Friday, July 31, 2015

Why is failure expected in business but unacceptable in government?


    So here is my question.
    When it comes to business, failure is expected, anticipated, almost celebrated. A cliche at this point: you have to be willing to fail in order to succeed, to try new things, to have them sometimes not work, then pick yourself up. That observation isn't challenged; it isn't profound. Everyone agrees: Take pride in your failures. 
     Now shift your frame of reference from business to government. A failure in government—even one example of failure, one bad program, one person frustrated by the system—is an indictment of the whole. Here failure is not only unexpected, it's intolerable. More evidence that the whole system needs to be reworked, if not abandoned. A slow roll-0ut indicted Obamacare no matter how many millions of people were helped. With government, failure not only stings, it stains, forever.
    What's going on here?
    My theory:
    It isn't government, as such, that upsets the Right Wing, as the people the government helps. It is no longer polite to rail at minorities, to heap scorn on poor people or laugh at the handicapped, to blame them for their situations and minimize their plight.
     So the government stands in as proxy. The hate that many feel, still, for certain classes of people can be safely directed at the government, and resources yanked away, citing these failures that are an intrinsic part of business, and used for purposes that don't benefit people who shouldn't be here, messing up our pristine lily-white worlds in the first place. They don't want the government to work on their behalf, so they use the inevitable failures as a straw man rational to oppose it. 
    That's the situation in a nutshell, is it not? 

You too can be a rental car company


     Oil used to sit in the ground, unused. And then entrepreneurs started pumping it out and selling it.
     The grab-a-natural-resource path to riches is fairly picked over at this point. But that doesn't mean there aren't untapped assets just waiting for someone to notice them.
     Take cars.
     There are a billion automobiles in the world. While it might seem as if they're all trying to merge onto the Ontario feeder ramp at 5 p.m. on a Friday, the truth is that most cars at any given car are parked somewhere.
     The folks behind Uber realized that all those idle cars, along with their underemployed owners, were a resource that could be molded into a cab company. In just six years it has grown to a $40 billion company.
     Airbnb did the same thing with empty apartments, using the Internet to organize them into virtual hotels. Next in the sights of the sharing economy: the rental car industry.
     Meet FlightCar. Like Uber, it taps into the underutilized automobile pool, but rather than put their owners to work as cabbies, it borrows their cars, using the Internet to organize them into a rental fleet.
     The clever twist behind FlightCar is it's centered at a place where people not only bring their cars and leave them for spans of time but pay for the privilege: airports.
     FlightCar began operations in February 2013 at San Francisco International Airport, and Tuesday opened shop in Chicago, from the parking lot of a Best Western near O'Hare Airport. It's the company's 17th location nationwide.
     "Overall, our national growth is very good," said Ryan Adlesh, FlightCar's head of expansion, who predicted the company will be in 25 cities by year's end. "Chicago is going to be a great market for us."
     It works like this. You sign up and go park your car. FlightCar zips you to the airport. While you're gone, they wash your car and then offer it for rental. If nobody rents it, you've parked your car for free, saving the $14 to $35 a day it costs to park at O'Hare. If somebody rents it, you get 10 cents a mile. Renters who use FlightCar pay between 40 percent and 50 percent less than mainstream rental agencies.
     The company was founded in 2012 by — brace yourself — three teenagers: Shri Ganeshram, Kevin Petrovic and Rujul Zaparde.
     Not that they have the market to themselves. Relayrides, Silvercar and Getaround all operate similar services.
     Is FlightCar the next Uber? Hard to say. Americans are weird about their cars, and while earning extra money for Uber obviously appeals to those struggling to make ends meet, handing over your car to a stranger for $10 or $15 a day plus free parking might not excite the average traveler with enough resources to buy a plane ticket. Who's the FlightCar market?
     "Three main demographics," Adlesh replied. "Young, tech-savvy people who don't mind using his concept. Second, young families who see a huge savings over long-term parking. Lastly, surprisingly, senior citizens, on fixed incomes, who want to travel for less."
    Companies like FlightCar represent a fault line in the American economy, between old-school, heavily regulated industries like taxi cabs, rental cars and hotels, and the Wild West online world of unbridled capitalism where anybody with an idea and an entrepreneurial spirit can go into business with a few keystrokes.
     Rental cars are a $30 billion industry. Are they scared yet?
    "We haven't seen much push back at all, they're obviously aware of us. I don't think we're cutting into their market share enough," said Adlesh. "We think the growth will continue."
     The key question is: Do we need all that regulation? Do cabbies need all that training? Or was it merely creating monopolies and high barriers to participation in the market that jacked up prices needlessly? It'll be very interesting to see how this plays out, not just from a consumer point of view but politically. Republicans have embraced Uber — Jeb Bush was taking an Uber car to campaign stops — because it echoes their cry of getting the government off our backs.
     I suggested I'd be reluctant to hand over my car to a stranger. Adlesh said the cars are insured for $1 million, plus they've noticed a surprising dynamic among their customers.
     "People want to treat the cars nicely," he said. "There's a sense of community. The thinking is, 'They allow me to use it, I'm going to take care of somebody's assets.' Repeat users are very high. They like being part of the sharing economy."

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Children dying in hot cars


     The Internet is a lens designed to focus and concentrate contempt. Dr. Walter J. Palmer, the Minneapolis dentist who killed Cecil the lion, a beloved and protected resident of a wildlife preserve in Zimbabwe earlier this month, is discovering that now, as global condemnation pours down upon him. I imagine his dental practice is over, and will leave it up to you to decide whether he deserves it. My sympathy is quite minimal, other than to observe if he had traveled to Africa and killed a human being with a crossbow, outrage would have been considerably muted.
     More interesting, to me, was reaction to the Joliet mom who accidentally left her 7-month-old son in a hot SUV for two hours Tuesday while she went to a meeting. The child was found near death.
     "How do you leave your baby in a hot car?" one of my Facebook friends asked on her page. And while I really try not to get down on the mat on Facebook—it wastes time and produces little but angst—I happened to know, so weighed in. 

    "I can answer that," I wrote. "Harried parents forget their kids in the back seat. Gene Weingarten wrote a heartbreaking story about the phenomenon. Here's the link, but I warn you. It's one of the saddest things you'll ever read:"
     And I posted this 2009 Washington Post article on parents who leave their kids in cars.  I both encourage you to read it and warn you that it is truly awful, and contains descriptions that you will never get out of your head. 
     Children die in hot cars  quite frequently. Up to two dozen deaths a year in the United States. Once, three children died in one day. Why? The short answer is parents strap their kids in in the back seat and forget they are there. Out of sight, out of mind. Ironically, when baby seats were regularly put in the front passenger seat, this almost never happened. But the risk of being killed by air bags is such that auto experts recommended the seats be moved into the back, where they are safe from air bags but prone to be overlooked by harried parents. It's an open question whether more children die of heat than died swiftly from exploding air bags, but if I had to pick a way to go, I'd chose the air bags in a second. Far more merciful. 
     Tough as it is to read, I admire Gene's story as much as anything I've ever read, not just for its execution, which is flawless, but for its conception. I had seen those news items about kids dying in cars for years. Usually a small story, the type of thing readers tend not to linger over.  I couldn't turn the page quick enough. Gene Weingarten read the same stories and decided he was going to plunge into that world of unfathomable grief and suffering. That's why he has two Pulitzer Prizes.
    Posting the story did not stem the outrage, not even on this one Facebook page.
     "And how does the mother think that her own child was with someone else?!?!?!" a woman thundered.  She'd have had an answer if she just read the news story. The Joliet mom dropped her boyfriend off with two of her other kids, but he didn't take the third child, for some reason. Mom wasn't aware the child was back there. A tragic misunderstanding, apparently.
     "Dumb bitch!" Lisa C-----n wrote. "That makes me so mad!! YOU DON'T LEAVE YOUR BABY IN THE CAR! Are people really that forgetful .. seriously.. it's a living breathing baby ... I will NEVER understand this mentality ..omg! OK I'm done ranting."
    Thanks for the timely advice, Lisa. Of course you'll never understand it if you don't try.
     "You should read the story," I wrote under her remark.
     Maybe some people did read Gene's piece, because the comments stop at that point.

