Saturday, October 31, 2020

Texas notes: Logger



     One of the pleasures of reading these Saturday reports from Caren Jeskey, EGD's Austin bureau chief, is you find yourself having thoughts so singular they're almost startling, realizations you've literally never had before. Such as, "I've never met a logger...."

     Vermonters know as much about snow as Chicagoans know about pizza. Twenty-odd years ago I found myself post-holing (one of many terms I learned on a winter vacation in the state of Freedom and Unity) through the woods. It’s when you try to move through hip-deep snow without snow shoes. Your legs create long deep cylindrical grooves—one exhausting step a time—as you progress, creating perfect impressions for fence posts. The thing is, I wasn’t building a fence but just trying to get back to civilization after a romance failed around a pot-bellied stove.
     It all started when I met a charming banjo player with stringy blond hair and a boyish smile. We were at a concert in a drafty old church in Burlington, Vermont. He invited me to join him on a vintage river boat for dinner the next night. My friend and host on that visit ixnayed the idea because we wouldn’t have much time together on this precious visit. She’d recently moved to Vermont to open a cooking school and learn to make artisan cheese. I told him that I couldn’t make it, and we exchanged numbers and promised to stay in touch.
     I loved flying to that part of the world. The tiny plane on the last leg of the trip sent us through a portal to a more romantic era. It promised freshly roasted coffee with clotted cream, tawny liquids, bacon from the pigs next door, and fresh milks from various creatures. A land of stellar musicians who spent a lot of time honing their skills during long dark days. Vermont also offered hardy companions who helped me challenge my idea of what cold is, and the capabilities of my body in the winter.
    When we landed, a kind businessman I’d been chatting with on the plane offered to drive me to into town. I accepted because it was my birthday and I felt safe and ensconced in that happy feeling of a special day.
    When he left I picked up the local paper as I waited for my friend and host to come and get me. The front page headline read “Moose Loose In Winooski.” My urban brain was scrambled for a moment with that combination of consonants and concepts. The article instructed townsfolk to leave a wandering moose alone as he traversed their town, and trust that he’d eventually head back into the hinterlands where he lived. After all, humans had settled on his turf. There was no reason to drive him away. I found this deeply touching and humane and also hoped I would not run into him.
     My friend arrive
d in her Subaru wagon and whisked us away.  The rest of the visit was storybook stuff—brunch at Shelburne Farms housed around a Vanderbilt mansion on Lake Champlain and wood fired pizza at American Flatbread situated in the valley of the Mad River on a farm in Waitsfield. We sat on Adirondack chairs around a crackling fire pit in the crisp cold air, dodging embers and gazing at the brightly starlit sky.
    When the trip was over and I got back home, the banjo picker and I stayed in touch. We grew close during daily hours-long phone calls. He came to Chicago to visit me and we were smitten.
Soon after his visit I’d lined up a job interview in a town close to his, and not far from my Chicago chef friend. I headed back on a jumper plane with the possibility of a sultry life replete with cigars and sitting around fires full of hand-chopped wood from the always bountiful pile just outside the door.
     The story didn’t go as planned. Banjo strummer’s decidedly un-feminist ways rubbed me wrong. We found that the only thing we really had in common was a mutual desire to kiss each other a lot. We made the best of the trip but by the end it had fallen apart so badly that one night I just booked a flight to New York. In the morning I asked him to drive me to the local gas station where I had a cab pick me up. When I got to the warmth and comfort of real friends in NY the running joke was how I’d had to post-hole out of town.
     One night before things went south Banjo and I were at a restaurant with red checkered tablecloths and candles on each table. A live band played and Banjo’s friends packed into the round red vinyl booth with us. We were all hoping that this meal would christen a new member into their friend group. One of the guys was a dark haired logger. When he got up and said goodbye the table went nuts with whoops and hollers once he out of earshot. “Caren!” they said. “We have never seen him stay awake for so long! We need you here!” They explained that he has a serious case of narcolepsy and generally falls asleep several times when he’s out with them. I was so excited about my new friends I guess the animated stories I regaled him with kept him awake.
     All I could think was “a narcoleptic logger?” Did anyone else think his job might be a little dangerous? If so, no one mentioned it. Sometimes I wonder how he’s doing; how they are all doing. Many people have come and gone in my life on my journeys and we’ve made each other’s lives richer.
     How odd it is to think about what travel and meeting strangers will look like—or not look like—in my new reality. Lately I am realizing how stories of the past help me see and feel the meaning of my life as it was, and inform the direction I aim to go in my “one wild and precious life,” in the hopeful words of poet Mary Oliver.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Happiness is donating a kidney

   
Lisa and Ed Balcita

     Surging COVID-19 doesn’t mean other ailments take a holiday. People still cope with the usual range of illness, though the pandemic tends to add complications.
     Take Ed and Lisa Balcita, of Berwyn.
     Ed had kidney failure from decades of diabetes. In 2017, he went on the transplant list, where he did what people do on transplant lists. He waited.
     The average wait for a kidney is about four years. About 100,000 people are waiting, and each year, about 5,000 of them die waiting. Ed’s kidney function dropped to 10 percent of normal while he was on the list, waiting.
     Sometimes a spouse will donate a kidney. Ed’s wife certainly wanted to.
     “When the doctor told me, ‘Perhaps a living donor...’ I knew right away I was going to be tested,” said Lisa.
     But she wasn’t a match. Ed’s body would reject her kidney. Nor could Lisa be part of a chain donation — where one donor gives a kidney to a second recipient, paired with a donor who isn’t a match either, and that donor gives to a third recipient, whose donor gives to another, until they reach someone who can give to the original recipient in the first pair.
     Another problem: Lisa has AB blood. The rarest kind, found in just 4 percent of the population.

To continue reading, click here .



Thursday, October 29, 2020

Something to hope for


   
     Make no mistake.
     Even if Joe Biden wins Tuesday, there will still by a global COVID pandemic. Americans will still be dying, hospitals overwhelmed. California will still be on fire. Hurricanes will still slam into the Gulf coast with extraordinary force in unprecedented regularity. China will still be testing its strength, nationalism will still be on the rise, here and everywhere else. Russia will still be steadily working to undermine our nation in devious, unseen ways. The economy will still be in tatters, with many millions unemployed. Old industries will continue to totter while new ones grown enormous and unchecked. Deep institutional racism will still have its tendrils in every aspect of our national life, so longstanding and familiar that too many can't even see it. Too few Americans will have proper health care, or education. Drugs will be plentiful and treatment scarce.
     And Donald Trump will still have 10 weeks to make everything worse, by neglect and design.
     But what will happen, if Joe Biden wins Nov. 3, is that the clock will start counting down the days until we once again have someone in the White House who actually cares enough to try to effectively address all our nation's problems. And that would be something to celebrate.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Mikva could conjugate ‘democracy’

Abner Mikva, after having his South Side congressional district gerrymandered away, announced in 1973 he would run for Congress in the northern suburbs.
 (Sun-Times file photo)

     We’ve seen the damage one man can do. 
     To the national discourse. To our country’s health, institutions, honor. To the value of truth itself, and the freedom Americans enjoy, the latest threat being the installation on Monday of a rigid far-right fanatic onto the U.S. Supreme Court, who for a generation will steer the country in a direction most of its citizens do not wish to go.
     As the nation prepares to — maybe — spit out that one-man wrecking crew, Donald Trump, a timely reminder of the good one person can also do has its Chicago premiere on WTTW Thursday: “Mikva! Democracy is a Verb,” an hour-long documentary on the life of Abner Mikva.
     Mikva was the rare political figure to range across all three branches of government — legislative, judicial and executive. A liberal congressman from both the North and South sides. An appellate judge. And White House counsel for Bill Clinton.
     Mikva began his career as a lawyer, then cut his teeth for a decade in the Illinois House of Representatives, where he became expert at a quality that today has reached low ebb: the art of reaching across party lines to get things done.
     “People think, well, if you compromise, that means you don’t have any principles, you’re selling out,” Mikva explains in the film. “That’s not the way it works in a large society like ours. We ought to be able to find a way to compromise our differences, especially on the important issues.”

