Wednesday, December 31, 2014

An encounter at the cookie counter




      There must be something cruel about what I do, I realized, standing in the parking lot of Joe Caputo and Son's Fruit Market on Dundee Wednesday afternoon, wondering if I should hurry back inside and take a picture of the lady I had just met. She'd make a good photo: her brightly rouged cheeks, her deeply lined face, that festive red bow on her hat. I would use it to illustrate the piece I'm about to write. 
      But ... I thought, pausing. She'd also be identified, and maybe that would be a bad thing. I'd have to stay my hand, a little, in describing what had just happened, and maybe the sense of it would be lost. 
      Not that I thought poorly of her. Just the opposite.  I liked her, almost immediately, after she sidled up to me at the cookie counter at Caputo's—have you had Caputo's cookies? Italian. The best. We were going to a party, and my wife had instructed me. Go to Caputo's and get a box of cookies. Not that I needed persuading. I'm always looking for something to do at parties, and now I had something to do: eat the cookies we brought.
     So now I was picking them out, carefully, with my tastes in mind, and this lady bubbles up, and expressed interest in the cookies. Which ones were good?  Could I help her?
      I told her I was partial to the amoretti—almond. But there was the chocolate Nutella. Oh no, too heavy, she said. Then the sesame. 
     "They have a purity, " I explained. 
      She was so friendly, I introduced myself—"I'm Neil Steinberg!"—and she introduced herself, and I told her I had gone out with a girl in college with that exact name; not her of course, because she was 10 years older than me, if not 20. She also lives in Northbrook, and taught Sunday school, and told me some details of her life, then we turned and looked at the case and talked about cookies some more, her shoulder just touching mine. She said how she is alone at New Year's, but was going to have a spree anyway, gesturing back to the bottle of white wine in her cart, and now these special cookies. She started to make her selections.
     "I'll leave her in your hands," I said to the clerk, as I made my farewell. At the line, I thought, "I wonder...?" I waited, and paid for my items, and decided that, if I had understood things correctly, she'd be in the line next to mine. I looked, and there she was.
     "How are you!?" she said brightly.
     "Same as five minutes ago!" I answered, perhaps a little abruptly, and looked at her. All that make-up. The red circles on her cheeks. A bright red bow. How hard it is, I realized, to face the world alone, to spend New Year's alone. And how brave to make yourself up anyway, at 65 or 70, and go out, and chat up young men, well, younger men anyway, at the cookie counter at Caputo's. 
    I reached the parking lot, and put the groceries in the back seat, except for the separate little white bag of auxiliary cookies that were never going to make it to the party. Maybe I should have gone back and gotten her picture. Maybe she would have loved that. She seemed the sort, ready for anything. But one must tread lightly on the lives of others, and I made a judgment call, and got into the car, and snaked my hand into the bag, and drove away, thinking that I was going to try to hold onto a little of what that lady was projecting, the joyousness, in the face of what must be a lonely reality. 
      Have a happy New Year. Whatever situation you are in, put your best face forward, embrace those you've got, and if you haven't anybody, reach out to others until you do, make conversation and be friendly. It'll all work out, and if it doesn't well, you tried your very best, and that's a kind of success too. 
   

USA's 2014 Report Card: Good work, could do better


     The United States leads the world in production of websites, prisoners, sunflower seeds and pricy health care.
     Chicago, I was surprised to learn, is the third largest urban area in the world, with a population of 6.8 million, right behind New York and Tokyo. Not a conventional way of viewing the city, but well, we’ll get to that.
     All of this learned from pawing through a fascinating thin volume, “Pocket World in Figures: 2015 Edition” which The Economist magazine sent as Christmas thanks for ponying up the big bucks and subscribing (worse, I bought two subscriptions, one for me, one for my son at college in California. He insisted).
     New Year’s Eve being upon us, rather than rehash stories that weren’t that interesting to begin with, but did occur during the past 12 months, I thought we could join hands and graze through this little book. So let’s take a moment to see our city and nation as they appear, not close up to our jaundiced eyes but from afar, to those taking in the whole big blue marble at one glance.
     The news, statistically, is surprisingly good. The United States is the biggest economy in the world by far: $16 trillion, almost exactly twice that of second-place China. We export 20 percent more than China, second only to the European Union. But we do have to borrow a lot to keep going: $440 billion deficit, more than the next six nations: the United Kingdom, India, Australia, Canada, France and Brazil — combined. Though it could be worse: Our government debt is equal to our nation’s gross domestic product for 2013; in Japan, it’s more than twice the GDP...
     To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

WOW! You'll be SHOCKED at how gullible people are....

