Saturday, February 29, 2020

Biting into the Big Apple


Basket of rolls at Balthazar

     If I told you that I ordered a croissant for brunch at a fancy French restaurant in New York City and it cost $4.80, well, you wouldn't think much of that, would you? Big city. Expensive.
      So why, when looking at the menu for Balthazar ahead of time, something my family does the way other people look at guidebooks to cities they plan to visit, did my gaze lock on the $24 basket of pastries, which I immediately dubbed the "Twenty-four Dollar Basket of Rolls." I had to order it. I like a good roll, and these had to be extraordinary. At that price, they'd better be.
      They were okay. Nothing that wouldn't have seemed out of place passed over the counter in a waxy bag at Panera. And to be honest, I glanced enviously at the basket of bread given free to diners on other side of us, people not cracked enough to order the pricey basket and thought: "Dumb."
      I realize that a percentage of readers consider the whole fine dining thing is dumb, a scam designed to separate people who have too much money and too little sense from a portion of that money. I hear ya. But the truth is, looking at our long weekend in New York City, while the peak aesthetic experiences had to be the "Vida Americana" show at the Whitney, and seeing Anais Mitchell's "Hadestown" at the Walter Kerr Theater, the swank eateries were right up there. They were a lot of fun, each with its own glory.
    The best thing about Balthazar was the room. It looked like Le Grand Zinc in Paris, or, even more so, a place I loved, back in the day, the old Un, Deux, Trois Cafe at 123 W. 44th Street. I'm glad I ate at Balthazar once, but wouldn't go back until I've eaten at every other restaurant there is.
      Uncle Boons, 7 Spring Street, seemed promising and unusual, just for being a One Michelin Star Thai restaurant. I didn't know those existed. Most memorable here was the elaborate, almost dramatic process required to get in. You can't make a reservation. That would be too easy. What you do—what we did—is show up shortly before the place opens at 5:30. Join the enormous line, stretching around the block. Wait half an hour which, in my dewy innocence, I thought meant we were waiting to get in to eat an early dinner. When I said as much, my older son explained, with a touch more asperity than I might have preferred, considering he was addressing the man paying for all this, that I hadn't been listening to the plan.  We were in line, not to eat, but to be given a time, which turned out to be .... three and a half hours hence. We then repaired to a different restaurant to eat some truly strange Georgian bread concoction involving cheese and a stirred egg in the center and tarragon-flavored soda. Then to the common area at my kid's dorm to play a fun labyrinth building game, which perked my spirits—it had been a long day.
Duck at Uncle Boons
    Suddenly, he got a text. Our table was ready, or about to be ready—an important distinction because once it was "ready" we had 10 minutes to park ourselves at the ready table or it went to the next group of would-be patrons—sparking a mad dash for a cab and frantic ride to Lower Manhattan to grab the table before our window of opportunity closed. While I paid the cabbie, the two boys ran into the restaurant and my wife and I followed. There was still a knot of people in the door, and when we tried to push past—"our table is ready"—my wife said, the woman in front of us snapped, over her shoulder, "Mine is ready too!" But a group left, and when the line squeezed to the right to let them up the stairs, we barreled down through the gap, and found the boys intensely studying the menu as if it were a treasure map.
     The next hour was a highlight. First, I was having dinner at 10 p.m. in New York City, which is life as I understand it. We ate "Heavenly Pig Ears" and sweetbread mee krob, blood sausage, yellowtail and gaeng supalot duck and pork jowl. Dessert was sticky rice and a coconut sundae that reinvented the form. Everything tasted fantastic. It was the sort of place you could only justify leaving by making a solemn vow to return.
     New York interior space is given to weird combinations: kitchens with bathtubs in them, living rooms with sleep platforms. abcV is Jean-Georges vegetarian restaurant inside ABC Carpet, whose prosaic name belies a sprawling pillow and silverware emporium for Manhattan's money set—I think I'll give them their due tomorrow. 
     A large, white room, filled with beautiful people. Friendly, attentive service. None of the pretension radiating off their mission statement:
      "Plant based, non GMO, sustainable, artisanal and organic whenever possible. Locally and globally from small & family farms. abcV is here to serve, inform and inspire a cultural shift towards plant based intelligence, through creativity and deliciousness...." 
    It goes on, but you get the point.
    Oh heck, why not? It's too good not to share in full: "Offering high vibration foods, embracing balance with beauty, wellness, wisdom & love to nurture our personal and planetary ecosystems."

    And liberals wonder why people hate us.
    Like many vegetarian restaurants, they have to be on their top game, and they were. I don't know if "wild blueberry bowl, jungle peanut butter, fresh and dried fruits" sounds good to you, but it did to me, and man, was it. As was the slow roasted beets, dijon, avocado puree, chili aoili and pickles.
Late afternoon snack at Katz's Deli
      I'll stop now. We ate, by my count, in 16 restaurants in four days, from the aforementioned Balthazar to Olympic Pita in the West Village. Two delis, Katz's and Russ & Daughters. We went back to Mizoun in Chelsea Market, whose grilled cauliflower disappointed, last time, so much that I was surprised to see us there again (I am, if you haven't noticed, a very go-along-to-get-along type of dad, trotting after my family as they rush wherever it is they're going, consulted only at moments that require me to take out my wallet). I was glad we returned, because the cauliflower and bag of green beans, salted and garlicked, were much better than last time. Plus now, having gone three times, I'm a regular.
      Talking about restaurants strikes me as running the risk of becoming dull quickly, and if this is, my apologies. Not to mention late, going up shortly after 7 a.m. Saturday, which is not my habit. But the truth is I worked yesterday dawn to dusk, writing Monday's column and diving into an exciting new project I hope to tell you about shortly. So I appreciate your indulgence. One thing I found eating out, is you tend to get what you pay for.



Friday, February 28, 2020

Trump lights a match under the New York Times

Man burning books, by Marco Dente (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
     Sue me!
     Haven’t I always reported the truth about Donald Trump?
     Years before he descended that escalator at Trump Tower, I was pointing in alarm at the loamy soil the GOP was preparing for him or somebody like him.
     “When I look at the Republicans, I am tempted to dismiss them as the Treason Party,” I wrote in the Sun-Times on July 4, 2012. “Seriously, were a band of traitors to concoct a series of positions deliberately designed to weaken America, they would be hard pressed to beat the current GOP dogma — hobble education, starve the government by slashing taxes to the rich, kneecap attempts to jumpstart the economy by fixating on debt, invite corporations to dominate political discourse, balkanize the population by demonizing minorities and immigrants and let favored religions dictate social policy.”
     Once Trump was in office, I tried to explain him in frank, unambiguous terms.
”He is a deeply un-American hate monger, in thrall to the Russians, who is working to undermine the country morally, economically, physically — yanking away health insurance from 24 million people, many of whom are so out to sea they voted for the man,” I wrote in 2017. “That every day he works to undermine the legitimacy of the media, the courts, the idea of truth itself. He’s a liar, a bully and fraud.”

     Those last three words—"liar, bully and fraud" I settled on as a shorthand, a synecdoche to stand in for a much longer list of character flaws. I'd use again and again, as a trope, like Homer's "wine dark sea," sometimes adding "and possible traitor," that "possible" a fig leaf formality, like referring to a man recording committing a crime, arrested with the knife in his hand, as the "alleged murderer."
     But did Donald Trump’s reelection campaign sue me for libel on Wednesday? No, they did not. They sued the New York Times — these Eastern elites, even in conflict they see only each other. As if the Times needs another distinction to go with its 127 Pulitzer Prizes. The Trump campaign claims it was wronged by an opinion piece suggesting the Russians hurt Hillary Clinton’s electoral chances so Trump would roll like a puppy at Putin’s feet.

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Thursday, February 27, 2020

"The kindly genius of the spot"—The Garfield Park Conservatory

Ava Carney's sculptures, inspired by a Lorado Taft quote referring to "the kindly genius of the spot" will be on display at the Garfield Park Conservatory until March 8.
  
