Saturday, February 4, 2023

Northshore notes: Soulshine

By Caren Jeskey

You are an ice covered twig
with a quiet, smiling sap
The spring winds of life
have tested your steel-blade soul
and the harsh breath of men
covered you with a frigid shell.
But under the transparent ice
I have seen your warm hand
ready to tear the shell
and grasp the love-sun’s heat,
and your cool morning eyes
look clear and calm into the day.
    — "Margrethe" by William Saphier
     As I lay on the ice the other day, I loosely wondered if people sitting in two parked cars overlooking Tower Road Beach might get concerned. Then I realized I didn’t really care — not as much as I needed to just be me, and spend some outdoor time scoring a session of free cryogenic freezing. Well, not quite the -250°F or so of a pricey cryo treatment. But at least a welcome infusion of eustress or “good stress.”
     It was Tuesday. The weather app said 9° with a colder windchill. Nonetheless, the blindingly bright sun and blue sky were an insistent invitation to get out there. Even with vitamin D supplements and two light-boxes (albeit seldom used) I’ve been having a mild case of SAD this season. I realized it during the first sunny day in over a month recently, when my body took on a life of its own, marched outside, and refused to go back in until sunset.
     Friends call my winter beach jaunts “sunbathing" even though the sun is usually hiding behind clouds. One old pal texted “have fun laying out,” which we did together in our adolescent years, baby oil mixed with reddish-orange iodine slathered onto our skinny bodies. We’d jumped on the bandwagon and used that particular bronzing formula as recommended by Joan Collins in her 1980 Beauty Book. We’d bring chaise lounges out onto a flat tar roof at my folks’ place, and bake away. Once I got so tan that it horrified me, and I remember calling Carson Pirie Scott in Skokie to ask someone at the Clinique counter if there was anything I could do to tone it down. All she could suggest was “moisturize.” Not too clever in my vanity. My father would implore us to get back inside like sane people. I recall him once braving blazing heat and sticky footsteps to come out to hand us an article about the dangers of skin cancer. That did not deter us. He has always had a good head on his shoulders, and we would have been wise to listen to him.
     I respect the ice and do not want to freeze to death. So I am careful not to venture out onto dangerous ice-shelves along Lake Michigan. On Tuesday I had carefully scrambled, in a low crouch, over layered wavy hills of frozen water that had formed over the sand, to get to the shoreline. There, rocks and fossils and lake glass patiently waited to be mined. My rock pick would have come in handy. Next time. The best I could do that day was pry a few out of the rock-hard sand and make a mental note to come back with the proper gear next time. Waders, a scoop, and those scuba-gloves I’ve been meaning to buy.
     That day sure paid off. After I'd picked up a few pieces, I laid down for a bit. I'd found some of the best glass yet, as well as cool pottery shards, and even a rock loaded with fossils fondly referred to as fossil soup. By the time you read this, the ice may be all nearly melted as we head into an unseasonably warm week. Perhaps see you at the shore.

“People don’t notice whether it’s winter or summer when they’re happy.”
      – Anton Chekhov

Friday, February 3, 2023

Gather in the newsroom for a brief meeting

     Harry Golden Jr. came striding into the fourth floor newsroom at 401 N. Wabash Ave. like a character from “Guys and Dolls.” The dean of the City Hall reporters, he looked sharp in a double-breasted pinstripe suit and well-shined shoes, the only jarring note his face, which looked like a skull. He was dying of cancer. We all knew it.
     Why is he still here? I remember wondering, slumped in a corner of the vast expanse of metal desks and stacked newspapers. Me, I’d be anywhere else but here.
     I was young, and newspaper ink hadn’t yet seeped into my bones. Wasn’t coursing through my veins like blood. Yet.
     The 75th anniversary of the first edition of the Daily Sun and Times was Thursday, and since even Stefano Esposito’s ambitious overview of our history could touch upon only a fraction of the reality, I hope you’ll forgive a few follow-ups, today and occasionally throughout the year.
     To have survived the Great Newspaper Die-Off and not only reach our diamond anniversary, but with the gift of a confident future, wedded to WBEZ, flush with new energy, money, talent and ambitions, is an occasion for joy and reflection.
     For me, on staff exactly half of those 75 years, thinking of the newspaper immediately conjures up colleagues long gone, answering the call to gather in the newsroom of memory. M.W. Newman drags in, rumpled, slump-shouldered, a dour man who wrote incredibly. In 1967, he described a killer hurricane this way: “Death came dancing and skipping, whistling and screaming, strangely still one second and whooshing and bouncing the next.” I never saw him smile.

