indignity of the state," I venture.
    "I got better things to do," he mutters, darkly, and I almost ask, "Like what?"
     But that seemed impolite, perhaps even unwise. I'm at court. This guy might not be a juror, this guy might be here to go on trial for throttling some wisenheimer.
     I say no
     Up to the 17th floor, where we are assigned to groups -- I'm Panel 9, and given a slip of paper saying so. We're invited to sit in a sea of chairs. I pop a green tea mint, crack David Axelrod's "Believer"  (excellent, filled with trenchant insight and telling details). and begin to wait. 
    Forty minutes pass.
     At 9:10, a video. "Ladies and gentlemen, good morning, my name is Timothy C. Evans..."

    See, I know Tim.  I've dealt with him a dozen times. I'm certain they'll never pick me for a jury. A newspaper columnist married to a lawyer. Never. A couple hours of leisure and they'll send me on my way.
    Famous TV newsman Lester Holt pops up. We learn fun facts. "Circuit court is a state court, not a county court." Four hundred judges, eight divisions, with 2.4 million cases a year. Lester Holt appears. "Your name was picked at random. It is impossible to know how long a trial will last."
     Those of us going to trial. My wife agrees with me. Never in a thousand years.
    "If you are excused you must not take it personally.'
     Oh don't worry, Lester, I won't. 
    The music swells.
   "You are now ready to serve as a juror in the Circuit Court of Cook County!" 
    Or be dismissed from serving, as the case may be.
     Another ten minutes pass. Panel 3, is called Panel 5.  Panel 7...

     Just before 10, they call .. Panel 15. "Hey!" I think. "Unfair! Go in order." 
     About 10:15, we're called. Panel 9 escorted to a courtroom, where a judge tells us that the lawyers saw our faces and decided to settle.

       I half expect we'll be dismissed right then. Instead we begin an odyssey, the Wandering Jury.  Led to one courtroom, then another. No one is ready for us. Back to the 17th floor. Finally, about 11 a.m. we are escorted to a third courtroom, then told to take lunch. Come
back in two and a half hours. I Divvy to the office to do a bit of work and show off my JUROR sticker, my red badge of civic duty.
     At 1:30 we reassemble at a courtroom. Judge Jim Ryan welcomes us affably. We take seats in the jury box and he explains the case.      A young woman driving an Acura was rear-ended by another driver on Grand Avenue. Her insurance company paid $4,400 for repair and a rental car, and now the company wants to collect from the guy who rear-ended her, an unshaven, handsome, vaguely menacing young man in a black v-necked sweater.
     For a moment, I wonder if we've begun the trial. No, this is "voir dire, " jury selection. We 
are asked if any of us have been in accidents. Any lost our license? Any have trouble with the idea of an insurance company recovering damages?
     "Mr. Steinberg..." one lawyer begins, reading from a form, and I sit up straight, smiling, ready for my moment in the spotlight. Time to be recognized, lauded, then dismissed. "...your wife is a lawyer. Will that affect your ability to view the case impartially?"
     "Umm, no," I say.
    There is a break. After five minutes, we are told six have been chosen. I'm among them. The other 12 are given their freedom.
     The case takes two hours, start to finish. It consists of lawyers quizzing two witnesses: the woman whose car wa
s hit, and the man who hit her. Nobody questions the facts. Two photos are introduced into evidence: one of the woman's crushed bumper; the other of the man's car stopped on the grass beside a building. 
     Back in the jury room, I'm elected foreman; I'm not sure why. One woman suggested it, everybody else went along and I accepted. 
     So what do people think? I poll the jury. Five find him negligent. One just can't.  "It could have happened to anyone," she says. For 40 minutes we go back and forth. The guy was obviously inattentive; I point out that he could barely pay attention during the two hour trial. Society demands drivers stop for cars making lefts. If you don't, you're negligent. Case closed.
    We argue with her, but  gently, respectfully. She seems fragile, about to cry, and goes into the bathroom for a long time and doesn't come out. When she does, I ask if there's any chance she'll change her mind. No.  I ask the others if there's any chance we'll come to her way of thinking. No. I have no interest in browbeating the woman, nor in drawing this out pointlessly. While I think he's liable and should pay, I'm not an agent of the insurance company. I send a note to the judge that we're deadlocked. We get certificates and checks for $25 and are out by 5 p.m.
     Two lessons. One, you never know what will happen when you go to law. Here I was certain I'd be dismissed, and end up jury foreman. Second, it's a flawed system—the guy was negligent— but one person can derail the whole thing. Still, it works, sort of. Everyone was exceedingly polite, and thanked us for us doing our civic duty. Compared to the bloody chaos in most of the world, our justice system is a gift.  