      It's so easy to get mad, so satisfying to vent your ire over a situation you only half grasp. It's much harder to withhold your anger and understand why something happens. Maybe that's why so few people bother to try.
      I originally was going to use Lisa's full name, to punish her for her "Dumb bitch" remark. But then decided there's far too much punishment on-line already. There's too much suffering in the world as it is. Why add to it? Maybe she has woes of her own. We should at some point start erring on the side of kindness.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Wheaton College stones its students



    The Bible is filled with acts that horrify us today, morally. Disrespectful children being stoned to death, a vengeful God smiting people for trifles—look back over your shoulder when the Big Guy tells you not to and you find yourself a pillar of salt. 
     In that tradition, Wheaton College on Friday will stop providing health insurance, affecting about a quarter of its 3,000 students, because the Affordable Care Act mandates birth control coverage for those who want it.
    This is the key thing to keep in mind: Obamacare doesn't force anyone to use birth control. It just makes it available, like any Walgreen's. If you want to manifest your religious beliefs and not use birth control, you are completely free to do so. 
    Just as those who feel no moral qualm about using birth control can use it. 
    That isn't how Wheaton College spins the situation of course. They make it a matter of their freedom being trampled on by the government. So rather than participate in a system of health care that might allow students to make a moral choice of which they don't approve, Wheaton College is yanking health care away from everyone, over a thousand students, giving them just a few weeks to scramble and find insurance coverage on their own. 
    That's the 2015 version of stoning a whore. 
    Religion should be voluntary. I don't know anybody who disagrees with that, at least publicly. That's why the government should be religion neutral: provide the full health care system and let individuals decide what part they avail themselves to, based on their individual moral beliefs. That's the only way a pluralistic society can work.
     Wheaton College doesn't buy into that because, at heart, they lack the courage of their convictions. They can't tolerate a system where their students don't use birth control because they believe it's morally wrong and avoid it. They have to make it unavailable to them. If they were secure that their students would make the decisions they believe their faith demands, they wouldn't care what the government offered. Because they know that young people actually want access to birth control, their supposed dogma be damned, the school tries to reach over their heads and swat it away. The risk that students, caught without health care, could suffer and die, well, Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. 

Rapmaster Rahm spins his favorite hits at Chief Keef


     So in a month that, so far, has seen 274 Chicagoans shot, 45 fatally, Mayor Rahm Emanuel snapped into action and blocked a hologram appearance by rapper Chief Keef because he worried it might be dangerous?
     “An unacceptable role model,” in the words of the mayor's spokesperson.
     That's a joke, right?
     No, it seems real. The mayor is now vetting the role models for black youth in Chicago. Following Rahm's lead, in Hammond, Indiana, police burst in and closed down a music festival Saturday night when the aforementioned Keef appeared, in hologram form.
     “Even though I was told no Chief Keef by the promoters, they tried it anyway. So we shut it down. We turned the power off, we’re closing the park down,” Hammond Police Lt. Patrick Vicari said at the time.
     Yes, Keef, who once upon a time went by Keith Cozart, is vile, his persona an image of black manhood as crafted by the Klan, his songs soporific, a bunch of gyrating toughs flashing guns and wads of cash while flinging their fingers around.
     So what? Since when does that matter? Since when does the mayor get to decide what is performed in the city? When did he earn that right? Did we give it to him, or did he just take it? And what makes any of us confident he'll use that power for good?
     Hasn't Rahm gotten burned by censorship already? Didn't he learn anything after his handpicked Chicago Public Schools chief, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, paused from canoodling her former employers with no-bid contracts, allegedly, long enough to cravenly pull acclaimed graphic novel "Persepolis" from CPS libraries after one complaint, then lied about it?
     How'd that one work for the reputation of the city? "Chiraq" is a compliment compared to the oppressive Midwestern cowardice conjured up by "Persepolis."
     Does Rahm Emanuel have any idea of Chicago's long history of shameful mayoral censorship? We're the city that wouldn't show newsreels criticizing the Nazis because they might foster anti-German feelings. Rahm's predecessor, Mayor Edward Kelly, banned Nelson Algren's "Never Come Morning" because the Polish National Alliance didn't like it. In 1948, Mayor Martin Kennelly banned Jean Paul Sartre's "The Respectful Prostitute," based on its name alone.
     Sis Daley, Richard J. Daley's wife, was able to get Mike Royko's "Boss" pulled from store shelves before a national howl got them put back.
     More? Sadly, there's much more.
     We're the city that banned the movie "Georgie Girl" as obscene, that arrested Lenny Bruce for holding up a photo of a breast at the Gate of Horn in 1962.
     Richard J. Daley blocked the production of movies he felt did not reflect well on the city, and as a result movies weren't filmed here for years. Did that hurt the movies? No, they went to Toronto. It hurt Chicago. Censorship always, always, always blows back in your face.
     Richard M. Daley condemned the movie "Hard Ball" because the kids in it swore. Maybe the kids swore because they knew Daley was planting a fiscal bomb that would blow up the city.
     And the swarm of low-rent buffoons on the City Council is still working up their courage to yank tax incentives from Spike Lee because they don't like the name of "Chiraq." The same august body that condemned Richard Wright's "Native Son." I'd bet you $20 that if Spike Lee called the aldermen decrying his movie and offered them a cameo, not one would turn him down.
     Not one.
     The mayor's office said a Keef concert "posed a public safety risk." So does the St. Patrick's Day Parade. So does traffic. So does Lollapalooza, but that's a bunch of white kids, so the risk is acceptable.
     Everything is a public safety risk. All the oppressions of Communist China are done in the name of security, protests and concerts and books banned because they might disturb domestic harmony. Given that the Chicago police kill more civilians than any other big city force in the country, I'd say a little musical pushback is to be expected.
     You want to know the worst part of this? This elevates Chief Keef, a flash-in-the-pan with cognac dribbling down his chin like pablum. I never had a charitable thought about Keef before. Not exactly the brightest bulb, Keef was the guy tweeting photos of himself smoking an enormous blunt in what was clearly his Northbrook home while simultaneously claiming not to be living there. And now he's Patrick Henry. Anyone going to a Chief Keef concert at least has to be aware of the chance of trouble. Why doesn't the mayor help kids whose only risky behavior is sitting in their bedroom when the bullets come through the wall?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Children of immigrants pitiless to others

