Friday, December 31, 2021

Flashback 1992: A visit to Chicago's secretive transgender community



     The Sun-Times doesn't have its deep archive online, and since I refer to this story in my Sunday column, I thought I would post it here, where readers could see it. It ran under the headline, "Pretty, Witty—and Male; Cross-dressers keep culture close to vest."

     Jenny has sparkling blue eyes, a small, upturned nose and a cascade of curly blond hair tumbling over her right shoulder.
     With a rhinestone nail charm centered on each red fingernail, a dab of blush at her decolletage, and deftly applied make-up, it's easy to believe her when she says she spent three hours getting ready to go out.
     The shimmery blue and silver dress is custom-made, she says, and it's easy to believe that, too, since with the spike heels, Jenny tops out at perhaps 6-foot-7.
     "I'm a bigger girl, I know," she says, smiling radiantly. "I can't go out to a mall—hey, I've got a football player's shoulders.
     So instead, Jenny has come here, to a banquet hall on the Northwest Side of Chicago, where the city's tiny, secretive transvestite community is having one of its many regular social functions—this one a dinner and gala pageant to select "Miss Chicago Gender Society 1992."
     About 110 people—mostly men dressed as women, with a smattering of wives and girlfriends and boyfriends and even somebody's mother—mingle and chat, complimenting each others' dresses, primping at their wigs, sipping drinks.
     Less than 15 years ago, it was against the law in Chicago for people to wear clothing of the opposite sex. The ordinance was in place until 1978, when the Illinois Supreme Court overturned the conviction of two men arrested in 1974 for wearing dresses.
      Today, several hundred people belong to Chicago's two transvestite groups—the Chicago Gender Society, which admits any cross-dresser of any sexual orientation, and the Society of Second Self, or Tri-S, which limits its members to heterosexual transvestites and is more family-oriented.
     Still, transvestism is one of society's deepest taboos. While homosexuals have made progress in becoming better understood and, in places, accepted by society as a whole, transvestites struggle against a stigma so strong that few feel they can risk even revealing their real names.
     The president of Tri-S refused to have his picture taken, even dressed as Naomi, for fear fellow lawyers at his Loop law firm would recognize him. The president of the Gender Society, posing for a newspaper picture, quips, "My life is over."
     "I personally don't care (if people know I'm a transvestite)," says Leslie, a six-footer in a white mini-skirt and hoop earings who works as a contractor in the suburbs. "But I have to protect the rest of those people: my 7-year-old son, my wife, my other family members."
     Most transvestites describe themselves as heterosexual, though the term sometimes gets stretched a bit. One transvestite at the gala says he is heterosexual, but adds that he lives as a woman and dates men.
     Still, many transvestites have wives, families, and are not effeminate when dressed as men, many say.
     "I'm straight, married, I have a 9-to-5 job, a sales job," says Jenny. "I battle over turf with the rest of the sales people. I play baseball."
     Indeed, one academic explanation of transvestism is that it is the ironic result of a sort of super-masculinity.
     "One of the ways we understand transvestism is an attempt to integrate what are otherwise carefully separate parts of one's self," says Dr. Richard Carroll, director of the Sex and Marital Therapy program at the University of Chicago. "Some men, in most of their lives, are aggressive and hypermasculine, and it's as if some men have split off the feminine aspects of themselves so completely they have to cross dress and play a role to get in touch with the more feminine part of themselves."
     What is a mystery, however, is whether the strong masculinity is a cause of, or a reaction to, transvestism.
     "A lot of transvestites will overcompensate in male life," says Anjelica, who worked for years as a mailman "partly because of the uniform."
     Transvestites themselves, who generally say they began dressing in female clothing at a very young age, describe cross-dressing as a compulsion.
     "I just have to do it; it's like this urge," says Leslie.
     While transvestites are initially drawn to women's clothing as an erotic experience, the appeal often changes into a general state of well-being.
     "The sexual element becomes less important and dressing and passing as female more important. Just the experience of being cross-dressed is associated with a sense of calm, peace, and freedom from stress," says Carroll. "For many transvestites, the sexual aspect becomes less important as they grow older. It just feels peaceful to them. Some men describe it like finally being at home."
     Despite the calm transvestites find in cross-dressing, they can face a variety of severe emotional problems, the result of conflict between their inner impulses and the outer dictates of society. Transvestites are thought to commit suicide more frequently.
     Pervasive public ridicule, which can result in physical attack, also is a problem.
     Then there is the issue of dealing with their families. Some wives divorce their husbands after learning that they are transvestites. Others grow to accept it.
     Nicole, attending the Gender Society gala with her husband, Gloria, was married for four years before she discovered women's clothing in the trunk of their car.
     "I was devastated—I thought he had a girlfriend," she says, holding back tears. Learning that it was her husband's clothing came as a relief. "I thought, 'Oh, is that all? We don't have to get a divorce.' "
     Asked if she liked the fact that her husband is a transvestite, Nicole says: "I understand she has her needs." But some wives actually feel closer to their husbands when they are in their female roles.
     "In some ways, the partner preferred him when he was cross-dressed," says Carroll, referring to a high-level business executive and his wife. "He was calmer, open, more relaxed and more intimate."
     And not all transvestites tell their wives. Michele, attending the gala while his wife of 22 years was out of town, says the wife has no idea of his transvestism and he isn't going to tell her. "Why create a problem?" he says.
     Marriage can actually facilitate the development of a man's transvestism, since it takes him out of the posturing of the dating world and, not incidentally, provides ready access to women's clothing.
     "In the dating scene, you have to be one of the macho guys, a male male," says one cross-dresser. "When I got married, I didn't have to go through that ritual, all that pressure trying to find a woman."
     Several businesses in Chicago cater to transvestites. In addition to a photography studio, a beauty salon and a meeting service, there is at least one boutique, a nondescript storefront on Elston Avenue.
     Inside the boutique are racks of Cover Girl cosmetics, costume jewelry, jumbo-size Frederick's of Hollywood-type undergarments and clothes, mostly culled from secondhand shops.
     "We try to keep a low profile," says the owner, who goes by the name Karen when dressed as a woman. "They come here because we are discreet, quiet and no one bothers them."
     While he talks, four men, one at a time, slip into the store and head to the back.
     In the back of the store are a variety of transvestite publications on dressing, makeup and feminine deportment, as well as racks of paperback novels with titles such as "Trio in Skirts," "Girl for a Week," and "Men in Skirts." Karen describes them as "basically good, wholesome fantasies," though it is safe to say not everyone would agree.
     A common refrain heard again and again from cross-dressers is they are not trying to hurt anybody, just be themselves, living life the best they can.
     "Once you get over the question of men dressing as women, there is really very little unusual about it," says Karen, and, indeed, perhaps what is most unexpected about transvestites is how ordinary their lives can be, outside of their cross-dressing.
     Karen has a photo album of himself, in women's clothes, posing inside suburban interiors, mugging with friends at parties, dressed as a cheerleader, as Little Bo Peep, in an evening gown.
     But in the back of the album are a different set of photos—Ebbets Field memorabilia, Stan Musial's locker, a bat once swung by Babe Ruth—taken during a cherished visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
     "That's my primary interest," Karen says.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 24, 1992

