Thursday, June 4, 2020

Welcome Prof. Savage's class

Wrigley Building
     Today is a little unusual. Bill Savage, a sui generis Chicagoan—Cubs fan, avid cyclist, hot dog expert, and Northwestern literature professor—is assembling a year-end extravaganza for his Chicago Way class. He asked a group of friends and associates to pick a location in Chicago that "speaks to the essence of the city."
     To just flick a name at him and be done with it seemed the quick way, the easy way, the coward's way. Certainly not the Chicago way, where you help your pals and your pals help you. Manus manum lavat—one hand washes the other. Besides, I was intrigued by the question, so decided to not only pick a place, but remark upon it, here, thus both instruct those students lucky enough to have Bill as a teacher, and entertain of what readers of this blog aren't Russian spambots.
     The Wrigley Building flashed to mind, first, because I've always loved the Wrigley Building, this terra cotta Spanish Revival Beaux Arts hodgepodge of a skyscraper, with its clock tower, glazed ivory skin and nickel skybridge.  I figured I could backform some justification for choosing it: built in 1921 (and, quirkily enough, again in 1924, since the building is actually two separate towers with different addresses) it was always brightly lit, intended to be a dramatic lure to draw business across the river, on what was still Pine Street, because there wasn't much there: a few Gilded Age mansions and the old Water Tower.
    That's why the Wrigley Building hosted a bank and a restaurant and other facilities, to service officeworkers marooned there while the city grew up around it (including, to my good fortune, the Chicago Sun-Times, whose squat gray trapezoidal monstrosity of a building, situated next to the Wrigley's beauty, was described by one wit—okay, me—as like placing a galvanized metal bucket next to a spun sugar wedding cake. Gone now, replaced by the cool blue Marian skyscraper known as Trump Tower, for now.
    I could talk about real estate development and the growth of the city. Redlining, speculation, inherent at its very birth, when Native-American land was platted up and sold off just 90 years earlier in the speculative frenzy that followed the opening of the Erie Canal.
City Hall
    No. Real estate development can't be the essence of Chicago. Something else then. My mind wandered to City Hall and the Cook County Building, two identical, mirror-image halves filling an entire city block, constructed at different times by two different governmental entities.
     Any idea which two? C'mon, you guys need to pay attention. The city and ... yes! Cook County. Bill has trained you well. A massive cube, it speaks of the wheeling and dealing, the way Chicago government has sparked and squelched, led and responded to, constant change in the city. The City Council where the 50 wards gather to receive their slice of the pie.
    Not that either. The first two candidates were inspired by faulty thinking, focusing too much on the "location" part of the assignment. The more I thought, the more "essence" came to the fore. The essence of Chicago couldn't be the Wrigley Building, no matter how twee, nor City Hall. We aren't rococo architecture or shameless boodle. Important, but not what the city is about. Wrigley Field flashed, briefly, but was dismissed for the same reason. Chicagoans love sports. But we are not about sports. It is not our essence.
    And then the choice came to me, fully formed, Venus on the Half Shell, the place that reflects Chicago's birth, entire existence, and life to come. Its past, present and future. The essence, the juice, wrung out and reduced to a dark liquid at the bottom of a retort. The key, as it were, to understanding everything that has happened and will happen here, whether the city will continue to thrive or flicker and fade, as so many cities have,  becoming some vast American Naples where aging men with sports coats draped over their shoulders stand at espresso bars,  squinting into our past, trying to detect a flicker of vanished glory.
     Ready? Wait for it.
Union Station
     Union Station.
      We would sit in the Grand Hall, itself a vast, almost sacred space. It is there—we are here—because Chicago is a portage. That is why Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet paddled here in September 1673. They were returning from their exploration of the Mississippi Valley, heading north to Green Bay, and were shown a shortcut; go up the Illinois River to the Des Plaines, then carry your canoes—in French, portage—to the muddy trickle of the Chicago River. From there up Lake Michigan to Green Bay.
     That act of transfer is the essence of Chicago. From one river to another, at first, then from lake steamers to the rail system that spread out in all directions from Chicago.  When Lewis & Clark set out West in 1803, they left from St. Louis, already a majestic, bustling city, Gateway to the West, while Chicago was a swampy nowhere with a trading post and that's it. But half a century later, with the advent of trains, Chicago, which was not on a mighty river, embraced the new technology, while St. Louis—worried especially about putting railroad bridges across their river—stuck with the old way, steamboats and the Mississippi. Both cities gambled. They bet on the past and lost. Chicago bet on the future and won.
    There's a lesson there, kids.
     Chicagoans weren't enamored with trains either, at first. That's why the station is on this spot, across the river, on what used to be the outskirts. To keep the damned contraptions, which did tend to explode, away from the glory of downtown. The first line was heading toward Galena, a prosperous lead-mining town that was the same size as Chicago when the first track was lain. But Galena, like St. Louis, wasn't a portage either, and so stayed a small 19th century relic known for its fruity wine and its connection to Ulysses S. Grant.
     So why is being a portage important? Because there is profit in being the middleman. If you look at a layout of Union Station, you will see it is misnamed. It is not a station at all, in the sense that it does not sit on railroad lines passing through. It is really Union Terminal: because all routes end here. You cannot take a train through Chicago. All lines stop here, intentionally. There are north tracks, and south tracks, and one little feeder that connects, for moving stock, not passing through.
    Why do you think Chicagoans did not want trains passing through their city without stopping? Discuss.
    Freight was offloaded in Chicago, cars changed, handling and storage fees collected. Passengers poured out of one train to buy meals and gifts, maybe stay a night, then left on another.  Chicago was the nexus where the developed East met the agricultural West. That was enough for Cyrus McCormick to bring his reaper works here, to be close to farmers who bought his threshing machines.  That's why the commodities exchanges are here—because 150 years ago wheat and corn and oats were rolling into Chicago. The first ceremonial train to leave Chicago in 1848 returned with a load of wheat, purchased from a passing farmer. That's why mail order houses like Montgomery Ward and Sears grew up here—because here the tracks went out in all directions, the factories were nearby, and if you were shipping corsets to Los Angeles and New York and New Orleans, Chicago was the place to be.
     That dynamic persisted, even after water traffic fell away. A century after McCormick brought his factory here, Douglas Aircraft started building planes in an old apple orchard northwest of the city. Convenient location. Close to all that steel coming out of Gary. After the war, the city took over the runways, eventually building an airport there, named for World War II hero Butch O'Hare. A plane couldn't fly all the way across the country in one hop in the 1950s, so they'd land in Chicago to refuel. A portage still. If you puzzled over the "ORD" on your luggage tags, it stands for "orchard," one of those little winks where the past shows up today and reminds those who notice.
     The fact this waiting room isn't jammed with people is a reminder that technology changes. Trains to planes, planes to computers and the cloud. A few key battles in the communications revolutions were fought here—the first cell phone call placed by a member of the public was made during a stunt in the parking lot at Soldier Field, by the first company to sell car radios, in 1930, its name a mash of "Motor" and "Victrola"—Motorola.
    A good student doesn't argue the question's premise, but I should end by pointing out that key though transportation is, one vital truth that makes a city like Chicago great is that it has many essences. With an eye to these very difficult times—a traitor and fraud in the White House, plague in the land, the economy cratering, and now civic unrest because the first three weren't bad enough, apparently—we could have met at the Chicago Fire Academy on De Koven Street, built, with a more nod to the symbolic than is common among city officials, on the exact spot where the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 began—and no, Mrs. O'Leary's cow did not start it by kicking over a lantern; that's just a xenophobic calumny that somehow buried into the public mind and became accepted as fact.
     We could have talked about rebirth, about how that disaster and the city's frenzied re-building is what led to our future greatness, and quickly too. The flames burned away Chicago's past and left it with only future.
     We might have met in Hyde Park, on Midway Plaisance, the mile-long street connecting Washington and Jackson Parks. Here was the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, another essence, Chicago as that glittering destination that rustics from Davenport come to witness wonders, a dynamic that was repeated artfully in the construction of Millennium Park. Like the ORD luggage tag, if you go to a carnival midway to knock down milk bottles, you're hearing a faint echo of the Midway Plaisance, which was jammed with sideshows, with Little Egypt dancing the hootchie-coo and the first hot dog stand.
    When Prof. Savage raised this idea, I naturally assumed he would ask me to be waiting here, in Union Station, cross-legged on one of the massive wooden pews, cup of coffee in hand, to deliver this to you in person, after you shambled in, bemasked and bemused.
     But that turned out to be a physical impossibility, as you have already scattered around the country. Which itself might be a hint of where Chicago is going—a source of virtual classes taught by people you never set eyes on about locations you perhaps haven't seen. Maybe that's an improvement. Wherever you go in life from here, keep an eye out for the portages—isn't that what Amazon is? The manufacturers of the world dump stuff at their feet, and they unpack it, box it back up and ship it down the line. The same dynamic with a new twist. Worked for them.
    In closing, Chicago is a gift the past has given us that you can spend the rest of your life unwrapping. I know your professor has, and I have, and if you choose to stay or to return here, like us, you will not regret that decision, or at least not regret it much. Thank you for your attention.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