Yesterday's column on Donald Trump and immigration drew the expected response of readers waving the fig leaf of legality. No one dislikes Hispanic immigrants, it's only illegal Hispanic immigrants who are the trouble.
   Great, then lets reform the system so that they can immigrate here legally...
   Somehow, that suggestion doesn't comfort them. They want a big wall. And deportations. A stunning 64 percent of Republicans in a CNN poll released Monday would prefer deporting illegal immigrants to putting them on a path to citizenship, which is just insane, morally, economically, logistically and politically. 
     What kind of people are these Republicans? In 2012 I spoke to one; rather, one spoke to me: 

     "Yes, I wish to leave a comment for Mr. Steinberg—Mr. Steinberg, for somebody that went to school for journalism, it seems to me you obviously don't know how to get your facts straight and put them out there. Because the only type of journalism that you know is biased journalism . . ."
     God bless voicemail. The perfect listener. A digital buddy, with all the time in the world. I try to listen too, but often just waiting for a point can tax the limits of patience.
     "Let me also state, for the record, before I go on, I used to be a member of your party that you obviously support. It's so evident, you're a liberal and a Democrat. A bleeding heart liberal . . ."
     Picked up on that one, eh? He eventually reveals why he's calling: immigration.
     "Since I am the product of immigrant parents, and I have the authority to speak out on this issue, because my parents immigrated to this country years ago, back in the '40s, right after World War II, from Europe, I think I have the right to speak out on this. Because my parents, who are still with me to this day, on occasion tell me how things were when they came over . . . because obviously immigration is in the news.
     That it is. Especially since the Supreme Court, while generally reaffirming that the federal government sets immigration policy, in theory, ruled Monday that cops in Arizona can keep demanding papers from anybody they suspect of being an illegal immigrant.
     "Knowing that they basically earned everything they've gotten in their life, whether it's citizenship, jobs, Social Security card, benefits."
     The common refrain: my sufferings ennoble me, while you're being given a free ride. No question previous immigrants had it tough. Anyone coming over in the 1940s faced bias even worse than that of today. In December 1945, a Gallup poll asked Americans whether more immigrants should be admitted into the U.S.: 5 percent said yes, more should be allowed in; 37 percent said fewer should be admitted; 14 percent said the number let in should be reduced to zero.
     "It seems to me you on the Left don't get it; these people need to earn their citizenship."
     "These people" being . . . illegal immigrants, right? I'm with you - we agree! They should earn their citizenship. The question is: how?
     "They shouldn't be granted amnesty, they shouldn't be given anything on a silver platter..."
     I'm not sure how crawling across the desert to end up - if they're lucky - washing dishes at a Denny's, devoid of most legal rights, is being handed anything on a silver platter. And isn't "amnesty" what you call any plan that lets them earn citizenship?
     "These people came here, first of all, without being invited. It's not like we said 'c'mon over.' They came here, they broke the law and knew they were breaking the law . . ."
     Nobody gets invited. Nobody invited the Italians or Greeks either ­- the homeland my caller cited for his parents and relatives, all of whom, he claimed, played by the rules and paid their dues. Maybe so. That sure wasn't the impression at the time - Italians historically suffered worse xenophobia than almost any group. "These sneaky and cowardly Sicilians," the New York Times once editorialized, "the descendants of bandits and assassins . . . are to us a pest without mitigation."
     "We bend over backwards to accommodate one group. We have their language on our driver's exam s. You can get election ballots not only in English, but in Hispanic."
     And in Chinese. And in Hindi. But those never seem to bother people. Why is that?
     Immigrants build our country. They always have. And they always face the same self-righteous scorn. Sometimes, ironically, even from their more established brethren - or their children - who feel entitled to gripe, worrying these less assimilated newcomers will draw unwanted attention to themselves.
     "As I was saying Mr. Steinberg, I'm not done yet. You obviously have the power of the pen and a column in which you can spout your biased ideology. It's so faulty, it's ridiculous."
     He spoke for 20 minutes, and I listened to every word, obscenities and all, just to make sure there was not a single moment when he viewed recent immigrants with a drop of the human sympathy he lavished on himself, or a fraction of the pity he slathered over his own family and whatever bootstrap fairy tale they fed him and he believed. Not a word. Then he paused to praise the sense of faith that turned him into such an unfeeling person.
     "I have the right to say what I said because I am the product of immigrants. My parents, aunts and uncles, my cousins, my relatives my neighbors... These people all went through the same things. They came here, got off at Ellis Island, which obviously was still functioning, and followed everything told to them . . ."
     And the new immigrants don't. I wonder why? Maybe they seldom get the chance. In the 19th century, our nation reacted to an influx of immigrants by constructing Ellis Island, as a port of entry. Our generation met a smaller surge by building a big wall, not just on the border, but in our hearts and minds.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jiune 27, 2012

Monday, July 27, 2015

Trump on the border

Donald Trump

     A baseball cap has many uses. It soaks up sweat, it blocks the sun.
     If you're Donald Trump, campaigning in Laredo last week, a baseball cap also protects your fragile superstructure of carefully stage-managed hair from the unforgiving Texas wind.
     And it expresses your campaign philosophy, "Make America Great Again."
     Let's think about that phrase—someone should—because it encapsulates not only how Trump, but also the 15 other Republican presidential candidates he's shredding, view the world.
     "Make America Great Again."
     What does that mean?
     Well, it certainly implies that America isn't great now. It once was. And can be. Again. Our lost greatness regained, by....electing Donald Trump, I suppose.
     And once elected, Trump will help us find our missing greatness ... how?
     By cracking down on immigration, apparently. That has been the main, practically the only thrust of his campaign, from his announcement, tarring Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists (plus, he grudgingly added, a few non-criminals and non-rapists). The immigrants have stolen our greatness. Destroyed our country, really. People who aren't right wing nutjobs may have difficulty understanding just how thoroughly the GOP thinks Hispanics ruin America.
     "We are entered upon the final act of our civilization," writes GOP elder statesman Pat Buchanan, in "State of Emergency," his 2006 call to end all immigration completely. Hispanic immigrants not only steal our jobs and commit crimes, but carry diseases, "diseases that never before afflicted us," Buchanan writes. Like leprosy.
     Trump, echoing Buchanan, focused on the physical threat, citing the "the great danger" that he, Donald Trump, faced by just being near the border for a few hours.
     We are going to have to endure months of this, and so should grasp the underlying mindset, which I call "Lost Eden." It goes like this:
     Once America was Eden. The country was filled with white Protestant pilgrims and they ran the show and everything was fine. Then came The Fall, the arrival of the people who didn't belong and who wrecked everything. First the Irish. Italians. Jews. Slavs. Each in his turn was held up exactly as Mexicans are being held up now, as disease-ridden criminals and slackers. Buchanan manfully tries to explain the difference—"the Italians wanted to be part of our family, millions of Mexicans are determined to retain their language and loyalty to Mexico. They prefer to remain outsiders."
      So saith Pat Buchanan. When people talk of making American great again, I ask which year of greatness, specifically, they'd like to recapture. When was the American zenith? A popular choice is 1945; we had defeated the Germans and the Japanese, and thought the world was our oyster.
     Only it wasn't. Being top dog, in our estimation, did not prevent Communism from overtaking China and all of Eastern Europe over the next several years.. The following decade at home was a miserable, shameful nadir of loyalty oaths and red baiting. Anyone who misses the 1950s wasn't paying attention.
      The truth is always nuanced. The country is always changing, a prospect Buchanan views with horror. "America is being transformed," he moans.
      Two facts about Hispanic immigration you won't hear from either Patrick Buchanan or Donald Trump:
     1) It's done. There are 54 million Hispanics living in the United States, or 17 percent of the population. By 2060, that will double, to 128 million. One in three Americans will be of Hispanic origin. They aren't going home; they are home. How do you think they'll view the current GOP passion to somehow rip them out of the American story and sent them yelping back to their lands of origin?
     2) The Republicans are toast, nationally. They can win white bread Congressional districts, and plenty of big, empty, conservative states like Wyoming to keep them powerful in the Senate. But once you toss out the 17 percent of the electorate who are either Hispanic immigrants or their descendants, you just can't win the White House. The Republicans pause after each defeat, vow to court the Hispanic vote, then return to desperately clawing at the ashes of their imagined past, blubbering in terror and trying to press handfuls of scorched fantasy into something they recognize.
      A great country doesn't crawl whimpering toward an imagined past. A great country stands up and walks determinedly into the future. Even a future with brown people in it. That's America's only hope for continued greatness. Where is the leader willing to take us there?


