Saturday, September 24, 2016

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

    There are Saturdays when I feel, "I've really got 'em stumped this time."
    This won't be one of those Saturdays. 
     I can't be the only person who saw this place and thought, "Wow, look at that building!" 
    So I imagine others were floored as well. 
    Where is this place? 
    I've collected some information about it—I thought of writing a separate building profile. But Saturday rolled around, and I need something. 
    I also need a prize. Can't send books out every week.  I need to save those to fling at prominent people who probably never see them. And just thinking about the posters makes me wretch.  How about ... a ... an....
     Why not something intangible? How about publicity? The winner gets his event or cause or opinion or beloved cat ballyhooed on my blog on their own unique post. That's different, and perhaps even desirable. One dose of exposure to my thousands of daily readers. 
    Or, if that doesn't work, there's always a blog poster. I still have to get rid of the damn things. 
    Place your guesses below. Good luck. 

Morgan Finley: "A monument to corruption"

     I tried to discuss Finley's legacy with him when he was still alive, drawing the poignant quote at the end of this obituary. I also called his son Patrick, who hung up on me when I explained that his obituary had to include his father being the highest ranking public official to go to prison in the Operation Incubator Probe. So if any of Finley's good works were overlooked in this, it was not for lack of trying to find them on my part.

     He was “the mayor’s boy.”
     As a child, Bud Finley, who came from a poor Irish family, ran errands for Richard J. Daley in their Bridgeport neighborhood. The future mayor would reward him with a quarter.
     As an adult, Morgan Finley, who died Tuesday at age 91,  lived on South Lowe, five houses down from the mayor. His wife Becky would babysit the Daley children.
     On such connections were political careers made, once upon a time in Chicago, and Finley rose through the ranks, first as secretary of Daley’s 11th Ward Democrats, then state senator from Daley’s 9th district—“the mayor’s senator”—then serving as clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court, where he met disaster.
     “Never take a nickel,” his mentor had advised him. “Just hand ‘em your insurance card.”
     Finley did not take that sensible advice, and so became the highest ranking public official swept up in the Operation Incubator Probe in the mid-1980s, convicted of racketeering and attempted extortion, “a monument to corruption” in the words of the judge who sent him to prison.
      Morgan Martin Finley was born the son of a railroad switchman.  For seven years, the slight, red-haired boy was mascot of the White Sox. He later called Bridgeport “the greatest neighborhood in the world.”
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Friday, September 23, 2016

Shakespeare in Chicago—the amazing, truish story

When Mercutio tells Tybalt in "Romeo & Juliet," "you fight by the book of arithmetic,"
 this is the book he's referring to. (Courtesy Newberry Library)

     This column was fun to write. Fun to grab a Divvy up to the Newberry.  Fun to spend an hour being walked through the show by the deeply-knowledgable Jill Gage, the Newberry researcher in charge of it. Fun to craft the tale this way. True, I bumped into my 650 word limit; I had to leave spectacular stuff from the show on the cutting room floor. Which made me feel a tad guilty taking space for my trick opening. But that is also what makes it pack a punch, and not just be "The Sun-Times Goes to an Exhibit."
    I did worry about what I call "The Curator Effect"—where an exhibit is compelling provided you have the person who spent four years putting it together walk you through. And to top it off Gage is an expert in Samuel Johnson, my hero. Not often I get the chance to talk to one of THOSE. So we had a good chat. While I do think the average person interested in Shakespeare can pull enough out of the displays to reward an hour spent there on their own, the good news is, you don't have to brave it alone. Tours with Jill Gage are being offered to the public Sept 24, Oct. 26. Nov. 22, and Dec. 8. I would go for one of those, if possible.

     William Shakespeare lived briefly in Chicago, in the summer of 1603. As you might remember from grade school, his ship was blown off course sailing from his home in Stratford-on-Avon to London, drifting instead through the unbuilt St. Lawrence Seaway and ending up at colonial Chicago. Though records were lost in the Great Chicago Fire of 1666, the Bard is thought to have stayed at Fort Dearborn, where legend is he performed in a barracks production of “Love’s Labor’s Lost.” Though Shakespeare soon returned to England via the Graf Zeppelin, experts suspect his masterpiece, “Richard III,” written in 1592, was influenced by his sojourn here.   
Jill Gage with costume worn in Chicago by Edwin Booth

     I’m going to enjoy the Trump era. Why should he be the only one free to lie with impunity? Safe in the assumption that his audience either doesn’t know or doesn’t care what the actual facts are. No one can prove that Shakespeare never lived in Chicago. Besides, if he didn’t live here, why is there a “Shakespeare Street”? Answer that! You can’t. I rest my case.
     Until Jan. 20, however, 43 percent of the nation must limit ourselves to what Othello calls “the ocular proof,” that is, depending on verified reality to provide amazement — a practice that already feels antique, like dipping candles. So it is good that the Newberry Library has taken the most picked-over historical subject imaginable, the aforementioned William Shakespeare, and turned his legacy into a true font of fascination.

