Monday, September 30, 2013

Divvy Diary: A bike is a time machine.



Up to this point, my interest in the Divvy bikes was purely business. But Friday I started to really have fun with them. The latest entry in my Divvy Diary, running in the paper Monday:

     The 6:50 rolled into Union Station at 7:34 a.m. Friday. The plan was to stroll to the Hotel Palomar, 505 N. State, for an 8 a.m. breakfast economic talk.
     But I had my Divvy helmet with me.
     I realized I could jump on a bike at Canal and Madison, stop by the office, drop off my briefcase, noodle around online for 10 minutes, then bike to the hotel. So I did.
     Biking is about three times faster than walking. Distances shrink while time expands. I’ve milked Divvy for humor; anything that combines physical exertion, ridiculous headgear, public display and constant exposure to the very real possibility of being creamed by a bus, is inherently funny.
     But there is a practical, even joyous side.
     At the hotel, the Economist magazine’s U.S. economics editor, Greg Ip, painted the global scene: guarded optimism if Congress doesn’t explode our economy, with China’s state capitalism maybe running out of gas. I stashed my helmet under my chair.
     Next stop, Aqua Tower. Last time biking there, I made the mistake of taking Kinzie to Columbus, which I had forgotten goes underground. Pedaling furiously south along the lower span of the Michigan Avenue Bridge, taking a left onto Lower Wacker, this is a bad idea! gonged in my brain. But what can you do at that point? You're stuck. I took the first ramp up toward daylight, curving onto Stetson. It gave a pang of sympathy for the Divvy cyclists mocked for showing up on places like Lake Shore Drive. You don't plan that — I hope — it just happens.   Wiser, I took Wabash to Randolph.
     Leaving the Aqua — my third Divvy trip of the morning — I felt something unexpected: a kind of happiness. It bites to grow old. Life's opportunities dwindle. The future dulls, narrows.
     Then the city of Chicago abruptly installs this cool bicycle network and invites everybody to use it for nearly nothing (20 cents a day, if you join for a year). You get places fast. Your legs move, your heart pumps. Your senses grow keener because you're keeping an eye for doors about to be flung open, for pedestrians bumbling into you, for trucks bearing down. Nothing keeps you alert like terror, and alert is akin to young, and youth does stuff for the heck of it.
     At 4 p.m., the president of Mongolia was opening the country's honorary consulate. I might have skipped it, but a Divvy map showed a dock at Huron and Sedgwick, close to the new consulate at 368 W. Huron.
     By the time I got butt on bike it was 20 to 4. But cycling ate up the seven blocks. On Huron, I admired the Mongolian flags hanging off the consulate but didn't see a dock. Here is where I wished I had loaded the Divvy map app on my phone (note to self: load map app). Luckily I thought to double back, figuring there might be a rack on Chicago Avenue. A right on Sedgwick, 3:50 p.m., returning to the consulate. The dock was directly across the street. I was so busy ogling the flags, I missed it the first time.
     Chicago media did not turn out in force to meet President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. It was just me, plus local Mongolian cable TV. The new consul, William Pintas, is a personal-injury lawyer. He took a moment to explain that his IT guy, a Mongolian, got him to visit Mongolia. The consulship followed.
     It was a small office, jammed. I found myself next to a woman who said she was one of the first Mongolian immigrants to Chicago, a community now of 8,000. She came to join the Ringling Bros. circus and dance upon elephants. How does that work? The trick, she said, is holding on until your hands bleed.
     "The Golden Swallow of Democracy" arrived and signed some papers. A bowl of beige milk was produced, which the consul gamely sipped. At one point the media, a k a me, was ushered up. I asked the president his take on Chicago. "I think I know Chicago from the movies," he said, then requested another question. Groping, I asked about Mongolia and neighbor China; are they concerned about being swallowed up like Tibet?
     "That is a stupid question," he replied, to general merriment. Interview ended, I figured my work here was done, skipped the toasting, retrieved my helmet and exited. I hopped a bike and headed down Kingsbury.
     I stopped back at the paper, retrieved my briefcase, shut the office down for the weekend. It was 5:10. I could make the train speedwalking. Or . . . I grabbed a Divvy at 333 W. Wacker. All I needed to do was shave a few minutes off the trip and I'd make the 5:25. But would there be an open dock at Canal and Madison? I stood on the pedals, flying, wondering: what are the odds?

     Eight spaces awaited. I glided my bike into one, saw the dock light go green and strolled to the train with time to spare.

Photo atop blog: Moon through the Picasso, Daley Plaza, 9/25/13.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

You Pay For What You Get

This column is why people hate the media. It started innocently—I met a Freebie employee taking a Divvy bike out of the dock at the Mart. Of course I was interested in writing about Freebie.   Everybody wants to be present at the creation, and with fortunes being made in the tech world, nothing seems more exciting than to be working at a start-up. My idea was to see what the company's about, and I sat down with the founders. We had a fun talk—smart guys, going places—but Friday, as I was writing the column, I thought: I better try this thing, see if it works. The experience at the restaurant wasn't bad, but there was a gap between the aloof reception I received trying to cash in my Freebie, and the enthusiasm after I revealed myself as writing for the paper. Maybe I'm an unusual customer—maybe the average person would love a free lunch, even delivered with a bit of chill and followed by a Twitter blast disguised as a personal message. Still, I felt bad for ending on such a down note—I go in all glad-handy to write about the company, and end up sneering at them. I had to fight the urge to phone Ben Rosenfield Friday afternoon and apologize—it's nothing personal, it's just business, and my responsibility is to the readers, not to you—but thought better of it, and figured, maybe he knows that all publicity is good publicity. And indeed he did, emailing me a friendly note after the story ran—this is the first article ever written about his company, he said, and they appreciate it. Which was a relief, to me, and a good sign for his future. It takes a tough hide to get ahead in any business.