      So here's a riddle.
      When I woke up Wednesday morning, I had a full day scheduled, and no intention whatsoever of going to Garfield Park Conservatory.
      I walked the dog, drank a cup of coffee, ate half a bagel, read the paper, hopped on the Metra downtown, never once thinking of the 113-year-old West Side treasure, hidden from too many Chicagoans on the Near West Side, never mind planning to visit. I went to Northwestern Memorial Hospital to talk to a patient undergoing chemo, had lunch with my brother at the always-excellent Dearborn, then got on the Green line and headed to a Chicago Public High School to look at a mural for a future story, never once thinking: ferns, cacti, flowers.
      Yet I ended up at Garfield Park Conservatory, walking gloriously through its changing environments, from desert to rainforest. Any idea how? There is a clue in the previous description.
      That's right, the high school was the Al Raby High School, directly across the street from Garfield Park Conservatory. I finished my business there about 2:15 p.m. It had been over six years—since I did a story on repairs to the greenhouse after a hailstorm broke out 70 percent of the glass. And before that, I think I'd gone once: to see the installation of Dale Chihuly glassworks in 2002. Given that dismal track record, what kind of monster would not go in? It's free (Well, they ask for a donation, recommending $10 for adults, $5 for children. I didn't have $10, but I had $5, so gave them that, thinking they'd get at least five bucks worth of publicity here.
    I spent about an hour, slowly wandering the place. They had five sculptures from Ava Carney, who held the Chicago's Park District's 2019 Athletic Field Ceramics Residency. Though so subtly placed that I only noticed two, which is a good thing. 
    Ancient ferns strained toward the iron and glass ceiling, delicately-patterned ground cover spread before my feet, spiky cacti stood guard. 
    Then there was this pair of jiggly eyes that someone—I can't decide if it was another resident artist, or a passing wag with a pocket full of jiggly eyes—anthropomorphized this out-of-the-way bloom. I paused to admire it. Normally I would be opposed to decorating plants like that, on aesthetic, almost moral grounds—it's like putting clothing on animals. But in this case, it worked, so who am I to argue? It isn't as if the plant minds. Examining it, I wondered if the culprit—prankster? artist?—responsible was thorough enough to have put an eye on the other side of the plant, to complete the pair, but where none but the most vigorously inquisitive would see it. They had! I admired the thoroughness of that.
     The place was not crowded. Not deserted either. A mother and child. An older couple. A smattering of students. The Golden Hour Spring Flower Show is also going on, until May 10, with banks of colorful azalea, hydrangea, and calibrachoa, and some interesting string art displays.
    So quite the thing to stumble upon. It was a great place to sit on a bench, and just gaze. The Garfield Park Conservatory is very conveniently located to downtown: the Green line stops a few steps away. My next visit will be intentional. 




Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Tiptoeing through the moral minefield of the young



  
     Sympathizing with yourself, or with those exactly like you, is not the laudable exercise of virtue that some seem to imagine it being, but ordinary selfishness disguised as morality. The trick is to have compassion for those different than yourself. 
     That’s much harder.
     None of this was in mind last week when an old pal showed up at the newspaper shepherding two dozen Canadian college students: bright, attentive multi-cultural kids bristling with enthusiasm.
     At first.
     Then I spoke.
     In my defense, I had asked my friend: What should I talk about?
     “Just be you,” he replied. Bad advice.
     This being Chicago, I figured, start with corruption. Start with Ed Burke, the lion of the City Council, hauled away by the feds last year for trying to jam his hand too far up the goose that was a bit too slow laying the next golden egg.
     “The scandal is what’s legal,” I said. They nodded. Condemnation is good.
     But finding fault in others, like lavishing sympathy on yourself, is too easy. The media is also part of a compromised system, I continued, influenced by proximity and the need for access. 

     Everything was swimming along. Maybe a bit dull, because my pal offered an idea:
     “Tell them about Barack Obama calling you from Africa,” he said.
     Sure! He had called to complain about something I wrote. I eagerly told the story, blundering into the briar patch of race, gender, and class. I could see them souring, one by one. The more I tried to twist free, to extricate myself, the deeper I sank.       Afterward, a few wouldn’t pose with me for a group photo. As if I were radioactive.
     Later, I asked my friend what had bothered the students most.
     I had, he replied, described women who stood on Cicero Avenue and exchanged sex for money as “hookers.” And newborns scourged by cocaine as “crack babies.” Instead of, I assume, ”sex workers” and, geez, I don’t know, “babies with special needs due to in utero narcotic use” or some such thing.
     The famous “cancel culture” we’ve heard so much about. One strike and you’re out. Big among college youth, trying to fight bigotry by unconsciously imitating its methods.


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Happy National Pancake Day!

Metropolitan Museum of Art
    Today is National Pancake Day, according to the International House of Pancakes, which should know. 
     Although, rooting around online, I see that Sept. 25 is also International Pancake Day, through some alternate system. So two then, like regular Easter and Greek Easter.
     I like pancakes—no big confession there, most people do. Though pancakes can get you into trouble. Georgie V's, a breakfast spot in Northbrook, lets you substitute pancakes instead of toast, a practice I've fallen into to satisfy my pancakes jones without eating too many. Now it's almost automatic, to ask for pancakes instead of toast. But eating breakfast in New York the weekend before last, I asked a waiter who was obviously straining the limits of his competence if I could have pancakes instead of toast. He shrugged and brought, along with my omelet, a huge plate piled with three pancakes the size of garbage can lids. I sent them away. 
      Given the special day, I thought I would do a kind of trust drop into the vault, assuming, over the years, I'd written something about pancakes. Boy, did I ever. The original title was "Quicker than heating them."

     Krusteaz Microwave Mini-Pancakes are silver dollar-sized flapjacks, sold fully cooked but frozen to be prepared in toaster ovens.
     I never gave them much thought, beyond a certain care to position each carefully upon the metal toaster oven rack, as they have a tendency to tilt and slip between the bars, plunging into the crumby nether-region of the toaster oven, becoming ruined.
     Never gave them thought, until now, that is, when, in a moment, they change into a vastly significant emotional totem on par with Proust's madeleine and lime tea.    

     I'm sitting in the kitchen, taking my coffee and scanning the newspaper before my traditional bolt for the train. Ross, 9, enters stage left and invites me to whip him up a batch of fresh pancakes.
     "Not this morning," I say. "I've got to be at the train in 10 minutes."
     He shrugs and proceeds to the freezer. "OK," he says, removing a blue plastic bag of Krusteaz. "I'll eat these." He takes one from the bag. "I'll have the first one frozen."
     He begins to eat the frozen disc.
     "Stop!" I yell, leaping to my feet. "You can't do that!"
     I have reached the age of 44 years without the concept of eating frozen pancakes ever crossing my mind, and it seems like a gross violation of our middle class norms, akin to shooting heroin.
     "Mom lets us," he explains, having been joined by Kent, 7, who helps himself to the bag.
     My life is dissolving around me.
     "Honeeeeeeeeeey!" I call, in a reedy, adenoidal whine, bounding up the stairs to the bedroom. "Do you let the boys eat frozen pancakes?"
     "Just the one," she says, as if quantity is the issue. I open my mouth to reply, but how can I articulate what I am trying to do? What my life is all about? To fight with all my strength against the sucking hellmouth of exhausted lower middle class existence, of resisting the inclination to pack the kids off to school in sweatpants and stained T-shirts, a rim of jelly around their lips, of my wife shuffling around the house all day in her frayed pink bathrobe, dropping glowing ash onto the carpet while I sit on the front porch in my underwear drinking Fiesta Scotch out of a Flintstones glass.
     I can't muster a word; she delivers the coup de grace.
     "Don't you remember, Elaine used to do it."
     Elaine is the beautiful, poised, teenage daughter of our best friends, whose lives are so grounded in sophisticated good sense and rational living that I can never quite fathom why they spend time with a pack of flailing lunatics such as ourselves. Frankly, I sometimes worry that they do out of some kind of Christian mission—that their church encourages them to befriend dysfunctional families.
     Defeated, retortless, I wander downstairs, back into the kitchen. And here is the odd part. I feel happy—happier than I have in weeks of head-in-a-vise tension and pit-of-the-stomach anxiety, the tarantella of work and writing and phone calls and crap. I relax, smile, and let go of my dream. We are never going to be the type of people who drive new cars or wear thick expensive sweaters or live in a clean house. We are going to wade through piles of soiled laundry, kicking aside garbage, shouting at each other as we dig around in the cluttered freezer for our next mouthful of frozen pancake.
     And I'm OK with that.
     I notice a Krusteaz pancake on the floor and bend down to pick it up. I hold it to my nose, draw in its pleasing, chilly vanilla wafer smell, and nearly pop it into my mouth and begin chewing. Instead, I toss it into the sink.
     We do not eat off the floor. Not yet, anyway.