   
     That was fast. 
     2014, as I'm sure you know, runs out tomorrow, and ....
     I mean, I hope you know. 
     It would be scary if you didn't know, if you were just learning it now. "What? The year is OVER? But I was just starting to get used to it..." 
     Sorry.
     There are only three things a journalist is supposed to do during the week between Christmas and New Year's: 1) Remember all the celebrities who died in the past 12 months. 2) Review all the news stories during the same period; 3) Talk about parties and bars and resolutions and weight loss. 
     I've done all those things, in years past.
     I'm kinda tired of them.
     Maybe you are too. The frenzy over Robin Williams' suicide was excessive last August. "The Full Diana" as I call such media swoons. Not to take anything away from the man, but I can't see revisiting it again in honor of the calendar clicking. He's still dead. We get it. Ditto for the news, much of which wasn't worth noting once, while it was happening, never mind being reguritated months later. As for parties and bars and weight loss, well, you're on your own. 
     I could give you the State of the Blog report. That's what I did exactly one year ago, on Dec. 30, 2013. The blog has a history! Cool. Last year's summary had a certain tone of weary resolve that I'd be hard pressed to duplicate. What's the line from Bruce Springsteen's "Straight Time?" "Sooner or later it just becomes your life."
     In the last six months of 2013. the blog was averaging 918 hits a day; the high month was 32,000 visits. 
     We're doing much better now, averaging about 1200 hits a day, and our high was 43,000 in October, nosing toward my goal of 50,000 visits a month, which I've abitrarily determined represents Success of Some Kind. An advance of about a third, not to go all numerical on you, but the Internet has made us measure our value in clicks.
     Though candor demands I point out that, based on my spam filter, a certain number of those clicks—5 percent, 10 percent?—must be robot spiders, which search the web for, well, whatever robot spiders are looking for. 
     There's other good news. Some of my posts have done very well. "Welcome to the Steinberg Bakery" posted Feb. 16 got nearly 10,000 hits, which I fancy is due to its being a sharp piece of satire. I sold enough of the blog's poster to break even. The new blog poster is designed and being produced at Hatch Show Print in Nashville, and will be sold here soon. (The old one is going to be taken off sale, so if you want one, order it now or wait to buy it at a premium Leslie Hindman's in 20 years).  
    2014 was the first full calendar year where I wrote this blog, every goddamn day, without fail. Most days are pretty smooth. I've felt a little, umm, spent a few times, but not so much that I'd contemplate quitting the thing, at least not yet. Even if half of the audience is random clicks in China and automatic spambots looking to post their Viagra come-ons, that's still 600 people a day reading. Not mass market, but not bad. Enough to keep plodding forward, and hoping for some miracle.
     The title of this post is a nod at the way the Internet has become crowded with the journalistic equivalent of carnival come-ons, meaningless lists, cheap tricks to get you to click on something, providing very little content. Some recycled racy photos, a half-witted caption of some sort. It must work because there's enough of it. I'm hoping there is an audience for something else, something a bit more human and considered. I might be wrong here. We'll see. 
      The advertising is certainly encouraging. Thanks again to Marc Schulman of Eli's Cheesecake, and Mike Pilkington at Bridgeport Coffee. Thanks as well to past advertisers, Lise Schleicher, at BasketWorks, and the folks at the University of Chicago Press. And welcome to Chicago Mailing Tube, which will be advertising as soon as they get the art to me. 
     And of course thanks to you. It means a lot to me that you take the time to read. That's something. More. That's everything.
   

Monday, December 29, 2014

"The purest of human pleasures"


