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

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Viruses don’t care if you’re lying or not

The Angel of Death striking a door during the plague of Rome. (Wellcome Collection)

     Reality intrudes.
     You can crumple up the X-ray, cover your ears and hum.
     Yet if a tumor is there, it remains, growing.
     You can refuse to believe your house is on fire. Call the person who tells you a liar.
     Yet your house still burns.
     That’s why I don’t yet despair about Donald Trump, his funhouse of lies, and the Americans who choose to believe him.
     Because while anyone can ignore truth, truth doesn’t ignore anyone. Declaring yourself great and actually being great are very different things. Greatness isn’t a state achieved by declaring it on your hat. Sorry to be the one to tell you.
     Not to underestimate the danger of what Republicans are doing, trying to establish a new American system built on the whim of one powerful individual, supported by a web of lies, where loyalty is the ultimate value — not honor, not honesty, not law.
     Nothing new here. We see this in lots of other places. Xi Jinping, the supreme leader of China, stands atop a pyramid of state suppression and genuflecting loyalty. Everyone must obey. The free speech guaranteed in their constitution is just another lie. Propaganda and news are the same thing.
     Yet reality intrudes.
     In late December, a new coronavirus appeared in Wuhan, China and began to spread. A Chinese ophthalmologist named Li Wenliang went on social media and tried to sound the alarm. The local medical authority warned him that “any organizations or individuals are not allowed to release treatment information to the public without authorization.” In early January he was called to a police station, accused of “spreading rumors online” and “severely disrupting social order” and forced to sign a statement confessing his crime and promising to refrain from “unlawful acts.”
     But the virus was still spreading. 


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Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Famous American



     Stamp collecting is considered a benign pastime, without the risks inherent in, say, whiskey connoisseurship or bungee jumping.
     The hobby is not, however, without its perils.
     For instance, I shudder to think how much of my brain is filled with useless philatelic information that I can easily recall without checking, from the first American postal stamp (1847) to the first commemorative stamps (issued in conjunction with the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893) to the first living person honored on a United States postage stamp, Charles Lindbergh.
     That 1927 stamp shows his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, but not his face, because of a Postal Service policy that forbids depicting living persons on postage stamps. The USPS considered doing away with that regulation in 2011, then cooler heads prevailed. Which is why we don't have any Donald Trump postage stamps. Yet.
     I could go on and on. The 1930 Graf Zeppelin set? In 65 cent, $1.30 and $2.60 denominations. Green, brown and blue. The green is not to be confused with the 1933 Century of Progress zeppelin stamp, which is far less valuable. When I first got a job, in 1987, I considered celebrating by blowing the $600 or so the three-stamp set cost back then. (Not a good investment; you can buy them today for a thousand bucks on eBay).
     You never know when this stuff will pop up. I was at the Northbrook Post Office last week, sending the boys their new driver's licenses, which they got over Christmas break, to get the all-important gold star that somehow makes air travel more secure.
    I looked down on the counter, and noticed a plug for the new Walt Whitman stamp. Must have missed it when it was issued last year, to mark the bicentennial of his birth.
    Did I think, "Oh good, they're honoring the greatest American poet!" or "About time!"
    No, I did not.
    I thought, "Again? He's already in the 'Famous Americans' series of 1940."
    At home, it took me all of 10 seconds to lay my hands on the cover. Yes, I still have my collection.
    There's nothing more to say, than to hang my head in shame. I wish I had spent those years—approximately between 9 and 15—studying French or literature or some more valuable pursuit.
     I suppose I could throw out for discussion the whole idea of "Famous Americans." It sounds so dated, doesn't it? The Hall of Fame for Great Americans is a neglected anachronism tucked in a corner of the Bronx. "I want to be famous" sounds almost crazy, like something mass killers say, or deluded teens who'll end up in sex trafficking. Maybe it's just the word, "fame." Too much baggage at this point, and Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame have attritted to 15 seconds. To want to be famous is to aspire toward an illusion, to grasp at nothing. Then again, there's a lot of that going around.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Some covering fire in defense of the Tribune

