Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Cook County Fail: Case Delays Costs County $80 million annually

     You have to chase Toni Preckwinkle. Anyone who has ever gone anywhere with the Cook County Board President knows that she doesn't waste time worrying about where you are. She hits the ground running, and if you don't want to lose sight of her, you better run too.  I've chased her several times through the Cook County Jail, on our way to bond court, and it's always an adventure.
     This story originated with Preckwinkle—she wanted people to know what a mess the Cook County Criminal Courts are in, particularly bond court, and it's too bad that such a complicated problem had to be squeezed into 1300 words, but I'm sure I'll return to it in the future. I also had to give space to Chief Judge Timothy Evans' view of the situation. He's a nice guy, but not, as far as I can tell, a dynamic agent for change in the legal system. Criminal court would be an enormous problem to address even if everybody were on board, and they're not—as usually happens in politics, some people care more about protecting their turf than about the bigger picture.
     Here's my story in Wednesday's Chicago Sun-Times:

     Time is money, the saying goes, and if you want to see a real life example of how days and weeks add up to some serious green — while endangering civil rights in the bargain — look no further than the Cook County criminal court system, whose bond court, through a combination of inefficiency, resistance to change and harsh prosecution, costs millions of dollar the county can’t spare.
     At least according to two top Cook County officials.
     How much money? Try about $80 million a year, which is spent housing prisoners who either should be let go pending trial or convicted and sent to state prison, but are stuck in Cook County Jail due to poor case management.
     “It takes us so long to dispose of serious cases that we save the state $70 million in prison time, but it costs us over $300 million because the jail is so much more expensive than prison,” said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who has been trying to reform the criminal system, particularly bond court, where accused criminals are assigned a cash amount to allow them to go free from jail while their cases are pending.
     That $300 million figure represents the entire jail operating budget. To get a figure of how much of that spending is unnecessary, examine the head count at the jail, which has about 10,000 inmates a night, plus 2,500 on electronic home monitoring.
    Over the past six years, the average prisoner stay in the county jail has increased by more than a week.
     “In 2007 it was 49 days, now it’s 57 days,” said Juliana Stratton, executive director of the Cook County Justice Advisory Council, part of Preckwinkle’s office. “That is significant. If we had the same numbers back then in 2007, we would have 1,500 to 2,000 fewer people in the jail.”
     Using the accepted $143-a-day cost to house a prisoner, those 1,500 extra heads cost an extra $80 million a year. The reason: Prisoners are kept in jail who shouldn't be there, because cases take longer than they should.
     "Over the past six years there's been a dramatic increase in the length of time it takes to dispose of cases," said Preckinwkle. "You can look at how long it takes to dispose of a drug case. There's no case management in the circuit court. No case management at all. You don't know how long it takes individual judges. There's no way to hold anybody accountable."
     Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart echoes Preckwinkle's views.
     "Her and I are singing off the same page," he said. "We have one of the longest length of stay in the country. Longer than New York, longer than Los Angeles, and it's progressively getting worse."
     He said bond court hearings are the weak link in the system.
     "The average time in bond court is 20 seconds," said Dart. "How in God's name can you have a thoughtful discussion in 20 seconds? Other than finding guilt or innocence, what more significant part of the judicial process is there than a bond hearing, deciding whether someone will be in this delightful place or at home with family? What can be more significant? And you give it 20 seconds. That's just not right."
     Nor are bond court hearings so brief because of an enormous backlog of cases.
     "That's not true," Dart said. "It isn't like some poor judge earning $185,000 a year is in there for 12 hours. The bond hearing calls only last a few hours. That's where my frustration is so great. We're not asking judges to work eight, 10 hours. They go for two hours."
     Chief Judge Timothy Evans disputes Preckwinkle's and Dart's view of the court.
     "I guess they're running for re-election," he said. "But the facts spell a different story."
     For instance, Dart is "incorrect" about the 20-second average, Evans said, because judges prepare beforehand in their chambers. "Our judges look at those files before the cases are called," Evans said.
     Evans said the problem is the entire court system is starved for money, which causes some to cut corners.
     "The system is not adequately funded in order for justice to prevail," he said. "One of the major problems here is some would put a price tag on justice. That's a huge mistake."
     The fourth key official involved in this issue is Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez. Preckwinkle's office says her prosecutors request bonds that are inappropriately high.
     "We see young people with no priors arrested at 17 and given a bond of $75,000," said Rebecca Janowitz, special assistant for legal affairs for the Cook County Justice Advisory Council, noting that often the bonds are later adjusted downward. "They aren't able to get a decent bond when they first go up, but they follow the case, and a week later they file a motion to reconsider the bond, and we've been getting some very good success there."
     Alvarez's chief of staff, Dan Kirk, said prosecutors inform judges of three things: the facts of a case, the nature of a defendant's criminal history and any record of failing to appear in court. "It is judges who make the decisions about what kind of bond to set," said Kirk. "Seldom do assistant state's attorneys request a specific amount to the judge."
     Kirk said that Alvarez and Preckwinkle can't even agree on what a violent offender is.
     "The president's definition of a non-violent offender is someone who is non-violent in the present case," he said. "They completely ignore if that a person has a violent criminal history. The Cook County State's Attorney does not define that person as a non-violent offender just because they weren't violent in a specific case. You're creating a fiction. We cannot and won't abide by that."
     Thus—rightly or wrongly—suspects find themselves incarcerated, sometimes for months, for the inability to pay as little as a few hundred dollars.
     To have any hope of getting a low bond, defendants must be able to communicate their situation to a public defender, who has a handful of minutes to grasp their case before both go before a judge.
     "We see anywhere from 250 to 320 clients a day," said Parle Roe-Taylor, chief of the 1st Municipal Division of the Cook County Public Defender's office. With a staff of seven, that means about 50 cases per lawyer per day. Do the math. Judges sometimes never learn that a defendant is penniless.
     "We make every effort to see every client," said Roe-Taylor. "We don't control how much time we get. If a bond is $3,000, you have to come up with $300, you have family members trying to take up a collection even to get that little bit of money. We make an effort to learn that, but we don't always have family members in court. Sometimes that works out, most times it doesn't."
     Dart and Preckwinkle both have been advocating for an American University study calling for better management of time standards and case flow.
     "Everyone has the report," Dart said. "No one is using the report. It's so commonsensical. It basically says we should use differentiated case management. A murder case takes longer than a stolen car case."
     Standards for various case lengths should be established, he said, and judges who take too long for their cases would face pressure to improve.
     "Peer pressure forms that will move cases along," Dart said. "All of us are held accountable. Why should a group of people really have no accountability?"
     Evans points out that his judges participated in the AU study, but it's out-of-date, and they're currently involved with a new study.
     "That study is eight years old," Evans said. "We have embraced each one of those recommendations. We have a differentiated case management system now. We do train our judges."
     Evans said Preckwinkle and Dart are just trying to "divert one's attention" from their own failings, such as the sheriff not having enough deputies on hand to open certain courtrooms. "They're trying to save money at the expense of justice," he said.
     Why can't these officials work together? Is any of this personal?
     "I would hope not," Evans said. "Not on my part at all."