     What is money, anyway? A unit of worth, printed on paper or tallied in electrons, given in return for something: your time working, usually.
     You can earn money in other ways. Interest on a loan. Selling something you’ve made. If you’re a celebrity, you can sell your endorsement. Michael Jordan sold his image to Nike for millions, allowing Nike to sell shoes for more than it would otherwise get because their sneakers came coated in the invisible aura of fame and victory linked with Jordan.
     Thanks to social media — Facebook, Twitter, et al — we are all stars of our own little or, in some cases, not-so-little universes. As with real celebrities, there will be chances to cash in on our popularity, the latest being a fresh-from-the-box Chicago startup called Freebie.
     “Everybody’s social connectivity has value,” said Ben Rosenfield, who founded the company in February. “What we do, is we’ve figured out how to automate word of mouth, the most powerful form of marketing. We’re a lead generator.”
     "Allow the product to market itself," added Hank Ostholthoff, the co-founder, at their Aqua Tower headquarters. "How many times do you hear businesses say, 'If I could only get somebody to try my product.' "
     Chicago is home to a miniboomlet of tech startups, the most famous being Groupon, another lead generator, offering a small bribe - $20 worth of pizza, say, for $10 - to lure new customers through the door.
     Freebie thinks it has a better idea, first because you get stuff, not cheap, but free.
     "We believe discounts are bad," Rosenfield said. Those who get discounts expect them in the future, while no one given a free meal expects all their meals to be free. "That's against the psychology."
     Another advantage of Freebie is that while anyone with cash can buy a Groupon, even - shudder - old people with scant social media presence, Freebie is based on a person's social media popularity.
     Freebie takes the measure of just how big a ripple you make on online media, gives a rating based on who your friends are, then uses its mobile app to nudge you toward businesses that want people such as you.
     Rosenfield, 33, a Deerfield native, said the challenge for marketers in our media-saturated world is to find new ways of reaching customers. TV isn't working.
     "We know, we're all fast-forwarding through commercials, and no one's . . ." Here Rosenfield caught himself, showing surprising tact for one so young, and changed direction midsentence, ". . . and unfortunately less people are reading the newspaper to decide what they're going to buy. They're looking at the Internet."
     Alas, true. What Freebie is doing is taking the old invite-the-press-in-and-feed-'em-in-return-for-hype dynamic and democratizing it to regular folk, who can cash out their connectivity. If it works, maybe you didn't waste all that time on Facebook after all.
     A test seemed in order. I downloaded the Freebie app to my phone, giving it access to my Facebook and Twitter (something I wouldn't usually do, but this is work). It told me what my social media footprint is worth. Having posted on Facebook for five years with the plangent urgency of a lost baby opossum crying for its mother, and tweeting continuously, earned me a 477; enough, I was told, for a "Small Plate" at the Hubbard Inn.
     That's it? But free's free, right? I toddled off to the Hubbard Inn, which I had never heard of, and why would I? It's right next door to the excellent Slurping Turtle, which has served me many a steaming bowlful of fine chow that I was all too happy to pay for.
     At the Hubbard Inn - and this is the weak link in the system - I tapped my app telling Freebie I was here (prompting it to automatically inform all my friends, unbidden). I showed the phone to poor Tammi, the hostess, a week on the job. "I never heard of it," she said. "I just know how to seat people." She appealed to Jason Felsenthal, director of operations, at a booth. He did not leap up, emitting a Zorba-like cry of joy, and embrace me as a new customer. Rather, he took a menu with the grimness of man being robbed and ticked off the three small plates I was entitled to. The house-made ravioli. The chickpea crepe. The mussels.
     For all the eulogies being said over the pulpy media, Felsenthal certainly perked up when I identified myself and asked him whether Freebie is working out for him.
     "It's a pretty interesting app," he said. Is it driving in business? "Time will tell."


Saturday, September 28, 2013

"Throwing the old pepper"




     Last Saturday's post was writing about studying Latin with my son. Groping for a way to convey that I understood that drilling Latin declinations together is not the standard dad-and-lad activity, I wrote, "Okay, it wasn't throwing the old pepper around in the front yard, but it would have to do."
     In my mind, "the old pepper" was a 1930s, Red Barber kind of slang for a baseball. It was like calling a lefty "a southpaw."
     I was certain of that.    
     A reader tweeted me that it wasn't so. John K. wrote, "Actually, playing pepper involves a bat. But don't sweat it."
     But of course I did sweat it. Someone was saying I was wrong. I hate to be wrong, just like most people.  Experience tells me, often it is the person offering the correction who is wrong. Or so I hoped, hopping onto Nexis, the newspaper data base. Nothing under "throw the old pepper."  Nothing under "toss the old pepper." Almost as if I had made a mistake.
     Plus "play pepper" and 'bat" drew over 100 hits.
     No, no, no. Determined to be right—the usual sin, common as dirt—I fled to the Internet. "Throwing the old pepper" drew one hit--mine. Hmm, maybe I could recast my mistake as a neologism, the creation of a word or, in this case, a phrase. If it were a mere mistake, other people would have made it too. Being unique, it could count as creativity. I could try to make that argument work...claim it was hapax legemenon, to trot out a $5 term -- a word or phrase that appears only once. 
     A little voice said: Yes, unique because it's wrong. There were a few other hits connected to "tossing the old pepper pot" but that obviously was a different matter altogether.
    I kept trying.  "Toss the old pepper" drew exactly one hit -- this rather sweet photo, posted May 14, 2009, of a Little Leaguer. I'd hesitate to post it -- people are paranoid about their kids -- but the mitt manages to obscure most of his face and besides, four years on, he's probably halfway through high school and unrecognizably slouchy and stubbly.
     Why does any of this matter? I suppose the short answer is, it doesn't. But if you care about language, you care about how it's used. I'm not sure if I'm admitting a mistake—okay, I'm admitting a mistake, in a round-about way— but also appealing for "throwing the old pepper" to become a phrase attached to playing catch with a baseball. It sounds right, doesn't it? Maybe I'm not mistaken, just ahead of the curve. 
     Or maybe I'm not. Maybe I've become unhinged, and should just acknowledge the gaffe and move on. Maybe I should have just moved on without a word. Still, c'mon.... No more throwing the old pepper? Don't seem right...


The plot thickens: 

Barry Aldridge offers the following. At 3:14 Bugs Bunny says, "That's the old pepper!" So at least I'm in good company.  Okay, I feel vindicated. And petty for feeling vindicated. The short, by the way, "Baseball Bugs" is from 1946.

To watch the cartoon, click here.







Photo atop blog: a stairway in the Merchandise Mart; Above: throwing the old pepper in Northbrook, summer.

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Prayer to the God of Bad Illinois Republican Candidates


A spontaneous prayer, uttered, from the heart, upon hearing that Jim Oberweis is considering yet another run at high public office -- this time the U.S. Senate, again.


