Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Old State House


     Was I a little uncertain about writing a Sun-Times column about taking the Boston subway? Sure. Because it seemed off point — literaly, by a thousand miles.  
     But I was interested in the process, and excited, and figured that enthusiasm would carry over and make the thing work. And it did, I think. The paper was excited about it — the audience engagement folks imagined some kind of eyeball grabbing feud with Boston. I did hear from people in Boston, including the couple I had quizzed on the Silver bus as to whether I was going the right way, who turned out to be Sun-Times subscribers. Small world. 
      And I talked about the column with John Williams for 1o minutes on WGN — always a lot of fun, first for the pleasure of conversation with the radio icon. Second, if I catch his attention, well, that means the column has grabbed the brass ring on its whir past the readership. 
     The column didn't mention my return journey, since it took place the day the column ran. But it also went smoothly. I gave myself plenty of time — that's key — setting out for a 12:20 p.m. American flight at 7:15 a.m., when my cousin's wife drove me to the West Concord station, where I had a very pleasant cup of coffee and cinnamon crumble muffin, reading my book, "The Winter Fortress," and enjoying the perfect spring day. 
     There was no ticket agent at the station, so I downloaded the app and bought my ticket online. Easy. Then took the Fitchburg line in, got off at North Station, caught the Orange Line to State, where it connected to the Blue Line.I followed the signs. Only instead of finding myself on the Blue Line platform, I was shunted up a staircase and outside.
     Unexpected. On the way in, I had stayed within the subway. But okay. Technology to the rescue. And here's where having three hours to spare helped. Google Maps told me I had to walk three blocks to get to the Blue Line station.
     No problem. Still a lovely day. And I walked directly past the building above — the Old State House. More than 300 years old. Where the seeds of our nation germinated, watered by atrocity — the Boston Massacre took place in 1770 out front. Five people died, a slaughter that shocked the nation. Our dormant sense of outraged, alas, now takes a lot more blood to germinate. You can murder 20 1st graders in a classroom and half the country yawns and mumbles about thoughts and prayer. 
      I'd been here before. But somehow,o happening upon the Old State House, by accident, taking public transportation ... well, one of the advantages, right? Sealed in the back of an Uber, you hardly notice your surroundings, never mind interact with them. You can't reach out and caress a brick that had been in place for over three centuries, and remind yourself of the depth of our history, the solidity of our nation's foundations. This tradition of freedom won't be so easy to undermine, not completely. Though God knows people are trying.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Out to Sea

      My parents' move from a one bedroom apartment in a assisted living facility to a single room in what is basically a staffed private home meant even more stuff sloshing into my possession. More piles of papers and albums of photographs. I added them to what I had already taken, unsure of when I'd ever get a chance to figure out what to do with it all, or even whether that was humanly possible. 
     At one point, I pulled open a filing cabinet draw and noticed a brown photo album with black pages, from the days when you positioned your photos inside with little gummed corners. I don't think this was from the most recent culling — more likely the one two years ago, if not before. I flipped through it — my parents as newlyweds, my sister as an infant. 
     And the above, which took my breath away. In some ways, it's unremarkable. Me, newly five — the margin says July 65, in that helpful way that old photos used to have their development month stamped in the margins.
     I'm sitting on an overturned tub in the barrel of a wheelbarrow in a square wading pool.
    So why highlight this photo?
    Because it's the moment that opens "Don't Give Up the Ship," the book I wrote about my father's time as a radio operator in the Merchant Marine, and the voyage on his old ship we took from New York to Naples in the summer of 1999. The book begins this way:

                                                         BOOK ONE: Out to Sea. 
             "Being on a ship is being in a jail with a chance of being drowned."                                                          — Samuel Johnson 
     My father made me a boat. It wasn't a real boat, just the bed of a wheelbarrow unscrewed from its frame, with a red plastic tub overturned in the center as a seat. On a bright, hot summer day. We had a small wading pool in the backyard of our raw suburban tract and he set the craft in the center of the square of water. I might have been four. Excited and amazed at my good fortune, I climbed aboard the boat. And sat, carefully balancing on the unsteady vessel. There was a single moment of pleasure.
     But my father hadn't considered the holes from the screws in the wheelbarrow bed. Four of them. The water jetted up, in gentle, dome-topped fountains, and within a few seconds the wheelbarrow boat sank to the bottom of the pool, which was less than a foot deep. I looked down at the water around my knees, then up at my father, who looked back at me.
     This was not how the voyage was supposed to go.   
     I didn't realize there was a photo. Seeing it, I wondered if I had been recounting the memory of the event itself when writing that little scene-setter, or or just remembering the photo. Is there a difference? Maybe I was combining the two, the photo embellished by recollection. But I must not have directly referenced the photo — I would have gotten the age right — I was only a month past four. And I remembered the bucket being red, which I wouldn't have know from the photo alone.
     I tried to do a Lucy Sante and pull all the data I could out of this frozen shard of 1965. In the lower left corner part of the aluminum folding chair, the seat and back a web for green and white nylon fabric, that everyone had in the 1960s. A bit above it, a discarded penny loafer — my father's certainly, removed for the purpose of getting me settled in my precarious vessel. The photo so artlessly framed that the stick of a tree in our backyard seems to be sprouting directly out of my head.The kind of indignity that would follow me my whole life, quacking like a pull toy duck.
     I'm not fat — I thought of myself as a fat kid. But that must have come later. My hair, bleached from the sun, blond-looking. Lots of time playing outside. And that expression? Squinting up at my father, not smiling so much as trying to smile. That missing front tooth. Before Phillip Flanigan's mother stopped short while driving her Ford Falcon and put my mouth into the top of the front seat, taking out the rest. 
     "Trying to smile." That sums me up pretty well, doesn't it? I could use that as a title for an autobiography. 

Friday, May 24, 2024

Ghost of Adam Toledo hovers over ShotSpotter debate

"Ofendra for Adam" (National Museum of 
Mexican Art)
     In 1983, the Art Institute of Chicago hosted a big exhibition of Vatican treasures. My brother and I went but split up at one point. "I'll meet you under the picture of Jesus," I said, and he laughed, the joke being: They're all pictures of Jesus. (OK, plus a few cherubs and lions and popes thrown in.)
     I thought of that quip when Brandon Johnson announced hiring a liaison to the progressive movement. Really? Isn't his administration already one big prance around the progressive maypole?
     Speaking of progressivism, can we think about ShotSpotter? Somebody should.
     Walk through the process. You hear a loud bang. You think, "Fireworks?" A few more and experience tells you: "Gunshots."
     What do you want to happen next? I suppose that would depend on several things. Are you shot? Are you the person shooting? Do you live in a neighborhood where this happens all the time? Where it never happens? Do you welcome the police? Or fear them?
     The gunshot detection technology that Johnson, through characteristic ineptitude, has bungled into an ongoing issue prompted the City Council to try to snatch the issue out of the mayor's hands Wednesday, the way you'd take something away from a bungler saying, "Here, let me do it."
     Over this flutters, like a Vatican cherub, the ghost of Adam Toledo. Three years ago, the seventh grader was walking at 2:30 a.m. in Little Village when his companion shot several times at a passing car. ShotSpotter alerted police, who rushed over. Officer Eric Stillman chased Toledo into an alley. He fired a split-second after Toledo dropped a handgun, turned and raised his hands.
     If you watch the body cam video ... here's how I described it at the time:
     "The footage makes for sickening viewing: the jumpy chase through an alley; the barked, ignored commands; the boy’s hands going up followed instantly by the gunshot. The red blood. Watching it once, I can’t imagine ever watching it again. Once is too much."
     Opinion immediately fractured — Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) lauded Stillman's "amazing restraint" — I guess for not firing the traditional 16 shots. Former U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez called it "an execution."

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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Roux the day.