"Plague? We don't need no stinkin' plague!" The State of the Blog, 2021

Clown with Drum, by Walter Kuhn
Art Institute of Chicago

     Credit where due: 2021 wasn't worse than 2020. We could be almost a year into Donald Trump's second term. Think about that.
     An infamy that might still be coming. Which is the tone that pretty much continued through the year. Bad, but not worse, unless that's on deck. Yes, the plague, surging with omicron yet not quite as lethal (unless that's coming). The orange traitor separated from his Twitter bullhorn. For now. Still, hundreds of thousands more dying of COVID. And the former Liar in Chief's followers baying for his return, while inveighing our current president, Joe Biden, who at times seems maddeningly inert.
     Honestly, I won't blame Republicans if they corrupt and subvert our electoral system and place Trump on the throne, I mean in the White House, in 2024. Because they certainly telegraphed their intentions. Clear. As. Day. And the Democrats are doing that Three Stooges thing they do, dragging their hands over their faces and hee-bee-bee-beeing and bumping into each other in a roiling ball of confusion.
      In some ways 2021 was worse, beginning as it did with the Jan. 6 insurrection, a rock nadir in American history (unless it's just the warm-up). One I came close to predicting in my column that day, "The South shall fall again. And again. And again." At least I set the stage:
The Lost Cause marches on, as we will see Wednesday, when Congress faces another ego-stoked rebellion: Donald Trump’s insistence that his clearly losing the 2020 presidential election in the chill world of fact can be set aside, since he won the race in the steamy delta swampland between his ears.
     Of course, you didn't have to be Nostradamus to see that coming. Then and now. January also saw my most well-read post, "In Defense of John Kass," which got nearly 10,000 hits. Again, not setting the internet on fire. But not bad, though I think it's more a reflection of just how many people fuckin' hate John Kass. The blog overall got almost a million hits in 2020, though I estimate that between a quarter and a third of that are robots. Bad? Good? Who knows? As the poet said, work is its own reward.
     In February, we bade farewell to Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis. March began by joining the Night Ministry as they treated homeless 'L' riders. In April, we glimpsed one of the earliest movies in existence, police on parade in 1896, and saw how a newsreel caught them attacking protesters then lying about it in 1937.
     In May, EGD chowed down with a hockey billet family. June we said goodbye to our cat, Gizmo. July saw three columns, out of four, about picking up after dogs, including one on how blind people do it, which might be the archetypical Steinberg theme. I was proud of that.
     In August, we visited the S. Rosen hot dog bun factory. In September, it was two visits with top sound engineer Steve Albini. October marked the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire.  In November, we marked autumn by pedaling around Elmwood Park, looking at trees. And December, heck, I don't know, the continuing time-suck that is the Jussie Smollett case stole a few more minutes from my life, and yours.
     What does it add up to? Hell if I know. 
     Thanks as always to our Saturday star, Caren Jeskey, who stuck 52 landings, every single week, without fail, without ever being late or making me sweat, even while moving to Chicago and enduring all sorts of adventures here. Deep gratitude to Marc Schulman, of Eli's cheesecake, who blessed me with cheesecake, with advertising, and the pleasure of his insights. Thank you for everyone who read, and who wrote in, particularly those with corrections. 
     On Wednesday, I turned in the final edited manuscript of the book I was asked to write, based on this blog, by the University of Chicago Press. It was enormously fun to write, and I can't wait for he book to come out in the fall. So something to look forward to. Which is about all anybody can ask nowadays. Stay safe. Thanks for reading. See you all every goddamn day in 2022. 

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Talk about haunting melodies....

     In 1972, I was in sixth grade, in Miss Benson's class in Fairwood Elementary School in Berea, Ohio. She was a severe, short-haired woman with glasses. I couldn't tell you her first name; I don't think any of us kids ever suspected she had a first name. The same way we never paused to contemplate her living arrangement, with Miss Palmer, the enormous secretary in the school office. Not for decades anyway, until the moment when the truth would occur with a growing smile of understanding and an "ohhhhh!"
     Only one moment from her class survives in memory over the span of half a century. One day, Miss Benson invited her students to bring in a record, to share music we liked. I can still see the albums that other kids brought in. Rolling Stones' "Sticky Fingers," with its real zipper. Jethro Tull's "Aqualung." 
     And my album, Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance," my parents bright red copy with a leaping Cossack. Of course I would bring that. I don't believe by then I had actually bought any music of my own. My allowance was 25 cents a week; I wouldn't consider buying a record any more than I would consider buying a car.      
       Besides, my parents had plenty of records, which we'd play on my father's Fischer turntable, a gorgeous thick metal turntable with a perfectly balanced tone arm we'd love to tap and watch float slowly upward. 
   I believe the day we brought in our own music is the only thing about 6th grade I remember, because my choice was not viewed with approval by my classmates. I don't remember anything more specific, whether kids laughed, or maybe one person said something. 
Some kind of veil of protective forgetfulness must be shielding me from the class reaction.
     Or maybe nobody had to say anything at all, and I, a perceptive boy, just took in their rock music, and my frenetic blast of Slavic gales, and realized all on my own just how out of the main current of American life I was swimming. Listening to it now, it must have been when the needle was set down and the music started playing and I cringed myself into a little ball.
     There was to be a lot of that.
     That moment resonated, nearly 20 years later, when I was getting married. The forced march to plan a big downtown wedding is far clearer than 6th grade. Picking a location—the Renaissance Room at the Intercontinental Hotel downtown, which had just re-opened after renovating. I liked the Babylonian bas reliefs. Choosing the menu, stepping around hanging slabs of beef in Fulton Market to try various meals at various caterers. The question of napkins: we were looking at green toile napkins that cost $600 to rent for an evening when my betrothed and I looked at each other and realized we had gone mad, and white would be fine.
     And a band. Much listening to inferior bands, much ratcheting the price, trying to find that sweet spot of something we could both afford and want to dance to. Up and up. I jokingly came up with what I called the "wedding unit," a play on the term "astronomical unit," a way to measure the vast costs of a wedding on par with a span to measure the enormous distances of the universe. An astronomical unit is the distance from the earth to the sun, roughly 93 million miles. A wedding unit was $2,000, since everything seemed to cost that or its multiple. Though sometimes a fraction: those napkins were 0.33 wedding units.
     The band we settled on, the Bradley Young Orchestra, was two wedding units. A 12-piece swing band. At some point, close to the big day, my beloved and I visited with Bradley Young at his home to pick music. He had a shiny enamel black baby grand piano, art deco furniture and bric a brac.
     Our song was "Feels like Old Times" from "Annie Hall," though that was a stand in for our actual song, the music that, dancing to at 950 Lucky Number on Wrightwood, changed us from two strangers dating to a couple that would be together for decades: "Bella Lugosi's Dead," by Bauhaus. A 12-piece swing band was not playing that, though we did ask them. We also had them play "Leave Your Hat On," the Randy Newman song that Joe Cocker sings in "9 1/2 Weeks."
     Toward the end, Young, sitting on the piano bench, asked us what music should be played when we entered the Renaissance Room to be married. Edie picked the haunting flute melody that every Jewish bride uses. 
    They turned to me. As a fan of cliche, under certain circumstances, I would have picked Wagner's wedding march from "Lohengrin."      
       But this was a Jewish wedding, and so no Wagner, just as I never got to say "I do" ("You say, 'anee l'dohdee v'dohdee LEE,'" explained Rabbi Paul Greenman. "You utter the syllable lee and you're married. If you say 'I do,' before you utter the syllable lee, it doesn't mean anything, because you're not married yet.' And if you say 'I do' after you utter the syllable lee, it doesn't mean anything, because you're already married.")
     Hard to argue with that logic.
     So when Bradley Young asked what music I wanted the band to play when my parents walked me into the Renaissance Room, I had a choice already, something meaningful, and personal, that would claw back a bit of a process that at times seemed to be unfolding without me. Not "Sabre Dance"—too frantic, even I knew that. But there was the march from "The Love of Three Oranges." I loved that, my whole life. It had a bouncy a whimsy to it. Something of a personal theme. Neil music.
     "You mean this?" said Bradley Young, playing it with, if memory serves, a Monty Python pianist leer, fingers bouncing high off the keyboard. "Brump-bump, brump-bump, bump—tah-bump. Bump, tah-bump. Bump-tah-bump, bumpt—tah-bump. Braddaa-dah bump...."
     It took about 10 seconds for me to realize just how wrong my inclinations were, how the song's ponderous March-of-the-Toy-Soldiers vibe would make me a figure of ridicule at my own wedding.
     No, I said, raising my hands defensively, Not that. I couldn't tell you what the music I walked into. Whatever the male version of the Jewish flute music that ushered my bride in. I thought about telling this story with my big "Love for Three Oranges" column yesterday, but obviously it wouldn't fit in. There's been a lot of that.


