Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Just exactly what, or make that 'who,' is Bill Daley hoping to make great again?

"Portrait of Two Young Men," by Giovanni Cariani, Louvre Museum, Paris

     When Bill Daley told my colleague Mark Brown, "but to be mayor, that would be the greatest," what exactly did he mean? The greatest for whom?
     For the city of Chicago? Did Daley mean that once he is sworn in as mayor, Chicago will begin enjoying a period of greatness: more jobs, less crime, better race relations?
     Make Chicago Great Again.
     And if he meant that, what is he, Bill Daley, bringing to the table that will usher in this new epoch of greatness?
     "Daley offered no specific solutions to the city's most vexing problems," Brown wrote. "Saying he plans to spend much of his campaign listening to voters for their ideas."
     Ah. I see. Chicagoans are supposed to tell Daley what he should do, how he should solve Chicago's laundry list of city-killing woes. And then, stout-hearted fellow that he is, Bill Daley will do those things, and greatness will ensue.
     Or gee, could it possibly be that when Daley said "to be mayor, that would be the greatest," he meant it would be the greatest for him? That it would great for Bill Daley, and other folks named Daley, to have another Daley in the office that two Daleys have already held for, umm, 43 of the past 63 years?
     Could he really mean that?
     He could.
     The thing is, I like Bill Daley, and I'll tell you why...

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Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Holy Wah!

Stubb's bartender Jen, center.

     Moonshine Mike wasn't at home—his truck was gone—so we slid by Stubb's, a watering hole on the main drag in Ontonagon, Michigan, to check on his whereabouts.
     "I haven't seen him in two days," said Jen, giving the impression that this was an unusually long stretch for him not to make an appearance at the bar.
     A phone call was placed. Mike was found, notified of our location and interest, and was heading this way.
     In the meantime beers were ordered for my friends, an O'Doul's dusted off for me. Spirits were high—Kentucky was kicking the tar out of its opponent, 33 to 3.
     "Holy wah!" laughed Jen.
     I chewed on that for a while. Curiosity can be unappreciated in a stranger. Better to listen in silence. But the etymologist in me couldn't be restrained.
     "'Holy wah,'" I mused, trying to seem cheery and not intrusive. "That's a new expression for me. What does it mean?"
     "I don't know; it's a yooper thing," she said— "yooper" as in "UPer," meaning Upper Peninsula, the northern segment of Michigan. "I'm from Kentucky."
      The online Urban Dictionary offers a definition:
    A regional phrase known in Northern Michigan, used to express excitement, surprise, awe, and more. Much like the use of "dude", "Holy Wah" can express many different things, depending upon context and tone of voice.
       The derivation of "wah" eludes me—one online source speculates it is a corruption of "wow"—and gets in the way of a more intriguing question: why is there an Upper Peninsula at all? An unusual arrangement, a state in two big chunks, with almost a third of Michigan's territory—29 percent—in the UP, though only 3 percent of its population.
     The answer lies in perhaps the least-enigmatically-titled book of all time, "How the States Got Their Shapes," by Mark Stein. 
      The mitten of Michigan began to take shape with the Treaty of Paris, ending the Revolutionary War in 1783, Stein explains, cutting a border with Canada through the Great Lakes. Michigan's southern border was set by the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, which envisioned a straight line from Lake Michigan's southernmost tip to Lake Erie. 
     When this came to actually doing this, not with a line on a map, but in messy reality, however, the official would have carved the thriving ports of Gary from Indiana and Toledo from Ohio, which objected, strenuously, pressuring Congress to tilt Michigan's southern border slightly northward at its easter edge.
     "Michigan was less than pleased," Stein writes. "But lacking the population that Ohio had, and still needing congressional approval for its own statehood, there wasn't much it could do. Then Indiana got into the act."  
      Indiana was unwilling to give up Gary, and be left with a geometric point of lake access. So it too pressed Congress, which dutifully carved off another slice of Michigan, leaving Michigan with the two-stage, slightly tilted southern border it has today, and an insult more than the the Wolverines could stand. 
    They went to war. 
     The "Toledo War" of 1835 was brief and bloodless, and involved shots being fired into the air and the Michigan territorial militia seizing nine surveyors working for Ohio. The end result was Congress offering Michigan the Upper Peninsula and statehood in return for the "Toledo Strip," a deal Michigan voters at first rejected, then later approved, in essence, because they had to.
    I think that's enough Michigan history for one day. Leaving the bar, we returned to Moonshine's house where, circumstances dictated that I fire a .22 rifle out his garage window and, later, tentatively apply a lumberjack's cant hook to an enormous cedar log, which some friends and I maneuvered quite handily, they providing the brawn, me providing the supervisory skill. 

Monday, September 17, 2018

Bereaved mothers find solace, purpose in donating their milk

Kate Weidner, at home in Oak Park, in the rocking chair she bought to nurse Everett.

     Today's column came from asking a basic question. In mid-July, I was researching this column on the United States cravenly coddling formula producers by pulling out of a global accord on the importance of breast-feeding. I was talking to Summer Kelly, the head of the local milk bank, in Elk Grove Village, and asked, "So who donates to your milk bank?" This column is a result of asking that question.

     Not every pregnant woman who gives birth in a hospital comes home with a baby.
     Six out of every 10,000 women deliver a child in the United States only to have their newborn die during childbirth or shortly afterward.
     One of them was Kate Weidner, 35, of Oak Park.
     "My husband works in architecture. We have a 3-year-old son, Gus," said Weidner. "We got pregnant with our second son. He was due in October of 2017. I was diagnosed with a really, really rare condition, vasa praevia. The baby's umbilical cord didn't attach, and some of the veins and arteries are left vulnerable. If I went into labor, he would die instantly."
     The plan was to have a C-section at 34 weeks, to give the baby as much time to develop but still two weeks before labor, with its fatal complications, was to begin.
    That almost worked.
     "At 33 weeks, two days, I started gushing blood—a hemorrhage," Weidner said. "I knew right away what was happening."
     An ambulance rushed Weidner to West Suburban Medical Center. She had a crash C-section, but the baby, whom they named Everett, was in very bad shape.
    "None of his functions were functioning," Weidner said. "His heart wasn't circulating blood."
    Her husband was in California on business, got back to Chicago just in time for them to be together, briefly.
    "We were able to be with him and hold him," she said. "We started the process of being a family. My first son was so easy ... this was the absolutely worst thing that could happen."
    The next day, Everett Weidner died.
    A new mother's body doesn't know her baby is dead. Since the 18th week of pregnancy, her system has been getting ready to feed her new child. After birth, progesterone levels drop triggering the production of milk.
     "I breast-fed my first son and loved the experience," Weidner said. "I had intended to breast-feed my second son..."
    Her milk was here but her baby was not. A counselor at the hospital instructed her in techniques to dry up her milk.
     "It's funny," Weidner said. "No one told me about milk donation. I don't know how I knew about it. I learned when I was planning the C-section, I knew donor milk was an option, but didn't know who donated it, never suspected I would become one who would be a milk donor."
     Some two dozen mother's milk banks are scattered around the country. The majority of milk collected goes to premature infants in hospital intensive care units; most of their donors are women who have expressed more milk than their babies need, though some are in Kate Weidner's situation.
     "Ten percent of our donors are bereavement donors—women who have lost their babies," said Summer Kelly, RN, executive director of the Mothers' Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes. "It really helps with the grieving process."
     Nursing releases Prolactin, a hormone that can lesson symptoms of depression. It also gives grieving mothers something to do.