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Trayvon Martin was a distraction from the real issues

     It's late, I know. All the pundits were opining on Trayvon Martin LAST week. But I don't like to jump in and yabber on cue. You're allowed to think about things, and if race was an issue last week, it's still an issue this week. It hasn't gone away yet.  I was looking at the after echoes of the case, and realized I had said nothing, and that maybe I should try to say what's on my mind.

     OK, I’ll bite.
     After reading the umpteenth post-verdict piece of punditry calling for a national conversation about race in America in the wake of vigilante George Zimmerman being exonerated for the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, I began to wonder if maybe it’s time to stop pressing my lips together and join in.
     After all, it has been well over a year since I’ve written about the case. And it’s been two weeks since the verdict. Time enough for passions to cool, maybe a little bit.
     No mystery as to the reluctance — race is not only the third rail in American politics, but in journalism too. Touch it at your peril.
     At least for white folks — say the wrong thing and you’re a racist. Time was, you used to have to actually spew racial hate to be a racist; nowadays, any opinion that somebody doesn’t like will do.
     When black pundits call for a conversation about race in America — and it seems to be primarily black pundits, plus, of course, the president — they seem to mean themselves. Whenever the rare white guy is emboldened enough to chime in, such as Roger Simon, or, I guess, now me, we’re invariably told it’s a Black Thing and we just wouldn’t understand. At least that’s what I hear from many quarters whenever I address race: You just don’t get it.
     Which seems a self-defeating notion, because if whites, by definition, can't under­stand and shouldn't express what they believe is true, because they'll never understand, then we're sort of off the hook, aren't we? Isn't that a formula for whites to shrug their shoulders and ignore the whole thing? Which is kinda what most of us want to do anyway. But that's too easy.
     So let's talk about race and Trayvon Martin, and why the case has become such a focal point and rallying cry. President Barack Obama, in his moving speech, talked of the experience of black men being followed in stores, of having white women cling more tightly to their purses in elevators.
     The implication is that white fear—or in Zimmerman's case, Hispanic fear—as reflected in the case, is an important problem in the black experience today.
     No question it is a problem. And not to diminish the badness of it. But being followed in stores is not really the crux of the challenge that blacks face, is it? Because if it is, we're already in the Promised Land. That's why the Trayvon Martin case puzzled whites, when we saw the emotion wrung over it. "We are at war!" a black Florida pastor declared. Well, yeah, a war being conducted by other young black men, not by white bigots or armed Hispanic vigilantes. Blacks make up 13 percent of the American population yet constitute 55 percent of the murder victims. They're killed 93 percent of the time by other blacks.
     To me, the Trayvon Martin case is so popular because it's a distraction from the hard truth, a chance to cast the problem not as something blacks must take the lead in fixing—to stop killing each other—but as something being done to them. The case is being clung to not because it represents something crucial, but because it's a chance to offload responsibility elsewhere.
     Last time I looked, the major problem facing African Americans was not white bigotry—not anymore—but the enormous zones of poverty, crime, drug use, despair and dysfunction that ring every city. Not totally; there's a struggling black middle class with its own concerns. But if we're talking about key black issues, we're talking about the inner city. Blacks didn't create the situation they're in; that's the undeniable product of several centuries of slavery plus 100 years of Jim Crow repression that ended last week, assuming it's actually ended. But that's that situation they have to come to grips with.
     What fixes it? Education, jobs, anti-drug programs, strengthening families, a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system, which wasn't designed as a Gulag to destroy the lives of young black men, but essentially functions that way.
     That's a tall order. It's easier to focus on Trayvon Martin than face the fact the average white family has six times the wealth of the average black family. Or that for every $1 earned by blacks, whites earn $2.
     Bigots tried to slur Trayvon Martin into some kind of thug, freely fictionalizing his image. Blacks erred in the other direction, trying to make him into a saint, an Emmett Till figure in an era when the kind of gross physical repression that Till suffered has all but vanished. Now racism is much more silent and subtle, much more worked into the entire system, which is rigged against a wide swath of black youth who aren't killed, but still never have a chance in life. It has nothing to do with racial profiling or Stand Your Ground laws or Trayvon Martin, but is something uglier and tougher to confront. I'm sorry to be the one who has to say it.

Monday, July 29, 2013

This machine...

     I can't remember a day when I didn't check the computer. There must have been one. Many such days, five or 10 years ago. But not recently. Not one I specifically remember. Not one where I woke up and told myself, "No, I think I'll pass on Facebook today." Never happens. Not at home. I have a big honking iMac in my home office, another one in the living room -- the living room! -- on its own little corner desk, a special piece of triangular computer furniture that I finished myself, hand-buffing it with super fine steel wool, as if preparing a shrine. I'm surprised I don't have a few sticks of incense burning next to it,  flower garlands draped about and maybe a small plate of fruit, as an offering to the godhead.
     And of course I check it at work. It's the first thing I do when I arrive at my office downtown—flop my fingers onto the keyboard as soon as my butt hits the chair, see what has changed in the hour I've been commuting. Some days I rarely seem to lift my fingers off the keys. And don't forget the smart phone — is that term still current? — the plain-old phone then, a mini-computer itself, and I can surf and text and post to my heart's content, which means continually. And the laptop....
     I could, of course, just take a day off and not do it. Set the phone aside. Power down the iMacs. Interact with people the old-fashioned way, face-to-face. I could do that. Easily. But I've never even considered trying, never mind done it. Why? I guess the honest answer is, I want to be online. It fills the place where something else used to be. "It's like having friends," to quote Luna Lovegood's chirpy, infinitely sad phrase.
     Though I still haven't decided: does the Internet really make you feel less alone? Or more? Does it fulfill you or only distract you? 
     That's a toughie.
     Maybe it really is an addiction. Shit. Another addiction. Just what I need. I try to resist thinking that way. Not everything you like is necessarily an addiction. Just the things you do all the time and want to stop, but don't stop, because the truth, which you try to ignore, is that you can't stop. Though I can. At least I think I can, I wouldn't know, I haven't tried.
     Hmmmm....that does ring familiar, doesn't it?
     No question, I can stop. Surely. At least for a day. Certainly I can. Now that I've had the idea, I am going to do it. Once. See what it's like. Some Saturday. Some day soon. Just wake up, walk straight into the garden and start weeding. Read a book, the kind with covers and pages. Get in the car, wander somewhere. Off to the Chicago Botanic Garden, to stroll around nature, which was here long before all these machines, and will be here long after. We are only on this earth for a short while. And we are spending our time playing Angry Birds -- well, I'm not. No, I'm too sophisticated for that. I'm spending my time playing Facebook Scrabble. One thousand three hundred and eighty-eight games, so far. And counting. Surely I can miss a day.  One day. One.


