Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Flashback 1996: Gramm puts foot down right on son's career

Jeff Gramm performs in South Korea. 
     A Chicago public high school asked me to speak at its career day next month. My initial inclination was to  decline—it would take a full day, and I'm not sure I can in good conscience encourage anyone to go into professional journalism. 
     Then I reconsidered, thinking that I might be able to say something about the value of pursing a passionate career long shot versus a safe, though less fulfilling path. And besides, who knows what I'll learn from talking to the students? That is, if I can remember to shut up long enough to listen to what they have to say. I told the school I'd do it.
    At the same time, I stumbled across this column from my first year as a columnist, that speaks to the subject. After the column, we'll catch up with what happened to the budding musician over the past 23 years.

     Hey, Jeff Gramm! Don't listen to your old man, Senator Phil. He was full of beans last week when he said he's giving you an entire year to become successful as a rock musician. One year to try music after you get your diploma, at the ripe old age of 21, and he's going to put his foot down and insist that you become a lawyer or a doctor.
     I read what the Texas Republican told the Dallas Morning News and could feel my jaw tighten: "I don't want him to look back 20 years from now, when he's lancing boils or doing wills . . . and say, 'I wonder if I could have been a big rock star?' "
    That's very generous of him. Very GOP. He's implying, of course, that in 20 years you're going to be either a boil-lancer or a will-maker, that your rock ambitions—your first recording is coming out in November—are a chimera and a lark, doomed to fail.
     Thanks, dad.
     Why do parents always do this, generation in and generation out? Listen Jeff, when you were in kindergarten, my father wanted me to go into computers. "They're writing their own checks," he said. He was right, of course, but that didn't matter. I didn't want to go into computers. I wanted, for some crazy reason, to be a writer. My father thought I was insane, and anticipated exactly the same failure that your dad is so helpfully predicting for you. Now, after it has all worked out, he's proud.
     Pressuring your kids to follow in your footsteps is a combination of ego, love and stupidity. It should come as no surprise that my father was a scientist. And gee, coincidence of coincidences, Jeff, yours happens to have been an academic. Small world. I guess having someone carry on the family genes isn't quite enough—you need somebody to pass your professional books on to.
     Now, I'm not saying that law and medicine aren't honorable professions, and you might eventually decide to go into either. But it should be up to you. Senator Dad should have the restraint not to make grand pronouncements about your career in public. But then, he's a Republican, and they like to blow off their big bazoos.
     Sure, music is risky. But law and medicine are no guarantee, either. I know people who flamed out of medical school and are on public assistance now. I know people who never made it past the bar exam despite the agony of repeated attempts.
     And even those who get through law or medical school aren't exactly tripping down the primrose path. Look at the number of lawyers who end up pitching their careers. I know a guy who quit the law and opened up a mustard shop in Wisconsin.
     Jeff, let me tell you a story.
     I went to Northwestern, a hive of ambition just as crawling with achievers as your University of Chicago. There was a guy in my class named David Friedman. When David got out of school, he decided to go into balloon twisting. He became a clown.
     I pitied David, but felt especially sorry for his folks. Four years at Northwestern—a fortune in tuition—down the drain. For what? So David could make balloon giraffes for 5-year-olds at birthday parties. Nice career move.
     But a funny thing happened. David got really successful. He traveled the world twisting balloons. His clown character, Silly Billy, became a New York fixture. He licensed the character out. He built a Silly Billy empire. He was profiled, glowingly, in the New Yorker. He made a bundle.
     Now, of course, it could have worked out otherwise. No guarantees in balloon-twisting either. He could have been just another anonymous clown, standing on a milk crate on the street corner. But you know what? Still, he would have been better off doing what he wanted than going into a field he didn't care about.
     Even if music turns out to be a difficult, unprofitable living (and it's a good strategy to count on that, and for a lot longer than a year) you might still like it, even if it cheeses off old dad (maybe especially if it cheeses off old dad). I'll bet there are 1,000 lawyers and doctors in Chicago who would walk away from their careers, right now, today, if they could be playing behind chicken wire in a Texas honky-tonk tonight. More like 10,000.
     I don't know how your dad plans to enforce his edict next year. Maybe he expects you to hop on command. Maybe he doles out a stipend and intends to yank it back.
     Take my advice. Let him. You only get one life—a life that dad and mom were good enough to give to you. Don't allow them to fearfully demand it back at the last minute. Have faith in yourself and, trust me, they'll fall in line, eventually.
     And besides. We already have too many doctors and lawyers who went into the profession to please their parents.
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 28, 1996

     Jeff Gramm's first album, Aden, named for his indie-pop group, was dubbed "an underrated classic" by one critic. The group put out three more, and performed until 2001. Then Gramm went to business school and into investing—he's now a respected hedge fund manager, author of a well-reviewed 2016 book, "Dear Chairman: Boardroom Battles and the Rise of Shareholder Activism." 
     I caught up with him on Twitter. Like most dad's, his father's bark was worse than his bite.
     "He didn’t really enforce the one year deadline!" Gramm wrote. "I played music pretty full time (while temping to pay the bills) until late 2001."
     Does he regret the time lost, playing music when he could have been, oh I don't know, crunching numbers, or whatever it is hedge fund managers do?
     "I think being in a touring band was an incredibly valuable life experience that definitely helped with my investing career," he wrote. "No doubt."