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Sunday, September 16, 2018



        I admit. At no point during the rest of the year do I think, even once, "What I really need right now is some deer jerky."
     Yet driving up to Ontonagon, on the shores of Lake Superior, it feels not only natural, but necessary to stop in Slinger, Wisconsin, at Held's Meats and Cheeses, to pick up a pound or two. 
     Tradition is a stern task master.
     There was a twist this year, as we walked through the door, my buddy whispered to me. 
     "That guy's carrying a gun."
     That he was. A very large man in a yellow shirt. A revolver, by the look of it, shoved in the right pocket of his capacious blue shorts.
     It wasn't a big deal. I joined the queue at the case, considered my cheese options, then ordered what I always do. About a pound of the deer jerky, the regular, not the spicy 
     "The thick part if you can."
     The thick part is softer. Just enough for our weekend at the lake—my wife gave me strict instructions not to bring any home. My older son once said it tastes, "like a burned down house."
     My eyes did glance to the butt of that revolver, and I snapped a photo, to share here.
     I've been coming to Held's for years, unarmed, and never felt imperiled. Obviously this guy feels differently. He has the need to go around packing, not only at Held's but, I imagine, everywhere else he goes.
      So why is he the tough guy, in the eyes of many, the proud American exercising his God-given right to carry a weapon everywhere? While I'm the cringing weenie, taking my chances on the mean streets of Slinger—well, the parking lot of Held's, I can't say I actually set foot on a street in Slinger, assuming such things exist.  
     Which of us has more faith in the nation? In our fellow citizens? In the police? In the rule of law?
     No need to answer. We each have our answers and stick with 'em. 
     Not really my business. This guy is endangering himself more than me or anyone else, and I suppose whatever person who might get shot when he reaches into his pocket for some breath mints and that gun tumbles out.
    It wasn't me, at least, not while I was there, gratefully accepting my white paper wrapped package and hurrying away with perhaps a little extra rapidity. Getting into the car, immediately unwrapping my prize in the car, carving off a generous chaw of jerky with my Gerber LST folding knife. Which shows that I am not against going around armed, provided your weapon has a purpose, such as slicing up jerky. It really is very good jerky, and only $18.95 a pound. 

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Saturday Snapshot #6

Photo by Nikki Dobrowolski

     Now as a photograph, Nikki Dobrowolski's shot of a beaver dam on Huzzy Lake does not rank up there with Ansel Adams' "Moon and Half Dome." Though it does has a certain solemnity and quiet power.
     Rather it was that it was a dam that caught my attention, first, because you just don't see dams much, Hoover notwithstanding. And second, it was a "dam" as opposed to "damn," which you see, or rather hear, all the time, including every day in the name of this blog.
     Which got me playing one of my favorite games: Which usage is older? Dam, the blockage of a body of water, or damn, with that silent "n" creeping in, the condemnation to hell's flame?
    Turns out to be something of a tie.
    The thing that beavers and functioning American governments make goes back at least 700 years, to Old Norse, dammr.
    And the condemnation goes back ... about 700 years, to the Old French damner, meaning to condemn, convict, blame, injure. The Latin damnare, "to adjudge guilty, to doom to condemn," is of course much older, but then the Norse predecessors of dammr could go back far too. Not a lot of written records to help us here.
    Anyway, speaking of beavers, I'm in the Upper Peninsula, with no idea what, how or if I'm going to be able to post anything tomorrow. We'll just have to see. You should be out enjoying this glorious weekend anyway. I sure am.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Target puts its customers on a pedestal


    My Friday column got bumped to Monday—the combination of an extra-long column and extra-tight space. And since I don't believe in scooping the paper on my blog, I'm running something else here today—this picture of a mannequin at Target.
     You'll notice that I didn't attached an adjective to "mannequin." I suppose "hefty" is safe. Target, the nation's sixth largest retailer, calls them "Plus Sized"—they've been rolling them out over the past few years, reflecting their expanded range of sizes.
      As a middle-aged male pundit, I guess I'm supposed to grab the drapery and howl—I suppose George F. Will will do that, eventually—I can't imagine the man shopping at Target, but Nordstrom's has them too, so maybe he'll notice them there.
     But in truth, I can't say I'm distressed by the mannequins—I mean, I noticed them, and took these pictures. But in a cold, clinical, and-so-the-world-turns way. We are an increasingly obese country, and as a person who has battled weight all my life, I know that individuals themselves fluctuate between struggle and surrender. Some days start with a grapefruit and determination, others with a donut and resignation. Why should society be any different? I, myself, err on the side of struggle—being fat sucks. But if you want to dive into morbid obesity with a shrug and smile, by all means, be my guest.
     Besides, mannequins are not the hill to die on. At least these have heads—as a child, I always found those slender, headless mannequins to be extremely creepy. My sister and I had a complicated fantasy where, if you were trapped in May Co. or Higbee's or Halle's when the store closed, the mannequins came to life and murdered you. I'm surprised nobody has used that as a premise for a horror film, but I am not well-schooled in the horror movie genre, so maybe someone already has.
     I do wonder about the efficacy of these mannequins. The purpose of showing off clothes, whether on a dummy in a store, or on a model in an ad, is to encourage the consumer to put down their cash and buy a particular outfit. I'm not saying using a curvy model, or a size-22 mannequin, won't work as well as the half-starved waifs and gaunt sticks that have been the general habit for the past half century. Heck, maybe reflecting women as they actually are might work better. (For some reason, men have not been granted this relief. I have yet to see thickset guy dummies at Target, nor beefy models on the cover of GQ. Maybe that's coming). 
    I could see them succeeding, catching the attention, and the dollars, of the consumer, relieved to see the full wide reflections of themselves. I also could see these stabs at pandering to the World As It Is as failing, by ignoring the aspirational aspect of fashion. Most people are not only heavy, they're plain-looking, but modeling clothes on average looking Joes and Janes, looking schlumpy and down-market—I just can't see that moving the merchandise. 
     To be honest, I've never seen clothing on a mannequin or in an ad, said, "Oh look!" and then bought it. So whoever these are designed to appeal to, fat or thin, it ain't me. The clothes I want are the clothes I've always worn, just newer, and less threadbare. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Flashback 2000: Top-flight bass anglers to hook up in Chicago