Heavenly father 
Who sent us Alan Keyes, carpet-bagging from Maryland
Fresh from his appearance in "Borat" 
To gladden our hearts and amaze us 
to the depth of our souls
Who delivered unto us "Internet Powerhouse" Andy Martin
Again and again and again
Moving us to something close to pity
Who doth cause to be Ray Wardingly
Also known as Spanky the Clown
Who ran for mayor four times
And even got on the ballot once
Garnering 2.8 percent of the vote
Lord, who createth the sky, and the sea and
for some mysterious reason
limned these really bad Republican candidates
Who regularly appear in our state
Then linger
Year after year
Election upon election
Smile down upon the king of them all
Jim Oberweis
He of chocolate milk fame
Elected to the state senate last year
Finally, a handful of something
After all that expensive grasping
Only to discover how empty that can be
Must be
Who, bored with governance already
In the classic Peter Fitzgerald fashion
This week fixeth
his eternally-hungry gaze upon Dick Durbin's senate seat.
Despite his five, count 'em, five electoral defeats
For Senate, governor, Congress
"If I believe or am convinced," Oberweis told the Sun-Times
"I will run for the Senate seat."
Strengthen his belief, Almighty One
Convince him, God, convince him utterly
Shield his lack of merit from his eyes
If not from anybody's else's
Yet again
Unleash his spigot of milky campaign cash
For one more tilt at one more windmill.
For one more chance to prove to himself
That he is truly needed.

Do it for your disheartened people of Illinois
Trembling under pension woes, civic and state
These are dark political days
Our hearts are heavy with dysfunction
Though the Republicans sink low in Washington
Let them rise up here. 
In the spirit of Al Salvi, radio host
And Rosette Caldwell Peyton
Send Jim Oberweis helicoptering above us
To warn us, yet again, of the peril crawling northward
As if we had forgotten the first time. 
Let us see him, and be gladdened.

Do it for your fractured press
Growing soggy in the pelting rainstorm
Of social media and economic decline
Warming ourselves with fading memories of Jack Ryan
Visiting sex clubs with his 7 of 9
It would have looked tawdry in fiction
So improbable, yet somehow true
How could we doubt Your power after that?
Return to us our missing milkman
You can do it
You who fanned within Andy McKenna
Sincere gubernatorial hopes
And sent us all those other mopes
Let us smile one last time
Before we blur and vanish ourselves.

Grant us, Lord, the gift of Jim Oberweis
A man with the common touch of Mitt Romney
The lightning wit of George Ryan
A candidate with the energy of Ryan Chlada
Dan Lipinski's straw man opponent
Who forgot to campaign
Give us another Bernie Epton
Before it's too late.

We raise up our voices, imploring, we join
The earnest prayers of Sen. Durbin who
Will be a challenge, even for a real candidate 
Grant him, and us, the gift of Jim Oberweis.
The joy of his candidacy
The certainty of the result
If not for our sake, then for Yours
Since it must get dull at times in Heaven
And even you must appreciate your little jokes.
Deliver Jim Oberweis to our doorsteps
Like a pint of sweet cream
One more time, Lord
One more time
And in return
We shall sing your praises

Thank you God. 
Thank you for the fields
And thank you for the animals of the fields
Thank you for the seasons wheeling around
To return us to this autumnal harvest
As it was, so shall it be again.
The past returneth
The burned field brings forth fresh seedlings
No defeat is ever final
Thank you God
For this unexpected promise of future gladness.
We praise You
And thank you
For the candidacy of Jim Oberweis
Again.
Hallelujah.




Thursday, September 26, 2013

Divvy Diary -- If you have a brain, put a helmet over it.


Update: Looks like Divvy peddled in the right direction after all.

    A story on the Atlantic magazine website about the toll that vandalism and theft has taken on the Paris bike sharing system—nearly half the fleet is out of commission— seems to validate how the Chicago program was set up. When Chicago first rolled out Divvy over the summer, the city was roundly criticized for focusing on the downtown and upscale areas, while generally ignoring the poorer regions of the city. But this comparison of Paris to London bike programs suggests that Chicago was smart—the Brits were able to avoid the problems plaguing the French because their system also kept the bikes mostly in the well-monitored core downtown areas. So as much as the do-gooders wish Divvy were all over the metro area, that approach isn't working out in the City of Light.


Thursday's Divvy Diary:


     This column didn't turn out quite the way I intended.  As I rode the Divvy bike around town, sometimes it was convenient not to use a helmet. So I figured it would be good to have the exact risks I was taking before me. That way I could keep riding, bareheaded but informed. Sort of the way that my wife, mixing chocolate chip cookies, will caution me about salmonella poisoning, warnings I then wave off with a "The chances of a raw egg having salmonella are 50,000 to 1," before taking a big wooden spoonful of cookie dough. Knowledge is power.  But I couldn't get my hands on the proper helmet risk numbers, and I ended up committing myself to carrying my helmet around as a facile way to end the column. The pitfalls of opinion journalism.