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Thursday, February 2, 2023

Flashback 2000: Elmer Gertz, 93, champion of liberal causes

Elmer Gertz (ST file photo)

     Sunday morning was spent chatting with my friend Robert Feder at a breakfast event at his synagogue. Our topic was my new book, but he also asked about obituaries, and I mentioned how useful they are as a portal into Chicago history. 
     I've posted many of my favorites, but this one has so far escaped republication. It came to mind recently because a friend joked that I am old enough to have known Leopold and Loeb (sigh, notorious "thrill kill" murderers whose 1924 slaying of a 14-year-old neighbor, Bobby Franks, and subsequent trial, horrified the public). I replied that no, wiseguy, I didn't. Though now that I think of it, I did know Nathan Leopold's lawyer, and had been to his apartment. Not Clarence Darrow, who saved Leopold's life and allowed him to go to prison. But the lawyer who got him out.  

     Elmer Gertz — lawyer, writer and intellectual gadfly, whose scholarly pursuits brought him into contact with some of the great figures of his day and whose legal work associated him with several notorious killers — died Thursday at 93.  
     He was best known for winning the 1958 parole of 1924 thrill-killer Nathan Leopold, and for defending Jack Ruby, the slayer of Lee Harvey Oswald. He became friends with both men, visiting Leopold in Puerto Rico and serving as a pallbearer at Ruby's funeral.
     Mr. Gertz also represented the author Henry Miller in the landmark 1963 Tropic of Cancer censorship case.
     He was a famous champion of liberal causes and a staunch opponent of the death penalty.
     "He was an inspiration. He was one of the reasons I went into law," said grandson Craig Gertz, 35. "He represented principles of justice and fairness that I can only hope to carry on in his name."
     Mr. Gertz was 25 when the first of his many books, "Frank Harris: A Study in Black and White," was written with Dr. A. I. Tobin. Rebecca West called it "a great book," and it was favorably reviewed by the likes of H. G. Wells, G. K. Chesterton and H. L. Mencken.
     Harris was only one of many prominent figures with whom Mr. Gertz, to his never ending pride, corresponded, from Winston Churchill, Clarence Darrow and Leon Trotsky to George Bernard Shaw and Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde's lover. Harry Truman sent him more than 100 letters.
     He was born in Blue Island, near what was then 12th Street, the fourth child of Morris and Grace Gertz. His father, a Lithuanian immigrant, ran a clothing store at 39th and Cottage Grove; his mother died when he was 10. Growing up, he spent several years in orphanages, both in Chicago and Cleveland, with his father paying room and board, as was common then for motherless children.
     He attended more than a dozen schools, including Herzl elementary, where his classmate was future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg.
     He graduated from Crane Technical High School, then the University of Chicago. Inspired in part by the Sacco-Vanzetti case, he went to the University of Chicago Law School, receiving his degree in 1930.
     Mr. Gertz went to work as an assistant in the law firm of political fixer Jacob Arvey, where he worked 14 years.
     He had a role in Chicago's fair housing movement of the 1940s and 1950s, and was a champion of inclusion of African Americans in bar associations.
     Mr. Gertz was on Jack Ruby's defense team between 1964 and 1967, overturning his conviction for murdering Lee Harvey Oswald. But Ruby died before he could be retried.
     Mr. Gertz won election to the Illinois Constitutional Convention in 1969, and was chairman of its Bill of Rights committee.
     He received Israel's Prime Minister's Medal in 1972.
     After he was tarred as a criminal and a Communist by the John Birch Society, the libel lawsuit he filed took 14 years and reached the Supreme Court. The court's ruling in favor of Mr. Gertz extended protections against defamation.
     At the time of his death, he was a member of the adjunct faculty of John Marshall Law School and lived in East Lake View.
     He was a founder and past president of the Civil War Round Table, and also participated in the Shaw Society of Chicago, Public Housing Association and many other organizations.
     Survivors include a daughter, Margery Hechtman; son Theodore; six grandchildren; five great-grandchildren, and two brothers, Robert and George.
     Services are at 2 p.m. Monday at Weinstein Family Services, 111 Skokie Blvd., Wilmette. Burial follows at Memorial Park, Skokie.
          —published in the Sun-Times, April 28, 2000

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Black history just won’t stay buried