     Phil Gramm, by the way, is doing well at 77, and has no regrets concerning his public skepticism about his son's choice of career.
“I knew Jeff would be successful," the older Gramm said. "I just wanted to live to see it.”
     There you have it. If I impart only one thing to the students, it is to get the single-straight-path-to-success notion out of their minds. Finding your life's work can be like fishing: you usually have to cast your line a number of times before you snag a keeper.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Veterans Day: Talking with one of Illinois’ 628,000 vets

Robert Richmond

     Robert Richmond was 17 when his grandmother took him to the Army recruiting station and signed the papers.
     The year was 1955. The Korean war had just ended.
     ”I went to Korea 16 months,” he said. “I got over there in July of ‘55. I was on the clean-up.”
     Why did he enlist?
     ”There wasn’t anything going on around here,” said Richmond, who grew up on the South Side, near 37th and Indiana,
     I met Richmond last week on the No. 3 King Drive bus. I noticed his Army baseball cap and we got to talking. He was on his way downtown on a few errands and I tagged along.
     Richmond, who like most vets never saw combat, has no regrets about enlisting. He’s glad.
     ”Yes,” he said. “Because it gave me the ability to be a man. Responsibility. I learned how to get up in the morning and do manly things. Things that I needed to do, like taking care of myself.”
     Richmond is one of about 628,000 veterans living in Illinois, according to the Veterans Administration, with 20.4 million veterans nationwide.
     The bus stopped at Randolph Street.
     ”Coming out, wheelchair,” he called out, working the joystick on his electric chair.
     First Richmond visited —choosing my words carefully—a social organization whose commitment to anonymity is equal to its commitment to temperance. To buy a commemorative coin for himself—18 years in January—and one for a relative.
     ”It’s a blessing,” he said, of the anniversary. “It’s a miracle.”

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Sunday, November 10, 2019

Enigmatic beverage

     Wednesday night I was meeting my buddy at the Super Burrito on Western Avenue to have dinner, catch up, then proceed together to an art opening at Tony Fitzpatrick's Dime Gallery across the street. I got there early, or he got there late, and I had some time to kill so drifted over to the refrigerator case. There was this bottle and, reassured by the big "0.0 %" on the label, I figured it was some species of Mexican non-alcoholic beer and worth a try. Even the worst of the stuff isn't bad, a belief that had never led me wrong, up to this point.
     The lady popped the cap off. I took a slug as I headed to the table. Peach. It was a peach flavored non-alcoholic malt-based beverage.  Which would be bad enough if actual peaches were involved in its manufacture.  But I highly doubt that. Some peach-colored chemical perhaps. Peachobufalliconate.
     It wasn't vile, exactly. I could sip the thing as I waited. Or maybe it was vile but I could still manage to ingest the stuff. Either way, I wasn't happy about it, particularly after I noticed the peach-colored label on front. I mean, they had tried  to warn me.
     Squinting at the label on the back of the bottle, I realized this is a product, apparently, not of our great sun-baked neighbor to the South, but Jordan, Israel's border-mate.  At least I think Jordan. The print was shiny and very small.
   Here's the interesting part, and why I'm writing this. Going online to find out more about Mood Peach Malt Beverage, I found ... nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not a reference. Not a photo. Nada, which is very rare for a manufactured product. Maybe it's the most popular drink in the Muslim Middle East, lauded in countless Arabic web sites. Though I kinda doubt it. Anyway, I was wondering if anybody has any information on this stuff, because I got nothin'. And if an appreciation for malty faux peach is a particular passion for cultures not my own, well, no insult intended. We are all allowed our individual tastes, at least in this country. I have never been to Jordan so can't speak for it. Maybe this is the national drink. If so, they really should get something online in English, where I can find it. Maybe it's an acquired taste; if so, I will have to take your word for it, because I'll be damned if I ever take another sip of the stuff. My buddy eventually arrived, and I ordered a horchata and a carnitas burrito. Both were very good. 

Saturday, November 9, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot: National Geographic

     It's flattering, I suppose, that regular reader Tony Galati would suspect that perhaps I would know someone who has a need for 11 linear feet of The National Geographic, a near complete run from 1976 to 2011. I seem to go in those circles. And double flattering that he didn't even ask whether I myself wanted them. I am a book-type, but leaping to acquire this seems, to me, as hoarding. 