‘This is my store!’ Loop icon holds on

     Last Friday, Scott Shapiro wore a necktie — an ivory Italo Ferretti with blue dots — for the first time in more than two months.
     “I almost forgot how to tie it,” he said. “It took me several times to get it right.”
     This is noteworthy because Shapiro owns Syd Jerome, the upscale Loop menswear institution. Like many Chicagoans, Shapiro is eager to get back to his old life, which for him means standing at the front of the store, impeccably dressed, greeting customers, helping them navigate Syd Jerome’s fifth and fanciest location, on Clark Street just north of Madison.
     That slow climb back began Friday. That’s what the sign said: “Re-Opening May 29.” The clerks were nattily attired, alert and ready. Carlos Nava went over the windows one last time, wiping every smudge. It seemed a fresh start and not a mere lull between Act One, the medical crisis and economic disaster of COVID-19, and Act Two: all that, plus widespread, ongoing violence following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
     Syd Jerome began in 1958 when Scott’s father, Sidney Shapiro, who by age 11 was steering customers into discount suit joints on Maxwell Street, opened a store of his own, less than a block away.
     Now, during the pandemic, through April and May, Shapiro came into the shuttered store every day. Keeping up with the paperwork of being closed was itself a full time job.

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Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Help Central Camera rebuild.

Photo courtesy of Dave Hoekstra's blog.
     I am not a photographer, obviously. But I like to think I have an appreciation for photography, and photographers, and cameras. Nor am I a graphic designer, but I admire a really cool logo. 
    Two buttons pushed by Central Camera, a wonderworld of old cameras, with rows of boxes of film, and odd ephemera to be expected in a shop now in its third century, all under a gloriously retro cool logo. I loved walking in, noting the glowing green neon "Since 1899." I only went in a few times: curiosity, if I recall, one of the boy's photography class projects, with a friend seeking a certain sort of film, showing off the place to visitors.  The clerks, I recall, were knowledgable and nice.
     So as much sorrow as Saturday's riot unpacked, seeing the smoke pouring out of that little shop touched upon how our current crisis, a dumb beast, tramples on the lives of all sorts of Chicagoans. My longtime Sun-Times colleague Dave Hoekstra says it far better than I could, so I am going to defer to him, and let his blog take over, with his kind permission. But not before reminding you to click the GoFundMe link and give money. I did, and in case you overlook it in his story, here is the link again. 
     Dave writes:

     I was at the historic Central Camera Co., store, 230 S. Wabash on Friday afternoon.
     I waited outside the door to pick up some prints at Chicago’s oldest camera store. My friend and long time clerk Timothy Shaver came out. We did an elbow bump and I gave him condolences towards the recent passing of his mother at age 99. Third generation store owner Don Flesch arrived next. He offered me a piece of candy as he does with most of his customers. He pulled his face mask down a bit to reveal a smile that would never be denied.
     We began talking about the pandemic and all the things Central Camera has survived since his grandfather Albert Flesch opened the company in 1899. World Wars. The Holocaust. The Great Depression. Digital photography.
     And a little more than 24 hours later Central Camera was torched in the downtown riots.
     The store was looted and set on fire Saturday night.

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Monday, June 1, 2020

How could he do it? Riots don’t touch key question

Photo for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin Garcia
     They’re breaking into all the stores. We have nothing on State ...
     The updates calmly crackle across the police scanner, urgent and unceasing. CPD in my left ear, CFD in my right.
     The injured officer is on the west side of the bridge, squad ...
     Saturday night creeps by that way, 5 p.m. to midnight. I’m keeping track, while chewing on the question that set all this in motion:
     How could he do it?
     The question that had to cross every mind — maybe too obvious to say out loud — while watching that video of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneel on George Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes Monday until he was dead. It sparked horror that rattled the nation.
     We need everybody to report to State and Lake, they’re about to set a building on fire.
     But protests quickly deteriorated into violence — a police precinct headquarters burned in Minneapolis. Then in scattered cities. Then in cities across the country Saturday night including Chicago. Watching TV news is like trying to breathe through a straw. Trying to figure out what was happening here as dusk fell, I sat and listened to the police scanner.
     The injured officer is on the west side of the bridge ...

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Sunday, May 31, 2020

What happened to "we're all in this together?"

     Why do tragedies always occur on lovely days? The weather was so perfect Saturday, my family decided to get out of the house, drive over to Riverwoods, picnic on a blanket, walk in the Ryerson woods. We sat on a bench, watched the Des Plaines River roll by, and I manfully resisted explaining how important the river was to the history of Chicago, which began as a portage between it and the Chicago River and never stopped being the vital link between one place and another.
    I'd seen a police station burn in Minneapolis—Minneapolis? I guess these Garrison Keillor cliches about Minnesotans are behind the times—and unrest in places like Louisville and Denver and Detroit. And honestly, felt a little smug. No problems like that in the City that Works. Lori Lightfoot, you go girl!
     But around 4:30 p.m Twitter kept feeding indications that things weren't going well downtown. It was surprisingly difficult to find information. At 5 p.m., the local CBS, ABC and NBC weren't showing news—or maybe they were and I couldn't find it, among Hulu and Netflix and our hundreds of stations.  CNN was doing what it does: reporting on the coasts, sort of.  