Sunday, July 28, 2013

Carol Cook works for her citizenship


     They each stood as the name of their homelands were read aloud.
     Argentina. Austria. Bangladesh. Belize. Bosnia-Herzegovina. Brazil. Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China. Colombia. Croatia. Czech Republic . . . 53 nations in all.
     When they got to the United Kingdom, Carol Cook, a native of Forres, in the Highlands of Scotland, stood.
     In most regards, Cook was no different from the 144 other immigrants being sworn in as new American citizens last Monday in the third-floor auditorium of the federal building at 101 W. Congress Pkwy. Like many, she is younger, in her 30s. Like many, she came for an education and decided to stay.
     Though Cook was different in one important aspect: what she held in her hands. Many people, in their best suits, in dresses that looked hand-sewn, held something they had brought with them — bouquets of flowers, cameras. Some held babies, others the hands of children or other loved ones. Cook held a sheet of music and her 1810 Samuel Gilkes viola, studying the notes and repeatedly running the fingers of her left hand over the frets of the instrument to keep them limber.
     She is the principal violist at Lyric Opera of Chicago, where she has played for the past nine years. When immigration officials found that out, they asked if she would consider playing at her swearing-in ceremony; usually the music is a recording at the ceremonies, held about three times a week. She said she would love to. Having performed at the Lyric, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with the London Symphony, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, in gilded concert halls around the world, she happily agreed to play for free in a windowless room in a government office.
     Cook picked up the violin at 3, won her first competition at 8, but at 16 shifted to the viola, and came to this country to go to school, first at Oberlin Conservatory, and then the Julliard School of Music. She decided to stay in the United States for a simple reason.
     "I just loved it," she said. "I loved the sense of optimism, the work ethic."
     Becoming a citizen certainly took work on her part. Our broken immigration system works no better for top professional musicians than for anyone else. Cook estimates the process took "the last 15 years."
     Her performance at the ceremony involved work as well. While "The Star-Spangled Banner" is notoriously difficult to sing, it is not easy to play either.
     Nor was the anthem part of her repertoire. "I learned it specially for this," she said. Just finding an arrangement for viola took some doing - she mentioned her upcoming gig to Max Raimi, a violist at the CSO, which Cook performs with at Ravinia in the summer. Raimi had written an arrangement for the national anthem performed by three violas that the CSO viola section has played prior to White Sox and Bulls games. He adapted that for Cook, and cut no corners for her, but gave her a version punctuated with difficult musical flourishes.
     "Virtuosic," she said. "He said I would have to work hard for my citizenship."
     And she did. She was introduced, climbed the steps to the podium. Those gathered stood, and Cook took a long breath, her bow poised over the strings, then began to play: swaying slightly, a look of concentration that almost seemed like pain on her face.
     Violists are given a hard time—violinists get all the glamor, the fame, and have access to many more great works than violists do.
     "Brahms, Tchaikovsky—that's what we really lack," she said before performing, comparing the viola to the violin, praising its "rich, much more mellow, smoky sound," which in recent years has had better pieces written for it. "It's a changed world for violists now."
     For new immigrants, the world is both changed and still the same, the latest chapter in a very old story.
     "Throughout our history, the lasting contributions of immigrants have shaped our national identity, formed the ideal of the American dream and built upon the foundation of freedom and equality established by our founders," Michelle Wong, an immigration officer at the Department of Homeland Security, told the room. "Millions of men and women just like you have come to the United States of American seeking freedom, liberty and the opportunity for a better life."
     Wong talked about the responsibilities of citizenship, but she also mentioned something that current citizens sometimes have a hard time wrapping their minds around.
     "The bonds of citizenship are unrestricted," she said. "Every citizen is an equal member of the American family."
      Later, Cook said that when she played, she thought about all that brought her here."To be playing the national anthem—so much feeling behind it," she said. "I was thinking of my whole journey as a musician, from starting as a kid to where it's got me now, It's quite emotional, to get to play that."
     Or to get to listen to it.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

"Chicago is totally jealous of us..."

I guess this is how Fox pundits and Washington beltway sorts spend their entire careers, sniping at each other, squeezing off potshots and volleys, hobbyhorsing away their lives. On Wednesday morning, I wrote a piece chiding the International Olympic Committee for picking riot-ravaged Rio de Janeiro over Chicago. It was supposed to be funny, and it seemed to be, to Chicagoans. Brazilians on the other hand, who take themselves very seriously, judging from my mail, at least when it comes to uninvited observations from abroad, responded with a howl, which turned into a column Thursday. On Friday, when it was time for the whole thing to fade, in my estimation, the mayor of Rio went on the radio and stirred the pot again, which caused my bosses to invite me to write yet another column about it all in Saturday's paper. This, I hope, marks the end of the episode.

     If you are a rugby fan, you’re probably familiar with the New Zealand All Blacks, a squad famous for its "Haka,” a taunting pre-game ritual they perform to intimidate opponents. It’s a Maori warrior dance, origins lost in antiquity, where they beat their chests and slap their thighs while shouting about their masculinity and fierceness.
     I thought of that, reading Rio de Janeiro mayor Eduardo Paes’ remarks, spoken to Radio CBN RJ in Rio Friday, in reaction to my Wednesday column chiding the International Olympic Committee for picking strife-torn Rio over relatively placid Chicago for the 2016 Olympic Games.
     “Chicago is totally jealous of us,” he said, in Portuguese, according to the genius of Google Translate. “It’s a horror, cold, full of racial conflict, ghettos, where blacks and whites do not mix.”
     A bit contradictory—full of racial conflict or lack of mixing? Pick one; it can't really be both. That sent me trotting back to my original column to remind myself what it was I said that was so terrible about Rio.
     "The protests rocking Brazil—hundreds of thousands of people, in 100 cities last month, the streets of Rio in flames this week—could ebb, and everything could somehow be fine in 2016."
     That's about it. And all true. While I didn't get into the intense politics of the protests—the mayor blamed troublemakers—they do bear potential significance for the 2016 Olympics. I didn't make that up.
     Nor, given the general Canadian-like cry of outrage wafting up from South America—from stark insults to Chicago, general condemnations of America, demands that we master the tangled nuances of Brazilian politics, and now Rio's mayor—can I say I'm very broken up about upsetting them, much as I don't like to gratuitously insult anyone. They seem kind of touchy, based on my email.
     This has happened before, with Toronto's mayor, Rob Ford, who has been accused of smoking crack cocaine and looks like Chris Farley at the end of his life. He got worked up because I suggested Chicago is a more exciting city than Toronto, which is like saying that steak tastes better than hamburger. Again, an accident. I wish I were smart enough to intentionally irk distant cities, and then revel in the illusion of significance their reaction brings. But I'm not. It just happens.
     The late, great Warren Zevon, in "Boom Boom Mancini," sings "The name of the game is be hit and hit back," and I suppose one could spend his career doing so. But to me, as soon as hordes of sincere, argumentative, unpleasant folk start raising their voices in sincere chorus, it's time for me to unlace my gloves and leave the ring.
     I ruthlessly mocked Mayor Richard M. Daley for nearly 20 years, from my very first column, writing in this newspaper that he had lost his mind, that he had gone insane. Never a word from him. That showed a certain confidence. After reading the Rio mayor's lengthy remarks, I went and checked the city's population: 6.3 million. More than twice that of Chicago. Geez, didn't anyone ever tell them that you punch up, you don't punch down? If you're a big city, act like it. Or to return to Warren Zevon: "If you can't take the punches, it don't mean a thing."

Friday, July 26, 2013

Other people, other places....