Closing shot

     Later, at the office, in the editorial board meeting, I recount my pancake adventure to a colleague, a bit of that solidarity-building I normally fail so miserably at. I finish and sit back, waiting for her reciprocal confession, for her to laughingly admit some similar domestic failing—letting her toddlers suck on bricks of frozen peas perhaps.
     Her response—though you see it coming, don't you?—shocks me.
     "I wouldn't let those in my house," she says, narrowing her eyes in disgust and shivering at the thought.
     Desperate to find some way to elevate my status after my unwise admission, I say, "For years, I wouldn't let my wife buy that bagged lettuce."
     "Of course not," my colleague snaps, shaming me into silence. "It's not as fresh."

       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 22, 2004

Monday, February 24, 2020

The last thing you ever need to read about Rod Blagojevich

Whitney Museum
     If I must ....
     But really: Does Rod Blagojevich require explaining? Is it not abundantly clear? Do we have to belabor the obvious?
     When news broke last Tuesday that our nation’s No. 1 corrupt egomaniac, Donald Trump, had granted clemency to Illinois’ imprisoned corrupt egomaniac, Rod Blagojevich, I was talking to a group of college students who stopped by the paper — I have a column worked up about that discomfort, but it’ll have to wait, since the public is clamoring for more Rod.
     ”Nada on ... the sprung grey-haired guv?” challenged a regular reader, one of a number to inquire. “What gives?”
     What gives is the latest act of a sad and tawdry long-running tragi-farce, a dismal freak show starring the animate political corpse of our former governor who, in fine chicken-with-its-head-cut-off style, emerged from distant confinement to run in circles around the media spotlight, emitting horrid wet, sputtering semi-clucks out of its stump of a neck.
     We should turn away in revulsion. But reporters are jostling at the brimming trough for their interchangeable exclusives. Not to blame them. It’s in the blood. As I stood at the city desk, blinking at the news, my editor asked if I wanted to opine. I didn’t. Analyzing Blago is like doing color commentary for a coin toss. But the fire bell rings, the old engine horse stirs from its straw.
     Two minutes later I was back in my office, consulting Kipling to remind myself which self-serving bromides Blagojevich was sure to spout, when my boss ambled over and observed that my colleague Mark Brown was already on the job.


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Sunday, February 23, 2020

Flashback 2003: Bernie Neistein, 87, former state senator

Bernie Neistein
     Two memories of the late State Sen. Bernie Neistein, who popped up in yesterday's post about Nate Perlstein. First we are sitting in big chairs the lobby of the Carlisle, a fancy Gold Coast condo. He has a cigar in his mouth but isn't smoking it, and is giving me the lowdown on politicians.
    "They're all crooked, all of 'em," he says, jabbing a thick finger in the air for emphasis. And then stops, a realization dawning, a smile breaking out in his jowly face. 
     "Except Paul Simon!" he adds.
     I loved that. The second, he's invited us to hear him play violin at the Loop synagogue. It didn't seem an invitation that one turned down, so Edie and I show up to hear him play. He plays, there are bagels and lox involved. That's it.
     This obit is a reminder that while Republicans might be refining corruption to an art form, they certainly did not invent it.

     What was state Sen. Bernie Neistein like? When a city worker who lived in Mr. Neistein's precinct, along with his wife and mother-in-law, all made the mistake one election of voting for a Republican, Mr. Neistein didn't just stop after having the man fired.
     "I bought the two-flat they were living in and watched as the guy and his wife and their kid and her mother were thrown out on the sidewalk," he told a reporter in 1999. "Later, I sold the building at a $500 loss. It was worth every penny."
     Mr. Neistein, 87, the last of the West Side Machine bosses, a man who grew wealthy doing exactly what the Democratic Machine wanted, died Friday at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
     For the last several decades, he was a colorful, even beloved figure on the Chicago scene—a gravelly voiced, cigar-chomping, homburg hat-wearing old pol telling tales of political mud fights. He also was a professional-quality violinist and a contributor to several charities.
     His persona largely effaced his earlier reputation as absentee West Side slumlord who ran the 20th Ward as his "personal plantation."
     "He had the biggest heart of anyone I know and did more for more people than anyone I know," said his nephew Norman Berger. "I do know that until the moment he took his last breath, he was a loyal and committed Democrat and believed strongly in the principles of the Democratic Party."
     There were also allegations that Mr. Neistein was the mob's front man in Springfield, as he made a fortune buying up real estate in the path of the proposed Eisenhower Expressway and didn't care who knew it.
     But he never went to jail.
     The only official censure he ever got was in 1989, for giving a $10,000 loan to Judge Reginald Holzer. Holzer was sentenced to 18 years in prison for that and other convictions related to the Greylord probe. Mr. Neistein's law license was suspended for 30 months.
     "He did so much for so many people in making the city great that while people may have written articles criticizing him, that completely takes the focus off the greatness of this man," his nephew said.
     He was born Bernard S. Neistein on the West Side on Aug. 15, 1916. His father was a Russian-Jewish tailor.
     He graduated from Marshall High School in 1932 and received his law degree from DePaul University Law School in 1937. At age 20, he was the youngest DePaul Law graduate up to that time, his family said. World War II interrupted his career—he served for two and a half years in the U.S. Army in Europe and was known for smuggling kosher salami and sharing it with the troops, according to his nephew.
     He became a bailiff in Municipal Court in 1954, and two years later he ran for state representative in the 16th District and won. He later became a state senator for 16 years.
     In the early 1970s, political reformers challenged Mr. Neistein's lock on the West Side.
     "The 29th Ward, in the middle of the decaying West Side, has been the personal plantation of former state Sen. Bernard S. Neistein for 13 years," began a 1973 article in Chicago Today. "As Democratic committeeman, he has controlled both parties in the ward as well as jobs and votes."
     But his daughter Evaly Jerome described him as a "very gregarious man, very warm, funny, generous and loving father and grandfather."
     Survivors also include five grandchildren and two older sisters.
     Services will be at 10 a.m. today at the Weinstein Family Services, 111 Skokie Blvd., in Wilmette. Burial will follow in Waldheim Cemetery, 1400 Des Plaines Ave., Forest Park.
               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 5, 2003

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Flashback 1993: A Star in PR—Perlstein an Old-Style Success

Nate Perlstein, left, and Sen. Bernie Neistein at the Cambridge House in 1993.
(Photo by Robert A. Davis, used with permission)
     Before I snapped a photo of the filing cabinets in my closet for yesterday's column, I did pause, and consider whether. should whisk away the Marilyn Monroe pin-up that has been there, gee, forever, so as not to get caught up in the jaws of some kind of unimaginable social media blowback over a 70-year-old slice of cheesecake. But I decided that was being skittish. The photo is tame, relatively, and I should take the risk. Only one person remarked upon it out—my old pal Bill Zwecker, noting he had the same copy, and we both got it from the same person: the late, great publicist Nate Perlstein. Which inspired me to dig up this profile I wrote about him, 27 years ago. Perlstein died in 1995. Neistein died in 2003. He was also a character; I think I'll print my eye-opening obituary of him tomorrow. The Cambridge House, at Ohio and St. Clair, closed in 2006. It's a different world.