Sunday, July 26, 2015

Bob Abt created a sprawling world of wonder




Bob Abt was an iconic Chicago businessman. He died last Thursday, and I thought I'd share the afternoon we spent together five years ago, touring his family's magnificent store. 

     A company does not generally want to catch the attention of Consumer Reports. If the scrappy monthly watchdog singles out your business, that typically means your product tends to catch fire, or has been found shoddy, shabby, or insufficient.
     So you have to smile -- I sure smiled -- seeing the magazine's trademark tough scrutiny dissolve into applause in the August issue, where a survey of 21,068 subscribers crowns our own Abt Electronics as the best store of its type in the country.
     "Abt Electronics, in the Chicago area, and [other] independent local stores garnered high praise from shoppers who bought a major appliance in the past year," the magazine notes, running a shopper-satisfaction chart showing Abt, with a score of 92, far outpacing also-rans such as Home Depot, Sears (both 83) and Best Buy (82).
Many customers don't realize that
"Abt" is a name, not an acronym. 

     Celebrating a store is unusual for me, but then Abt is no usual store. The place is a sprawling world of wonder, and I respect Abt just for doing what it does so well.
     The stats amaze. Some 1,100 employees in 350,000 square feet at its one and only location. Platoons of salespeople guiding an army of customers -- up to 10,000 a day -- through Abt's jungle of products, and as amazing as that is, in these pared-down times, even more incredible that 80 percent work away from the sales floor, handling service calls and online orders (the Internet accounts for 20 percent of business). Not in Delhi, but in Glenview.
     "We do everything ourselves," said Bob Abt, 72, neatly summing up the secret of the success of the 74-year-old store, which rings up more than $300 million a year in sales.
     And he means "everything." The store generates its own electrical power, with a pair of 850 kilowatt natural gas generators. It has its own wood shop, its own fleet of trucks, serviced in its own garage and gassed up at its own pumps.
     Many stores recycle; Abt takes the Styrofoam packing its delivery people remove after setting up appliances, then melts it down into a sweetish-smelling white paste Abt sells back to manufacturers in Asia. Currently, they're shipping 40,000 pounds a week at 20 cents a pound.
     If I had to point to just one aspect of the store to explain Abt, it would be the fish tank -- an enormous, 7,500-gallon saltwater tank. It isn't just decoration -- the camera department rings it, and the tank was installed so people fiddling with video cameras would have something colorful to look at through their viewfinders.
     Most stores wouldn't worry about a detail like that, never mind solve the problem with 100 tropical fish and an on-staff fish feeder who goes into the tank in a wet suit.
     But Abt is a spend-money-to-make-money kind of place. In the bathrooms, the granite goes all the way to the ceiling -- no painting, easier to clean -- and there are fresh flowers. Scattered around the store are not just glass jars of candy, but glass jars of Hershey's miniatures -- good, expensive candy.
     Candy helps keep kids occupied while their parents are buying electronics, and there are a number of other kid-centric activities -- the big spinning granite globe, for instance, a booth allowing you to raise an enormous bubble around yourself, video games, fountains, cooking demonstrations.
     "My idol in business is Steve Wynn," Abt said of the casino tycoon. "He puts a show on."
     Did I mention the restaurant? If you never get to the nearby design center -- Kohler wanted to display bathroom fixtures, but there wasn't room, so Abt built a facility across the parking lot -- you might not realize Abt runs a restaurant, Jolane's Cafe, with a polished wood interior, a glass-ceiling bar, Julius Meinl coffee, soy glazed salmon and Hungarian ribeye on the menu. The restaurant is two years old, and not yet as successful as they'd like.
     "It's much easier to sell a television than sell a sandwich," Abt says.
     I suppose, to preserve my reputation, I should find something critical to say: There is a whole lot of choice. I counted 110 types of televisions before I gave up, defeated. The place can be overwhelming.
     But that's the best I can do, too much selection if you have decision anxiety.
     The scope of Abt busts the confines of this column, and rather than turn it into a weeklong series, I'd better wind up now. Despite being in the business his entire life, Bob Abt seems to take nothing for granted -- every night, he walks the store at closing, scrutinizing the place.
     He surprised me by expressing reservations about my even mentioning the Consumer Reports praise.
     "I don't know if you can really write about it," he said. "They're so touchy."
     Who isn't nowadays? But not so touchy that we've voided the First Amendment. Anyway, in summary: Abt, a great place and under-appreciated local treasure, and if Consumer Reports wants to come and get me for spilling the beans, well, they know where I am.
 