News boy 1948, by Irving Penn
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
      One does not often get beseeched, appealed to or entreated. I can’t remember seeing the word “rally” used, not as a noun referring to a gathering, but as a verb, demanding we come together and fight. But there it was, in a posting headlined, “NINA STATEMENT ON ALDEN GLOBAL PURCHASE OF THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE.” Right in the opening sentence:
“The Northern Illinois Newspaper Association today calls for journalists, news organizations, units of government and the general public to rally around Tribune Company employee efforts to maintain the integrity of one of our nation’s great news organizations. This statement follows reports that Alden Global, a New York hedge fund, has bought a 32 percent stake in Tribune Publishing.”
     “Journalists?” Hey, that’s me!
     My first thought — God, this is embarrassing — was, “Is the Sun-Times even a member of NINA?” We tend not to join that sort of thing. Save the $250. I checked NINA’s membership. The Hinsdalean. The Woodstock Independent. The Rock Island Argus. Thirteen publications and three individuals. The heart breaks. 

    Whew! I thought. Off the hook.
     Such a petty reaction made me reconsider. What did it even mean to “rally” around the Tribune? Send thoughts and prayers? Lash out at Alden? That loathsome vivisectionist of newspapers, buying them up, selling off assets, hacking away expenses, leaving behind a stripped corpse. Tribune writers are lining up to do that already, ignoring that Alden exists in a gold-plated empyrean of wealth far above the influence of public image. “What matters infamy if the cash be kept?” Juvenal writes.
     What hasn’t been said? There’s the Michael Ferro angle. Ferro sold out to Alden, a petty act of vindictiveness that hasn’t gotten enough scorn. I knew him, slightly, had lunch with him. He had his own wacky notions of where the paper should go — reporters would wear Google glasses and livestream news events that algorithms would automatically chop into videos. Maybe that’s still coming.


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Sunday, February 9, 2020

Vindictive, never vindicated.

The Funeral of Chrystom and Marcella Vindicating Herself, by William Hogarth
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     "I was thinking about you and your OED yesterday," writes faithful reader John Powers. "With The Cowardly Liar claiming vindication, then having Lt. Col. Vindman escorted from the White House vindictively, I wondered if the two words have similar roots, despite their seeming opposition. Sure enough, both derived from Latin roots that describe vengeance."
     He stopped there, noticing the common root.  But his observation demanded further digging.  What's the connection? Vindicta is indeed Latin for "vengeance," so "vindictive" is, in my Oxford, "given to revenge, having a revengeful disposition," a perfect description of our president. "Vendetta" comes from the same word
     A negative trait. So how does another of vindicta's children, "vindicate" end up meaning something positive? "To clear from censure, criticism, suspicion, or doubt by means of demonstration."  
    I have a theory. In our era, we think of proof of innocence as offering vindication. Due to evidence, argument. But in more rigidly religious times, a person could also be exonerated through punishment or vengeance, as seen in the first two definitions in the OED, 16th century usages that have to do with "to revenge" or "to punish." You did wrong, received punishment, and were thus redeemed in the eyes of God. Vindicated.
     Samuel Johnson, oddly, has no entry for either word in his 1755 dictionary. Daniel Webster cites the modern usages of "vindicate," but also presents it as a synonym for punish, quoting John Pearson's 1659 "Exposition of the Creed"—"God is more powerful to exact subjection, and to vindicate rebellion," noting such usage is "entirely obscure" in 1828, when the dictionary was published.
     I am an amateur etymologist, if that, and to avoid the risk of inflicting upon you some ghastly ignorant fancy, I ran the theory by an actual professional, British linguist Paul Anthony Jones, whom we met last week thanks to his observation that the word "hobby" derives from "hobbyhorse." (I'm currently reading his excellent book "The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities.")  He kindly replied:

Wholly possible that this development was late in both English and Ecclesiastical Latin of course—and oppositely, even if this change of meaning was already established in Latin before English caught on, all that does is shift this change of meaning further back in time, not alter the reason for it. (I hope that makes sense!!) Either way it’s a neat idea and seems perfectly plausible to me—it’d be interesting to see if any other words have followed a similar track of punishment->reward, and whether there’s a religious element to their development or not.
     So "plausible." While "plausible"—I feel obligated to point out in this age of smeared realities— is far from "correct," it seems a good point to end our examination, with only one thing left to add. Whether punishment eradicates crime is a valid philosophical and social question. What certainly does not erase a crime, now or in the past, is lying about it. Our mercurial president is incapable of knowing that. His vengeful supporters should know that but don't, or pretend they don't. Yet it is clear. Trump is eternally vindictive. And he will never be vindicated.

      

Saturday, February 8, 2020

St. Jane decorates the thronged and common road




     "Do you mind if I take a photograph of your monkey lamps?" I asked the woman behind the front desk at the St. Jane Hotel, 230 N. Michigan. "It's for my blog."
    Lauren Kaczperski, the hotel's executive meetings manager, said she did not, and added the lamps were custom-made for the St. Jane in Europe.
     "They're certainly special lamps," I said, stepping over to a corner of the lobby and snapping a few shots. I was on my way to Northwestern's downtown Medill graduate school to talk to a friend's class. But had a few minutes to spare. The Carbide and Carbon Building is one of my favorite Chicago buildings, for its brawny industrial name, Art Deco trim and hard-to-pin-down black/green color, so give it extra scrutiny in passing. Which is how I noticed the monkey lamps through the window.
     The St. Jane opened in 2018 in what used to be the Hard Rock Hotel Chicago. Kaczperski said they spent $30 million fixing up the place, which is now cooly elegant with a slightly funky, artistic vibe. The hotel is also named, delightfully, for Jane Addams, the tireless social reformer. Though one does wonder what the Nobel Peace Prize winner would think of a fancy hotel being named for her; she was concerned about the conditions faced by girls working in Chicago hotels, so I suppose she might not mind, provided the staff is treated well. She did once write, "We are learning that a standard of social ethics is not attained by traveling a sequestered byway, but by mixing on the thronged and common road," which could very well include introducing distracted travelers to the existence of the author of "Twenty Years at Hull House" by naming hotels in her honor.
     Nor were the lamps the only artistic touch. The wallpaper in the entrance is marbleized like the endpapers of a 19th century book. Hanging there is "Hustle Coat," where Chicago artist Nick Cave had lined a street vendor's black raincoat with the kind of glitzy baubles being sold. 
The St. Jane says "Hustle Coat" is one of only two Nick Cave public art installations in Chicago. 
     Maybe not quite “Domplatz, Mailand," the enormous square Gerhardt Richter painting that the Pritzker family bought for $3.8 million in 1998 to decorate the lobby of their new Park Hyatt up the street. Fifteen years later, perhaps realizing how the work had appreciated, they sold it off, fetching $37.1 million at Sotheby's, a record for a living artist. Think what a modern Jane Addams could do with that kind of money. 
     We talked a bit about the hotel, someplace to bear in mind if you are trying to place out-of-town guests: funkily designed, well located and courteously run. And they accept dogs at no additional charge.  She offered me a tour, but I begged off—couldn't be late for that class.
"Hustle Coat," by Nick Cave

   
   

