Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg

    You open the world to your children and then, if you are lucky, they open their world to you.
    I was not particularly fond of contemporary art—I'm more of a French Impressionism fan—but then again, I didn't know much about it either, and ignorance and dislike are brothers. 
     I've grown to appreciate it more over the past couple years, and only now, having spent a few hours at the impressive Takashi Murakami show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, did I realize why: my older boy.
     It was he who prompted us to go to the Broad, the new privately-financed Los Angeles mecca of recent art. It was he who, in April, dragged us to the Palazzo Grassi in Venice to see Damien Hirst's massive "Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable."
    And while it wasn't he who took me to the MCA Tuesday to see a retrospective of Japan's top contemporary artist, the show opened in June, I wasn't racing there either, not until my kid came home Saturday from his internship in LA for a couple weeks. Then my first thought was, "Hey, there's a Murakami show at the MCA—wanna go?"
     He did.  
     Rooms filled with enormous canvases that somehow manage to be both freeform and precise, explosions of color and tracts of black and white. Murakami struck me as the apotheosis of high school artists, his blizzard of arhats, stylized Buddhists recalled faces scrawled on the notebooks of artsy fellow students at Berea High School in the late 1970s, dreamy-eyed girls with names like Ariel and Autumn.
     I particularly liked his Yves Klein tribute flower wallpaper—as I thought of it. Something daft and commercial. 
    If you go, make sure you see the films of Murakami overseeing squads of employees—he has some 250 at five studios around the world— slim youths in colorful jumpsuits and paper masks slathering paint over large wood-framed stencils he computer cuts to make his enormous images. And in the middle, pot-bellied, with a scraggly beard, round glasses and earbuds screwed in his ears, the Artist, transferring his images onto paintings that cover museum walls and sell for millions.
    In one room, with huge resin and steel guardian figures on each end, were a pair of paintings that carried the name of the show—The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg, his comment on the resilience of survival. A Japanese saying about regeneration, the extreme step taken to survive, the moral of the story being the octopus grows a new leg to replace what was lost. 
    In tiny letters on these paintings Murakami had a surprisingly anxious, aggrieved personal statement, about the young artists he tried to help and who "betrayed" him and how generally troublesome his life was. 
    I suppose he could be looked down on for that, but as Walt Whitman said, "How beautiful is candor;" somehow that spirit, the self-exposure, endeared Murakami to him—of course it would, since I too am in the self-revelatory line, though with far less remunerative results.
    Still, it's good to know that someone is making a smash success of whimsical self-pity, and curator Michael Darlings cannily convinced Murakami to present his not-all-that-hot early works in the first room of the show, jammed with young people, to whom this should be an inspiration, because he does not come off as a genius, just someone who combined work and luck and a vision and made it. 
    Murakami thinks of his production process as similar to making a movie—"Star Wars" was an inspiration—and coming out of the show indeed had that return-to-reality sense you have after seeing a good movie.
    The show runs until Sept. 24, but go sooner than later, as the MCA might have to go to timed tickets, just to handle the crowds. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Trump mocks the pain of Chicago families

      I wrote this Tuesday morning, before Trump's frightening afternoon press conference throwing in his lot with white nationalist haters. Though it was tempting to react to the latest outrage, I had set aside one column already to react to Trump's tweet, and realized there will always be another shock around the corner—you cannot get ahead of the curve with this man—and it was probably better to let this fly and wait for the next shoe from our centipede of disaster to drop.

     "Meanwhile," Trump enthusiast Jack Posobiec tweeted and the president retweeted Monday, "39 shootings in Chicago this weekend, 9 deaths. No national media outrage. Why is that?"
     Ooo, ooo, me me! I'll take that one.
     But first a little background, for those lucky enough not to be reading this at the grim moment of America in mid-August 2017. A nation roiled by a sudden geyser of racial hate—or, rather, being reminded of the hate always seething just under the surface. A tiki torch-bearing mud flow of Nazis and Klansmen and other assorted mutants in Charlottesville, Virginia, vomited out of the earth and into view Friday night. On Saturday they were met by counter-protesters, patriots and regular citizens who reject the never-true vision of America as a white, Protestant enclave.
     One of those haters, allegedly, sped his car into the peaceful protest, killing a woman. And our president, who will leap onto Twitter to denounce a teenager who asks a pointed question, blamed "both sides" then remained mum for days about the source of this attack on our values, perhaps because he knows how popular he is among haters, perhaps because several of his closest advisers seeped out of the same subterranean cesspool.
     Trump's failure outraged the country. Because we are not used to seeing such bald cowardice, such indulgence of the undercurrent of American life.  Not from the president. It's news.
     Chicago, on the other hand, is a big city where shootings happen every day. We are not the most dangerous city in America. We are not the homicide capital. Chicago has a pervasive gang problem and its murder rate is five times that of New York City's. So it has problems with violence, but those problems, while news, do not have the fresh horror of a president winking at Nazis.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Snowman in August