Wednesday, December 29, 2021

‘A musical lollypop’

 
Sergei Prokofiev, in the United States about 1919

   Farm machinery and opera.
     Not two realms that traditionally mix. You’ve got your threshers and combines over there, doing their business, and your sopranos and librettists in a completely different place, doing theirs. Never the twain shall meet.
     Yet perhaps the most famous piece of music that ever debuted in Chicago, 100 years ago Thursday, was first performed here and not New York or Paris or Moscow because Chicago was home to the International Harvester Co.
     Interested? Well tough, because that’s our topic for today.
     On Dec. 30, 1921, the opera “The Love for Three Oranges,” by Sergei Prokofiev, had its world premiere at the Auditorium Theatre.
     How did that happen?
     Four years earlier, after the overthrow of the czar, the U.S. State Department sent a delegation to Russia to check out the situation. The committee included Cyrus H. McCormick Jr., eldest son of the inventor of the mechanical reaper and president of International Harvester.
     In Petrograd, McCormick met the 26-year-old composer. Prokofiev’s name meant nothing to McCormick. But the ambitious musician certainly knew McCormick’s — Prokofiev’s late father had been a manager of large farms.

     McCormick was also a governing member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and quizzed Prokofiev about who he felt was most worthy of notice on the Russian music scene.
     Prokofiev, naturally enough, boosted the most promising young composer he knew: himself. McCormick sent Prokofiev’s published music back to Chicago (along with, to the Russian’s horror, music from lesser composers).
     ”To go to America!” Prokofiev confided in his diary. “Of course! Here was wretchedness; there life brimming over. Here, slaughter and barbaric rhetoric; there, cultivated life. Here, shabby concerts in Kislovodsk; there, New York, Chicago!”

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Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Chicago Botanic Garden Reflections

Chicago Botanic Garden, Dec. 24, 2020

     Christmas Eve was a good time to go to the Botanic Garden.
     Well, honestly, any time is a good time to go to the Botanic Garden. Mid-February. Late July. You name it.
     I mean extra good. Temperature nudging 50. Most people at home, busy ... oh, don't know, wassailing, whatever it is people who celebrate Christmas do. I have no idea, having never observed the holiday in any fashion, other than playing "O Holy Night" once on Christmas Eve. 
    Okay, Laura Vitez did invite me over her house in Berea about 1980. So I can report with authority that there is decorating a tree, and hot buttered rum on the stove, followed by caroling around the neighborhood. Quite fun. No wonder people like it.
     Anyway, so we're heading out the door Friday, and for some reason Edie noticed a light switch in what she still touchingly calls "The Toy Room" even though there are no longer any toys nor boys to play with them. As part of making out 115-year-old house a little livable now that we're not shelling out two tuitions, we had an electrician put in new light switches, even in places like the basement that never had them (we pulled a string on a light at the top of the stairs and then, when the string broke, twisted the bulb in and out. For about a decade).
     Anyway, she pointed out that this, too was a dimmer switch, demonstrating it.
     "It doesn't dim much," she observed, "But it does dim some."
     We froze. Have you stopped in your tracks, with a sudden sense of tingling possibility, like noticing a folded bill on the ground? Or a lepidopterist, seeing a colorful flash of wing on a honeysuckle bush? No? Well, good thing you're not married to me, because I did and my wife, being the mirror image of the pair, did too.
     "Dim sum?" one of us said. 
     Now punning is a low form of humor, that has been recognized as such for well over 250 years ("He that would pun would pick a pocket," Alexander Pope wrote). But those are intentional puns. An accidental pun, well, a rare and beautiful thing.    
     And something new. Now we would be challenged, when discussing dimmer switches, or passing them, or even out-of-the-blue, to invoke the dim sum pun.
     Otherwise, the puns are like well-worn pebbles, something to be caressed in passing. Normally, I take the lead in this department. Particularly on our walks at the Botanic Garden. Remember, we're already together, in the same house, pretty much 24 hours a day. On top of being together most of the past, ah, 38 years. So it's not like there's a lot to fill the other in about. Not much news. So occasionally I'll fill a silence by floating some lame wordplay, or a readily understood threadbare reference, not quite puns. Though on this day my wife, perhaps inspired by her dim some triumph, took the lead.
     "Should we go all the way to that bridge...?" she said, pointing out a span—the bridges at the Botanic garden are all unique and lovely in their own way, sinuous or straight, holding all sorts of vistas.
     I finished the thought, "...or is that a bridge too far?"
     Not funny, the usual sense of the word. But oddly satisfying. She was quoting, by the way, unknowingly, something Lt General Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning, a commander of British airborne forces in World War II, said when asked by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery if the 1st Airborne Division could take the bridge across the Rhine at the Dutch town of Arnhem.
    They were planning Operation Market Garden, the September, 1944 attempt to flank the German defenses in the Netherlands by racing across a series of bridges and crossing the Rhine into Germany.
     “I think we might be going a bridge too far,” Browning observed. (He was right. The Germans happened to have a Panzer division there, and the British and American paratroopers, the largest airborne operation ever, had their asses handed to them. Operation Market Garden is generally considered a failure, though it did overrun the German V2 bases, and that was a relief to battered Londoners). 
     Though the phrase was doubtless planted in our consciousness by the 1974 best-seller by Cornelius Ryan, "A Bridge Too Far," or the later star-studded movie.
      Later, she suggested we take a spin through the Rose Garden, even though there are of course no roses this time of year.
     "Okay," I said, "But that isn't a binding commitment."
     I'll let you figure out what I'm referring to.