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Carry a red flag

     As the blog will receive its millionth visitor today, I'm hosting a live chat party in the Party Room— the upper right hand side of the page — at 7 p.m. It's BYOB, but there will be music and conversation.  Dress is casual. 

    When automobiles first appeared on American roads, more than a century ago, they were considered unacceptably dangerous—too loud, too fast, apt to frighten the horses and run down pedestrians. Certain towns, in an attempt to minimize the hazard, enacted ordinances requiring that any horseless carriages traveling within city limits be preceded by a person holding a red flag, to warn of the approaching peril.
    Such laws were soon swept aside in our rush toward the future. But knowing about them left a lingering notion of a red flag, as a safety device, as being quaint and antique, firmly ensconced in what the great James Thurber once called "the halls and parlors of the past." A way to express caution that is rarely found today, perhaps at the occasional construction site, or maybe on a lifeguard stand to convey beach conditions, or planted, probably due to some arcane law, at the end of an extra-wide trailer truck.
     We were heading for the Lakeshore Arts Festival in Evanston's Dawes Park early in August when I was stopped dead in my tracks, while scooting with my family across Sheridan Road at Clark Street, by this singular sign. I told them to go on without me and I'd catch up after I marveled at the wonder.. 
     Under the sign, a cylinder to hold the flags.
     Emtyp, of course. There were no flags, though there used to be. A web site called "Legal Insurrection" posted this picture from a correspondent claiming they went up in 2012 as "a recent addition in a series of 'improvements' to this crossing where, to my knowledge, there has never been a mishap."
     A little research tells us the flags were featured in the Pedestrian Safety Evaluation Report delivered at a special Evanston City Council meeting on Aug. 6, 2012, recommending the city "Place crossing flags at all of the park crossings to alert the drivers when pedestrians are crossing the street." 
      About half a dozen intersections have them in Evanston, according to residents.
      Claire Zulkey, writing about the flags on the WBEZ blog, pointed out that pilferage by "hooligans" is a drawback to the system, though not the only one.  
     There is also mockery. The Daily Northwestern noted that a budding NU comic ridiculed the flags during his routine though, in amateur journalist fashion, did not detail what was said.  
     There is an exhausted carelessness to the flag idea, almost a kind of paradox: any crossing dangerous enough to require that pedestrians vigorously wave flags over their heads in an attempt to save their lives probably needs a stop sign or a streetlight, if not an overhead pedestrian bridge. The flag strategy smacks of cheapness and intellectual failure. It's something you would expect to see in North Korea, in lieu of expensive traffic lights.
     That said, the flag system is not without charm. I have never strode across a busy intersection madly waving a red flag over my head, but imagine the experience has a certain frisson, assuming you aren't run down by a truck in the process. You really need the aforementioned James Thurber to convey the feeling, which he conveniently has already done, in his 1939 illustration of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's chestnut "Excelsior." 
     I left the intersection with conflicting emotions. One, that I wished I lived in a society where people wouldn't steal the flags—college students are prone to pranks, and a bucket of red flags is an invitation to midnight theft if ever there were. You'd like to think that even sophomores drunk on punch and grain alcohol would pause before undermining even this sadly inadequate, fragile, jury-rigged yet somehow quaint system of pedestrian safety, but obviously they don't.
     Two, Evanston should stock the white cylinders or remove them. I felt positively naked, crossing flagless. If the flags are necessary, keep them supplied. If not, take down the signs. 
     Third, I know Evanston is a different sort of a town. But really, this is daft, a piece of performance art that somehow drifted into serious traffic management. It's something I'd expect to find in Oak Park.