     Saturday it hit 50 degrees, and there was only one thing I really wanted to do: go walking in the Chicago Botanic Garden. Because really, when will we have another 50 degree day to be outside in? Next March? Could be.
    My wife and have been members of the Botanic Garden for years. We go every week or two and never get tired of visiting. It's always different, always new and interesting, as you don't see it all during any one visit, and the seasons are always cycling through, and the staff is always planting new things. I've never been bored there, or sorry I came. Not once. Even in February, when its cold, and snow-covered, the place has an empty, white, severe beauty.
    Plus there's exercise, people-watching, exhibits, a lovely little shop, and of course conversation. On Sunday, we got to talking, as we do, and my wife mentioned that, once the boys are both away at school, we'll have more time to travel more, and should think about visiting other botanic gardens. 
     I had the exact same thought, over the summer, when we visited Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, on Kent's college tour, and spent an hour or two in Sarah P. Duke Gardens, 55 acres of plants and lakes and flower beds, right on campus, which was also gorgeous, but in different ways: being Southern, there were unfamiliar or unexpected plants: a field of bamboo, for instance (which, for some reason, visitors had scrawled over. Nowhere else in the garden; just the bamboo grove. A puzzlement).
     Exploring Duke, I had thought, "I love the Chicago Botanic Garden, but it's a nice change of pace to poke around somewhere else. We should probably seek them out." Then I pulled back from that thought, almost frightened. There seemed something terribly defeated and aged about that. Some men travel the world, creating art, making fortunes, conducting matters of great importance and urgency. Me, I'll be traveling to parks, gawping at plants.
     Or, even worse, hoping to. 
     Well, too late for regret now. Nothing to be guilty about—it isn't just me. "God Almighty first planted a garden," wrote Francis Bacon in 1625. "It is the purest of human pleasures." 
    So with both the Divine and Francis Bacon on my side, if wandering gardens is what I like, then wander gardens and the hell with how it looks. If people can put on furry animal suits and attend conventions, then what shame can there be in going to collected nature? You have to accept things as they are. I could never figure out how to become an International Man of Mystery, and it's a little late now. To be honest, I'm not even sure how to go about finding other worthwhile botanic gardens around the country. I plugged "Most Beautiful Gardens in North America" into Google and got a top 10 list from USA Today. Duke wasn't even on it (but the Chicago Botanic Garden was!)  It's kind of hard to tell from the photos on that list. The garden in Vancouver seemed exceptional but that's about it. 
     What do you say, Hive? Any insights? What are your favorite places, garden-wise? Or am I the first person to consider such a fool's errand, to travel places just to go to their noted gardens? There's a fresh new year, only a few days away, and we need to come up with plans to help make the idea of a whole entire year to get through at least a little palatable.  

Sunday, December 28, 2014

"Perhaps it would be wise/ Not to carp or criticize"


     Talk about lucky.
     My older boy came home from college humming Gilbert & Sullivan tunes. His circle, it seems, passes the lugubrious California evenings by singing patter songs. 
     Yes, I know. 
     About the exact moment I was processing this development, I read Hedy Weiss' rapturous review of The Hypocrites joyful twist on Gilbert & Sullivan at the Den Theater Mainstage, 1329 N. Milwaukee in Wicker Park. 
     "A campy romp," she writes. "Some magic is at work."
     Not my normal fare—my tastes run more toward "Medea" than campy magic. But I am nothing if not an indulgent dad.  
     "It seems a little unconventional," I warned my boy, who, despite his youth or, rather, because of it, can be very conventional. He nevertheless agreed.
     The Hypocrites are doing three G & S productions in repertory, "H.M.S. Pinafore," which Hedy called "a loony pajama party," "The Mikado," and the "Pirates of Penzance," which we caught Saturday night.  
     Entering the small theater, tucked behind a hip coffee shop/bar, the audience is given two choices: conventional seating, in rows, for older people, fuddy duddies, and the timid, and "The Promenade," meaning you can sit anywhere you like: on stage, a long rectangular dock, or any of the substages, consisting of a pair of picnic tables with wading pools atop them, and a sort of a lifeguard tower. Most adults, I noticed, went for the chairs, while the children scattered about, sitting on coolers, tossing the beach balls rolling everywhere.  I sat by one of the wading pools—empty, some audience members sat in the pools, and cast members eventually performed there.  My older boy gamely joined me, my wife and younger son stayed in the seats.
      I loved being in the midst of the action, with singers sweeping past, performing a profusion of instruments, seemingly chosen for their oddness: an accordion, a banjo, a musical saw, a washboard, a snare drum, a flute, a ukulele, a mandolin, a fiddle. It was half English dance hall, half Jimmy Buffett beach party.
     The subtitle of the 1879 Gilbert & Sullivan operetta is "The Slave of Duty" and what better way to enhance the Victorian duo's piercing of English conventional notions of place and obligation than turn their operetta into a freeform carnival with a constantly shifting audience.
     We were instructed to "travel where and when you want during the show," and the actors would shoo us away with a tap or a point if they needed to be where we were sitting. It was part of the fun to watch everybody moving around, getting out of their way, taking up new positions. Some kids must have been in a dozen different places during the 80 minutes, including perched on a cooler positioned smack center of the stage.  
     Despite the near chaos, the songs were well-sung, the instruments skillfully played: it wouldn't have worked if certain standards hadn't been maintained.
     "The Pirates of Penzance" is not exactly "Mousetrap" — following the plot is not particularly important. All you need is to gather the rough outlines of a typically daft tale involving good-hearted pirates led by a Pirate King, and their good-hearted young indentured shipmate who might, or might not, be bound to them until he's 83. There is a crone to avoid,  maidens to marry, or not marry, and the famous "I am the very model of a modern Major-General" patter song. 
     As regular readers know, I am not a person given to happiness, and am used to what musical theater I partake being performed on the grand stage of the Lyric, often in German. But the Hypocrites' "Pirates of Penzance" is just delightful: well-sung by a nimble cast that manages to be energetic and improvisational without seeming amateurish.
     Afterward, the family repaired to Antique Taco up the street (fabulous; go) for an early dinner. The boys—a pair of laid-back teens, remember—were cool to the Hypocrites' production, put off by the boisterous fun and lack of D'Oyly Carte Opera Company polish which they mistake for quality. But my wife and I loved it: what's the point of theater if you don't break the rules? We promised ourselves to go back, sans fils. Though I would suggest that if you have any pre-teen kids you need to introduce to the joys of live theater, you can't go wrong here. You could almost see the gears turning in the youngsters' heads: finally, finally they were in a space where the rules could be tested and broken, which is what Gilbert and Sullivan were all about. 
     The rep productions run until Feb. 7. Tickets for the promenade (do it!) are $28, for a seat, $36. You can find the schedule and buy tickets by clicking here.
    