Metropolitan Museum of Art

     LĂ©opold Louis Philippe Marie Victor might seem an odd person to feature on the first day of Black History Month. He was white, spoke French and lived in Belgium. In fact, he was its ruler, King Leopold II.
     And while Black History Month has always been, quite clearly, American Black History Month, history is by nature expansive. Any honest inquiry should lead you down new and unexpected pathways. History is not restrictive, though you wouldn’t know it in Florida.
     I learned all about King Leopold in a shocking 1999 book called “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa” by Adam Hochschild.
     The little Americans know about Congo 125 years ago comes from lit classes teaching Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness,” whose claustrophobic horrors turn out to be nearly straight reportage. During the 23 years from 1885 to 1908 that Congo was the personal fiefdom of King Leopold — it belonged to the king, not to Belgium — an estimated 10 million Africans died, worked to death harvesting rubber, or slaughtered for resisting being enslaved, or from starvation after their villages were burned.
     What does any of this have to do with Chicagoans in 2023? A lot, actually. As jarring as the atrocities are — piles of amputated hands of Congolese who failed to gather their rubber quota, smoked over fires, so they can survive long journeys in the hot climate to collect a bounty — even more jarring, because it is so familiar, is the smokescreen of lies that Leopold sends billowing in all directions. At every step Africans are enslaved, their villages burned, their wives and children held hostage until they produce more rubber in order to acquaint them with Christian duty and the majesty of Western culture.
     If we simply must have an American hero in Black History Month debut, there’s a good one with the marvelous name George Washington Williams, “the first great dissenter.” He served in the U.S. Colored Troops of the Union Army, fought and was wounded during the Civil War, then lived an adventurous life that saw him a soldier in Mexico, a minister in Boston, a guest of President Benjamin Harrison and finally a visitor at royal court in Belgium.

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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Flashback 2009: Walking the thin blue line

Chicago police on parade, 1897

     Much reader reaction to my Monday column about the five Memphis cops charged with murder. One stood out, a Chicago police officer accusing me of harboring long-term animus toward Chicago's finest and never writing anything positive about the force. While it is true that I sometimes write critical things, I also write positive stories, whenever I can — such as this column, about two officers helping Englewood students plant a garden. I sent it to him, and a conversation ensued. People usually just want to be heard, and respected, and he went away with a far different attitude than when he first wrote. I also saw the police perspective more clearly than I had the day before. Supervision is an important factor that too often gets overlooked.
    Rooting around in the clips to get a sense of what I've written over the years about the CPD, I noticed this 2009 column below, when I joined officers picketing City Hall. It was not a warm welcome, but I did my best to present what they had to say. The column is from when my column filled a page and ended with a joke, and I've kept the joke.

     A great many Chicago Police officers —I didn't count them, but it was at least 2,000 — circled City Hall on Thursday to protest their lack of a union contract.
     Whatever the number, they made for an impressive display of law enforcement displeasure, a ring of cops, five or six deep, completely surrounding the block-square building, timed to coincide with a key visit of Olympic officials who will decide whether the mayor's dream for bringing the 2016 Olympics here will become a reality.
     With so many officers gathered in one spot, and since the most frequent comment I get from the law enforcement community is their voices are never heard, I could not pass up the opportunity to go there and talk to as many as I could.
     Of all the sore points — the 21 months without a new contract, their deep dislike of Supt. Jody Weis — the strongest beef is the way the city yanked back its contract offer.
     "We were in extremely late in the negotiations, they had an economic offer they made to 37 other city unions . . . and on March 16 they pulled it off the table" said Dennis Mushol, the Fraternal Order of Police union rep for the 19th District. "That's what precipitated this."
     They blame Daley, personally.
     "Why would he do that, a slap in the face of first responders?" said Bill Dougherty, FOP first vice president.
     Mark Donahue, the FOP president, said the city's withdrawal was "the most stupid thing I've ever seen happen."
     Dougherty said that if progress doesn't occur soon, their public struggle will continue on billboards, with another mass protest, perhaps at Taste of Chicago.
     The marchers were white and black and Hispanic, young and old, men and women, gray-haired veterans and kids held on shoulders and pushed in strollers.
     With the exception of union officials, the officers wouldn't give their names, because of fear of repercussions and disdain for the media in general (and, some made clear, for me in particular).
     Weis, a former FBI agent, was singled out for special contempt. "He's not a cop," said one.
     "Why is he still getting $310,000 a year?" one asked. "He doesn't deserve it."
     The protest was animated but orderly, and — needless to say — there were no arrests.
     To show you what kind of romantic I am, some part of me hoped that Daley might even show up — his office is just upstairs, after all.
     Because really, what kind of boss, what kind of leader, would let thousands of unhappy workers circle his office for 90 minutes and not stop by and at least pretend to care?
     I've written some critical things about cops, and walking among them — they tend to be a lot taller than me — trying to talk to them for two hours is not my idea of fun. But just as it was my job to be there, so it is Daley's job to give these officers the attention they demand and deserve, because in the end, whatever affects the police force affects us all.
     Any hope the protest will spur the city to action on a contract?
     "We'll see," said Donahue, noting that negotiations reconvene at noon today. "If he doesn't get the message now, he never will."
     The rank and file are not optimistic.
     "We could have twice as many guys out here, and he's going to do what he wants," said one.
     "I don't think it's going to be a good summer in Chicago," said another.