Barton Lake, Michigan (photo by Nikki Dobrowolski)

     Readers have been sending in photos for my Saturday Snapshot, which is very gratifying. Nikki Dobrowolski sent in a pair Monday, this lovely swan—taken under duress, as the male swan was making a beeline toward her—and a beaver dam, that I'll use on Saturday.
     She prefaced her description of the pictures with, "I took these photos when my husband and I were out prefishing for bass tournaments."
     I don't like to brag. But I am a man of parts, and couldn't help sharing a personal detail few readers know.
     "These are nice, thanks," I wrote back then, unable to restrain myself, added. "If I told you I won $1,000 in the BASS Masters Classic, would you believe me? It's true."
     She believed me—the power of the media.
     "That sounds like a very interesting blog post," she wrote. "I'd love to read that story and congratulations on your win.

    Consider it done. But first, a bit of background about BASS Masters, a Southern phenomenon that ventured northward, to Chicago, in 2000. Someone with a sense of humor at the City Desk thought it would be a hoot to make me the bass fishing reporter for the week, and I rewarded them with this. On Sunday, I'll share how reporting the below put a grand in my pocket, temporarily.

     Bass can't be everywhere. Which is why bass boats have big 250 horsepower motors.
     They blast across the water at 70 mph, a cheek-flapping wind roaring by and only a placemat's worth of boat bottom actually touching the water's surface. Then they pull up at a carefully scouted sweet spot where suddenly all is quiet, just the buzzing of insects on shore and the gentle zip of the fisherman flicking an expert cast, stalking his prey.
     That's bass fishing: a combination of drag racing and chess.
     Chicago is going to be hearing a lot about bass fishing over the next month as the BASS Masters Classic—the pinnacle of the sport—leaves the South, where it has comfortably played to the choir for 30 years, and dips into Northern waters for the first time.
      Chicago seems receptive, so far.
     "The mayor wants to go out," said Tom Gray, a director in Mayor Daley's office of special events. "We're trying to set it up."
     The classic begins July 17, with 46 of the nation's top anglers trying to hook the fattest local bass, culminating with a "final weigh-in extravaganza" at Soldier Field on July 22.
     "Taking the BASS Masters Classic to Chicago is a bold move that is really going to elevate the sport," said Davy Hite of South Carolina, last year's champ.
     Bass fishermen talk a lot about elevating the sport. Although bass fishing has been moving into the big leagues (two years ago the Angler of the Year first appeared on a Wheaties box, and the Classic carries a $ 100,000 top prize), it isn't there yet.
     "Tournament angling doesn't have the dollars that golf has, but we're right behind," said Chuck Ramke, past-president of the Illinois B.A.S.S. Federation, which has 1,800 members.
     The competitors, in town last week to scout out Lake Michigan, grumbled about slim pickings. But they agreed that it is worth working a little harder if it means introducing bass fishing to an area perhaps unfamiliar with pros such as Gary Klein, with his quiet, intense demeanor.
     "I've never had another occupation," said Klein, 42. "I graduated high school, and instead of going to college I went out on the bass circuit."     
Gary Klein

     Weekend fishermen, who think of fishing as tossing a line in the water and waiting for a fish to bite, have no idea of the expertise that experts such as Klein, who earned $500,000 last year, bring to the sport.
     Klein knows where the fish are. After a week of scouting, including flying over the lake in a rented plane, he roars up to a section of shore just north of Calumet Harbor and searches out a particular rock.
     Standing at the bow of his 21-foot Triton boat, he eyeballs a smallmouth in the clear shallows, flicks his cast, sending a hand-poured tube lure under the fish's nose, practically, and gets a strike on the first try.
     "When I get to the spot the fish likes to favor, I'm on his nose all the time, like a fly, until he gets mad and he bites," Klein said.
     How does he know where the bass will be? Experience, and balancing dozens of factors, such as water and air temperature; wind speed; barometer reading; season, and the contours of the bottom.
     "When we look at a lake, we don't just see water, we see all the subtleties," he said. "We are very fine-tuned when it comes to putting together patterns."
     Though not a particularly physical sport, bass fishing takes a toll. Klein has a nasty scar on his right hand from a prize-winning bass that sank its teeth into him as he lifted it for the cameras.
     "It was a $ 100,000 fish," said Klein. "I wasn't going to drop it."
                 —Originally published in the Sun-Times June 12, 2000

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Focus on Chicago's problems and not the clown car of candidates

     Maybe we're going about this wrong.
     Last week, as you know, Rahm Emanuel realized his mayoralty is upside down in a ditch, wheels spinning, so he decided to take his ball and go home.
     And this enormous crew of marginal figures, cranks, has-beens, and perennial candidates leaps up and announces, in turn, that each is just the person to run what is still the nation's third largest city. It's like that scene where the Oklahoma territory is opened for settlement; somebody fires a gun and all these buckboards and horseback riders go racing across the border in a cloud of dust.
     I won't list them all.
     Some blame belongs to the media, including my own beloved Sun-Times. We pass the time recounting tales of Willie Wilson handing out cash here, William "Dock" Walls making his fourth bid there (I actually agree with Walls about something, when he says of his fellow arrivistes, "They have no clue what's needed." His only omission — omnia vanitas — is not including himself in the magic circle).
     All good fun. I get it. Ringling Brothers went out of business, and the employment opportunities for clowns is severely limited. That's sad. But what's needed now is not to indulge egomaniacs, but to find someone who can address the enormous, city-killing problems facing Chicago.
     Since this column tops out at 719 words, I'll limit myself to the top two problems.
     First, violence in general and the cops in particular. Violence not only rips apart lives, but drives away the investment that the city needs to thrive. And cops, besides killing innocent people all too often, cost the city $500 million we don't have over the past 15 years in settlements and judgments.
     Here, I hate to say it, but Garry McCarthy has a definite edge. Not for any experience in his four and a half years as superintendent, which amounted to saying "Yes Mr. Mayor" twice a day into the telephone. But the CPD rank and file already really, really hate him, which gives him a certain freedom to act. What ruined Rahm is that when the Laquan McDonald video became known, he had already passed through his reform-the-police phase of his attempt to lead and had drifted into the try-to-be-pals-with-cops phase, and if handing the mom who popped up a paycheck kept the video out of sight, all the better.
    We need a mayor who is going to act on the scathing Justice Department indictment of the Chicago police, and who'll implement change while she stops her ears to the we-can't-do-our-jobs-unless-we-can-glibly-trample-human-rights-without-any-supervision-or-consequence shriek the force will put up.
     Did I say "she"? Giving the game away. 