Monday, August 31, 2015

This flower stinks at everything

     The Spike t-shirts are printed and ready, waiting in the Chicago Botanic Garden gift shop.
     Only $19.99.
     But Spike mania hit a serious road bump this weekend.
     The star of the show froze in the wings and refused to go on.
     All August, the Botanic Garden in Glencoe had been ballyhooing its amorphophallus titanum, popularly known as a "corpse flower," an enormous, rare Indonesian plant that was expected to open spectacularly and cast off a nauseating stench that, counterintuitively, always draws crowds of the public, who like nothing better than to see something that isn't often seen, or smell something that isn't often smelled.

     The crowds showed up—57,000 to see it in person since it was unveiled Aug. 6, hundreds of thousands more following online—in anticipation, to ogle a plant that was growing inches a day. Hundreds were there Sunday, waiting in line to see the flower bloom have its outer spath cut off by conservation scientists, in a kind of botanic circumcision, attempting to harvest the pollen.
     Among them was Ava Gaddini, 9, with her parents, Leah Starkman and James Gaddini. She had been checking Spike's live feed every day after school, drawn by the rarity of the occasion.
     "It blooms every 12 years," she said.
     "Or doesn't boom," I couldn't resist adding, then pointed out that the botanic garden has eight other titan arums on-deck in its greenhouse, and one could be blooming by Halloween, though it's hard to imagine they'll be able to recreate the commotion a second time.
     Visitors who managed to pack around the flower gasped and applauded as the huge leaves were cut away, revealing deep maroon interior designed to attract pollinating insects.
     There was no smell.
     The plant had been cultivated for 12 years, and staffers wept Saturday when they realized that Spike lacked the energy to bloom. One compared it to a "stillbirth.".
     While officials at the garden said hopes dimmed only recently, as the days rolled on, I begun to have my suspicions. Could this be a dud? But I was reluctant to start tapping my watch face in public. Friday I could no longer resist, and finally tweeted:
     "Am I the first person to wonder whether the damn corpse flower is ever going to open? @chicagobotanic #openalready"
     I should make it clear that I'm a member of the Botanic Garden, and take no pleasure in Spike's epic fail.

   Well, maybe a little pleasure, the kind of small smile of satisfaction I imagine a church lady who faithfully attends mass every single morning might feel when it rains on the annual parish carnival. Because the Tilt-o-Whirl is not what this is all about. Big media splashes are addictive, and I'd hate to see the Botanic Garden stagger from one blockbuster to the next, hyping a titan arum today, showcasing the Whistling Wisteria of Borneo tomorrow.
     And not because I'm selfish, and prefer a depopulated garden to wander through in blissful solitude.. Even on the most crowded Sunday morning, even at the height of Spike Fever, as people dutifully trudged past, gazing goonily at his green erectile majesty, once you stroll beyond the immediate vicinity of the entrance, the crowd thins out--people don't like to walk--and by the time you get to the rolling patch of prairie toward the back, you're mostly alone.
     No, I believe this development, disappointing though it is to those involved, teaches an important lesson:
     While you can't fool Mother Nature, Mother Nature certainly can fool you.
     Yes, there is much clockwork dependability. The swallows return every year. The moon waxes and wanes on schedule.
     And I suppose you can splice genes, and seed clouds, and similarly skew the natural order, now and then.
     But only so much. We have to resist falling into a false sense of certainty, of which the Botanic Garden was guilty, its PR klaxon slipping into a tone of giddy inevitability.
     "The night Spike blooms will thrill us all in the semi-tropical greenhouse, with its breathtaking flower…accompanied by a titanically rotten smell," Tim Pollack, the outdoor floriculturist, wrote on Aug. 16.
      The Botanic Garden folks should take comfort. People did turn out, and I can see those Spike t-shirts getting snapped up anyway. While plants are not always predictable, people are, and they like souvenirs they think will be rare or ironic, such as memorabilia from that big fizzle of a flower, which ended up stinking up the place, though not in the sense that its handlers expected.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Cute and retro doughnut trucks

