Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The ancient Romans knew how to handle Twitter better than we do

     “Pusili hominis et miseri cum est repetere mordentem,” Seneca writes, in his essay on anger. “It is a petty and sorry person who will bite back when he is bitten.”
     That’s a little strong. While I hesitate to disagree with the master, I have to. Yes, smallness and sorriness define retribution, as they define much of the anthill we call human existence.
     But there is also a strength to biting back. Someone flips you the bird, you automatically return the gesture. Laudable? No. But it does show pride.
Standing your ground is a reflex, no doubt traced back to baboons on the savanna fluffing their fur to look bigger. The question is: Is it a reflex we can afford to indulge in our social media age? Because we certainly do, big time. The biters and the bitten, toe-to-toe, blasting away.
     Consider how much human effort, brainwork, emotional frisson, not to mention typing, is spent in online disputes. Billions of times a day, total strangers conducting their snarling, personal-yet-anonymous broomstick sword fights.
     Toward what end? Are we debating? Having a conversation? Or merely flailing at each other?
     Who benefits? Twitter, Facebook and the social media companies certainly do. We, not so much. We are unpaid gladiators performing our tiny verbal combats for their profit, so others can read the advertisements between our spats.
     Writing for a daily metropolitan newspaper, I receive blowback continually on all platforms. Letters and phone calls, Facebook posts and email and Twitter.
     That’s good. I want reaction. I used to read them all, reply to them all. But lately that practice is starting to seem antique, like a 19th century president meeting with whoever turns up at the White House and asks to see him.
     My motto used to be Warren Zevon’s line, “The name of the game is be hit and hit back.” Now my mantra is: Don’t let the poison in. Don’t read negative emails, never mind react. Bail out as soon as the language sours. Block and forget. It isn’t as if the person writing is open to persuasion. That’s so 1980s.
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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Flashback 1999: "To love and not to count the cost"

Metropolitan Museum of Art
    Ed Burke is going to be in the headlines for a long time, as the wheels of justice slowly grind him into gristle. I can't say I'm shedding any tears. But I've long been an admirer of his wife, Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, and my heart goes out to her. I met her nearly 20 years ago, when I was a half reporter/half columnist, so low on the Sun-Times totem pole that I worked Saturday nights. 
     Back then, the Burkes were controversial because they had become foster parents to a black child, "Baby T," and the child's biological mother, finding out the powerful couple caring for her baby thanks to her own neglect and, sensing opportunity, tried to claw the poor kid back.
     The city desk sent me out to cover a speech by Judge Burke, and this resulted.  Note: the Burkes eventually got the child back, and raised him to maturity. Those looking to condemn the Burkes in all things often lump in their decision to care for a foster child, as if it were somehow disreputable, as if they had kidnapped the boy for their own nefarious ends, rather than saved him from a life of neglect. 
     That's ridiculous. I never doubted her good intentions, and think of it now that the couple are receiving general scorn. I find it mitigating, as the lawyers say, and remember having tea with Anne Burke after this. By the time she was done lauding the importance of foster parentage, I was ready to go out and sponsor a child myself. I soon recovered my true, much smaller nature. But I'll never forget the passion and sincerity with which she spoke about the need to help others.

     A reporter was sent to do a story on a prize French poodle arriving on the zeppelin Hindenburg. Hours later he staggered back to the office, his hair singed and face sooty.
     "No story," he said. "The thing exploded and I couldn't find the poodle."
     I made that up, long ago, to illustrate the way reporters, intent on one story, sometimes miss another.
     It happened again, almost, Saturday night, when State Appelate Court Justice Anne M. Burke spoke to a dinner given by Uhlick's Foster Parents United, a foster parents group.
     Burke was herself a foster mother, raising the child known to the public as Baby T, until the original mother, a former drug addict, reclaimed the child after a court fight.
     Burke never had spoken publicly about the situation. This speech—my editor said—delivered to foster parents, might be the opportunity she was looking for to open up.
     I noted that judges are not known for their unwise personal revelations—unwise because the case has not yet completely played itself out, and any grabs for public sympathy might not be well-received by the judge. But it was a quiet Saturday night, so I went.
     The dinner was in a small room in the basement of the Hyatt on Ashland Avenue. Taped music. Balloons. Nothing fancy.
     Burke and her husband, Ald. Edward Burke, came in. They sat and chatted, then Burke was introduced.
     She spoke, not about herself, but about foster parenting.
     "Through your love and generosity, the lives of the most vulnerable and fragile children are strengthened and protected," she said. "Being a foster parent is both a unique responsibility and an incalculable act of love."
    "Love" was a word she used again and again. She urged the foster parents to not let whatever bureaucratic problems they encounter sidetrack them.
     "It is so critical for us to continually remind each other what the real focus of our attention is—to love and not to count the cost," she said. "Everything else is irrelevant—even the unflattering publicity."
     That's the closest she came to talking about herself_negative publicity surely can't be a very big problem for the average foster parent, though it certainly was for the Burkes, who were rewarded for quietly sheltering a child and loving him by having their home picketed.
     Still, it was not enough. Not personal enough. No story. I capped my pen and listened.
     "When we love like that, we change the world for that fragile infant, for that shy little child, for that bright and gifted toddler who looks to us for safety," she said. "To be able to make the world safe for another is a great gift. A sacred trust. I believe it comes from what is deepest and most substantive in each one of us. It arises out of that pool of goodness that is in the heart of each of us. Such power is transformative. It heals and makes whole."
     Burke said that the good news is that children all over the state are succeeding because generous adults open their hearts to them. The bad news, she said, is there aren't enough adults for the swelling numbers of children in need. It is a tough job and only the rare person is willing to try.
     "Loving is not always easy. It has a price. But that has always been the case. For each of us, the generous people who made a difference in our lives are the ones who didn't stop to total the cost," she said. "It is no accident that households built on love thrive and grow. It is no accident that homes fashioned by a generous spirit are filled with hope. It is no accident that families bound together in love survive the unexpected surprises in life."
     She finished her speech. The foster parents applauded heartily. Burke was given a plaque. I slipped out and found a phone and called the office.
     "No story," I said.
                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 29, 1999

Monday, January 14, 2019

Phyllis Smith was a good bartender and a great friend

Phyllis Smith, right, shakes hands with Gov. Jim Edgar at the Taste of Chicago. Sam Sianis is at center.