    I went upstairs and listened to the police scanner in my office, cops in my left ear, fire in my right. I'm going to write that for the paper tomorrow as soon as I'm done here, so a few thoughts, then I'd better get cracking. On the scanner every sentence seemed a crisis. Calls for help. "10-1," the cop version of "S.O.S." Though information there could be wrong, too. They kept talking about 3,000 protesters arriving from Indianapolis, and no one ever said "On what, 100 buses?" At 11 p.m. they were still talking about it, and sent a police helicopter to the Skyway to keep a lookout. I wanted to yell at the scanner, "C'mon guys, think!"
    The famous outside agitators. The Minneapolis mayor said that all of those arrested the first night were strangers from somewhere else. Then the number became 80 percent. I have a tough time believing that. It's such a convenient truth. What happens, in these cases, is the grip of society—fraying apart already, thanks to our poisonous president, this virus and economic ruin—seems to loosen, that some people convince themselves that civilization has relaxed, the rules are off, and those people go crazy. It has as much to do with the murdered man, George Floyd, as the riots after Bulls championships had to do with Michael Jordan.
     My wife and younger son watched TV, or tried to. CNN was horrible, the commentator—Don Lemon maybe?—intoning over and over how the country is burning and where is the leadership? Both exaggerated and inadequate. It seemed flat and fake and forced. Just tell us what's happening. They had the hardest time doing that. Friggin' TV news, it's like trying to breathe through a straw. 
     I fled back upstairs, listened to the cops chase the protesters around the city. That was the plan? 
     I had a plan. Before Saturday night happened—I'm loathe to call it "The George Floyd Riot" though that's the misnomer that'll probably be stuck to it, unless it's just part of the general chaos of the second half of 2020—I was going to write about The Self-Isolation Choir, which is just what its marvelous name would suggest: a British group of homebound musicians united by a crisis. A friend on Facebook pointed out that they're doing the "Messiah" online at 1:30 p.m. CST. You can find more information at the link here. Sounds fun.
      I'm not sure whether I will have the patience to sit there and listen, never mind the lightness of heart to sing along. Maybe that would be soothing. Maybe the images—from Twitter, and from Sun-Times photographers such as my friend Ashlee Rezin Garcia, who took the imagine on the front page above—will just jumble in my head and the music seem a mere buzzing.  
     Seeing downtown looted is oddly personal; I know these places. I was in Syd Jerome, the upscale men's clothier at Clark and Madison, the day before, Friday morning, talking to its personable owner, for a column on the opening of the city which now will probably seem woefully out-of-step on Wednesday, and is probably mooted by events anyway. Central Camera, "Since 1899" glowing in green neon as firefighters trying to pull the burglar grate back and smoke pours from within on Twitter. Such a lovely shop, all these old cameras, like a museum. The kind of place you lose and it doesn't come back.
     It made me think of a previous riot, one of the Bulls championships. In the cold light of morning I walked up Michigan, assessing the damage.  The window was boarded up at Stuart Brent's, and I went in to see what the irascible old bookseller had to say. I found him just sitting there, staring at the floor in his shattered shop, sunk into very unexpected dejection. So much that I immediately tried to cheer him up.
    "Well at least they were looting books, right?" I said, with all the brightness I could muster. "Stealing books! A higher level of looter..."
     He turned his face up to me, his eyes moist and old and terribly sad.
     "They didn't steal the books," he said. "They just threw them in the street."

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Texas notes: Oyster

The Aegean Sea by Frederic Edwin Church (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
    Our Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey is a woman of parts, without question. Still, today's report ventures off in a totally unexpected direction, as you will see.

     During the summer of 2005 the man I was dating got a phone call. The King of Jordan, who was once a boarding school buddy of his, was inviting him to come for a visit to help support the building of a new boarding school in Jordan. The idea was for the King’s previous classmates to help fund and support the up and coming King’s Academy, which was modeled after the school in the States where the King had spent some of his formative years. Since wives and partners of his classmates were also invited, I was beyond excited to learn I’d be joining my boyfriend on this trek to The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. My ex and I were not exactly a solid couple, though we lived together in his gigantic rental loft in the West Loop of Chicago, and we did our best to make things work between us. Even though he did not always like me — once calling my “histrionics boring and pedestrian” when I was passionately expressing my innermost feelings — apparently there were some perks to my presence, despite what he saw as my somewhat plebeian tendencies. We had almost nothing in common and to this day I can’t quite explain how we ended up a couple, though I remember clearly how it started.
     The first time I saw his six foot seven inch stature adorned in high-waisted hand tailored trousers that seemed to come from a distant and more magical era, and the long black braid cascading down his back contrasting against his fashionably wrinkled white linen shirt, I was enamored. I was not used to such unusual eye candy in the city I’d lived in for most of my life when I spotted him on the outdoor dance floor of Summer Dance on South Michigan Avenue. I discovered that a good friend of mine was there with this tall living sculpture, so we had a chance to meet. He was an odd bird, wildly interesting and intelligent, and I loved it. He was self taught on the baby grand piano placed with a view out of a huge plate glass window of the loft, and would whip out a ragtime hit in between other acts of prowess. I joined him at dinner parties in Chicago and New York with artists and brilliant thinkers, doers and creators, and my life became a French movie. Everything was amber and tawny, we had a demanding orchid that simultaneously could not tolerate too much attention, which was casually and somehow perfectly placed in a pot full of mulch that hung precariously from a giant exposed brick wall. We made tofu with vindaloo sauce and used molasses, whole wheat flour and dark chocolate nibs in the banana bread. Our visitors were the curators of jazz festivals on islands in Europe and famous musicians, poets, actors, and inventors. We once spent a summer working on an art project on tobacco farms in the South where we were taken on a four-seater private plane to an island in Georgia with a pilot who did loop-de-loops while I squealed with nervous joy and my boyfriend and the pilot’s wife screamed at him to cut it out and right the plane. Being in this man’s life opened the world up much bigger than I had ever known it to be.
     It was not surprising that now I’d be joining him on a trip as the guest of royalty. One big question loomed large in my mind: what on earth would I wear? My wardrobe of tie dyed bell bottom yoga pants mixed with funky dancing and club attire would not do. A solution quickly surfaced — a warm and generous woman who lived in a penthouse that we frequented for wine-laced never ending dinner parties on Fulton Market jumped right in. She was all too thrilled to help this comparative pauper become a princess. She invited me over and into her closet, which was larger than most apartments I’d lived in, and started pulling out colorful zigzag designs of Ottavio Missoni and flowing silk and linen garments, and buttery leather designer sandals. She didn’t skimp at all, and outfitted me with elegant jewelry and a handbag too. I was ready to face this once in a lifetime adventure properly.
     As was the case with many big dreams in my life, the expectant picture I held in my head proved to be much grander than the real thing. Don’t get me wrong — riding camels through the Wadi Rum Desert and snorkeling off the King’s yacht in the Red Sea were as wonderful as anything I could have possibly imagined, but at my core I knew I was only a temporary fixture in this magnificent life. My boyfriend and I were not connected as some couples are, like best friends. This was temporary. Knowing that, I felt a bit sad, but more than that I was grateful. The King put us up in Disney-like castles of hotels where the housekeeping staff would sculpt swans kissing each other out of towels and surround them with rose petals placed on our bed until I asked them to stop. We spent the trip mostly apart. I bonded with a woman — another partner of a former classmate of the King — who was to become a dear friend, and my boyfriend got lost in creating his art.
     I never did meet the Queen who was too busy for us, but I did get to spend a little bit of time with the warm and welcoming King and his son. The rest of the trip was spent exploring Petra, the city carved into the sandstone you may have seen in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, floating in the warm thickness of the Dead Sea, exploring the ancient Roman city of Jerash and the port city of Aqaba. We ate lamb and vegetables that baked for hours in huge metal pots that were buried in the hot desert sand, and dug out ceremonially by Bedouin men and women who were hired to take care of us. We sat in tents in the desert, woven rugs beneath us and hookahs and beverages at the ready. We learned that delicious cardamom flavored tea would be continually poured into our little glass tea cups until we shook the cups from side to side, indicating that we were done.
     A week before our trip we learned that three missiles had been launched from the Jordanian city of Aqaba towards a US naval ship in the Red Sea. One missile had landed in the Sea, one in Israel and thankfully harmed no one, and the third mistakenly landed in a warehouse off the coast of Aqaba and killed a Jordanian man. Family and friends begged us not to go on the trip after hearing of the violence aimed at Americans, but we were not backing down and would not be frightened out of taking this trip. The absurdity of war continues to ripple though our nations. Even with the danger that always loomed, I once felt that the world was my oyster and I traveled at every opportunity. For now it seems there is less talk of war among my friends and even in the news. Now a global threat has taken on a new form, an all but invisible organism that is not only keeping us from distant shores but even from travel within our own borders and even from our own families. It’s keeping us away from or warily distanced at civic centers, meeting halls, places of worship and all of the little places we once took for granted — markets, mom and pop shops, libraries, book stores and even our own sidewalks. As distancing relaxes successfully in some parts of the world like New Zealand who has handled this pandemic with clear and sane leadership, we can only hope that even with our hiccups and strange partisan fights we will beat this thing and once again have the freedoms we were accustomed to, or at least some semblance of them, and perhaps with an even deeper sense of gratitude this time.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Trump stomps on his Twitter megaphone