     The Pucci suits have held up well. Red and white plaid elbows that once jostled celebrities in Booth One, bold linings once glimpsed by hotshots at the Chez Paree hide the decades nicely. Quality tailoring will do that.
     And Nate Perlstein, owner of the pricey suits, plus the white loafers, and the flashy pocket squares, and even a few silk ascots, is doing nicely, too. His legs aren't what they used to be, say when he was 80, so he no longer walks the 10 blocks from his Lake Shore Drive apartment to his office. 
But Perlstein, at 85, still gets around. As the oldest full-time publicist working in Chicago, if not the country, Perlstein makes his daily rounds, seeing old friends, subtly and not-so-subtly promoting clients, and in general holding the banner for a winking, handclasping, tell-'em-Charlie-sent-you world that once dominated Chicago business.
     At his age, a routine is vital. Every weekday about 4 a.m. Perlstein does stretching exercises—leg lifts, arm lifts. Gets the blood going.
     By the time he has showered and dressed—today a beige cashmere jacket, checkered slacks, a sweater vest—the sun is peeking over the lake.
     His living room is small but with a lot of history. Two framed montages of black and white publicity photos of Perlstein with all the greats: Danny Kaye, Eddie Cantor; Jane Russell, Cary Grant, Bob Hope. They clown in ways that celebrities never do today. There's Perlstein wearing an Indian headdress, a Tyrolean hat, a Hawaiian shirt. All the bottles in the pictures are Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer. Perlstein represented Pabst for decades. Coined the slogan "What'll you have?"
    It's 7 a.m. Perlstein is out the door. Someone is waiting for him next door, at 1040 N. Lake Shore. The Carlyle.
     There in the elegant lobby, settled quietly in a chair, waiting for Perlstein, is retired Sen. Bernie Neistein. A big shot. Everything about him says it—the big cigar, unlit, never leaving the mouth. Big gold Rolex. Big cufflinks. Monograms on the cuffs, rings on the pinkies. This guy is big.
     Usually they are joined by Kup, but today he phones his apologies. A cold.
     The Cadillac appears outside. A black Coupe De Ville. No one is in a hurry. Eventually they drive to the Cambridge House on Ohio Street. The senator parks right under a "Tow Zone' sign. Big. They sit at the counter. They don't order. Food just comes. Perlstein has oatmeal. The senator, a melon with lemon.
     Nine a.m. The senator drops Perlstein off at the corner of Michigan and Wacker. Perlstein walks into Paul Harvey's eye-popping suite of offices like he owns the place. The staff says hello. The famous radio broadcaster rises to greet him.
     They are the oldest of friends. As they talk, Harvey, without missing a beat, takes a comb and straightens Perlstein's unruly hair.
     "Every day it seems we have something of substance to discuss," says Harvey. Perlstein would never—he points out, never—take advantage of a friendship, but sometimes what he has to say ends up on Harvey's show. It is the way public relations used to work.
He is coy with Harvey, but Perlstein knows how to pitch a story when necessary.
     "He pushes," says another radio friend, Orion Samuelson, WGN's farm reporter. "He doesn't let go. He can push pretty hard."
     Perlstein was born in 1908 on the Near Northwest Side, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. As long as he can remember, Perlstein wanted to be a publicist.
     "All my life, I had a feeling about being creative," he says. "I would see an ad, and I would come up with a better idea."
     Perlstein got his break at the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition, convincing Walter Winchell to ride to the Pabst Blue Ribbon Casino in a horse-drawn surrey. It took a bit of, umm, truth management to pull it off.
     "They weren't going to let the surrey into the fair," says Perlstein. "I said, 'Do you know who that is in there? It's Walter Winchell, and he's on his way to meet the president of the United States.' They let him in."
     For 17 golden years, Perlstein lived in the Ambassador West Hotel when he wasn't circling the world, squiring big-name talent hyping Pabst beer. He lunched with Cary Grant. He drove Al Jolson around in the Cadillac convertible that Perlstein kept on the West Coast for just such a purpose.
     "He was like a cult figure in our family," says his nephew, Michael Perlstein, of his lifelong bachelor uncle. "He was the guy who would bring you a magic set, something unusual. Uncle Nate was always traveling. He was in Europe. He was in Hawaii. He was here, there and everywhere and always with a couple of showgirls on his arm."
     There are too many stories to tell. Perlstein arranging for Marilyn Monroe to pose for a 1950 Pabst calendar, which led to her appearing in Playboy. The time Groucho Marx got an actor into a card game so he could go out with the guy's wife. How Tallulah Bankhead once auditioned to announce New York Giants baseball games, using a salt shaker as a mike while she described an imaginary game.
     The present is less colorful, but by no means harsh. Perlstein has an office at Porter/Novelli, with a view of the NBC Tower. He does pro bono work for charities, and Porter/Novelli gives him work as a consultant.
     The Cadillacs are gone. The starlets who once held his elbow are grandmothers, or gone. But Perlstein is still very much here. He has a job, and friends, and wouldn't dream of retiring. He loves his life too much for that.
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 26, 1993

Friday, February 21, 2020

Filing cabinet files: Not all is up in the cloud

Despite technology, filing cabinets are still great for
stashing stuff. And for displaying Miss Blue Ribbon
 1950, as portrayed by a young actress named
 Marilyn Monroe
     In the closet of my office at home are a pair of twin beauties: two tall, black, four-drawer HON filing cabinets, stuffed with a vast accumulation of material from past decades: press releases, clips, letters, notes, photographs, blueprints, even a baseball.
     Last November, either digging something out or jamming something in, I had a thought: filing cabinets. Now there’s an industry you just don’t see analyzed in the paper much. I wonder how the whole computer situation affects their business. Are all our files up in the cloud now?
     Only one way to find out.
     “Dear Ben:” I wrote to Benjamin Daufeldt, marketing manager at The HON Company in Muscatine, Iowa. “This is the slowest pitch, straight down the pipe, that you’re ever going to get...”
     I introduced myself, then cut to the chase.
     “I want to write a column on filing cabinets in general and HON in particular. ... I’d like to talk to somebody at HON next week about filing cabinets, and perhaps visit your showroom at the Merchandise Mart.”
     Daufeldt got back to me quickly. I had reached out at a bad time.

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Thursday, February 20, 2020

Sign of the times



     There is a first time for everything.
     For me, the first inclusive construction sign, "MEN AND WOMEN AT WORK" was spied last Sunday on a hoarding around a new building going up at 60 Charlton Street in Soho, next to the Four Points Sheraton we were staying at.
     Of course.
     Female construction workers are still a rarity: 3.4 percent, according to The Institute for Women's Policy Research, though that rises to 1 in 10 if you consider back office and administrative roles in the construction rate.  Women, perhaps surprisingly, enjoy more equity in construction, being paid 94 cents for every dollar earned by a man (compared to 81 cents on the dollar generally).
    The signs were introduced in September, 2018, by Plaza Construction as part of their "female-friendly initiative," according to the New York Post.
   I like the signs because they are an example of positive usage: trying to change attitudes by changing your own behavior, rather than hectoring others to change theirs. I assume Plaza Construction doesn't go around yanking down less enlightened "Men at Work" signs. 
    Speaking of the new building, it inspires a funny moment when we first checked in. The clerk gave us a room on the 16th floor. We went to it, set down our bags, opened the curtains, and saw four construction workers, at eye level, on a scaffolding 10 feet away. My wife waved at them. One waved back.
    The room was loud. My wife and I looked at each other, picked up our bags, and went back downstairs and asked for another room. The Four Points clerk was very nice about it, and gave us a room on the 20th floor, on the opposite side of the building. We went up to that, dropped our bags, and realized that it was far, far louder than the first room had been. 
     "But this is the last time," I told my wife as we went downstairs. The Four Points clerk was, again, incredibly nice returning key cards to the first room to us. Now it seemed much quieter, by comparison, and noise never bothered us. We slept like babes.


Wednesday, February 19, 2020

New York City reminds us what made America great: immigrants

"American Tragedy" by Philip Evergood

     New York City is crawling with immigrants. My wife and I popped into town for a long Valentine’s Day weekend and let me tell you: foreigners everywhere. From the moment we hopped into a cab at the airport — “I’m a tall man!” the driver laughed, in a thick accent, as I tried to jam myself in the seat behind him — to our last breakfast Monday morning at an Italian bakery on Bleecker Street, the American values that our president lauds and his supporters venerate are corrupted by alien cultures. Thank God.
     Our older son suggested we meed him at Jing Fong — Chinese, don’t you know. The first of 16 eating establishments visited over four days. Of those, 15 were ethnic — French, Jewish, Ukrainian, Georgian, Thai — a whirl of flavors and dishes, from pate to pig’s ears, fare likely to strike terror into certain sheltered red, white and blue hearts.
     While the food at Jing Fong was excellent, the enormous dining room was almost empty. Maybe because it was 3 p.m. But Chinese restaurants and Chinatowns across the country are seeing a drop in business, due to fear of the coronavirus. A laughable concern, but far above most fears related to outsiders, since there actually is a coronavirus. Not a rational reason to avoid a Chinese restaurant, but then I’ve never heard rationality lauded as one of the cherished American ideals we are trying to recover in our return to greatness.
     We slid over to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. In 1988, a pair of women looking for a building to showcase the torrent of immigrants into New York stumbled upon 97 Orchard Street, an 1863 tenement that had sat empty for more than 50 years; cited for fire code violations in 1935, the owner chose to evict rather than renovate.
     We signed up for the “Hard Times” tour of rooms that belonged to the Gumpertz family, Jews who came here from Prussia in 1873, and the Baldizzis, immigrating from Italy in the 1920s. Neither family were what Donald Trump would call “the best people.” Both received public aid. But they lived and loved and struggled toward middle class comfort, symbolized by the faux broadloom rug in worn linoleum on the Baldizzi kitchen floor. Heartbreaking.