     
     

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this? (Special Bubbly Creek edition)




It's Saturday, time to give away some delicious Bridgeport Bubbly Creek Blend Coffee.
But first, a subject I've been promising to address for weeks.
Bubbly Creek coffee. 
Okay, class, who can tell me anything about that name? Anybody? 
Sigh. 
Chicagoans with a historical bent might know, "Bubbly Creek" is the name given the foul sewer of 19th century liquid offal that ran through the near Southwest Side.
Upton Sinclair describes it in 'The Jungle':
"Bubbly Creek" is an arm of the Chicago River, and forms the southern boundary of the Union Stock Yards; all the drainage of the square mile of packing-houses empties into it, so that it is really a great open sewer a hundred or two feet wide. One long arm of it is blind, and the filth stays there forever and a day. The grease and chemicals that are poured into it undergo all sorts of strange transformations, which are the cause of its name; it is constantly in motion, as if huge fish were feeding in it, or great leviathans disporting themselves in its depths. Bubbles of carbonic gas will rise to the surface and burst, and make rings two or three feet wide. Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it.
He goes on, but you get the idea. All told, not the name that I would give my brand of coffee, despite its local historical, umm, flavor.
And as grateful as I am to the Bridgeport folks for supporting my blog, I wouldn't be who I am if I didn't look my gift horse in the mouth and wonder, aloud, "What's with the name?"
To be honest, when I first heard it, I thought of Stephanie Izzard's short-lived Mediterranean restaurant which she rashly named "Scylla," not realizing—until I told her—that she had named her place for the "yelping horror" of "The Odyssey," a "grisly monster" to be avoided at all costs. Circe explains to Odysseus:
No one could look on her with any joy. She has twelve legs, all writhing, dangling down, and six long swaying necks, a hideous head on each, each head barbed with a triple row of fangs, thickset, packet tight -- armed to the hilt with black death! . . .
But the goddess isn't quite done yet. She continues:
Scylla's no mortal. She's an immortal devastation, terrible, savage, wild. No fighting her, no defense -- just flee the creature, that's the only way.
Can't you just see that in an ad? "Outstanding" -- Mike Sula. "Terrible, savage, wild" -- Homer.
Bridgeport Coffee, to their credit, doesn't flinch at the name, but addresses the subject boldly on its website,  under the heading, "About the Name Bubbly Creek" 
The idea of naming a coffee blend Bubbly Creek Blend came when we met the founders of the regional environmental organization, The Wetlands Initiative. In 2008, The Wetlands Initiative had proposed a project that would have converted Bubbly Creek to a wetland complete with viewing gazebo. I decided to create a blend that Bridgeport Coffee could use to not only bring the issue of urban pollution forward, but also to offer financial support for this new, local organization. 
So it was for a good cause. You can read the full statement on their website here.  
They also name their coffee soda -- I'm dying to try it — "Bubbly Creek," which has a nice double meaning, evoking both history and carbonation. The question I had for owner and roastmaster Mike Pilkington, is: any regrets about the name? He replied (again at length: there's something to this topic that seems to encourage verbosity; maybe it's the caffeine):
I don't regret the decision at all. The name has not only forced me to stay informed regarding our small part of Chicago's waterways, but has also allowed me to get to know the work of The Wetland's Initiative.  
Although I am not a political insider and don't know the entire truth, there is, I believe, many reasons to be hopeful about the future. Although little will be done until at least 2017 when the first phase of the reservoir catch basin will be completed (as you probably know waste water runoff is still dumped into the river including Bubbly Creek during very heavy rains), I believe there is the political will to clean our river. I want to capture this hope with our new packaging in development now. 
young graphic designer came to our team with a boy fishing on the creek.When I saw the idea, I immediately rejected it. In my email to our Director of Marketing I said, "I have confused him, doesn't he get who we are?" As I slept on the idea, it occurred to me that the history of Bubbly Creek as is widely known was written by Upton Sinclair over 100 years ago.In fact, some of Bridgeport's history, although seems recent to me, is quickly becoming the past. If you could see the change, the diversity, the tolerance. A rowing group on Bubbly Creek? a boathouse?, three art galleries on Morgan Street, two artist colonies (one right on Bubbly Creek), Pleasant House Bakery, Marias. Next year Morgsan Street is getting"Streetscaped" by the city. In the Back of the Yards- The Plant- where Talapia are farmed in an enclosed eco-system where urban farmer groups are growing and distributing organically raised vegetables... I called my Director of Marketing the next morning with a directive to incorporate the hopeful message of what our community can be and will be. The boy fishing on Bubbly Creek will appear as an icon in our new packaging. The package itself is a new product called Biotre. It is heat seal-able and entirely compostable-we will also be using the label to hold the bag tight, eliminating the twist tie.
Not only did I learn something from Mike's reply—companies are still dumping stuff into Bubble Creek. But by the time he was done I had an impulse I've never had in my life: "Man, I'd love to live in Bridgeport." He made it sound so appealing.