To continue reading, click here.

If, like some readers, you finish the column and want a little background on my unusual fondness for Carol Moseley Braun, you can find the details here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

White males up the ying yang

     People occasionally ask me to do stuff. Speeches, panels, appearances. Monday I was invited to judge a Halloween dog costume contest. For the second year. Of course I said yes.
     It doesn't happen a lot. I don't want to pretend I'm Malcolm Gladwell. From time to time, people ask. 
     And I try to comply, because it keeps me busy, gets me out of the house, and I suppose huffs a little air on my little flickering ember of local quasi-celebrity. Heck, sometimes they even pay me.
     Monday, besides the spooky pooch parade, someone who had asked me to appear at ... well, it seems some kind of story-telling evening related to a certain community. I don't think I'll say specifically which.  Draw the veil a little. The event takes place once a month at a North Side bar.
      Anyway, last December, this reader asks me to show up the next day to appear at the event. And I say, "Yeah, that's kinda short notice. Ask me another time."  
     Monday up he pops again, messaging on Facebook. The event is set for Nov. 6. Am I in? At first I think yes, sure, I'll show at up at your event. Then I look at the calendar. Nov. 6 is Election Day. Apt to be a busy time at the paper, not the evening I want to be sitting on a stool in a small club blinking into a spotlight. 
     I tell him we'll have to kick the can down the road again.
   "Pick a month to hold a slot," he urges. "There are a lot of white males wanting to tell stories to our audience. At one point I had white males booked for a year plus a wait list."
      I look at this remark and weigh my reaction. You're allowed to think about what you say before responding; too many people forget that. 
     What would YOU say?
     Should I point out the guy writing this to me is white? 
     He'd kinda have to be, wouldn't he?
     I decide to go the low-key route.
     "Hmmm, put that way ... " I write. "If there's a glut, I can graciously yield the field."
     Okay, he replies.
     That might have been the end. But his remark simmered. Low-key is not my style.
     "I mean, I'm not corking up for it," I add. An obscure reference. Burnt cork. Like Al Jolson. Meaning: I'm not going to pretend to be black to do your event. I'm goading him, seeing how he reacts. Too many white guys indeed. We have to ration them.
     He doesn't reply to that. Maybe he doesn't get it. Instead, he again tries to nail me down for a future date. He wants a commitment. 
     I think some more.
     "I'll be honest, I find being put in the slurry of generic white people a little off-putting," I write. "If I said I had a lot of..." and here I plug in his particular group "angling for my attention, you'd feel ill-used. I understand white privilege, but at some point it becomes just another way to undercut somebody different from yourself. I was born white, I'm stuck with it."
     We went back and forth a bit. He did apologize if he offended me, and I said, no, not offended so much as surprised. We parted civilly, on good terms, which doesn't always happen.  A nice guy, trying to ensure a diverse group of presenters, albeit awkwardly. His goal was laudable: a diverse evening. Just not too heavy on the pale end of the spectrum. He wants me, but not too many guys like me, not all at once, since we can be overwhelming. Got it. 
     And yet. Maybe it's residual bitterness on my part from being designated the paper's poster boy for White Privilege. Maybe I have a little trouble seeing quotas as a positive sign of confidence from formerly-oppressed groups. Maybe this is fall-out from having an unapologetic bigot as president. "I can't do anything about Donald Trump, but I sure can do a whipsong on you." But I'm seeing more what I consider White People Suck messages. Which certainly has basis in the realm of historical fact regarding societies as a whole, while still being unfair applied to specific individuals, such as me. There's the issue of the group versus the individual. History notwithstanding, I'm just not ready to allow myself to be draped with the mantle of pale suckiness. An innocent black shopper feels rightly outraged if a store clerk follows him around the store, based on his own racial fears and pre-conceptions: why should I accept the blame for what other white people who are not me did or are doing?
     If I want to hire a guy to paint my house, and you show up with your white face, and I say, "You know, I really wanted to give the job to an erstwhile disadvantaged minority: got any friends of color?" that could be seen as a noble attempt to right historic inequalities. But from your point of view, from the perspective of a disappointed house painter trying to get work, you lost a gig through no fault of your own. And I would be acting in a prejudiced fashion, by punishing an individual for the supposed flaws of his identity group. 
     I don't want to make too much of this. Fox News sorts are already writhing on the ground, crying about white genocide and whatever. That's not what I'm saying here. Maybe this is just one guy extending an invitation in a ham-handed fashion, forgetting that lumping together anyone's race, even a notorious race with a catalogue of horrors as long as the white race's, is not a winning strategy to get a busy guy to give up an evening to entertain his bar full of friends. I may be a white person, but that's not all I am.

Monday, September 10, 2018

National Geographic's amazing journey with youngest face transplant recipient

A surgical resident carefully cradles Katie Stubblefield's head to keep it still in the intensive care unit of the Cleveland Clinic after the 31-hour face transplant featured in "The Story of a Face" on the cover of the September issue of National Geographic. | Photograph by Lynn Johnson/National Geographic
     Regular readers know that I've occasionally written about the challenges confronting those with faces far from the norm, particularly in "Face Fear," written for Mosaic in 2015. I wanted to share this story because it seemed an important step in the mass media—assuming such a thing still exists—portraying the disfigured. Given that most magazines meticulously photoshop already beautiful models to give their newsstand sales and extra twist, I thought it particularly bold of the National Geographic that they put Katie on its cover, and wanted to draw further attention to he issue.