     “Creating Shakespeare” opens Friday and runs through Dec. 31 in the museum’s ground floor exhibit space. It doesn’t dwell on the meager known facts about Shakespeare’s life, such as his death in 1616 which prompted these celebrations. Instead it looks at how his legacy has been, in each new generation, re-worked into the important creative force we enjoy today.

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Thursday, September 22, 2016

Mr. Carlson

Roger Carlson at Bookman's Alley (photo by Marc Perlish)

      They're expecting a good turnout for my reading at Bookends & Beginnings Thursday night. But one person I'm not expecting to be there is Roger Carlson. He's in his late 80s now, doesn't get around much anymore, and besides, having worked for a third of a century in the sprawling store tucked in the alley behind Sherman Avenue, I imagine he has spent enough time there without making a special trip now that he no longer owns the store.
      Mr. Carlson, as I always called him, was not the come-out-to-see-you sort. Even in his prime, he would register my arrival by glancing up from his book and exclaiming "Neil!!!" not so much happy as amused, as if he had entirely forgotten the concept of me, and there I was, in all my ridiculousness, standing before him once again. 
     We would talk, and I would confess my undergraduate anxieties, if it were the early 1980s, or my suburban newspaper anxieties, if it were the mid-1980s, or my night shift drudge anxieties, in the late 1980s. Through the 1990s, it was book publishing woes, and I would talk about my current endeavor, and admire the lithograph he had of Napoleon aboard the Bellerophon, being taken to St. Helena. Something about the Little Corporal's face, the knot of French officers. I related to the emperor-in-exile.  From time to time I would try to buy it from Mr. Carlson, but he didn't entertain the notion, either because it would be too expensive, or he just didn't part with the quirky artifacts decorating his store, or he just assumed that I couldn't pay him what it was worth. 
       I got the sense he supported himself by dealing in the rare editions he would discover at estate sales,  and the shop itself was just a clubhouse, a place to set and read a book and talk with his actual friends—people other than myself—who happened in.  Later, when I profiled him, first for the Daily Northwestern, and then for the Barrington Courier-Review, and finally the Sun-Times, I learned a bit about his life. He had been a hard-drinking adman — magazine sales —gotten sober, left that life to pursue his dream: this store.
     I wasn't the only writer to notice him. Audrey Niffenegger gave him a cameo in her best-seller The Time Traveller's Wife:
     Roger is sitting behind his little untidy desk chatting with a ruddy white-haired gentleman about something to do with chamber music. He smiles when he sees us. 'Clare, I've got something you will like,' he says. Henry makes a beeline for the back of the store where all the printing and bibliophilic stuff is. Gomez meanders around looking at the weird little objects that are tucked into the various section: a saddle in Westerns, a deerstalker's cap in Mysteries. He takes a gumdrop from the immense bowl in the Children's section, not realizing that those gumdrops have been there for years and you can hurt yourself on them.
   Not true — the gumdrops were in the front, by Humor. It was those strangely soft, chalky white mints that you seldom see anywhere that were back by the children's section. Creative license I suppose.      
    Mr. Carlson surprised me when, in 2008, he held a signing for Drunkard at Bookman's Alley. It was a memorable night of conversation and laughter and a  big turn-out. I was surprised he went to the bother; my theory is he related to the subject matter, but I can't be sure. That was a defining characteristic of Mr. Carlson. He had mysteries. When he finallly closed the shop in 2013, it was after a series of false starts. Even then, I couldn't quite believe he was closing, not until one day he gave me a present—the Napoleon print I had always admired. I thought I would cry.
     I wasn't the best customer. I talked more than I bought. He probably made more on any given rare book transaction than I spent in my entire life at his place. The most expensive thing I ever bought there wasn't even bought by me, but my wife, acting on my behalf. I pulled down a copy of James Thurber's Fables for Our Time from the shelf, thinking it was the book my wife had bought me as an expensive present and saw no, according to the receipt inside, from Jan. 10, 1988, it cost $8 and -- oh look -- Mr. Carlson subtracted 80 cents. Must have given me a discount, out of pity, I suppose. The gift was the book next to it, a first edition of The Seal in the Bedroom And Other Predicaments, with an introduction by Dorothy Parker. The price, $45, still penciled in the inside cover. That's love.
    An introduction by Dorothy Parker, now that I think of it, that I quote in my new book, where she says the people in his drawings have "the semblance of unbaked cookies." A perfect description.
      The new book will be stacked at Bookends and Beginnings — something of a get, since the first edition has sold out and the University of Chicago Press is hurrying to print more. Amazon can take two weeks to ship it. But I will be there, 6:30 tonight, to read, and talk about the book. And while Mr. Carlson will no doubt stay in, I hope you go out and join me. It is a special little bookstore, and deserves support. All bookstores do, but this one more than most, not just because it is a cozy-yet-big, well-designed and well-run place, and its new owners, Jeff Garrett and his wife Nina Barrett, have recast into something both new and homey, fresh and familiar. I gave them their due when they opened the store.  Now it is your turn. They've devoted their lives to getting this place up and running. I'm hoping you'll join me in devoting 90 minutes to celebrating my accomplishment, and theirs.