Monday, December 27, 2021

OK, I admit it: Books are heavy


     How was your Christmas? Was Santa good to you? I got something cool. Well, not for Christmas, which we don’t celebrate, being Jews, but for Hanukkah, almost a month ago, which seems part of a different era. The last gasp of pre-Omicron society. A dozen people over to the house for beer and brats, latkes and songs.
     My wife bought me a Kindle, in keeping with her ongoing scheme of pressing upon me electronics I would never buy for myself because I’m morally opposed to them. It started 20 years ago with my first cellphone (remember a world without cellphones? Me neither). Back then, I wondered whether I should keep the present. Now, if I leave the house without my phone, which never happens, I feel like I’ve walked outside without pants.
     A Kindle seemed contrary to my bookish personality. Named in a sly tribute to “Fahrenheit 451” and its book-burning firemen (kidding; some grandiose Jeff Bezos puffery about kindling a reading revolution), Kindles aren’t new, but introduced in 2007. My wife has had one for a few years (a present from me; give the lady what she wants).
     She’s been singing its praises. But I resisted. It would be another device that I would have to master and cart around and keep charged. But two years into COVID, I’ll take any distraction I can get. I gave the nod.
     I decided to start my e-reading adventure with Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence.” It seemed a visit to a more elegant era, when people gathered in rooms.
     This is where the gift aspect was important. Left to my own devices, I’d have given up halfway through the check-a-book-out-of-the-library-and-download process, which at times resembled filing taxes. But it was a gift from my wife.
     And here’s why I’m writing this. If you asked me beforehand to imagine what the benefits of the Kindle might be, I’d talk about forests saved, or carrying an entire library in one sliver of circuitry, that kind of thing. Plus they illuminate; you can read in the dark.
     Nowhere close. The great thing about a Kindle is you can look up words easily. Who knew? None of this closing the book, getting up, padding over to a dictionary, flipping pages.

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Sunday, December 26, 2021

‘I’m overwhelmed with God’s goodness’

Sister Rosemary Connelly (Photo for the Sun-Times by Pat Nabong)


     “The day I walked into Misericordia, I really felt God’s presence, and wasn’t afraid,” said Sister Rosemary Connelly, 90, lunch untouched as we caught up at the venerable Chicago institution — 100 years old this year — where some 600 people with developmental challenges live and work.
     That was in 1969, when Misericordia was still on 47th Street. I wondered: why did the archdiocese pick her?
     “I don’t know,” Sister Rosemary said. “That’s been a mystery. They always had a nurse in charge. And I had a master’s degree in social work and one in sociology. Maybe that’s why.’”
     I’ve been visiting Misericordia since 1994, more than half her tenure. It’s a good story. When I read last week that Sister Rosemary is shifting her duties, now heading Misericordia’s new foundation, a role that “will likely involve public relations work,” I couldn’t help tamping down a smile and phoning her up to point out that PR involves taking media jackals to lunch. She could start with me. 
     Has COVID-19 been tough?
     “It has been,” she said. “Our kids have been wonderful. For a while they couldn’t go home, the ones able to go home. The staff just made it so pleasant for them. It’s been wonderful.”
     Notice that pivot Sister Rosemary does: always away from herself, toward others. Always grateful, never complaining, not that I didn’t try to draw complaint out.
     But how about her?
     ”l thought it wouldn’t last this long,” she began, deflecting the question like a matador. “They’re wonderful, the residents. Neil, they have been unbelievable. Because of the staff. They’ve stepped up. They’re extraordinary.”
     They’re also in short supply. Misericordia usually has 1,200 employees augmented by two dozen daily volunteers. Now they’re 100 staffers down, and the volunteers have to stay away.
     “It’s been hard on our kids, not having volunteers around,” she said.
     Projects have been on hold. Their 14th and 15th independent group homes — one on campus, one in Evanston — should have opened by now. By March, Misericordia will open a drive-thru bakery, and if you take away one thing from today, it should be the name “Hearts and Flour Bakery.” Started to impart vocational skills, it grew into a humming commercial establishment that’ll mail 10,000 packages this month. I’ve sent their products to my mother, my sister, friends. Fantastic. The heart-shaped brownies. I can’t recommend it enough.

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Saturday, December 25, 2021

Ravenswood Note: Bryophytes


     As is common with newspaper editors, I seldom give instruction. I don't think I've ever offered ideas to Caren Jeskey for her Saturday posts. She doesn't need them, and I know whatever she comes up with will range further afield than anything I could suggest. Though when we had lunch earlier this week, I was tempted to observe, "Saturday is Christmas." But she can read the calendar just as easily as I can, and I assumed she'd come through, which she did. Her report:

I Saw in Louisiana A Live-Oak Growing

I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without its friend near, for I knew I could not,
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined around it a little moss,
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room,
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,
I know very well I could not.  
                             —Walt Whitman
     There is nothing more comfortable than a bed of moss in a damp forest, with the fragrance of soil and strange complicated mushrooms dancing and winding all around. I’m pretty sure I’ve blogged about non vascular plants before, and I probably will again.
     For my beautiful godmother’s birthday (yes, this atheist was raised Catholic), I brought her a bit of moss in a terrarium. We named her Elvia Moss, after Mama Elvia, Vilma’s mother. Mama Elvia used to cook for hours in Vilma’s kitchen—crusty golden empanadas and arroz com pollo, while 3 year old me sat at the table watching, taste testing, and listening to her soothing Spanish voice. I did not understand the language per se, but always knew what she was saying. I’d babble back in English and she’d occasionally walk over and give me a loving pat with her soft, warm hands. Her eyes glistened with love.
     I cannot speak much about this past week without losing my holiday cheer, such as the people I know struggling with COVID brought home by their children and college students. Some are quite a bit younger than me, and it has them on their backs. They are scared and their holidays won't be the same. Others I know, and don’t know, are facing uphill battles that are scary just to think about. A musician friend who lost his home last year is facing another tough season as he watches his gigs fade away to safety measures.
     I feel extremely grateful for my life, and for the fact that I was able to have a lovely lunch with Neil (at Jerry’s Sandwich Shop, in a heated pod of our own, at a place that requires vax for all indoor diners, as well as masks (and yes, I know. Not the wisest this week, and I have decided no more of that for a while, damn you Corona). [Editor's note: funny that we both drew the same conclusion, though my post-lunch thinking could be described as, "Shit, am I insane? I just killed myself for a brisket sandwich...." NS]
     I enjoy my career greatly, and it feels like an extra special honor to be a therapist during the crises we are all living through. I spent Christmas Eve day with my beloved 8 year old niece who loves to rig up holiday lights and decorations (who I nannied for two and half years starting when she was 9 months old, thus we are forever bonded), and now my place is epically bedecked with lights and ornaments. She said she had a blast, and I sure did.
     The love I feel for and from my family and friends is palpable. We value each other more than ever before, and we are determined to practice right speech towards each other if it’s the last thing we ever do, and I hope that it is.
     I purchased Elvia Moss at Cultivate Urban Rainforest on Main Street in Evanston. She’ll just need three or four sprays from an aerator once a week to provide Vilma with a little bit of delight all winter long.
     My mother has been instructed not to read this blog until after gifts have been opened. I can’t wait to give her a precious Polynesian Ivy covered with a glass bell shaped cover that will keep her humid and happy. When we were kids we used to buy our Christmas trees from the front yard of the Chefas family on Devon. They now own what has become a refuge and an empire right in the city, Gethsemane Gardens, where Poly Ivy came from.
     I’ve known, as a long time nature lover and meditator, that growing things and savoring all that grow around us is a true form of medicine. These days, I look at the plants and propagating clippings that fill my home and I think “I am not long for this earth.” I marvel even more deeply at their beauty.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Local poet delivers the goods

Tim Stafford at the Green Mill.

     “You’re good,” I said to Tim Stafford, passing him at the bar at the Green Mill on my way out after two hours of listening to poetry the last Sunday in November.
     I didn’t have to say that. But I’m a nice guy — shhh, my little secret — and Stafford was indeed good, the standout of the first Uptown Poetry Slam in 18 months. He recited his “The Patron Saint of Making Curfew,” a funny travelogue about being young and racing back from the delights of the city to his unnamed, uncool suburb.
     Some readers might not know about the Slam. Marc Kelly Smith began the competition in 1984, and the shortest way to describe it is as performative poetry. Not poetry as you might remember from school, read in a plummy voice from a lectern, but verse delivered free form, with bonus points for anger and spittle.
     To me, the Slam is an essential Chicago event, like a Cubs game, with a $7 cover, a jazz combo noodling on stage and Smith your sometimes genial septuagenerian host, the crusty master of ceremonies at a nightclub in hell. The next Slam is Jan. 16; Stafford will be the featured poet.
     My compliment to Stafford resulted in a copy of “The Patron Saint of Making Curfew,” his newly published collected works, showing up in the mail. No kindness goes unpunished. I immediately decided, before opening the pink and lemon yellow cover, what my criterion for writing about it would be. I flipped the book over: $10. I’d write something only if it contains a thought worth 10 bucks. Otherwise, a shrugging toss into the deep, chill waters of Lake Oblivion.
     Because most poetry is crap. Truly. I say that as lover of poetry, a subscriber to Poetry Magazine. Forgettable, overwrought, bland. The poor editors of Poetry; what they must wade through.
     That’s harsh. To be generous, most poetry is written for someone other than myself. Maybe I like Stafford merely because he’s like me. His “Like Oz,” is an ode to Chicago from a distance, “a mountain range of glass and steel/that I was neither encouraged nor discouraged to climb./It simply existed as an elaborate backdrop/to my childhood.”

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Thursday, December 23, 2021

Flashback 2008: Celebrating oppression; The sure to be over-the-top opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics

The Field Museum

 
    Well this is eerie. With both the dual prods of COVID and morality encouraging some to drop out of the 2020 Winter Olympics in Beijing—the National Hockey League is the latest to announce it won't be going—I thought about writing something on that. I also considered the unexpected salvation of the Thompson Center, how odd that this hideous white elephant is suddenly a beloved icon worthy of preservation. But both felt so ... tired. Been there, done that. I've been complaining about the Thompson Center building literally since the moment it was built. 
     In the meantime, I noticed this column, from 13 years ago, when I rang both bells. Everything old is new again.


OPENING SHOT . . .

     Olympic opening ceremonies tend toward Chinese-style epic pageantry no matter where they are held. From Seoul to Sydney we got squads of acrobats, platoons of uniformed teens twirling ribbons attached to sticks and other displays of massive hoopla.
     One can only imagine how much more eye-popping tonight's Olympic kickoff will be, since it is created by the Chinese themselves.
     While we sit and absorb the agitprop, amazed, choking up at the inevitable Coke commercials with beaming youngsters handing gleaming red soda cans to old sages in conical hats and wooden clogs, we owe it to ourselves, as the freedom-loving Americas we once were and may yet be again, to pause and recognize the political reality underlying all this immense gloss.
     Did hosting the Olympics promote the rights of people in China?
     "Not at all," said Xiao Nong Cheng, executive director of the Center for Modern China, a think tank in Princeton, N.J. "This Olympics is bad, and China's people have lost even the smallest right to talk."
     Cheng pointed out that in the run-up to the Olympics, China, terrified at losing face on the world stage, suppressed its citizens even more than usual, and that indications to the contrary—such as a recent Pew survey—are merely lies.
     "The Pew ignored a basic fact that surveys in China, according to official regulations, have to be approved, and all the data filtered," said Cheng. "There are no independent surveys in China. These are controlled, manipulated surveys. The data is not reliable."
     He added that the world media, rather than turn a spotlight onto China, is instead muzzling itself in order to cover the Games.
     "If foreigners want to be in Beijing for the Olympics, they have to seal their lips and follow all the rules the Chinese government set," he said. "The Chinese government worries that the free expression of foreigners might signal to the Chinese people they are supposed to have rights to talk freely and have press freedom."
     There, just had to get that off my chest. Enjoy the Games.

ARE YOU HOT OR COLD?