     “How’s the family?”
     Phyllis always asked. About Edie. About the boys. Any why not? She had met them all. My parents too. She’d been to our house.
     Still, she surprised me by asking now; it was I who called, spurred by bad news.
     I gave a brief update then cut to the chase.
     But you, Phyllis, how are you?
     “Ehh,” she said. “I’ve had better days.”
     Yes, she had.
     Phyllis Smith was a bartender, for more than 20 years at the Billy Goat Tavern and then at Harry Caray’s in Lombard. She was “a tough lady,” in the words of Goat owner Sam Sianis, with a blunt manner and a big, braying laugh she unleashed often.
     “A Chicago character: the real old-school bartender,” said Grant DePorter, owner of Harry Caray’s. “That would be her.”  

    And if that’s all Phyllis was, I wouldn’t be writing about her now. There was a fine Chicago journalistic tradition of chronicling bars and their denizens, what they say and did, as if it mattered, from Mr. Dooley to Mike Royko. But that tradition, like newspapering itself, has gone into steep decline.
     Nor is booze so charming a topic. As a recovering alcoholic, there is something queasy about rhapsodizing your bartender, even one as good at topping off a drink or listening to a woe as Phyllis.
     Were Phyllis simply a bartender, I wouldn’t bother.
     But she was also my friend. We kept up for a dozen years after she served me my last drink. Nor was it just me.
     “She took great pride in her work and in her customers and their lives,” said her daughter, Laurie Manzardo.

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Sunday, January 13, 2019

Churchill in Chicago


     When we were small, my mother had an expression she used to suspend our frenzied searches for some missing toy:
      "You'll find it when you're not looking for it."
      Cold, comfort, if I recall, when Lucky Pup had gone AWOL. But there is a certain truth, particularly when it comes to those odd bits of information that resist solving instantly on Google.
      For instance: I keep a ragtag assemblage of historical figures in the back of my mind I call "People Who You Don't Think of as Visiting Chicago." They consist of personages who are somehow difficult to picture on Chicago streets: Oscar Wilde, Col. George Armstrong Custer, Dylan Thomas, Golda Meir, who lived here.  Charles Dickens almost got here, but St. Louis was a bigger deal when he made his vaunted visit to American in 1842, so he went there instead, setting foot in Illinois only at Cairo.
     I had always included Winston Churchill on the list, though couldn't put my finger on any evidence. He got around a lot, particularly as a young man. It made sense.
     On Thursday I had lunch with a pal at the Union League Club, in their soaring Lincoln Ballroom. I admired the rich blue walls, and felt that whatever drudgery life consisted of, at the moment I was sailing in style. At one point, during our mutual exchange of dire observations about our troubled mutual profession, I swept the room with my hand and observed: "On the other hand, we're here now!"
     They make you check your coat at the Union League Club, and afterward, I retrieved mine. It was cold and I planned on hiking over to Iwan Ries, to fill the time before the train with the consolation of a cigar. I paused just before the revolving door to put on my gloves and hat and zip up.
    And my gaze fell upon this plaque.
    Well, there we go. Complete with the photographic proof offered above. As I typed the part about Google not being helpful, I thought I had better do that check-it-out reportorial thing, and instantly came to this detailed historical assessment of Churchill's three, count 'em, three visits to Chicago, in 1901, 1929 (when he stayed at The Drake) and 1932.
     Hmmm...the article was posted in 2006: no doubt my curiosity about Churchill dates to long before then. I seem to remember riffling through the index of a few thick Churchill biographies, looking for a Chicago reference.
     Mere trivia? Perhaps. Though I don't think it's a stretch to use it to raise a larger question related to the immediate knowability of things. Could the shaky role that verifiable fact plays in our current political woes somehow be related to the ease with which truth can be ascertained? Economics tells us that abundance is inversely proportional to value. When facts were difficult to dredge up and verify, they were held in regard. They had high worth. Now that the truth is in each of our pockets, on our cell phones, 24 hours a day, they seem less substantial, and more and more people turn to their own private fantasies, which of course have less abundance, and thus perhaps more perceived worth, because they are rare, sometimes unique, having been freshly made up. An interesting possibility.


Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot #22

     Look at the photo above. What do you see? A jazz quartet, right? 
     The quartet performing last Saturday consisted of Nickolas Kaplan, on trumpet, Kevin Fort, on piano, John Sutton on bass at Chad Willetts on drums.
     But sitting in for a few songs—or rather standing, looking through the window was John Mondlak, the man in the white beard at right. More about him later.
     My wife had been talking about going to Le Piano for a long time, the new jazz place that has opened up in East Rogers Park in the old No Exit space, and we crowded into a prime booth—the Frank Sinatra Booth. The place has been open a month.
     A few thoughts.
     First, it's a lovely space: high ceilinged, inviting, with that wall of windows. Music every night. A $5 cover charge (which I notice people on Yelp still somehow manage to complain about. What do they want it to be, a dollar? Can you even imagine that. The doorman stopping you: "It's a dollar to get in." Yelp, I swear, I should create a Yelp page for Heaven, if it hasn't been done yet. "The Pearly Gates gave off a glowing luminescence that I found unpleasant. And the glissando of harps welcoming the saved into their eternal reward kept me up at night....")
     Second, a good vibe. The drummer, Chad Willetts, is also one of the owners, and at one point he made a little speech, and greeted the crowd and led the room into a round of "Happy Birthday" to someone celebrating a birthday. The room was crowded and the service sporadic, but adequate.         
     Third, the food. We contrived to eat dinner there, ordering the various small plates and trying to assemble them into a meal. I'd advise against that. Drinks and snacks is a more suitable use, at least while the kitchen works out its kinks. The wine was very good, I am told. The charcuterie plate could have used a pot of mustard, or something, though the cheeses were good. The fingerling potatoes were very good, the steak, less so. An $8 (or $5, or whatever it costs) loaf of bread should be better than what was served up. But they just opened, and no doubt are getting the kinks out.
      Fourth, returning to Mr. Mondlak—at least that's what I thought his name was. Communication was difficult. I asked him about the music and he mumbled something incoherent. The only word I caught was "Beatles." I asked him if he had anything he wanted to communicate to the public, and he said, "God is love. God is the totality of the universe." Makes as much sense as anything.
     East Rogers Park is a gritty area, and there are those who would lump the opening of Le Piano as the dread "gentrification." First, that is premature, judging by the active and highly varied street life passing by.  Second, a right extended to one should be enjoyed by all, and if any random person can show up and lay claim to a piece of real estate and call it home, then the owners of Le Piano should be able to do the same, despite the role of money and mortgages and vigorous effort.
      If you didn't see Mr. Mondlak in your initial glimpse of the picture, don't be too hard on yourself. There's a lot of that. When he was at the window, I had a hard time seeing anything else, and eventually went outside to talk with him, or try to. He stood there for a long time, listening, and I can't say I blame him. Chicago has only a few small jazz venues: Andy's downtown, The Green Mill in Uptown. Tough competition, now that I think of them, but Le Piano makes an encouraging start. With the Heartland closing a block away, a reminder that the city grows, changes, moves on, and we change with it.

Friday, January 11, 2019

We know Donald Trump lies a lot, but why?

     “Why did we bother to lie?”
     An interesting question, not often asked, despite the Trump era being a Golden Age of Deception, a veritable Liapalooza, with the president telling a dozen fibs a day, or more. Lying so predictably that before his address to the nation Tuesday, dramatizing his demand for $5.7 billion for a border wall, the networks struggled to form a plan to address the rain of falsehoods certain to come. Fact checkers were standing by to refute the lies before they were uttered, the way that color commentators are in place to describe the action sure to unfold on a football field.
     But is this the only way lying can be handled? The media, with its dumb ox tendency to strain forward, plowing the rut it always plows, has for years kept careful track of each presidential untruth, counting them, tallying them up, as if points will be awarded at the end.
     “Why did we bother to lie?”
     While keeping score, the process of lying, itself, its utility, is rarely addressed. We prefer to shake our head at each one-that-got-away whopper, and ponder whether it is a deliberate, cynical fabrication or sincere delusion, as if that really matters.
     “Why did we bother to lie?”
     Yes, it is important to refute Donald Trump’s specific lies. Most immigrants, illegal or legal, are more law-abiding than natural-born citizens, despite the horror stories the president recited. Most drugs come through airports or checkpoints, hidden in cars and trucks, not across the desert. Most terrorists arrive on a plane or, let us never forget, are native born.
     “Why did we bother to lie?”

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Thursday, January 10, 2019

"Instant communication anywhere in the world"