Friday, February 7, 2020

Iowa caucus mess offers lessons to Dems


     Monday’s Iowa Democratic caucus disaster already feels like ancient history, with Tuesday’s teary Queen-for-a-Day State of the Union and Wednesday’s shameful Senate impeachment acquittal in the meantime.
     But before the smoldering wreckage disappears in our rearview mirror, it’s worth a second look. Self-criticism is a liberal superpower. We can consider ourselves, assess candidly, recognize what is wrong and, in theory, fix it.
     So let’s take a look. Shadow Inc., an obscure tech company founded by former Hillary Clinton campaign staffers, was supposed to be the secret weapon to bring the Democrats up to speed against well-oiled Republican technology efforts. Instead, it thoroughly botched what should have been a dramatic Democratic milepost to the 2020 presidential election. What happened?
     I spoke with Shlomo Engelson Argamon, interim chair of the computer science department at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He began by cautioning that neither he nor anybody knows exactly what went wrong yet and won’t for a couple weeks.
     That said, there are obvious take-aways that can considered right now.
     “In software development, a Silicon Valley attitude is: ‘Move fast and break things,’” Argamon said. “Build things quickly, throw them out there, see what happens. Get feedback from users. If they break, fix them and improve them. Learn by deploying.”


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Thursday, February 6, 2020

Playing with your food

Cathedral
     I've played board games all my life. Starting as a young boy with Mousetrap and Candyland—how I admired that thick slice of Neapolitan ice cream depicted on the board—then Clue and Stratego, moving up to Risk and Othello, playing a game was a way to carve up the endless expanse of time that is childhood, give it boundaries, limits, rules, a purpose, maybe even fun. 
     Certain games came and went— 3M Bookshelf games like Twixt and Feudal were a big deal in the 1970s—and certain games were given a joyous second life with the arrival of my own children. Stratego came roaring back, and how I loved to play it with the boys. Even before the game started, just setting up your side, arraying your forces, planting your bombs, getting ready to play, was challenging and fun.  
     Ebay shepherded home lost games: another 3M Bookshelf game, Breakthru, a great game with each side has a different set of pieces and a different goal, somehow vanished along the way, and it was a joy to play it again. The pieces were polished steel cylinders, marvelous to behold.
     Some games weren't really that fun—the Game of Life, with their insurance policies and college tuition and little cars filled with pink pegs. Maybe the point was to acclimate children to the tedium and responsibility of the adult world. Some games were little more than coin tosses, barely more than luck: Trouble, which we played more than we ever would if it just used dice, just for the joy of their clear plastic hemisphere containing the dice, the "Pop-o-Matic." Battleship was basically the board version of blind man's bluff. You felt around in the dark for ships. The cool little plastic ships made the effort worthwhile, sort of.
Skylark
     Some games were just beautiful. The boys had one called "Skylark" that wasn't very challenging to play. It just looked great, with these sweet cardboard birds. I grew to view Monopoly more as a game of chance than anything else, played right. But I cherished its graphics—the question mark of "Chance," that cop blowing his whistle. Monopoly sets that departed from the classic set, using cities other than Atlantic City, where the streets were borrowed, were incomprehensible to me. Then the family played a game of Monopoly where the older boy bought one property of each color and perversely refused to trade. "It's a trading game," we argued. "It says so on the box!" The game went on for hours, nobody could win, until we quit in disgust and never played again. "You killed Monopoly," I told him.
     Games were location specific: my grandmother had a Cootie Set. We would assemble the odd primary bugs out of their primary-color parts sprawled in her living room and nowhere else. Our family buying Cootie was an unimaginable as our covering our sofa in clear plastic or or subscribing to Reader's Digest or any other practice that was the exclusive provenance of Cleveland Heights.
Cool
Idiotic
     Cootie was an example of the tendency of games to deteriorate. The original, 1950s Cootie was cool. Subsequent versions were idiotic. I took great pride that the armies in my Risk set were little painted wooden cubes. None of the crap plastic armies that came later.  
     Some games I loved as a child then stopped playing at some point—Dogfight, with little plastic biplanes to maneuver over the European countryside. And a few games showed up late, just before we pretty much stopped playing: a wooden Quarto set, bought on vacation in Canada. A shifting Labyrinth game. I was the one urging, "C'mon, play!" as the boys wandered off, into their own lives (where, I'm happy to report, games are still played on game nights at the New York University School of Law. So it isn't just us). 
     A few games never left, continuing into adulthood. Chess and checkers, of course. Scrabble, the godhead of modern games, that can be played throughout the day on my iPhone. A favorite new game, The Settlers of Catan, that our dear friends from Ohio gave us (the same couple that gave us a beautiful wooden game, Cathedral, as a wedding present. It involves walling off a larger part of the board, and has been on our coffee table for 30 years).
     So I was interested to see Cards Against Humanity is opening their Chicago Board Game Cafe in the Margie's Candy Building next week. Block Club Chicago posted a news story about the opening. 
    I would seem to be their intended audience. But I greet the news with more skepticism than excitement. What I'm wondering about is the idea of eating dinner and playing board games, at the same time. How does that work? Yes, in college, drinking and certain board games—particularly backgammon—were a thing. And back in the day I liked to pour myself a dram and play chess with anybody who'd sit across the board from me. 
    But dinner and Monopoly? At a restaurant? Or Risk, which takes forever—I remember waking up, face down on the board, at a sleepover. Or some other game selected by the cafe's "team of professional board game teachers [who] will help you pick the right game for your group and teach you how to play." That sounds kinda strange, right? A board game sommelier. "Might I recommend a 1965 Milton Bradley Mystery Date Game to go with the paella?" (The cuisine will be Spanish and Vietnamese,  a combination I had not heretofore imagined and can hardly imagine now).
      And won't the games quickly get dirty? Greasy? Spotted? Part of the appeal of board games is their clean perfection, these square folding cardboard worlds. Or their gentle wear, the result of your parents' play Not something manhandled by 100 strangers. The games tokens, armies, die, piles of cash, action cards. Sure, games get old, as do we all, and accommodations must be made. But a game of chess with a wooden spool standing in for a missing a rook just isn't the same. It loses a certain dignity.
     Maybe it'll work. Max Temkin, the guy behind Cards Against Humanity, a fun, wildly obscene game my family played exactly once (a dinner guest brought the cards) is a good businessman and obviously thinks this is a good idea. 
     This isn't the first time it has been done. The web site mentions a few other game cafes around town. And I remember places like the Blue Frog, a River North bar that had stacks of games. No one ever seemed to be playing them.  Now that I think of it, games in public establishments are like apartment balconies: you never see anybody using them. Still, best of luck to the Chicago Board Game Cafe. They're shaking the dice, beginning a game where 90 percent of the players lose. Let's see if they can win. 



Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Trump’s orange glow colors his opponents


     Whatever convoluted caucus process they’ve got in Iowa, under ideal conditions a Byzantine mess of neighbors gathering in public buildings to congeal in corners, broke down Monday night. A balky app.
     Results finally dribbled out late Tuesday. And the news, as of 6 p.m., is ... pretty good. Exhausted septuagenarian hack Joe Biden came in fourth, with 15. 6 percent of the vote. It would be good to be rid of him. Vinegary scold Elizabeth Warren did hardly better: 18.3 percent.
     Then Bernie Sanders. I have to admit, he makes my skin crawl. Whenever Sanders spools out the wish list of what he’s going to do — Medicare-for-All, Green New Deal, free college — I scowl and think: “We can’t get rid of the penny.”
     He stays alive with 25.1 percent. Second to Pete Buttigieg, who won with 26.9 percent. There are many reasons to root for Buttigieg: he focuses on the biggest problem facing America right now: bringing the country together. He has dignity and speaks in complete sentences. He would be the youngest president ever. He could lead us toward the future, assuming we still have one.

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Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Flashback 1998—Sun-Times: Digging and delivering for 50 years

   

     My first thought, stumbling upon this, was to save it for the paper's 75th anniversary, in 2023. But nothing is guaranteed in journalism, and I figure, better post it now, if only to clue in young people at the paper who might be interested in the storied past of the organization they've joined.
   Kidding. I know young people don't care about that kind of thing.
   And second, if we make it to 2023, and I do too, then I'll take a new crack at our history, telling it in a different way. 
    Yes, the actual date was Monday. I thought about pushing my Roman senate column to today. But it seemed odd to hold a current commentary so that a chestnut can stick the actual date, and I doubt many readers care about that kind of thing. Assuming they care at all. This is very long—3370 words—so the less preface the better. It makes me nostalgic, both for the colleagues lost—I remember Harry Golden Jr., striding into the newsroom in his Guys & Dolls double-breasted suit. And for the tone of optimism and enthusiasm, though I believe both are still warranted.