     On March 25, 2014, Katie Stubblefield found texts from another girl on her boyfriend's phone. She confronted him and he broke up with her. Distraught, the Mississippi teenager took her brother's hunting rifle, jammed the barrel under her chin and pulled the trigger.
     "Gone were part of her forehead; her nose and sinuses; her mouth, except for the corners of her lips; and much of her mandible and maxilla, the bones that make up the jaws and front of the face," Joanna Connors writes in an extraordinary article, "Katie's New Face," in the September National Geographic magazine.
     Last year Stubblefield became the 40th recipient of a face transplant and, at 21, the youngest ever. 
     First surgeons had to save her life, had to find a way to cover the hole blown in the middle of her face. They built a crude nose and upper lip from thigh tissue, a chin and lower lip from her Achilles tendon. Scanning her sister's jaw as a model, they built Katie a jaw out of titanium.  
Used with permission of National Geographic
     The result was a noseless, lipless mask, criss-crossed with deep scars that Katie playfully nicknamed "Shrek."
     She went on the transplant list. After a year, in May, 2017, a donor face became available. The operation, at the Cleveland Clinic, the nation's center for face transplant surgery, took 31-hours, the first 16 carefully detaching the donor face. There is an extraordinary, fold-out photo in the National Geographic showing surgeons gathered around the disembodied face, hands folded reverently, gazing down at it.
     Attaching the face took another 15 hours, the cheeks of Katie's new face flushing as surgeons connected major arteries.
     The editors of National Geographic chose to put Katie, pre-surgery, on its cover, in profile, holding flowers, which is where I noticed her at a newsstand on my way through O'Hare last week. I flipped through the magazine, asking myself, "Do I really want this in the house?" I put it back. At Denver, I saw it a second time, and passed again.
     Back at Chicago, I bought a copy, wondering about the reaction to a story that some readers, editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg admitted, "may find very difficult to look at."

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

'Nobody's friend'—Rahm Emanuel's place in history

Past mayors of Chicago on display in the outer office of the mayor, 5th floor, City Hall

     Roswell B. Mason. Monroe Heath. Thomas Hoyne...
     Most of the 53 men and one woman who were mayor Chicago before Rahm Emanuel are not cherished in the hearts and minds of the grateful city they once served.
     Hempstead Washburne. William E. Dever. Frank J. Corr....
     They're barely remembered at all—and no, the Washburne Trade Academy wasn't named for the former mayor. Different Washburne.
     So with Emanuel's surprise announcement Tuesday that he will not seek a third term, the immediate question is: where in the pantheon Chicago mayors will history place Emanuel? How will he be remembered? With respect? Contempt? Or do the waters of oblivion close over him?
     The short answer is: that depends.
     Most Chicago mayors served briefly and were forgotten swiftly. The city initially elected its mayors to a one-year, then a two-year term, and the first 22 mayors each served just one. Then Francis Sherman, mayor from 1841 to 1842, broke tradition and won a second term 20 years after he left office, then a third, making him both the city's 5th and 23rd mayor.
     In terms of longevity, Emanuel's eight years in office puts him easily into the top 10, behind Carter Harrison Sr. (8 1/2 years), his son, Carter Harrison Jr. and William Hale Thompson (12 years apiece), the under-appreciated Edwin J. Kelly (14 years) and the Daleys, Richard J. and Richard M., at 21 and 22 years respectively.
     We're biased toward our own times, lending them more significance than they ultimately merit in the sweep of history. Eugene Sawyer is remembered today because many living Chicagoans remember him. It is a safe bet that his two years in office in the late '80s will not reverberate down the ages, the way that most Chicagoans do not generally know that one mayor, Carter Harrison Sr., was assassinated in his own home, two days before the end of the 1893 World's Columbian Fair.
Where does Emanuel fit?

To continue reading, click here.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Saturday Snapshot #5

Photo by Tom Peters

        Today's snapshot comes from Tom Peters—that's No. 2 for him, if you're keeping track. It's of the Kankakee River at Momence, and for those who, like me, had no flippin' idea where Momence is, my special journalistic skills uncovered that it is a small town about 50 miles due south of the Loop.
      The downtown is well-preserved—it was used for some exterior scenes in the 2002 Tom Hanks movie, "Road to Perdition." Not his best film, true, but it had its premiere at the Chicago Theater, and Hanks delighted the audience by showing up and giving us all a wave. Well, I thought it was cool he showed up; I really can't speak for everybody else.
     I can't find another town in American called "Momence"—named for a local Potawatomi leader, Isidore Momence, or Moness. Though to be honest, my search was startlingly brief. It's been a long week, and you're invited to prove me wrong.
     Momence's 19th century history seems romantically rough-edged.
Poster from 1968 festival
     "Here supplies of powder and shot were to be had," Burt E. Burroughs wrote in his 1923 Tales of An Old Border Town and Along the Kankakee, "and here, also, a fellow with a 'thirst' could deluge the inner man to his heart's content with no one to say him nay, so long as he had a raccoon or mink pelt left to pay for it."
    Nor is Momence's charm confined entirely to the dimly-lit halls and corridors of the times long gone. For the past 81 years, Momence has held an annual Gladiolus Festival. This year's was Aug. 8-12—just missed it!—and included a "Kid's Parade" (that must be some kid) a Reptile Show, a Flea Market and a "Princess and Queen Coronation."
    Checking over the rules for that last event, I couldn't help but pause over this note on Glad Fest Royalty competition essays: "The candidates will be answering a simple question in a written format and provide an interview with a panel of outside judges. The candidate's answers will not be judged on grammar, punctuation or length. They will be solely judged on content as it pertains to the topic."
     I might argue that grammar, punctuation and length all speak to quality, and have a direct bearing on whether any individual, no matter the size of the town they dwell in, can legitimately entertain aspirations to royalty. There seems to be a story buried there—my guess is there were complaints about a past winning entry, because the rules go on to observe that a past winner was very long, leaving off "So stop griping." But it does not behoove any self-respecting city slicker to put small town charm under too fine a microscope. Besides, my plans for next summer are completely open: a visit to the Gladiolus Festival might be in order, and I don't want to turn them against me before I even show up.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Flashback 1997: Outlook for immigrant takes a turn for the better