     The luncheon at the Standard Club went well. My talk rocked. I walked out in maximum good spirits into a gorgeous early autumn afternoon, way the heck across the Loop from the newspaper. But right there is a Divvy stand, at Jackson, with a shiny chorus line of baby-blue Divvy dreadnoughts, lined up and waiting.
     My Bell helmet is back in my office, perched atop the Selectric II. But the fob is in my pocket. A 20-minute walk versus a 5-minute ride. Hmm. I deploy the fob, yank out a bike and ride back, in my business suit, tie flapping over my shoulder like a flag.
     Reckless? Many Divvy riders obviously don’t think so. Last week I counted five Divvy cyclists in a row, all without helmets. The Divvy folks caution you to always wear one, but you’re supposed to floss daily, too.
     When you roll out of bed, you assume risks. The National Safety Council estimates the chances of dying from a fall is 1 in 163, twice as likely as dying from a handgun. Yet we get up, take showers, stroll around. People cross the street without helmets.
     I believe in statistics, but trying to find a simple helmet/no helmet risk breakdown proved impossible, and what stats exist are subject to all sorts of political spin, as wind-in-our-hair bicyclists, frantic to avoid legal mandates, argue that helmets are optional, even dangerous (by inspiring false sense of invulnerability, which sounds nuts, but that's what they say). In raw numbers, walking is far more deadly: 4,432 pedestrians killed in 2011, versus 670 bicyclists. But then, there are far more people walking than riding. If you're going to use stats as your guide, you'll avoid crosswalks, because that's where most fatal pedestrian accidents occur.
     Seeking clarity, I abandoned stats for a different approach: anecdotal evidence.
     "As an emergency room physician, we are huge advocates for helmets because of what we see," said Dr. Rahul Khare, at Northwestern Memorial Hospital for the past 10 years. "It's lifesaving, there's no question about it."
     No debate that if you hit your head on the sidewalk, you want a helmet. But is the risk of not wearing a helmet an acceptable hazard, like the risk of dying from salmonella when you lick chocolate-chip cookie dough off a wooden spoon? Or is it foolish?
     "It's in the literature, how much it saves lives," said Khare, who admits to sometimes jumping on a Divvy without a helmet. He faulted the Divvy program for making the bikes available to novices without also stressing the need for helmet safety.
     "It's a problem," he said. "Look around: People that don't usually ride are on Divvy bikes, and they don't have helmets on. It will become an issue, a public health concern."
     This is an area where peer pressure helps. While I don't think yelling "Get a helmet, idiot," is the way to go, the fact is, the more people wear helmets, the more others will follow. I'll tell you what nudged me off the fence into the helmet camp. I was on the train Tuesday and noticed a helmet dangling off the backpack of Jerry Duan.
     "My wife insisted," said Duan, 43. "I came from China, and no one does this. Initially, I saw so many ride bikes without it, I figured, I can do this too." But his wife persuaded the financial systems developer that a helmet is "a necessary safety measure."
     "I just got used to it," Duan said.
     That isn't what persuaded me, though. I asked Duan where he rode to from Union Station — I assumed the helmet was for a Divvy bike downtown. No, he corrected me. His office is close; the helmet is for his ride between home and the Glenview train station. That gave me pause. If this guy finds a helmet necessary riding his bike across the echoless voids of the Northwest suburbs, with their wide roadways and generally less-crazy drivers, how could I not wear one in the sensory overload, peril-coming-at-you-from-all-directions, Popeye-cartoon-lunacy of the Loop?
     A few days later, I had an appointment at Aqua Tower. I'd never consider showing up for an interview toting a helmet, but times change and we change with them. I carried my helmet. No one seemed to mind.
     The next day, I left 17 N. State, helmetless, and hopped a bike at the Daley Center for the quick jaunt to the paper. Suddenly, my huge Mardis Gras parade character head felt exposed. Back at my office, I lifted my helmet off the Selectric II - imagine "2001: A Space Odyssey" theme music playing in the background - and had a moment similar to when the apemen realize a bone is a club. I zippered open a compartment in my big, expandable, soft-sided briefcase. I jammed the helmet in. I zipped the briefcase shut. I gave it an exploratory lift. You don't even know the helmet is in there. Smart.



Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Banned Books Week



    Banned Books Week is this week.
    That might be seen a non-event, an occasion for clever  library displays, such as this one at the Northbrook Public Library. Good library marketing, and a reminder that great literature is what shakes us up, and that being shaken up is a good thing, except to those unfortunate fearful few who rather suppress books than think about them. 
    While I usually enjoy the frisson of superiority that Banned Books Week encourages, a chance to sneer inwardly at the distant flyspeck towns where Huck Finn is harassed and Judy Blume novels are snatched off the shelf by clench-faced rural housewives looking to ensure that the interior lives of their children are as arid as their own, this year it feels a little forced. 
     Perhaps because we in the Chicago area had our own brush with the censor's thick-fingered hand just last spring, when the Chicago School Board cack-handedly pulled  Marjane Satrapi's well-respected graphic novel Persepolis off the library shelves (or out of the seventh grade curriculum; once the CPS went into damage control, it was difficult to determine exactly what it had done or was doing, which is par for the course).   
     Yes, it was hard to give much weight to the flap, given the continuing chaos of the Chicago Public Schools. With almost half the students never graduating at all, what's one book more or less that they aren't reading before their slink off to their constricted lives? Who can parse the seventh grade curriculum while buildings are being closed by the dozen and kids shepherded under guard through free-fire zones? You just can't get too worked up about kids having to wait until 8th grade to skim a picture book about a girl's coming of age in revolutionary Iran.
      But that doesn't mean we should forget about it. The incident displayed, not so much any incipient censorship problem in cosmopolitan Chicago, as the general poor health of the school administration. The mechanism at work seemed to be, a lone parent complains about a book -- or, rather, a single panel in the book, depicting torture in a cartoonish fashion -- and the the school system, rather than standing firm for what it supposedly believes, plucks the book out of the hands of every seventh grader, as if that solves the problem.
    Was that smart?
    The harm lingers. Chicago is prominently featured on this year's Banned Books Week web page; one dumb administrator makes one dumb decision, and the city is the poster boy for oppression. You can read the deputy general counsel's case law ridden letter defending CPS's actions, if you have the stomach for it, by clicking here. It isn't the work of somebody with a soul.
     We are fortunate, in that in the United States in general censorship is not an issue. Government isn't in the book-burning business, and while individuals would no doubt love to step in, they generally don't. The isolated book banners -- religious fanatics and the sexually terrified, mainly -- usually do little more than bring attention to worthwhile books. In that light, we should thank them. Perhaps even for something more. Not only are they more to be pitied than feared, but they are at least acting out of a warped concern for their children's welfare. With so many parents in Chicago caring too little, we shouldn't condemn anybody who cares too much, even if they care too much about the wrong things. At least their hearts are in the right place. At least they're trying to do something to help their children. How many parents in Chicago can say the same thing? Too few. 


Photo atop blog: Morgan Library, New York City.       

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame honors puppeteer, others.


    Having just read Thomas Dyja's excellent The Third Coast, with its touching portrait of Burr Tillstrom, the Chicago puppeteer who created "Kukla, Fran & Ollie" and almost single-handedly got television rolling (his show was designed to push parents to buy television sets for their children, and boy, did it ever), I was glad to see Tillstrom named this week to Chicago's Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame. I was also proud that my Sun-Times colleague Andrew Patner was honored as well. And, heck, okay, I was happy to see myself there, too, as a friend of the community.
       My first thought was of all the people, starting with Andrew, continuing on through Jon-Henri Damski, Paul Varnell, Rick Garcia, Lori Cannon and many, many more, who helped me better understand the gay perspective (Paul, of course, would deny that such a thing as a gay perspective exists, and, as always, he has a point).
      I thought, it might be worthwhile to pull together a little of what I've written about gay Chicago over the years. My interest in the community began with an assignment—a night editor sent me to the Town Hall district to attend an outreach meeting the police were holding. (If you make it to the end—it's long, I know, but once I started I had trouble stopping— notice a very different story about the police in 2010). I kept returning to the community because it's interesting and few in the mainstream press were paying attention. The injustices gays suffered and suffer demanded attention. As proud as I am to be in the Hall of Fame, I'm prouder of the work that prompted them to invite me.
 