     Art is the thing you go to see, that you seek out. 
     Last Thursday, that meant catching the Gauguin show at the Art Institute.  My wife hadn't seen it and though I had already, I accompanied her to see it again—Art is the thing you can see twice, another definition—I also had an agenda. 
      I wanted to see the snowman.
      I first heard of it a few days earlier. I was at a camp for kids with cancer at the Palmer House. The kids had just been to the Art Institute and seen the snowman. I've been to the Art Institute many, many times. I didn't remember a snowman. But obviously there was one now, and I wanted to see it.
    Why? Well, it was a snowman. At the Art Institute. In August. That is a certified, seal promise of whimsy, and the 2016 work of Swiss artists—natch!—Peter Fischli and David Weiss did not disappoint. A smiling, friendly snowman, in the classic three balled form, lacking the traditional carrot nose and charcoal eyes but radiating good will nevertheless. 
     He was outside, on the Bluhm Family Terrace—an apt touch—in his own little refrigerated aluminum vitrine. My son Kent pointed to the cord, visibly snaking away and plugged into a socket, and wondered if the point of the installation wasn't for someone to yank the cord out. I was intrigued, but not so much that I was going to be the person to give it a try.
     In his new book, Adam Gopnik refers to     "violating the sanctuary of art" with "the displaced ordinary object."  It began with Duchamp's bike wheel, moved through Campbell's Soup cans and now what should be melting in the sun now preserved for ... well, a while.
     In the elevator on the way down, Kent wondered if it was art at all, and I said I thought it was. "Art, in my view, has to be one of three things," I told him. "It has to be clever in concept, masterful in execution or impactful in result." 
     The snowman certainly hits the first mark, touches on the second—a well-made little glass freezer—and got us both to the deck to see it. It isn't "Nighthawks" but it certainly is an asset. I'm not sure if it's permanent, but I hope so. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Donald Trump promised he'd take America back. He didn't say where.


    Promises made, promises kept!
     Donald Trump was always talking about how he would "take back America"—there were bumper stickers—and now look, he's actually done it. We've been taken back to the 1960s, with protesters clashing in the street over the weekend and a civil rights demonstrator killed in the street.  
     Or are we back in the 1940s? It felt that way Friday, with torch-bearing Nazis marching, sieg-heiling and chanting "blood and soil." It could have been an America First rally at the old Chicago Stadium in 1940.
      Although they were tiki torches. The bamboo kind costing $1.99 at Costco. That sort of ruined the effect. Give the original Nazis credit; they were sticklers for detail. Real torches are expensive and hard to find, but you're never going to seize control—assuming they haven't already, and with the Trump White House you never know—by cutting corners. Tiki torches in a fascist demonstration are like Macy's Thanksgiving Day balloons at the Nuremberg rallies.
     Sorry. None of this is funny. After three deaths—the protester and two Virginia State troopers who died in a helicopter crash—the clownishly unaware street theater of men whose fondest fantasy is to be concentration camp guards slides into anguish and tragedy.
     Then again, that's what happens, and there's an important lesson there. Whenever I see these idiots, I'm not filled with terror, or concern--and you think I would be, as half the time they're chanting about Jews. Rather, I get an almost avuncular concern. I want to help them, to say, "Guys, guys, gather around. You do know that the whole Nazi thing did not end well for the Germans?" History focuses on their victims, and rightly so, but by the time the would-be supermen were done manifesting their superiority they had lost four million soldiers and another two million civilians. About six million Germans dead, for you fans of irony.

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

An old classic reappears on the UVA curriculum

University of Virginia
     Of course it had to start at the University of Virginia.
     Well, no, it didn't have to be the University of Virginia. It just worked out that way.
     Truth is, the white supremacists could have had their march anywhere. There are enough of 'em.
      But UVA somehow fits. Not just for the Robert E. Lee statue.  Though being supported by Nazis—whoops, white nationalists, whoops, the alt-right—kind of takes the wind out of the sails of the disingenuous, we're-just-decent-Southern-folk-celebrating-our-historical-heritage argument, doesn't it?

     You lost; get over it.
     It isn't as if this is racism's first appearance at the University of Virginia and environs.
     Talk about celebrating heritage. 
     We have to keep that in mind. Trump might be wolf-whistling and permission granting, calling ollie-olllie-oxen-free for haters and goose steppers to come out from under their rocks, blinking into the light.
     But they were always there. He didn't invent them. 

     Just the opposite: they invented him. Or at least helped. Let's not blow them out of proportion, particularly since they like to seem bigger than they are. I never heard from a hater in his mother's basement who didn't speak of "we." An army of one. 
     And to pretend this is some awful new development is the kind of self-flattery that looks so unappealing on the right. Our nation is not so much changing into something new as reverting to something old. Something we thought we had escaped but obviously haven't.
     An awful old development.
     Granted, beyond the usual baker's dozen of pimply teens and bowl cut storm troopers. There were a lot of angry white guys with torches Friday night—tiki torches to be sure, the mom's-basement touch that always detracts from the Albert Speer perfection these guys are always lunging at and missing.  
     It would almost be funny except, of course, it's not.
     Particularly after Saturday, with violence spreading around Charlottesville, and a protester plus two state troopers killed—one of the counter-protesters, of course—and the president apportioning blame on both sides.
     The guy who mows people down in a car, the people mown down, potato, po-tah-to, plenty of blame all around. The police quelling the disturbance counterbalancing the haters who sparked it.
     At least Trump renounced his alt-right suppor... oh wait. No, he didn't do that. It's a big tent, Trumpism.
     Back in the good old days, hatred was more subdued, more genteel. When I heard the marchers were at UVA, I couldn't help but recall that racism was so strong there, the school has its own classic poem immortalizing it.
    "University" by Karl Shapiro begins:

"To hurt the Negro and avoid the Jew
Is the curriculum...."
     Shapiro had lived in Chicago for a decade as a child, dabbled in poetry, got accepted into UVA—he had a recommendation letter written by William Carlos Williams. 
    He only lasted a year there before dropping out. But not before the school, founded by Jefferson, had left its scars on him, living in a world where his fellow classmates, he later said, saw "Jews as a cut above Negroes but not much."
     Shapiro returned the favor, plunging a knife deep into his school and twisting, though pausing to limn the lovely campus:

     "Where boxwood and magnolia brood
      And columns with imperious stance."