                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 6, 2010

REAL SLICED POTATOES

   In my idealist youth, I tried to help a family of Russian immigrants adjust to life in Chicago. Intending to show off the bounty in this great country of ours, I unthinkingly took this poor Igor to Cub Foods, a pioneering 24-hour-a-day mega warehouse supermarket.
     To my surprise, he froze on the threshold, and would not go in.
    "Is too much," he said.
     His frame of reference was whatever small, shabby, bare-shelved, white-tile Leningrad corner grocery he was used to, cuing up for hours to get his bunch of turnips and package of mystery meat wrapped in paper and twine. 
     But his words often come back to me, while navigating the profusion of food emporiums all around me: Sunset Foods and Jewel, Garden Fresh, Heinen's, Caputo Brothers, plus TWO Whole Foods and TWO Trader Joes.
     And those are just the ones my wife frequents. 
    Plus this place at the corner of Waukegan and Lake Cook, Fresh Thyme, which I had never noticed, but we popped in Saturday after walking at the Botanic Garden. The store was nearly deserted, even though it had a cheery, well-scrubbed, natural-goods purveyor vibe, sort of a Whole Foods without the hauteur. 
     Well, maybe a little hauteur. My attention was caught by this line of potato chips, "REAL SLICED POTATOES." My first thought was, "Aren't all potato chips 'real sliced potatoes?'" Except of course for Pringles, made of some kind of pre-digested potato mash. But Pringles are pretty much intended for toddlers, correct? 
      The Real Sliced Potatoes are sold by the Kettle brand, which also has regularly labeled potato chips, and, not wanting to delay the wife, I didn't have time to stop and try to figure out the difference, if any, but I imagine it's pretty much confined to nomenclature. 
     It does seem to point toward a new path of labeling products to mesh with the self-deceptive delusions of the consumer. Avoiding ice cream? Enjoy some "FROZEN COW NECTAR"? Trying not to eat bread? Try a "FARMLAND WHEAT SLICE."  
    Will people who are reluctant to pork out on potato chips happily dig their hands into bags of "Real Sliced Potatoes." Maybe.
     To me, it's a product without a market, making a distinction lost on the average customer.
     "Real Sliced Potatoes." Who will that fool? Who will be drawn in? These are customers, remember, who are already eating potato chips, their bar for healthfulness is already pretty low. "REAL SLICED POTATOES." The name's too generic. We could think of a better one right now, in a second. Mmmm ... "Genuine Spud Shavings."  "Authentic Tater Crisps."
      Being the guy who dismissed cell phones as a fad, I probably shouldn't mock any new product. And as for the superabundance of supermarkets, until a few go belly up, that's only good for customers. It means they're fighting for your business. I was ordering bologna (soon to be "HIGH PROTEIN ROUNDS") at the Jewel and the guy at the deli counter reached over and offered me a slice. Immediately I was back in Berea, Ohio, four years old, being handed a slice of bologna by the butcher in the Parkway Shops. I almost vowed on the spot to only shop at Jewel, in gratitude for my free bologna, even while musing on the fickle infidelity of customers. But the Sunset is really close to my house and, all things equal, I'm committed to trying to keep them afloat. 


Saturday, July 25, 2015

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

   
     Now this is a curious tableau. What exactly are these two men doing? And why is that third man watching? Okay, you don't really need to answer that. But it might help you figure out where these people are. As might those flowers strewn on the floor. Anyway, this struck me as just oblique enough to pose a challenge without being impossible to solve. Heck, if the right person sees it, it'll be downright easy. Either way, where is this? The winner gets one of my by-now-just-plain-worthless blog posters. Good luck. Remember to post your guesses below. 

Saturday fun activity: Now at dawn.


     Through some miracle, I remembered I promised to post the Saturday fun activity at 7 a.m. So go to bed, and it'll be waiting for you then. 'Night.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Eastland disaster warns us still

Bobbie Aanstad

     Bobbie Aanstad could do something most 13-year-old girls in 1915 could not: She could swim. Her sweetheart, Ernie Carlson, had taught her one summer in Michigan.
     She lived in Logan Square, then a Norwegian immigrant enclave, with her widowed mother and little sister. She had an uncle Olaaf who worked at the vast Western Electric works in Cicero, where 40,000 employees made every telephone in America. He invited them to come to the company excursion to Michigan City.
     The family took the trolley and arrived at the Chicago River about 6:45 a.m., July 24, 1915. Five ships awaited to take them to Michigan. The Eastland was scheduled to leave first, so they got on that, and found a spot on the crowded cabin deck to wait for the deadliest accident in Chicago history to unfold.
     The Eastland disaster is often said to be forgotten, but the truth is worse: It is ignored, a tragedy that has none of the glitz of the Titanic, which killed fewer passengers, nor the can-do spirit of the Great Chicago Fire. It was a mass watery death in full public view, within two dozen feet of shore, on a ship still tied to the wharf.
     What happened is plain enough. When the Eastland received its 2,500 passengers — the absolute limit — the gangways were closed and the ship's crew prepared to cast off.
     But the ship, notoriously unstable, could not right itself. For a few minutes it listed back and forth, starboard toward the pier, then port, toward the center of the river, and back. The captain tried to trim the ship, filling various ballast tanks. For the picnickers, the swaying was a lark; they whooped happily as the boat tilted this way, then that.
     Then the Eastland began to tip to port and kept going. A refrigerator toppled over, sending bottles of beer crashing. A piano crushed a boy. The laughter turned to screams as the boat turned on its side and settled in water that came exactly to its midpoint.
     In what instantly became a dark, watery cell, Bobbie Aanstad dog paddled for her life, then held onto a railing while others died around her. She cried for her mother. Outside, the surface of the Chicago River was a thrashing, clawing, screaming mass of humanity.
     "Most of them, it seemed, could not swim, or were dragged down by those that could not swim," deckhand Harry Miller said later."Men, women and children, all over that part of the river."
     Bystanders tossed chairs, ropes, chicken crates, anything they could find, into the river. The women were doubly doomed — not only had the vast majority never been taught to swim, but they were weighed down by long dresses, buttoned into clothes that could not be quickly shed in the water. If rescue didn't come in seconds it came too late.
     Another reason the Eastland does not loom large in civic memory is that it was not a moment of pride for Chicago. While bystanders who could swim did leap into the waters and saved lives, others picked the pockets of the horrified crowd — and even robbed the dead. A fire boat sat a block away, the captain delayed going to the rescue, worried about a boiler explosion. The police were later accused of holding back the crowd and would-be rescuers, instead of helping those in the water.
     That night, when a temporary morgue was opened, the curious far outnumbered family members attempting to identify lost loved ones. After the city erected barriers along the river to give privacy to the recovery of bodies, a janitor at a nearby building admitted the gawkers to the roof for a dime a head. When the names of the deceased were announced — including 22 entire families — some of their homes were robbed.
     Come Monday, hundreds began showing up at the Hawthorne works, hoping to fill the jobs of those who had not yet been buried.
     Though a century has passed, aspects of the tragedy are with us yet. The clock tower of the red brick Reid, Murdock Building, built in 1914, still broods over the scene. The chicken company whose crates were tossed into the water, Cougel Brothers, is now Cougel Commission, and still sells chicken.
     Bobbie Aanstad's two granddaughters, Barbara and Susan, live in Arlington Heights, and well remember their grandmother, who lived to be 90 and late in life married Ernie Carlson, the boy who taught her to swim.
     "My grandmother always told us, when we were little girls growing up, 'It's very important you girls know how to swim,'" said Barbara Decker Wachholz, whose Eastland Disaster Historical Society will hold a memorial at the river at 1 p.m. Friday and a candle lighting at dusk Saturday.
     Another thing that has not changed: Most people still can't swim, not well enough to save their lives.      
    According to the American Red Cross, while 80 percent say they can swim, the number who can stay alive in an emergency, who are able to swim 25 yards or tread water for a minute, is around 46 percent. The numbers for Latinos are far worse: 60 percent can't swim; African-Americans are worse still: 67 percent. Nationwide, 10 Americans drown every day. Or the equivalent of the Eastland's death toll of 844, drowning every three months, year in and year out.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