     I believe it is the complaining I shall miss the most.
     The whining.
     I almost added “the grumbling.” But Donald Trump does not “grumble,” not the low, corner-of-the-mouth, suppressed muttering implied by the term. No, his every grievance is an air horn two inches from your nose: “BLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!!!!!!!”
     I’ll miss that.
     And by “miss” I don’t mean, “wish back.” God no. But “notice it’s gone.” That delicious moment when the endless beep-beep-beep of a truck backing up nearby just suddenly ... stops.
     The steady drumbeat — no, drumroll, rat-tat-tat-tat — makes pausing at a single cavil a challenge. While you carefully consider one, three more are fired off. It’s nonstop, exhausting, the drip-drip-drip of norm-shattering psychopathology.
     Did I call them drips? Make that a firehose — high pressure, the nozzle flinging itself about, water jetting in all directions. You can’t drink from it.
     But you have to try, occasionally, despite the soaking. Because some Trump gripes are more significant than others.
     His lashing out at Twitter this week is worth getting water-logged to address. Because it shows just what a nihilistic, “Top of the world, Ma!” ending we can expect should he somehow lose the election in November. No gentle going into that good night, not for The Donald.
     It started Tuesday, with a lie he’s been repeating a lot:

There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent. Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed. The Governor of California is sending Ballots to millions of people, anyone.....
     Republican invocation of voter fraud is itself a fraud. The GOP takes an insignificant problem and pretends it is widespread in order to suppress Democratic votes and undercut trust in the electoral process that increasingly disfavors their shrinking base of angry, fact-averse white folks.

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Thursday, May 28, 2020

New oaks

    “Life," Mary Shelley writes in Frankenstein, "although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it.”
     That elegant phrase the 21-year-old author puts in the mouth of her monster, who tends to speak in "thees" and "thous" and praises life while explaining that only his miserable treatment has prodded him to violence. "Misery made me a fiend," he says. "Make me happy, and I will again be virtuous."
    He's onto something, though I'd suggest it's the other way around—be virtuous and it'll tend to make you happy.
    Either way, human life does sometimes require vigorous defending. Though any gardener knows that botanic life, while perhaps low on the anguish scale—it's not like we can ask plants—can benefit from a helping hand as well.
     Every autumn though this year is an open question, I join my buddies and head to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to cook thick steaks, drink cold beverages, take long saunas, and jump in the frigid lake. No question that our lives are defended in the process.
     Returning, I bring back memories, sometimes Held's deer jerky, though people complain ("It smells like a burned down house," Ross once said, which makes me a little sorry he's becoming a lawyer and not a writer, because that's a perfect description).
    And saplings. A good half dozen. Pines, firs, and, if I'm feeling ambitious, oaks. The first year, I planted them in the fall and they just vanished. The snows came and I never saw them again. The second, I put them in pots and set the pots on the back deck. I wanted to observe what was happening. What was happening, I decided, was bunnies. Because they were fine up to one point in winter. And then they vanished. So we do not know if plants feel anguish, we do know that bunnies find oaks delicious. Or maybe they were just really hungry.
     This year I took extra precautions, securing a roll of chicken wire and constructing little cages around my saplings.
     For a month I gazed hard at those little bare sticks, six inches tall. Scrutinizing their ends—as if we weren't all scrutinizing our own ends enough during this crisis. A bud? No. Maybe? No. How about today? No.
    Then one day, something. I clomped closer, leaned forward, looked close and hard. A very small but unmistakable sprouting.
     "LIFE!!!!" I cried, in a very Dr. Frankenstein-like fashion, arching back and fluttering my hands to heaven. "It's alive!!!"
     Now all I have to do is wait a few decades, and I'll really have something. But I am nothing if not patient; being a writer, you sorta have to be. 
     Until then, only one question came to mind. How do oaks figure into "Frankenstein"? Easy enough to find out.
    One sentence, early in the book: during a thunderstorm storm that our budding teenage doctor watches  boiling out from the Jura mountains. 
     "As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak, which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump."
     If you've paused at the have the lightning "issue from" the oak, remember that lightning comes from the ground up as well as from the sky down. 
     And a good place to end, being reminded that, as T.S. Eliot writes, "In my beginning is my end." Even the grandest trees die, and my happiness at my pair of saplings surviving their first winter might be echoed by some future owner mourning their passing. If there is a future, and if we care about life in it, which right now is an all too open question.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Immigrants with COVID-19 may hesitate to go to hospitals

Francisca Garcia
      What’s worse than fighting for your life against COVID-19 in a hospital?
     Fighting that battle at home.
     With the infection curve finally flattening, for now, and what attention is being paid to the sick concentrated on those in hospitals, it’s easy to forget: people with no insurance, or who are undocumented and fear entering the system, or just don’t know to seek care, are sick at home.
     Not many, relatively. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, only 4 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the state occur in private homes. Still, that’s some 200 deaths since February. Thousands more are being cared for, not by trained professionals, but family members.
     They can’t be counted, but they can be helped.
     For them, Francisca Garcia, a critical care nurse who heads the COVID unit at Holy Cross Hospital, has an important piece of advice: lay on your stomach.
     “For the patients who are awake and alert and able to follow directions, we ask them to lay on their stomach,” she said. “Laying on their stomach helps with lung capacity, increases oxygenation. It’s almost a little mini-miracle when we have patients prone.”
     She said this has become widespread practice.
     “Different countries and different hospitals are starting to do this,” she said. “In the ICU, we’ve been doing this for many, many years. Patients with acute respiratory distress syndrome, an acute phase patients’ lungs go into when they’re very sick. We’ve been doing this for 25 years. With COVID, nurses and doctors and hospitals all over have started trying it.”