     To say the world has shrunk is a cliche. Better to say there are rows in the audience you don’t see, distant rows, far back, countless rooms of people you don't know who are nevertheless watching, or will be. That video you shot of your third grader playing chopsticks can circle the world forever, bringing smiles or sneers in China, or India, or Sweden.
     Or Brazil, to take a more recent, specific example. Consider Wednesday, when I entertained readers in Chicago with a thumb-to-nose-and-waggle-fingers column mocking the International Olympic Committee for selecting riot-torn Rio de Janeiro over Chicago for the 2016 Olympics. The paper ran it on the front page. I was pleased, heard many appreciative chuckles from our readership, and only vaguely wondered if anyone in Brazil would care. Nah, how could they?
     Wednesday came and went, laughs were had, fist-bumps exchanged and no harm done. That, I figured, is the end of that.
     Then came Thursday.
     “You could just stay shut,” wrote Felipe Anderson, which I had to think about a moment before I realized the “fuetbol” fan was saying, “shut up.” Actually one of the nicer messages, the opening salvo of a Twitterstorm of abuse. Dozens and dozens of messages, in both English and Portuguese. “Se estamos preparados ou não, não é problema seu,” wrote Renan Goes, of Londrina, Brazil. “If we are prepared or not, it’s not your problem.” Some needed no translation. “Coluna idiota” wrote Pedro H.
     There were several references to the Boston Marathon bombing. Numerous allusions to shooting, some cryptic (“Rotten gun children,” wrote someone calling himself Senor Sebastian). A variety of obscene suggestions, plus several sincere invitations, or demands, that I come to Rio to investigate the situation myself (an idea which I wholeheartedly embraced, and passed on to my boss who said, in essence, “Forget it.”) Even a mention of the 1968 Democratic Convention riots, which struck me as reaching into the hazy past.
     Some implied that we Americans are arrogant. “You are not the owners of the world,” wrote Johnny Machado. “Just don’t try writing about things you don’t know about, Mister Steinberg,” wrote Aline Harbs. “And stop being so American.”
    Some were quite intense. Dimitris Meimardis wrote five times. “It seems every clear to me that you have absolutely no clue about the protests here.” Yes, well, probably. It was more a lighthearted bit of fun for Chicagoans on the train than an attempt at serious international cultural analysis. It may be that Brazil doesn’t have the tradition of journalists rendering their own opinions, because a number of writers seemed aghast at that.
     While there was a good deal of insult delivering, many seemed quite Canadian in their sincerity, and I reminded myself I had vowed to stop taunting distant places after sparring with the hurt denizens of Toronto.
     Honestly, I forgot. The fire bell rang and I stirred on my straw, got to my feet and had bolted out the door before I knew what had happened.
    Eventually Thursday afternoon I had to go to a meeting over at the Aon Center. It was fine weather and I had meant to walk, but I had spent so long chewing over these tweets of Brazilian outrage, time was running out, so hopped in a cab. My eyes locked on the flag hanging from the rear view mirror.        
     Oh my. The Lord works in mysterious ways.
     “Is that the Brazilian flag?” I asked. The driver said it was.
     “I’ve just been absorbing abuse from Brazil…” I said. That remark flew by, so I asked how Chicago compares to Brazil.
     “It’s a lot colder here,” he said. “I bet it is,” I said. I asked him where in Brazil he is from, and he said Sao Paulo, so I asked how Chicago compares to Sao Paulo, and he said, “There are a lot fewer residents.”
     “Right,” I said, “Sao Paulo has, what, 10 million people.”
     “Twenty million,” he said.
      Wow, I thought. Twenty million people. That’s a big city. A lot bigger than Chicago. It’s easy to feel you are the greatest thing in the world when you don’t know any better. Suddenly I was reminded of the time I went to the top of the Willis Tower with a pair of Yanomami Indians visiting from the Brazilian rain forest, brought here by some missionary group. We gazed over the vast expanse of Chicago in silence, a 25-mile view on a clear day, and I asked the obvious question — what are you going to tell your fellow Yanomami about this when you get back to Brazil?
     They thought for a moment.
     “We call ourselves, ‘The People,’” one finally answered, through a translator. “And we call where we live, ‘The Place.’ But I will tell them there are other people, and other places.”
     That’s a good message for all of us to bear in mind.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

New additions to the Great American Family

     No part of the ceremony suggested that new immigrants sworn in as American citizens should go pose by the flag. Yet many did, lining up, waiting their turn—and after all the years they've waited, what was a few minutes more? 
     Not all of the 145 sworn in Monday had their pictures taken. Some went straight to register to vote. But many did, dozens, proudly showing off their certificates of citizenship. They posed for photos by the flag in the third floor auditorium of the government building at 101 W. Congress, and downstairs in the lobby, next to the big photo of Barack Obama. Their friends and loved ones took the shots, but sometimes they called upon strangers. A family from Mongolia, whose 22-year-old wore a uniform of a U.S. Marshall cadet, pressed an iPhone into the hands of a Chicago Tribune photographer and he gamely snapped their picture.
      They had just heard Carol Cook, an immigrant from Scotland and the principal violist at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, play the Star Spangled Banner on her 200-year-old viola — I'll have more about her in the Sun-Times later this week. Then they stood, held their hands over their hearts for the anthem, then later raised their right hands and renounced "all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate or sovereignty."
     If any were conflicted about disowning their former homes, the lands of the birth, they didn't show it. They beamed. They held bouquets of flowers, or the hands of their children. They wore their best suits, or dresses that looked hand-sewn.
     The people who are conflicted about this are not the immigrants, but longtime Americans, many of them, who often forget that every last one of us, if we follow the thread of our ancestry back long enough, arrived here from somewhere, filled with hope, strangers in a strange land, trying to begin their lives anew. Not the Native Americans, of course, who were always here — though even they, if you dial back the millennia, are thought to have migrated over across the Bering Strait at some point in pre-history, though long enough ago to count as being here forever.
      You would think that, sharing this common bit of family history, there would be fewer Americans agitated about immigrants. You would think they would see the fate of nations that resist immigration, such as Japan, and the terrible demographic price they're paying, their sinking population, whole towns emptied out, and would celebrate immigration as the lifesaver it is for the United States. A nation built by immigrants, now saved by immigrants. But prejudice blinds, or rather, is clung to by the blind, the philosophy of the stupid, and they look around and see only the murky haze of their myopic fears, and not the reality in front of them. When you actually see what's here, on the third floor of 101 W. Congress, the joy and readiness, you want to cry,  a little, at the beauty of it.
    The United States of American became a great country because our fathers and mothers and their fathers and mothers came and made it great. It's a great country still because we came and helped it continue to be great. It will go on being a great country in the future because ... is this really such a hard sentence to finish? ... people coming now and in years to come will make it great. They will continue to come, and the prejudice they often find will be just one more obstacle to triumph over, and not the largest obstacle either.
      "Throughout our history, the lasting contributions of immigrants have shaped our national identity, formed the idea of the American dream and built upon the foundation of freedom and equality established by our founders," Michelle Wong, an immigration officer at the Department of Homeland Security, told the newest Americans. "The bonds of citizenship are unrestricted. Every citizen is an equal member in the American family."
    The people who most need to hear and understand that message, alas, were not in the room on Monday. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

And it's still here...