One last ovation for Dave Feldman

     When Dave Feldman walked into the newsroom, the sports department would stand and applaud.
     A mixture of admiration and gentle mockery of the man everyone called “The King.” Feldman, the paper’s turf reporter, was a king with a bad back and a heart condition, the dean of horse racing in Chicago who would reply to the question, "How are you?" with a snarl of "I'm dyin'!"
     So let’s potch our hands together and maybe we can conjure up Feldman one last time in honor of 100 years since his birth, July 24, 1915. Clap, and squint, and maybe we can see him toddle in, looking like an unmade bed, perhaps slightly raising a regal hand to acknowledge his subjects, a short, paunchy, sad-eyed man, lurid shirt untucked, fly perhaps undone. A man who lived for horses, who not only wrote about them, but owned them, trained them, bet on them, and announced their races.
     "I could enter my horse in a race, handicap the event, call him home to the wire, and interview the winning owner and trainer—me," he wrote in his memoir, perfectly titled “Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda,” written with Frank Sugano. The book is an urn containing Feldman's enormous spirit; crack it open and he lives again.
Dave Feldman

     "Dumb, right?" Feldman writes, of buying his first horse. "Yeah, but as they say, when you get an itch, you've got to scratch it. The thought of owning a horse had spread in my mind like a rash. I probably picked it up in New Orleans, where I had spent the winter covering the races at the Fair Grounds … My partner and I got the horse cheap because we promised to pay the owner $1,000 when Oomph Girl won a race. Hah! The first three times we ran her she was beaten like a flyweight matched against Jack Dempsey.”
     Born on the West Side, Feldman began delivering the Herald-Examiner at 6. A neighbor took him to Arlington Park when he was 12, and he was hooked.
     "Other kids my age read comic books," he recalled. "I read the (Racing) Form."
     Feldman took bets from Damon Runyon. He was the mascot for the Chicago Blackhawks in 1929, the year, as a student at Lindblom High School, he began handicapping races and took a part time job at the Chicago Herald-Examiner. When it merged with the Evening American in 1939, Mr. Feldman became turf editor of the resultant Herald-American, later Chicago's American. He moved to the Daily News in 1969, and to the Sun-Times when the Daily News folded in 1978.
     He wrote as he spoke:
     "Girl jocks?" he mused, on the advent of female jockeys in 1969. "I'll be honest with you. I don't care for them. But they're here to stay. Follow?"
     "You know, horses are smarter than people. People bet on horses, but horses never bet on people."
     Feldman died at 85—of the heart condition he worried about for decades—in 2001. I wrote his obit, but left out one story I cherish about Dave.
     The Sun-Times had many larger than life characters, and another was the high school sports editor, Taylor Bell, at least in his estimation. Feldman had a way of spreading into Bell’s space, and Bell resented it. Words were exchanged.
     Feldman got back this way. He visited a high school with a tape recorder, and went up to students who looked like athletes. “Do you play football?” he’d ask until he found one who did. “Do you know Taylor Bell?" he’d continue. If the student did know Bell, he'd thank him, rewind the tape, and look for another. If he didn't, he'd push a bit. "Really? What position? Quarterback? And you've never heard of Taylor Bell? Really? No idea who he is!?"
     He ended with a string of student athletes, expressing bafflement over this mystery man, Taylor Bell. Then he played the tape for Taylor to the permanent delight of all present.
     Feldman was president of the Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association, the union that represents owners and trainers. He described the job this way:
     "I hate being president of the HBPA. It's tougher than being president of the United States. At least the president has a party tin back of him. I have nothing—no party, no friends, no flunkies, just a board of whiners and backstabbers. Then there are the horsemen, another bunch of stakes-grade squawkers. It's been that way since 1975 when I was first elected. So why didn't I quit after the first three-year term? Hell if I know. My whole life has been like this."
     Unlike most of what he wrote, that was not quite true. Feldman had many friends, from broke stable hands to millionaire horse breeders—Arlington International owner Dick Duchossois was one of his pall bearers.
     A horse race lasts a minute or two, a human life, a little longer. When it's gone, sometimes those you touched remember. I didn't know Dave well, and couldn't tell a thoroughbred from a mule. But I admired the way he manifested himself. On Dave Feldman's centennial, it seems fitting to saddle up his spirit, to let him flash around the track of our minds one more time before retiring out to pasture for keeps.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

America deserves Donald Trump


     I was at the Lincoln Memorial earlier this month, and studied the face of Daniel Chester French's Lincoln. He looked pissed, and that right foot lifting slightly, as if he were about to leap up and stride out of that shrine and start kicking ass.
    And why not? The Union is in disarray, as always. Our cherished freedoms are held cheaply by the paranoiacs and psychopaths who dominate what passes for political discourse in this country. Relentless plutocrat and egomaniac Donald Trump is leading the polls in 2016 is something you'd expect in a bad nightmare dystopian movie from 1989. Yet there it is. Get in the game Abe. We need you. We need somebody. 

     America deserves Donald Trump.
     Don't we?
     Nearly a quarter of Republicans agree: They want him to be president. Twenty-four percent prefer Trump over actual politicians such as Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio.
     Yes, that Post-ABC poll was mostly taken before Trump's jaw-dropping slap at Sen. John McCain's war record. But Tuesday, when those poll numbers came out, the general feeling was not that Trump had destroyed himself and this was the final gasp of might-have-been before the real estate developer slumps offstage in shame. The usual, one-awkward-shout-and-Howard-Dean-is-history dynamic doesn't seem to apply to Trump, who refused to be embarrassed for slurring every American POW who ever lived, and instead busied himself slamming Lindsey Graham and giving out his cellphone number.
     Times change. Gary Hart's campaign was scuttled because of one weekend with Donna Rice; Donald Trump married Marla Maples and nobody even remembers.
     So Republicans think we deserve Trump because he represents their angry rejection of all things Washington: politicians, policy, Barack Obama. Trump, remember, was denying Obama was born in this country long after even zealots let the fantasy drop.
     Now Democrats, look into your hearts.

     We believe this country deserves Donald Trump too, don't we?
     Haven't we turned our political life into a theater of the absurd? Don't we acknowledge that shiny surface appearance trumps — no pun intended — inner merit? Hasn't money hijacked the electoral system, flowing easily around all feeble efforts to constrain it like a swollen river around a rock?
     Sure, some Democrats will embrace Trump cynically, as the quickest way to drive the GOP into a ditch, leaving a clear stretch of dry highway for Hillary Clinton to cruise into the White House.
     But we could also accept Trump as the punishment we know we deserve. For being lightweights, for never embracing what we believe with a fraction of the passion of the Fox News crowd.
     Remember, Clinton has also been running for president for the past few weeks. She might as well be campaigning on Pluto, a smudge photographed by the New Horizons spacecraft as it raced by. Trump straddles the American stage like a colossus.
     Maybe we're getting used to him. We've seen him on TV, read his books. We buy his wealth=quality logic.
     Trump doesn't need position papers. He doesn't need policy experts. He just has to be himself, pure ego, pure demagoguery. Maybe he'll blow up, maybe he'll call Taylor Swift a whore and the country will turn on him.
     Or maybe he won't. I keep thinking of Ronald Reagan, the guy we want to add to Mount Rushmore. The country forgets what a joke he was, at first, the Bedtime for Bonzo B-grade actor who paused from selling Borax to run the nuthouse of California and won GOP hearts by being more dynamic than Gerald Ford, which is not that hard to do.
     Sure, Trump might implode. But how is the GOP going to settle down with staid old Jeb Bush after Trump? It can't.
     Insulting McCain will pass; McCain's a stiff, the guy who lost to Barack Obama by 10 million votes. Not that we should hold the Trump inauguration quite yet. I'm of the opinion that Trump will self-destruct on live TV during the Aug. 6 debate. It will be his "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" moment with the whole country watching, aghast. But that might be my giddy, people-are-good-at-heart optimism.
     Right now, Trump is a win-win-win for America. Either he flames out — win — and makes the country grateful for a Jeb Bush candidacy, something I would not have previously thought possible.
     Or he takes the GOP field — win — and allows Hillary Clinton to waltz into the presidency in a cakewalk.
     Or Trumps prevails and becomes president, terrifying the world with the awful, limitless possibility that is America, raising the specter of a country lost in shallowness and worship of wealth finally getting the leader we so richly deserve.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Goodbye old tree.