      Readers of yesterday's flashback wondered what happened to Riva Feldsher after the column ran. I had a vague memory of checks coming into the paper, no more. But I looked, and found this, which will have to do for today—I didn't write a Friday column, because I wrote something longer for Sunday about Rahm Emanuel's place in history, or lack of which. 
     Riva Feldsher has given her cat food to a neighbor who actually owns a cat.
     The 83-year-old immigrant from the former Soviet Union bought the food because at 24 cents a can it represented cheap food for herself, she said.
     But now, after living under the threat of losing her federal welfare benefits, Feldsher's life is looking up.
     Since a March 27 Chicago Sun-Times article on the situation Feldsher shares with thousands of legal immigrants in Illinois who face losing of their federal income because of welfare reform, she has applied for citizenship.
     She is taking advantage of a change in the Immigration and Naturalization Service's rules, which now allow disabled immigrants to apply for citizenship without passing a written test. Feldsher is nearly blind and is mentally frail.
     However, immigrants still must take a "meaningful oath," a requirement that troubles advocates.
     "While we understand the political pressure the INS is under, we're concerned that many people will not meet that strict requirement," said Barbara Otto, head of the SSI Coalition for a Responsible Safety Net.
     Immigrants with Alzheimer's disease, or those with significant mental impairment, could be denied benefits, she said.
     The Sun-Times article about Feldsher got a strong response from readers. Some expressed sympathy and sent checks.
     Others were outraged that foreign nationals can come to this country and receive "handouts." They suggested that whoever sponsored Feldsher should take care of her.
     "In Riva Feldsher's case, the person who sponsored her is her sister, who is also on (public aid) and doesn't have any income to support her," said Donna Pezzuto, assistant director of the Council for Jewish Elderly, which helps Feldsher, who came here six years ago, and people like her function in society.
     Pezzuto points out that while there was still a Soviet Union, the United States was interested in getting people out from behind the Iron Curtain.
     "In the past, the sponsor was not legally responsible for supporting them," she said. "Most of these people were refugees, fleeing religious persecution, and we opened our arms to them."
     Otto said that in many cases people were in good health when they came to this country, but deteriorated with age.
     "What are we going to say to them, 'Tough luck'?" Otto said. "These are people the United States said could come to this country. We said, 'We will grant you refugee status.' Now we're changing the rules."
     Otto said the SSI Coalition is filing a class-action lawsuit against the Social Security Administration, alleging that the status of immigrants had been changed unlawfully.
     In a related matter, a bill that would restore partial benefits to elderly and disabled immigrants denied federal benefits passed the Illinois Legislature April 17. A similar bill is being assembled in the U.S. House by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D.-Ill.) to return benefits to legal immigrants and pay the cost by reducing "corporate welfare" to profitable businesses.
     Gutierrez will lead a protest at the White House Wednesday to draw attention to the issue. A protest also will be held in Chicago.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 5, 1997

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Flashback 1997—Tired, poor and out of luck ; Welfare cuts hit immigrants hard

     I was talking about a future story with an editor and this column came to mind—you know a subject has affected you when you remember the name of somebody from a story after 20 years. I certainly remember Riva Feldsher.

     When Riva Feldsher got a letter from the government telling her that the $ 484 monthly check she lives on would stop coming in 90 days, she wasn't upset.
     The letter was written in English. Feldsher, a Russian immigrant, can't read English.
     Had the letter been written in Russian it wouldn't have made a difference because Feldsher, 83, is nearly blind after a stroke several years ago.
     Once the news was explained to her, Feldsher reacted with resignation.
     "What am I going to do?" she said through an interpreter. "I am an old person. The only choice I have is to go on the street and die there."
     Feldsher is one of about 22,000 elderly or disabled Illinois immigrants—10,500 over age 75—facing a similar prospect over the next several months, as government subsidies are taken away from them in the name of welfare reform.
     "It is going to be devastating," said Barbara Otto, executive director of the SSI Coalition for a Responsible Safety Net. "People count on this monthly cash assistant to pay for housing, clothing, food."
     Karen Popowski, executive director of the Polish American Association, called the cuts "a national tragedy in the making."
     "It seems unreasonable and inhumane to achieve cost savings by denying subsistence benefits to elderly and disabled legal immigrants," she said.
     Two federal programs are affected by the cuts—Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, and food stamps. Last August, President Clinton signed the welfare bill, and it will go into effect between April 1 and the end of August.   
     Chicago's Latino Institute estimated that the state will lose $ 130 million a year in federal aid.      

     "Even if private agencies and religious-based providers fill the gap, there is no way they can replace $ 105 million in lost benefit in Illinois," Otto said. "Absolutely no way."
     The Latino Institute and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago hired the Urban Institute of Washington, D.C., to study the taxes paid in Illinois by immigrants vs. the benefits they received. 
     "We found that Illinois immigrants pay $3 million more in taxes than they collect in benefits," said Pamela Seubert, director of government programs for the Jewish Federation. "So ironically, while people talk about immigrants being a burden to society, their tax contributions leave money on the table for the rest of us."
     To escape the cuts, immigrants have several options. They can prove they have been employed for a total of 10 years while in the United States; that they are veterans or on active duty in the military, or that they have become U.S. citizens.
     None of these options is available to Feldsher, who came to this country in 1991 from Kiev. Her husband and her only son had died, and her younger sister in Chicago was all the family she had left.
     Feldsher expected, she said, to enjoy a small stipend similar to the one the Soviet government paid in consideration for the years she worked as a bookkeeper.
     Asked if she could learn English and pass the citizenship test, Feldsher hurried to bring out her Stalin-era medals to show she was a hard worker who helped win the war against the Germans.
      "She is worried the government thinks she is a thief or a bad person," said Jane Tannenbaum, a social worker assigned to Feldsher. "She does not understand how the government can take away her 'pension' -- she thinks of it as a pension. She takes it very personally."
     Asked whether Feldsher could pass the test, Tannenbaum said: "She thinks the television is talking to her. Sometimes she talks back. Since she had a stroke, she is nearly blind and faints."
     "I can't pass it," Feldsher said. "I can remember everything going on in my childhood. But not much else."
     Even sharp-minded immigrants who want to become citizens might find themselves in a Catch-22, losing benefits at least for a few months, because of delays in the system.
     "A legal immigrant to the United States cannot even file their application for naturalization until they have been a resident in the U.S. for four years and nine months," Seubert said. "The minimum amount of time it takes to process an application is six months."
    But the wait to become a citizen is expected to be even longer.