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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Manhattan Interlude #5: City's quirky offerings can't be beat



The Strand sells more than books, such as these life-size Trump hands. As to why they come in black, a mystery.
    All good trips must come to an end. We had a blast in NYC, returning late Monday afternoon. I'm going to do a few New York Diaries about some of the (hopefully) more interesting angles of the visit. But rather than try to grind out the first one now, I've got one more chestnut to share, a late '90s shopping spree. A lot has changed since then.  Maxilla & Mandible went out of business in 2011; Balducci's closed their flagship in 2003. Asprey took a bath in their Trump Tower location: having spent $40 million to build their "dream flagship" in 2001, by 2006 they had to pay Trump $25 million to break their lease and flee. The Strand, thank God, is doing better than ever: their "Eight Miles of Books" is now "Eighteen Miles of Books" and the place was jammed when we visited Friday. Forbidden Planet is also still hopping, right next door. And the Firefighter's Friend store changed its name to NY Firestore and moved to 17 Greenwich Ave., and its web site is still up and running.

     NEW YORK—Try buying a human brain in a jar at your local Gap. Or a $75,000 pair of malachite champagne coolers at the corner jewelry store. Or raspberries infused with vodka at the neighborhood White Hen.
     While it is true that some of the excitement of shopping the Big Apple has cooled a bit now that Chicagoans can browse Saks Fifth Avenue or Bloomingdales or Barneys without ever leaving the 312 area code, not every emporium New York offers has found its way west, yet. The visitor to Manhattan should take time to seek out the unique and the extraordinary.
     "New York still has a good selection of weird shops," said Henry Galiano, owner of Maxilla & Mandible Ltd. (451 Columbus Ave.), an Upper West Side boutique offering a human brain in a jar ($495) and other curiosities of the natural world, from a Mars rock ($3,200) to coyote skulls ($75) and human finger bones ($6 apiece).
     The store, whose name means, roughly, "upper and lower jaw," is the brainchild of Galiano, who once worked across the street at the American Museum of Natural History. He opened Maxilla & Mandible 13 years ago and gets a lot of tourists who wander in on their way to the museum. (Most asked question: Where do the human remains come from? Answer: old medical collections and other legal sources).
     "They're usually floored, just by the selection—the strangeness," he said. "Most people never see these things, so they're stunned." 
     If your tastes run more to luxury than to the macabre, you might want to visit Asprey, the British jewelry store and home to swank gifts, located on the ground floor of Trump Tower (725 Fifth Ave.).
     OK, maybe the $115,000 18-karat yellow gold, mother of pearl, jade, sapphire, ruby, emerald and diamond "Tutti Frutti Clock" might blow the old vacation budget for the next century. But it doesn't cost anything to look—and your only other chance is in Beverly Hills or London.
     And if you have to buy something, there are a few lower-end items, such as the sterling silver dog bowls or the popular $65 leather desk signs—Asprey is famous for its leather department±with Trump-like sentiments such as "It CAN Be Done" designed to inspire the corporate titan in your life.
     People used to bring fresh bagels back from New York, back in the dark days when a good bagel was hard to find. Now, with a bagel shop on every corner of Chicago, finding unique New York foodstuffs can be tougher. Unless you go to Balducci's (424 6th Ave. between 9th and 10th), the Italian-accented specialty food store.
     Homemade pastas and breads (try the Napoleon olive bread or the focaccia), calzones, homemade sauces and pastries, fruits packed in liquors from Lombardy (at the holidays) make the Greenwich Village landmark worth a visit.
     "We have tourists who come in all the time, most of time looking for something with the Balducci's label," said Emily Balducci, granddaughter of the original owners. "Mamma Balducci's Balsamic Vinegar. T-shirts, aprons. Useful stuff."
     A brief stroll east is the Strand (828 Broadway), which boasts eight miles of books, both new and used, and across the street from that, Forbidden Planet (821 Broadway), a general comic book/robot/toy store, dwarfs the boutiques to be found in Chicago.
     If you're looking for a souvenir of your trip that is a cut above the typical Times Square bronzed Empire State Building thermometer, go to SoHo and stop by Firefighter's Friend, which offers an array of T-shirts, caps, toys, puzzles, patches and pins, all about fire-fighting. A genuine New York City firefighter's coat costs about $250; a helmet, about $200. But some items only cost a few dollars.
     Of course, the Internet is changing things. There is a Firefighter's Friend Web site if you want to cheat and just pretend you visited New York (www.nyfirestore.com).
     We won't tell.

         —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 29, 1998

Monday, February 17, 2020

Flashback 2006: So much presidential trivia, so little time to shop

      
    The grim morning after Donald Trump was elected in 2016, I had a thought that is at the same time strange and entirely understandable: "Now he's always going to be on presidential placemats." Meaning the range of comforting, familiar faces will be joined by a man vastly below them, a weird and loathsome figure. Will Donald Trump ruin presidential trivia? Will history soften his stark reality? Maybe that depends on whether Trump is a sui generis exception—an outlier, the lone liar, bully and fraud boosted into office by a big push by his Russian pals. Or just the beginning of worse to come. 
     Back in 2006, before we knew what lay ahead, good and bad, I had fun splashing around in presidential history. Back then, my column was an entire page, ending with a joke, and I've kept that format. 

Happy polidays!

     Today is Presidents Day. Another political holiday (dare we call it a "poliday"?) where people grab the day off but shun the spirit: in this case, to honor the 42 men—alas, only men, so far—who have been president of the United States.
     If you are sharp-eyed, you may have puzzled at the "42" in the paragraph above. Is that right? Isn't George W. Bush the 43rd president? How can he be the 43rd president if we've only had 42 presidents?
     The answer (I apologize to those who already know) is that Grover Cleveland was both the 22nd and the 24th president. He was elected in 1884, served a term, lost to Benjamin Harrison, then regained the White House.
     That odd fact notwithstanding, Cleveland is your average, ordinary, send-one-up-from-Central-Casting president. Not great, like Lincoln or FDR, not lousy, like Grant or Harding. Just so-so. But even Cleveland is worth celebrating this Presidents Day, his career offering valuable insights into our own prudish, prying time.
     Cleveland ran for his first term on a platform emphasizing his honesty and integrity. The summer before the election, a Buffalo newspaper accused Cleveland of fathering an illegitimate child, which indeed he had.
     The Republicans, naturally, had a field day; "Ma, ma, where's my pa?" was their memorable chant. But Cleveland, in a move that should be taught in every public relations class, instructed his handlers "Tell the truth," fessed up to the baby, and won the election anyway.
     Does anyone believe that could happen today? Look how John Kerry was battered and brutalized for the crime of serving his country in the Vietnam War.
     The second noteworthy thing about Cleveland (one of two bachelors elected to the White House) was his wedding. Cleveland was 49; his bride, Frances Folsom, was 21, barely; her birthday was the day of the wedding. He had known her since she was an infant—she was the daughter of his late law partner—and was the executor of her father's estate. Practically her uncle. The public was informed of the engagement five days before the wedding.
     Just close your eyes, and imagine the inferno of controversy, the orgy of media attention, the endless speculation and analysis, outrage and ridicule, that the above fact pattern would unleash today. We'd explode.
     We think of the Victorians as moralistic and straight-laced. What we don't realize is that we are far worse.