     Originality is important in writing. If you seize somebody else's creative work, put a slight spin on it and feed it back to the public, well, you really haven't done much, and what you have done is bad.
      In business however, what works for one entrepreneur might work for you, too, and the consumer won't really care. To fans of Pepsi, it doesn't matter that Coca-Cola came first.
      Thus taking the long route from the paper to the train station Friday—I felt like wandering—I swung by Daley Plaza, where there was an odd circle-the-wagons ring of food trucks, including this cute little retro doughnut truck from Firecakes. 
      The moment I saw the 1968 Citroen, I thought how little and cute and retro and graphically  interesting it is. The moment after that I reflected that it is a rip-off of the Doughnut Vault little and cute and retro doughnut truck, which looks like this: 

    Well, it's a big city, and a couple more cute and retro doughnut trucks and it can be become a Chicago Thing, like hot pretzels in Philadelphia or sugared nut stands in Times Square.
    I wrote about the Doughnut Vault's 1957 International Metro (a retro Metro!) at the end of 2013.  
      Firecakes, located at 68 W. Hubbard, rolled its truck out early this year, without of course mentioning anything about swiping the idea from the Doughnut Vault. 
     “This is an exciting next step for Firecakes as we expand our brand," said Firecakes Jonathan Fox told the Show Me Chicago blog.
Red cat
Blue dog
      The pair of twee vehicles made me think of the George Rodrigue Gallery in New Orleans. Rodrigue made a name for himself painting bright paintings of a blue dog. They were sold out of a gallery in the French Quarter. Then up pops a gallery not too far away selling paintings of a red cat, complete with pompous artist's statement, explaining how he came up with the idea for the red cat. The gall of it lodged under my skin. It's one thing to rip somebody off; it's another to try to pass it off as a genius divination of your own. 
      Not to make too much of the little and cute and retro doughnut trucks.  To be honest, the whole doughnut trend has peaked, in my mind, and is beginning to lose its allure—it's not like they're pies and can be enjoyed forever without any diminishment of pleasure. I first fell in love with Doughnut Vault because of its small gingerbreak stack cake doughnuts. But those are harder to find, and the few times I was forced to sample their  yeast doughnuts, I found them the standard oversweet, puffy and kinda gross fried dough you can get at Dunkin's. 
     Still, I went up to the truck and inquired about their doughnut line. My wife has been hankering for a particular kind of doughnut. Something perhaps impossible to find. A plain cake donut, soft in the center, kind of hard, almost crunchy on the outside. She says that Dunkin' Donuts used to make them, they had a little handle on them to hold onto while the doughnut was dipped into coffee. But they phased them out in the general ruination of the chain. So, full service husband that I am, I have been looking around for a basic plain doughnut for my wife. You' think I'd find one at the profusion of doughnut joints around town. But no. Not yet anyway. Though it is, as I said, a big city, and I haven't given up. 

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

      Can you guess a location by its pie? I bet you can, especially when the hint is this trio of triangular beauties. The doughnut fad is a few years old, and the cupcake bubble has popped. But pie continues on, timeless as America, holding up the tail end of the classic evocation of all we hold dear, "baseball, mom and apple pie." (Though, ironically, apple pie has fallen out of favor with me. As a young man, I adored it, particularly Dutch apple, with that mound of crumbly stuff on it. Now it just seems sweet, cloying. My favorites are sour cherry, blueberry, lemon meringue and chocolate. Not that it matters).
    But enough throat-clearing. Where, oh where, can you find these pies? My guess is the puzzle doesn't last five minutes, but I'm posting it anywhere because a) I like the picture, with its assemblage of forks, just ready for a mass pie appreciation. And b) I'm hoping to alert people to its presence, because one must encourage good pie. The winner gets one of my actually-dwindling-now-that-I'm-slapping-them-up-on-walls stock of 2015 blog posters, a story that I will relate to you another day. Place your guesses below. Good luck. 