   "The INS has now elongated the FBI fingerprint checks— which are required by statute— and the INS expects 1.8 million applications this year, as opposed to 1.2 million last year, without additional resources. So we expect to elongate the minimum to nine months and probably in excess of a year," Seubert said.
     Rob Koon, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, confirmed Seubert's figures, but added that the increase in applications for naturalization cannot be attributed to welfare reform.
     "We've been seeing an upswing in naturalization applications since fiscal 1992," he said.
     Advocates for immigrants and the elderly find it a cruel irony that welfare reform should be balanced on the backs of powerless immigrants.
     "The purpose of welfare reform was to move people to the workplace (who) should be working, but 40 percent of the cuts (under welfare reform) are in SSI, a program that supports elderly and disabled," Otto said. "The public does not understand where these cuts took place, I believe. The general public did not intend for us to rip away the safety net from people who will not transfer to work or cannot naturalize because of the disabling process of aging."
     Federal officials hope that changes can be made before the new law transforms into widespread human hardship.
     "The president, when he signed the welfare bill, mentioned this as the part he was trying to fix," said Hannah Rosenthal, regional director of the federal Health and Human Services Department. "He has proposed that elderly legal immigrants should be allowed to get their SSI. He is pushing that, but Congress is being difficult."
     Rosenthal said the president's proposal has "a chance of working," which does not translate into much hope for the elderly immigrants of Illinois.
     "Now that they understand this means they will be losing their money, their anxiety rate is even higher," said Donna Pazutto of the Council for Jewish Elderly.
     For Riva Feldsher, the anxiety is expressed in hoarding what little income she has.
     "She has started spending just $1 a day because she thinks she will be out on the street and need money for food," said Tannenbaum.
     What she is worried about losing is a $ 250-a-month studio apartment, decorated with a huge photo of her deceased husband, a photo of her sister, and three identical pictures of a grinning little boy, cut from cereal boxes, carefully propped up at each place at her tiny kitchen table.
     They keep her company, her social worker explained.
                                                 —Originally published in the Sun-Times March 27, 1997

To find out what happened next to Riva Feldsher, click here. for the follow-up. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Be careful what you wish for.

     A guy takes one day off...
     Tries to stretch a long Labor Day weekend to my parents in Colorado. And look what happens.  Rahm Emanuel takes his ball and goes home.
     I can't fish for pity. Because City Hall dean Fran Spielman was also on vacation the day Rahm Emanuel threw in the towel. Knowing Fran, that has to sting, unless of course Rahm timed the announcement so Fran wouldn't be there to grill him like a chicken wing. Then it's a compliment. Besides, she already had turned up the pressure on him last week. 
     And the truth is, I stopped paying attention to Rahm a long time ago. 
     After Laquan McDonald, Rahm Emanuel seemed exquisitely beside the point, as if he too had been gunned down that October night on South Pulaski Road. Did the mayor cover up the shooting? Or was he just willfully ignorant of the tape? Let the voters decide!
     Either way, he certainly was powerless to curb violence in Chicago. Or indifferent. Voters were calling for his head, demanding that he resign. The police he was sucking up to certainly didn't like him any better. There must have been blood in the water, because a dozen opponents were jostling, piglets at the trough, to challenge him. 
     Now they've gotten what they wanted, sort of. A slow motion resignation. 
     I thought Eric Zorn hit the nail squarely with his observation that now Chicago can have an election about the city's future and its multitude of problems and not a referendum about the past and how Rahm didn't fix all those problems. 
    Not that any of these chuckleheads running will fix them either, those I suppose some would fail more spectacularly than others. 
     Seven years. The Era of Rahm Emanuel. Let the assessments begin! I can't say I miss him. At first my view was, "He may be a jerk, but he's our jerk." The jerk working hard for the City of Chicago. A working jerk, the political genius we need to fix our pension time bomb, our staggering schools, our bleeding neighborhoods. It seems only yesterday Rahm was such an appealing politician we half assumed he had to be slumming, merely running for mayor of Chicago. Just a gig, the day job to keep him in fighting trim while he Talleyranded his path to the Oval Office.
    Now both mayor and White House are both bespattered. Maybe that's it—the presidency is so diminished, it's ready for Rahm to assume his rightful position.
    Out of office, he'll go from being our jerk to just a jerk. I can't pretend to care what Rahm will do after he leaves office—make more money, I suppose. Join Rich Daley in whatever half-light limbo netherworld former Chicago mayors reside in, limiting themselves to four or five locations and a few dozen cronies and, of course, foreign travel and buckraking.  We still have months of victory lap, of self-congratulations and flattering figures to endure. He did spruce up the river, I grant him that.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The flying menagerie

     "Do you want the window seat?" my wife kindly asked as we finally reached our row toward the rear of a Frontier flight.
    "I do!" I said, then, recovering, "You can have it on the way back."
     There is a certainly childishness to gazing out the window during airplane trips. One that I've never outgrown. I not only gaze at the clouds all around and the landscape far below. Sometimes I'll even exude "We're flying!"
     Because most people never will.
     On my recent flight to Denver, I also had this colorful woodpecker on the winglet—the proper name for the turned up portion on the wing that decreases drag—to keep me company. 
     The bird helped. Otherwise, it was a typical full, charmless flight, the kind that really underscores the "bus" in an "Airbus 320." The typical, out-of-left-field mishaps. Someone on Frontier messed up the security check or, rather, misplaced the paperwork, and after all the passengers had finally filed on, we were immediately told to begin filing off, and half the plane was emptied before a pilot finally noticed the documents where they shouldn't have been, tucked behind a visor.
    To make matters worse, the flight attendant working the microphone fancied himself a comedian, and kept up a steady patter that was supposed to be funny—he welcomed the Denver-bound passengers to our flight to Salt Lake City—but quickly began to sound somewhat unhinged. 
     After we took to the air, in a very turbulent flight, I took comfort that somebody at the Denver-based budget airline had the graphic sense and presence of mind to add this avian companion. About a dozen years ago, as it turns out. It made up for the glitch when leaving and its companion snafu arriving, as the plane was left five feet short of the gate, causing another delay.
     I hadn't seen the entire plane on the way in. On the way out, I saw this row of Frontier jets. Obviously, the animal graphics is a Thing at Frontier. Good call. Now if they could only perfect the whole filing-security-check paperwork Thing.