     Then he touches on the human pettiness belying its physical beauty, a place where "equals shake hands, unequals blankly pass." The poem was published in Poetry in October, 1940. Who could have guessed those would be the good old days? Now those so ignorant they imagine themselves superior run their unequals down and kill them.
     Why aren't I as worked up about this development as others seem to be? Maybe because, as awful as the doings in Virginia without question are, they seem a distraction. The threat to our nation posed by whack-job haters is still dwarfed by the threat posed by our whack-job president. And there is comfort to remember that we defeated a far stronger, far more pervasive, far more organized alt-right, whoops, white supremacists, whoops, Nazis before. And we will do so again. If I could tap one of these idiots on the shoulder and tell them one thing, I would say, "Hey Reichmarshal! You know, the whole 'blood and soil' thing didn't work out so well for the Germans. Just a word to the wise, er, I mean, to the stupid."

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Don't forget hot dog stands

    The Chicago Hot Dog Fest is this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the Chicago History Museum, Stockton and LaSalle.
     So much discussion of franks involves the encased meat itself, as well as—far too often lately—rehashing of the Ketchup, Condiment of Controversy Conundrum, which I promise I will never address again. It's just getting old. The Reader took that circus pony for another trot around the ring this week.  
     There's more to hot dogs than hot dogs, or condiments. There is, for example, hot dog stands and the often colorful individuals who own them. None more colorful or individual than the great Harry Heftman, of Harry's Hot Dogs at Franklin and Randolph, whom I celebrated on his 100th birthday.

     'You make one person happy," said Harry Heftman, 100 years old today, "it comes back to you."
     The result of a lifetime of dispensing happiness—and hot dogs—turned out Friday to honor Heftman at his small snack shop on the corner of Randolph and Franklin.
     Well-wishers ranged from great-grandson Nathan Heftman, 2, who sat solemnly dipping french fries in ketchup, to Mayor Richard M. Daley, who was a sixth-grader at Nativity Grammar School when Heftman opened the Little Snack Shop on the same spot in 1954, changing its name to Harry's Hot Dogs in 1982.
     "My father used to come here," said Daley, after enjoying a hot dog and a slice of cake.
      "The janitors' union used to be next door," said Harry Heftman, adding that Richard J. Daley ate there twice.
     Harry's sons, Ron and Chuck Heftman, his daughter Lila Ardell, as well as their children, great-grandson Nathan, and various friends, media and well-wishers, including a senior vice president from Vienna Beef, gathered at the famous hot dog stand.
     "It's always been part of all of our lives," said Chuck Heftman. "This store put us all through college."
     "All the grandsons worked at Harry's," said Larry Heftman, who began at 12 and credits working there with inspiring him to study law.
     "This was harder than I wanted to work every day," explained Larry, who eventually graduated from Harvard Law School and became a commercial litigator in downtown Chicago. "We learned hard work from my grandfather."
     To illustrate how well Harry instilled that ethos, his workers continued to serve hot dogs to customers who jammed themselves into the restaurant, even as the mayor held forth for the knot of jockeying TV cameras.
     "Anybody want a hot dog?" asked Marcus Mallett, working the food line.

The past lives, and sells hot dogs

      March 15, 1909, was a Monday.
     At the Auditorium Theater on Congress Parkway, the touring Ziegfeld Follies of 1908 was winding up its final week. Tickets started at 25 cents and rose to $1.
      At Marshall Field & Co., men's shoes in black and tan started at $2.45 and cost as much as $3.45. At Mandel Brothers, shirts that normally cost $2 were selling for 85 cents.
     At 3 a.m., a locomotive carrying Jack Johnson, the heavyweight champion of the world, "the only colored man who ever held that title," as the Chicago Daily News put it, arrived at Union Station.
     Despite the early hour, Johnson was met by a throng of Chicagoans.
     Johnson had defeated Canadian Tommy Burns the previous December after chasing him all over the world, and was now hot on the heels of the retired heavyweight champion.
     "I'm after Jim Jeffries now and I'm going to New York in a couple of days to see him," Johnson told the crowd. "I can lick him and he knows it. All I want is to get him in the ring with me."
     March 15, 1909, was before World War I, before the Titanic was built. There are few tangible reminders of it in the city—the Auditorium Theater that hosted the Ziegfeld Follies still stands. And Harry Heftman is still standing too, still selling hot dogs.
      "Lookin' good, Harry! Lookin' good!" exuded Marcus Frisby, who was out of work when Harry hired him, on the spot, nearly 20 years ago.
     "I love him; good man," said Frisby, who has a hot dog stand of his own now at 47th and Calumet.
     Harry was born March 15, 1909, not in Chicago, but in Sojmy, a village in Hungary. He came here in 1921 at the age of 12, which means he arrived in this city before the Wrigley Building was completed, and lived with his family on the West Side, by Division and Western.
     Harry likes people to leave his place happy—even the two robbers who once stuck him up.
      "I said, 'Put the guns down, I'll give you all the money and you'll walk out happy,' and that's what they did," recalled Harry, wearing a bright yellow cardigan and basking in the attention at his packed restaurant.
     One drawback of turning 100 is that people ask your secret of longevity, but with Harry, there was no need—his physician, Dr. Jerry Handler, stopped by, patting him affectionately on the arm. They have known each other for 67 years; Dr. Handler, 81, went to work for Harry at the age of 14, delivering fruit.
      "He's always been a very healthy person," said Dr. Handler. "Extremely oriented toward his family."
     Good habits? I asked.
     "Not a runner, not a drinker," Dr. Handler agreed.
     I said I didn't think jogging was as harmful as drinking.
     "I didn't mean that type of running," Dr. Handler explained.
      After Harry moved into the building, he invited the Showmen's League of America to buy it, which they did.
     "The restaurant carried all the costs of the building for the past 50 years—taxes, insurance, maintenance," said Bill Johnson, past president of the Showmen's League, the union for carnival workers.
     The building is coming down by May, to make a plaza for the skyscraper next door. Harry's Hot Dogs enters the past on April 10, when it closes forever. And Harry Heftman will occupy himself with friends and family. I asked him if, at 100, he feels old.
     "No," he said, smiling.