To continue reading, click here. 


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

German engineering? Great. German typography? Not so much.


     
     This doesn't happen often. You notice something done well then, taking a closer look, see that it is also done poorly.
     Look at the back of this Porsche I pulled up behind at red light the other day. My eye went, as it has before, to the word "PORSCHE" and I admired the font, the spacing, the neat elegance of the stylish typography. Very cool. You pay ... $97,000 for a sports car, the name of the maker should be nice. And it is.
     Now look underneath. At the figure under "PORSCHE." Kinda hard to read, right? I mean, not impossible. Not indecipherable. You squint, and you can eventually, as I did, see that it is "911," which makes sense, because that is an iconic, perhaps the iconic Porsche model number, used for decades. But the "9" is so compressed it looks like a rectangle. And the "11" almost looks like a lower case "n." You'd think at some point some German engineer, or designer, would look at the back of the car and say, "You know ..."
     But they didn't.
     Not the biggest deal in the world. We covered that yesterday. And will cover it again tomorrow. For today, I suppose there is almost a comfort, in knowing that even a huge German luxury carmaker like Porsche can fuck up the name of their own car in such a small yet noticeable way. Though it does make you wonder: if they get that wrong, what else did they get wrong? Oh well, join the club. If 2020 is remembered for anything, it will be the Year of Screw-ups, big and small. 

Monday, October 26, 2020

Will we escape from The Trump Zone?

 

   On Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, the Cubs won the World Series. The following Tuesday, Nov. 8, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.
     Ever since, those two events have been paired in my mind.
     A Cubs championship was deferred for so long, it began to seem impossible. Maybe it was impossible. So it happening anyway, despite being impossible, somehow broke reality, ripping the fabric of space-time. We were all sucked through the tear, into an alternate universe, and have been trapped there ever since.
     That would explain a lot. Why we now stumble through this weird, 4th dimension. Like the child in that Twilight Zone episode “Little Girl Lost,” who vanishes through the portal that opens up in her bedroom. Or rather, like her father, desperately trying to find her, plunging into that skewed world, everything distorted, spinning, wrong.
     Ditto for our plane of existence, where the president’s personal lawyer can appear in a Hollywood movie, sprawled on a bed with his hand down his pants, and not only does it fail to shock, but it makes perfect sense.
     Like in “Alice in Wonderland” — of course, there is a large contemptuous caterpillar on a toadstool — this is the place where the talking caterpillar shows up. And of course the caterpillar is smoking a hookah. What else would a caterpillar smoke?

To continue reading, click here. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Flashback, 2010: Am I smarter than my 14-year-old? Don't bet on it

     Today is my older son's 25th birthday. Happy birthday, boy! Thank you for the past quarter century. It has been a blast, in the main, and I only wish I could do it all again. I thought about writing something fresh, but a wise parent draws the veil as children reach adulthood.  So as proud I am ,  I thought I would dig into the vault and find a column from years past. This is the first one I saw and, frankly, it encapsulates the experience of being his dad far better than anything I could possibly write now. 
Ross at 14, in the New York Public Library's
42nd Street Reading Room

  
     'Is Ross around?" I called weakly. "I'm cleaning the litter now, if he wants to gloat."
     Though my wife and I are typical indulgent parents, the boys do have chores; the younger one empties the dishwasher, the older one cleans the cat litter.
     But there was this bet.
     I'm not sure how the subject came up -- we all talk constantly, so it's hard to keep track. We were having lunch, and my older boy used the phrase "tonic clonic."
     "Tonic clonic?" I asked. "That's a new one." I told him I know that "clonic" describes rhythmic muscle contraction, like a person rocking. But I had never heard this phrase before.
     "It's a grand mal seizure," he explained.
     "No, it's not," I answered, with sudden conviction. A writer encounters lots of words. I not only know what onchocerciasis is—river blindness—but can pronounce it correctly.
     "Yes, it is,'' Ross said. "Common vernacular."
     "Then, it must be a slang term," I said. "Something used in chat rooms. It's not an official term."
     "Yes, it is."
     "No, it's not."
     "Wanna bet?"
     Now, I'm the opposite of Richard Roeper when it comes to betting—well, I'm the opposite of Richard in many regards, alas, but particularly when it comes to betting. Betting is almost always a bad idea, because—unlike Richard—I almost always lose. But there is a certain activity that my son, being 14 and growing in contrariness every day, has lately refused to do, a chore I can't in good conscience force upon him.
     "If you lose, we play Scrabble," I said.
     "And if I win . . . ?"
     "I'll clean the cat litter."
     His grinning air of triumph as we shook hands concerned me. But "tonic clonic"? Rhyming couplets are invariably slang: "chick flick," "cheat sheet," "space case." The patients might call it the "pus bus," but the doctors will refer to it as the "Mobile Infection Control Vehicle."
     We got home, and he flew to the iMac. In five seconds, he had the Epilepsy Foundation Web site and an article titled "Generalized Tonic Clonic Seizures (also called Grand Mal or a Convulsion)."
     Geez. Not only is "tonic clonic" a real term, but it's the preferred term. As disappointed as I was to lose my shot at a Scrabble game (one by one, life's joys are plucked off the table, but I thought I could cling to Scrabble a bit longer), I couldn't help but wonder if this was political correctness—what was wrong with "grand mal?" Could it be because "mal" is "evil" in French? Have seizures now become a lifestyle, something to be celebrated? Have people with epilepsy taken a page from the deaf—or is it The Deaf Nation by now?—who have convinced themselves, if no one else, that deafness is a culture and a superior culture at that, and hearing aids are a genocide?
     In a word: yes.

The Big Evil

     "Grand mal means 'The Big Evil,' " said Kimberli Meadows, of the Epilepsy Foundation. "Just as we don't call people 'epileptics,' as we try to get rid of the stigma associated with epilepsy, we use more positive terms."
     I'm all for being positive, though "tonic clonic" still strikes me as an odd term, not just for its sing-song quality, but also from a etymological point of view, since "tonic" generally means something that restores health and vigor (though I see now that, in physiology, it means the opposite). "During the tonic phase, breathing may decrease or cease altogether, producing cyanosis (blueing) of the lips, nail beds and face," the Epilepsy Foundation explains. This leads to the clonic phase, where muscles rapidly contract and relax.
     I found a reference to "tonic clonic" in the Miami Herald in 1984, and a total of 278 citations in all national newspapers in the quarter century since—about 10 a year; I didn't feel so clueless for not having encountered it before. It isn't as if we're bombarded with the phrase.
     Irked epileptics—whoops, "people with epilepsy"—or the proudly deaf should take comfort that my punishment was already visited upon me. Kneeling over the catbox, shoveling scoopful after scoopful of congealed litter into a garbage bag while my eldest son taunted me.
     "If you're going to write books," he sneered, "you should really know what words mean. I mean, Dad, c'mon, 'animadversion?' "
     I stopped scooping, stunned. A month ago, at least, I had walked into the office—my own flippin' office, for Pete's sake! He was vegged out at the computer.
     "Do you need this?" he asked; sometimes I toss them off the computer.
     "No, I'm just looking up a word."
     "What word?" he asked.
     "Animadversion," I answered. "Boswell uses it in Life of Johnson.
     "It's a criticism."
     "What's a criticism?"
     " 'Animadversion,' " he said. "It means 'a criticism, or complaint.' "
     I gave him a cold stare and flipped open the Oxford.
     "Animadversion," I read.
     "Censure, reproof, blame, a criticism."
     I wheeled on him.
     "How did you know that?"
     "I don't know," he shrugged. "Kids talk."
     I will leave you with a word that is not in the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: "contrapasso." An Italian word that literally means "counter-suffering" and refers to the way punishments in Dante's hell mirror the sins that damned souls committed in life. Adulterers are bound together for all eternity, fortunetellers are blinded by tears. A father who stresses the importance of words has them turned into darts and shot back at him. I am hoisted with my own petard.
                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 5, 2010

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Texas notes: Flags


     Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey speaks truth to Texas.
 