    People never had trouble finding our house.
    "It's the one with the giant maple in front," I'd say, "the one with the tire swing."
    That was enough. They'd see the tree, massive, 60 feet tall and almost as wide, then behind is, hiding, our 1905 farmhouse.
    The tree was one of the oldest in Northbrook: easily 125 years old, and was perhaps the best feature about our place. A living link to the 19th century. 
    "I bought the tree," I'd tell visitors, "and the house came with it."
     In autumn, it was a mountain of orange and yellow. In winter, framed severely against the blue sky. It sprang to life every spring, and in summer was green and cool, interjecting itself between our house and the sun's fierce transit.
     The bark was thick, creased, more like armor plate, like something on a gnarled prehistoric beast.  How many hours did I sit on the front porch and just stare at it? It was age itself, serenity itself, the embodiment of permanence, of true beauty that endures forever.
     But trees, like people, do not actually live forever. And our tree was slowly dying. We noticed it years ago. We tried tending it, hired arborist after arborist to pump nutrients into it, wire together its sagging gigantic limbs—that enormous branch, pointing due south, seemed ready to crack the tree in half.  
    Every year there was more deadwood, and every year we'd cut the deadwood out and hope for a rally, or at least for the decline to stabilize, though no expert thought that possible.  It was slowly falling apart. On morning, maybe five years ago, a 10 foot section that must have weighed 200 pounds  was noticed dangling, about 20 feet up, right above the sidewalk, a sword of Damocles. I ran to the hardware store, bought sawhorses, blocked off the sidewalk and called a tree trimmer to get it out before it killed someone.
    One tree company, asked for an estimate to cull the deadwood, just turned in a proposal to remove the tree and grind out the stump. Our initial request had not made sense to him. Another guy just looked me directly in the eye and drew his finger across his throat. I felt like we were  giving CPR to a corpse.
     The arctic winter of 2013/2014 was particularly hard on it. We cleared the deadwood away, again, and hoped for  miracle. But this year it came back looking worse than ever.  The bark fell away in sheets. The ants moved in. The sap bled down the white, barkless trunk, as if the tree were weeping.
     Still, I was going to remove the deadwood again, give what was left another summer. But that one huge arm of the street shot out over the sidewalk. I wasn't just gambling with my own life, kneeling down to pick up the papers, always tossed directly underneath, I wondered if the last thing I'd hear would be a loud "crack" and I'd look up just in time to get a kisser full of tree.
     I was also gambling with the life of everybody who walked past. All the kids in the neighborhood.
     So we took it out Monday. I surprised my wife with how calmly I took it, avoiding the hoopla I might have felt compelled to indulge in. No ceremony, no ring of neighbors holding hands, encircling its enormous trunk—10 foot six inches in circumference. No poems, no tears. We did not, as we had considered, have the lumber treated and turned into furniture. That would have made it all somehow worse, by its paltriness, like erecting a sail to try to stop the world from turning. I paused at the top of the stairs Monday morning, took one last look, then headed off to work. I never even said, "Thank you." But then again, trees aren't doing what they do for the thanks. That's just how they are.
     My wife tried to put the best spin on it.
     "It's dying," she said. "Maybe it's in pain."
     Hard to tell. I don't think so. It's not as if you could ask it. Either way, it's not in pain any more.
     It helps that last year, I planted an identical sugar maple under our dying giant's dry branches. And I made a point of gathering a half a dozen seedlings that our fading Goliath had thrown off. I'll take these orphan saplings out into various spots and plant them, to give the old guy a new lease on life. That's the lesson nature teaches. Each of us dies, every tree dies too. But trees still go on. Life goes on. The new maple has a century to go, but it'll get there. I won't, but it will. Someone else will mourn its passing.




Monday, July 20, 2015

This is not my anemone


      "This is not my anemone," I said, with mock surprise. My wife looked down, at the flower bed in front of us at the Chicago Botanic Garden, read the sign I had just read, and sighed.
     A pun, and not a very good one. I pronounced it "enemy." But it's really "ane-mone."
     So worse than a pun, a mangled pun.
     Humor itself is a low form of writing—fragile, fleeting—and puns are a subchamber of that. "He who would pun would pick a pocket" Alexander Pope wrote, in the Duncyiad, perfectly capturing the sense of disrepute related to gimmicky wordplay.
     What's the appeal? I think it has something to do with connecting words. There's some kind of hardwired joy, for those unfortunates afflicted with a propensity to pun, with drawing a line from one word to another.
      Being funny is secondary. For instance, like many boys, I played with slot cars, and of course became familiar with their various little motor parts. The brushes, the armature. When I came to Chicago, seeing the street name "Armitage" conjured up "armature" in my mind. It wasn't in any way witty, so I didn't say it aloud, but I think that automatic connection, one word to another close to it, flipping meanings, is what drives the punster.    
     The link forms in mind and there's nothing to do but toss it out.  My wife, since she's usually the one around, in usually the victim.
     Or benefactor. Sometimes puns are funny. You might remember the Pope quote being spoken by Doctor Stephan Maturin in "Master and Commander," after Russell Crowe's Captain Jack Aubrey makes a pun. He points to a pair of weevils crawling on the table and asks the ship's surgeon to pick one. After some goading, Maturin picks the larger one. The captain is triumphant.
    "Don't you know that in the service one must always choose the lesser of two weavils?"
    That sets the table aroar, but there was a lot of drinking going on, which usually helps a pun.     
     Though sober puns can sometimes hit. My wife and I were working in the garden, it was hot, and we were thirsty. She mentioned that she had made some mint iced tea that was waiting inside.
     "I put some of this mint in it," she said, gesturing to our tub crowded with fresh mint, which has to be restrained so it doesn't take over the garden.
    "That's good, that'll make it extra-minty," I said, then paused, the the pun forming before my eyes. "As opposed to excrementy, which would be bad."
     I'm not sure whether that was funny, but she laughed, and  I laughed too. Maybe you had to be there.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Happy 90th birthday, Ed McElroy

Sharon Fountain, left, and John L. Smith, right talk with Ed McElroy at the Chicago Crusader. 