     Whenever I drive by the stretch of North Sheridan Road where the Granada Theatre used to be, I flash back on its Venetian splendor and, if the traffic is moving slowly, take a moment to note the echo of the round window — tribute? mockery? — cut into the charmless strip mall that replaced it.
     You can't shake your fist too much at the philistines who demolished it, not remembering the struggle to figure out what to do with the Granada. A building needs a use, or most buildings do. There are only so many empty shells we can keep in tribute to years gone by.  It's always a judgment call. Some people think Prentice hospital should have been kept forever — to me it was an eyesore, and thus expendable. As was the Granada, ultimately, a ruin torn down in 1990.
    Sometimes a building can survive and find a use. In the early 1980s, the Chicago Theatre was seen as a similar white elephant to the Granada or Prentice. Pretty, yes, but what to do with the thing? After a long battle, it was saved in 1985, to civic rejoicing, and soon was hosting concerts from Frank Sinatra to Tom Waits. If you haven't been there, you're really missing something. It's worth the price of admission just to walk through the lobby; the fact that somebody also puts on a show is an added bonus.
     To me, the marque of the Chicago Theatre, like the Bean, like the Picasso, is one of the images that define life in the city. Catching sight of it is like glimpsing the face of an old friend, made all the more precious by the knowledge of how close we came to losing it forever. Almost a miracle.


A rare midweek column, thumbing my nose at the IOC.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Don't miss the boat

     A strong image can stick in your brain and return at unwelcome moments. Such as that scene in Fritz Lang's classic 1927 German silent movie, "Metropolis," where the workers shuffle forward in lockstep, heads bowed, shoulders slumped, souls crushed.
     That image bubbles up whenever I'm stuck in line in the loud, overlit, stinking, Stygian underworld of Union Station's north platform, inching my way slowly toward the stairs, trying not to think about what a design blunder this whole layout is, how if there were ever an emergency and we had to get out quickly, we'd all die on those stairs.
    Which means I pretty much think about "Metropolis" every day, at some point, because when the train empties, it overwhelms the platform and the lines form, one splitting to the left, the other to the right. So at least I have that empty choice, left or right.
    Now and then an iconoclastic soul veers off, hops down onto the tracks, crosses over to the next, empty platform, and races to freedom. I can't say I admire those people. What they do is dangerous, and against the rules, I tell myself that it is a good thing most of us conform, and wait patiently. Otherwise it would be chaos. And what's the rush? Where are any of us going? To the same place, eventually.
     So we look at our phones, our iPads, our shoes, breathe fumes, marinate in thought, or nestle in the void of no thought at all, staring straight ahead. Nobody looks at each other. It's as if we're all alone, en masse. Step forward, wait, step forward, wait, anticipating the thrill of that first stair —almost there!— and the liberation of  reaching Madison Street, like a diver breaking the water's surface. We scatter, reunited with air and light, flee this pit, forget about it for another day.
     Which is why it's so good there's a Chicago Water Taxi stop right there, directly across Madison Street. As if it were planned that way. As a service to disinterred commuters, emerging from their crypt, staggering away from the station like the dazed survivors of some daily catastrophe. I try to take the brief three dollar, three minute trip to LaSalle Street — it then pushes on to Michigan Avenue — at least once a summer. As a reward to myself for going through this. But this summer has snapped by so quickly, I hadn't done so yet. Too busy. Until Friday, when there was no question. Too much Lang, too little lark. On impulse, I leaned far over the stone rail at Two North Riverside Plaza, saw the cheerful yellow boat "Bravo" sitting there, as if waiting for me. I hurried downstairs, hopped aboard —made it!— and soon we were on the water, sliding under the city's lovely bridges.  Suddenly it was summer, beautiful summer. At last. The buildings floated by as if in dream, the bridges plunging the boat into shadow, then returning to brilliant sunlight. The water smelled wet, clean, refreshing. The brief trip felt so good I took it again on Monday.
    A reminder, that we create our own reality, even when we feel stuck in routine, and while that reality can sour in a moment, we can also change it back just as quickly, if we try and we're lucky. If you think to look for it, there might be a boat, waiting for you, and if you get on that boat, it will take you away, for a while.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Clout Street

And sometimes a good story just falls into your lap...  

     The big black Chevy SUV headed east on 25th Street, then abruptly turned left under the Stevenson Expressway and paused before a steel gate. The armed driver lowered his window and inserted a plastic card into a scanning device. The steel gate slid away and the car roared onto an empty stretch of pristine highway, a straight shot into the heart of downtown Chicago.
     “Where are we?” I asked.
     “The Magic Road!” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle laughed, explaining that it is a special highway that permits government officials to speed on their way without having to suffer traffic delays.
     “Rahm Emanuel calls it the ‘Bat Cave,’” she said, while I was still trying to digest news of a highway I hadn’t known about running just east of Michigan Avenue.
     We had spent the morning at the Cook County Jail, gazing in sorrow at a sclerotic legal system that grinds the lives of young black Chicagoans into a grim powder with agonizing, expensive slowness. The always candid Preckwinkle—perhaps the only politician in Chicago who says what she thinks and doesn’t sand every thought into a smooth pebble of guile before gingerly letting it slip from her fingers—of course would spill the beans on the secret government highway.
     Or the not-so-secret highway.
     “Convention buses use it too,” she added, as we flashed by 18th Street, then 14th, as I twisted in my seat, trying to get my bearings. 

     Built for conventioneers

     Welcome to the McCormick Place Busway, the most obscure road in Chicago, a two lane, 2.5 mile thoroughfare constructed in 2002 on a railroad right-of-way for $43 million.
     The original idea was to speed conventioneers attending trade shows from McCormick Place to the Loop, and the road, paid for by McPier. The busway does that admirably. A trip that takes 25 minutes in traffic up Lake Shore Drive can be tossed off in eight.
     Naturally, politicians would want in on this. We went under McCormick Place, flashed past the South Loop condo development where former Mayor Richard M. Daley lived before moving to North Michigan Avenue. Preckwinkle pointed out a convenient gated exit.
     “They built the road when he was mayor,” she observed.
     Hmmm, thought I. Not a lot of hotel buses filled with conventioneers pulling off there. The road cuts right through and below the Art Institute, ending at Lower Randolph.
     Preckwinkle might be the only one bold enough to take a reporter on it. But she can’t be the only official making use of the road. 
     Gov. Pat Quinn, who does indeed sometimes drive himself, doesn’t drive himself on it because he lacks the special pass.
     “There’s a card you have to use,” said his press secretary, Brooke Anderson. “You won’t see the governor in the driver’s seat on that road. But his security detail sometimes takes it.”
     The mayor’s office confirmed both that he uses the road and he calls it the “Bat Cave.”
     “He does,” said Tarrah Cooper, the mayor’s press secretary. “Occasionally.”
     She was quick to echo that it’s mainly a route for convention buses.
     “That’s who primarily uses it, during the convention there are tons of buses.”
     She scoffed at the idea that the road is unknown.
     “It’s not magic,” she said. “People know about it.”
     I’m sure they do. I’m sure somebody is in charge of handing out access cards to connected politicians. McCormick Place brass said the Chicago Department of Transportation runs it, but CDOT spokesman Pete Scales said he knows nothing about it, and suggested I try Streets and Sanitation. “I just found out about it a month ago,” said Anne Sheehan, Streets & San spokeswoman, who has been with the city 10 years. She suggested CDOT runs it. “I’m pretty sure we don’t.”
     Actually, it is overseen by the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications.
     I wasn’t too broken up over hitting a brick wall, fairly certain that whoever the somebody in charge turns out to be, they will cry “national security” in three different languages before ever commenting on just how many politicians have access to the road or who those politicians might be, waving the bogeyman of panicked mobs of Chicagoans blocking access to ambulances in the case of civic calamity should the public become aware of exactly who is speeding from swank fundraiser to lavish dinner.
     People in other cities already seem to know all about it.
     “We do market it quite heavily,” said David Causton, general manager of McCormick Place, who views the road as a draw for the $6 billion worth of trade show business that comes to Chicago. “We see it as an absolute asset. The advantage it offers is lower cost. It obviously makes getting here faster, which is part of a pleasant experience for the attendee. Plus we don’t have to have as many buses to move people because the buses can go quickly on the private road, so they carry more people in a shorter time. It’s a true time saver.”
     I bet it is.
     “It may not be well known by locals that live here,” said Causton. “But it is well known in the industry. All of our customers take advantage of it. We’ve known about this for years.”
     And now you do too. You may not be able to ever drive on it.
     But at least now you can know it’s there.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The pickler's art is not an easy one