On relations between the gay community and the police:
   In recent months, the Chicago Police Department has been asking the city's gay community to talk about its safety and crime concerns. The message from gay residents is disturbing:
     They're afraid of the police.
PaulVarnell
    "We are as afraid of cops as we are of any criminals and street bashers," said Jon-Henri Damski, a columnist for Windy City Times, a gay publication. "They are as likely to take their badges off and attack you. Of course, there are good cops. But that doesn't reduce the inherent fear of getting hurt and calling the cops."
     Paul Varnell, a homosexual activist who has written about hatred of gays among police officers, said: "I've been arrested and I've been mugged, and frankly I prefer being mugged."
                                                                  -- Nov. 17, 1991

On the memorial service for ACT-UP activist Danny Sotomayor:
    Margaret Sotomayor stared up at the police sergeant, looming a good foot taller than she, and uttered a timeless statement of entreaty and reproach.
    "I am the mother," said Sotomayor, trying to force her way into the tribute that friends of the late gay activist Daniel Sotomayor were holding at the Riviera Theater last week. "This is unnecessary, to throw us out of here."
     While 300 people cried and hugged and watched a slide show and documentary film about Daniel Sotomayor's life, Margaret Sotomayor and her children stood outside on the sidewalk and held a vigil of sorts.
     The Sotomayors felt slighted by not being invited. The planners thought the family had not been sufficiently supportive in the terrible last weeks of Daniel Sotomayor's battle against AIDS.
     But the arguments of both sides are not as important as what they symbolize - the tragic breaches that often form between homosexuals and their families. 
                      -- March 18, 1992

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

On the idea of gay history:    
     Almost any library worthy of the name has more books. Almost any mid-size business archive probably has more papers. And even the cash-starved Chicago Public Library is open longer hours.
     But the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives, a large storefront on North Paulina Street, is important not for the number of volumes on its shelves, nor the limited number of gray archival boxes stacked in back, nor its severely restricted hours of operation.
     Gerber/Hart is the only gay and lesbian library and archives between the coasts, and the largest outside of San Francisco and New York. With the first national lesbian and gay history month scheduled for October, Gerber/Hart is the symbol of an idea that still is upsetting to some quarters of society - that gays and lesbians have a distinct culture, a history that is worthy of study, preservation and understanding.
     "We're here to serve a unique need," said Kevin Boyer, board president of Gerber/Hart. "We provide a safe space for people who want look at materials that are gay- and lesbian-related. Our patrons know they are not going to have to ask a presumably heterosexual librarian for The Joy of Gay Sex."
     The library represents a growing consensus that gay history is an area worthy of serious study - a view that took years to emerge.
                  —Aug. 28, 1994

On the first meeting of the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce:
    Wednesday's chamber of commerce meeting had everything you would expect. A lot of small talk and much exchanging of business cards. An audio-visual presentation. Repeated mention of the need for vigorous participation in committees. The group was mostly men, as is typical at chamber functions.
     There were a few things you might not expect. The food spread was more than the usual pretzels. There were mushrooms stuffed with crab and little boiled potatoes and fresh strawberries. And the men at the meeting sometimes exchanged greetings by kissing each other on the lips, a definite clue that this wasn't a chamber of commerce meeting in Peoria.
    Rather, it was the founding meeting of the Chicago Area Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, held upstairs at Ann Sather's Restaurant on Belmont Avenue.
     Chambers of commerce are in every town in America worthy of the name. The chamber is a fine, basic, American institution which has done much to foster our country's thriving business climate. Just the name -- "Chamber of Commerce" -- summons up visions of barber shops and hardware stores and firm handshakes.
     And I doubt that many chamber members in America would deny gay Chicago business owners the right of banding together to further their interests. Few businessmen would argue that a gay chamber in Chicago somehow poisons the institution of chamberhood and thus diminishes the sacred commercial spirit of straight chambers in Minneapolis and Akron and Des Moines.
    So why is it, then, that we must go through some sort of national catharsis over whether gay people can be permitted to marry legally?
                —March 31, 1996

On the Gay Pride Parade:
    At Belmont, the parade route was lined with gay men, many naked to the waist, as if ordered up by the dozen from Central Casting. I walked along the parade route for an hour before I saw somebody who stood out. He was a tall man, also shirtless, and as I passed I noticed he had "HIV +" branded on his back in letters almost 2 inches high.
      I wanted to talk to him, but was hesitant. He presented a fearsome image - entirely bald, with a long braided goatee.
      Taking up a position behind him, I pondered my approach:
     "Excuse me, sir, but I noticed your brand. . . ."
     "Quite a brand there, my good fellow!"
      Working up courage gave me a chance to inventory his body markings. An array of multicolored biological hazard warning signs—those circular, thorned symbols - beginning on the side of his neck and cascading down his right arm. A phrase in Greek across his lower back. On his left leg, snakes.
      After a few minutes, I went over and inquired about his decorations.
     "It goes back to testing HIV positive," said the man, Brian Short, 40, who lives in the South Loop and turned out - as outwardly fierce people so often do - to be niceness itself. "I was tired of being ashamed of that and wanted to find a different way to express it."
              --July 2, 1997
                                                                                  
On a Methodist minister being "tried" for performing a gay marriage ceremony.
     The Methodist Church is holding a trial in a few months to see if the minister at the Broadway United Methodist Church should be booted out of the clergy for performing a rite marrying a gay couple.
     The immediate reason - it's against the Bible - grows pale the more you look at it. Many things are banned in the Bible, from dishonoring your parents to eating lobster. Going hammer and tongs after gays, the way organized religion feels compelled to do, seems awfully selective. Why boot out just gays, and the ministers who unite them, and not, say, adulterers? Why not those who swear? They're banned, too.
     I suppose the quick answer is that gays are targeted because they can be. The Methodists can't very well toss out a minister for marrying an interracial couple, or a Methodist and a Baptist, or a liar and a thief. Gays are one of the few subgroups left that can be openly persecuted. The awning of law and custom we've built up doesn't quite cover them yet, and certain people are horrified at the thought that it someday might. Who would be left to openly loathe?
     Part of it is that the rest of society is so quiet when gays are persecuted. Yes, we cluck our tongues when young gay men are brutally murdered, as if to say, `Well, we don't want to kill them now, do we?" But the fear of being labeled gay is so strong that it is easier to be silent or look away.
    Let me get this straight: God cares about our sexuality, but not about our moral courage. Right . . .            
                  --Nov. 27, 1998