     Readers of "You Were Never in Chicago" will remember the chapter called "Driving With Ed McElroy." What they probably don't realize is that Ed is responsible for the book's existence: it was that chapter, originally an article in the Chicago issue of Granta, that prompted the University of Chicago Press to ask me to write a book about this fascinating city.
     And that is just one way that I'm in Ed's debt, for generally taking me under his wing and showing me the ropes in the city. I could not let Ed McElroy's birthday pass unheralded. He turns 90 Monday, and the big party at the Beverly Country Club is today. This is a longer version of a story that ran last Monday in the Sun-Times. 


     Ed McElroy is making his rounds.
     Natty in a pinstripe suit, the shirt and tied picked out for him by Rita Marie, his wife of 60 years, he parks his black Cadillac in a no-parking zone on Halsted Street and strides into office of the Bridgeport News, briefing me on the way: the editor's husband is a Chicago fireman, the owners and I share a religion.
     "The guy who owns the paper is one of yours," he tells me. "His father was a friend of mine. Really Jewish too."
     If that seems a slightly startlingly remark in this day and age, well Ed is not quite of this day and age. He's 90, or will be on July 20, a living, working slice of the Chicago way that somehow has magically escaped the claw of time, a shoe leather and handshake man in an impersonal electronic world.
     
Ed McElroy talks with Janice Racinowski at the Bridgeport New.
Ed McElroy visits the Bridgeport News
     "How many years you and I go back?" Ed asks editor Janice Racinowski, sitting in the otherwise empty office.
     "Well, let's see..." Racinowski replies. "I'm going to be 58 next year. I started when I was 15 going on 16. So, 43 years."
     There is a lot of that with Ed. He knows you, he knew your father, he sometimes knew your grandfather. I'm slightly surprised, almost incredulous, when I meet older Chicagoans who don't know Ed.
     I should admit up front that I am not writing about Ed the way I would write about any random Chicagoan. Ed's my friend, so whether hailing him on his birthday is self-indulgence or news, well, I'll let you decide. But favors to Ed have a way of rebounding well for all concerned. Last month I went down into the Thornton Quarry because Ed asked me to—I only vaguely knew the quarry was there. The story led the Sun-Times web site for most of the day, the public rapt to learn about the huge hole they've been driving by forever.
     So was I helping Ed, or was Ed helping me? Or a little of both, the truest definition of the Chicago way.
     Ed McElroy was a radio reporter for WJJD in the 1950s and 1960s, and as such has chatting up everyone from Martin Luther King to Jackie Kennedy. He has represented judicial candidates, police organizations.He visits dozens of mall newspapers and brings them good news, literally.
     "We leave the bad news to the bigger papers," says Racinowski . "This is all just neighborhood news, meetings, stuff we feel people would be interested in, for their benefit."
     Some of that material comes from Ed, photographs of awards dinners, of the honor ceremonies. He drops them by, picking up stacks of paper to show his clients, always pausing to chat.
     "He's one of the nicest gentlemen you'll ever meet," says Racinowski. "Fantastic stories. I love listening to the older stories. "
     Like the story about his wedding.
     He married in 1955, two weeks after Richard J. Daley was elected. Ed had worked on his unsuccessful 1948 campaign for mayor. But the outgoing mayor was his mother's friend, so some delicate negotiating was in order.
     "My mother came from 31st street, and so did Martin Kennelly," says Ed. "For eight years he was mayor, my mother knew him quite well. So Dad Daley gets elected, he's going to be an usher at my wedding. Then my mother said 'Edward, Mayor Kennelly has to be at your wedding.' I said, 'You know ma....' 'Edward, the mayor has to be at your wedding.' 'Okay mother, he'll be there.' So we worked it out. Kennelly came to the church and Dad Daley came to the reception.."
     By then he was announcing six-day bicycle races, female baseball leagues, and part of that was drumming up publicity.
     "I used to announce stock car races. An editor said, 'Ed, if you could get a picture I could run it.' People liked that I came around. then I got into more the public relations side."
     On the public relations side, Ed makes himself useful. He's driven several future presidents around Chicago.
     John F. Kennedy to name one.
     "In 1959 Dad Daley called me, said I want you to go out and pick up the senator from Massachusetts," remembers Ed. "I said what's his name? 'John Kennedy.' Don't mean a thing. What's he look like?" They ended up on Rush Street, for dinner and a few nightclubs.
      Barack Obama to name another.
     "This kid from Hyde Park gets elected state senator," says Ed. "Now I'm not in love with people from Hyde Park. That's where Despres comes from"—Leon Despres, 5th ward alderman and do-good reformer. Ed, being old Chicago, is no fan of do-good reform. "I'm not paying too much attention to Obama. [State senate president Emil] Jones says, 'Hey, be nicer to this guy.'"
     Ed told Jones, 'Well, he's one of yours, I don't like him."
     Still, Ed complied.
     "So I start being nice to him. I bump into Obama at this party, he's all alone. 'Where are you going?'' Home. 'I'll drive you home.' Drive him on a couple rounds of the district. Never a foul word. None of that cheap talk. As high class as could be. So I take him one day to Beverly Review."

 
Bob Olszweski Jr.
   "Barack Obama sat in this office right here," says Bob Olszewski Jr., the Beverly Review's editor-in-chief, in the cramped, shabby offices at 105th and Western. "Ed came by, wants us to meet this guy. 'Barry Obama!'' Yeah, whatever. Editors roll their eyes and cringe because you know, a lot of the stuff Ed sends out is PR. But there always somebody from the neighborhood or from the area, so I can justify it, and the help he has given us over at the paper ... whatever Ed McElroy wants around here, he pretty much gets."

     Ed also stops at the Crusader, at 6400 S. King Drive.
     "Ed knows everybody," says John L. Smith, the ad manager. "Ed is a great guy. Everybody in the neighborhood loves Ed. Been one of the few people who come and help every community. He does everything. He helps everybody. We have never, ever called him on anything and he did not respond. Ed has always been there. I don't remember when he wasn't."
     You don't have to ask Ed the secret to reaching 90. He has never had a drink or smoked a cigarette. Or drank a cup of coffee. Or gambled. Or chased skirts.
     "I played full court basketball three nights a week until I was 75 years old," Ed says.
     Still, at 90, there is a whiff of sadness.
     "Now almost all my friends are dead," says Ed.
     And the city has changed. Coming out of the Bridgeport News, he spies an orange parking ticket slapped on the windshield of his Cadillac.
     "A ticket on Halsted Street!" Ed marvels, as if he can't believe it.
     Still, despite the occasional indignity, Ed keeps scrambling, basically, because he always has.
     "Life is tough. My dad died when I was four years old. He died in 1930. There was my mother, with three boys, and what the hell does she do?"
     He makes both a living, and a lot of friends.
     "Ed McElroy is a fine American," says Olszweksi. "He knows life is about helping others and they'll help you....Ed came in and offered his help and he's done nothing but help us from the day we met him....The old fashioned way. Go meet people. put the shoe leather in, get to know people, establish relationships... So there's a bunch of love out there for this man, I tell ya, a lot of people know him and love him. They don't make 'em like this anymore,"
     
Olszweksi turns to me.
     "How did you meet him?" he asks.
     "I've always known Ed," I reply.