Postscript: Since it's been solved, another view, though I won't reveal where — it's in the comments — for those who want to challenge themselves to guess. Quite a beautiful place.

Friday, August 28, 2015

"Get out of here!!" -- The Plainfield Tornado

     The sky to the west was green.
     After 25 years, what I remember most about Aug. 28, 1990, was crossing the Wabash Avenue bridge, looking right, and seeing what looked like an ugly bruise made of clouds.
     A tornado had just smashed into Plainfield, in Will County, and a city editor told me to get there now.
     It had been a normal Tueseday. The weather service had predicted sunny skies. Nobody in Plainfield saw the funnel cloud coming—an F5, the most powerful ever to hit the Chicago area. A Joliet radio station was just broadcasting the first warning early that morning when the wind took down its broadcasting tower. There was no Internet.
     But there was common sense. Coach Wayne DeSutter had 107 football players on the field at Plainfield High School, doing their workout. He saw lightening and decided practice was over. Had he waited five minutes, many of those players would have died. But he hurried them off the field and got them inside the smaller of the school's two gyms—in the larger, the girl's volleyball team was about to have their home opener.
     There, the girl's coach, Cathy Cartright, started to go into the hallway, but had a strange feeling. A premonition, if you will. She turned back.
     "I sensed the room didn't feel right," she later said, "it was like something was tapping me on the shoulder, telling me to get the kids out."
     She wheeled around, shouting, "Get out of here! Now! Move it!"
     The girls rushed into an interior hallways, joined by the football players. They all knelt down and huddled against the wall. They could feel the building tremble as the tornado bore down on them. Some students began crying, but some football players had the presence of mind to put their helmets back on. The last sounds they heard were the school's automatic tornado siren going off. Then their ears popped as the tornado came skipping and screaming across the field that the team had just been practicing on and blew the school apart.
     The hallways with the students sheltered in it was one of the few parts left intact.
     When the tornado passed, and the students gingerly stood up and ventured outside, at first they couldn't grasp what they were seeing. Through the doorway to the large gym, light.
     ''We didn't know where we were,'' said player Ben Speicker. ''There were no trees, no houses, no landmarks.''
     Twenty-nine people died; three at the high school, including Stephen Hunt, a science teacher, killed when the wind threw a semi-trailer truck into his classroom. The tornado cut a 16 mile path of destruction. About 350 people were injured, and more than a thousand homes destroyed.
     Some wondered if Plainfield would recover, but it obviously has. When the tornado hit, it had a population of 4,500. Now it's almost 10 times as big, with some 42,000 residents.
     You always hear of the power of tornados, but when I got to the school, there were things I still can't quite believe, and I saw them with my own eyes. A starter jacket, somehow sucked through a crack in a wooden beam. Cars crumpled into balls, a Dumpster in a tree, a telephone pole that had not snapped, but been pushed, through the ground, standing up, leaving a trough.
     I had one of those big, clunky Star Tac portable phones, and calling back updates its weak battery died—just as I looked down and said, "I better move, I'm standing on a power line." That gave the City Desk a scare, but the electricity had already been cut, fortunately. AT&T set up mobile phone booths, and I used one of those to call back. The paper told me to not leave Plainfield. It had been hard enough to get in—heading into Plainfield, a state trooper had tried to stop me at the roadblock, threatening to arrest me if I didn't turn around. I flopped my hands out of the car window, crossed at the wrist, and said, "Arrest me then." That seemed a better option than going back to the Sun-Times and telling the city editor I couldn't get into the town. He waved me through.
     So I spent the night on a green army cot the Red Cross had set up in the kindergarten room of the elementary school. The next morning the press gathered at the Crest Hill Lakes Apartments, one of those cheap concrete four plus ones where many of the storms victims died when the structure pancaked. Waiting for a briefing, at precisely 7:30 a.m., I heard a heartbreaking noise. A beeping from the adjacent cornfield, where debris had been swept by the wind. A battery alarm clock doing its dim appliance duty, cheerily announcing the start of a regular work day that was not to be, for a owner who was now perhaps dead, buried somewhere in the rubble.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Gun apathy is un-American