     Speaking of bad habits. A friend upbraided me for enjoying an occasional cigar, prompting me to invoke Redd Foxx's famous quip about healthy living:
     Health nuts are going to feel stupid someday, lying in hospitals, dying of nothing.

    —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 15, 2009


Friday, August 11, 2017

Camp makes cancer "stink less."

Joe Moylan

     Mid-August, nearly. Back-to-school sales starting and summer camps ending. Friday is the last day of Camp Kids Are Kids Chicago.
     Just as at camps everywhere, the last day of Camp Kids Are Kids Chicago will have songs and  hugs and tears.
     Though this is different than most summer camps for two reasons.

   First, all 30 campers attending this week either have or had cancer.
     "Most of them, fortunately, are on the good side of their therapy," said Dr. Charles Hemenway, a pediatric oncologist at Loyola University Medical Center, volunteering as the camp doctor. "They've largely completed, the worst is behind them."
The worst is behind second-year camper Joe Moylan, doing much better this year.
     "I was bald," said the 14-year-old. "I was going through really hard times, going through treatment. It was amazing to do things like any kid could do."
     Moylan joined other campers making strips of fresh pasta under the eye of trained chefs, a reminder of the second unusual aspect of this camp -- it is not held in some distant Michigan woods, but in the heart of the Chicago Loop, at the Palmer House Hilton.

To continue reading, click here. 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Book man

Roger Carlson at Bookman's Alley (photo by Marc Perlish)

    Roger Carlson died earlier this week, at age 89. For decades he ran Bookman's Alley, an oasis of used books tucked in the alley behind Sherman Avenue in Evanston. He was an amused, twinkling presence, and I loved his store, and found some of my favorite books there. 
    Maureen O'Donnell gave him a fine send off. 
    I wrote about him a number of times, first in the Daily Northwestern, most recently when I had a signing at the new bookstore in the old Bookman's Alley space in September. This story ran over 30 years ago, and captures a little of his spirit, I hope. Then again, it should: it's very long. That's how we did it in those days. Ironic, now that the internet allows stories to run as long as we please, we keep them very short, because attention spans have shrunk, stunted by the siren call of the infinite variety awaiting us. 
     Notice toward the end how the 26-year-old me handled the fact that Mr. Carlson—as I always called him—was an alcoholic, who began the store as a way to get himself away from the temptations of the magazine ad industry and start life anew. I suppose I thought I was being subtle. 