     Not that I don't appreciate the magazine. I do, and have lauded a recent issue—last year's daring look at a face transplant. But I didn't fall under its sway growing up, the way I did, say, for the New Yorker. And even the New Yorker: I read my copy, then throw it away. Then again, the entire run of the New Yorker is available online, going back to 1925.
     As is the National Geographic, going back to 1888, including the maps. They're available online to subscribers.
     But I understand Tony's dilemma. Objects have a sway over us; they acquire us as much as we acquire them. They exert pressure, a mute demand. I asked Tony: why not just throw them away?
     "That might be their ultimate fate," he replied, "but it feels something like throwing out books. I always thought that they were worth saving for the photography, if nothing else. But I've reached the point where I realize that my life isn't infinite, and I'm never going to have any practical use for all the stuff I've collected over the years."
     No, life is not infinite, and I've found myself extra reluctant to acquire things—tchochkes, in my people's parlance. When I went to Europe for two weeks I came home with a shoe horn as a souvenir: an Italian leather shoehorn, to be sure, a memento from a leather shop in Florence that my wife just loved. But otherwise, I was content with the memories. And photos. I don't get rid of those, which explains Tony's fealty to his magazines. Then again, they take up the corner of a chip the size of a gnat.

     This issue—keep the tangible thing well represented electronically or pitch it—has been huge for a couple decades. Not just volumes of old magazines, but card catalogues, even artwork. I was at a school where the kids' fingerpaintings and smiley suns get scanned and put on a thumb drive that goes home, and the originals are tossed. That gave me pause. It's hard to put a thumb drive on your refrigerator. 
     It was my idea to post photos of the magazines here, and see if anybody is interested. Tony said he might even deliver it to the interested party, a measure of his commitment to see this wealth of information to a good home. Though even that phrase, "a wealth of information" sounds dated, doesn't it? We carry an infinity of information in our back pockets, for all the good it does us. I would study ever page of these old magazines if I thought the answer to our quandary were hidden somewhere there, how the diffusion of information has coincided with the coarsening and dumbing down of our country and world. Maybe it is there, somewhere, waiting, and you're the person to find it. Anyway, you know how to reach me.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Hard choices for mayor over new police boss

     Last April, when she still a candidate for mayor, I asked Lori Lightfoot why she would want to leave her cushy berth at a big law firm to play urban problem whack-a-mole, a game impossible to win.
     What I meant was, why condemn yourself to a series of bad choices? The recently-settled strike of the Chicago Teachers Union being a perfect example: She could give the teachers what they want and drive Chicago deeper into its pit of bottomless insolvency. Or hold firm and let the teachers walk, meaning 300,000 kids would start rattling around the city, each a wrong step away from blundering in front of a bus or a bullet and becoming a tiny body set at Lightfoot’s doorstep. She tried to split the difference and the teachers struck.
     I spent the strike manfully suppressing the urge to write a column that began with me marching into my boss’s office and demanding my own 16 percent raise. I would then share with a delighted reading public the eye-rolling rejection and bum’s rush I’d certainly be given. But frankly, the man has enough worries without his employees cooking up stunts then dragooning him as an unwitting participant.
     Now Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson is retiring, which has nothing, nothing, nothing to do with his being found slumped behind the wheel of his car after a festive dinner. And another jump-out-the-window-or-drink-poison decision is dangled in front of our still sorta-new mayor. Promote from within the department? The Matt Rodriguez Method. Or seek someone from the outside the force. Let’s call that the O.W. Wilson Gambit.
     Promote from within and you get men like Johnson, whose qualities I dare not characterize without being accused of slandering the guy as he grabs his cardboard box and hurries out the door with all the dignity he can muster. Perhaps the tactful route to recall what Johnson said last year when asked about the Code of Silence in the Robert Rialmo trial:
     ”I’ve never heard an officer talk about code of silence. I don’t know of anyone being trained on a code of silence.”

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Thursday, November 7, 2019

What if Trump won't go?

The Archangel Michael Defeating Satan by Lucas Kilian (Metropolitan Museum)

     It is still too early to even dream about defeating Donald Trump in 2020. Yes, flipping the Virginia state House and Senate from red to blue and winning the governor's office is a good sign. Yes, it is encouraging that Trump came out swinging for Matt Bevin, the Republican governor of Kentucky, and then he lost. Yes, there could be signs that the GOP might discover, to their shock, that welding their party to a liar, bully, fraud and traitor runs the risk of alienating voters. Even Southern voters.
     So yes, the news this week is good. But relief is premature. Any president has a built-in advantage, even one as toxic and unfit as Donald Trump. 

     Good signs, but only that. And if they lull loyal Americans into a false sense of security that the fight for the soul of this country might be won quickly, easily, or at all, then it does more harm than good. Trump could win, and history flow in his direction for years and years and years. And the winners write history.
     Still, there is one worry that can be put to rest now. I've heard several friends speculate about what happens if "Trump refuses to go" after his, please God, defeat in 2020. I don't know if they mean clings to the desk, weeping and wetting himself, or tries to lead some kind of coup d'etat after his electoral defeat.
     I reply that we are still a nation of laws and that, at 12 noon, EST on Jan. 20, 2021, if Trump loses he will stop being president and White House security will find some way to flush him out.
     Maybe my faith in America is blinding me. But I can't see Trump leading a military overthrow. He lacks the guile. Which might sound odd about such an inveterate liar, but Trump's falsehoods are ad hoc, spur of the moment, say-any-words-that-sound-good type of lies. Plotting an overthrow of the government is, I think, beyond him. He would tweet about it and give away the game. ("Big coop tomorrow! Very hush-hush. Which sounds better? Dictator or caesar?")