    Mr. "President" there is nothing funny about COVID. There is something very wrong with you to have made fun of Joe Biden wearing a properly fitted mask. It is surreal to watch you making light of an epic tragedy. Our only solace is that you will surely be kicked out of high office in the near future. Only then our “great” nation can cease to be the laughing-stock and horror of the world as you mismanage this plague and march your people to death. Once you are properly fired why don’t you do us all a favor and disappear? You’ve joked about leaving the country— please, please do.
     In mid-June on a COVID walkabout I noticed a hand painted wooden sign affixed to a tree in a neighbor’s yard. It boldly read “Texans Lost To COVID 19: 2,193.” The yard was peppered with 2,193 brightly colored flags. It brought home the gravity of the situation and I was moved to tears.
     As the weeks have worn on, I’ve watched the sea of flags grow in this lawn around an otherwise nondescript corner house. We are now nearing 17,000 Texans dead. This is not a soap opera or telenovela. None of those people are coming back.
     A few days ago I saw a brightly colored Fiat with 2 kayaks on the roof drivings towards me as I walked down the street; (we don’t have many sidewalks here). I recognized the car from the flag driveway. Instinctively I waved and the driver stopped and unrolled his window. He knew this was about the flags. He told me his name is Shane, and his wife Erin sat next to him. I asked if I could come by and learn more about his project, and he agreed. We set a date and a few days later Shane warmly invited me into their colorful and well-appointed backyard replete with a brand new chicken coop (with Lucy and Dinah pecking about), a fire pit, and modern wicker furniture. Large vinyl curtains with art prints from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art hung brightly on the wall behind him. Shane and Erin once lived in LA and both have backgrounds in film. 
Shane
    
     “When this all started everyone treated it like it was big vacation.” Shane described how he felt watching neighbors bike and walk around, and congregate in each others’ yards. He felt it was important to bring attention to the reality of what was happening. “It’s a real disease and people are dying from it. It was as though we were driving 100 miles per hour in a school zone. If we get hit, we get hit.”
     I knew exactly what he meant. Folks seem to think the virus picks and chooses people and will skip them and their loved ones. While on a walk with a neighbor the other day, she ripped her mask off complaining “it’s just so hot. Do you mind?” She is a healthcare professional so I asked her how this choice would affect me. She said “if you have a mask on but I don’t your chances of getting the virus from me increase by about 5%.” 
      “Um, YES. I DO MIND!” I told her to either stay at least six feet away from me, or put her mask on. For the rest of the walk she repeatedly pushed the boundaries and rather than a pleasant walk with a new friend the walk became a stress-laden game of dodge the germs for me. Frankly, I’d prefer to be alone than with someone who is not safe. She works in a medical practice, hangs out closely with people from at least four other households that I am aware of, and sadly cannot be one of my COVID buddies anymore. I’ll just decline the next invitations and maintain my inner balance that comes with impeccable safety standards during this stretch of the marathon.  
Now it's up to 18,000
   It felt good to be with Shane who put his mask on just to talk to me from his car during our first meeting. In his yard, we sat at least 10 feet away from each other if masks were off. As Shane put it, “most things in life are manageable.” He should know, as the father of a teen who had multiple heart surgeries before he was even 4 years old, thus a high-risk person. I stand with Shane and his family and all other at-risk people and I will not compromise these standards. 
     If we’d simply been mandated to wear masks and practice distancing, similar to mandates to wear seat belts and not to smoke in public indoor spaces, people like my dear former landlord Angelo Vouris who died on April 12th of COVID in Chicago would still be with us. For those of us who have the ability to follow simple rules, let’s just do our best to stay on course. It will be over before we know it and we can always say that we stood on the right side of history. Play this song for those who need a push: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ltjBT_TuUVA.
     For more information about Shane and Erin: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/20/insider/front-page-200k-deaths.html.




Friday, October 23, 2020

Prairie wedding

 


     A lovely afternoon Thursday. I'm on vacation, but a pair of obligations kept me inside—an hour on Zoom with Eric Zorn, Lisa Donovan and John Williams, recording a "Mincing Rascals" podcast for WGN. Then another hour with scholars from the Newberry Library, talking about how to best lure people to the Newberry when they, you know, finally begin going places again.
     "We have to get outside," I told my wife, as soon as we were finished, and we grabbed Kitty and headed to the Trail through Time, a meandering path through the Techny Prairie Park, 100 acres of wildflowers and grasses, circling hawks and old oaks, a golf course and a couple soccer fields, just a few blocks from our house.
     I couldn't tell you what we talked about. The usual things I suppose, work and kids and the house, the radiating goodness of our dog. Not too much about politics. As we started our walk, our youngest son called with his latest exciting career development, and we asked questions and listened and strode along. Maybe his call put him in mind, but as we passed the sledding hill, I said, "I'm glad Kenty didn't break his neck." A snowy winter's day, he was maybe three, we were on one of those saucer sleds. He was sitting crosslegged on my lap, and we hit a series of bumps—bah-boom, bah-boom, bah-BOOM!—and we were both tumbling through the air and in my mind he came down, headfirst, and I had a moment of pure fear. But he was fine. Ruffled but unhurt. Solid boy. Still, I felt the faintest chill of a very different life, for both of us, that could have begun at that moment, but thankfully did not. I paused again to squint down that dim passageway in relief.
     We walked along the river—the West Fork of the North Branch of the Chicago River, for those keeping track, circling the big bowl of the retention basin. In the soft light of the setting sun, the landscape looked golden. 
     "It's like the English countryside," I said, remembering a journey to East Sussex at this time of year. Kitty surged ahead or lagged behind, savoring the scent of some previous dog. 
     As we headed out again, we saw somebody setting up a white trellis, and a pair of young men in suit jackets. "Photos or wedding?" I asked a woman with a camera. 
      "Wedding," she said. 
      The COVID-19 pandemic has caused all sorts of accommodations and disappointments, parties to be postponed, or shifted in form and tone, into sidewalk serenades and drive by festivities. The pop up wedding is something I had not heard of before, but it seems a good idea, perhaps an improvement, perhaps something that'll catch on. My wife and I had a big lavish wedding in a Michigan Avenue hotel with a 12-piece swing band, and we reflected warmly on it—we're glad we had it, money well spent, but can also see the appeal of going the trellis-on-a-trail route. I do wonder what the cost of our wedding, properly invested, would look like after 30 years, but I bet it would be welcome in retirement, should we ever be able to retire.
     All in all, we decided it had all worked out for the best.
     "Beside, you only have the one life," I said, "and it's fruitless to wonder about it working out some other way. It worked out this way." We both decided this was a fine thing indeed.
     I paused to take a couple pictures of the wedding taking shape in the distance, and wondered if perhaps I hadn't done my due diligence by not quizzing them a bit more. But they seemed very  busy, setting up, and a man whose age and air of coiled distraction made me think he was the father of the bride said something, maybe just, "A wedding," that made me not want to impose further upon them, but let them have their privacy in a public space. We could have stayed as observers, I suppose, but we weren't invited and, anyway, dinner was waiting at home.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Bookmarked