     A young couple once wandered into Bookman's Alley and spent a half hour or so looking at the shelves filled with old books, walls covered with art and etchings, and displays of antiques, curios and collectibles. On their way out, they stopped by the cluttered desk of owner Roger Carlson and asked if he would ever consider selling any of his books.
     "They must have thought I was some low-rent museum run by the city of Evanston," laughed Carlson.
     Carlson does indeed sell his books, though it's easy to see how the store could be mistaken for something else. Part of the confusion comes from its unusual location. Bookman's Alley is not just a colorful name designed to evoke images of Paris bookstalls. The store actually is in an alley, off Sherman Avenue just north of Evanston's shuttered Varsity Theater. Carlson puts out a green flag in the alley to let people know when the store is open.
     Another reason Bookman's Alley might be mistaken for something else is its decidedly unstorelike atmosphere. Unlike most bookstores, Bookman's Alley has plenty of places to sit: 23 chairs, four couches and three stools, to be exact, not counting the stacks of folding chairs to handle the excess crowd when Carlson hosts occasional live musical events—usually string quartets or ensembles from Northwestern University's music school. Bowls of gumdrops and mints are set out for those who might be taking their lunch hour to pore over "many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore," to quote Edgar Allan Poe.
     The ambience is no accident nor an act of eccentricity, but part of a carefully thought-out plan.
     "It makes me feel comfortable; I like to work in attractive circumstances. I'm doing it quite consciously because I want people who are in here to feel comfortable. I want them to know that I enjoy their being in here. I don't want them to feel pressured. I want this to be an oasis for them. The end product of all this benevolence is I want to make a living and that requires some of them sometimes to buy books."
     The bookstore's location is the result of a compromise between Carlson's vision of what a bookstore should be and his severely restricted financial situation when he opened the store six years ago.
     "I wanted a lot of space. I envisioned using space essentially in the way I've done it - an open space, uncrowded, with lots of opportunity for people to sit down and think about things. I had, in essence, no money; that made it certain I had to find a garage or warehouse building where the rent was in my reach."
     What Carlson found was an old, windowless warehouse that was, ironically, completely isolated and within a half block of Evanston's central business district.
     "There are disadvantages to the location. The kind of person who needs to leave a trail of birdseed to get home has trouble finding this place and, beyond that, being in an alley is not good in a time when people have fears. Alleys do not conjure up the best associations. I once thought of putting an insurance machine at the entrance of the alley, for the small percentage of persons reluctant to enter an alley."
     Interspersed among the rows of books is a Victorian clutter of antiques, collectibles and near-junk plucked from Carlson's collection and cleverly tied in with the books' subjects. Near the shelf marked "Adventure Books" is a snowshoe, a harpoon, an antique model of a kayak, an Eskimo doll, a compass and a framed map from a Byrd Antarctic expedition. In the "Old West" section is a full-sized saddle resting on a sawhorse, along with chaps and several Stetsons hanging from hooks. An old map of Africa and a zebra skin watch over the African books. A detailed model of a three-masted ship, a wooden pulley and an iron double pulley act as bookends on shelves devoted to ships. An ancient Corona portable typewriter holds up books on the Paris Herald, Villard and Chicago press. Tucked in among books in the crafts section is a miniature loom.
     Not all the tableaus are connected to books. Some are just pleasant to look at. Near the blue piano is a small oval empire table. On the table is a silverplate Champagne cooler, filled with fresh-cut flowers, a Japanese enamel bowl, a carved wooden Mexican statuette and an eight-volume set of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in 1825.
     Carlson says he does not expend any particularly great effort assembling his little displays. "They just sort of happen. They're constructed of things either that I was seemingly born with or that I ran into at estate sales or auctions."
     Carlson's personal opinions also manifest themselves in displays. For years, while James Watt was secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior, Carlson hung a sign that announced the expected arrival of Watt's The Endangered Species Cookbook. At the back of the store he posts a "Best Seller's List." It is not the standard list made up of what Carlson sneeringly refers to as "all these popular things on how to make money and analyze yourself." Rather, it is a list of authors Carlson would like to see as best sellers among today's public, names like Hemingway, Wodehouse, Jung, Dickens, Twain, Thoreau, Churchill, Mann, Joyce and Dinesen.
     With all the interesting distractions in Bookman's Alley, it would be a mistake to overlook the books—Carlson estimates he has around 18,000. The vast majority are hardback, with an emphasis on American history and 20th century literature. Carlson also carries a good selection of rare books, autographed volumes and first editions. A glass case displays rarities like a signed 1874 copy of Mark Twain's The Innocents at Home and an 1850 first edition of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. But most of the books fall into the $5 to $10 range, with the most expensive item being a five-volume set of The History of England, published in 1732, selling for $1,200. The cheapest is a bin of books offered free for the taking.
     Adding to the ambience at Bookman's Alley is Carlson himself: a tall, jovial gray-haired man of 58 with an impish grin and twinkling eyes. Except for infrequent occasions—a wedding or an emergency—Carlson is there, usually sitting on a comfortable chair at the front of the store, reading a book.
     "I'm afraid I tend to think I run the place better than anyone I could hire. That's not entirely ego. I know where everything is since I bought it and priced it and shelved it. I have 80 classifications, and sometimes a book could fall into several categories. I know where something belongs. If I'm not here and a person inquires about something, he may well walk out empty-handed, even though the book is here. I would have been able to find it. I have some good friends who play guest host. But I enjoy it enough I don't feel the need for a day off."
     Carlson has been a fan of books for as long as he can remember. As a child he would go to his room at night and, tossing a carpet in front of the door to prevent the light from shining underneath, regularly read until 4 or 5 in the morning.
     Despite his love of books, Carlson did not set out to be a bookseller. His dream was to be a writer, but when he found he lacked the ability, he drifted into advertising sales, a profession that didn't suit him, and which he languished in for years. "It didn't start out being terrible. But it got that way."
     In the late '70s, Carlson took a sobering look at himself, and decided to change his life as an ad salesman. He always had enjoyed reading and collecting books, and began selling them from his home. "I sold by mail and by appointment, rare books and collectible things. But it was clear to me quickly it was no way for me to make a living. You have to spend your day selling books and I didn't want to sell books—I wanted to read them—so I knew I had to have a shop."
     When Carlson first opened his store, he had so little money that he was forced to stock the shelves with several thousand books from his own collection. Carlson takes a pragmatic view of the loss. "It was something I was able to face without any particular problems because I was so close to the wall. It was really sell or die. I could comfort myself with the thought that at least I had the chance to see the books and handle the books."
     Ironically, though he is able to part with first editions of Hemingway and signed copies of Fitzgerald without regret, Carlson does wish he held onto a particular volume —a book by Willard Schultz.
     "It wasn't especially valuable, but the inscription was so great. He was a white man who was raised by the Indians in Montana, I think. This was a book published in the '20s and his inscription was, `So few of us left who lived upon the buffalo.' I thought that was a very sad inscription. I only sold the book for $50 or $60, but it seemed to have a meaning far greater than its monetary value. But at the time I needed the $50."
     Nowadays, things are not quite so tight for Carlson. Business is good, and a poster and framing store has moved into the other building sharing his alley. Carlson can do what he loves most, read books, supported by his friends who stop by to chat, browse, rest, ponder and, occasionally, buy books.
     "A lot of really interesting people come into bookshops. A bookshop can be a nice kind of social center, if that's the way you want to operate, and I do."

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 17, 1986


Wednesday, August 9, 2017


     Grocery shopping has much weird psychology to it. The one-way doors, the music, the dairy in the back. The allure of end-caps. It doesn't all make sense, but that's people for you.
     Add the nostalgia of familiar brands; reach for a box of Maypo and I'm back in the Pick & Pay with my mom in Berea, Ohio in 1966. The satisfaction of food. The dizzying abundance.  It's never as simple as picking up a loaf of bread.
     I haven't even mentioned price. As a successful man of the world, I seldom pay attention to prices. It's a supermarket; whatever I buy here is going to be far less than the steak sandwich at Gene & Georgetti. The fact that I'm food shopping at all is sacrifice enough; don't ask me to cut coupons too.
     So Toni Preckwinkle's sweetened beverage tax almost blew past me. My heart wasn't awash with sympathy for anyone upset over an additional 12 cents for a can of soda. If that 12 cents helps weave together the fraying social safety net, well, happy to do my civic duty.
     Then my wife came home Sunday waving her Sunset Foods receipt. Dasani sparkling flavored waters, on sale, three eight packs for $6.99. Plus the new Cook County sweetened beverage tax of $2.88.
     Quite a lot really.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

If we can't fix the city we've got, we'll build a new one

The Tribune called this "a wondrous view of the Chicago skyline."