    Yes, he has fans in the Armed Forces. But look at the faces of those generals during the staged photo-op in the situation room last month. Are they going to violate their oaths, turn their backs on everything they believe in, and commit undeniable treason, all out of loyalty for a man who has no loyalty to anyone?  It's one thing for Bevin to refuse to concede defeat after the Kentucky secretary of state called the race for Democrat Andy Behsear. That's just being a poor loser. It's another thing entirely to try to negate the outcome.
    There is another way to spin the possibility of Trump clinging to power. Let's say it happens. Trump loses the election, but somehow remains—denying its legitimacy, military overthrow, whatever. Fox News declares him king. His base bows down. 
     Can that work? And if it does, we deserve it. Really. Because if that is how the United States of American ends, if that is how our nation derails, crumpling at a few taps from an erratic, ignorant buffoon like Donald Trump, then how real, how solid, how precious a structure could we have had in the first place? If that can happen, if there is even a chance of that succeeding, then it all was an illusion anyway, and we might as well join all the other nightmare totalitarian dictatorships that so clot the world, because our freedom was never real, and our vaunted laws were a sham. It was all a dream. I don't believe it possible. But that doesn't mean I won't be on the watch for it, and ready to fight against it with all my might. We all have to. The man is capable of anything. Anything. There is no bottom, no low beyond which he will not sink, if we let him. Never forget that.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

How did all those balls get into the bog?

     After this was submitted for publication I heard back from the Village of Northbrook engineers—yes, the area was created for stormwater management, "a wet bottom detention basin" in their evocative phrase. And to my delight, this is an instance of vigorous journalism having positive effect in the real world. After I inquired, they went to examine the marsh (not difficult; it's directly across the street from Village Hall). They discovered that it is "plugged"—it should drain in a day—and they will coordinate with the school to unplug it. For a moment, I imagined that my belief that nothing I write ever has any impact on the real world needed to be amended. Then a sharp-eyed reader observed that it wasn't the column, but the inquiry, that set the gears of diligent habitat husbandry into motion. Maybe next time....

     One reason we moved into the ramshackle 1905 farmhouse my family has inhabited for nearly 20 years in the leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook is its proximity to Greenbriar Elementary School, one block away. It gave an excellent grounding to our two boys, slingshotting them into the stratosphere of first academic, then professional success.
     They’re gone now. But I remain, a spectral late middle-aged man haunting the neighborhood. A dog owner, during our daily walks we sometimes drift toward Greenbriar. Though never during school hours, not after a jarring incident five years ago. The dog and I were ambling along an empty sidewalk between the building and the parking lot one afternoon, minding our business. Suddenly the school doors burst open and we were surrounded by kids. Really, it was like Rush Street the moment the Bulls won their first championship: empty, whoosh, mobbed.
     Children jostled to pet the dog,. Before I could get out of there, a woman strode over and informed me that strangers are not permitted on the grounds during school hours. I felt like Peter Lorre in “M.”
     She did not command me to leave that instant. Nor did I clap my hand to my heart and declare, “I am a Greenbriar parent emeritus!” Instead I hung my head, aghast, and fled.

     But 7 a.m. Saturday we had the place to ourselves, so vectored through the schoolyard, past the lovely little wetland next to the playground. It wasn’t there when my kids went to school, but installed later as an encouragement—I imagine—for migrating birds and besieged bees. As an educational tool and not—I hope—a moat to keep scary neighborhood men off the property.
     Admiring the miniature marsh, I noticed a ball, yellow, among the grasses. Then another. Then a third. I began to count. Five, 10, 15, 20...more. At least two dozen balls, of all sorts: kickballs, footballs, basketballs. Plus a pink hulu hoop, floating in the fen.

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Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Key Lime Juice Episode