PRESIDENTIAL CRADLE ROBBING

     The other bachelor was James Buchanan. I add that because readers will ask. There's something addictive about presidential trivia. For example, I can't tell the Cleveland story without pointing out he was neither the first nor the last president to get married in office; the first was John Tyler, the last was Woodrow Wilson, both widowers. There was even a bigger gap between Tyler and his bride: he was 53, she was 23. And Tyler was even more secretive—the public wasn't notified until after the ceremony.
     Some trivia is more trivial than other trivia. The mark of good trivia is the surprise factor. For example: "Richard Nixon was a Quaker" is far better than, say, "Calvin Coolidge was the only president born on the Fourth of July" because the image we have of Quakerism (oatmeal, homespun, plain speaking) is at such odds with the oily image we have of Nixon (shifty eyes, rumpled suit, lies). The date of Coolidge's birth doesn't really tell us anything, except perhaps to introduce the neat fact of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both dying on the same day: July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the birth of the country.

37 OF THE 42 ARE DEAD

     Four out of our 42 presidents were assassinated; nearly 10 percent. You probably can name them: Kennedy, Lincoln, McKinley and . . . always takes a moment to get that last one . . . Garfield.
     Assassins came close to taking the lives of five more presidents. Ronald Reagan, of course, and Gerald Ford, twice. Truman was attacked by gun-wielding Puerto Rican nationalists. An anarchist fired at president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt and hit Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak instead.
     One president was shot after he left office: Teddy Roosevelt, campaigning outside the Hotel Gilpatrick in Milwaukee in 1912.
     "Any man looking for a third term ought to be shot," said his assailant, John Schrank. Roosevelt, slightly wounded, went ahead and gave his speech anyway.

DONKEY VS. ELEPHANT

     Perhaps inspired by the Winter Olympic medal counts, I thought to tally up which party is more successful at getting presidents into the Oval Office. The Republicans lead, 18 to 15.
     Republicans are also far better at running streaks of presidents. Twice they had a string of three presidents in a row, once four in a row. In 1989, when George Bush took over after Reagan left office, the Republicans accomplished something the Democrats haven't done since 1857: replace a president with somebody else from their own party without the first one dying in office.

JUST MY LUCK

     I only got a chance to meet one president, personally, and talk with him at length and that president—lucky me—was Jimmy Carter. He had been out of office a few years, was flogging a book, and a magazine sent me to Los Angeles to meet him.
     We spoke about half an hour and, frankly, I didn't like Carter. He was sour and grumpy and he did something that really annoyed me. His wife, Rosalynn, his supposed co-author, was there too, but whenever she tried to say anything, Carter would talk right over her, and while, yes, he had been president, it was still rude.
     Carter only brightened once. The interview was over, and the magazine photographer was setting him up for a portrait. I had run through my questions, but wanted to make use of the time, and was searching for something to say that wasn't, "I always thought you were driven insane by the hostage crisis." Suddenly I remembered that the great New Yorker writer, John McPhee, had once included Carter in one of his finely crafted articles.
     "You went canoeing with John McPhee!" I blurted out. "What's he like?"
     Carter broke into his big, famous smile.
     "Yes, that's riiiight!" he said, beaming, either because it was a happy memory, or he was amused at the awestruck tone of the question.

CLOSING JOKE

     Today's topic seems to call for something presidential.
     One of my favorites involves Calvin Coolidge. "Silent Cal" was the butt of much ridicule for his close-mouthedness.
     Informed that Coolidge was dead, Dorothy Parker supposedly quipped: "How can they tell?"

              —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 20, 2006

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Manhattan Interlude #4: Sacred, profane rituals of the feast


     The conversation was about where we should eat this weekend in New York City. As it drew to a close, I checked the time on the cell phone. An hour and 17 minutes. An hour and 17 minutes of consulting menus, filling every meal time slot. My fault, I'm sure. It must be hereditary, as this column hints. It did my heart good to see the name of Bernie Beck, who I used to refer to as "The fireaxe behind the glass." If you couldn't find a source for a story, if you hit a brick wall after your editor asked for 600 words on the social impact of socks, you'd call Bernie Beck and he'd speak intelligently about it, or anything else. It got so I refused to call him, lest every story feature Bernie Beck. It seemed like cheating. 

     NEW YORK After the plane landed, I met my friend. First we ate, then we drank.
     Next morning: met people I hope to do a bit of business with. First eating. Then drinking.
     Next day: eat, eat, eat. And the last day, Sunday, the highlight of the trip, a pilgrimage to Barney Greengrass ("The Sturgeon King") on Amsterdam Avenue. We stood on the street for an hour, heads bowed like penitents, waiting.
     Nova lox, with fried onions and scrambled eggs. Creamed herring. Sesame bagels. Chive cream cheese. Fresh orange juice. Coffee. Chocolate bobka cake.
     Every so often, particularly at the holidays, when the feasting hits a fevered pitch, almost a mania, I find myself wondering: "Why?" In a culture so abundant as ours, where we can stuff ourselves 365 days a year and often do, why does eating loom so large, especially the last six weeks of the year, when four major holidays unfold? We have barely digested Thanksgiving, and the next round looms. Why don't people ever get together and hike?
     I had an idea, but I sought the opinion of the smartest man in Chicago, Northwestern sociology Professor Bernie Beck.
     "There's nothing new about it," he said. "It goes all the way back. Food is one of the major ways of celebrating; how human beings know they are doing something important. They eat, they drink, get drunk if possible."
     He listed other ways to celebrate—dance, song, and one I hadn't heard of.
   

 "We left out one very important thing: sex," said Beck. "One of the ways non-Judeo-Christian religions celebrate special occasions and honor the gods is through sexual orgies."
     Exactly which religions are those, I wanted to know. Here was something more enticing than Watchtower magazine. But Beck drew a blank.
     Anyway, the most popular is food, particularly huge home-cooked feasts. Food is a way for the moms and grandmothers to gather the clan and collect applause.
   
  "The making of a feast is one of the symbolic ways women achieve honor in the traditional reading of life," he said.
     And though that traditional reading grows blurrier every year, it is ignored at one's peril. You may think you're turning down slaughtered lamb flesh, or watching your cholesterol. But to mom, it's a personal attack.
     "The Jews, along with all the traditional ethnicities in America, have a whole food thing going on," said Beck. "One of the big dramas around ethnic purity is the parents, particularly the mother, offering food and the kids refusing. There is a real symbolic struggle. The mother is saying: `If you don't eat my food, you're saying that you don't really belong to my world and I don't matter.'
     "(But the child is saying) if you make me eat food, you're trying to undermine my adult authority, to infantalize me."
     A tough call: Eat more than you may want, or flag yourself as standing apart from the tribe by refusing.
     "You not only feel guilty, but forlorn by comparison to those bygone days when family was warm and held together," he said. "Feasts are the things that go down in the family annals."
     That made sense to me. The dinners are what you really remember, as if the food were just a way of searing the occasion into mind.
     "Absolutely right," he said. "Feasting is part of the sacred ritual homage to the family. You are taking the family's location and making it into a sacred space."
     I asked Beck if, knowing as much as he does, he is able to resist the powerful pressures to eat more than is good for him, or does he find himself shrugging and giving into the strong cultural encouragement to dig in?
     "The truth is I decide every moment," he said. "I'm poised on the knife edge. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don't."
     Join the club, professor.

            —Originally published in the Sun-Times, December 17, 1998

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Manhattan Interlude #3: New York's cross walkers - Pedestrians hopping mad over mayor's crackdown




     This weekend I'm revisiting a few New York bylines over the years. If this seems odd—a fairly ordinary news story from New York City—I believe the explanation is I was in town anyway, for the Toy Fair, and wanted to deliver to my bosses the maximum bang for their buck. 