     Happy birthday to us!
     The Chicago Sun-Times is 50 years old today. Every day for the last half-century, without fail, the Sun-Times has been a vital part of the dynamic life of Chicago. 

     What changes we've seen. When the Chicago Daily Sun and Times published Vol. 1, No. 1, there were about six computers in the world. The United States had only 48 states. Just one household in 40 had a TV. The Dow Jones industrial average was 175. 
     For 50 years, the Sun-Times has not only reported the news but helped make it by digging deep and exposing corruption, a hallmark of the paper. The headline on the final edition that first day, "MAJCZEK TELLS OF $5,000 `GIFT' TO ILL. LEGISLATOR," referred to one of the most famous stories in newspaper history, the "Call Northside 777" murder case, in which Joe Majczek, a wrongly convicted man, was freed from a life sentence thanks to an intrepid Times reporter. Fresh from jail, Majczek was being shaken down by a state legislator for a share of the money awarded him as compensation for his years in prison.
     What took place Feb. 2, 1948, was really more of a marriage than a birth, so in a sense today we're also marking our golden anniversary. Marshall Field III had founded the morning Chicago Sun in 1941, three days before Pearl Harbor, as an alternative to the isolationist, anti-Roosevelt Chicago Tribune. 
     In 1947, he bought the afternoon Chicago Times, a scrappy tabloid begun at the tail end of the Roaring '20s. The two papers combined their Sunday editions in autumn, 1947 (Field, of course, preferring the newspaper he created to the one he bought, which is why you are reading the Sun-Times and not the Times-Sun), and were sharing the same building when a labor strike, affecting all five Chicago daily papers, made combining the two staffs a necessity. 
     The hybrid made for a powerful paper that was immediately noticed at the highest levels. Asked at a 1947 news conference what newspapers he read, President Harry Truman said he was "always very fond of the little afternoon Chicago daily consolidated with the Chicago Sun. I never thought much of the rest of the Chicago papers"—a dig at the Tribune, which Truman called one of the "two worst papers" in America. 
     The Sun-Times (the "and" was replaced with a hyphen in March, 1948) was from the start at the forefront uncovering Chicago corruption. When the New Yorker's famed press critic, A. J. Liebling, lived in Chicago during the winter of 1949-50, he was struck by the infant newspaper's aggressive approach.
     "It sometimes raises a great row with stories about local political graft," he wrote in his classic essay, "Chicago: The Second City." "Although Chicago municipal graft is necessarily Democratic, since the city's government is Democratic, it is the Sun-Times, rather than the Tribune, that gets indignant." 
     The 1950s were a boom time for the paper. In 1955, the Sun-Times was looking for a replacement for the woman who wrote the "Your Troubles" column under the pseudonym "Ann Landers." The paper hired a 37-year-old housewife named Eppie Lederer, who never had held a paying job or written a published word but who possessed a quick wit and compassion that made Ann Landers, under her guidance, one of the most familiar and respected names in the country and a force for social change. 
     In early 1958, the Sun-Times took up residence in its current home, 401 N. Wabash, on land along the Chicago River. The original idea was to bring the rolls of newsprint in on barges. For 40 years, the Sun-Times has been printed on 10 thundering Goss presses, which do their work while passersby watch from a long glass and marble gallery off the building's lobby, a tradition that will end late next year when the paper's modern $100 million presses go into operation. The Sun-Times wasn't alone in its new home. The venerable Chicago Daily News, purchased by the Field family in 1959, published from the same building. 
     A factor contributing to the Sun-Times' national image has always been that it just looks the way a big-city newspaper should. Many TV shows have used the hectic fourth-floor newsroom as a backdrop, featuring hosts from Herman Kogan to Bill Kurtis, who leaned against the last manual typewriter in the newsroom while taping introductions to his A&E specials. 