     The pickle—perhaps aptly—is forever locked in time. While all manner of ethnic foodstuffs have shed their peddler's rags, polished their diction, and joined haute cuisine, the pickle remains firmly down market, its accent heavy and pungent, its humble origins intact, the eternal sidekick, the permanent garnish.
     Thus pickles are unjustly neglected. Restaurants that ballyhoo purple foam and raw leaves and teaspoons of air fall silent when it comes to pickles. An eatery celebrating its pickles would seem as wrong as a place celebrating its bathroom or its napkins. ("Fine Egyptian cotton, 1500 thread count...")  Nobody wants expensive pickles -- what would those be?  Surely inferior to the cheap ones. In fact, deli diners expect pickles to be free, on the table, in a tub, just another staple of life: salt, pepper, pickles.
     Thus the pickle retains its modesty as a comfort of home. A restaurant pickle can be good. A store bought pickle, even, can be not bad. Claussen pickles are not bad. But just not bad. Like Thanksgiving, you need to make your pickle at home for it to be wonderful, for it to soar and, maybe, touch greatness, whether full sour, half sour, new or properly aged (sweet pickles? Dos ken nor a goy). 
    Because a great pickle is like family: it is an act of love, of duty, consideration and devotion. A pickle is to share. No one makes pickles for his own private use, alone. My in-laws were picklers, and pickled so long and so well that none of us had the foresight to learn the picker's craft at their knee. We thought they would pickle forever—is that not part of the pickle mystique? Pickles endure.
      My wife, boldly tried to fill the pickle-scented void in our lives since my in-laws passing. These were the result -- gorgeous to look at, marinated in extraordinary love. But, alas, a pickle can only go so far on its looks, and affection-soaked though they were, these pickles, like beauty, were deceptive -- pretty, but not so appealing when you got to know them. They didn't taste good. My wife nibbled one and immediately threw them all away. Nobody argued with her. The pickler's art is not an easy one. It is hard-won, and part of the love process is trying and trying until you get something right, then sticking with that. "Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds," Shakespeare wrote. "Or bends with the remover to remove. Oh no!" Her next batch will be better. And if it isn't, the one after that will be. Or the one after that. The pickler's art, like love, requires patience, and persistence. It only looks easy.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Summer relaxation voodoo

     Though this blog, by its very name, "Every goddamn day," demands a certain relentlessness, I don't want to suggest that all I do is write, nor give the impression that I'm recommending you throw yourself continually at your chosen task, whatever it is. As Horace observed, "Sometimes even noble Homer nods."
      And a good thing too. Everybody needs rest. Particularly in summer, when so many opportunities for relaxation abound. We busy types sometimes resist taking a break—our idea of fun is work, which is our glory and handicap. Here's where I'm fortunate to have a wife who counterbalances my tendency to continually labor with an active interest in the world of recreation, cultural and fun. Just this week we've walked in the Chicago Botanic Garden, twice, gone to Ravinia with friends to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and walked to downtown Northbrook -- if that isn't a contradiction in terms -- for its Arts Festival, where I watched young baseball players practice and heard my older son's buddy, Charlie Laughlin, play the guitar for an hour.
      I shot this video of Charlie performing Rodriego y Gabriella's "Buster Voodoo" with classmate Maxine Nusinow. To be honest, I wasn't really thinking about work, wasn't thinking about posting this—if I had, I would have done a better job, gotten closer and found a more advantageous angle, one without the rail being in the way. But then, that's the balance, between professional and casual, between working and unwinding. Take it too easy and your video is no good. But push too hard and you haven't rested. Anyway, I'm striving for a balance, and hope you are too. Click on the arrow and spend a few minutes listening to some invigorating guitar music. Keep an eye peeled for the dancing girls, who appear toward the end.  There's a good lesson in that too — stay focused, but if you're too intent on what's in front of you, you may miss the dancing girls. And who wants to do that?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Still a few bugs in the system