     Years ago, walking across the Orleans Street Bridge, I passed a homeless man slumped before a styrofoam cup. In his hand, a cell phone. 
     It seemed a significant moment, since mobile phones, when they first showed up, were accessories of the rich. It was considered arrogant just to take one out and make a call. To be seen doing it, in a public place like a restaurant, as if you were so important you couldn't wait to make your phone calls in private. As if you wanted everyone to see and admire you. 
     So this homeless person having a phone, well, it seemed a symbolic shift, an elephant step toward our then-unimaginable world where every 7-year old, every Somalian fisherman, every one almost everywhere has a cell phone. (Not quite. This year the world count of cell phones is expected to hit 5 billion, meaning some 65 percent of the earth's population has one).
     This was before I was in the habit of snapping photos of such things. Nor did I have the presence of mind to talk to the homeless man, try to find out who he was calling. Now I can't even recall the year.
     I've come to regret that lapse, and vowed to not let similar technological turning points slip by unnoticed. 
     So I have to point out what happened in the Steinberg household Saturday: We gave up our land line. That is not the newsworthy part, in fact, we are late to it.  In 2016, for the first time in the better part of a century, since the number of telephones exploded between the world wars, more U.S. households were without a land line—50.8 percent—than had one.  
     The noteworthy part, to me, is not that it happened, but that it was so unexceptional. As nostalgic as I am, or was, the decision was a no brainer. Losing the landline saved us close to $500 a year. The only calls we got were scam artists, charities, and scam charities ... and my mother, who smoothly transitioned over to calling my cell, something she had already learned to do when I wasn't at home.
     In the days since, I've adapted easily myself. A few small changes—mainly carrying my iPhone around more at home, in case somebody calls. The portable phone stations—we had three—are in a pile, ready to be dumped in the bin on electronics drop-off day at the Village hall. 
     AT&T was smooth and efficient—not only did we cut our landline, but we lost cable, which required installation of fiber optic lines for broadband. Their guy was out for hours, unfailingly polite, explaining what he was doing, trying to build a relationship.
     Yes, I still have my trusty black rotary dial phone on my desk, the handset embossed "BELL SYSTEM PROPERTY: NOT FOR SALE Western Electric." Bought for $5 on eBay, years ago. I used to be able to dial out, not so long ago. The thing was probably made in Chicago, home to the giant Western Electric Hawthorne works, that at one time employed 45,000 people (the Eastland disaster, remember, was on a Western Electric company outing).
     I think I'll keep it there, for a little while longer anyway, symbol of ... what? I'm not sure anymore. Of the transitional telephone generation I represent: arriving after party lines, toward the end of alphanumeric phone exchanges—dial CAlumet 5-6969—and before princess phones and push button dialing. Long distance was a big deal, and expensive, and there were human operators you could dial, part of the mystery and romance to the phone company.
     And danger, a sense of menace from The Phone Company, or TPC, for those who remember "The President's Analyst," an unfairly forgotten 1967 James Coburn vehicle—unfairly because it was ahead of its time, in that it postulated a troubled president, and an insidious gun culture. Running from the various shady forces trying to get him, Coburn hides out with a typical America family, the Quantrills.
     "These are liberal times," the dad intones, darkly, before his son bursts in brandishing a .357 Magnum, earning this delicious paternal rebuke: "Darn it Bing, I told you not to play around with my guns. No, I do not want that in the house, that is my car gun. My house gun is already in the house. Now put that right back in the glove compartment...."
    Bigger than governments and intelligence agencies, the all-powerful The Phone Company, is hoping to implant micro-telephones directly into your brain.
    "Why all you have to do is think the number of the person you wish to speak with an you are instant communication anywhere in the world," marvels TPC's leader.
     They couldn't know that, with computers, the numbers themselves would no longer be necessary, once they were plugged in and attached to a name. At least we still have names. For the moment. 

The President's Analyst, starring James Coburn, center.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Chicago's past is on line 2, eager to sink its teeth into the wounded Ed Burke

     "Is this Robert Cooley?"
     "That was one of my many, many names," said the man on the phone.
     Not a good start. I never watched "The Sopranos," never romanticized the Capone era. It was brutal and bloody. There was something sad about my older colleagues who, you could tell, got a contact high from their association with gangland Chicago, basked in coining nicknames and listing aliases.
     And now I've got The Man of A Thousand Faces on the line...
     Since most won't remember, a quick refresher: It was Cooley who in 1986 went to the feds and began taping conversations at the Counsellors Row restaurant, an ice pick to the heart of the mobbed-up 1st Ward. This led to the Justice Department`s Operation Gambat, flipping over a rock of extortion, bribery and fixed murder cases.
     A reader took issue with my describing Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke as "the platinum bar of probity" and shared passages from Cooley's book, "When Corruption Was King," painting the Burkes as, well, if not quite Bonnie & Clyde, then in that direction of the moral spectrum. Active carnivores in the fetid swamp of early 1980s Chicago.
     I told Cooley I was all ears.
   "These things happened 20, 25 years ago," he began, shaving off a decade. "Eddie Burke and his wife Anne were very good friends of mine."
     Based on our conversation, my hunch is they aren't friends any more.
     Corruption is like rust. It spreads, both coming and going. When the party's on and the lights are low, lots of people wander into the dim tent to help themselves at the long tables of pie. When the lights are snapped on, those same people are caught standing there with pie on their faces. It's almost comical to see the casting call of mayoral candidates lunging for napkins to smear away Ed Burke's money, or try to. It'll be interesting to see how long that stain lingers around their mouths.  

Talking to Cooley, I realized the Ed Burke extortion case will not only send shock waves through the current political scene; it also will crack open the past, and out will crawl denizens of the Mesozoic such as Robert Cooley.
     Talking to him was like listening to a record. I would try to direct the conversation, ask questions. That was like lifting the needle. The music stopped. There was a silence. Then the needle was set down again and he'd continue where we left off. Nor was what he was saying a font of fascination.

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Tuesday, January 8, 2019

What fresh, cute Hell is this?