     Chicago is famous for its architectural treasures, but we also have our share of dogs, though they don't get the same kind of attention.
     I am perhaps more attuned to these design disasters, having spent 17 years working in the old Sun-Times Building on Wabash, a squat barge-like trapezoidal gray monstrosity that Time magazine once called the ugliest building in the city.
     Another contempt-worthy structure is Helmut Jahn's Thompson Center—the old State of Illinois Building—much ridiculed for its hulking elephantine exterior, its gaudy, dated blue-and-orange metal panels, and the most unattractive piece of public art in North America crammed into a tiny plaza, the Dubuffet sculpture Chicagoans refer to as "Snoopy in a Blender."
     To its aesthetic failure add a history of technical problems, primarily in cooling. The designers forgot that they were constructing a big glass box, and the air-conditioning system, an energy-friendly Rube Goldberg device that involved forming a giant ice cube at night and wafting air over it during the day—just didn't work. Government employees sweltered until they added shaded film to the windows and auxiliary air conditioning.     
     So it came as a surprise when a state worker complained to me that on certain days the place is not too hot, but too cold, the temperature—he assured me—dialed down specifically for the governor's comfort, when he is in his office there.
     As much as I savor the image of an embattled Rod Blagojevich insisting on frosty temperatures, just like his hero Richard Nixon did when he was in the White House, it also seemed to demand verification.
     "It's hotter than hell in here," laughed the governor's press secretary, Dave Rudduck, denying the notion. "The building itself is poorly designed. I've got a fan going right now."
     Disappointment lasted only a moment, however, replaced by realization of an even larger story: They still haven't fixed the air conditioning? After all these years?
     Good God, how poorly does that bode for our hopes of their solving even the slightest Illinois ills? If our state bureaucrats can't even correct, over a span of decades, the dismal working conditions that they themselves endure, if they are thwarted in finding a way to cool down Helmut Jahn's glass box, what chance is there of them correcting the countless woes afflicting residents of the state? Not much.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, August 8, 2008

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Bears down and murder’s up

     How bad is it? I watched the Bears game Monday. Part anyway. The end of the second quarter. Enough.
     Why would I do that? Beats me. It was evening. End of another unexceptional day in Year Two of The Forever Plague. The old friend who was supposed to meet me for lunch downtown canceled at the last minute. Sick. That was disappointing. I was looking forward to going into the city, or what’s left of it. Maybe watching the game would connect me with the larger world, the community spirit of Chicago.
     My announcing that I felt like watching the Bears must have alarmed my wife. She joined me, to monitor the situation.
     “They get four attempts to move the ball 10 yards,” I explained, trying to bring her up to speed.
     “I know that,” she replied.
     Earlier, when lunch was still on, I contemplated the walk from Union Station to Michigan Avenue. Not too cold. Would a raincoat do? Yes. And what if I got shot? (Is that crazy? My hunch is, it’s exactly the calculus people perform nowadays.) No worries: I’ll tell my wife to bring the laptop to the hospital, so I could write up the experience. That would make a gripping Wednesday column ...
     But would it satisfy readers demanding more about shootings? Probably not. Whatever I write about, they pepper me with with complaints: “Waffles! You’re a joke! Write about the 800 murders in Chicago?!” You’d think that would be coming from city residents frantic over the crime spike. But they’re always from people who obviously a) don’t live anywhere near Chicago and b) don’t seem to really care much about urban crime or the people it affects.
     Rather, they are are angry red-staters trying to score points on the Fox World tally board. Crime is a real tragedy and constant worry in Chicago, even among those of us with little to worry about. But elsewhere it’s a schoolyard taunt, the kind of look-a-squirrel whataboutism that passes for argument.
     What’s there to say? Murder is up in Chicago because it’s up everywhere. That’s no big secret. “The U.S. murder rate rose 30 percent between 2019 and 2020 — the largest single-year increase in more than a century,” the Pew Research Center reported two months ago.
     And 2021 is just as bad. A dozen cities will break their all-time murder records. Chicago isn’t one of them.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Grow where you're planted



     I have 47,485 photos up in the Cloud.
     Quite a lot really.
     I try to weed them down, occasionally cutting blurry or redundant shots. It's a good mindless task for when I don't feel like doing anything else. But still I snap 'em faster than I can delete them, obviously.
    And you never know when one might be useful.
     Take this wall. I was rooting aimlessly through the photos Monday night, looking for, well, something, when I came upon the above, a shingled storefront in the town of Castro, Chile. I took it in 2019 while my buddy Michael and I were wandering around that Patagonian coast. Which sounds so good about now, when there is no prospect of going anywhere. 
     I've written about the town before; a nearby cheese shop. I liked these shingles because they were unusual, and a lovely faded red, and decorative. There was a style to their spacing. And I suppose a little composition to the shot: the window with the baskets almost seems like the canton of a flag.
    I took a second photo, of a restaurant nearby. I'll tuck it below. It isn't as good, as a photo. All those windows. But I wasn't trying to be arty, just show the interesting edging to the shingles. 
   Is there a lesson to pull out of this? Beyond "Cool shingles." I mean, I could leave it at that. But that would be, oh, a failure of some kind.     
   You have to wonder how the practice started. Maybe at one point there was a sort of unspoken competition, between shop owners, trying to outdo each other with their fancy cheap wooden shingles. It was luxury they could afford. It wasn't much, but it was what they could do.
    Hence the lesson. Embroider your world how you can, if you can, even in your modest little hamlet at the far end of the world. Because someone might come by and appreciate it, and if nobody ever does, then you can appreciate it. And that's something too. 



Monday, December 20, 2021

Leggo my (union-made) Eggo, for now

 
  
    “Eggo waffles are out,” my wife said. 
     “They are?” I replied, thickly. “I thought we still had some in the freezer.”
     I had just been contemplating pairing some waffles with turkey sausage links, as a change of pace from my traditional grapefruit and English muffin.
     She gave me the “Am-I-really-going-to-have-to-explain-this-to-you?” look. Pity, wedded to exhaustion, lightly sprinkled with disgust.
     “No,” she said, evenly. “We can’t buy them anymore.”
     Ah. Now I got it. Solidarity. The Kellogg’s Co., makers of Eggo Homestyle Frozen Waffles, is threatening to fire its 1,400 workers on strike at four plants since October.
     The issue, a “two tier” compensation system where employees hired after 2015 are paid less. The company has advertised for replacement workers, aka, scabs. A couple days ago, Kellogg’s claimed they’ve reached an agreement, but the union still has yet to approve it. A previous supposed deal fell through.
     “We’ll make our own waffles,” I said, getting with the program, after quickly doing a mental inventory of whether the breakfast cereals I actually eat are made by Kellogg’s. Nope: Wheat Chex are from General Mills, and Shredded Wheat from Post. So we’re good to go with the Steinberg household union action against Kellogg’s.
     My quick check, to gauge whether shunning Kellogg’s would actually affect me, personally, is a reminder that, as a rule, boycotts don’t work.
     At least not by materially affecting the target of the boycott, cutting sales and such. That’s because when you take the waffle-buying public and sift it three times, winnowing down A) those who know what’s going on regarding a specific situation, say a strike of Kellogg’s workers; B) those among the knowledgable who care enough to actually do something; and C) those who are willing to do that something for a protracted period of time, well, you end up with a small number of people.
     Boycotts do have other functions. They can work well as threats. A tool that is only effective if never used. Just ask Jesse Jackson.