     I don't read for pleasure.
     Well, I do, in the sense that I enjoy reading immensely, and always have, back to when I first learned how to read, and would devour ... what were they? "Dan Frontier" books. I loved those.
     What I mean is I don't read solely for pleasure. There is always the next column, or blog post, or book over the horizon, if not due in a few hours, lurking in the back of my mind. You never know when a passage will come in handy, and need to be found again. Bookmarks make that possible. Otherwise, you forget.
     Which is why wherever I regularly read, there are pads of small Post-It notes scattered nearby. On the night table. In a drawer in my desk. In a drawer in the coffee table. In my briefcase. Dozens of them. I never want to look for a Post-It note, I want to glance down, grab one, stick in the margins, and continue reading. (I could no more dog-ear a book or underline it than I could toss a book into the fire. If you want to discuss this, you may. Text books, yes, or galleys being reviewed. Those are disposable. But nothing else). 
     There are times, however, when a Post-It is not nearby. Then I grab whatever is handy—a scrap of paper, an envelope, a check, anything. I'll open my wallet and grab a business card. (Not that you give people business cards anymore. They're fomites, aka, objects that transmit disease). 
     But people used to carry them, and I wasn't alone in the habit of using business cards as bookmarks.
     Tuesday I pulled a book off the shelf, to do some research for my next book. "Truman," by David McCullough. It opened to a business card, but it wasn't mine. It was Steve Neal's, my former Sun-Times colleague, our political columnist, who died, by his own hand, in February, 2004. 
    I almost gasped, to see it there. And then I remembered. His office at the Sun-Times was jammed, floor-to-ceiling, with books. I had permission, when working on something, to just go in and take one. I didn't have to ask; he didn't have to be there. A very generous man, in that and other regards. I remember standing on his desk, balancing precariously, reaching over to grab some volume shelved up high, near the ceiling.
     After he died, his family took some books, and the rest were just piled nearby, an enormous mound, a yard high. I took armloads of books back to my office—the McCullough was a no-brainer. They retain the calm, scholarly air of their previous owner: Steve's books. I'm not alone in that attitude either: if you go down to the Abraham Lincoln Library in Springfield, there is a corner with Neal's portrait, and a couple shelves of his books, as in books written by him. It seems an apt tribute. 
    Yes, it's easier to search books online. But not every book is online, and those that are can be severely limited. "Snippet view." How I hate that term. Besides, nothing beats having books around, at hand, accessible. It leads to all sorts of serendipitous encounters and random discoveries, such as picking up an old book and being reminded of a passage that was worth highlighting. Or of a colleague, gone now more than 16 years, who was a splendid man, and worth remembering. 




     

     

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Flashback 2011: Nobody had to ask for Daley's special favors

     I'm on vacation this week, working on the book and staining a wooden storm door, a more complicated process than it sounds (one coat of conditioner, two of stain, and three of marine spar varnish. Quite a lot, really). So no column in the paper today to reprint here. But Facebook dangled this column from 2011 at me, and I found that, after nearly a decade, it's a good reminder that Donald Trump isn't the first politician to milk his office for personal gain. He's just much more inept at it. See how a recent master did it, and how in the hazy past at least one politician managed to avoid graft. 

     After the media-led history lesson that accompanied Richard M. Daley's final days in office last May, perhaps a few Chicagoans learned that Daley and his father, Richard J. Daley, were not the city's first father-and-son mayoral team.  
Carter Harrison I
      That distinction goes to Carter Harrison I and Carter Harrison II, who straddled the cusp of the previous century, serving from 1879 to 1915, each man elected to five terms.
     But here the similarity ends, in many regards—for instance, the two Harrisons were deemed "lovable" by historians—one charge never leveled against either Daley, and while they ran a wide open town of bordellos and low dives, both were considered to be personally honest.
     The son, who was "handsome as a matinee idol" to quote one historian, printed re-election campaign posters of himself with his hands jammed in his pockets and the headline "Chicago is fortunate in having a mayor who keeps his hands in his own pockets." Was our former mayor, despite his considerable moxie, ever bold enough to make that election claim?
     "This was no empty boast," wrote historian Edward Wagenknecht. "[Harrison] was so scrupulous that when his wife came into his office one day and asked him for stamps for three letters, he told her that if she really wanted him to steal from the city, there was no point in stopping with six cents, for he could get a million dollars just as easily."
Carter Harrison II
      How easily? Well, Carter Harrison II could have allowed his wife Edith to serve on the boards of philanthropic organizations, which would pay her sizable salaries and then reap donations from companies doing business with the city.
     Harrison knew he was responsible for his wife's actions—even if it involved 6 cents worth of postage. Our recent mayor prefers to assume sputtering outrage or lack of knowledge when the subject comes up, as it did last week due to an inspector general's report involving hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from companies that received city subsidies to a charity founded by Daley's wife, who ran the charity pro bono.
     It was a subject that was considered bad form to even mention while Daley was in power and which the ex-mayor seems to still think is beyond all public discussion.
      "A personal insult," Daley said Monday, when asked about the inspector general's report. "A disgraceful thing they did."
     Then, in typical Daley straw man style, he rebutted a charge that wasn't being made.
     "No one," he said, " No one talked to anyone" to force companies receiving city subsidies to donate money to that particular charity.
     Well, of course not. That's not how it's done. Daley didn't call the police brass and demand his nephew be let off the hook for allegedly killing a man, or direct sewer business to his son and a nephew. Nobody needed to spell out the chain of reflexive favoritism that goes back to the days when city insurance business would be funneled to the Daley boys.
     Do you think Richard J. Daley was on the phone barking commands? Of course not. He didn't have to. Everyone understood. Play along and receive the benefits, or don't and be frozen out. A word to the wise . . .
     As much as we like to tell ourselves that we are improving, I like the bald candor of Richard J. Daley better than the denial of his son. When confronted with cronyism, he didn't feign surprise, didn't hide behind the personal dignity of his also admired wife, Sis. He told reporters to kiss his ass. "If a man can't put his arms around his sons, then what's the world coming to?" he said. A world where we're not even allowed to ask, apparently.

'That is what fiction means'

     My colleague Mark Brown's thoughtful analysis Tuesday of why Kelsey Grammer's new Chicago-based TV show, "Boss," which debuts Oct. 21, does not resemble actual City Council meetings reminded me of when my wife and I would watch "L.A. Law" together. A litigator at Jenner & Block at the time, she was constantly complaining, "Oh, that would never happen" at some violation of judicial procedure, until I finally said, "Honey, if the show were an hour of you shepardizing legal documents in a windowless room in Minneapolis, nobody would watch it."
     City Council meetings are painfully dull stretches of prolix aldermanic speechifying, usually about nothing. Reporters forced to attend these struggle to make them seem relevant by seizing the wildest utterances and giving them a weight they don't deserve, which is why you'd see a headline like, "Mayor: Floating airport in lake?" followed a day later by "No floating airport, says mayor." To make some things exciting, you must resort to fiction.
                      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, October 16, 2011

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Avoiding skunks

 