     NEW YORK—Officer Mike Guarriello grabbed Joshua Vasquez by the arm as he tried to slip around a metal barricade and walk west across Fifth Avenue. Vasquez looked startled, as if awakened from a dream. "You scared me," he said.
     "I don't want you to get hit by a truck," said Guarriello, explaining that Vasquez would have to go north across 49th, then cross Fifth at the crosswalk that was open.
     New York is battling jaywalking—specifically, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is battling jaywalking, as part of his quality-of-life approach to solving urban woes; if crime went down after clamping down on the squeegee men, the logic goes, maybe Manhattan's notoriously snarled auto traffic can improve if pedestrians are kept from pouring into the streets and blocking vehicles.
     Jaywalking is a problem few think about in Chicago; there are 10 million fewer people in greater Chicago than in the New York metropolitan area, and Chicago has about half the population density of New York. Chicago police say there are no plans to put barricades across pedestrian crosswalks. And Chicagoans just don't seem to be in the same kind of hurry that New Yorkers are in.
     "I'm sorry, I'm really late," said a New Yorker who was asked about the barricades as she dashed across the street. "It's a pain," she said over her shoulder.
     The fine for jaywalking in New York has just been increased from $2 to $50, and Giuliani wants the city council to increase it to $100. (Chicago has no established fine for jaywalking, which means, according to the municipal code, that the fine would be between $50 and $200, depending on the discretion of a judge, not that many jaywalking tickets are given here.)
     The crackdown on jaywalking is big news in New York, covered almost daily in the newspapers, and some people are outraged.
     "It's ridiculous—this is a walking city," said Vince D'Addona, 40, a financial services executive. "This adds about 50 percent to the walking distance of my day."
New Yorkers have staged protests—one in which a group dressed in cow outfits to object to being herded like cattle. There were several arrests, and much ill will toward the mayor.
     "It's a publicity stunt on the part of the mayor," said a man in a green trench coat, gesturing to the officers at the barricades. "Three cops doing nothing."
     Three officers are assigned to each of the 20 or so intersections that have one of two ; crosswalks closed from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. The barricades run from the corners to about 40 feet into the blocks.
     The majority of pedestrians are deterred, and those who slip past, or jaywalk diagonally through the intersection, are ignored by the police.
     "Most cops aren't really into it," said Officer Aaron Jackson, an 11-year veteran of the force.
     And most pedestrians really aren't into it.
     Charles Brown, 25, is a clerk at Saks Fifth Avenue, located on the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 50th. To get to work, he has to cross the streets three times—north across 50th, east across Fifth, then south back across 50th. Previously he had to cross only once.
"It's a big, huge pain in the butt," he said.
     For now, police are putting a good face on the policy, which began in December.
     "In theory it does make sense," said Guarriello, a 13-year-veteran of the force. "Cars can make a left and don't have to worry about piling up down the street. It just takes time to get used to it. In the end, I think this is going to make it, because it's important for pedestrian safety and good for traffic in New York."
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 15, 1998

Friday, February 14, 2020

Manhattan Interlude #2: Hard to escape 9/11 no matter how we try

     During the trip below we took the boys to a kiddie show on Broadway called "Fred Garbo's Inflatable Theater," if I remember correctly. Mr. Garbo had a routine where he pretended to walk down a stairway behind a sofa. There was a pratfall and a crash, and my younger boy shouted out, loudly, "Are you okay?!?!" Garbo popped up from behind the couch and waved at us. "Yeah, I'm okay!" he yelled. Hopefully, any theatrics will be on stage at "Hadestown." The other moment of the trip below that comes to mind is walking through the glitz and commotion of Times Square, the older boy's eyes locked on some handheld device. When I urged him to look up and around, he did, for a second, then shrugged and said, "Big deal." Almost needless to say, he lives in Greenwich Village now.


     NEW YORK--Smith's Restaurant is an old place on Seventh Avenue, just west of Times Square. It looked like a bar, but a sign in the window said "BREAKFAST," so my family crossed the street and hurried to get out of the sharp spring wind.
     Once inside, though, we saw that Smith's looked like a bar because it was a bar, the old-fashioned kind with a dining room through a side door. The bartender pointed the way, and we stepped past the line of early-morning drinkers and headed for a table.
     We ate. The kids scampered around while I finished my coffee. When it came time to leave, I caught up with the kids in the bar, where they were pressing buttons on a video poker game. I bent over to zip up the 4-year-old's green, hooded jacket. Suddenly, a man came rushing over. There was a small flurry of confusion that seemed to center around whether I was OK or not. The bartender was there, too, his face a mask of concern.
Then, they both looked down and saw my boy, and we all realized what had happened. From across the bar, the kid was completely hidden. They had seen me doubled over, struggling, thought I was having a heart attack or something, and were springing to help. We all grinned at each other, relieved and embarrassed, and parted after a few hearty handshakes and smiles.
     There's no way to know if this was part of the fallout of Sept. 11, but it seemed that way. The city overall was just less noisy, less brutish, with not even as much horn-honking. I was with my wife and two boys, ages 4 and 6, and they have a tendency to push buttons in elevators at random floors, pause at the top of escalators, join hands, spread out across the sidewalk and then stop, entranced by a penny in the street.
     Nobody pushed by them. Nobody made nasty comments. Passersby smiled, indulgently.
This isn't just my observation, either. Crime is in a free fall in New York. The murder rate, which everyone thought had bottomed out, dropped 40 percent this year, and nobody knows why. But they have a guess.
     "I can think of many reasons why crime should be going up in New York," an academic told USA Today, "and only one why it should be going down: 9/11."
     I made a conscious decision not to visit Ground Zero while we were here. It's not something I can explain easily, just something visceral. They're still pulling bodies out of there. Going seemed macabre.
     As it turned out, I didn't have to go to Ground Zero, anyway, because Ground Zero kept coming to me. It was there on every street corner, where vendors hawked World Trade Center photographs and statuettes and montages of eagles and the towers and that famous photograph of firemen raising the flag. Every souvenir shop sold all sorts of 9/11 mementos such as snow domes and shot glasses, though why you'd want to drink your whiskey out of a Sept. 11 shot glass is beyond me.
     We took the Staten Island ferry to get a closer look at the Statue of Liberty, but before we could see it--talk about symbolism--we got a good long look at the big empty space of Ground Zero, ringed in powerful lights. You couldn't not look. It was a compelling absence, like a tongue probing the empty spot where a tooth had been.
     And then there were my friends. Their fear seemed to be still very fresh. When we visited one and I admired the view of the Empire State Building from her new office, she said she was worried that it would hit her if it fell over. I said that, at 20 blocks away, the distance was twice the length of the building, but that seemed to offer her scant comfort.
     Another friend, a bank executive, works a block from Ground Zero. She sat in her Upper East Side apartment and described how her staff huddled in the basement, frightened and unsure, for five hours. They ripped up T-shirts for masks, to keep the dust away. I fell into my reporter mode and started quizzing her. Later, as we strolled through Central Park, watching our boys climb trees, I told her husband that I hoped I hadn't been grilling her. He said, no, it was good to get things out, that for the first two weeks afterward he had been frustrated because all she would say was that her feet hurt--she had had to walk the 80 blocks home barefoot, holding her high heels in her hand.
     There was something terribly chilling in that complaint. Its ordinariness emphasized the horror, like Snowden, the dying bombardier in Catch-22, complaining that he's cold.
Our last night in New York, we went to a swank wedding at the Rainbow Room, on the 65th floor of Rockefeller Center. After dinner and dancing and drinks, I strolled along the big windows, admiring the New York night skyline, feeling the calm and contentment a man in a tux is supposed to feel.
     Then, I saw it. The two memorial beacons set up at Ground Zero, like a pair of accusing fingers, pointing at heaven. I gasped a quick intake of breath.
     I knew it was there. But seeing it was still a surprise. The wedding hoopla seemed to fade away, and I realized that all the people debating about how to memorialize 9/11 are wasting their time. It will come rushing back, no matter what we do, for a very long time.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 29, 2002

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Manhattan Interlude #1: A peek under the cover of Spy

The Puck Building, home of Spy magazine.
     Big time authors of course are obligated to go to New York City to meet with publishers and agents and publicists and such. While lesser lights go to visit their boys in law school and take in a show. So while occupied, I thought I would reach back into the vault and dredge up a few reports from previous bites of the Big Apple. 
     This one sticks in mind because setting it up was something of a scam. First I told my boss that I was visiting New York anyway, and while I was there I might as well pop into the hot new magazine, Spy, which I adored, like every other 20ish wisenheimer at the time. He fell for it. Then I called Spy and told them they were so popular in the Midwest that the Sun-Times was sending me to New York to take their measure. They fell for it. While I was at their offices, reporting this valentine, I also pitched them stories, and got assigned to write the sidebars on a delicious take-down of Bob Greene. Later, I fished for a job. Graydon Carter had an editorial assistant opening that paid a quarter of my salary, and though I begged for it—I remember being on the phone to him, standing in my apartment in Oak Park, feeling my life teetering—he wouldn't give it to me. "You wouldn't be happy," he said. He was probably right.