     The Divine Comedy of Dante Allighieri has been in print, continuously, for longer than there has been print to be in: nearly 700 years, starting with hand-copied editions in Italian (titled, simply, "Commedia," the "Divine" part was added in the 16th century) through the earliest uses of moveable type, first in Italian, then in every language of the globe including, in 2010, Icelandic, "Gledileikurinn Guddomlegi," translated by Erlingur E. Halldórsson.
      With the digital explosion, Dante's popularity has only grown, with everything from a popular video game that has almost nothing to do with the original, to Columbia University's Digital Dante, an exhaustive, not to mention exhausting, portal to texts, commentaries, history, celebration and analysis. 
     And while I am by no means conversant in all the versions, illustrations, maps, guides, and learning tools produced recently, never mind over the past seven centuries, I would like to introduce one to you today with a sentence that I am confident has never before been used in reference to Dante's canon:
    It's soooooo cute!!!
    Take a look at "The Topography of Dante's Inferno" by Alpaca, an Italian cooperative of 
interactive designers and illustrators. Winner of the Grand Prix and Gold Prize for Didactics at the 2017 International Institute of Information Design Awards (who knew?).
     You can wander the Nine concentric circles of Hell graphically, zooming in here or there, or dragging the image with your mouse. Clicking on the various damned brings you who they are and the relevant passages from Dante's poem. Or search by the types of damned consigned there—panderers and seducers, simoniacs and sorcerers, thieves, adulterers, hypocrites and all the rest of the suffering crew. Or you can search by Canto—there are 33—or by location, the specific ring or sub-circle.
     The site was noticed by my Facebook friend Ann Hilton Fisher, who shared it with me (that's why I can't quit Facebook. Sure, they helped deliver our country over to the Russians. But look at the cool stuff you can find there!)
     A highly useful tool, particularly for students. Yes, they use the tired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translation, because it's out-of-copyright. But nothing's perfect. The only genuine qualm I have is the aforementioned cuteness. Did not these darling orange and burnt umber winged demons somehow undermine the entire atmosphere of hopeless horror that Dante was going for? It's just not very hellish. 
      I put the question to the folks at Alpaca—nothing yet, but I'll keep you posted. The bottom line to me is, as with all matters cultural, one version does not crowd out another. And a simplified rendition of something does not efface the complex original. Bugs Bunny cartoons where Bugs and Elmer sing grand opera do not undercut the real thing—just the opposite, they introduce potential fans to the genre, drawing in those who might never consider the real thing.
    So why not a cutesy horror? If you recall my reaction to the Illinois Holocaust Museum, I was a little taken aback that they've turned to the greatest atrocity of the 20th century into a lesson about bullying. But their prime audience is not me, but 5th graders from Kane County. So maybe that's appropriate.
     Anyway, I saw this, and wanted to share it. 


Monday, January 7, 2019

Ed Burke grew tired of waiting for his next golden egg

     Oh Ed, Ed, Ed, what is it with you rich guys? You're sitting astride a money machine, chugging away, day after day, year after year, pumping cash directly into your fat accounts. But it just doesn't pump fast enough—is that the problem?
     No. That isn't it. What happens is, you get careless as the years roll on. Holding the honking, flapping goose jammed under one arm, waiting for something shiny to crown. You get impatient, standing there, choking on loose feathers, with your cupped hand, poised beneath its struggling bottom. You just want to move the process along. So you start to work your fingers in, try to get a handhold on that slippery sucker and pull the golden egg out.

     Into a federal wiretap. With Burger King. Over a driveway.
     Of course. It's always something trivial. Crystal and chairs and postage stamps in Dan Rostenkowski's basement. Mr. Chairman also went down after huffing power and money for so long it made him lightheaded.
     The charge isn't trivial: attempted extortion. Though to me, the crime is what's legal: the cosiness of our leaders and big money already violates the public interest on a normal day, no chargeable crimes committed. The guys running the city do business with the businesses they're supposed to be monitoring. The standard of excellence being: no quid pro quo. So long as you don't speak the words, "Give me the money and I'll do whatever you want," clearly, into an FBI wiretap.
     You don't have to say it. They know what to do. Manus manum lavat. It should be on the city seal. "One hand washes the other."
     Ed Burke belongs on the seal too, instead of the baby. He is a minor Chicago landmark, and I'd be sorry to see him go, sort of. Not Field's but Carson's. Not the Water Tower but Water Tower Place. You might not ever go there anymore—who does?—but you'd still hate to see the thing torn down.

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Sunday, January 6, 2019

'Up against the wall'

Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 by James McNeill Whistler

    "Bullies don't win," Freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) told a cheering room of supporters Thursday night, recalling something she told her son. "We're going to go in and impeach the motherfucker."
     An informal remark, not an official statement. But the all-important video was taken, and the first Palestinian-American member of the House was instantly the talk of Washington, along with her use of the king of George Carlin's famed Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television. 
     The obscenity caught notice, particularly, of Republicans ever eager to play the victim and fixate upon someone who seems more vile than themselves. Though to me, the ... well not offensive, but regrettable part of the statement was not the multi-syllabic obscenity, but the word that came before: "impeach."  Trump's high crimes and misdemeanors are of yet undocumented, and should impeachment come, it is hoped that it can be in the sense of patriotic duty and seriousness of purpose entirely lacking in the GOP, not tossed out in a moment of profane exuberance. Rep. Tlaib reminds us, as if it were necessary between anti-vaxxers and safe spaces, that the right wing does not hold a monopoly on bush league ridiculousness.
     The New York Times bit the bullet and printed the word, undashed in a front page story on Saturday, though let it rip at the end of the 11th paragraph, deep inside the paper.
     Needless to say, this is not the first time the word has been used, and curiosity sent me reaching for my well-worn Second Supplement Edition of Wentworth and Flexner's "Dictionary of American Slang," only to initially find it missing—no separate entry, no usage note after "fuck . [taboo] v.t. To cheat, trick, take advantage of, deceive, or treat someone unfairly..." 
    Nothing where it rightfully belong, before "Mother Machree" (defined as "an alibi; a sad story, usu. fictitious or exaggerated told to elicit sympathy, avoid punishment, etc." a useful word to have in the verbal arsenal when dealing with our president).
     This couldn't be, not in a book published in 1975. And sure enough, there it was, tucked into the appendix of  "terms that have come into use since 1967:" "motherfucker [taboo] 1 a low, despicable, base person. This is now the most derog. of all common U.S. epithets."
     The note goes on, tracing mother-based obscenities to Spanish-speaking countries, then this pops out, "The dislike may apply to any characteristic: selfishness, rudeness, laziness, unethical behavior, etc." which makes me suspect that, rather than being criticized for her crudity, Rep. Tlaib should be lauded for her precision: the right tool for the right task.
      Flexner (who wrote the appendix; Wentworth died in 1965) traces the word to African-American argot, spread to the general population through military service in World War II, and points out that it replaced the weakening "son of a bitch."
    But that's a mere foretaste to the full treatment found in Oxford University Press' highly useful (though timidly-titled) "The F-Word," edited by Jesse Sheidlower, whose dozen page exegesis on "motherfucker" begins with a memorable usage from 1918, cited in a letter in Journal of American History of all places: "You low-down Mother Fuckers can put a gun in our hands but who is able to take it out?" Full examination is given to the term as a compliment, particularly among people of color, including this, spoken by a Puerto Rican drug dealer, overheard by John Cheever and recorded in a 1971 letter: "Oh what a cool motherfucker was that Machiavelli."
     I have to admit, it isn't a word that I can recall ever using myself—I blame those four syllables, which are a lot to squeeze out in the highly-charged situations where it might be used. Though now that I reflect, in my mouth the word would also carry an echo of cultural appropriation. Samuel L. Jackson can use it in "Pulp Fiction;" I can't.  (Not only can Jackson use it, he does, 26 times in the film, conveying the full range from compliment to insult, often in the same exchange. "You're a smart motherfucker, that's right," he says to Brett, interrupted his Big Kahuna Burger breakfast toward the beginning of the movie then, when Brett is slow to answer a question: "English, motherfucker! Do you speak it?")
     That should suffice for our purposes for today.
     Though I should note, in parting: George Carlin was wrong. Not only could you say "motherfucker" on television, but three years before he first performed that bit, someone already had—Grace Slick, singing with the Jefferson Airplane on the Dick Cavett Show on Aug. 19, 1969, the day after Woodstock.
     During the song "We Can Be Together"—at about 3:58 in the video—she sings the word once, and, for you fans of irony, I will post a little context. Lyricist Paul Kantner said he was inspired by the popular Black Panther battle cry:
     Up against the wall
     Up against the wall, motherfucker
     Tear down the wall.
     Tear down the wall. 
      She sings it clear as day.
      Which brings to mind another song, this one by Peter Allen:
      "Everything Old is New Again."