    "I saw my opportunities and I took 'em."
    A good prankster, like a corrupt Tammany Hall official—the quote above is from New York's notorious George Washington Plunkitt—must know when the moment is right. A good prank presents itself as a fleeting opportunity. The window opens, and you must leap.
     First, some background is in order: among my sons' many marvelous qualities is an enjoyment of baking, particularly the younger one. Breads, souffles, pies; a key lime pie at Thanksgiving with enough regularity—the past three, four years—that it has become a family tradition.
     It being November, and jumping the gun on the prodigals' holiday return, my wife went to buy a bottle of lime juice, a necessary ingredient for key lime pie (I suppose he could use actual key limes instead, but I try not to look a gift pie in the ... wherever you'd look a gift pie. The crust perhaps). 
     There was a hitch in her plan, however, because Nellie & Joe's Famous Key West Lemon Juice looks very much like Nellie & Joe's Famous Key West Lime Juice (can they both be famous? I sense some commercial puffery at work here). Unpacking a bag last week, she let out an oath. She had bought lemon juice. Oh well, she said, making the best of it. When life gives you lemon juice, make lemonade.
      Last Sunday she returned to Sunset to try again. I stayed at home, writing. When she returned, I heard the back door slam and went into the kitchen, as is my habit, to examine the haul, under the guise of helping put the groceries away. I started removing bags of fruit, cans of this and that. My wife went back to the car for more groceries. I reached into the bag and removed the bottle of lime juice.
    What would you do? Do you even see the prank there, shimmering, like a diamond in the dark? Waiting to be seized? Maybe not. Maybe you have to be of my frame of mind.  I hurried to the refrigerator, removed the lemon juice purchased the week before, replaced it with the lime juice, and put the lemon juice in the bag. It would have been better had I left it, but I was thinking on the fly. Assembling my face into a neutral mask of tedium, I continued removing food items—Cheerios, frozen vegetables—as she returned.
     She bustled a bit, I waited until the exact moment, as her attention swung in my direction, to remove the bottle and cast it an idle glance, then a second one, surprised this time.
    "I thought you were getting lime juice," I said, turning the label to her.
    The next three seconds I will shield from the public record. She was not happy, so vigorously irked that I immediately revealed the prank. And here is the second important skill for the prankster: know your audience. She laughed, sincerely, and admitted that I had gotten her, and this was in keeping with my fine tradition. Not every wife would feel that way. She wouldn't always feel that way. But my timing, again, was perfect, so much so that she brought up one of the foundational stories of our relationship.
      For a few years, while we were dating, I drove a cool white Volvo P1800. In the trunk was a steel thermos that had been rattling around there for as long as I knew my wife-to-be. Months, if not years. She eventually, in that female imperative toward rational living, urged me to take the thermos out of the trunk.
      One day, when she said that, I said, "Okay" and took the thermos into the kitchen to be cleaned. But first, I unscrewed the top, poured a steaming cup and took a sip, while she gawped in shock.
    "It's still hot!" I marveled. 
    Earlier that morning, unbeknownst to her, I had removed the thermos, cleaned it, poured in fresh coffee and returned it to the trunk. Worked like a charm. No column or book I've written impressed her as much as that prank. 
     Life doesn't always deliver the surprise and amazement we wish it would. Sometimes we have to help it along, seizing our opportunities as they present themselves.

The 2017 effort, middle pie, back row. 

Monday, November 4, 2019

‘They cannot relate’ — 40 years since Iran hostage crisis

Jacqueline Saper's engagement photo
     On Nov. 4, 1979, the United States Embassy in Iran was located on Tehran’s Takht-e-Jamshid Street in a neighborhood of upscale stores. Which is why Jacqueline Saper, now of Wilmette, happened to be a block away at the start of one of the epochal events of the past half century: the Iran hostage crisis.
     Saper was 18 “and a half,” a newlywed, shopping for cologne for her husband.
     ”The embassy was huge, with red brick walls and a dark green iron fence,” she said. “The American consulate always had long lines. I noticed the crowd was different. They were very angry, shouting ‘Death to America! Death to America!’”
     America, if you aren’t old enough to remember, had welcomed the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Rez Pahlavi, deposed that January, to be treated for cancer in New York. President Jimmy Carter allowed him in with reservations.
Saper at 21. 
"What are you guys going to advise me to do if they overrun our embassy and take our people hostage?” the president asked, with the half-foresight of those who see the pitfalls they will topple into.
     Young Iranian radicals scaled the walls and cut open the gate. The Marine guards, ordered not to fire, spread tear gas and fell back. The invaders initially planned to hold the embassy three days. Most of the hostages ended up being held 444 days.
     Saper sensed this wasn’t the usual street drama.
     ”Living through the Islamic Revolution earlier that year, I was used to seeing unusual things,” Saper said. “This seemed worse. I was afraid of stampede or tear gas. The embassy was guarded by armed Marines.”
     What did she do?

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Sunday, November 3, 2019

Chicago Andy Warhol Marilyn Monroe mural is almost done. No, really.

It should be done by next week.

     The Andy Warhol show is up. It opened Oct. 20 at The Art Institute of Chicago.
     The huge Warhol mural on North Michigan Avenue publicizing the show, though, is not quite up.
     Jeff Zimmerman is working as fast as he can.
     “Just a lot of moving parts,” he says. “The city, the alderman.”
     Plus: the weather. Pesky OSHA concerns. And the river of pedestrians walking directly underneath him. Care is required. 
     “Michigan Avenue is right there,” he says. “A million people walking by, and I have not dripped on anybody.” 
     Then again, Zimmerman is facing a much bigger challenge than Warhol tackled when he took a publicity still from the Monroe movie “Niagara” and silkscreened it.
     You can’t silkscreen a wall. The surface at 663 N. Michigan Ave. is 70 feet by 70 feet — nearly 5,000 square feet, a little bigger than an NBA basketball court. It’s also 150 feet in the air.  