     I referred to myself as "a punster" in the lede of my Wednesday column. I don't think I've ever called myself that before — blame shame,. Because it's true. Too true, crew. Ewww...
     Sorry. How bad is it? A few weeks ago I was in Hyde Park, with my young son and future daughter-in-law. You'd think I'd be on my best behavior. But one forgets oneself.
     The question of dinner arose, and as always, I was pretty much go-with-the-flow as possibilities were aired: there was an all-you-can-eat sushi place, a Thai place, a Southern place. Any of those were good. A restaurant called Roux was mentioned.
     I tried to resist. Shutting up is an art form. For a second, maybe two, I struggled manfully to stiff-arm the impulse. But failed.
     "You mean 'Rue,' the French street food place...?" I ventured, gazing at a spot on the wall.
    No, this is a ... my close blood relation said. 
     "Or do you mean 'Roo, the Australian restaurant...?" I continued, talking over him.
     My loved ones began to draw away from me, casting me sidelong glances.
     "Or 'Rue,' the regret-based theme eatery..."
     I would have kept going, had I thought of "Rue, the bitter evergreen herb tea emporium..." But instead I ran out of a homophones and stopped. The others gave a sigh of relief. We hit the street and walked over to Roux,which turned out ot be a a large, brightly lit place on 55th Street. I had the fried chicken and cranberry salad, which was quite good. The beignets weren't Cafe du Monde beignets, but did serve their purpose.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Persistence — and public transit — take you places

     BOSTON — They call the L the "T" here, and, punster that I am, my first thought was that both cities should join forces with someplace calling its train line the "B" and form a sandwich.
     Sorry. But I'm in a good mood, almost giddy, having navigated a challenging journey via public transportation from Boston Logan Airport to Boxborough, a suburb about 30 miles away. Densely forested, it makes Northbrook look like the moon.
     "Don't be cheap," my wife advised, urging me to take an Uber, which would cost $72, and take 90 minutes in nightmarish Boston traffic. The T costs $2.40, for starters, though unlike Chicago famously it charges more depending on how far you go. The Kingston Trio wrote a song about it.
     So, the train. But how? At first, Google Maps balked.
     "Sorry, we could not calculate transit directions from Boston Logan International Airport to ..." and here it gave the address of the cousin I'm visiting.
     Undeterred, I did that thinking trick machines still haven't mastered, studying a map of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority system. OK, I couldn't get directly to Boxborough. But the Fitchburg line stops at South Acton. Four miles from my goal. That would do.
     Yes, I'd have to take a bus, three trains and an Uber for that last leg. But heck, I wasn't in a rush. The purpose of my visit was to hang with my cousin, who's fighting kidney disease. He could use some company, though a fellow really must be in a bad way if he is expecting me to cheer him up. That's like throwing your kid's birthday party at the Holocaust Museum.
     Taking the T was worth it just to realize the powers that be in Boston, despite representing a metropolis founded in 1630, couldn't manage to run the train all the way to the airport. It stops 1,000 yards away. In Boston's defense, Mayor Michelle Wu makes a habit of joining Bostonians on their daily commutes to see for herself what's happening. Can't imagine Brandon Johnson doing that. He's studying the inside of the basket he's hiding under.
     I got off the plane, jammed onto the Silver Line 1 bus, and was on my way. Ten minutes later, we were at the Blue Line.
     "Which direction to the Old State House?" I asked a guy on the platform. Of course the other side, and the train was now arriving. I bolted up the stairs across the tracks and just made an incoming train.
     See, that's the great thing about public transportation. I was in no rush whatsoever, provided I arrived in time to drive my cousin to dialysis the next afternoon. But suddenly I'm Ethan Hunt racing against the clock through exotic train stations.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Salad as concept