Which is still all beside the point. The only important thing, to me, is this: the coffee's really good. 



It doesn't really matter what you call it, and, given the utter lack of historical knowledge that most consumers have, you could name it "Pol Pot's Pot o' Gold Blend" and nobody would think twice about it. I brew up a big pot of Bubbly Creek almost every morning I'm home, and feel a pang whenever I give a bag away, because that's one less bag for me. 

But give it away I do, at least today, to somebody who places the lovely grill above, which certainly dates to the heyday of Bubble Creek—assuming we aren't in it right now, regarding a very different sense of the word, one that I believe we can stop talking about now. Names can be repurposed after all, and are allowed to mean very different things in different contexts. Think about "Lincoln." What connotations does that word have? Severe eloquence? Folksy homeliness? Early tragic death? Stovepipe hats and whiskers? The Ford Motor Company has used "Lincoln" for its line of luxury cars for nearly a century and done just fine with it. I'm sure Bubbly Creek Blend Coffee will do fine as well.
     Remember to place your guesses in the comments section below. Good luck.

SPOILER ALERT:

I've decided, when the location is solved, which it always is, to provide a broader context. So if you want to read people guessing, and not know, skip to the comments now. 

The location, as guessed by Peter, is the County Building (some people think of it as City Hall, though, technically, the eastern half of the building belongs to Cook County). It isn't the elevator banks, but a grillwork around the corner. Here it is in its setting.