     Okay, I'm finally a true suburbanite.
     I thought I was, before. But I really wasn't. Now I am.
     How come? What changed? I've lived in the leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook for more than 20 years. What did I do now that I haven't done before?
     I called the cops on a skunk.
     In my defense, I didn't want to. My wife alerted me to the skunk, kind of poking its nose into the grass in our front yard. Which was strange, because it was in the middle of the afternoon. Usually skunks come out at night.
     "I think it might be hurt," she said. "It's kind a limping." I watched. It was hard to tell what it was doing. A fan of inaction, I counseled waiting and hoping it went away. 
     It didn't. An hour later, the skunk was still there, in a different spot on the front lawn, probing its nose, this way and that. And a definite, not entirely unpleasant eau d'skunk was permeating the house. 
     My wife and I watched it. 
     "Hey skunk!" she yelled, loudly, "Go away!"
     So I guess she's a suburbanite too. Yelling at woodland creatures. The skunk didn't flinch, but kept its obsessive lawn poking.
     "Call 311," my wife suggested. That only works in the city, or at least didn't work when I tried it. I plugged "Northbrook Animal Control," into my iPhone. Animal control's web site suggested I call the police non-emergency number.
     So I did.
     In my defense, I was not panicky or demanding. I didn't expect squad cars to show up and arrest the skunk. I was curious what, if anything, I should do. Maybe the thing was in distress. 
     "They're feeding on grubs in your lawn this time of year," explained the friendly police woman, who sounded as if she had been fielding skunk calls all day. She said, if I want, she would call an animal service for me.
     "Will I be charged?" I asked. I didn't want to pay $600 to remove a skunk that was lingering on our lawn. To be honest, skunks in the daylight made sense. It fit in with the general strangeness of these very strange times, the mask-wearing, plague-ridden, darkness-at-noon, black-sun-in-the-sky-at-night weirdness and inversion of all established verities that has been going on since the pandemic kicked in a few months back. If you turned on the bathroom faucet and a gusher of black blood poured out, well, why not? Most of 2020 has been like that.
     No, the police officer said, you won't have to pay. The village covers skunk removal, should it come to that. That seemed generous. And still extreme. Getting carried away. It was only a small skunk.
     "Let's wait," I said.
     A while later, it was time to walk Kitty. The skunk was still there, exploring a corner of the lawn, rather frantically I thought. Very focused on the ground in front of it. I put the dog on a short leash and we quickstepped down the walk and vectored away. The skunk didn't seem to notice us. Kitty didn't notice the skunk. It was still there when we got back. We gave it wide berth.
     And that's it. By our nighttime walk, the skunk was gone. Though there was a skunk—a different one, not ours, bigger—in the Village Green, which is not unusual. I've been there very late at night when there are four or five skunks, skunks in all directions, large and lurking, almost scary in the darkness. Keeping an eye on this little skunk, we hurried by it. Then, on our way home, we altered our route so as to avoid it, my keeping an eye on the thing, to make sure it didn't rush us. Waiting and avoiding are, I believe, undervalued strategies for coping with certain aspects of life. Some problems, like skunks, are better avoided than faced head on. They have a way of solving themselves, if you let them. There was no sign of the skunk on Monday.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Staircase wisdom



     Eating food together isn't the only way to socialize, you know.
     My wife and I met another couple, longtime friends, at the Chicago Botanic Garden Saturday afternoon and we had a pleasant 90 minute stroll. We paired off by gender, my wife with his wife, and her husband with me, talking away. At one point he asked me about turning 60, and I sort of shrugged. The word "acceptance" came to mind, but I didn't feel like trotting that out. Nothing traumatic. We agreed that sailing into your 60s is a sea change from being in your 50s. It begins to feel old.
     My thoughts on the subject didn't clarify until the next day, reading the New York Times obituary for Scott Lilienfield, 59 "Psychologist Who Questioned Science of Psychology" in the shorthand of the Gray Lady's headline writers. I probably would have read it anyway—he was an iconoclast questioning the mistaken certainties of his field, my type of fellow—but I especially find myself drawn to the obituaries of people younger than myself. I'm not sure why. Curiosity—how'd they do with less time than I've frittered away? Part obligation to the fallen, perhaps, part celebration of being the reader and not the subject.
     He worked to deepen the understanding of "so-called psychopathic behavior." I'm not sure why the Times feels compelled to not only insert that skeptical "so-called"—to me, like global warming; it's just there—but also to explain it.
     "Psychopathy is characterized by superficial charm, grandiosity, pathological lying and a lack of empathy."
     Do I have to say it? No? Of course not. Too obvious, right? Good.
     "Three underlying personality features that psychopaths share...: fearless dominance, meanness and impulsivity."
     It is so difficult to shake politics nowadays, isn't it?
     About 2/3 of the way through, the narrative backtracks, as newspaper obituaries do, starting at the beginning of life. "Scott Owen Lilienfeld was born on Dec. 23, 1960, in Queens..."
   So he would have been 60 this December, had not pancreatic cancer intervened. At which point I realized I now have an adequate answer to my friend's question that stymied me at the Botanic Garden, the one about how I view turning 60. As a gift. Definitely. A present that not everyone is lucky enough to receive.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Amazon robots, workers speed stuff to you

 

Darnell Gilton (Photo for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin Garcia).

     Darnell Gilton is “picking,” a process that takes six or seven seconds.
     “When the pod pulls up to me, I look at the screen,” explains Gilton. “The screen tells me what bin to pick the product from. I go to the bin, I grab the product, I bring it to the hand scanner here, I scan the product, the light tells me what tote to put the product in. Just like that.”
     The pod is a yellow tower about 7 feet high, each of four sides presenting a grid of merchandise tucked securely into bins, driven by an orange robot tucked underneath. The screen shows an item — in this case, a Real Techniques Miracle Complexion Sponge + Case located in cubby 2H. Gilton grabs it, scans it, tosses it into a yellow bin beyond a flashing green button, hitting the button to show he’s finished the task. Then he does it again, with a different product. About 350 times an hour.
     Gilton works at MDW7, the Amazon Robotics Fulfillment Center in Monee, one of nine in Illinois, with two more on the way. In all, there are 50 similar facilities in the United States, with another 100 worldwide, part of a staggering network of warehouses, distribution hubs, conveyers, chutes, trucks, pickers, drivers, supervisors and, of course, an omnipresent internet presence, which working together last year sold $280 billion worth of products and delivered 3.5 billion packages worldwide.  
     The advent of COVID-19 has made Amazon, already the most dominant online retailer in the world, more important than ever, as fear of going out in public has encouraged people to try e-commerce. Even as the president slashes at the Postal Service, trying to cut into Amazon’s business, it grows so fast the company, now worth $2 trillion, is hiring 5,500 new workers in Illinois, adding to the 23,000 already working in the state.
     Between that, and Amazon Prime Day last week — Prime Days actually, Tuesday and Wednesday, when the world’s largest e-retailer offered all sorts of sales for its 112 million U.S. members, more than a third of the entire population of the country, who get free shipping for a monthly Prime fee of about $12 — a visit seemed in order.
     MDW7 — “MDW” refers to the code for Midway; Amazon fulfillment centers are named for the nearest airport — is enormous, nearly a million square feet, and from the parking lot, that size immediately presents reportorial challenges.

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MDW7 in Monee (Photo for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin Garcia).


Saturday, October 17, 2020

Texas Notes: Trumpkin

 
   Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey this week unholsters her political side and provides some welcome covering fire in our all-out melee. 