Today's chuckle . . .

     This slogan, from a T-shirt at the police protest, struck me as printable, barely:
     Q. How often do Chicago police officers get screwed?
     A. Daley.
                 —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 3, 2009

Monday, January 30, 2023

Five reasons why Tyre Nichols was killed

     How could five police officers beat a man to death earlier this month in Memphis? The answer is so obvious people overlook it: because they thought they could. Obviously, since they were in front of numerous witnesses — each other, the cameras they wore, bystanders — and still did what they did. Not impulsively or momentarily but over many excruciating minutes.
     As to why the five beat Tyre Nichols, 29, a FedEx worker stopped by police while driving home from a park — possibly after some traffic infraction, though there’s no evidence of that — numerous possibilities present themselves.
     The top five — there are more — in no particular order:
     1) because they’re cops.
     2) because Nichols was Black.
     3) because he might have questioned them or hesitated following their orders, which gets some police officers mad.
     4) because the cops were in a group and so reinforced each other’s violent behavior.
     5) because we live in a racist society where the lives of Black people aren’t seen as significant.
     That last one might seem improbable because the five cops, fired from the force and charged with second degree murder — things move faster in Tennessee — are themselves Black.
     That detail figured prominently in the reportage of the release of the video Friday night. Why not? It’s news. Usually, officers who kill Black citizens are white, which should not be surprising, as police departments are typically white clubs.
     In Chicago, a city that is 30 percent Black, only 20 percent of the Chicago Police Department is Black. Nationwide, the figure is 12 percent.
     Implied in the coverage is that Black officers would somehow be more sympathetic to their victim. Remember Reason No. 1. Police officers will be the first to tell you that their race is not Black or white, but blue.
     Notice how in Tennessee, as with George Floyd, or Rodney King for that matter, there were a lot of officers involved. Making none of them responsible — in their own eyes — to the citizen they were supposedly being paid to serve and protect. Their only concern was each other.
     Racism infects the downtrodden in society as well as the dominant class. Just as Jews can be anti-Semitic (hello Stephen Miller) Blacks can unconsciously absorb the diminishment of themselves and their own worth that has warped our nation’s attitudes and policies for 400 years. How could they not?

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Sunday, January 29, 2023

The Rookery endures

Chicago Botanic Garden, Jan. 1, 2023
     Call us crazy. But my wife and I continue to visit the Chicago Botanic Garden throughout the winter. Yes, it's less glorious than in springtime with its explosion of colors. Far less warm than in summer. And none of the golden muted palette of fall with its spicy brown autumnal smells.        But the garden in winter has a unique austere beauty. Not to forget far fewer people and, as Sartre reminds us, "Hell is other people."
     This is also the first winter with Patrick Dougherty's installation, "The Rookery," the star of the summertime, "Flourish: The Garden at 50" celebration marking the CBG's first half century. I loved catching sight of the little fairy castle made of willow saplings, an homage to the North Carolina woodlands of Dougherty's childhood. Some of the woven willow branches seem living, sending off green shoots. I enjoyed showing the castle off to guests, and felt sad that it would vanish with the summer 50th anniversary festivities. 
    Then it didn't. We were surprised by that. All the other artworks were removed, The Rookery stayed.
     I wondered if that was always the intention, or a spontaneous call, perhaps a reaction to how tremendously cool the piece is. So I asked. Turns out that was the plan all along.
The Rookery in summer.
     “We knew Patrick Dougherty’s creations held up well at other sites where he’s worked, so we planned for The Rookery to remain at the Garden following the completion of Flourish," said Jodi Zombolo, Associate Vice President, Visitor Events & Programs. "This type of installation is a great fit in its location here at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and we encourage visitors to regularly return to enjoy The Rookery and experience it in different seasons.”
     Which is where I'm going with this. I haven't yet gotten back to see it covered with snow — this weekend would have been perfect, but other responsibilities intruded. We'll make a point to do so at the next opportunity.
    In the meantime, I was browsing through my photo file and came upon this. In the summer of 2016, our oldest boy was interning at a Washington D.C. think tank, and of course we went to visit him in his Potomac exile. We impulsively visited the Corcoran Gallery, one of the smaller museums in DC, featuring contemporary art. There I photographed — then promptly forgot — this installation by Dougherty. I don't want to say setting is everything. But the Chicago Botanic Garden certainly did seem to inspire him to greater heights. Anyway, congrats to the garden for bringing him in, and double congratulations for realizing that the Rookery is too fun an addition to let go just yet.