Friday, December 26, 2014

In praise of work





     So over Christmas, when you were supposedly on vacation, did you miss work?
     Did you keep working anyway, even though you were allegedly off?
     Don't feel bad. You're not alone. I worked too.
     Force of habit.
     If you don't use your vacation days at the paper by the end of the calendar year, you lose them, and when I realized that four were about to evaporate, I figured I had better schedule them. Around Christmas seemed a good time—nothing much happening anyway. 
     So I took a few days off, and smiled at myself when, about 6 a.m. Wednesday morning, my first day of vacation, in theory, I found myself in my office at home, on the paper's DTI system, migrating obituaries onto my own computer, because we're shifting over computers in the next few months, and I didn't want them to vanish. 
     Now that is not exactly "fun," but it isn't quite "work," either, in that I wanted to do it. Had I stayed in bed, I'd be lying there, thinking, "I should migrate those obits." Rather, I was using the more relaxed day that not having to go to the office or produce anything for immediate publication to get done some things that needed to get done but I hadn't done yet. And to top off my sybaritic luxury and relation I ran an old column here. So it really was a true vacation...
     Or maybe I'm deceiving myself. Maybe I've become a slave and I don't know it. I should wake up and ... what? Go run around outside? Get on a plane and go somewhere I'm not interested in? I've got a lot of stuff to do, and I like getting it done.
     Is that bad? I don't know. I like working, writing stuff, doing the research for writing stuff. When I find myself feeling bad that I can't, oh, afford watch that shows phases of the moon, I remind myself that at least I get to spend my time doing work I find enjoyable and meaningful, which is just as good, if not better. 
     When I finished with the obits, I turned to my main vacation activity that day, one that I had been looking forward to for some time: transferring the copyright permission language for my next book from the various contracts they have resided on to the pages where they will appear at the back of the book. That wasn't quite "fun" either, in the relaxing on a beach in Maui sense, but then, if I were in Maui, on a beach, I would be squirming, trying to block the sun with my book, and feeling like I should really be getting those copyright permissions transcribed. I really don't like the beach. Never have. 
     You have to be who you are. When my column used to appear in the New York Daily News, I would take my vacation, fly to New York, and write columns there, and I remember realizing this, looking up from the keyboard in a windowless office in New York, and smiling quietly to myself, very pleased. Taking your vacation from one job to go work the same job somewhere else. It seemed hard core.
     I hope that doesn't make me a joyless grind. Can you be a joyful grind? Any person who finds himself in his mid-50s doing what he likes to do has to consider himself blessed. You can shuffle along a beach when you retire, not that I can ever afford to retire, which might be another reason I'm working all the time. 
     Nor could I let the blog slide. I thought about it. Maybe even wanted to, in the change of pace sense. Hanging up  an "On vacation" sign and letting you—those of you who aren't computerized web crawlers, mechanically trying to post "This is interesting content, visit my discount Viagra web site at" spam messages—just shrug and go try again another day. I'm sure you could cope with the absence for a day or four. As it is the web, Facebook and Twitter and such, seem more and more a whirling trash cyclone of dull garbage anyway. What's one blog more or less? 
     But the end of this blog's first full calendar year is five days away, and I might as well finish out 2014 without breaking my streak, provided that reprinting old columns from time to time doesn't count as a break and, since I'm in charge, here if nowhere else, I can determine that it doesn't.
     So I guess today's theme is in praise of work, even if you are on vacation. The standard media take on working while on vacation is undesirable, and if what you're doing is answering emails from angry suppliers, maybe that's warranted. When you are your own boss, well, I'm tempted to say that if you love something, it isn't work, but that isn't true. Anything you have to do is work, particularly if you have to do it to a certain level. 
     But work is good, like religion, it gives significance to life. A false significance, perhaps, but I'll take what I can get.  There's nothing wrong with being true to something, day in, day out, savoring it. Nothing wrong, even, with bragging a little, even if you aren't a genius, even if the world isn't clamoring its praise. There is a wonderful poem by Robert Browning called "Andrea del Sarto" about a skilled but not brilliant painter, who is no Michaelangelo, but hasn't done badly either. Some famous lines in the poem— "A man's reach should exceed his grasp/ Or what's a heaven for?"—and some fine lines that aren't famous. He's talking to his mistress about how he pushes forward, even though he's tired on some days, uninspired on others, trusting "this low-pulsed forthright craftsman's hand of mine" to see him through. At one point he brags a bit: 
                                       I do what many men dream of all their lives,
                                       —Dream? strive to do, and agonize to do,
                                      And fail in doing.
    That's true for most people with any kind of success. Any lawyer digging through a pile of briefs this Christmas should remember there are thousands who never got past the bar exam; every plumber should think of those poor shmoes who couldn't even get a foot in the door at the union hall; every doctor rushing away from Christmas dinner to see a patient should recall all those classmates who washed out of med school and would thrill at his dullest day, and savor his most annoying inconveniences. There's plenty of time to rest when you're dead.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Cops keep a Christmas vigiil



     This story of patrolling the Second District on Christmas Eve, 1986, was one of my favorites—it gave me a lot of respect for the police, respect that I try to maintain, despite the vigorous way that cops frequently undermine themselves.
    The mid-1980s city it shows is in some regards gone—not only in the many landmarks, the housing projects and gang headquarters and such, but in the way the police actually let the media watch them work. They’ll say their trust was betrayed; in my view, they got scared, and insular and angry, curling up in the tight defensive ball that serves them so poorly with the media they despise and the communities they screech up to in their squad cars and try to serve and protect. 
     If you notice how long this story is—2300 words—you’ll see another change. The paper does sometimes print stories of this length, but rarely, and I doubt that I’d get this in, since it reveals no pressing scandal or hard news. Which is a shame, because I think it shows the challenges police face in a more significant way than any five second video clip or outraged union statement. 