     Working on scaffolding, Zimmerman and his team used a chalk line to create a grid of two-foot squares, a compromise between artistry and deadline.
     “The real way to do it is do it on paper. to scale, then transfer it to the wall, rather than the grid,” Zimmerman says. “Things float around on a grid. But there’s just no time. I wanted to do a one-foot grid, but we’d still be up there, snapping [chalk] lines. Something’s gotta give. That would have had us start painting in mid-November in Chicago, and even I don’t try to paint outside after mid-November in Chicago.”
     If you get the sense Zimmerman knows his way around the side of a building, you’re right. His murals have gone up across the city — from the Oak Street Beach pedestrian tunnel to along The 606 / Bloomingdale Trail. He’s been doing it for decades, unlike certain, ahem, underskilled newcomers.

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Jeff Zimmerman

Saturday, November 2, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot: Leaves

     The snowstorm predicted for Thursday came, cutting down the number of wee cops and miniature firefighters who showed up at our house in the evening.
    "Take two," I'd say, extending my big bowl of Mounds and Paydays (my wife's favorites, selected with leftovers in mind). Thinking ahead, I put the car away to keep it from being encased in ice.
     By Friday, the snow was gone. But the blizzard blown leaves remained. Leaving the house, I was stunned by this expanse of leaves, uninterrupted by the car which normally would be there.
    Wait a sec. "Leaving the house ... this expanse of leaves..." I never juxtaposed those homonyms before. A good moment to play my favorite game (well, among my favorite games): Which came first? Leaves, the flappy plant appendages, or leaves, the third-person simple singular present verb that means, ironically, both going and allowing something to remain (in the sense of, "He leaves the book on the table")? And is there any connection? I can't believe that departure, or staying, was named after what happens to tree's plumage in the fall, or that that huge swath of botany was labeled by its fall from sky to ground. I mean, they don't really leave so much as relocate a few feet southward. They haven't left. They're still there.
     The short answer is neither. The first definition in the Oxford English Dictionary is a meaning that didn't leap to mind: "1. Permission asked for or granted to do something." As in "to take your leave" with a citation from 900 A.D. The root, the dictionary notes, is the same as "love," the Old English leaf meaning "pleasure, approval."
     Which explains belief, not to forget sick leave, military leaves, and "leave of absence" which the OED traces to 1771. Next we get "leave" as in "allowing to remain." To leave your soup untouched.
     Not until definition No. 7 do we get "To go away from, quit (a place, person, or thing); to deviate from (a lie of road, etc.)." The earliest citation is in 1225, but in a form of English so old it uses letters I can't reproduce. The earliest sharable use is 1557, "leif the toun,"
     Now onto "leaf," which the OED first defines, somewhat cryptically as "An expanded organ of a plant, produced laterally from a stem or branch, or springing from its root; one of the parts of a plant which collectively constitute its foliage."
   That showed up in 825 A.D., in the Vespers Psalter: "swe swe leaf wyrta hrede fallad."
   No, I couldn't translate that, though I did try. If you want to take a crack at it, be my guest.
   Before we take our ... ah, before we depart from this subject, I have to mention that leaf as in a sheet of paper in a book is almost as old, 900 A.D., meaning we've been calling the things on trees and the things in books the same name for more than a thousand years.
    Samuel Johnson, in his great 1755 dictionary, by the way, begins his definition with leaf, the foliage, illustrating it with some lovely lines from Shakespeare:
This is the state of man; today he puts forth
The tender leaves of hopes, tomorrow blossoms.
    Then he moves on to pages from a book. Third, a definition fallen from popular usage, "One side of a double door," and then yet another definition that had slipped my mind: "Any thing foliated, or thinly beaten." As in gold leaf.
     Which seems a good place to stop and circle back, taking one more look at these golden leaves. They're a mingling of elm and ash leaves, and yes, I treat the ash tree, a cimarron ash I unwisely planted 20 years ago, against the ash borer. That's why it's still with us, dropping leaves mightily, this year all in a mighty storm-driven whoosh, all over the driveway.


Friday, November 1, 2019

Flashback 1986: Cross-country train rider won't let life pass by

      Not everything is online. This story was published 33 years ago, and came to mind—thanks to a wetware retrieval algorithm—when a friend introduced me to the local Amtrak spokesman. I wanted to show him this, one of my favorite stories, found while taking Amtrak to Alderson, West Virginia, to interview anti-nuclear activist Jean Gump in prison. I was sitting in bar car at midnight, chatting with a conductor, and he said, "If you want a story, that guy lives on the train." "On here a lot?" I replied. "No," he said. "He LIVES on the TRAIN." So I went over and talked with the man. If this story seems long—it's three times the length of a regular column today—that's how we rolled in those days. I was pleased with how it begins almost like a camp fire story.