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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Flashback 2007: Suburban swine

     A stack of photographs tumbled out from a drawer. Pigs in a garden. Hadn't seen them in years, but I instantly thought of this column. The wonder is I haven't reprinted it long ago. The first item is oddly topical, with the internet allowing us to complain about everything all the time. This ran was back when my column filled a page and had a joke at the end, and I have kept the original subheads and the parting stab at humor.


     My wife and I honeymooned at a lovely spot—the Keeper's House, on Isle au Haut, in Maine's Acadia National Park. I still remember making the reservation, almost 20 years ago. The woman said that they had just one room available, but cautioned me that the room looked out over a dock, and at the end of the dock was a blue light, and the blue light sometimes bothered guests in that room, who complained that the light shone into their window, causing them dismay.
    I said OK, we'd just have to cope with the blue light, as the room was the last available, and we really wanted to stay at the place, a rustic inn made from an old lighthouse keeper's house, with no phone and no electricity, accessed only by the daily mail boat.
     So now we're stowing our luggage in the quaint room, with its mantle and candles and thick down comforter. Evening falls, and we look out the window, and begin to laugh, because the light is this little tiny cobalt blue light, way at the end of a dock, the size of a blue marble at this distance. The thought of someone being bothered by it, never mind complaining, was ludicrous.

     Though people do complain. They get bothered, and struggle like wolverines to make it right, forgetting that, more often than not, they'd be a lot better off if they took a breath and rather than try to sand off the rough edges of the world, instead adjusted their high expectations and repaired their lofty estimation of themselves and the perfection they consider their birthright.
     It was a dim blue light far away at the end of a dock, lovely in its own way.


     And now the story can be told. I've been champing at the bit to tell it, for well over a month now. But my next-door neighbors had not yet moved away—they left last week. And I didn't want to get them into trouble with the pig police.
     Which is an alien attitude, nowadays, in some parts of the Chicago area. Up in Lake Forest, for instance, where Robert and Kathleen Murphy sued their neighbor, Estelle Gonzales Walgreen, because she kept three pigs on her 2.3-acre property.
     The Murphys said the pigs were loud, dirty and threatened their safety.
     Which struck me as a joke. Because, as fate would have it, my next-door neighbor also had a couple of pigs—or so I was told, since I had never actually seen them myself. Never heard them. And never smelled them. Not once.
     And I tried, craning my neck over the nice cedar fence my neighbor built to contain them. I considered asking, "Show me your pigs." But that seemed nosy.
     Then one day last spring, around breakfast time, I blundered out the back door and, gasping, stopped dead in my tracks—there, in my neighbor's garden, which runs along the side of his house alongside my driveway, were pigs. Two big pigs, one pink, one black, nuzzling the greenery. I don't gasp often, but I gasped then because, really, one doesn't expect swine in the suburbs—well, not that kind of swine anyway.
     The first thing I did, of course, was call the boys, who hadn't seen the pigs either. Then I grabbed a camera. Then I knocked on the neighbor's door, but nobody was home. The garage door was ajar, however, and my first concern was that somebody had broken into the garage, releasing the pigs.
     I suppose I should have been thinking about filing my lawsuit ("discovery of said livestock caused an elevated heart rate and other as-yet-to-be-determined physiological conditions...") But really, my central concern was to get the pigs back into the garage before one of the 15 police cars that constantly patrol the streets of Northbrook slid by and my neighbor's pigs got busted.
     Having never shepherded pigs, I assumed it would be a simple matter of tapping them on the butt—with a stick perhaps—and they would trot in the intended direction. Wrong. It was like trying to herd a pair of fire hydrants. The pigs were happy where they were.
     By now, other neighbors were wandering over. One reached the wife on her cell phone, and she instructed us to dig into a tub of popcorn in the garage and use it to tempt the swine back into the garage. We did so, dropping a kernel a few inches in front of each pig. It would notice the kernel, eventually, lumber forward, snuffle up the morsel, and the process would repeat itself.
     It took about 20 minutes—one of the pigs balked—but eventually we got the beasts back inside the garage. It was about the most excitement the street had seen in a long time, probably since a few of us men removed an enormous wasp nest the summer before.
     The Murphys lost their case in Lake County court, and—all together now—are appealing the case to the Illinois Appellate Court.
     "No one wants to live next door to pigs," Robert Murphy told the Tribune. But that is not true—I wanted the pigs to live next door, had no complaint about them except for their reclusiveness, and am willing to testify in a court of law that I was glad that they were there, am glad I met them in their thrilling bid for freedom, and will miss them, and their owners, now that they are gone.


     I looked in vain for a pig joke that could be printed in a family newspaper.
     Failing at that, I noticed this coyote joke by Billy Crystal, which, given the packs roaming the city, is also apt:
     In L.A. we got coyotes in our garbage cans. Coyotes are just like my relatives -- they go out in pairs, they whine at night, and they go anywhere there's food.
             —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 29, 2007

Monday, May 25, 2020

Honor U.S. dead by not making more of them

Pete Stockslager, former Commander of American Legion Post 791, participates in a Memorial Day ceremony. A Vietnam War vet, Stockslager was an Air Force pilot stationed in Da Nang. He served two tours, flew 336 missions, and left the Air Force after six years with the rank of captain and 80 percent hearing loss from the roar of the jet engines.

     Monday is Memorial Day, and I know what you're thinking: boo hoo, no Memorial Day sales, no picnics, no parades...
     Well, dry your eyes. That isn't quite true. Some stores are open—my wife and I bought a washer at Abt a few weeks ago. Yes, the shopping experience is not the unbridled joy it once was. The employees are wearing masks now, more or less. As are we. No jars of Hershey's miniatures to fuel the deliberative process. We ran in, tapped an Electrolux, paid and ran out.    

     And picnics...of course you can still go outside. Outside is right there, where it's always been. True, you can't go to the lakefront. That's rough. And you can't gather your family or friends in groups, at least you're not supposed to. When I think of barbecues at Memorial Day, I think of that joyous moment when the charred hot dogs and Polish sausage are heaped on the big oval platter, the poppyseed buns stacked high in their big circular basket, the superfluous burgers glistening, just in case someone wants a burger, the pickles slivered, the potato salad mounded, the relish, mustards and —judge me harshly if you like but really, give it up because it's tiresome—ketchup set out and ready. People crowd around the kitchen island, elbow to elbow, nose to nape, grins big and goofy, hands shooting out in all direction—plates! forks!—spearing franks, splitting buns, scooping big dense spoonfuls of potato salad and chattering away how delicious everything looks. There's always enough.
    Not this year. Parades are out too. I suppose some could try a social distancing parade, but the just Northbrook Junior High Marching Band, spread out, would cover a mile and take 20 minutes to pass by, "The Stars and Stripes Forever" a thin, disjointed ditty wafting along the scattered spectators, as the horns at Cedar Street try to follow the drums three blocks back at Western.
     So sales ... barbecues ... parades —we've dispatched Memorial Day, have we not? Having covered the holiday's various elements, and can now look forward to 4th of July without fireworks. That will be. ..
     Oh wait. I've forgotten something, haven't I? Memorializing fallen soldiers...