     It's 6 o'clock Dec. 24, and Tom Eich, badge No. 17815, and David
Baez, badge No. 17696, are philosophical as their patrol car sweeps by
the landmarks of their police district - the Robert Taylor homes,
Stateway Gardens, the Ida B. Wells homes, Du Sable High School.
      "The low ones on the totem pole get (Christmas Eve duty)," says
Baez, 36, who has been with the force only a year. "Seniority will get
you the day off."
      "My wife comes from a police family, so she more or less expected
that I would have to work on Christmas," says 33-year-old Eich, a
former electrician who joined the police force 11 months ago. "It's
part of the job."
     Riding in Car 211, the pair has been on duty since 3 p.m. So far
the shift has been quiet - a domestic disturbance and a "nut call," a
man who thought he heard noises coming from the walls.
      Baez drives, chewing gum. He is a handsome man with black, curly
hair. Eich is balding, with a sandy mustache and glasses. He works the
radio, glancing from side to side, looking for trouble.
      The Second District may be the smallest in the city, but it
includes 64 Chicago Housing Authority buildings. As many of those who
celebrate Christmas prepare for the evening's festivities, Baez
randomly turns down driveways, alleys - places most Chicagoans have
never been and would never dream of going.
      "You shouldn't have a pattern," says Baez. "You want to be
unsystematic. If you get a pattern, they'll time you, and know where
you'll be."
      From time to time, strange whistles echo in the darkness.
     "Signals," says Eich. "To let them know the police are coming.
It's something like the old cowboy-and-Indian days."
     It's time for a swing by the squat Ida B. Wells homes, and through
the low canyons of the high-rise buildings.
     "They like to shoot at the cars," says Baez. "But someone has to
go in there. The worst is when the elevator's broken and you have to
use the stairs. Sometimes they put in a call for the top floor, and
ambush you on the way up."
      The car rolls past a pair of men warming themselves beside a
blazing trash can at a lot on the corner of Indiana and Pershing. Eich
points to an Olds 98 ahead.
      "Cracked windshield," he says. "You want it?"
       Baez directs a spotlight into the car and it pulls over. Baez
and Eich get out of the car and walk over to the Olds. A small man in a
jumpsuit gets out. Windshield cracked? It was a rock. Just happened.
About to fix it. Unconvinced, Eich tickets the driver.
      "The crack was all the way across," says Baez. "It's something that
you can't let get away, at the right speed it could shatter, blinding the 
driver. We've hopefully gotten him to fix a car that could cause a
problem."
      A call comes over the radio - youths stripping an auto in a lot
on Wabash - and Car 211 is on its way. Baez guns the squad car - a
Crown Victoria LTD - down State Street, flipping on the sirens only to
blow through stoplights, then shutting them off to avoid tipping off
the culprits. Other police cars join in the chase, radioing their
positions in crackling bursts of numbers and streets.
      Baez cuts down side streets, searching, trying to figure out from
the radio where the suspects would be. The car roars through an alley,
veering around obstacles, bouncing along the potholed surface.
      "I'm actually one of the slower drivers," says Baez, grinning at
a visitor cowering in the backseat. "They call me Slowpoke."
      Five teens are discovered lounging against a car, and Baez and
Eich are out of the squad car in a flash, talking to them. No, they
haven't seen anybody. In fact, they were the ones who called police.
The policemen are smiling and joking with the teens. Baez places what
appears to be a friendly hand on the back of one teen and tells them to
be careful.
      "I was checking to see if their hearts were beating like
trip-hammers," he says later. "They have to be if they came from over
there."
      No car-stripping suspects are found, but now Baez is alerted to a
van creeping along with a couple flat tires. He tries to run down the
van's license-plate number through the team's mobile computer, but a
message is coming across.
      "I would like to take this time out to wish every officer a
merry, merry, merry Christmas," the computer says, in glowing orange
letters. Baez turns the computer's screen so his partner can see the
message.
     The pair talk about how they approach patrol on this holiday
night. "Early in the shift, I'm looking for movers, at the same time
listening to the radio, listening for something nearby," says Baez.
"You don't become complacent because there's so much going on."
     "If anything, on Christmas, we'll get more domestics," says Eich.
"Somebody who wants the drumstick, or isn't getting to watch their
movie on the VCR."
     A call comes over the radio about an armed robbery, eliciting a
wry expression from Eich. "Don't they know it's Christmas Eve? That
they ain't supposed to be sticking people up?" says Eich, who makes a
running commentary on the calls coming over the radio.
     They aren't needed at the armed robbery call, but head over to a
three-vehicle accident with injuries.
      The smell of gasoline hangs in the air at the corner of Root and
State, and cubes of broken glass litter the intersection. A green Fury,
its back end smashed, is pushed onto the sidewalk. Two women lay
on the ground nearby, curled up and moaning. Across the street, a 
blue Montego, its front end crumpled and windshield shattered, is on
the opposite sidewalk. Fire Department paramedics work on a man on
the ground, while four children, seemingly unharmed in the backseat,
are led to an ambulance.
       A crowd of onlookers gathers. Sgt. Mary Rozell is in charge of
the scene, and sends Car 211 to close off one end of the street. She is
busy directing victims to ambulances and ambulances to hospitals, but
finds time to reflect on working this holiday.
      "It's not another day - it's Christmas Eve," she says. "But I'm