     Would you want to live here?
     I was reading the latest frisson of official excitement over the pending sale of the South Works site, nearly 500 acres of scrubland and abandoned industrial lakefront ruin. And journalists were doing what journalists do, echoing the lofty dreams of those with a financial stake in something farfetched working, channeling the enthusiasm of public officials with a vested interest: in this case, the mayor's office and two European firms buying 440-acres along the lakefront from 79th Street to the Calumet River. 
     They say they plan on building 20,000 homes. Plus, one hopes, streets and stores and sidewalks and fire hydrants and schools and a hospital and a train line and a bank and a few coffee shops because there's really nothing there. Bunches of scrub trees. A 2,000 foot concrete wall, 30 feet high, a monstrosity that used to contain ore off-loaded from barges, and now looks like some last ditch defense against alien attack, built 10,000 years ago and now crumbling in the Martian wind.
    The Tribune editorialized that the site has a "wondrous view of the Chicago skyline." With a telescope, maybe. You know where you can find better views? About 100 other places in Chicago.
     The mayor's office called the project "a major milestone." I guess if you can't fix the city you've got, you dream of building a new city from scratch. The murder rate here is certainly very low, there being no people. 
     I visited the site three years ago, when Dan McCaffery was pitching the area for the Obama Library. But the library said, in essence, "Yeah right, like we're going to settle there." 
     The Tribune story used the word "modular" for the homes, which I read as "pre-fab" and "cheap," and I suppose a builder could set up some kind of glorified trailer park and people who couldn't afford to live in desirable parts of the city might settle there. Homesteaders, on Chicago's version of the prairie. Though if you want that you can still move to Uptown. And nobody is so poor they want to live on a veldt. 
    McCaffrery spent a dozen years in partnership with U.S. Steel and ended up with nothing. He's quite a skilled businessman, and his failure to raise so much as a nail salon on the site should carry more weight in our assessment of the current effort. What's changed? People are leaving Chicago, remember? So it isn't as if we're in desperate need of land  to put the new residents who aren't coming here to live. 
     Maybe I don't have the vision: I also wondered who the heck would want to come to some pleasure dome on Navy Pier. But anyone who thinks the place has a future, I defy you to actually go there. I did. It's the moon. Bring a sack lunch, because there's nothing. Spend an hour. And if you aren't willing to do that—and I imagine you're not—how are 20,000 people going to move there? 


Monday, August 7, 2017

Why would anybody want to be governor of Illinois?


Chris Kennedy
       “The guy I really like is Dan Biss,” I said. “He’s a very in-the-trenches politician. I attended a seminar he held for seniors in Glenview, trying to help them navigate Medicare. Once I was at my sister-in-law’s in Skokie, and he knocked on the door, to talk about issues. So I felt guilty, seeing what he’s up against running for governor and wanted to do what I could. So I called his press office. Talked to one of the kids there. They never called me back, but at least now I can comfort myself that I tried.”
     “What you need to do is call him directly,” said Chris Kennedy, as we dug into our scrambled eggs on the riverside patio at Chicago Cut.
     Only later did I reflect on the ludicrousness of the exchange. I don’t know which is stranger — that I would tell Kennedy, also running for governor, that I prefer someone else, or that Kennedy would offer me a helpful tip for getting in touch with his rival.
     I had begun our conversation with, “Why would you want to be governor? If history is any judge, odds are 50-50 you’ll end up in prison.”
     “I don’t know . . .,” Kennedy mused. “I come from a long line of people who thought politics was an honorable profession.”
     “And you still believe that?”
     “I don’t think you should be in leadership and in the supply chain at the same time,” Kennedy said. “If you are, it makes it really hard to understand what’s right and what’s wrong.”

     To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

50 years ago: Chicago squirmed at its new "big, homely metal thing"

     Gwendolyn Brooks thought it looked stupid.
     Chicago's Pulitzer Prize winning poet hadn't yet set eyes on the new sculpture the city had asked her to laud. The 50-foot-high, 162-ton monument was being installed behind screens at the Civic Center, out of sheets of COR-TEN, the same steel used in the building behind it.
     She had only seen photographs.
     "The pictures looked very foolish," the future poet laureate of Illinois later said, "with those two little eyes, and that long nose."
     But a gig's a gig, though her foray into occasional verse reflected her unease.  
     "Man visits Art, but squirms," she read at the unveiling, Aug. 15, 1967 a grand public ceremony where 50,000 Chicagoans — at least according to police estimates — were serenaded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra while waiting to meet the sculpture that some predicted might replace the Art Institute's lions as a symbol of the city.
     The city had certainly seen the sculpture before it was unveiled. The previous September, the 42-inch model that Pablo Picasso had donated to the city went on display at the Art Institute.
     The work had no title, and Chicagoans debated what it might be. A woman's head? An Afghan hound? A seahorse? A baboon? The Tribune called it a "predatory grasshopper." Mayor Richard J. Daley said he saw "the wings of justice" in the sculpture, and his was the opinion that really mattered....

To continue reading, click here.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Would you care for a blanket with that squash tangine?