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Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Cave Dwellers

Joseph Mitchell
    Greatness guides.  Or can, if we let it.
    Several times in my career when, facing a dilemma, I pondered what my idols would do in a similar situation. When writing my first book, about college pranks, I wondered whether I could get away with writing the chapter on Caltech's Ditch Day by consulting the many articles already written about the annual event. Or did I really need to try to pry the secret date out of class officials, then spend a chunk of my advance buying airplane tickets to Pasadena and back, plus booking a hotel room, then actually fly to California and attend the event itself?
     I solved this dilemma by asking, "What would John McPhee do?" The great New Yorker writer was always there, up that tree with that logger, or in the canoe cutting through some stream "as cold as a wine bucket" in Alaska. That gave me my answer, John McPhee wasn't phoning it in. He'd go.  So I went to California, and the chapter is far, far better for those select few who have ever read it.
     Or on a more regular basis, if I find myself contemplating revealing something awkward or uncomfortable that I had rather not write about, I remind myself: "If Dan Savage can write candidly  about being fucked up the ass, I can write about ... whatever. Owning eight Big Toe Uglydolls." (Savage is known for being a sex columnist, but he writes wonderful memoirs—"The Commitment," about getting married, "The Kid," about adopting a son. They're honest, funny, and delightful to read). People who win admiration are bold. Be bold. The enemy isn't embarrassment, but indifference.
     Greatness also comforts. I never attempt anything so ambitious that I can actually be guided by the example set by the Washington Post's two-time Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Gene Weingarten. That's would be like modeling your paper airplane after the B1 bomber. But we are both still in the same profession, or what's left of it, and that has to count for something. It's like admiring the stars at night: I didn't make 'em and I'll never get there. But I can look at them.
     So naturally Friday, right after dinner, I stepped out onto our front porch with Joseph Mitchell's "McSorely's Wonderful Saloon," a collection of New Yorker stories, and soothed myself. It worked like a charm.
     Mitchell was so famous for the unproductive last decades of his life, where he would go to his office at the New Yorker and, well, nobody knew what he did, that's it's possible to overlook just how good he was. He was excellent.
     I knew the story I was looking for, though I hadn't read it in many years: "The Cave Dwellers," a reminiscence about when he was a reporter for a New York tabloid in the early 1930s.
     "The winter of 1933 was a painful one," the tale begins, with Mitchell's trademark simplicity. Friday was certainly painful to me, and I'm not even sure why. At every step, I did exactly what I was supposed to do. Yet by day's end I was feeling so ... crappy. Maybe I was just tired.
     A couple had lived at O'Hare airport for nearly a month. The tip had come in from the wife of the couple, in an email Wednesday morning. My editor passed it on to me because, well, I'm kind of the Keeper of Lost Toys. I phoned the woman, like I was supposed to. She made sense. I drove to O'Hare to talk with her and her husband. They seemed what they said they were. We spent, oh, 90 minutes chatting. I had no question in my mind that everything she told me was true. She knew the streets of the old Taylor Street area where she said she grew up intimately. She knew who Oscar D'Angelo was. Nothing was suspect. She didn't seem to be trying to scam me or deceive me. She wasn't looking for anything.
     I wrote the piece Thursday morning, as expected. The part I was most proud of was the end, a sentence pointing out that those getting antsy being at home should be happy they have homes to be at.
    Friday morning the story was played across the entire front page. Credit Ashlee Rezin Garcia's moving photographs for that. The treatment wasn't expected, but appreciated. Every day on the front page is a good day.
    Except this one.
    Then emails started in. Lots and lots and lots. I'm used to emails. But this was ridiculous.
    In "The Cave Dwellers," Mitchell is covering the "human suffering" beat. Murders and Salvation Army bell ringers, breadlines and relief bureaus and evictions.
    "The attitude of the people I talked with was disheartening," he wrote. "They were without indignation. They were utterly spiritless."
     Maybe there was some of that. You don't become homeless because you're so dynamic. That echoed a phrase I wrote several times Friday, trying to explain the couple's situation: "learned helplessness." Some readers wanted to know why these people were homeless. I didn't know what to tell them. Others—most—wanted to help. But how? Where should their money go?
     I suppose I could have just ignored them, just skipped over their emails. Sorry, not my table. I just report the fires, I don't put them out.
    That didn't feel right. That would make me the faulty transmission, the void between the roaring engine of Chicago generosity and the mired wheel of this homeless couple. I didn't want to be that. My first thought was to set up a bank account for them. But I just work at the paper. I don't run it. We have policies. I consulted with my bosses, who reminded me: we don't do that sort of thing, I was told. And that makes sense. Because if we did, we'd slide into becoming social service, all our time would be taken up helping homeless individuals, and no stories would get written. I agreed, and was off the hook.
     And yet....
    "I began to feel I was preying on the unfortunate," Mitchell wrote.
    I was relieved when somebody set up a GoFundMe page. Problem solved. I began referring people to the page. For less than an hour. With each email referred, however, it dawned on me, clearer and clearer—I didn't know who this guy was. It could be a scam. Worse. A scam I was endorsing, just by making the referral. Thousands of dollars had already been pledged. I phoned up the person who organized the page. Our conversation did not settle my concerns. It was almost normal. But something was ... off. He was not a legit person, in my estimation, but someone acting like a legit person. A fine but important distinction. The emails kept pouring in. Maybe he was honest. Maybe he wasn't. I couldn't be sure. I got permission from the homeless woman to give out her email to those who wanted to help, so people could contact her directly. We stopped recommending the GoFundMe page. The couple moved from Terminal One of O'Hare to a Quality Inn, courtesy of a benefactor. The ace investigators at the paper looked into the GoFundMe page. There were worrisome questions, reservations. I won't go into details. We made sure not to recommend or link to the page. I ended up wordlessly forwarding the letters offering support to the wife's email, and to write the readers back, thanking them for their generous inclinations. It took the whole day. Nothing else got done.
     The cave dwellers of the story's title are a couple who lived in a cave in Central Park for a year but are living in an apartment by the time Mitchell meets them, down to their last seven cents, apparently. This is at the height of the Great Depression, another crisis moment in American history. The story Mitchell writes about the pair also goes on the front page. He also is overwhelmed by the reaction. "My box was stuffed with letters and telegrams from people who had read the story about Mr. and Mrs. Holliman, and attached to many of the letters were bills or checks to be turned over to them," Mitchell writes.
     At least I didn't have to deal with that.
     He revisits the couple, trying to give them the donations the readers had sent. The couple is in mid-spree, with liquor bottles scattered about, cigars, gift baskets wrapped in cellophane. I'm not suggesting that my O'Hare couple would respond to support in the same way. Rather, it is the sense of let-down I related to. No kindness goes unpunished. The couple is indignant over a slight error. The husband starts in.
    "You said in that writeup we only had seven cents left, you liar."
    "Well, that's what your wife told me."
    "I did not," said Mrs. Holliman, indignantly. She got up and waver her tumbler, spilling gin and ginger ale all over the bed. "I told you we had seventy cents left." 
     They refuse the money Mitchell has collected, chase him out of the room, throwing a gin bottle at his head as he flees down the stairs. Back at his office, he has to send each donations back to each individual reader. The couple are swept up by a millionaire in a limousine who. takes them to live with him at his farm in New Jersey. But when Mitchell checks on them a few months later, they are gone.
    "I think they left me because they just got tired of living in a house," the millionaire tells Mitchell.
     Life is too complicated to whittle down into a news story, yet we try anyway. Most people are good, most people want to help. I certainly consider myself to be a good person who wants to help. But helping can be difficult and fraught with complications. You can do everything right and at the end of the day it still feels wrong, and you aren't even sure why.