     If you find yourself traveling on an Amtrak train, say the Empire Builder to Seattle, or the Cardinal to Washington, D.C., or the Crescent down to New Orleans, visit the club car.
     While there, look for a man with an eye patch and shaved head, an old man, but powerfully built. If you see someone fitting that description, go up and talk to him. For this is your chance to meet a real-life legend, Loren Chester "Beetle" Bailey.
     Beetle Bailey rides the rails. At almost any minute of almost every day, he is on an Amtrak train. His days are spent looking out the window of the club car, chatting with conductors, sipping tea or a beer, thinking his thoughts. The 73-year-old Bailey makes his home on Amtrak trains, and has for most of the last nine years.
     This is a man almost constantly in motion. On Christmas Eve he left Montreal, arriving in New York City on Christmas morning. That afternoon he departed New York, reaching Chicago the next day at 8:08 a.m.
     On that visit, he stopped in Chicago for nine hours—a long time, considering that in five earlier visits to Chicago this month, he spent a combined total of only 14 hours and 22 minutes here. At 5:15 p.m. he left Chicago for Los Angeles, arriving there three days later. Two hours and 20 minutes after pulling into Los Angeles, he was headed north toward Seattle.
     "Mr. Bailey is one of the most colorful characters I've met on the rails," said Mario Patti, an Amtrak supervisor and 12-year veteran of train work. "I haven't come across anyone like Mr. Bailey. He always has a story or a song or a little harmonica playing."
     Bailey—who Amtrak personnel refer to not by his nickname, but as "Mr. Bailey"—is the sort of person who's easy to notice. Besides the patch covering his left eye, he has a three-inch heel on his right boot, both reminders of an active life fraught with injuries. He sports a bit of a pot belly now, the downside of sitting on the trains. Yet his forearms remain muscular and developed from years of manual labor. He wears a watch on each wrist, the right one set to Pacific Time, the left to Eastern Standard Time. A third timepiece, a pocket watch, rests in the breast pocket of his denim vest.
     "When you're had three grips stolen, you keep your valuables with you," Bailey says in a voice so soft a stranger might have to lean forward to hear above the clanking of the train wheels. But listening to him is well worth the effort. Within minutes of striking up a conversation—with Bailey talking amiably, asking questions, gesturing with his hands, laughing—the man with the eye patch is a stranger no more.
     "I've tried my hand at everything," he says. "A friend of mine once said: `Bailey, to have had all the jobs that you've had, you'd have to be 2,000 years old.' "
     Asked his age, Bailey pulls out a dog-eared passport. "Best ID you can get, young man." Born in 1913 in Minneapolis, Bailey began delivering newspapers on three different routes when he was 8.
     As far back as he can remember, he always has loved trains. His first paycheck was spent on model trains.
     His childhood remembrances are razor sharp, whether in describing how to make a crystal radio set out of an oatmeal box, or explaining "shinny," a form of field hockey played in Minnesota 60 years ago.
     "We used a condensed milk can for a puck," he says. "They called it 'shinny' because you were always getting whacked in the shins. Of course, sometimes a kid would get carried away and hit somebody in the nose."
     Bailey dropped out of school in ninth grade to go to work as a blacksmith's helper. Then he became a welder. Bailey's love of trains led him to work as a roundhouse helper, preparing the giant steam locomotives to make their runs. More than 50 years later, Bailey recalls the routine exactly.
     "We'd clean out the ash, start fires in the engines, throw in greasy waste, then throw coal in," he says. "When the cast iron heated up, it started expanding. The ground would be shuddering a mile around, the whole roundhouse shaking."
     In 1933 Bailey was in a motorcycle accident that shattered his hip and leg and put him in a body cast for a year. It was the first of many injuries that would dog Bailey and twist his body, but not keep him from a life of physical work or dampen his spirits.
     While working as an engineer mechanic at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, he learned to fly, taking newly repaired planes on shake-down flights with test pilots, even after another accident almost cost him his left eye.
     Bailey's love of planes and aviation joined his passion for trains. But in 1968, Bailey injured his back, and could no longer work. He retired on an Air Force disability pension, and was in and out of hospitals, for his back, his feet, his hip.
     In 1977 he got out of the hospital after a particular lengthy stay, and on an impulse he got aboard an Amtrak train, and except for another lengthy hospital stay in 1981 he has been riding ever since.
     Bailey travels light, with a small suitcase or "grip" tucked under his seat. Inside are a change of underclothes, a shirt, a razor and little else. He carries his medicines with him, to prevent theft, and keeps a trunk in the baggage compartment.
     When he set out on the rails, he discarded a lifetime's worth of possessions, except for two footlockers now in storage. He doesn't miss any of it—"I never used it; they were just memories," he says—though he does wish he had a particular photograph.
      "At Williams Field they wanted to take a picture of a P-80, and I was nearby, and they said: `Bailey, get in the picture.' So I posed in front of the plane. But I never asked for a copy of the picture."
     Using only an excursion pass, Bailey rides Amtrak nonstop. When asked about Bailey, an Amtrak official at first smugly explained that what Bailey was doing was impossible—the $250, 45-day excursion fare requires passengers to stop at no more than three destinations and cover no stretch of track twice in the same direction. Asked to check the computer, the official returned and said: "My jaw is hanging open. I've never seen anything like this before. This is incredible."