Monday, September 3, 2018

Days commuting are not time lost, but time found


     I'm reading a new report claiming Chicagoans "lost" an average of 503 days commuting over their lives, time they "waste" traveling to and from their jobs.
     I am agog, aghast and aquiver.
      I have been commuting in and around the Chicago area for ... 35 years now, going to newspapers in Barrington, Wheaton and, since 1987, downtown Chicago. I've gotten to work by foot, bike, car, cab, train, bus. I once hitched a ride to the office from Belmont Harbor in a lovely Chris-Craft cabin cruiser.
     However done, commuting has always been among the most pleasurable moments of the day.
      Going back to that first job, at the Barrington Courier-Review, driving my grandmother's little blue Chevy Citation. Stopping at a Dunkin' Donuts to pick up breakfast—a raisin bran muffin and, for desert, a chocolate chip muffin. Reaching into the bag, pulling up the top—the best part, dense and glossy and delicious—and pressing it against my lips.
     I lived in Oak Park when I started working at the Sun-Times, and did at first view my daily commute downtown with alarm. For about for 10 seconds, then shrugged and decided, "I'll just have to read 'Remembrance of Things Past' then." Sitting in the front of the 'L,' a fat volume cracked in front of me, occasionally glancing up from the gardens of Combray to watch the city rushing toward me.
     Some of my most memorable moments came during a commute. After we got married, we moved to East Lake View. Sometimes I'd take the 151 bus,. An elderly gent once tapped me on the shoulder and said, "I didn't realize young people still read Thurber."
      "We do," I replied, smiling. "And thank you for calling me 'young.'"

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Gas pump strikes fear in heart of modern man

      Technology actually hasn't been changing as fast as it used to. Cell phones are more than 30 years old. Personal computers too. The Internet has been a public commons for more than 20 years. Changes now seem slower, more incremental. 
    It's hard to recapture the anxiety that all this stuff originally created. I was searching for something else, and happened upon this column from 1997.
     As a guy who used to watch the attendant at the Clark Station check the oil and hand sticks of gum into the back seat to us kids, notice my terrified approach toward a gas pump credit card reader, and my wonder at the cleverness of "swiping." To be honest, at 58, I feel far less angst about shifting technology than this young man of 36 apparently felt. So that's good.

    I used to worry that if I beeped the car horn too hard, the air bag would explode in my face.  
     Thus I always tried to gently press the horn, and not hit it sharply, so as not to antagonize the thing and get it mad at me.
     The concern was that the air bag would deploy, scare the bejeezus out of me, drench me in talcum powder and maybe even cause an accident.
     The bags use talcum powder for lubrication, I heard once.
     I have since learned more about the bags. So now I worry that I'll beep the horn too hard and the air bag will deploy and kill me.
     That's progress.
     Some days life seems like a grim plodding from one vague technological dread to another, wrapped in a patchwork of half-knowledge and doubt woven out of the dubious information washing over us daily.
     Is the nightstand clock throwing off a low-level, cancer-causing electric field, or did that turn out to be a myth? Will the whiff of fumes when I remove the dry cleaning bags from my clothing aggregate over the years and bring hideous death? Is coffee good or bad this week?
     Modernity has always been daunting and scary. A hundred years ago, James Thurber's aunts also worried about electricity leaking out of empty light sockets. His uncles treated those newfangled automobiles like a particularly stupid brand of horse. The toaster was a menace.
     Thurber himself was forever struggling, with automobile tires and telephones and all the trappings of the brave new world of the 1930s.
     How would poor, half-blind Thurber make it today?
     Not too well, I'm afraid.
     We've moved away from balky manufactured objects—stubborn umbrellas, blenders that don't—into an incomprehensible digital world.
     Last Wednesday night was a perfect example. I was dog-tired, dragging home about 8:30 p.m. The "EMPTY" light had been burning on the dashboard for two days. Time to fill up the tank.
     I stopped at a gas station on La Salle Street. Just another pasty-faced guy after work, his tie knot slipped down to his sternum.
     A gaunt bum with a squeegee shambled over. I was about to wave him away automatically when I realized the windows were, indeed, dirty.
     "Go ahead," I said.
     Normally I go in and pay—clinging to the transaction, a vestige of all the jogging Texaco men from lost days. But I was short on cash, so submitted to the seduction of the credit card slot in the pump.
     Whoops, backward. Finally got it right. Don't use these much.
     I began pumping gas, keeping a close watch on the squeegee guy. Sometimes those squeegees have a sharp edge, and can scratch your car.
     The tank was filled. The windows cleaned. I checked to see that the gas cap was on. Checked the pump to see if it still had my credit card—no, it was one of those swipe things. Clever design, I thought as I returned the pump nozzle. No chance of leaving your card behind.
     I gave the squeegee guy two bucks—tried to make a little small talk, to be a human. He said he was using the money to take a bus to a shelter. I mentioned that I've eaten at the Pacific Garden Mission, and the food was hearty. He said the food there aggravated his ulcer.
     I pulled out of the gas station. Whoops, lights off. Hadn't checked those. Turned the lights on. Maybe a minute later I was driving up La Salle Street, when a thought struck me: I hadn't ended the gas transaction, hadn't gotten a receipt, hadn't pressed a "STOP" button. The squeegee guy must have rattled me.
     I tried to push the thought away and continue home. Those pumps have got to have some sort of mechanism that resets themselves, either after you return the nozzle or after a brief idle span. They can't just sit primed with your credit information, waiting to dispense more gas to anybody who happens by.
     Can they?
     The image formed immediately. A long line of cars, snaking down La Salle Street, forming in front of the Free Pump—already an urban legend. Some feckless victim put his credit card in and didn't get a receipt. The next guy just picked up the hose. Word spread. By morning I would be a "bright," an amusing little story used to fill out columns in every paper in America:

"CHICAGO -- Bar patrons occasionally buy a round for the house. But gas station customer Neil Steinberg accidentally bought a round of gas for some 200 grinning customers -- at a cost to himself of nearly $ 4,000 -- at an Amoco station here after inserting his credit card into a pump. 'He's an idiot, and we're going to make him pay his bill,' said Visa spokesperson . . ."
     Sighing, I turned the car around and returned to the station. There was already somebody at the pump —a young guy on a motorcycle. I pulled over to him and rolled down my window. What to ask? "Hey guy, are you paying for that gas or stealing it from me?" That wouldn't do. I was at a loss. He seemed to be pushing buttons. A good sign.
     Wordlessly, I pulled out of the station—again—and headed home, resigned, weary, at the mercy of giant forces I could barely understand, never mind conquer.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times April 6, 1997