"Out of the Wreck I Rise," reading and signing, Bookends & Beginnings, 1712 (Rear) Sherman, Evanston, 6:30 - 8 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 22.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Why do people have babies and drive cars?

     Why do people insist on having babies? When they know that many of them will end up as criminals? One percent of American adults are currently in prison. That means one out of every hundred newborns cooing in a bassinet can be expected to end up rotting in a bathroom-sized cell. And if you consider those who commit crimes but aren’t arrested, the one-in-100 failure rate for babies is even worse.
     And yet we keep having them. Why?
     The answer is easy. The babies are ours. We want them. So we ignore the considerable percentage who will go into the ditch, preferring to focus on the handful who will become baseball players or Nobel Prize winners or presidents.
     To suggest otherwise would seem demented. The certainty of future criminals is not an argument against babies, any more than the certainty of accidents is an argument to set highway speed limits at 15 mph. We accept — or would, if we thought about it, which we don’t — that not every child grows up into a contributing member of society, just as we accept that 30,000 people are going to die in 2017 on the roads. It’s a price we’re willing to pay for babies and driving.
     But not for immigrants. The Republican Party, led by Donald Trump, wants to roll back immigration, both Hispanics and Muslims — and I don’t think I am misstating their argument here — because: a) criminals are to be found among Hispanic immigrants; and b) terrorists are to be found among Muslim immigrants.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

"I think I'll have the 'beverages'"

     For a smart guy, I can be pretty dense.
     Last week I was meeting a friend for lunch at Kanela Breakfast Club, a hip re-imagining of the old Greek diner. She picked the spot, and as I had never been there before, I eagerly examined the menu, drinking the excellent Bow Truss coffee. I was hungry, and my eye fell upon a promising entry, "BREAKFAST MEAT." I like meat, and read the description.
     "Peppered bacon, smoked ham, apple chicken sausage." Sounding good, I thought. "House made pork sausage, pork belly,  vegetarian sausage"—quite a lot, really—"veggie bacon, tofu." 
    The price was the first tip-off, "$3.99." A bargain for that yawning platter of protein. Then my eyes drifted below, "TOAST" and above, to the section description, "SIDES" and I realized, duh, that I wasn't reading the description of a meal, but of all the various meats available for $3.99 each. 
    I smiled. A person can get lost in a new menu just like in a new neighborhood, and no harm in turning down the wrong street for a moment and having to double back. I ended up ordering the "Lorraine Scramble"—peppered bacon, gruyere cheese, caramelized onion, charred scallion and toast for $11.99—and was happy both with my selection and that I managed to order an actual dish and not, oh, tried to order the entire "COFFEE" section, thinking it some kind of trendy coffee flight.   
    There are five Kanela locations, and the one in Old Town is airy and pleasant, and I passed the time until my friend arrived soaking up its details, and wondering why the Breakfast Meat had described its sausage as "vegetarian" but the tofu, later in the list, as "veggie." It seemed a sort of relaxation, a little twist of ease as the list went along, passing from the formal to the casual, which suited the place, and my mood.

Monday, September 19, 2016

How much (abused) is that doggie in the window?

     Last week, the Humane Society of the United States settled a lawsuit against Furry Babies pet stores intended to curb their habit of selling dogs from puppy mills.
     While the five Furry Babies locations are on the fringes of the Chicago area—Aurora, Blomingdale, Janesville, Joliet and Rockford—the news had an unexpected effect closer to home: my heart.
     See, our dog Kitty....
     Better start at the beginning.
     Cue the maudlin music.
     See, growing up, I never had a dog. My father was born in the Bronx, where his having a dog would have been as unimaginable as my raising a bear cub. We had pet rats — seriously, black and white rats.
     So when my boys first started lobbying for a dog, I was adamant. "You're not asking for a dog," I'd tell them, "you're asking me to pick up dog crap twice a day and I'm not going to do it!" The older one, ever resourceful, started a dog-walking business the summer he was 8, to show he could handle the responsibility. But he quickly abandoned both the business and lobbying for dogs. I felt vindicated.
     The younger was more resourceful, however, tying the dog to his bar mitzvah. Gulling a child to perform this arcane religious rite softened me—I would have gotten him an ox had 

he asked....

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