     I did something bad tonight. 
      I'm glad I did, and would do it again. 
     As I took an evening stroll I noticed a piece of paper stapled to a wooden post under a bright streetlight. It rudely accosted my eyes with its bold black letters and critique of the best hope we have today. It read “Quid Pro Quo Joe wants to lock us down, raise our taxes and take us back to perpetual war.” 
     It took me a moment to process what I was looking at and my mind screamed “no, no, no!” I live in a decidedly Bye Don neighborhood and this cannot be tolerated. I screeched to a halt in my Birkenstock tracks. My first impulse was to tear it down, but I stopped myself. That would not be right. We all have a right to express our opinions.
     The next thing I knew I’d ripped it right off and crumpled it up in one fell swoop, a hawk ending its prey. I looked around to be sure no one saw and just then a man in a motorized wheel chair came racing by having a non-sensical yelling match with an invisible person in his head. First I thought he was reacting to my act of violence against the signage but he just kept going. Of course being the social worker that I am I wondered about this guy’s diagnosis and if he needs medical care. I opted for not intervening and just hope he made it home okay. Back to the message that need not be entertained.
     Lock us down? You mean stop us from becoming a super spreader nation of unnecessary death? I’m sure I heard Kamala and Joe say multiple times that taxes will be raised only for those making $400K or more a year. I’ve been hearing in the news that billionaires are doing better than ever since COVID. According to an article last week about the super rich (www.theguardian.com/business/2020/oct/07/covid-19-crisis-boosts-the-fortunes-of-worlds-billionaires) “a report by Swiss bank UBS found that billionaires increased their wealth by more than a quarter (27.5%) at the height of the crisis from April to July, just as millions of people around the world lost their jobs or were struggling to get by on government schemes.” How much longer can we tolerate this grossly unethical and unsustainable financial structure?
     Perpetual war? Kind of like what we are now at risk for since the Orangesicle has imposed sanctions that are harming innocent Iranians and putting us at a greater risk of nuclear war?
     Malarky, I say and we won’t stand for it in our neighborhood; however, I still regret taking the sign down and maybe I’ll staple it back up today. The fact that it’s crumpled may send enough of a message. It must be hard for the very small smattering of red ones with MAGA and other surreal signage to exist among the sea of “Black Lives Matter “ and “Trumpkin: Orange on the Outside Hollow on the Inside” yard signs. Hard for them to watch the world stand up against the old-guard while they are still immersed. Clinging to a U S of A that hasn’t been and will never be. A place where intolerance gets a foothold and doesn’t slip.
     The silver lining in all of this is that just as schools were integrated and the Jim Crow South was called to task during our last historical period of nationwide ongoing protests—at least publicly if not behind closed doors—the good people of our nation are standing up again.      
     Desperate clinging to the good ol’ days is a bad idea. Just as we cant fight father time, we cannot stop the winds of change that are rapidly propelling us into a world where choice trumps all. We can marry who we want, self-proclaim our gender pronouns, love who we want to love, mix and mingle with whomever we chose, stand up to bullies and harassers, stop abuses of power and feel free to be who we are rather than who a washed up puritanical society tells us we can or cannot be. Where we uphold our promise to keep the church and the state separate. Oh wait, I forgot about the Coney Barrett hearings. Shit.
     For now it’s progress, not perfection, and I am ok with tearing down the walls of heartache every chance I get.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Barrett and the zombie tots of the apocalypse


     As the Republican majority in the Senate huzzahs Amy Coney Barrett onto the United States Supreme Court — which is their right — I hope you’ll forgive me for ignoring the hearing completely. This machine grinds onward whether I jam my hand into the gears or not. Why sweat the details? Better to keep my fingers.
     This isn’t a sideshow, but the main event, the core of the devil’s bargain Christian extremist America struck with Donald Trump five years ago: rescue our imaginary babies and we’ll forgive you everything else, every flailing, foaming, lying, malicious, pandemic-botching, country-betraying minute.
     Elections have consequences, the GOP sneers, two weeks before an election. Point taken. Thank you for the reminder.
     Though I wish I could go back in time to replay this week for all those indifferent, what-does-my-vote matter? sorts. It matters because of this.
     Hidebound, my-way-or-the-highway religion tries to steamroll the country back to its idea of goodness, via gigantic concern for proto-babies the size of kidney beans and no concern at all for actual baby-sized babies, newborns yanked from the arms of their mothers at the border. Heck, their parents’ paperwork isn’t in order. What choice have we?
     This is like the worst zombie movie ever: “Baby Crusaders of the Apocalypse,” as the Republicans conjure up an army of hacked apart fetuses, which assemble themselves and, eyes glowing, jerkily march on Jerusalem, to liberate the Holy Land from the clutches of Saracen feminists.

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Thursday, October 15, 2020

Windblown.

     Vista Tower is coming along. I was strolling south on Michigan Avenue last week, and paused just north of the bridge to admire its progress. The 101-story building is the third tallest in Chicago, after the Willis Tower (sigh ... no, seriously, people have given up the Sears thing, right? Because it's been over a decade. Get with the program, folks) and Trump Tower (still going by its original name, alas). 
     Designed by Studio Gang—the same folks behind the way-cool Aqua building—Vista Tower has a very neat feature. If you look at the photo to the right, you'll notice a dark band near the top. That is the "blow-through" floor. Without it, the Chicago winds would rock the building so much people on the highest floor would get seasick. Many buildings try to counterbalance this effect with stabilizing weights, tanks of water and such. The blow-through floor allows wind to cut through the building, rather than push against it. The floor is a little taller than the regular floor, and doesn't seem as if it'll have any use for tenants. I get the impression it won't be a patio or pool or anything, but just an empty space. Which is a shame. I suppose if they clutter it with plants and deck chairs and bocce ball courts then the wind won't blow through right. 
     Maybe there will be a sly wink value to it. I can't help wondering if wisenheimers who get in trouble will say they live on the 83rd floor of Vista Tower, the way Elwood Blues tells the Department of Motor Vehicles that he lives at 1060 W. Addison (sigh, the address of Wrigley Field).
    Probably not. 
     Yes, today is a light entry. If you want, I'll give you your money back. The politics of late have been cascading over me, water off a duck's ass. Numb, maybe. Tired, disgusted, afraid; I'm not Sigmund Freud, I can't easily access the bottom of it, and don't really want to.
    Maybe I'm just waiting. The bus doesn't come any faster if you tap your foot. At some point sweating the details of this calamity is stupid. The woods are burning; do we really need to say "Oh look, that tree is on fire and that tree is on fire and this tree, and the one over there"? A big fucking forest fire. We all get it.  Now let's get on with this. 
      There came a point in the eternal O.J. Simpson trial where I just shut off, covering my ears and screeching, "Just tell me how it ends!" I don't think I'm going to watch either dueling town hall tonight, with Joe Biden on ABC, and Donald Trump on NBC. What would be the point? Anyone who didn't figure out a long time ago that Trump is a despicable con man, liar, criminal and traitor who will ruin the country, further, given the chance, is not going to grasp that now. And Biden, well, he could spend tonight's TV time teeing up newborn puppies and and perfecting his golf swing by driving them into the ocean and I'd still vote for him.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Like illness, Mr. COVID Answer Man lingers

 


     It might be hard to imagine, but I try to premeditate my columns, to consider possible ramifications before clicking on the “Submit for Approval” button. Is everything spelled right? Are my facts all in a row, quacking happily? Will I be frog-walked sobbing away from my career and into early retirement? But when I rolled out “Mr. Covid Answer Man” early this month, there was one response I never imagined: that readers actually would, as requested, send in questions. Sincere questions, some of them. So even though I like to flit nimbly from one topic to another, with this crisis reaching whatever nightmare crescendo we’re heading toward, I feel duty bound to address a few.

     Dear Mr. COVID Answer Man: What is the polite way to say to your brother who you are very close to that his girlfriend is acting recklessly in regards to the virus and is putting his and anyone he sees lives at risk?
     A destination wedding in South Carolina should not have been gone to, nor a trip to Colorado to support her friends’ MFA project.
     What the best way to say, “I don’t know if I can see you while your girlfriend acts like a member of the Trump administration?” — Not My Brother’s Girlfriend’s Keeper
     Dear NMBGK: The best way is the simplest. Try, “See you in two weeks.” Americans today are terrible when it comes to self-denial — that’s why we’re all so fat — and just because the journey might kill you is no reason to miss your Tri-Delt sister exchanging vows at Hilton Head. In her defense, we’ve been locked down for over six months and certain slippage is expected. Just don’t use it to justify further lapses. If you take a revolver, put a bullet in one chamber, spin it, then put the barrel to your head, pull the trigger and come off unscathed, that means you were lucky. Not that you should go, “All right!” and give it another go. Encourage him to encourage her to quit while she’s ahead and stay home scrapbooking her adventures.
     Dear Mr. COVID Answer Man: I cannot suppress my glee at the news that Pres. Trump has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. Mr. Answer Man, how can I rid myself of these wicked thoughts? I am sure NOBODY shares them with me. — Not Quite Contrite