On Jews and gay marriage:
     A few years back, I noticed, to my surprise, that a Jewish congregation meets at the end of my block. It is made up entirely of gay people, but the convenient location dwarfed any scruple we might have had at mingling with such an unorthodox -- so to speak -- group. We signed up for High Holy Day services.
     While I wasn't worried about praying with gays -- I didn't worry that I would catch it -- I did worry what they'd think of us. We would be in the minority. Breeders, with our little baby. I expected to be scorned. We sat in the back row, and every time our baby cried I rushed him out.
     The third or fourth time this happened, I sprang to my feet, and was halfway out the door when the rabbi stopped in mid-sentence.
     "You know," he told the congregation, "when I was growing up, I loved to hear the sound of the babies at the back of the synagogue. It's nice to hear it again."
     I stopped cold, necktie under my ear, sweat on my brow, howling baby squirming in my arms. I looked around. And people were smiling back at me. They were not disturbed to find this unexpected straight family in their midst. They were pleased.
     I thought of that moment this week, when the main organization of reform Judaism endorsed the performance of homosexual unions. I was glad we were returning the favor; it seems clear that the main result will be a number of people who otherwise would be ostracized at a moment of personal happiness will, instead, find a measure of acceptance. 
              —April 4, 2000

On "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy:" 
     It seemed to suggest that all gay men were fungible sources of fashion wisdom and that any random group would do. There, beneath all the Mod Squad hipness of "Queer Eye," crouches a rather ugly stereotype -- that gay men are somehow snappier than straight men, better dressers, better decorators, knowing connoisseurs.
Jon-Henri Damski
    "Well, aren't they?" I thought, and struggled to name a gay man who wasn't rather better decked out than us straight boys. That's when Jon-Henri Damski wandered into mind, looking, as he always did, like he slept in a hallway in the Belair Hotel, the fleabag on Diversey where he lived (in a room).
    As much as "Queer Eye" is lauded as a breakthrough of unabashed gayness into mainstream TV (as opposed to "Queer as Folk" which was more of a cult hit), it will be someday seen as an offensive relic, like those salt and pepper shakers of grinning, red-lipped black boys holding watermelons.
    "Queer Eye" will eventually be viewed the way we would see a 1940s radio show called "Dance Time with the Darkies." 
                                                                      --Oct. 10, 2003

On an ancient pagan tradition: opposing gay marriage:
    'I have a ceremony to attend," lisps one of Juvenal's loathed fellow Romans, more than 1,900 years ago. "At dawn tomorrow in the Quirinal valley."
    "What is the occasion?" chirps his dainty pal.
    "No need to ask," says the first. "A friend is taking to himself a husband; quite a small affair." And off they trot to the ceremony.
     Like a good many people, apparently, Juvenal hated gays -- he hated lots of things, but had a special hate for homosexuals.
    That is the beauty of the classics. They remind us that the issues we tie ourselves into a knot about, and consider evidence of our own fallen state, are really the evergreen issues of history, only we don't know it because we're too busy trying to shove our religious dogma down strangers' throats.
    Homosexuality was open and tolerated in Rome, and, perhaps for that reason, Juvenal can barely wait to launch into them in his Satires -- a quick introduction damning the clatter and corruption of the empire and then, boom, the entire second satire, a rant against gays for their effeminacy, their brazenness, and the very existence of guys such as Gracchus, the former priest of Mars, who has the audacity to actually marry somebody, who "decks himself out in a bridal veil" and weds in a little ceremony.
    Anything familiar here? The similarities are quite stunning. Grumpy old Juvenal -- the patron saint of crusty pundits -- ridicules the short crew cuts of these queers, "their hair shorter than their eyebrows," and presciently predicts our exact situation regarding gay marriage.
    "Yes," he writes. "And if we only live long enough, we shall see these things done openly: People will wish to see them reported among the news of the day."  
           --Feb. 16, 2004

  From a column about Kraft Foods being pressured for sponsoring the Gay Games:
    Kraft Macaroni and Cheese is great. My boys love it; they prefer Kraft Macaroni and Cheese to homemade. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese is inexpensive, and easy to prepare, and I admit that I slyly withhold a few tablespoons in the pot when I'm doling out lunchtime bowlfuls so I can savor a bit of its warm cheesy goodness myself. I believe you should buy lots of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
     Normally, I'd keep that burst of enthusiasm to myself. But I read that the usual gang of faith-based hate groups are pressuring Kraft because of its sponsorship of Chicago's 2005 Gay Games -- perhaps acting under the notion that gays participating in athletic events somehow ruin the idea of sport, the way they wreck marriage. The groups are threatening a boycott. 
     That's their right. But what is the opposite of a boycott? A buyup? Seeing how Kraft, in a rare show of corporate courage, is standing up to these bullies and sticking with their sponsorship, I suggest those who agree with Kraft have a duty to show our approval by buying Kraft products. The Gay Pride Parade is just around the corner, and I would suggest that those holding parties whip up a batch of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese -- it really is good, sort of. Or set out a brick of Velveeta, in silent tribute. You don't have to eat it.
                                                                                                      —May 25, 2005


From a column on why a separate Chicago high school for gay students is a bad idea:
     Late Tuesday, backers of the city's first high school catering to gay and lesbian students withdrew their proposal for the time being. Good. The special school is a bad idea, and not just because the name -- "The Social Justice Solidarity High School" -- sounds like something Kim Il Jong would establish in Pyongyang.
     There is no question that gay students -- or students whose classmates suspect they are gay -- can find their lives made living hells by their brutish peers. But is the solution really to isolate them for their own safety? Isn't that sort of punishing the victims? Don't we have a Plan B -- say, teaching students not to torture those different from themselves? Just an idea. It isn't as if the issue is limited to gay students.
    Even if a homosexual haven solved the problem at hand, would one  school be enough for the job? The CPS surveyed high school students about their sexuality, and a whopping 9 percent said they were gay, lesbian, bisexual or unsure. CPS chief Arne Duncan thinks the true number might be even higher.
     That's a lot of students -- as many as 10,000, by my count. Too many for one rainbow reserve, or whatever you call it. Are we doing this because a special school is really the best solution, or because rounding up the nonconformists and sticking them somewhere out of sight -- the Oubliette Option -- is a hallowed public school tradition?
    But heck, if the CPS is going to create a gay gulag, at least come up with a decent name -- the Oscar Wilde High School and Sanctuary from the Frequent Cruelties of Life, or something.      
                               —Nov. 19, 2008