Saturday, May 23, 2020

Texas Notes: Badass Women

     The latest report from EGD's Austin bureau chief, Caren Jeskey.

     We all know Jane Addams (1860-1935), a progressive social reformer and the mother of social work who said “old-fashioned ways which no longer apply to changed conditions are a snare in which the feet of women have always become readily entangled.”
      You’ve probably heard of Emma Goldman (1869-1940) who was an anarchist social justice advocate who said “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things.” 
      You may even know Sissy Farenthold (born 1926, 93 years old today), a human rights activist who was nominated to be Vice President of the United States in 1972 and finished second at the Democratic Convention that year. She said “I am working for the time when unqualified blacks, browns and women join the unqualified men in running our government.” 
     But I betcha don’t know Elisabet Ney. Grab your pipe and a cup of tea, have a seat in your cozy overstuffed armchair and let’s fix that right now.
     Elisabet Ney was a stone sculptor from Prussia who moved to the US and built a modest castle for herself in 1892 in Austin where she could sculpt and showcase her art. It also became a salon where progressive folks sat to share ideas and debate the state of the world. Elisabet shocked her 19th century community by daring to wear bloomers. That’s right. A woman in pants, scandalous! Though kind of makes sense for person who rides horses, don’t you think? Anyway. She also used her — can I even say it? — maiden name. That’s right. The maiden had an opinion and deemed herself worthy enough to express it, including living her life on her own terms. As shocking as it is, there are some brilliant and talented women in the world who have their very own ideas and make their own choices about how they will live their lives. Some even become bad ass sculptors or — if you want to be dramatic — sculptresses, while they are at it.
     Elisabet named her castle Formosa from the Latin formosus meaning beautifully formed. Formosa is now a museum closed due to COVID-19 that can at least be visited on a YouTube channel today. When I first saw this stone castle in the middle of the city during a COVID walkabout I thought “oh, Austin, there you go again.” This is a city of hidden gems. I returned to this magical place in the city time and time again before I realized how much meaning I’d find behind the walls, which I still have not had the delight of entering. On my first visit I ogled the structure with its grand balconies where I could picture Elisabet sitting and watching the sunset after a day of strenuous building. I stood in front of the columns and exquisitely detailed stonework and felt this woman’s power. I sat on the front stoop and enjoyed the view of the carefully tended gardens.
     On my next visit I gravitated along the gravel path weaving through what reminds me of a prairie restoration project one would see along the lakefront at Montrose Beach or around the Peggy Notebart Nature Museum in Chicago, but with Texas live oaks boldly claiming their space in the landscape. I weaved around to the back of the castle and noticed modern sculptures in the backyard, including bright blue felted birds’ nests appearing real on the limbs of a tree. The windows in the back of the castle were too high for me to see into, but I was entranced to find just the head of a larger than life graceful stone woman looking longingly into the distance in one of the rooms, and in the room next to her a solitary man doing the same. I wanted to climb the wall and go into those rooms, but I am sure there were cameras and a good security system so resisted this strong urge.
     On one of my visits two police officers — and I thanked them for their service — approached me and asked me if I worked there, since they were responding to the alarm going off. I said no and we chatted until the true proprietors arrived. The irony of the fact that one of these officers mansplained incorrect information about Elisabet Ney to me was not lost on me. “Her husband never lived here in Texas with her. She sculpted the Goddess of Liberty on the top of the Capitol building.” Wrong, and wrong. I tried to tell him, but he was sure he was right so I let it go. After all, he was the one with the gun, the badge, and let’s face it, the anatomical right to silence me. I’m used to it.
     The plaque in front of the museum mentions that Elisabet had strong opinions, thus was considered eccentric. I guffawed. A woman with opinions? In the South! Well, she must be eccentric. That odd bird. When I read more about her online after this visit I fell even more deeply in love. She viewed the institution of marriage as a state of bondage for women — not to say I think it always is — and is quoted to have said “women are fools to be bothered with housework. Look at me; I sleep in a hammock which requires no making up. I break an egg and sip it raw. I make lemonade in a glass, and then rinse it, and my housework is done for the day.” She went on a hunger strike for weeks when her parents opposed her being a sculptor and not only did she get her way and followed her dreams, but her works are showcased in the Texas State Capitol building today (no not the one on the top, Officer).
     She was an early leader of the Texas Women’s Movement and a civil rights, education and arts advocate. I noticed that diminutively she’s described as “one of a kind” somewhere online. Oh that funny, odd, pants-wearing chick! Haha! She may have studied with the top sculptors of her time, excelled in her art, moved thousands of miles to a new land, learned a new language, built an impressive home for herself and her creations, and her work stands next to the more highly lauded male sculptors of her time, yet she’s called odd and eccentric and it almost seems as though folks found her cute. She’s not cute.  She’s a force of nature.
     I wonder how many men would feel comfortable changing their last names to theirs wives names, wearing skirts even when pants made more sense, being forced to study things that they were not interested in to conform to societal norms, and to be condescendingly called “one of a kind” for expressing their true selves? There are hundreds, thousands, probably millions of us who would walk in Elisabet Ney’s footsteps if we could, and we try. We will continue to try. Maybe one day this world will be equally led by women of strong heart and mind, unafraid to forge unique and powerful paths and will not be considered unusual.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Stuck at home? Try living at O’Hare — since April

Manuel and Linda Benavides at O'Hare airport (Photo for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin Garcia)

     Linda Benavides and her husband, Manuel, slept at O’Hare International Airport Wednesday night. In Terminal 1, near baggage claim. At least they tried to sleep, until 2:30 a.m., when the police kicked them out, again. They went to sleep on the Blue Line.
     Or tried to.
     “There was a party on the train,” she said. “The Blue Line is bad. Drug addicts.”
     Most likely they will be back at O’Hare tonight, sleeping there again, or trying to, leaning against each other, using their jackets as blankets. 

     They’ve slept at O’Hare most nights for the past month. A good place to sleep, Linda said, because the bathrooms are right there. But not exactly pleasant.
     “It’s hard,” said Linda, 65. She said it several times. ”It’s hard.”   
     Why is it hard? Well, the lights are always on, for starters. And the constant looped announcements. “Cover coughs and sneezes and clean and disinfect hard surfaces...”
     Plus it’s cold. 
     “Like a refrigerator,” she said.
     The couple is used to the warmth of Central America. They lived in El Salvador for more than 10 years, trying to stretch her tiny pension from the Chicago Board of Education.
     “The only family he had was in El Salvador,” said Linda, while Manuel, 64, looked on. “He lets me do all of the talking because he can’t express himself that well.”
     They lived in San Salvador from 2009 until April 16.
     “We were helping his mom,” she said. Then his mother died. And the trouble began.