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Sunday, December 19, 2021

Come and get me, COVID

 

     Is it me, or have things kinda ... shifted the past few days? Slipped, degraded, deteriorated, soured. 
     Thanksgiving was here, and it was busy and great. The day after omicron showed up and suddenly, wham, better and better suddenly became worse and worse. Even those of us with our three shots—vaccinated and boosted and ready to rumble—pretty much have nowhere to go. We lost our horizon, as I like to say. Suddenly the clear skies grew murky. Again.
     Okay, that's melodramatic. A lot of that, too. Drama. Things are not so bad, at least for me. Just last weekend, when I dwelling darkly on how we weren't going anywhere or even having the prospect of going anywhere, I decided, "Heck, fuck it" and told my wife, we've got to get out of here, if only into the city. Chicago is right there, let's poke around, as much as safety allows. She'd never been to the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen. Let's go, let's grab some lunch first. So we made reservations at a nearby restaurant—5 Rabanitos, about two blocks away—and headed out for lunch then the museum.
     That was a good call. There was nothing wrong with me that a good avocado, scallop and shrimp ceviche couldn't fix, followed by honey-glazed chicken and roasted vegetables, washed down with a horchata. Food helps.
     The Mexican museum is really an under-appreciated wonder. Colorful, provocative art, particularly the COVID-themed Day of the Dead exhibit, which I wrote about when it opened.  Art helps. 
I have to share George Rodriguez's "Mictlantecuhtil Offering," above and below, with its friendly little skulls and bottles, not of vaccine, but of COVID.
     Mictlantecuhti, by the way, is the Aztec Lord of the Dead. Fearsome, but also friendly. At least in this representation. Which makes sense, since it is not so much death that we are afraid of, that is rattling us, most of us, but how the rampaging illness is constraining of our lives. We aren't used to hardship. It's hard. But that's okay. Because we're strong people, and what's the point in being a strong person if you never get the chance to show of your stuff?
     That's not my original thought, it's Seneca's, digested years back and spewed forth now. But it fits. COVID is either never going away, or at least not going away anytime soon. So the trick is to neither lose our lives, by dying of the disease, but also not by so constraining our existence that we might as well be dead. Of course you have to get your vaccines and mask up—not for yourself so much but for the benefit of other people, an aspect that seems to never even occur to a lot of idiots.
     But you have to also grab food and fun where you can. Life while you are alive—which is also not me, but I can't place who said it. 
     This started out bleak, because honestly, with the early dark on Saturday evening, I felt pretty bleak. But you can be plenty bleak on your own, without me piling on more desolation. So I figure, skew into the light. No matter how long this lasts, most of us are going to be fine. So let's be fine. Or try to be.



Saturday, December 18, 2021

Midwest Notes: Flying Monkeys

Paducah, Kentucky (Photo by Caren Jeskey)

     Like you, I always learn something new from Ravenswood Bureau Chief Caren Jeskey. Today that includes Calgon moments, which somehow eluded me, and allostatisis. Her Saturday report:

     We’ve all had our "Calgon, take me away!” moments. The world seems to spin around us at a dizzying pace. Just as we’ve taken a breath, another wave washes over our heads. Then another. This may result in days of feeling uneasy. We rant, we rave. We are right! They are wrong! If not put into check, the days can lead to weeks, months, years, and even a lifetime of misery.
     With a conscious effort to heal what’s ailing us—whether through standing up for ourselves, letting go, choosing battles, wise counsel, medical care, finding unconditional support from those who love us, listening to a podcast that brings hope, taking a nap, taking a deep breath, going to sleep early and knowing tomorrow may look better with fresh eyes— we can turn the tide. Humans have evolved to adapt, but it’s not always best to take adaptation lying down. Things can get better.   
     One way to prevent getting sucked down the wormhole of despair is practicing gratitude. Granted, sometimes feeling grateful when worn down is asking too much. For some it’s harder than others. Your inability to right the ship may be related to a heavy allostatic load, which I think of as a backpack one carries around. It might have an illness inside. Financial stress. The effects of intersectionality. Grief.
     What are you grateful for? A cup of coffee? Education that provided you with the ability to read and comprehend these words? Maybe you are the type of person who bursts with gratitude for things large and small every day.
     I guarantee that today we are all luckier than the folks down in Kentucky, Arkansas, and Illinois who lost everything this week. Having spent the month of May in those three states, this global warming catastrophe brought me to full blown tears. I pictured the beauty of rambling vine and moss covered countryside. The kind folks along the Ohio River. The Shawnee National Forest and all of its critters and greenery.      
     Trailers, mansions, cemeteries, and revivalist churches peppering the Arkansas hills. The Airbnb where I stayed for one night in Winslow, a house up on stilts overlooking a lake, wind howling though the night. I wondered if everyone was OK? 
Calvert, Arkansas
   I reached out to my hosts and was relieved to find out that they, their homes, their pets and ranch animals all made it through. Sadly, with the exception of a kind host who was terminally ill in May, and has left this earth. Their spouse is besotted with grief, and I’m glad I reached out. I hope I was able to provide words of comfort. I tried.
     
The worst of the Kentucky storm in Mayfield is a 23 minute drive from where I had stayed in Paducah. While I was there, I worked sitting at a little table overlooking a placid pond. It was the picture of serenity. How precarious it all is.
     On the first leg of my trip, back on May 2, a tornado touched down at the airport near the tiny house on a ranch where I was staying. I was white with terror. Shaking uncontrollably. It was too late to go out into the Oz-like winds and find the storm shelter. Friends got on a group text and stayed with me until the threat was over. “Go in the tub!” There was no tub. “Go into the hallway!” There was no hallway. “Go into he basement!” No basement.
     I cannot begin to imagine the shock and horror of December 11th, especially in Mayfield KY. Here is one way we can help. A tornado touched down right here in Chicago last year and removed almost all of the trees in the field of my childhood school. We will not be untouched by tragedy and pain in our lives. But we can find comfort in many different ways, including connecting with others, helping where we can, and not being too proud to ask for help when we need it.
     Or as a typically cool-headed friend commented recently “don’t ever say ‘nothing else can possibly go wrong.’” Because it can.