     It is against the law to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk in Chicago. For adults, that is. Kids under 12 are okay.  One of the many rules, instructions and pieces of advice learned while preparing for my debut ride on the new Divvy bike share program, which the city rolled out in early July.
     To be honest, the idea of taking one of the communal bikes for a spin normally would never have crossed my mind. There is nowhere I need to go that can't be walked, cabbed, trained or avoided. And the whole shared bike thing has a distinct European tang to it. Something they do in Amsterdam, or Brussels, or France. Not in Chicago, that most American of cities. We Americans get behind the wheels of our Barracudas and blast down the highway. We own things, we do not share things. That's socialism. 
     Yes, I see a flaw in that thinking. Maybe that logic could be maintained when we were on top of the world and burning through its resources. Now, in dwindling times, well, perhaps some reconsideration is in order.
     That isn't what got me studying the Divvy web site, however. Riding one of its bikes was not to be a political statement. Actually, fate played a hand. I looked out the window of our office this week and saw, directly across the street, a rack of robin's egg blue Divvy bikes. It hadn't been there before. And now it was, a personal challenge. Life sometimes serves up these go-to-Nineveh moments, and when it does, you better get yourself to Nineveh. Otherwise, you end up in a whale. 
      So I began planning a brief bike excursion downtown, to satisfy capricious fate and keep myself on the breezy side of whales.  I read up on the Divvy system. The site is very friendly, with a map of bike docking stations, and brief helpful videos, explaining how to pay, how to unhook the bikes from their moorings (lift at the seat, not at the handlebars). It all seemed so simple. And only $7 for 24 hours, provided you break that into 30 minute rides, returning the bike to a station before your half hour is up. Ride more than 30 minutes at a time, they add more fees. If you keep the bike for six hours, you're out $102. 
     Wanting to be thorough — and to stay alive — I asked a devoted bicyclist pal of mine for extra advice. A professor of literature who thinks nothing of hopping on his bike and tearing across the city, I knew he'd tell me what I should know. I've ridden a bike downtown exactly once in the past 25 years — in 2000, when we were about to move from East Lake View to the suburbs, and biking to work seemed something worth doing at least once in my life—another challenge to be overcome. It was a pleasant spin on my lumbering black one speed Schwinn balloon-tire cruiser, down the lakeshore bike path, a trip that didn't turn slightly terrifying until I left the bike path and headed west toward 401 N. Wabash, the newspaper's old home. A lot of trucks in the city.
    My pal's central suggestion: be alert at all times. 
    "Head on a swivel," his reply began. "I have a three part routine: look ahead at traffic/ground conditions (potholes), then at the parked cars for potential doorings, then in the rear view mirror for what's coming up behind me. Then front, side, rear, repeat perpetually. I've actually rewired my damn brain doing this."
     No wonder I've let more than a dozen years go by since I last attempted this. He wasn't done. "And go slow," he warned — not an issue for me —"most people I know who get doored were going fast and so did not have time to stop."
    If "door" as a verb is unfamiliar to you, it refers to a bicyclist riding into a flung open car door. Riders get killed that way. 
     Despite this chilling advice, I decided I was going to do it. On Thursday. Even thought it was supposed to be nearly 100 degrees. I can be determined, when I choose to be, and I've always thought that scuttling plans due to weather is for the elderly and the weak. I also had inspiration, a manageable goal: Skrine Chops, at 400 S. Financial. Off the beaten track for walking. But perfect for a bike jaunt. I haven't been there in months, so am Skrine deprived. The plan was, I would ride my Divvy bike across the Loop, Skrine up with a pork chop sandwich, and return. The dangers would be slight and acceptable—this is a pork chop worth risking your life for. 
      But I didn't want to face any more risk than was absolutely necessary. Before leaving for work, I went into the garage and dug out my bike helmet, a Bell helmet covered in dust and cobwebs. At first it seemed like a lot of bother, to bring the helmet downtown. But the phrase, "not as much bother as learning to type with a stick held in your mouth" formed in mind, and that decided it. I cleaned the helmet off with a damp paper towel and tucked it in my briefcase.
      Just before lunch, a look of steely determination in my eye, I stood up, snatched my helmet off my desk and marched down to the street. On my way, I felt something unexpected: fear. Real fear. I was afraid to ride a damned bike downtown. I stiff-armed the anxiety. Too late now. Stepping into the oven-ish air was like being hit at the back of the knees with a mallet. I pressed on, crossed Orleans, and presented myself to the cheery blue-faced Divvy pylon. Clicked through various screens, dipping my credit card, giving my phone number and Zip code, agreeing that if I lose the $1200 bike I'm on the hook. (At least I assume that's what the fine print said —I couldn't bring myself to actually read it). All I had to do now was wait to receive a receipt that would give me a five-digit code to punch in and remove my bike. 
    I rubbed my thumb and forefinger together, anticipating the slip of paper, eyeing the blue bikes, trying to decide which one I'd pick.
     "We're sorry," the screen said. "We cannot process your request at this time." 
     Oh.  I stood there a moment. Briefly considered starting the process all over again. No, I had worked up a sweat just clicking through the screens. Maybe riding across the Loop at midday in this heat was in fact a Bad Idea. If fate had nudged me here, perhaps there had been a change in the cosmic order, and now I was being rescued, directed back upstairs. Okay then. Skrine Chops will have to wait. My helmet still under my arm, I retreated to the cool of the office, not without a certain sense of relief. I will definitely try out Chicago's Divvy bike sharing system. I am committed to doing that. Some day very soon. When the system is operational. When the fates decree the day apt for adventure. And when it's a lot cooler. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

"Next guest..."

     The meanings of words can get so twisted, you begin to suspect we are already living in the oppressive dystopia that once seemed so scary in science fiction. You start to wonder whether all those smash-the-system revolutionary types might be onto something. Maybe we already are slaves, and don't even know it. 
     "High Yield"? For a savings account that gives 0.35 percent interest? That's 35 cents per year on every $100 forked over to the bank so they can loan it back out at 10 times your return. That's a third of a percent away from 0.0 percent interest, a.k.a. nothing. Given that benchmark, what would a "Low Yield Money Market" look like? Is that where you pay the bank for taking your money? With bank fees, many of us already are.
     A few minutes after I snapped the above, shaking my head at the memory of the quaint 5 percent passbook accounts we had when we were kids, I popped into the Walgreens at Clark and Lake to pick up some personal supplies —deodorant, Cherry Life Savers, nothing earth-shattering.
     Not the most complicated process. Scan the aisles, grab the products, head for the check out. There was a line -- one line, which seemed long, but it fed to five, count 'em, five cashiers, so it wouldn't be too bad. I got in line; it moved quickly.
     "Next guest," said a cashier, as the customer left and a person walked up to make his purchase. "Next guest," another cashier called out. "Next guest..."
     I heard the "guest" locution about half a dozen times before I had the chance to pay for my stuff.
     "Is this something new?" I asked the clerk, who looked at me, amazed, as if the deodorant had spoken. This wasn't in the script. He looked confused.
     "This 'guest' business?" I elaborated, trying to be helpful.
     A pause.
     "Yeah," he finally said. I considered questioning him further but, realized he wasn't going to be a font of information, so took my purchase and hurried out.
     Not to take anything away from The Walgreen Company. A fine Chicago-born institution, the largest drug store chain in the world, based in the benign suburban funzone of Deerfield. The stores are well run, as far as I can tell, with none of the oppressive fascist taint of Walmart or the gigantism-induced queasiness of Costco.  They're trying to make customers feel welcome. I get that.
     But "guests"?  Really? If I am going to be a Walgreens guest, I want to be lounging on the Walgreen family yacht, and I would bet that nobody popping into one of the stores for hygiene products considers himself to be a "guest" either, no matter how well treated. Nor does he want to be.
    I know exactly where this particular bit of nonsense is from -- the Disney total control system, where workers are not "employees" but "cast members." Pretty to think so, though at Disney World the "guest" business at least makes a bit of sense, since you're bedding down there, often, and eating there, which meshes closer to traditional notions of hospitality than rushing in to pick up Q-Tips.
     Walgreens has just started this latest degradation of our language; it should stop it now, before "guest" takes on the shabbiness of "event," a word that car dealers seized upon and ruined, chewing it up like dogs, unwilling to have their automobiles disposed of at anything so low class as a "sale." They have held so many "special sales events" for so many years, the words have been scrubbed of all meaning, with "special" suffering even more abuse at the hands of those trying to put a bright spin on disability, so much that now "special" is freely used as an insult by children on playgrounds all across America.
    Don't let the same thing happen to "guest." Don't let it take on the meaning of "person spending money while being treated indifferently by minimum-wage automatons." Consumers have less and less power as it is. Let's snatch back "guest" and keep it for ourselves, as something special ... well, no, not "special" ... something meaningful, to use to describe the real people in our lives who visit us at our homes for tea on Sunday afternoons. Not that such people exist, but if they ever do appear, we'll want a word to describe them. 


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

It's Pro-Life Action League time, again.


