Several readers of yesterday's column on advance obituaries wondered if I had written my own obit. I answered, "Of course not." A person is too biased, too clouded by the fog of self, to write his or her own obituary. I remember a late colleague—Bill Braden—who did do exactly that, leave his own obit behind when he retired from the paper, and it was both leaden and puffed up and I deleted it and wrote his obit myself, when the time came. I'd hate to fall into the same trap, eyes wide open.
But one reader persisted. Sure, it would be biased, he said, but "
hile I am not a short order cook, or a cocktail lounge pianist taking requests, there is an idea there. Almost a challenge. Sure, it might be a mistake, but it could be my mistake. Suddenly refusing to do it seemed, not prudence, or modesty, but a kind of cowardice, and I thought it might be fun to give it a crack and see the result, which you will find below. If it's wrong, well, I'll try again with something else tomorrow.
Since people skim these things, and can be surprisingly thick (I sure can be; for years I thought the Kinks song "Lola" was about a girl), I should clearly state that, as of Wednesday evening, NEIL STEINBERG IS NOT DEAD, and while my dying in the night before this is automatically posted would be one of those just-too-strange ironic marvels that get so much play online, I'm not planning on that. Though if I do expire suddenly, through a wild coincidence, take comfort that I would savor the ensuing spurt of attention which, as you can glean from this obit, is generally in short supply, at least compared to my expectations. Not that I'm complaining. It's been a swell life, in the main, even boiled down to a thousand words.
Decimus Iunius Iuvenali—in English, "Juvenal"—was a Roman poet, little known today and, judging from the utter lack of mention of him in contemporary writings of his era, and his own bitter complaints, also little known during his own lifetime, in the late first and early second century A.D., when he wrote the 16 satires that have come down to us today, concerning a range of topics, from the viciousness of women to cannibalism in Egypt. Juvenal always seems to be crouching in some rich patron's doorway, waiting hours to be seen, wondering if there'll be any table scraps left from the feast the night before.
Neil Steinberg, a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times, was a fan of Juvenal's acid wit, not only reading him with savor, but taking comfort from Juvenal's life when considering his own career spent churning out daily journalism, essays that could be sharp and funny, and strove to cast an intelligent eye on his times. Despite being well-wrought, his work had no discernible impact on the world around him, other than to serve as his livelihood and keep what small band of readers he had generally entertained, or at least occupied.
Steinberg, XX, died WHEN and WHERE.
His columns in the Sun-Times, which he began writing in 1996, and his various articles and editorials, reflected his wide range of interests: reading, Chicago history, opera, science, math. He would comment on the news of the moment, but also delve into obscure areas as diverse as the concrete industry, a group collecting dead birds that strike buildings downtown, and the translation of show tunes into sign language. He particularly enjoyed visiting unusual factories and businesses, and wrote columns on the cardboard tube trade, the manufacture of table pads, and the S&M dungeon on Lake Street.
He was the author of eight books, also on odd subjects, from his first, a history of college pranks, to "Hatless Jack," a book about the decline of the men's hat industry, to his pending volume, "Out of the Wreck I Rise: A Literary Companion to Recovery," which uses poetry to help alcoholics and drug addicts strive toward sobriety. It was written with New York author Sara Bader, and The University of Chicago Press is publishing the book in 2016. He cared deeply about his books, and it's telling that he would use his own obituary to plug them.
Neil Steinberg was born in Ohio and grew up in Berea, a small town in the western suburbs of Cleveland. His father Robert was a nuclear physicist who spent most of his career at NASA and later painted. His mother June taught students with learning disabilities.
He wrote a column for his junior high school and high school newspapers, and came to the Chicago area to attend Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, graduating in 1982.
Steinberg initially intended to be a novelist or humorist, finishing a novel at the Ragdale writers' colony in Lake Forest, and publishing humor in magazines like the National Lampoon and Spy, and writing for several programs on the Nickelodeon cable channel. But his day job as an editor and columnist at the Barrington Courier Review led to a job at the now defunct Wheaton Daily Journal which led to the Sun-Times. He joined the staff in 1987.
He also wrote for many other publications, such as Esquire, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, Forbes and the New York Daily News.
In 2008, he wrote a memoir of his struggles with alcohol, "Drunkard," and the process of accepting his alcoholism made him better able to accept everything else, including his humble position well toward the bottom of the greased pole of money and status. He felt blessed that he truly enjoyed researching topics, setting words down, and having the freedom to select his own subjects, generally. He decided that he might as well be content with how things turned out, because there was no changing them now and, besides, as with Juvenal, perhaps someday somebody would determine that it had actually meant something significant after all.
On July 1, 2013, he began a daily blog, everygoddamnday.com, as the name implied, writing every single day, without fail, and took satisfaction in the idea that it would sit in cyberspace, if not forever then for a long time, serving as a kind of rump immortality, and such people who might be interested could visit it and perhaps take away something valuable, such as his favorite lines from Juvenal, this description, from the Third Satire, of the cranky Roman pundit's envy of an aristocrat in a sedan chair navigating a congested marketplace:
The crossing of wagons in the narrow winding streets, the slanging of drovers when brought to a stand ... When the rich man has a call of social duty, the mob makes way for him as he is borne swiftly over their heads in a huge Liburnian car. He writes or reads or sleeps inside as he goes along for the closed window of the litter induces slumber. Yet he will arrive before us; hurry as we may, we are blocked by a surging crowd in front, and by a dense mass of people pressing in on us from behind: one man digs an elbow into me, another a hard sedan-pole; one bangs a beam and another a wine-cask against my head. My legs are beplastered with mud; soon huge feet trample on me from every side, and a soldier plants his hobnails firmly on my toe.Steinberg loved that last detail, the centurion stepping on Juvenal's foot. He felt it reached across some 1900 years and made the vexing commotion of ancient Rome come alive again. He strove to do something similar for early 21st century Chicago and fancied that, occasionally, he succeeded. Whether anyone will care 1900 years from now is impossible to say, but, as Steinberg would observe, were he alive, "A fellow is allowed to hope."
Survivors include his wife Edie, sons Ross and Kent, as well as his parents, his sister Deborah and brother Samuel. Services are private.