Saturday, January 5, 2019

'She belongs somewhere else'

     I was researching Monday's column and came across this, from a decade ago, and realized it had never been posted on my blog. Which it should be, because it is one of those columns where a simple practical matter—what to do with this woman's ashes?—uncovers a tangled history of human emotion, from the homeless man sneaking into the factory where he once worked to sleep to the currency exchange owner in his tiny bulletproof cell kept company by a dead woman in a shopping bag. Among the odd things I've done in this job—talked to people smoking crack on Lower Wacker Drive, watched a breast lift performed, sat in the back seat of a sheriff's car with a hooker, waiting for her to proposition me—having this lady's urn on the corner of my desk ranks right up there.

     Neva Evans has spent most of the last decade in a Jewel shopping bag tucked away in the cluttered back room at the Ashland-Diversey Currency Exchange.
     Or at least her earthly remains have, ashes in a funerary jar with a mother-of-pearl finish.
     "Good morning, Neva," the owner of the currency exchange, Arnie Berezin, would say as he begins each day at 5 a.m.—which he does, seven days a week, cashing checks and issuing money orders in a tiny alcove decorated with business cards and rolls of coins. A $400 money order costs 85 cents.
     "I'm a nickel-and-dime business," says Berezin, 62. "We don't get rich here."
     The ashes were given to him by a customer, Michael H. Evans, about eight years ago. Mike Evans had worked at Chicago Transparent Products, a nearby plastic bag factory on Paulina. He liked sports, he liked Stephen King novels and he liked beer, but he adored his wife. Then Neva Evans died after an asthma attack.
     "His whole life revolved around his wife, his whole life revolved around his job, in a couple years, first he lost his wife, then he lost his job," says Berezin. "He started drinking heavy and that was the last we saw of him."
     For a while, Evans lived in the old abandoned factory where he once worked —he would sneak in at night to sleep there.
     "Mike Evans was a good guy," says Berezin, choking back tears. "He just never bounced back. The last we heard, he was walking up and down Paulina. He was a lost soul."
     Berezin is the opposite of a lost soul -- he knows exactly who is he and what he does. His parents owned a grocery store on the Southwest Side—he used to work at the store, but they sold it and in May 1973, he bought this currency exchange. The space he spends 13 hours a day behind thick bulletproof glass is maybe two feet deep and six feet across.
     "Cells are bigger," he says. "This is my cell. Some people think I'm crazy, but I put two kids through college."
     He has no employees. Since 1973 the exchange has been closed exactly one day—his father's funeral in 2003.
     He has no hobbies. He never thought about trying to expand.
     "No, I was always comfortable here," he says. "I'm not much of a risk taker."
     Berezin would give Mike Evans $5 or $10 sometimes—not a standard currency exchange practice.
     "I felt heartbroken for him," says Berezin, who calls his customers "kiddo" and tries to help them navigate the economic paperwork they thrust at him through the well-worn metal trough.
     "He cares about a lot of his customers," says Berezin's wife, Sara. "A lot of them depend on him. The economy's bad, some people are really having a hard time. Some can't read, they can't handle money. He tries to help them out."
     One day Mike Evans came in toting a shopping bag. "He said, 'Arnie, could I leave this bag in here?' '' remembers Berezin.
     "I couldn't say 'No' to him. He was a good customer and he was homeless."
     Neva Evans stayed. Mike Evans never came back
     "I always hoped Mike would walk in this door and it never happened," Berezin says. "If he's alive, I'd like to know why he never came back here, because he loved her."
     Over the years, Berezin has called funeral homes, to no avail.
     "I tried everything," he says. "Nobody would take it off my hands."
     But he just couldn't throw the ashes out.
     "It doesn't belong in a Dumpster," he says. "It's a person."
     Lately, he has been worrying about what will happen to Neva.
     "I'm not going to live forever," he says. "This place is not going to be here forever. What's going to happen to that bag? I tell people and they laugh at me, and ask, 'Why don't you toss it away?' Well, what if that was your mother? What if that was your daughter? I just couldn't do that."
     He asks me to take the urn with me, saying, "It doesn't belong here. It belongs somewhere else, with family members or buried. It doesn't belong at the back of a currency exchange. It doesn't belong here."
     As I am leaving, Berezin tears up again, and says goodbye to the urn. I ask if he is certain he really wants me to take it.
     "She doesn't deserve to be on a concrete floor," he says. "She belongs somewhere else, other than here. That's a human being in there."
     I take the ashes home and set them on the corner of my desk, then find out what I can about the woman inside.
     Neva Louise Grace Evans was born in Philadelphia, Miss., on Sept. 4, 1948, to George and Maudine Grace. Her family came to Chicago, and she graduated from Wendell Phillips High School in 1966. She married Michael H. Evans in 1985 and died at the age of 51 on April 9, 2000.
     She had three daughters from a previous marriage—Lisa Grace, of Alpharetta , Ga.; Michelle Grace and Felicia Grace; plus two sisters, Patricia Baker and Iris Heard, and a brother, Dwayne Adams. Any kin are invited to contact me at the newspaper. The earthly remains of Neva Evans will be waiting for you, in a funerary jar with a mother-of-pearl finish.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 11, 2009