     The Christian army is winning in Texas, where the state legislature just passed a deeply-cynical law severely restricting abortion clinics, under the sham goal of improving medical care for women.
     Once, such an infringement would have sent America's feminists howling to the ramparts. Now, lulled and lazy, sated on their long-held, though steadily-eroding medical rights, they mostly shrugged while Texans duked it out, content that it isn't their state, not this time, not yet.
     Being against allowing other people to decide whether or not to have an abortion is a religious scruple. Albeit one so successful that few even put the issue in those terms. But that's what it is—religious oppression disguised as baby welfare. This fight didn't come from nowhere, but rather is the latest battle in a very long war. The same pious demagogues who once raged against pre-marital sex, against masturbation, against women voting, then working, then serving in the military, suffered their defeats, fell back, and drew the line, right here, where they continue their age old struggle to force their religion on others, aided by an army of imaginary babies.
     A fetus isn't a baby. It's a proto-baby, usually the size of a grain of rice when most women decide to abort it, assuming they can find an available clinic, a proposition that grows dicier with each passing year.  We demonize mullahs in the Middle East for forcing girls out of school, then yawn as our own homegrown Taliban compel women here to be mothers whether they want to be or not.
    These thoughts were swirling around my head, inchoate, as I hurried down Wacker Drive to the train late Monday afternoon. The sun was fierce. Then I turned the corner and saw the Pro-Life Action League is back, laying siege to rush hour Madison Street as part of its nine-day summer campaign, brandishing 5-foot tall posters of chopped-up fetuses, the size of giants. A literal magnification of the fetus -- literally dwarfing the tiny women who would might prefer not to give birth to them.
     I was just clicking into my frantic commuter mode, going into overdrive, head down, and powering around them, when out of the corner of my eye I noticed a tall bearded man in a straw hat -- a little older than when last I saw him, but who isn't? I recognized him immediately, and stopped in my tracks.
    "Joe!" I said happily.
    "I thought that was you," said Joe Scheidler, 85, father of the Illinois right-to-life movement, as staunch an opponent of a woman's right to decide as ever breathed. We  beamed, and shook hands heartily, catching up on things, like the old friends we are. I told him how good he looks. He expressed wonder that my boys are as old as they are. The eternal optimist, I couldn't help ask him what was on my mind.
     "You have to admit, that being against abortion is a religious scruple," I said.
     "I wouldn't say, 'scruple,'" he replied. "It's in the Bible, part of the Ten Commandments: 'Thou shall not kill.'"
    "....a person," I added.
     "A baby is a person," he said.
     "A fetus isn't a person,"  I parried. "I wouldn't want to take one to the movies."
     "The mom could go to the movies," Joe countered. I glanced at my watch: 5:01 p.m. There didn't seem much point missing the 5:12 so I could debate the personhood of a fetus with the founder of the Pro-Life Action League. Besides, it's a conversation we've been having for a very long time, with surprising cordiality. This isn't the first time we've bumped into each other on Madison Street.

Joe Scheidler on Madison Street, July 15, 2013

From the archives -- July 14, 2006

     Morbid thoughts. And all this humidity, grinding me down. "The day smells like a wet horse,'' I complain to my wife. The people in the street, surging and pushing around each other. They seem . . . ugly. Sweaty women with flabby arms in strap t-shirts, bald men in tight, creased suits, moles on their faces. The buildings even seem hazy, insubstantial, as if the city -- normally so splendid -- were all a dream and not a good one.
     I have a rule that if the world begins to look bleak: remember that the problem is not with the world; it's with me.
     Buck up buddy, I tell myself. Snap out of it. I walk over to Field's to meet my brother for lunch. Scan the surroundings, hoping for something to cheer me up, but it is just one big dank overlit mundanity. Where are all the bright shop windows? All the pretty girls in their summer dresses? Instead, only cracked sidewalks and tourists from Moline in Lycra slacks.
     Please God, I think, send something cheery.
     I cut through City Hall and stroll along the south edge of Daley Plaza.
     The entire length of Washington is taken up with a dozen anti-abortion protesters, in a straight line, each holding the same 5-foot-tall poster showing a pair of tongs holding the bloody, decapitated, jawless head of a fetus.
     Did I ever mention my Malign God Theory? I don't think so. Briefly stated: There is a deity, and He does hear our prayers, but often acts perversely, for His own amusement. Feeling a little down? Fine, sayeth the Lord, maybe this will perk you up! Cue the Pro-Life Action League.
     It is so over the top, I have to smile. Grinning, I turn my face, away from the grisly horror, and see a group of short Asian men in bright tribal uniforms -- long coats, round hats. A banner reads "Mongolian Day in Chicago." A stage, tents, chairs, already occupied by aging relatives, booths of some kind.
     Now I'm smiling broadly, chuckling to myself. These poor people. Bet they planned for six months. Rehearsing ancient dances. Eager to reflect Mongolian pride, to see a neglected people shine in the public square. Our city's first Mongolian festival.
     The great day arrives. They show up -- take chartered buses down from Waukegan, no doubt, enticing their families and friends along. Only to be confronted by platoons of grim, lipless yokels and gimlet-eyed, corn-fed fanatics, waving huge color photos of chopped-up babies. Whoops ... fetuses.
     Gotta love it, life in the city. I waggle my finger at the sky. Give the Big Guy credit -- He has a sense of humor. The rest of the day turns brighter from that moment on.


     Now it's the end of the day, and I'm hotfooting to the train. And there is the Chopped-Up Baby Poster crowd, again, having relocated to the corner of Wabash and Madison, lest I miss them.
    I'm about to blow by, when I recognize my old friend, Joseph Scheidler, holding a 5-foot-tall poster of Jesus, a chain of red crystal rosary beads wound around his fingers.
     "Hey Joe!" I exclaim.
     "Hi!" he says, warmly. "I read you -- you're always wrong, but I still like you."
     We beam at each other. We have spoken in the past, and enjoy an unusually good relationship, considering that I view him as a religion-crazed zealot conspiring to trample on the rights of women, while he sees me as a hell-bound sophist stained red with the blood of murdered innocents.
    "How's it going?" I ask.
    “We're winning!’ he says, reporting that while in past blanketings of downtown, they would get a lot of abuse and obscenity, this time passersby are more sympathetic.
    “We're finding more thumbs up!” he says. “More 'keep up the good work!'”
     I have to ask him something.
     "I've always wondered, Joe," I say. "Do you worry about parents bringing their children downtown? About them passing your signs as they take their daughters to the American Girl store?"
    "Not much,'' he says, then adds brightly: "We've picketed the American Girl store! Children are naturally pro-life. They ask their parents if that's a doll, and if the parent explains the truth to them, it doesn't hurt 'em. I have 15 grandkids and they love to come out here.''
     A few pro-choicers are standing next to Joe, and I talk to them. One holds a sign reading "My Body, My Choice." She chooses not to give her name, and isn't exactly aflame with her cause, anyway.
     "It's still legal and we'd like to keep it that way,'' she says.
     Tepid stuff, next to Joe's glittery-eyed verve.
     That's the problem with the whole conflict. There's no balance. On one side you've got guys like Joe Scheidler, practically a biblical figure, John Brown holding a staff and spreading his arms over bleeding Kansas. On the other, you have bland rationality under the by-definition indecisive banner of "choice" ("hmmm, which one, let's see . . .") afraid to give their names and lacking anywhere near the passion their opponents possess. It hardly seems a fair fight.