     Think of a table. Now imagine it without a top. Or legs.
     No, seriously, imagine it. Right now. I'll wait.
     Doo-dah doo-doo. Doo ta doo...
     Done? Good. What have you got in mind? Nothing? The disembodied idea of a table? Congratulations, you're a philosopher, grappling with a problem that has vexed great minds since Plato, who talked about pure forms, which he considered divine. A chair in the messy physical world can have splinters and be missing a leg — and at some point, played with enough, becomes a stool, or a bed.  But the idea of a chair ... pristine. Perfect.
     Now look at the above photo of S & S's "Wild Maine Salad." I had walked into the deli with a hankering for my standard deli fare, a corned beef sandwich on rye. Maybe hot pastrami — my wife likes that better, and as the star at the center of my world, has drawn me toward her tastes, in the corned-beef-vs.-pastrami question, as in all things.
     But I scanned the menu, and noticed this salad. I'm a sucker for salads — eat one for lunch at least four days a week, sometimes more. And I'm a sucker for fresh mozzarella, blueberries. I can get good corned beef at Max & Benny's or Kaufman's or Manny's when I'm in the vicinity. When in Rome, and all that.
    I'm not complaining about this salad, which was indeed very good. Lunch had been a corn muffin and coffee, so I was hungry and ate every bite. But I did take a photo of it first — feeling a little ridiculous, because taking pictures of your meal has become a rube move, like lauding your host's indoor plumbing. "Why am I doing this?" I wondered. "I'm never sharing this or writing about it."
    Wrong. Look at the photo. Anything ... not quite missing, but in far less abundance than one might expect? Almost completely obscured by the chicken and fresh mozzerela, the blueberries and the candied pecans? That right: lettuce. The thing had hardly any lettuce at all. An inversion of what I had expected — I found of nuts with a garnish of lettuce, instead of the other way around.
     Is it still a salad then? What if the kitchen had left out lettuce out entirely? Would it still be a salad — a salad of chicken and nuts and blueberries? Why not? A scoop of chicken salad has no lettuce yet we call it salad. What is meant by the word "salad" anyway? The Oxford definition is: "a cold dish of various mixtures of raw or cooked vegetables, usually seasoned with oil, vinegar, or other dressing and sometimes accompanied by meat, fish, or other ingredients."
     So the vegetables are key, definitional — without them it's something else, and while the lettuce was there, its minimal nature begins to make us question whether the term even applies. Although ... why "green salad" then if salads are always green? Maybe the mistake is mine, a strong bias toward lettuce, which I do use in abundance. I've ordered salads with extra lettuce.
    Okay.  There can be a thin line between rumination and rambling, so I should wrap this up. But it's interesting to reflect on at what point does one thing transform into another? When does a salad change into an antipasto tray? A table into a chair. Day into night. A democracy turn into a dictatorship. The change can be so gradual you hardly notice, though I imagine it will come the way Hemingway famously wrote about bankruptcy: gradually then suddenly.

Monday, May 20, 2024

'Crime of the century,' a century later

Nathan Leopold (left) with attorney Clarence Darrow (center) and Richard Loeb 

    Chicago wasn't safe.
    Ghastly crimes regularly occurred, even in upscale neighborhoods like Hyde Park. The body of a murdered University of Chicago student was dumped at 58th and Kimbark. A young man went out to mail a letter and disappeared, his bloated corpse washing up on the beach at 64th Street a month later. A cab driver stepped from a streetcar at 55th and Dorchester, was jumped, etherized, and castrated — two other men were similarly maimed by "gland pirates" feeding the market for a quack testicle rejuvenation therapy popular at the time.
     And then 14-year-old Bobby Franks disappeared, on May 21, 1924 — 100 years ago Tuesday. Coaxed into a car near 49th and Ellis, then bludgeoned with a chisel wrapped in tape, his body doused with acid to hide his identity before being hidden in a culvert.
     Why has should that particular crime should echoed for 100 years while the others, equally horrible, faded? Why all the books and movies? The mystery didn't last long — 10 days. Suspicion quickly fell to a pair of teenage University of Chicago graduate students, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Self-described intellectual "supermen," they turned out to be lousy criminals. Leopold dropped his distinctive prescription eyeglasses near the boy's body. The two promptly confessed.
     Motivation made the crime stand out. Not the usual jealousy or hate or financial need, but to stave off boredom. Asked what gave them the idea, Leopold replied, "pure love of excitement, or the imaginary love of thrills, doing something different.”
     The crime had class overtones — both boys' parents were multi-millionaires. There was sex — Leopold and Loeb had a relationship and might have assaulted Franks.
     That both murderers were Jewish fed the attention in a nation rife with antisemitism. "Once again Jewish degeneracy and anti-Christianity have done their work in America,” the Ku Klux Klan's American Standard declared.
     That their victim was also Jewish — Loeb's cousin, in fact — provided the American Jewish community with relief; had he been a Christian boy kidnapped and killed, it was thought, the ancient blood libel would have surely flared up again.
     Having the effervescent Clarence Darrow as their attorney arguing to spare them from execution certainly helped set the trial in history.
     It made a difference that the case unfolded in Chicago, with its six aggressive daily newspapers. Two of them, the morning Herald and Examiner and the Evening American, were sensational sheets owned by William Randolph Hearst.

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