     The Sun-Times is the only newspaper in the country featured in a TV drama, "Early Edition," built around a fantasy, day-early delivery of the paper. Hollywood has included the Sun-Times in movies for decades. John Belushi filmed "Continental Divide" at the newspaper. In Harrison Ford's hit "The Fugitive," when a newspaper is shown headlining "Kimble in Chicago," that newspaper, of course, is the Sun-Times. 
     Speaking of movies, one of the greatest impacts the Sun-Times has had on American life was its promoting a young feature writer named Roger Ebert to film critic in 1967. Ebert revolutionized the art of movie reviewing, winning the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded a movie critic while becoming an international celebrity. 
     Another longtime Sun-Times star was Bill Mauldin, who in 1962 joined the newspaper to great fanfare—he was chauffeured to his first day on the job in an Army Jeep, a nod to his World War II "Willy and Joe" cartoons, which won him the first of two Pulitzers. 
     Mauldin did not rest on his considerable laurels after joining the paper, however. Instead he traveled the globe for the Sun-Times. When James Meredith enrolled at Ole Miss, backed by federal troops, Mauldin was at the riot. When John F. Kennedy delivered his famous "I am a Berliner" speech, Mauldin was at the Berlin Wall. He went to Israel in time for the Six-Day War in 1967, toured South America and saw combat in Vietnam, the only reporter on the scene when the Viet Cong hit the U.S. air base at Pleiku. His battle scene stories and sketches were carried all over the country. 
     Mauldin's most famous cartoon for the Sun-Times-and among the most famous editorial cartoons of all time_was dashed off that awful afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated. The drawing shows the Abraham Lincoln statue from the Lincoln Memorial, bowed forward in its chair, face buried in its hands in grief. The Sun-Times bumped sports off the back cover to run the cartoon there, filling the entire page, without any text whatsoever. Many vendors sold the newspaper back page up, to display Mauldin's haunting work. More than 250,000 requests for reprints flooded into the paper. Jackie Kennedy asked for the original and placed it in the Kennedy Library at Harvard. 
     As the 1960s grew increasingly turbulent, the Sun-Times followed Chicago on its wild ride as, to paraphrase the protesters, the whole world was watching. Photographer Jack Lenahan was beaten by 14 cops outside the Conrad Hilton when he tried to snap a picture of a shopper knocked down during a police skirmish. Columnist Tom Fitzpatrick ran with the Weathermen as they rampaged through the city one October night in 1969, returned to the newsroom 20 minutes before deadline and cranked out a Pulitzer Prize-winning column with editor Jim Hoge looking over his shoulder. It was the Sun-Times' first Pulitzer, one of seven the paper would win, the most recent to cartoonist Jack Higgins in 1989. 
     One of the biggest Sun-Times scoops of that era came after police raided a West Side apartment and gunned down Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clark. The Tribune dutifully reported the police version—that the Panthers had fired at them—and printed a photo purporting to show bullet holes from their guns. The Sun-Times went back to the apartment and took a closer look at the holes. They were in reality unplastered nail heads. The two militants had been killed in their beds. 
     Photos always have been important at the Sun-Times—if you look at the 1948 masthead, you'll see a drawing of a Speed Graphic camera and the slogan "The Picture Newspaper." In 1971, Jack Dykinga won a Pulitzer for his disturbing photographic essay "Children in Purgatory," depicting the deplorable conditions under which retarded children were warehoused in state institutions. In 1982, photographer John H. White won another Pulitzer. 
     On March 4, 1978, Marshall Field V shut down the Daily News. That dark day in Chicago journalism was a bittersweet boon for the Sun-Times, which inherited the stars from the Daily News. Columnist Mike Royko joined the paper, as did Carl Rowan, whose syndicated column is carried in newspapers nationwide today, investigative ace Charles Nicodemus, Pulitzer-winning cartoonist John Fischetti and book editor Henry Kisor. 