I won't leave you hanging. Two days later, I published this:


     Many readers contacted me after Wednesday's story about the sojourn of Neva Evans' ashes at the Ashland-Diversey Currency Exchange. Some knew her and reflected on what a lovely lady she was. Some were funeral home directors, offering a spot for the urn.
     One was Danny Evans, who put me in touch with his brother, Mike Evans, the man who left his wife's remains eight years ago.
     "I did go into hell," he said. "I've lived in shelters. I wasn't in Chicago. I couldn't find a job here for a long time, so I hitchhiked down to South Carolina and Florida. I came back; I'm recently moved in with a girl and have a part-time job. I forgot all about this. I'm sick to my stomach about it. I should have never forgotten about her, but you lose track of pretty much everything . . ."
     That's where we should draw the veil, except to add that I also heard from Neva Evans' sister and her three daughters.
     "No one knew until your article," said daughter Lisa Grace. I'll be handing the urn over to them this morning. "Now she's back with her girls," said Grace.
     Memento homo quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris.

     That last sentence will require no translation for Catholics, who hear it as ashes are smeared on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday: "Remember O man you are dust, unto dust you shall return."

Egyptian canopic jars, late period. These actually did not contain ashes, but the organs of the deceased,  removed for mummification (Metropolitan Museum of Art) 

Friday, January 4, 2019

Trump's border wall completed in latest triumph for president

     NOGALES, Arizona —The massive border wall demanded by President Donald Trump was completed today, spanning the United States’ entire 2,000 mile southern border with an impenetrable defense against the disease, filth and criminality brought by immigrants.
     Twenty feet high, made of reinforced concrete topped with gleaming spikes, it represents a stupendous achievement both in the speed in which it was built — less than two years since the president took office — and for its financing: the entire $42 billion dollar cost borne by the nation of Mexico.
     “We defer to the inexorable will of President Donald Trump,” said Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, signing a check for the final payment. “This should help our neighbor to the north remain unviolated by illegal entry of the criminals and rapists that Mexico creates in such profusion.”
     The governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey, wielded a trowel and tapped in the final, ceremonial gold-plated brick, then declared a statewide Day of Jubilee to mark the occasion, giving governmental workers a paid vacation to “enjoy their families, now free from the threat of being murdered by invasive hordes of Guatemalan refugees” and praised the clear eye and firm hand of Trump for bringing about this …


     There, that should do it. Trump is famous for his brief attention span. By now he’ll have looked up, beaming, and been distracted by a shiny object. Clip the above and send it to the White House, congratulating Trump on his stunning success. Or, better, tweet it to him. Problem solved.

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Thursday, January 3, 2019

"You ordered THAT?!"

Paladar, 2252 N. Western, has china displayed, a tribute to the old Cuban custom of giving gifts of china to married couples.