     Bailey circumvents the limits of the pass by planning his wanderings so he covers almost every route in the country, and being sure that whenever he arrives at a station, he leaves on the first train out, so it does not count as a "destination." After all this time on the rails, Bailey often knows the train schedules better than some Amtrak employees.
      Providing he always is on the next train out, Bailey can travel as long as he wants. He even has developed a game, where he tries to beat his own record of most miles in a 30-day period.
     "He's traveled 34,407 miles in 30 days," said Amtrak supervisor Patti, adding that most of that was done out West, where trains can average 90 miles an hour. With unlimited funds it would be easier, but he finds a way to do it for $250, which also is a feat. For him, this country's too small."
      Bailey thoroughly enjoys train travel—not only scenery, but also the people. Asked for his favorite memory, looking back over nine years of almost constant travel, he thinks of a time many people would have considered an inconvenience.
      "On the Sunset Limited to L.A.," he says. "We were halfway to El Rio when a freight was derailed in front of us. We got stuck behind it. We were supposed to get into L.A. at 4:30 in the morning. Now it was eight hours later. It was a train crowded with students. I played the harmonica, we played cards, we set out blankets on the shady side of the train and had a picnic. Sometimes a crowded train is a good train. At 4 in the afternoon, nine Greyhound buses were brought up to take us to L.A. Only 40 people went on the buses. I asked when (the train) would be able to go on, and they said about 7:30. I said I was staying on the train, and about 20 people got off the buses. They had to take eight buses back, empty. It turned out to be one the nicest trains I ever rode on because people got very well acquainted. It shows that sometimes under adverse circumstances, people's best sides come out."
      The same could be said about Bailey. While some might find his constant traveling sad, this is the solution to what could have been a painful, isolated retirement. Asked if he is ever tempted to get off and visit the cities he passes through, Bailey says, "Yeah, sure I do. But when you are on crutches, with a torn-up back, you just go to a hotel room and watch TV. I can't drive. I can't ride the bus. This I can enjoy."
     Bailey has a steady routine on the trains. He wakes early, sometimes takes a sponge bath in a restroom (not frequently enough for some passengers, according to conductors, who add that this is the only complaint ever heard about him). He spends most of the day in the club car, looking out the window, reading and talking to people. He'll be discussing President Reagan's most recent actions one minute, entertaining a small child, who asks if he's a pirate, another.
     At night, he has a few beers to help him sleep, then he goes back to his seat, reclines it all the way back and hooks his toes under the seat in front of him, making it "just like a traction bed."
     But perhaps the most amazing thing about Bailey is that, given his nomadic lifestyle, he is neither lonely nor sad. He has many friends among train employees and frequent train travelers, and keeps up with his three children and eight grandchildren. However, he and his wife split up in 1977 when he went on the rails.
      "He's a rather complex man," said his sister Fern Reeves, 65, who lives in Paso Robles, Calif. "Although he plays the harmonica for the children on the train, he's well versed in classical music and he was studying to become a concert pianist at one time.
      "I suppose (he gets lonely). Everyone who travels by himself must be lonely at one time or another, but he likes it and he knows all the train men. He gets letters - I get them here for him - and his friends will say: `Gee, Chet, we haven't heard from you in couple of years, are you still out there?'
      "I'm sure he was in a great deal of pain throughout his life. He comes from a family—we're all kind of stoic; Chet and I talk about this. My mother was kind of stoic. My father said only babies cry. We've learned to endure pain, and Chet certainly did. Sometimes people who encounter him have no idea the kind of pain he is in most of the time. He's a remarkable man.
      "He'd be perfectly happy if he dies there on the road. He is well-liked, helpful and keeps the children entertained, which always makes train men happy," said Reeves, a retired schoolteacher planning to join him for a stint before she begins traveling the rails in Europe.
      For Bailey, he looks back on his life with satisfaction.
     "I had a chance to go to Vienna, to Paris. I blew it all," he says. "That's life. I still like that music—Chopin, Mussorgsky - I used to have a Walkman and some tapes, but they were stolen in my last grip. I never made a lot of money; I just had a lot of fun."
      But despite Bailey's carefree attitude, or perhaps because of it, he often has a deep impact on the people he meets. Amtrak's Patti, whenever he has a moment or two free, likes to sit and chat with Bailey.
      "He reads the latest books. He has knowledge in all sorts of directions—music, literature, mechanics, gold panning," said Patti. "He seems to be a happy guy. He's happy doing this. It's not sad for him. I've always respected him, and never had any problems. He's always been very courteous—someone who deserves respect.
      "The thing is, in a few years, these kind of people will not be around anymore. He is one of the last of his generation. He's just that type of a person, who knows a lot because he has experienced a lot. I'm definitely glad I met him, and I'm glad that I probably will meet him again."
                             —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 31, 1986