     The same year the Daily News was put to sleep, the Sun-Times printed a series that is studied to this day in journalistic ethics courses in America: the Mirage Tavern. The idea, ironically, was first pitched to the Tribune by Pam Zekman, then a reporter there. But it didn't go anywhere, and Zekman moved to the Sun-Times. 
     In 1977, the newspaper bought a decrepit neighborhood bar, created hidden crawl spaces in the walls and ceiling for photographers, and waited for the city inspectors to come by and accept their payoffs for ignoring code violations. "60 Minutes" filmed the proceedings. 
     A wave of indictments, firings and reform measures followed the Mirage, and while some argued the paper had entrapped the corrupt officials, it had done no more than answer Mayor Richard J. Daley's perennial chant: "Where's your proof?" 
     The Mirage was just one of several noteworthy exposes at the time. "The Abortion Profiteers" revealed horrifying abuses at clinics. "The Accident Swindlers" told of shady lawyers cheating insurance companies. 
     The 1980s saw Harry Golden Jr. strut his way for the last time through City Hall, where he was the dean of the press corps. He had an uncanny ability to dictate a straight story from notes all the way down to the "period, graf." He died in 1988. And it was the last decade that fabled reporter and columnist Sydney J. Harris would have his words set in print in the Sun-Times. He died in 1986. 
     While the 1980s began in glory, the middle of the decade was a trying time for the Sun-Times, during two years of ownership by Rupert Murdoch, from 1984-86. Investigative pieces continued, however. In 1986, the Sun-Times scuttled a city effort to stick the new public library in the shuttered State Street Goldblatt's store by showing that, among many deficiencies, the floors at the old store were too weak to support the weight of books. The paper's stories are credited with leading to the construction of the Harold Washington Library. 
     The "Bitter Lessons" series of 1987 exposed for-profit business and trade schools that were ripping off students and the federal Treasury for millions of dollars in student loan fraud. It resulted in the closing of more than a dozen schools and brought reforms in state law governing the schools and changes in the federal student loan program. 
     In the 1990s, the Sun-Times still digs for news as it always has. In-depth series such as "The Slum Brokers" and "Schools in Ruins" shook up complacent officials. The U.S. Postal Service was jolted into cleaning up its act after Nicodemus cataloged its dismal record of mail service in Chicago. Congressional power broker Dan Rostenkowski ended up in a federal prison after Chuck Neubauer, Mark Brown and Michael Briggs turned a bright light on his shady scams. Washington Bureau Chief Lynn Sweet broke the story of how the Democratic National Committee sold access to President Clinton and other high officials in the White House. 
     The Sun-Times continues to blow the lid off big stories. Last October, City Council power broker Pat Huels was forced out after the Sun-Times exposed his financial dealings. Not all of the Sun-Times is about uncovering corruption, of course. There is political commentary and reporting by Washington insider Robert Novak. The sports section is the perennial favorite of Chicago sports fans. Richard Roeper's view on modern life has become so popular that it is syndicated to newspapers nationwide. Gossip of all shades is dished by the triumvirate of Bill Zwecker, Mike Sneed and, the king of Chicago, Irv Kupcinet, whose landmark column just turned 55. 
    During the early 1990s, some questioned the future of the Sun-Times, saddled as it was with debt after its purchase by New York investors. That question was answered in 1994, when the newspaper was bought by Hollinger International, a multibillion-dollar empire of approximately 85 paid dailies, including such famed mastheads as the London Daily Telegraph and the Jerusalem Post, and 400 non-dailies. The purchase solidified the future of the Sun-Times, particularly with the commitment to new presses. Under Hollinger's direction, the Sun-Times went online in 1995, preparing a cyber-edition to mark its place in the burgeoning and uncertain universe of the World Wide Web.
    —First published in the Chicago Sun-Times, February 2, 1998