     The house is filled with boys again, sprawled on the sofa, watching television, leaving their shoes by the door, whipping up unexpected recipes—Russian baked milk, Japanese pancakes, mulled wine. I was in the kitchen, preparing something when one sentence spoken by my older son cut through the clatter.
      "Complaining is part of the fun," he said.
     I stopped what I was doing, carefully dried my hands on my apron, and briskly walked around the island.
     "That's my son," I said, smiling and kissing him on the head.
     It's true. Not that a person wants to point out the negative. It's just natural. And joyous, in that it is enjoyable. The scratching of an itch, a sense of justice served, of truth defended.
     That said, this is not a complaint. I want to be clear. I almost didn't write the following, because I did not want to be seen as complaining.  It is not a criticism; more of a marvel, the sharing of a wonder.
    Last month, my wife and I swung by Tony Fitzpatrick's gallery for a couple openings one Friday after work, and thought we'd grab a late dinner afterward. I examined the options north on North Western Avenue between the gallery and the Kennedy, and settled on Paladar Restaurant and Rum Club. Cuban food, mmm—tasty and not found on every street corner in Chicago.
     The cheery, brightly lit room was utterly empty when we arrived at 8:45 p.m., and the owner greeted us with warmth and sat us at a prime table, explaining the specials of the night. The Carne al Carbon, very good, he said, a speciality of the house.
    I admit, I do not always attend carefully to the rendition of specials the way I should. I like to keep my own counsel. Sort of listening with one ear while scanning the menu with the other....
     Wait a second...
     You get my point. Anyway, he left, we ordered our drinks—homemade limeade, always a good sign. The waitress was friendly and efficient. I ordered the palomilla, a marinated top sirloin, thinly-sliced and covered with onions. I like onions. The meal came. We set to eating. Yum. The owner drifted by to check things out, looked at my plate. His face fell, he said something that nobody associated with a restaurant has ever said to me in a lifetime of vigorous restaurant patronage, a sentiment that I will remember and cherish for the rest of my life.
     "You ordered that?!" he said, aghast.
    I explained that I happen to like onions. I did not add that the speciality of the house he recommended cost $22.95 and, economical man that I am, this seemed a solid value at $16.95 and something I would like just as much if not more. I ended up nearly apologizing for my order, promising that I would certainly order the special upon my return.
     And I will. It was good food well-served in a fun setting. I waited nearly a month to relay this, because I wanted to assess, in my own mind, whether I was criticizing the place. I hope I'm not—honestly, I was delighted with his remark. It spoke of passion, of knowledge of their menu, and that invariably some dishes are better than others. Not to mention that rarest of all qualities nowadays: candor.
     Paladar was not crowded for late on a Friday—another couple came in during the hour we were there, and two guys sat at the bar. I bet the place is a really good time, particularly if you can partake of their extensive rum menu. So you should definitely consider checking the restaurant out. And if you do, take my advice: keep the menu closed. Pay attention, then order the special, whatever it is.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

‘People come into focus’ — New Yorker sophistication crafted at Chicago landmark


     Tom Bachtell could work at home.
     “I could,” he agrees. “But I’d hate it. I’d feel so alone.”
    So despite his boss being 800 miles away in New York City, to do his job Bachtell leaves his home in Lincoln Square and travels to the South Loop, to his studio on the 14th floor of the Monadnock Building. 
   “I love going into the 7-11,” he said. “I love seeing all the crazy people there. It’s sort of a latter-day-form vaudeville.”
     Bachtell has a singular profession. He is an artist for The New Yorker. For 30 years, he has drawn the elegant caricatures that grace the magazine.
   I met him through his late spouse, Andrew Patner, immediately inviting myself to his studio. After about five years of pestering, he agreed. We talked about his growing up in Ohio, coming here, becoming a couple with Patner, the Sun-Times music critic and beloved WFMT host who died in 2015.
     “I thought about the world we came from in Cleveland, what we made of it, and then coming to Chicago and gradually becoming a part of the world here,” Bachtell said, as soft classical music burbled in the background. “And how fortuitous it was I met Andrew, and  how we were doing similar things. Andrew integrated me into Chicago and taught me how to love Chicago. When I met Andrew, I fell in love with him like that.”      He snapped his fingers.
     “He was an engaged person, constantly trying to engage with the world. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
     I pointed out that outsiders have a way of coming to Chicago and finding fascination.

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Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Oak Park native Robert T. Fanning Jr., friend of elk, foe of wolves, dead at 69

Bob Fanning
    Among the many benefits of being friends with Rick Telander has been getting to know some of his friends. One of the more distinctive is Rory Fanning, whom Rick met when the former Army Ranger was walking across the United States to benefit the foundation of his late buddy, Pat Tillman. 
     When Rory's father passed away last week, he contacted me, looking for someone at the paper to write the obit. Of course I volunteered. It was interesting to learn about his father's complicated life. Not everything can be worked into an obit, and there was one aspect that never made it onto the page, but is worth mentioning here. Rory and his dad had some rocky times in their relationship—I don't think I'm speaking out of school saying that; a lot of fathers and sons do, I certainly did. But when his dad passed, Rory stepped up and tried to present him in his best possible light, and to make sure people knew about him the way he wanted to be known. Not every child writing an obit does that. Holding a grudge is so easy many people do without considering there is another path, but Rory stood up for his dad at the end, even though his dad wasn't always standing behind him, and I admire that.  I've learned a lot from knowing Rory—he's a marketing executive at Haymarket Books, and doesn't accept the truisms of American life that I do, or did. But I think this moment gave me something that I'm going to value and try to apply in my own life.

     Bob Fanning not only ran with the wolves, he liked to kill them.
     “He was a man’s man, a bear hunter, a horseback rider, there was no one like Bob,” said his lifelong friend, Frank Murnane, owner of the Murnane Cos. “They broke the mold with Bob Fanning; one of a kind, in all respects.”
     Fanning’s lifelong animosity toward wolves came from a desire to protect elk, as founder of Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd. In one of those epic battles that roil the great expanse of the West, between federal power and state authority, between environmentalists and ranchers, you knew exactly where Bob Fanning stood.
     “Lock and load and saddle up while there is still snow on the ground,” Fanning declared, after the governor of Montana encouraged local ranchers to shoot troublesome wolves on their property in 2011, the year Fanning ran for Montana governor, part of a pack of Republican hopefuls, though he did not win.
     As to how an Oak Park native, graduate of Holy Cross High School in River Forest, ended up in Big Sky Country, well therein lies the tale of Robert T. Fanning Jr., 69, who died on Christmas Eve, in Billings, Montana.
     He was born in 1949, one of six brothers — Danny, Kevin, Brian, Quinn and Tim, and a sister, Mary. Their father, Robert T. Fanning Sr, was a stockbroker who owned Fanning Shoes in Oak Park, and mother Ann was a homemaker.
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