     I've noticed people on Facebook complaining about newspapers printing images of yesterday's murder of a Virginia TV reporter and camera man, as if that was the offensive part that demanded action. While I agree that the expression of horror on her face is disturbing, like Edvard Munch's "Scream," we do ourselves, or her family, or her memory, no favors by turning away. Frankly, I think it should be engraved on our currency, because Americans contemplate the reality of gun violence too rarely, not too frequently. It is an example of cowardice in a nation that once prided itself on courage.

     It is distasteful to dip your fingers into the fresh blood of the latest victims of gun violence and try to sketch out a political point.
     These are real people, or were. Alison Parker, 24, a reporter for TV station WDBJ7 in Virginia, and Adam Ward, 27, a cameraman, were gunned down Wednesday morning by a former station employee with "anger issues," apparently, who later shot himself as police closed in.
     But this tragedy was not a random act of nature. They weren't struck by lightning. They were victims of gun violence, which has become an American folk illness, an epidemic we suffer from out of proportion with the rest of the world. The rate of gun violence in the United States is 40 times what it is in Great Britain.
     Distasteful though it might be, this is the only time when Americans even pretend to pay attention. Typically this case would hardly bear notice — only two people killed, not the big death toll needed to spark public interest. But it happened on live TV, and a good video will snag our wandering gaze.
      Why are we so hesitant to contemplate this problem? Maybe because we venerate guns as part of our national identity. Selling guns is big business, and the central narrative offered by the gun industry's champion, the National Rifle Association, is that any sane regulation of guns, even the smallest change to the status quo, say, requiring firearms to come with trigger locks, is a step toward the totalitarian state where guns are seized by our jackbooted overlords.
     It's an extreme argument with no basis in reality. But people embrace it with passion. Because they are terrified of their government, terrified of our society, and arming themselves is a futile effort to allay their fears. Remember, the percentage of Americans who own guns is falling: in 1973, it was 50 percent. Now it's closer to 35 percent. Most households in America don't have a gun. The reason we have so many guns — 310 million — is the average gun owner owns eight guns.
     Why own so many? Because it's hard to get enough of something that doesn't work.
     Calls for action seem naive. Worse slaughters than Wednesday's occurred and nothing happened. If we didn't do anything after 20 children were murdered at Sandy Hook in 2012, the logic goes, we'll never do anything.
     Perhaps. But let's review. We're still the United States of America. We have this terrible problem, one costing the lives of innocent American citizens. We could try to fix it, but we're not. Because we're frozen, stuck. We can't try or even talk about trying.
    How does that stand with you?
    I think what we need is a counter-narrative, a better story, another way to talk about this other than the NRA fairy tale. Something both truth-based and honoring a nation that tackles its problems or used to. Surrendering to gun violence is unpatriotic. The solution that the NRA offers — more guns, everyone should arm up so we could shoot it out — is insane and would make the situation worse. Buying a gun increases the chances that you'll be shot, that your children will be shot. The most common form of gun violence is suicide: when you buy a gun, the person you most imperil, statistically, is yourself. And then your family and friends. And then, way down the chart, criminals.
     So what to do?
     We are a country that defeated Hitler, that sent a man to the moon, that invented the Internet. To say that we can't do anything to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people is the worst kind of defeatism. It's un-American.
     How to start? We are so far from any kind of significant action, we must begin by wondering: Can we do anything about this problem? Can we even talk about it? Or is all hope lost, and our nation doomed to sit passively in the face of this worsening scourge? Because if one thing is clear, even though most Americans don't have guns and most Americans would like specific improvements in gun policy, most Americans also do not change their beliefs on the subject just because there is another shooting. We look up at the crack of gunfire, note the identities of today's victims, sigh, then go about our business unmoved. It is a peasant fatalism, a resignation beneath the spirit of a great country.