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Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Quiet city

 

 
     By Tuesday, Oct. 10, 1871, the fire that incinerated the center of Chicago had finally died out, helped by rain. The smoke cleared, and residents were struck by the lack of commotion, comparable only to when Abraham Lincoln's body paused in the city on its way to burial in Springfield.
     "Chicago's downtown, normally one of the most hectic places on the planet, was more still and silent than it would ever be again," Carl Smith writes in his excellent new book, "Chicago's Great Fire," then quoting a pair of contemporary reporters: "There was no running of the street-railroad cars, or other of the signs of life which are usually visible, even on Sabbaths and holidays. In short, the day seemed a dies non—a day burnt out of the history of the city."
     Maybe 2020 isn't quite shaping up to be an année non, a year lost by the COVID-19 pandemic.
     But close.
     Walking from Union Station to Harold Washington Library on Monday, I saw flashes of activity. A pedestrian or two in the distance, here and there. An occasional bus. Cars in ones and twos. But it was easily to saunter leisurely across Monroe Street, and the overwhelming effect was of eerie abandonment.  A stage set ready for a city to happen.
     On several levels, COVID-19 is a far worse disaster than the Great Chicago Fire. And only several hundred Chicagoans died in the fire; some 3,000 Chicago residents have died in the pandemic (and, it has to be pointed out, a wildly disproportionate number of Black Chicagoans, who make up 30 percent of the population but account for 60 percent of the deaths). The pandemic is certainly taking longer to unfold. While far more dramatic, the worst of the Great Chicago Fire was over in 36 hours. 
     Now, seven months in, we can't even be certain we've hit the Bad Part yet. 
     To get in the library, you pause in front of a thermal scanner, and have your temperature taken. Then it's pretty much as usual: people at desks, consulting books. Helpful librarians on duty, everyone masked, more or less, even most pedestrians in the street. Though emptier than usual.
     History serves many purposes; it warns, but can also reassure. We've endured bad things before. Whenever anyone suggests that the country has now split in some unrepairable fashion, I want to snarl, "We seemed to recover after the Civil War."
     Or did we? Maybe we haven't. Maybe this is just another skirmish in the endless struggled between would-slaveholders and their unwilling slaves. They even use the same flag.
     The cost of COVID-19, in business and businesses lost, might end up far exceeding the Great Fire: I'd hate to be the guy who had to figure that one out. Smith mentions that 25 percent of the loss to the city was its grand courthouse, and $100,000 worth of water drained away from melted lead pipes. How many businesses in Chicago will never open again, between the plague and the riots? Crossing the Loop, I couldn't help but notice boarded up or cracked windows, empty storefronts.
     But the city stands, which is something. The trains run—this was my first trip aboard a Metra in seven months. The car going into the city had nobody at all on it; coming back, two. The only person not wearing a mask was a conductor—well, he had one on, I'm sure he'd argue, but having it under your nose defeats the purpose. But I felt safe; well, as safe as a person can feel nowadays.
     The library closes Special Collections for an hour at lunch, and I swung over to LaSalle Street, to the Corner Bakery, and had a salad, outside, shielded from the misting rain by a big black umbrella. Occasionally someone passed by, but general LaSalle Street was empty at 12:30 on a Monday.
     Back at the library, in mid-afternoon, after I had about all the historical information I could cram in my mental pockets, I gathered my materials and headed to Union Station, treating myself to a Rocky Patel Vintage 1990 for the walk across the Loop. 
     There was enough stogie left for me to stand for maybe 10 minutes, just southwest of the Madison Street bridge, gazing at the water. I used to like to do that at the end of a long workday day, you know, when we used to spend days downtown. Lila, a big Wendella tour boat cruised past, going north, and I couldn't help but notice the tour guide on the upper deck sat perched on a stool, holding a microphone to his lips, and was saying something to an expanse of completely empty white chairs. If it weren't raining, I might have snapped a photo, but with a cigar in one hand, and an umbrella in the other, it would have taken a bit of fumbling, and umbrella, cigar and phone might have all ended up in the river. So you'll have to take my word for it. But I admired that spunky Wendella guide—maybe practicing?—giving a tour to nobody. 
     That has to be a little grim, but also reveals a kind of fidelity. That's being a professional. We soldier onward, circumstances be damned. That's certainly what I'm doing, here, not talking to empty chairs, of course, but not entertaining a multitude either. Still, work does pass these grim, uncertain days of unnatural stillness and waiting, as the leaves burst into color and drop, and the nation hurtles toward its perilous rendezvous. That's the beauty of routine; it's something to do when you don't know what to do.








Monday, October 12, 2020

Flashback 1992: Don't kill the messenger

Photo for the Sun-Times by Robert A. Davis

 
     My 2001 review of Travis Hugh Culley bicycle messenger meditation drew a comment  damning bicycle messengers, generally. Which made me remember this piece, which I was proud of a) for the lede and b) because we brought the messengers into the newsroom, to the 4th floor photo studio, and took studio photographs of them. I remember the shiver of pleasure I felt seeing them standing among the normals, bringing their bikes up on the elevator.  Now that I think of it, bicycle messenger services are another business decimated by the internet. No bicyclist can ride fast as an e-mail.
     This ran on the front page, in an era when the paper had a different hard news/feature balance than it does today. What's scary is to think of is that the 20-something messengers I quote are now in their 50s. 

     You see them everywhere, but never for long.
     Bicycle messengers, those chrome yellow and hot pink blurs that whistle by your nose as you wait to cross the street. The tattooed, 6-foot-6 Mad Max visions rocking on their heels in crowded elevators. The human motors brashly trying to outrun vehicles with more powerful, metal engines. They are there for a moment, then gone. They are not the easiest people to get to know.
     Which is too bad, since they certainly know you. You are pedestrians, the slow-footed beasts reading newspapers and bumbling into their paths, staring, dumbfounded, unable to make a move to save yourself as they bear down on you.
     "At 5 o'clock, it's like cattle being herded," says Rafael Muzones, 22, a messenger for Cannonball, who nevertheless strives to be courteous. "There are always a lot of close calls. I try to yell beforehand."
     The main question on the minds of pedestrians (sometimes called "civilians" by messengers) is: Do the madly pedaling couriers intend to zip so close? Could it be, possibly, a game?
    Of course it is.
     "You do get a certain thrill whizzing between pedestrians," says Brent Hannigan, 25, a messenger for four years in London and then Chicago. "Especially if they really (upset) me. I don't consider pedestrians evil. But I will whiz by and hiss something like, 'You're going to die.' I don't try to hit them, just try to scare them. Sometimes they deserve it."
Sal Massey (Photo by Robert A. Davis)