     NEW YORK - Not long ago, E. Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen were just another pair of writers sweating below decks of giant Time magazine, shoveling words into its roaring furnaces, straining to move the behemoth along.
     Like most writers, they felt they knew better than their bosses what kind of publication people wanted to read.They envisioned a wry, witty magazine, poking fun at the hubris-laden egos and Jabba-the-Hutt lifestyles routinely adored in the pages of their employer.
"We both loved magazines," said Carter, relaxing in his small office on the ninth floor of the Puck Building, a whimsical, cherub-studded structure in New York's Soho district. "We loved National Lampoon, Mad and Rolling Stone, and wanted a magazine that affected us like those did."
     Unlike most writers, however, they paused from dreaming and griping long enough to turn their vision into reality. They gathered together investors, raised a few million dollars, and gave birth to the hottest, most cuttingly written new magazine around: Spy.
Since the first issue hit the stands in October, 1986, Spy has provided what had become a rare commodity in American magazines: journalistic satire aimed at the undeservedly rich and the glaringly famous.
     Just a glance at that first cover was enough to show that this would be a different kind of publication.
     "JERKS," it blared, in orange type, accompanied by a photo of David Letterman sidekick Chris Elliot doing a groveling dance. "The Ten Most Embarrassing New Yorkers."
"They move, they shake, they showboat. The rest of us cringe. And you wonder why America hates New York?" the article began, introducing a cast of character—Donald Trump, Rex Reed, Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, Leona Helmsley—that Spy was to revisit, issue after issue, with malicious glee.
     "Most magazines spend their time pumping up those who are already pumped up," said executive editor Susan Morrison. "We try to be an antidote to that, to bite the ankles of the overdog."
     Picking up the long-ignored tradition of Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken that married reporting with rambunctious wit, Andersen and Carter produced a magazine eclectic enough to critique Reagan's presidency and teach readers how to sneak into Ivy League club bathrooms in the same issue.
     It is difficult to categorize a typical Spy article. They tend to be short, broken up into small units, encased in boxes or scrolled down the side of a page. They assume the reader knows a lot—for example, what an arbitrager does—or at least is confident enough to guess.
     They frequently attack in an oblique way. An article titled "How Rich Is That Doggie in the Limo?" never comes out and criticizes giving your dog a face-lift, or a strand of cultured pearls, or an $800 fur coat. But the message gets across.
     "Cindy Hughes takes time out from her very busy career as a designer to cook twice a day for her Shar Pei, Coco Chanel Puppoir," writes Nell Scovell. "She uses recipes from a holistic dog cookbook. `People say I'm crazy,' Hughes says, like a mind reader, `but my sister had two kids at this age, and she cooks for them three times a day.'"
     And then, there is what has made Spy famous: the razors-bared, rabid wolf-pack attacks.
Being foremost a New York magazine, Spy saves its deadliest venom for its favored gang of New York characters: the omnipresent Trump, Mayor Ed Koch, socialites such as Mercedes Kellogg and Jacqueline Onassis, new wave writers Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York, liquor ads) and Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City.)
     "We chose people whose reputations, we feel, are exaggerated," said staff writer Tad Friend. "We don't try to do hatchet jobs. We don't pick on Mother Teresa."
     The people they do pick on are people like Revlon chairman Ron Perelman and his wife, gossip columnist Claudia Cohen, who are assaulted separately (Cohen: "arrogant, insensitive, maniacal." Perelman: a "rapacious," "balding" enigma) and in tandem ("at dinners Claudia would use her fingernails to pry food from between Ron's teeth.")
     "Claudia Cohen made a million phone calls, trying to find out where we got our information on her," said Morrison. (Perelman took a more practical approach, according to Andersen. He had Revlon offer Spy a lucrative advertising contract provided, of course, that the profile was shelved. Andersen turned them down.)
     A Spy trademark is turning the light of analysis onto people who just are not used to being written about. "Review of Reviewers" is a monthly feature taking the entertainment press to task in a way not seen since A. J. Liebling pilloried the media in the '40s and '50s.
     "Letters to the Editor of the New Yorker" permits readers to comment on the stuffy publication, which itself does not print letters. (Nor does it print a staff box, which, at a reader's request, Spy printed: a staggering exercise in research and, due to the jarring impact of its sheer size, very funny.)
     Spy prides itself in the accuracy of its reporting, and its Rabelaisian cast of victims tends to respond to questions about the magazine with grim silence.
     Contacted several times for comment, Perelman remained mum. The upper management of the New York Times, excoriated each month in a column devoted exclusively to its ridicule, would not utter a word in its own defense.
     Slightly less reticent are Koch and Trump, who made surprisingly similar contradictory statements, through their spokesmen.
     "He doesn't read it," said a mouthpiece for Koch. "He doesn't take it too seriously."
     "I don't think he's seen it," said Trump's representative, ignoring rumors that Trump personally yanked copies of Spy from Trump Tower's newsstand. "I think he's probably seen an issue or two. I'll ask him."
     In their constant search for egos to puncture, Spy has not overlooked Chicago. In the first issue, "The Illustrated History of Hair, Part I," a wordless series of photographs traced the retreat and sudden, almost magical, re-emergence of nostalgicist Bob Greene's hairline. And last month's issue included a stomach-churning account of Harold Washington's gluttonous habits.
     In addition to jabbing individuals, Spy takes on trends breathlessly trumpeted in the popular press. "Filofax Madness" emphasized the grim desperation of charting one's life in an expensive little book, and "Waspmania" deplored the emotionally hollow worship of the discarded trappings of British aristocracy.
     Spy also has a genius for the unexpected interview. In one issue, a representative of DuPont, the makers of Teflon, was questioned as to whether the conglomerate had considered Ronald Reagan, the Teflon president, as a potential spokesman for their product. ("We negated it a long time ago," said DuPont. "It gives the trademark a bad name.")
     Spy's visual style has received almost as much notice—and imitation—as its writing. Spy's make-up is an explosion of typefaces and visual elements, thin border illustrations snaking across the tops of pages, and spatterings of tiny clip art images.
     "It can't look sober and serious," said Andersen. "So we had to invent a style that's appropriate to a magazine editorially aware of everything from Moby Dick to the Jetsons."
     "Spy has a lot of writing, crammed together," said art director Alexander Isley. "It's kind of like walking down the street in New York, with the signs and everything. It is not meant to be browsed through, it's meant to be read."
     "Waspmania" illustrates another Spy strongpoint: editorial purity. The article ruthlessly degraded designer Ralph Lauren, and while most magazines would think twice about ridiculing such a big-bucks advertiser, Spy didn't hesistate to run the piece.
     "We're not reckless, or self-destructive about it," said Andersen. "But what you see everywhere are editorial decisions that are marketing decisions as well, and you get things like New York Woman putting `Red, White and Bloomingdales' on their cover.
     "Once you say to yourself, `We're not going to truckle to advertisers,' its easier to stay with it," said Friend. "It's something we're proud of here."
     In spite of its cavalier attitude toward advertising, or perhaps because of it, Spy is enjoying soaring success.
     "We have thrillingly good demographics," said Morrison.
     Circulation, which started at 25,000, is now closing in on 100,000 copies a month, with 40 percent of its readers in cities outside the New York area. The magazine is particularly popular in Chicago, although distributors couldn't say how many copies are sold here.
"It's the best-selling magazine we have here," said Patrick Ude, manager of News Two, 2939 N. Broadway, in the Lakeview East neighborhood.
     The magazine is also "perilously close" to turning a profit, something its business plan had not anticipated until 1991.
     "We thought we would be losing $50,000 an issue at this point," said Carter. "We're not losing a fraction of that; in fact, this is as close as you can come to profit and still lose money."
     While making money is certainly important, what particularly gratifies Carter and Andersen is that they, and not someone else, were the people who created Spy.
      "What would have driven us really, really crazy is if one of our friends had done this," said Carter. "We wouldn't be alive."
     "That's what drove us," added Andersen. "What if somebody else had done this? We'd spend our lives in bitterness."

           —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 8, 1988