From a column about gay Chicago cops hosting a global convention for LGBT law enforcement officers:
     When I attended GOAL's final meeting for the conference at the Town Hall station last week, I expected something quiet, maybe even covert: a handful of determined officers grimly planning in hostile territory.
     Instead, there were two dozen off-duty cops, in shorts and T-shirts, young, old, men, women, transgender. They were packing heat, wearing badges, eating cookies, laughing and going over last-minute preparations -- tickets sold, hats designed, posters printed.
     "This has been an incredible two years of work and planning," Off. J. Jamie Richardson said. "This is a very significant, historic moment. This is a huge step. I can't believe the police department agreed to do this" -- "this" meaning take part in the conference, which is drawing 400 officers from around the globe.
     The conference began Tuesday evening -- a reception with Mayor Daley -- and runs through Sunday's Pride Parade. Sessions include mainstream topics such as "Effects of the Taser" and "Terrorism Awareness," and gay-specific topics, such as sexual-orientation hate crime, same-sex pensions and "Transgender Issues Within Law Enforcement," featuring a presentation by South Elgin Deputy Chief A.J. Moore, the highest-ranking transgender officer in Illinois. (CPD has four transgender officers, Richardson said).
     To be honest, I felt behind the times -- this wasn't the CPD as I understood it to be. It's a common misperception.
     "Many people think of the Chicago Police Department as being one of the last bastions of homophobia in the city and that's just not true," said Bill Greaves, the city's liaison to the gay community. "They would be surprised at how the department has improved over the past 10 years."     
                              — June 23, 2010

     From a column explaining how Christianity—and not tolerating gays—toppled the Roman Empire.   
    Ignorance is the great engine of human misery, the fertile  field where its fruit, hatred, grows in all its awful forms, from  the first human, crouching on a dark savannah, screeching terrified defiance at a shape silhouetted on the horizon, to Rep. Ronald  Stephens, rising to his feet in the Illinois House, blaming "open homosexuality" for the fall of Rome."If you look at the sociological history of societies that have failed," said Stephens (R-Greenville), "what are some of the  commonalities? One of those is that open homosexuality becomes accepted."
     A common idea: Mighty Rome toppled because it allowed those light in the togas to prance unchallenged through the Forum. We're on our way to ruin, too, not because of ascendant China or a collapse of  political discourse, but because we allow gays and lesbians to live their lives with only moderate harassment.
    That's funny. Not ha-ha funny, but ironic funny, and demands we  shine a light down this well of ignorance.
     First, the Roman Empire -- even lopping off the first 700 years, from Rome's founding to Julius Caesar -- lasted 500 years.
     We should only fall so quickly.
     Second, such a swath of land -- the empire stretched from Great  Britain to Egypt -- had, over half a millennium, various views  toward homosexuality. Yes, at times Romans would chat about their catamite lovers with an ease strange to our ears. But other times they'd be put to death for it.
     If tolerance didn't topple Rome, what did?          
                --  Dec. 3, 2010
On the Civil Rights Agenda Float, 2011
   
 After spending 15 hours watching two mothers raise their four young children for a Mother's Day article:

     Opposition to gay marriage is a religious scruple. And on that level, I accept it. Follow your faith, reject any gay marriages you might be tempted to enter into. I’m with you. It’s a free country.
    However ... it being a free country for you means that it’s a free country for others, too. Shocking, I know. Not only for people who are gay, but for straight people who don’t subscribe to your view of faith. People who realize that our culture’s steady march toward recognizing traditional subhumans as actual individuals with rights, starting with women, then blacks, then people with disabilities, is finally coming around to homosexuals.
     And while your faith screams that this is bad, there’s still nothing in the fact-based world to justify trying impose your view on non-believers. Rep. Joe Walsh, if you recall, made one of the more popular lunges: claiming that gays make bad parents. That isn’t true.
      But even if it were true — are we now not letting people marry based on what kind of parents they’d be? Because meth addicts and senior citizens can marry. Deflating one false argument only leads to the next. Not worse parents? How about tradition? The marriage-is-unchanged-for-millennia argument is also popular, also untrue, and a particularly laughable stab at reasoning. You wouldn’t accept that logic from your doctor. “Calm down — leeches are a medical tradition going back centuries!” You want tradition? Buy a butter churn.
     I believe most people opposing gay marriage are not bigots — they’re just immersed in their own insular worlds and don’t know any better. As I sat in that small house in Skokie, the thought grew: If only those religious folk could see this family living, reading, loving, praying, tickling together, they wouldn’t try to set their faith as a stumbling block before them. That’s inhuman, and it’s changing. Many religious folks have made the leap; the rest will. Or they’ll die off and their kids will. Like science, like most things, religion can be put to good or bad uses. It is our servant, it’ll do what we like, though lots of people pretend it’s the other way around.                                   
                     --May 13, 2012



Monday, September 23, 2013

Pope Francis calls for a new balance


     Pope Francis' interview with an Italian Jesuit magazine, publicized last Thursday, did not itself change anything. But for many faithful waiting for a sign that the church is finally perceiving modern morality, a little, and with a secular community tired of having religious dogma given a veneer of faux rationality and forced upon non-believers through the laws of their countries, it was a welcome sign indeed. Change is tardy, and slow, but also possible.