     "Here's to summer," my wife said, and we clinked glasses, sitting outside Friday night at Lula Cafe on Kedzie Avenue.
      I don't think she was being ironic, even though it was about 65 degrees outside and the sun was setting fast. Besides, she was toasty warm with the lap rug the restaurant had given her when she arrived. I waved mine off, comfortable in a light jacket. 
    We were on our way to a party, and figured we'd have dinner first. It was a nostalgic visit for us—we lived at Logan and Mozart from 1990 to 1993, and had only been back a few times, certainly not since the area started to hop a bit. One of the reasons I remember moving away was because the place was so quiet, almost suburban, ironically enough.
     I had only been to Lula once—breakfast with Rahm Emanuel, believe it or not—and was happy to try it again with far more pleasant company. 
     When we first walked up to the restaurant, I caught sight of two men wrapped in the gray blankets, and for one vertiginous second I thought I was witnessing some heretofore unimagined new hipster fashion. We were after all in the up-and-coming Logan Square  neighborhood. They looked like survivors from a maritime disaster.
     Then I noticed other blankets folded neatly on the backs of chairs, awaiting diners, and I realized this was something the restaurant is doing for the comfort of its patrons on cool evenings. Which impressed me because, in a lifetime of dining out, I had never before encountered the practice. A big improvement over heat lamps. There was something charming about it.
     I did worry, when I thought to remark upon this here, that outdoor cafe blankets might be a long-established aspect of city life, and by admitting I was unfamiliar with them, I would be revealing a damning lapse in my life experience, a jarring cluelessness, like George Will admitting he had never worn blue jeans. 
     But other diners seemed pleasantly surprised as well. 
     "Oooh, blankets!" exclaimed a young woman in a fringed leather jacket that might have been stripped off the corpse of Neil Young, except that it was brand new.
     Anyway, not the most earth-shattering observation, but it's 11 p.m. and, besides, one of the bedrock convictions of this blog is that small wonders should not go unremarked upon. I did consider the hygienic aspects of the blankets. Do they launder them after each use? At the end of the day? Once a week? Never?
     I should have asked. But I pushed such thoughts aside. I wasn't touching one, so what did it matter? 
     Dinner, incidentally, was quite good. We split a generous appetizer of bruschetta with marinated baby kale, smoked pecans, shaved onion, beets and whipped goat cheese on excellent, complicated bread. I had a plate of spicy spaghetti with bacon, and Edie, a bowl of risotto which, she felt, erred on the side of baby food, with an over-pungent cheese they should have warned her about in red letters on the menu. But not so unpleasant as to make her complain, or send it back, or not be willing to return. Service was brisk, friendly and efficient. The blankets, our waiter said, were a new addition, introduced about two years ago.

Friday, August 4, 2017

"The greatest man in the world."

     Did Donald Trump really say that?
     Now at this point, you would think nothing, absolutely nothing Donald Trump could say could be surprising. No lie too bald. No exaggeration too extreme. He could claim to be the Lord God Almighty and really, who could say it was out of character, for him?
    But reading transcripts of his late January calls to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, one phrase just leapt out:
     “I am the world’s greatest person."
     Now I know he thinks that. Obviously. Grandiosity and insecurity taking turns slamming him, and us, to the mat like tag-team wrestlers. I know everything he touches is great, if not the greatest.

    So yes, of course he said it.
    Maybe it could be mitigated. In the context, the full statement is, "“I am the world’s greatest person that does not want to let people into the country."
     So maybe he means among those who do not want to let people into the country, he's the greatest. The best of a smaller subset.

     Though that's being charitable, and Trump really is not worthy of charity. What he means is, "I'm the greatest person in the world, and this person of greatness who is me does not want to let people in the country."
     That's kind of the opposite of greatness, don't you think? Which is another characteristic: take things you are being criticized for failing to do and claim to be the best at them. He's like R. Kelly claiming to be the best baby-sitter.
     No questions about that "does-not-want-to-let-people-in-the-country" part. Wednesday he came out swinging for legislation that would cut legal immigration to the United States in half over the next decade—putting the lie to all those who claim their only qualm with immigration is its illegality. He spoke in the loathsome, cowardly codes of identity politics, though at least Trump did not use the word "cosmopolitan," a buzz word for Jews, which his hater lackey Stephen Miller tossed out at a press conference Wednesday (despite the fact that Miller is from both Jewish and immigrant lineage, a reminder that anyone can go off the rails).

     There is a wonderful James Thurber story called "The Greatest Man in the World" that is basically a satire based on Charles Lindbergh, who flew the Atlantic in 1927 and became an enormous celebrity. That he was a hero's image, modest, handsome, self-effacing, was a lucky coincidence. But what if he hadn't been? In the 1931 story, Thurber imagines Jacky "Pal" Smurch, whose non-stop round-the-world flight thrusts him int the spotlight, before a timely defenestration sets up his solemn state funeral.
    I'm not the first to relate Trump to the Thurber story; looking for the tale online, I came upon Patt Morrison at the LA Times thoroughly exploring the Trump/Smurch connection two years ago. 
    Alas, the sense of civic responsibility that led officials, in the presence of the president, to push Smurch out a window has left us entirely. Now Jacky Smurch is the president, and there is nobody to save us from the greatest man in the world. 

Thursday, August 3, 2017


     As I was writing yesterday's piece about Chicago businesses taking their first baby steps toward cashlessness, I vaguely suspected that refusing to accept currency might be against the law. I doubted it was—so many businesses wouldn't be doing it if it were. But you never know, and it seemed worth checking. I remember a West Side steakhouse owner that was using his waiters to push condos he was selling, which I discovered was illegal in Chicago when I wrote about it.
     Online, it was quick enough work to find references that no federal law exists requiring businesses to accept currency. But the reference I read noted that local laws could still do so. 
     So I called the Chicago law division, and Bill McCaffrey—all hail the city that works!—did some checking, and confirmed what I suspected: no municipal requirements force stores to accept cash money. 
     I mentioned this in the column. But beliefs die hard, and some readers were not satisfied: 
     In reading your column today I was thinking cash and of the signs on the tollway stating that they can only accept $20 bills or smaller. Does this really mean that they will not accept a $50 bill if that is all you have? I’ve always wanted to test that, but rarely have a $50 bill in my pocket and it is much more efficient & cheaper to use my transponder.      
     I’m fairly certain that each piece of US currency states “this note is legal tender for all debts, public and private”. Wouldn’t this, from the Federal government, be the final word?
         Anxiously awaiting your thoughts, 
         Mitch Holleb

     He is correct. There, on all American currency, this bold, all caps declaration: "THIS NOTE IS LEGAL TENDER FOR ALL DEBTS, PUBLIC AND PRIVATE."
     Does that not mean it can be used to pay for anything?
     In a word, No.
     The question must come up enough that the Treasury Department addresses it directly in a post titled "Legal Tender Status": The key passage is:
This statute means that all United States money as identified above are a valid and legal offer of payment for debts when tendered to a creditor. There is, however, no Federal statute mandating that a private business, a person or an organization must accept currency or coins as for payment for goods and/or services.
      I'm not a lawyer, but I think the confusion is due to a misunderstanding over the legal definition of the word "debts." Debt is not merely owing someone money—you don't become a debtor by trying to purchase a $5 vegan brownie from the Goddess and the Baker. Debt is incurred as the result of a contract, or a legal judgment.  That is what you can pay off with any kind of legal American money, and why irked individuals sometimes show up to pay their taxes or fines or whatever with barrels of pennies—a legal if annoying payment—while a grocery store can refuse your hundred, or decline to take folding money at all. 

