I was walking the dog Friday and something happened that has not happened in a decade.
"Are you associated with CleanSlate?" a passing neighbor, walking with her young son, asked.
CleanSlate is an organization that connects reformed drug addicts with janitorial work. I was wearing a CleanSlate baseball cap, acquired when I wrote the story below. I like it because it's comfortable, it looks cool, and has a kind of anti-status: I assume no one knows what "CleanSlate" means.
We talked for a while — she has just moved to my neighborhood from the city. I started to tell her the story, but it was too involved for conversation. Later, I looked it up, and thought it merits a second visit. Written back in the day when my column filled a full page and had several parts, I'm leaving in the "Opening Shot," a brief observation, as a reminder that sometimes I'm in the right. More than two years before the FBI handcuffed Rod Blagojevich on his condo floor, he might not have seen it coming, but others sure did.
So when do we start viewing the gubernatorial race as being not so much between Judy Baar Topinka and Gov. Blagojevich as between Topinka and Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, who would take over the job should his boss find it necessary to, ah, spend time elsewhere?
Quinn strikes me as an affable goof, a view formed during his grass-roots consumer and environmental activist days. The sort of do-gooder who usually never gets within spitting distance of public office. He might surprise us. I have a good feeling about Quinn. Wouldn't it be ironic if both Judy and Rod end up in history's Dumpster, digging for chicken bones with meat still on them, while Quinn is putting his feet up in the governor's mansion? Stranger things have happened.
Every morning at exactly 8:30, several dozen people gather in a square room in a nondescript brick building at the corner of Desplaines and Monroe.
The men are dressed in suit coats and ties, the women in skirts and jackets or turtleneck sweaters and slacks. They sit in a circle. One man stands in the center.
"Good morning!" he enthuses. "My name's Duane!"
"Hey Duane!" the people shout, so loud that for a moment I think they're miked, "mo-ti-vate me, he's my friiiiiieeeeeend!" and at "friend," they do a sort of slow lariat twirl with one hand.
"You know what brings me great joy?" he begins. "Cara brings me great joy. . . ."
The Cara Program is an innovative center designed to jump-start lives that have fallen apart. The people in the suits and dresses have slid into that bog of unemployment, addiction and personal collapse lumped together under the unfortunate heading of "the homeless."
Agencies handling such people tend to be grim places. Not Cara. The morning program is half gospel revival, half Mary Kay Cosmetics convention. The idea is to pump participants — who must be referred to get a spot inCara — to hurl their energies into the hard business of rebuilding their broken lives.
''You give me strength to do the things I couldn't do before," one lady tells the group. "I am recovered. I am healed. You have given me the keys to the kingdom."
Those keys include access to a room filled with 35 new Dell computers upstairs. Plus rack after rack of donated clothes.
"Before you can get a job, you need to look like you can work a job, and more important, feel in your heart you can do it," said Cara CEO Eric Weinheimer.
Later in the day comes job training and job interviews and help setting up bank accounts. Cara has its own company — CleanSlate — and works with banks and insurance companies to place Cara graduates, who do better than employees hired over the transom.
After saying what brings them great joy, the participants must sing a song — the idea is, if you can sing in front of several dozen strangers, you can do just about anything.
Visitors, too, are pressed into the center of the circle. The chief of staff of the Illinois Medical District won't sing — too inhibited. Cara members jump up to help him out.
Inhibition is not a problem with me. I stand in the center and tell them I take great joy from my family, from my work, and from being a recovering alcoholic — not something I toss out at every speaking opportunity, but I figure it might help these people.
"I only know one song," I say. "I started singing it as a good-night song when my oldest son was born. If I knew I was going to sing it every night for the next 10 years, I might have picked something more, um, Jewish. But I'm stuck with it now, and it goes like this."
"Ahhhha-mayyyyy-ziiing grace, how sweeeeet the soooooound. . . ."
The rest join in -- real loud. Turns out they know it, too.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 15, 2006