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Photo for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin Garcia

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Flashback 1991: Room 174—a dead end

     An upcoming column required a call to the Cook County Medical Examiner Wednesday. I had a lovely chat with someone from the county, and told her, in my chatty, effusive fashion, that nearly 30 years ago I spent the day with Dr. Robert Stein, the county's first medical examiner—before the post had been "coroner," a political office that rewarded connection over skill, and was filled more by men in derby hats than men with medical degrees. I wanted to show her the article—a flaw of mine, I know, showing off my stuff, but too late to fix that now. I remember being proud about two aspects of this story: first, that I remarked upon the beauty of the young bodies in front of me. That didn't seem a place most reporters would go. And second, that I pointed out that most of them were African-American. At the time, it was considered impolite to do that. But to me, it was required. A problem can't be fixed if it can't be mentioned.
     They all end up here. All the clumsy drunks and the cocky felons; the innocent bystanders and the gangbangers who flash the wrong sign. Everyone who dies in the street, dies by the grim forms of violence, dies alone and unknown.
     Whatever the cause, they are brought to the same address: 2121 West Harrison St. They are brought through the same side entrance to the same room: Room 174. They are weighed on the same big stainless steel scale. A mop and an industrial wringer bucket always wait nearby.
     In this year of violence, when Chicago seems sure to top last year's total of 851 killings - the third highest in the city's history - and could very well break the all-time record of 970 murders, it is easy to fixate on numbers.
     But if you spend time in the Cook County Institute of Forensic Medicine and watch the dead come in, one at a time, the numbers recede. They are replaced by a realization of both the skewed racial mathematics of murder and the shocking fragility of the human body.
     Each evening, the next day's list is tallied. It usually contains between a dozen and two dozen names. The list appears on the desk of Dr. Robert J. Stein, Cook County's first and only medical examiner. For 15 years, he has left his home most days before 4 a.m. to arrive at work by 5 a.m. for a 12-hour day.
     He picks the cases he will handle, assigning the rest to the three forensic pathologists who work with him.
     Last year, 8,000 bodies passed through the medical examiner's office, which performed about 4,500 autopsies when cause of death was in doubt.
     On this particular day, there are 16 cases. Six are homicides. On average, eight times as many black people are murdered in Chicago as white; today, five of the six homicide victims are black. The sixth, a stabbing victim, is Hispanic. It is an average day.
     The rest are car accidents, mysterious deaths or possible homicides, requiring autopsies to determine cause of death.
     People mistakenly refer to the entire building as a "morgue," but in truth, the morgue is the big refrigerated storage area at the center of the building. It can be entered through several tall freezer doors.
     Contrary to popular belief, there are no drawers, no slabs. The bodies rest on gunmetal gray shelves. The shelves rise six high to the ceiling, and a forklift is needed to get them down from the top.
     Some bodies are wrapped in plastic shrouds, or white sheets, but the wrapping is haphazard. The only sound is the hum of refrigerator fans.
     The bodies are drenched in liquid soap, in bleach, but still the smell of death seeps through the rubber seals on refrigerator doors and soaks into clothes. Almost unbearable at first, after a minute it disappears, for a while, until it sneaks up again. It is an unforgettable smell.
     One morgue door leads into the autopsy room. The size of an elementary school classroom, the autopsy room has four stations where autopsies are performed simultaneously by Stein, Dr. Robert H. Kirschner, Dr. Mitra Kalelkar and Dr. Edmund R. Donoghue.
     At 8 a.m., there are more than a dozen people in the room. There are the four pathologists, each with an aide who does the bulk of the dirty work; several police officers, and a medical photographer, who takes pictures of the corpses and closeups of their wounds. Visiting interns from the University of Chicago and other schools, as well as doctors from South Africa and Japan, are also in the room.
     At each station is a corpse. The bodies are inclined on stainless steel tables, with fluids draining into large sinks.
     One body is that of a 22-year-old woman, shot by her boyfriend, who then killed himself. He is on a table nearby. On another table is a bicyclist; at the corner of 53rd and Princeton, he was shot seven times.
     The most unsettling thing about the bodies is that in many respects, they are beautiful - resembling sculpture, young and well-muscled, faces handsome and peaceful, beaded with water droplets from the beige hoses aides use to wash the gore into the sink.
     They look like they should be alive, and, of course, they should be. To gaze on those faces, unmarked, and those eyes, open, and then shift attention to the empty, red chest of the corpse is agonizing.
     Stein's case, No. 388, is a 25-year-old Mount Prospect man. He is dressed only in khaki shorts. On one arm is tattooed a dagger; on the other, a devil's face.
     There are no visible wounds. The only sign that he is not alive is his rigid pose; the deep, port-wine stains on his shoulders and the back of his neck, and his lower lip, which is deep blue.
     Mount Prospect Police Officer John Gross says the man was a drug dealer and user, that his roommates said they found him on the floor in his apartment.
     Cutting open a body is quick work. Stein's assistant, Doug Childress, takes a scalpel and, in two easy movements, makes incisions from armpit to armpit and from throat to navel. A few moments more and the man's heart is being weighed and examined.
     "This is the most important blood vessel in the body," says Stein, poking at the aorta. Lungs, liver, spleen follow. They are cut into slices, and samples are sent to a toxicology lab.
     The head is cut open with a small electric saw, its circular blade the size of a half dollar. "Guy's got a thick skull," says Childress. The skull is then opened with a small chrome wedge. The top of the skull makes a terrible sucking sound as it is removed. Stein weighs the brain and sections it.
     After about 45 minutes, Stein has uncovered nothing. All organs seem normal, and they are put into a plastic bag and returned to the chest cavity, which is crudely sewn up with heavy thread. The skull is packed with cotton.
      The next step is to wait for the lab report. Unlike on the television show "Quincy," which the 70-year-old Stein says is wrong on almost every detail, there are no rushes. The lab report will take up to two weeks. Until then, Stein fills out a temporary death certificate.
     The suburban man's body is returned to the morgue, and case No. 391 rolls into the autopsy room. On the new corpse's right big toe is wired a yellow tag that reads: "Unk. male black." He had been shot in the back at West 57th Place the day before.
     Despite the apparent cause of death, Stein still has to examine the body, murmuring details into a micro-recorder.
     The unknown man's clothes are cut away. A pair of black Air Jordans and a black baseball cap are set aside, near a bloody sponge. The corpse is tilted on its side, the body rigid, like a mannequin. The bullet hole is photographed beside a small ruler. The hole is one-third of an inch in diameter.
     The organs are examined. The bullet is found, lodged in a lung, along with a fragment. It looks small for the damage it has done.
     Stein pulls back a lung to display a pool of blood in the chest.
     "See that?" he says. "This man could have been saved if he was gotten to a hospital in time."
     At the next table, Harold Alexander, a technician for 20 years at the medical examiner's office, finishes sewing up one homicide victim. The body is rolled into the morgue and, 60 seconds later, another one is rolled out into the autopsy room.

     "I've been doing this so long," he says. "Every day. You get tired. You take so much–six days on, six days off. Sooner or later it catches up, the stress builds up. I've quit twice and come back twice."
     To summarize the bodies he handles, Alexander says: "Mostly black. Black male. Young male. Gang-related. Drug-related." In fact, 75 percent of the homicide victims in Chicago last year were black—639 black victims arriving at 2121 W. Harrison.
     Downstairs, near Room 174, Joseph Thomas is compiling the list of new arrivals.
     "We're going to hit the 1,000 homicide mark before year's end," says Thomas. "We're getting six or seven homicides a day. That's a lot of cases. It makes you so you don't want to go out for a drink after work."
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 10, 1991