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

A bakery that wants your dollars but not your dough

     How much cash do you have, right now in your pocket?
    Pulling out the money clip I plucked off my nightstand this morning, rushing to catch the 7:12, I find ... $140, six twenties and two tens.
    Quite a lot, really. Plenty to walk around downtown Chicago, ready to pay for cabs and lunches and trains.
     Only I don't take cabs. I usually Divvy, which uses a key fob, or, for longer hauls, Uber, which you pay for on your phone.
    And lunch is usually charged, unless I don't want my wife to know that I popped for something indulgent—a sushi feast for instance—so the cash is a broom to cover my tracks.
     And for the 'L' I have a Ventra card.
     In reality, the cash is an artifact, a quirk, an old-fashioned habit, like carrying a handkerchief, which I also do.
     I would feel naked without money, wouldn't leave home without it. The fear being that I would encounter places that don't take credit cards. When exactly the opposite is true: what's happening is businesses are beginning to stop accepting hard money.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Got enough?

"Heart of the Matter" by Otis Kaye (Art Institute of Chicago)

     So here's a question.
     Do you think that the Donald Trump story, when it is finally finished, when at last he shuffles off the national stage and into history, whether days or months or years from now, will lessen the allure of money, just the tiniest bit?
     A strange question, I know. But the daily shock of Trump saying something loathsome or another cringing underling blowing up or some daft policy being advocated becomes numbing, and one longs to step back and ponder, big picture. The harm to our country is completely unknowable. But how about the image of wealth, a much smaller consideration?
     I would never be so naive as to suggest that being rich will cease to be coveted. It has survived gaudier frauds than Trump, who was already notorious for the particular gold-plated brand of glitzy crap that he and his brand have long represented, for decades. At his gaudiest, yachtiest, go-go 1980s extreme, money still emitted its siren song. There is always someone who wants to wear his overlong, scotch-taped, made-in-China Trump necktie.
     And now he is president. As president, you see so clearly how his make-a-buck values betray him. How he chokes on his own inflamed self-regard. His tragedy, a man lost in self-absorption, who became president of the United States, and found,  not respect, nor peace, neither success or significance, but rather a daily international shame, thanks to his own stunted soul, a mind bottom-fed on the bottom line until it starved. His tiny, tinny, fragile, skewed world, the utter banality of the hired toadies and striving flatterers he surrounds himself with.
    There is a lesson in that, isn't there? Something about being a decent person. Something about money not really mattering all that much. Riches sure don't help him. Is there any reader who can honestly say, "Yes, I would like to be Donald Trump"—not, "Yes, I would like to be myself with Donald Trump's money and position," but "Yes, I want to be him, that man, thinking his thoughts, bearing his reputation, married to that woman?" 
     I suppose such people exist, but it is unimaginable to me. Trump is the true Midas story—if you remember your mythology, Midas was the king who wanted to turn what he touched to gold, was granted his wish, only to starve, surrounded by golden food.
     Maybe it's just me, but the fashion ads for hideously expensive garbage in the New York Times ring extra hollow now that Trump is president. The toys of the elite seem particularly ludicrous, the trappings of wealth extra sad. A Hummer pulls up at the stoplight, and the driver sneaks a glance over at me to see if he's being admired, and I think, immediately, sincerely, "What kind of idiot bought that tank? What must your interior life be like?"
     I have been doubly rich my entire adult life. First, because I've always worked, and earned a good living with money to spare. I never had to defraud anybody, nor collude with my nation's enemies, except, I suppose, the year I was a paid commentator on Fox News, and that was local, so hardly counts.
    And second because I was never so wealthy that I didn't appreciate what things I could buy. I've had a couple friends who I knew when they were starting out and after they became wealthy, and they were to a man better people before, the money giving them a self-estimate that wasn't warranted, wasn't attractive to behold. Success was a cataract over their eyes.
      Look at Trump. Everything is about him, his ego, his pride, his vanity. The concerns of the country are shrugged off. Truth, the future, other people, barely register. It's a disgusting display. As I said, I do not expect riches to fall from fashion. Even Donald Trump is not so vile as to cause people to be disgusted with money. But the larger lesson sits in plain sight, and I imagine people will notice.
     No need to decide this now. Just something to consider. Let me leave you with a poem.  Many witty phrases have been attributed to Kurt Vonnegut—he is like Mark Twain in that regard. But he really did write the following poem, called "Joe Heller," which I first noticed when it was printed in the New Yorker on May 16, 2005. I think it speaks for itself:

     True story, Word of Honor: 
     Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
     now dead,
     and I were at a party given by a billionaire
     on Shelter Island.

     I said, "Joe, how does it make you feel
     to know that our host only yesterday
     may have made more money
     than your novel 'Catch-22'
     has earned in its entire history?"
     And Joe said, "I've got something he can never have."
     And I said, "What on earth could that be, Joe?"
     And Joe said, "The knowledge that I've got enough."
     Not bad! Rest in peace!