Paducah Seawall


Friday, December 17, 2021

Mayor takes aim at your pudgy children

Barbara Kruger (Art Institute of Chicago)
  

     Pop quiz!
     Which has more calories, apple juice or Coca-Cola? Take your time. Weigh the options: pure, natural apple juice, pressed from God’s crunchy red ripe apples harvested from lovely orchards? Or carbon dioxide-infused, artificially colored, sugar-laden soda pop, concocted in dark, clangorous factories?
     Bzzzzzzzt, time’s up! Of course, the apple juice is far more fattening. Coca-Cola Classic has 140 calories for 12 ounces, while the same amount of Mott’s Apple Juice has 180 calories. About 28% more. Quite a lot really.
     Which is only the first reason to shake your head, sadly, after Mayor Lori Lightfoot introduced an ordinance at Wednesday’s City Council meeting — let’s call it the Make Our Kids Even Fatter law — requiring restaurants selling special meals to kids to favor apple juice over Coke.
     The worry, the mayor said at a news conference afterward, is that kids are “reflexively being given really high-caloric, or very high sugary drinks.”
     Her solution? Unhappy meals. Of course, the law is more complex than merely swapping juice and soda. There is a litany of city-approved beverages — sparkling water, 100% vegetable juice — that can go into children’s meals. The ordinance reads like the dietary laws in Deuteronomy.
     Conjuring up the specter of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s notorious soda tax. You remember, the summer of 2017, when Preckwinkle told Cook County residents they were too fat, so she would be charging more for the sweet drinks they guzzle.
     Everyone recalls the tax was really a money grab disguised as good nutrition (making Lightfoot’s current stunt even worse, as it costs money to enforce and doesn’t collect any). The fiasco is part of the reason the snappish Lightfoot was able to crush the once-respected Preckwinkle in the 2019 mayoral election.
     Less remembered is that, besides being ineffectual and insulting, the soda tax was also a bookkeeping nightmare for grocery stores, which suddenly had to categorize every single can of beverage and weigh whether this new tax applies. Now, thanks to our mayor and clerk, every employee at Wendy’s is going to have to suss out what juice box they’re tucking in — is that Sunny D or orange juice? Because running a restaurant just isn’t complicated enough.

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Thursday, December 16, 2021

Flashback 1994: Group Serves Up Hope for Disabled Residents

Server at the Greenhouse Inn


    Having just written a blog post Tuesday about putting my suit jackets away, it makes sense that Wednesday I found myself slipping into my blue Lauren blazer to go to lunch with my old friend, Sister Rosemary Connelly, at Misericordia, the revered Chicago residence for people with development disabilities. 
     I thought I might feature that conversation Friday but, honestly, she was so inspiring, I think I'll save it to closer to Christmas. It'll perk up the holiday.
     In the meantime, we reminisced, and I mentioned how I first heard of Misericordia. I was the charities, foundations and private social services reporter, and called them for an article I was writing about charities that go door-to-door. I cold-called Misericordia, which does not collect door-to-door. But while I had someone on the phone, I asked, "What is Misericordia anyway?" I had no idea; it could have been a disease. (The word is Latin for mercy).
     She mentioned the various programs they have and then added that they also have the Greenhouse Inn, a restaurant fully staffed with people with Down Syndrome and other challenges. I asked if it was some kind of training restaurant, something to help residents learn skills, and was told no, it is a public restaurant, with a sign and menus and customers who pay money. I had to see for myself. It's been closed due to COVID, of course, but this will give you a sense of the place until it reopens. Misericordia now has 600 residents, and their bakery will turn out 10,000 gift baskets this season. I've sent them to friends and relatives, and if you are stumped as to a great Christmas gift, their Hearts and Flour Bakery is the answer to any dilemma. 

     The Greenhouse Inn at first glance seems to be a regular, run-of-the-mill family restaurant, perhaps a little nicer than most.
     The decor is sea-foam green and pastel pink, with cheery if not quite inspired artwork and hanging plants. The napkins are linen, and slices of lemon float in the ice water. There's a salad bar with melon slices and hearty soups, and even a little bakery section, where customers can take home specialty breads and delicate pastries.
     But the Greenhouse, 6300 N. Ridge, is one of the most unusual restaurants in Chicago. You get a hint of that before you even have a chance to sit down.
     "Hi, I'm Rhonda," says a waitress, earnestly, extending her hand to shake.
     Rhonda is a slight woman, 23, and her features have the distinctive cast of a person with Down syndrome.
     So does Richard, in his chef's hat, filling orders back in the kitchen. And Brian, washing dishes. And Bill, clearing tables.
     In fact most of the employees of the Greenhouse Inn are people with disabilities, either Down syndrome or some other type of condition.
     "The restaurant reminds me of a tea room, so light and cheerful and happy," says Lesley Byers, a spokesman for Misericordia, a residence run by Catholic Charities housing some 450 people with disabilities at two locations. "It shows such a positive feeling, and is so non-institutional. It surprises a lot of people here for the first time."
     The Greenhouse Inn, reopening today after its summer hiatus, is one of many businesses run by Misericordia, from a crafts and ceramics manufacturer to a greenhouse to a full-size professional bakery.
     All are designed to give residents job skills and, not incidentally, offer the public a chance to learn that people with mental and physical disabilities are capable of functioning in productive ways.
     "You think, `This is the '90s, people are more open and understanding,' " Byers says. "But there is still such a stigma against people with any type of disability—minds are closed against them."
     The Greenhouse differs in a few ways from a regular restaurant.
     Since some of the employees can't read, patrons mark their own orders on brightly colored order slips. The restaurant cannot advertise because of its nonprofit status and, perhaps most unusual for an urban eatery, the workers are not all aspiring actresses or playwrights, but people who really want to work in a restaurant.
     "I like to serve food and drinks," Rhonda says. "It's fun."
     "It helps me with my confidence," Bill, 25, says. "It's also good for friends and volunteers. And the free lunch."
     That is not to say that the job is without its drawbacks. Like anywhere else in the food service industry, the pace sometimes gets to the employees of the Greenhouse.
     "Stress," Bill says, asked about the drawbacks of the job.
     "Walking around too much," Rhonda says.
     Another waiter, Scott, looks weary as he trundles toward the kitchen and, asked why, slaps the back of a hand to his forehead and says, "I'm a wreck."
     About 40 residents work for the restaurant daily, aided by Misericordia staff and volunteers, who do some of the more dangerous tasks, like working the grill.
     Like any restaurant, the Greenhouse attracts a particular clientele. No sharp guys in Armani suits with cellular phones stuck to their ears here. Patrons tend to be older and many are from the neighborhood, such as the Bible study group that was having a going-away luncheon for one of its members. "We like to come here—it's always fun," Don Breting says. "The servers are happy people."
     The Greenhouse Inn is open weekdays from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
                        —Originally published in the Sun-Times, August 8, 1994