     There was a time when I worried that Judaism was becoming a death cult. That the Holocaust had permanently deformed the religion and too much attention was being spent on the horrors inflicted upon the Jewish people during World War II, to the detriment of those alive now.
     Part of that might have been transference — persecuted people tend to adopt diluted versions of the views of their tormenters. And just as blacks can be prejudiced based on the shade of each other’s skin, so a bit of the hand-flipping dismissal anti-Semites direct toward the Holocaust might have leached into me.
Inside the Basilique-Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Quebec 
     But some of that feeling was legitimate. Remembrance is one thing, obsession another. There is only so much atrocity you can stomach, and I wasn’t comfortable with a faith that alternated between keening past horrors and moonlighting as the de facto tourist board for the State of Israel.
     It was a question of balance. That’s why I was glad when our family joined a reconstructionist synagogue — Shir Hadash, which means “a new song”— that approached the religion as if it were actually something joyous and alive, with less frequent forays into the abattoir of the past.
     Each religion has a lot of stuff in it, and so the faithful of any stripe must pick and choose. You can’t emphasize everything. That’s how I interpreted Pope Francis’ surprising remarks, made public Thursday, about abortion, gay marriage and contraception. No interpretation was necessary, actually; that’s what he said, clearly and precisely.
     “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” he told an Italian Jesuit magazine. “We have to find a new balance.”
     The entire interview is worth reading. The pope wasn’t signaling any sea change in church doctrine on these hot-button issues (in fact, he felt the need to denounce abortion the next day, as symptomatic of a “throw-away culture”) but rather a shift in focus. He was only saying what is manifestly true — that the leadership of the church, aided by knots of revanchists, has gotten out of step with the faithful, never mind the mainstream culture, and if the church doesn’t want to eventually “fall like a house of cards,” it has to return to what the pope called the “freshness and fragrance of the Gospel” and strive for something “more simple, profound, radiant.”
      In short, it was a message of love, the agape love of God that is supposedly behind every religion.
      This of course is at odds, intentionally so, with those who wake up in the morning to shout that the children of gay marriages do not really belong to families, that women who have abortions are murderers and those who practice contraception are sticking their thumbs in God’s eye. They had been calling for Francis to comment on these matters, and now he has. Be careful what you wish for.
      Chicago’s Cardinal George yielded the field on this one, issuing a statement Friday that lauded the pontiff’s “beautiful reflection” while letting its substance go by.
      The cardinal’s tact gives rise to hope that those who view their Catholic faith as a bludgeon might be given pause. A bit of hope. Papal infallibility only goes so far, and it will be easy for some to shrug off the current pontiff as an aberration and wait for the next guy, hoping for another Benedict XVI-style “my way or the highway” papacy.
     They will not see this interview for what it is — a baby step away from the dead end the church has long been marching down, a chance to wrest the faith from “those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions . . . those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists.”
     Those folks will have their say. The word they use for my views on the subject is invariably “bashing,” and no amount of praise for the parts of the church that aren’t trying to use the government to impose doctrine on unbelievers will matter. I like to point out, though, on general principle, that the church does and always has done wonderful things, including keeping the flame of knowledge alive when the world went dark. Anybody who reads ancient philosophy has 500 years’ worth of Catholic monks to thank that these texts didn’t turn to dust in 1354.
     That’s because for centuries the church chose to respect doctrine that was inimical to what it believed, a balance that the pope obviously wants back (asked who he was, Francis said, “I am a sinner.”)
     Like Francis, I would hate to see the church reduced to the things it is against. His words are a challenge to those who want to close the gates, draw up the drawbridges and toss the troublesome over the wall.
     “We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity,” he said. And let us say, “Amen.”



Sunday, September 22, 2013

"May it please the court..."

     It is easy, correct and perhaps even useful to take a sneering view of the law. Lawyers can be venal and incompetent, prosecutors ruthless and misguided, judges, biased and inept. Particularly in Cook County, where judges who are literally insane have been returned to the bench by voters who, to be blunt, don't know and don't care.
     That said, there is also a grandeur to the law, even a beauty. Sometimes justice is done, despite everything. And we should not let its flaws overwhelm our view of the system. Justice is always flawed, always a struggle. "Judging from the main portions of the history of the world," Walt Whitman wrote in 1870. "Justice is always in jeopardy."
     That might be a grand intro to a column about minor mechanics of the law. But the Illinois Supreme Court is meeting in Chicago while its Springfield home is refurbished, and I stopped by last week to watch the proceedings. They looked better than you might expect.


     If you find yourself arguing in front of the Illinois Supreme Court during its sojourn in Chicago this year, the first time the high court has ever met for a full term here, watch out for the microphone. It’s easy to slam into its gooseneck just as you are about to open “May it please the court . . . ,” the way Keith Rhine, a Waukegan attorney, did on Wednesday.
     “The microphone gets everyone,” quipped Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride, sending a ripple of laughter through the filled-to-capacity room on the 18th floor of the Bilandic Building, 160 N. LaSalle.
      Restoration of the Supreme Court’s usual home in Springfield, built in 1908, sent the court packing, the first time it left town since 1897. Its seven members began hearing oral arguments Sept. 10 — for a check-forgery case — and wrapped up Wednesday, but will hear more cases in November, January, March and May.
     The public is welcome, though anyone expecting TV fireworks will be disappointed. The attorneys give measured, statute-laden arguments, interrupted by polite questions from the bench. But there is a certain fine-tooth combing of legal issues that is satisfying to those of us who value living a society based on law. The first case of the day, American Access Casualty Company v. Ana Reyes et al., stems from a traffic accident on Oct. 30, 2007, where Reyes drove to Elgin and struck two pedestrians, killing one. She had insurance, but the insurance specifically excluded her from driving. The law requires cars to be insured, so sometimes people who are not themselves eligible to drive buy it so their family or friends can use their vehicle.
     The issue revolved around whether these exclusions are good public policy. Keely Hillison, of Parrillo, Weiss & O'Halloran, began the morning, representing American Access Casualty, which issued the policy but denied coverage to Reyes because she was excluded from getting behind the wheel.
     "I want to suggest this is allowed," she said. "It is clear the statute intended and common law allows the exclusion of drivers by name." This is the second time Hillison has argued before the high court. She was happy about the shift in venue; her law offices are a short stroll away at 77 W. Wacker.
     "It makes it easier for me," she said, later. "I don't have to travel to Springfield." Though she did stipulate that the current courtroom, a modern, dignified chambers of dark wood usually used for judicial disciplinary hearings, lacks the grandeur of the Supreme Court Building in Springfield.
     The next case, Venture-Newberg Perini Stone and Webster v. Illinois Workers' Compensation et al, had that spare simplicity that makes some legal cases sound almost like Bible stories. A workman heading to a plant was hurt. Is he exempt from compensation because of the "coming and going" exclusion that keeps workers from being covered if hurt on their commutes? Or did the job of Ronald Daugherty require him to be near the plant? Did his job begin when he got there?
     "The employer didn't send him, he was not hired until he had gone through the screening at the plant," argued Michael Resis. "He was not on call that day and there was no emergency . . . he chose to travel to pursue a job opportunity."
     Jonathan Nessler represented the compensation commission. "Ronald Daugherty testified he was to be within a half hour of the plant for emergencies," Nessler said, deploying a gesture I immediately dubbed in my mind "the spider"- his right hand open, as if holding a ball from above, tapping his fingertips on one spot on the table, then another. The hopping spider then became a bouncing cup. Tap, tap, then swish to drive his point home.
     The question boiled down to what a boss tells you to do versus what a worker is tacitly expected to do. Questions most people never think about but can suddenly become important under law. The court's decision in this case - and the others - is months away.
     The court is convening here all year though, as anyone who has done renovations knows, all rehab dates are tentative. With $12.6 million in work to do, whispers are the court may be here next year too.
     In a room outside the courtroom, overflow visitors watch the proceedings on closed-circuit TV and lawyers wait. Arguments for the workman's case wound up.
     "Showtime," said Joel Ostrow, rising to his feet. He is the attorney for Jennifer Schultz, suing to recover child-support payments that her ex-husband's employer may - or may not - have been obligated to withhold from her ex-husband's pay. In February the Appellate Court upheld her case's dismissal, but she's hoping for relief from the highest court in the state, now sitting in judgment in Chicago.