not married, and we've got a union contract."
    With the ambulances on their way to the hospitals and the gasoline
hosed off the street, Baez and Eich are released from their
street-blocking duty. They decide to call in a request for "lunch."
     The meal request turns them into detectives of sort, as they try
to find a restaurant open on Christmas Eve. A pizza parlor and a
Mexican eatery are closed, but the Bridgeport Restaurant is open.
     Eich uses the lunch break to phone his sister's house, where his
wife and three daughters, ages 9, 5 and 6 weeks, are celebrating
Christmas.
     "They're opening up their presents," he says, returning. "Santa
Claus has been there. This is the first time I missed it in a long
time." He crumbles crackers into his soup. "They always put up a pretty
nice shindig," he says, a little wistfully.
     Baez, also married, has three sons, ages 12, 8 and 5.
      "They're tickled pink daddy's a policeman," he says. "My wife...
my wife experiences her anxieties. But she tries to keep them to
herself, and she knows that I will do my best not to get hurt."
      More policemen come into the restaurant, talking about the
accident and about a drunk who accused his girlfriend, who also was
intoxicated, of stealing money. An officer recounts how the girlfriend,
to prove she wasn't hiding the money, had started stripping. With the
help of police, the money was found inside a drawer.
      "Only on Christmas Eve," the officer says. "They all come out of
the woodwork."
      No sooner are Eich and Baez back in Car 211 than a call of
criminal damage to property comes in.
      "That could be almost anything," says Baez, explaining that the
severity of a crime can't be determined always by its code number.
      The criminal-damage call is minor - a low-rise with a window
broken three hours earlier. The police report is needed to get the
window repaired by the CHA.
     With an hour left in the shift, the pair stops on Oakwood to do
paperwork.
     A few minutes later a call comes through of an overdose at an
address on Indiana Avenue. Car 211 responds.
      The address is a three-story apartment building. The stairway is
painted bright blue. A door on the second landing is ajar, and Baez
eyes it carefully as he goes past. Two doors are at the third landing.
Eich raps on one with his long flashlight. A voice comes from inside.
     "Police," Eich says. There is a pause and sounds of confusion from
inside. Eich raps again, harder.
     A woman lets him in. Inside, what had once been one rental unit
has been divided into many tiny apartments, all the walls painted the
same bright blue as the stairway.
      In one room they find two brothers, Reginald, 22, and Willie, 26.
Reginald is suspected of having overdosed. He sits swaying on a spindly
metal chair, his eyes half shut. The kitchen is garishly lit by a single bulb,
and roaches crawl up the bright blue walls. On the kitchen table are two
40-ounce bottles of beer, a dirty mixing bowl, a paper bag, a package
of rolling papers and a canister of salt.
     Willie explains that the two began drinking at 9 a.m., but he
didn't know his brother had taken any pills. He also says that Reginald
has tried to kill himself twice before, and that he suspects this is a
third attempt.
      A surreal dance begins between Willie, Reginald, Baez and Eich as the
policemen try to get Reginald to his feet, keep him awake and get 
information from him.
      Eich asks Reginald what he has taken, and Reginald says,
"Penicillin." At the suggestion of Baez, Willie hoists his brother over
to the kitchen sink and, with one arm wrapped around Reginald's chest,
begins awkwardly slapping water into his face.
      Soon, Reginald's shirt is soaked, but his head still rolls from
side to side. Willie starts slapping Reginald, who takes several hard
slaps across the face before he realizes that something is happening.
He pushes Willie away and starts to go after him, cursing and swinging.
Baez restrains him from hitting Willie, while egging him on to be angry
and awake, and Eich radios for an ambulance.
      "You didn't care about me alive, why should you care about me
dead?" Reginald shouts. He slumps to the floor, and is jerked to his
feet.
     The paramedics finally arrive. "Come on, you're walking," says
paramedic Scott Peters. "I'm not carrying you downstairs."
     A paramedic and Baez walk Reginald downstairs. "Christmas is the
busiest time of the year," says Peters, on the stairs. "We've had 18,
19 runs so far today."
      In the ambulance, Reginald is hooked up to heart monitors, given
oxygen and restrained. Willie hangs around a while, talking to his
brother through the ambulance door.
      "Don't come back here no more," says Willie, who then turns to
Baez. "He needs some mental help. Lock his butt up. He can't come by my
house no more, un uhh."
      Car 211 follows the ambulance to Providence Hospital. The
overdose has been upgraded to an attempted suicide. At the hospital,
another District 2 squad car is bringing in an aggravated-assault
victim, a man whose white T-shirt is caked with dried blood. At 10:55,
they are doing the paper work on the suspected attempted suicide when
the man with the bloodstained shirt slips his restraints and starts to
crawl away down the hall, babbling. Baez and Eich rush over, with a
clutch of doctors and paramedics, to help that victim back into his bed
and strap him down.
     "It was a reasonably quiet night," says Baez, on the way back to
the station. "Almost zero `man with a gun' calls - maybe two or three."
      A minute or two after 11 p.m., Car 211 pulls up behind a blue
Gremlin with no brake lights or taillights. "Nada, no lights," says
Baez. Eich points out the time - their shift is over - and Car 211
takes a pass on the Gremlin and turns into the station.
      "At least the front lights are working," says Baez, checking the
rearview mirror. "He just got his Christmas present."

     —Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 29 1986