     "I really do not like pedestrians," says Sal Massey, 19, a rare female messenger. "They start going across the street, they see you, but they don't move. They're slow, and they get mad at you if you bump into them." 
     Her elbows and knees are covered with reminders of her encounters with those who travel on shoe leather.
     "That's what this is from," she says, pointing to a scar on her knee. "Some lawyer. Probably on drugs. Walked into the middle of the street. He yelled at me, and it was totally his fault."
     Another frequent civilian question is: Why are messengers so loath to come to a full stop at red lights, preferring to balance their bicycles while inching forward? Is it a point of pride never to put a foot on the pavement?
     No. The answer is simple. "Quicker of a start," says Raymond Riley III, 23. Bicycle messengers are, literally and figuratively, people in transition. Most are making their 30 or so deliveries a day, waiting for something else to come along in their lives. "It leaves a lot of time for painting, which is my hopeful career," Massey says.
     There are several benefits to the job. The first is getting to ride a bike, without a boss breathing down your neck. Then there is appreciating natural beauty.
     "Doing a physical job, you feel you're supposed to leer at women," says Hannigan.
     "That's one of the fringe benefits of the job, especially in summer," says Riley.
     It works both ways.
     "Do I check out guys?" Massey muses. "I have to admit, some of the messengers are pretty foxy. I can't say I don't."
     They may view it as a nuisance, but another advantage is food. Lots of it.
     "I eat nonstop," says Muzones.
     "You have to eat as much as possible," says Massey.
     "Oh God, yes," says Bruce Sheats, 40, a messenger for seven years. "Sugar! Chocolate and sugar and fruits."
     The downsides are many. Pay isn't great; a few dollars for each delivery and messengers have to rent their radios and pay for the upkeep of their bikes.
     Beside those sluggish pedestrians, at least 1,000 other bicycle messengers are zipping through the same limited downtown space, and accidents are routine.
     "You get bumped every day, against walls, simple knock-downs that most people would need a week to recover from," says Massey, who was hit by a car last week. Her delivery happened to be to Northwestern Memorial Hospital. She delivered the package, then had the hospital check her out.
     "I don't consider myself tough, but I guess I am," she says.
     Worse than accidents is weather. "Elements are the worst part - the wind, especially around the Sears Tower," Sheats says.
     Then there is coping with bike theft. Sheats has had five bikes stolen, two within two days. Massey cuts herself off before she can utter the entire brand name of her pricey hybrid bike, explaining that she just got it a week ago and immediately spray-painted it black to prevent potential thieves from recognizing its value.
     They are big bike fans.
     "Anywhere in the city you can drive, a bike is a lot better," Riley says. "As long as its not raining or snowing, I'm going to ride my bike."
     "I love bikes," says Muzones, who is a triathlete and rides 60 miles a day. "I ride even after work."
     While sometimes the sole focus is staying alive, at other times messengers can reflect on life and the city they are endlessly traversing.
     "I see a lot of things, I feel a lot of things," says Hannigan, who mostly thinks about his future filmmaking career. "There is the feeling of constantly observing people. I consider myself something of a philosopher who can go into places civilians can't go."
     Delivering messages "is the oldest form of communication, besides people talking," Massey says. "It goes back to ancient Rome, or before. And it's non-polluting."
                                     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 23, 1992

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Flashback 2001: A bike messenger as thinker

     I'm glad that EGD readers were as intrigued with Travis Hugh Culley as I was 20 years ago.  Thursday's introduction led several to say they were eagerly anticipating my review of his book. Here it is. Afterward, we'll catch up with Culley today.

     The modern city has few romantic figures. No cowboys, no knights, no pirates. And darn few fighter aces, Foreign Legionnaires or rock stars.
     The air of excitement that TV bestows on certain professions—cops, ER doctors, lawyers—quickly fades by even the most passing acquaintance with their real-life counterparts, who tend to be older, heavier, and far more sedate than their dramatic Thursday night shadows.
     Every city, however, has bicycle messengers, that colorful clan of oddballs and iconoclasts, dressed in caged helmets and Mad Max body armor, tattooed and pierced, muscled, menacing, blowing whistles as their bikes blast by.
     They are the Flying Dutchmen of the city, solitary, fleeting. As with all romantic figures, the mystery is part of the allure. Who are these people, surging out of the elevators ahead of us, radios squawking on their hips? It's surprising that they haven't already been set upon by anthropologists, now that academics are done picking over the Yanomami in the Brazilian rain forest.
     Maybe that's next. But for now, Travis Hugh Culley's The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power can be seen as an important primary text: a first-person account of a profession which might very well offer the next hot literary genre, replacing mountaineering memoirs.
     Indeed, Culley's account of his adventures as messenger No. 39 for Service First Courier in Chicago bears many similarities to Everest epics: the same tributes to the joy of physical overexertion; the same careful attention to equipment; the same frequent mettle-testing injuries, even the same stiff-upper-lip loss of extremities de rigueur in every assault on the peak.
     "Little pieces of skin hung off the edges of my hands, making them feel like the coarse end of a steel brush . . . ," Culley writes of winter biking. "Occasionally a piece of an earlobe would sting for two weeks or so; then the piece would come off in my hand like the edge of a potato chip."
     Culley's book can't be said to have a plot, other than a series of deliveries (many, many deliveries) and races, tumbles and recuperations. He isn't on a quest, he isn't trying to answer life's big questions, he isn't even really interested in capturing the world of messengers. He's working, trying to get by, and in doing so develops a philosophy of the city and transportation.
     That's the real point of the book. It's a political tract. Which is just as well, because his over-the-handlebars view of Chicago offers no surprises for locals (Lower Wacker is eerie and cool, or was; there are many gritty loading docks and dim alleys). And his Robin Hood band of merry fellow cyclists blur into a hodgepodge of nicknames: Pork Chop and Jimbo and Skull and Bobbo and Crazy Todd. Nobody stands out. There isn't a Friar Tuck in the bunch.
     One problem is that Culley is himself a pure spirit and a pleasant soul, apparently. He happily discovers the courier world to be a near-Utopia.
     "Messengers were highly cooperative, and yet competing against one another," he writes. "They were fighters to the bone. It was a tight society where one could be promised lasting respect and recognition for what one could offer the community."
     Oh, that we were all bicycle messengers. But we're not, and the fact practically damns us. The villain of Culley's book is the automobile, and all the frustrated, angry, joyless grinds who drive them into the city every day from their vast suburban netherworlds, inconveniencing bicyclists.
     In the last half of the book, as Culley takes part in Critical Mass rides—hundreds of cyclists swarmings downtown streets to assert their right to tie up traffic—he develops a vision for the urban future, a twist on the old General Motors motto: What's good for bicycles is good for the country.
     Culley is passionate, though his argument never approaches anything resembling depth. It doesn't occur to him, for instance, to consider that cities were not lovely, easy-to-live-in places for most people before the advent of the auto. He has forgotten his Dickens. Nor does he take into account that a city can have a bicycling culture and yet somehow not be Paradise (I've never thought as much about those masses of bicycles on Beijing streets as while reading this book, not that Culley mentions them).
     But every time I started to fault Culley for not thinking about Communist China, for not honing his arguments, I was reminded of this: he's a bicycle messenger, and deserves credit for looking beyond himself for meaning.
     In fact, I grew to enjoy the book's activism, not as a blueprint for the future, but as a portrait of the strong political passions of an intense young man. In sense, it is the book's greatest accomplishment, the way it captures that passing blend of ego and energy, intellectual curiosity and wet-from-the-womb naivete typically shed by age 30. How can we lose when we're so sincere?
     Culley lives on energy and air. He flashes around on his bicycle, handing handbills to strangers, trying to change the world.
     While Immortal Class is neither beautifully written nor the richest social philosophy, it marks Culley as a talent to watch, if only to see how this sensitive and thoughtful man adjusts to the decades ahead. Could he possibly become one of those bitter commuters he thumbs his nose at now? It isn't the sort of question Culley would ever pause to ask—what young man does?—but it happens to many, to most, even to those who are young and pure of spirit, who think seriously about the problems facing society and offer the world the gift of their freshly-minted wisdom, never suspecting that the world will reward their generosity by shrugging and dragging them down, too.
           —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 1, 2001

     Update: Culley lives in Boulder, Colorado, where he is working on a third book—his second book, "A Comedy & A Tragedy: A Memoir of Learning How to Read and Write" was published by Ballantine in 2015. He describes himself as "an environmental activist, a literacy advocate, and a survivor of clergy abuse." He says he'd like to return to Chicago someday, maybe work for the city. When I asked him if he had any thoughts he'd like to share, he replied, "The alphabet starts with the letter a. Many words do too. All words begin with some letter. They have to. But why do so many people begin so many sentences with No, and so many ideas with N'pas? And yet they hope something productive will come from so many singular decisions to leave one thing out." I think that about sums it up.