Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Squirming on the fat man's chair

     There’s Facebook and there’s real life, and no confusing the two.
     Right? Your Facebook friends aren’t real friends, in that they won’t loan you $20 or help you move in return for pizza. They’re more like a Greek chorus, echoing your comments, emitting an occasional “Woe!” or hurrah, sharing photos of their grandkids and of their lunch.

     But the two worlds, Facebook and real life, do collide. A reader of mine in Norway, a nurse, announced in 2009 she was coming to Chicago, to the consternation of my wife. Until it turned out she was arriving to pitch woo with some guy she met on my Facebook page — as soon as they met, they decided to get married, and I tossed them a wedding atop the Willis Tower.
    That was real, sort of. The marriage only lasted a couple weeks. Real for a short while.
    Or the time my boys and I found ourselves stranded in Salt Lake City. "What do we do now that we've seen the Mormon Temple?" I appealed to the "hive intelligence," as I call it.   
     "Go to Ruth's Diner," a Facebook friend suggested. So we did. Twice. Red trout and eggs. Chocolate malt pudding.  Yum. That was real, too.
     Last week, another collision between Facebook and tangible reality struck me as so odd, it qualified as some kind of augury, a glimpse into the future.
     I went to Evanston Hospital to escort my wife to a medical test which, while routine, would render her unable to drive home. Thus my job was to take her there, wait, and take her back. Simple. I brought a newspaper.
     At the hospital, a jumbo chair in the Gastroenterology department caught my eye. Not quite a love seat — room for one and a half people. Or one really big person. 
     “What is this, for really fat people?” I asked aloud, knowing the answer.
     “It’s for bariatric patients,” the receptionist said, diplomatically.  The surgery where they cut part of your stomach out to help you lose weight. I had never seen a chair like this before, so I took a picture and, almost automatically, posted it to Facebook. Other people might not have seen a chair like that either. Share the wonder. I like sharing with my Facebook pals. I like Facebook. It is, to quote Luna Lovegood, "like having friends."
    My wife went in for her test, and I wandered toward coffee. On my way, I encountered a few other curious sights — a sign listing, along with “Fetal Dianostics” and “Center for Women’s Health” the decidedly non-Marcus Welby “Spiritual Care and Music Therapy.” What could that be? “My God, this man’s soul is in shreds! Administer 25 cc of healing crystals and 15 minutes of whale song STAT!”  A sign for "Epic Training" "No, no, no! Strum the lyre after you chant, 'Sing to me of the man, muse, the man of twists and turns...” I shot pictures of those, too, and posted happily away. I did this without fear or reservation, almost without thinking, the way you'd pause to drink from a water fountain.
    Sated, I took a seat by the self-playing grand piano in the hospital's three story lobby with the wall-sized waterfall (a thought: maybe if they didn’t make hospitals look like swanky resorts, then health care wouldn’t be so damn expensive).  I rattled the newspaper and dove into the news.
     The lobby was empty. The occasional doctor or visitor or patient. And guards. One guard, then two, conferring. A third guard. More guards than seemed warranted. Walking back and forth. Calling to each other, words I couldn't catch. Something was up. I studied my paper, harder, sank a bit in my chair. The slightest knot of dread formed in my stomach.
     “Mr. Steinbock?” said a solid, clean-cut Jack Armstrong kind of guy in a navy blazer with an American flag pin framing a little gold star. Behind him, a guy in purple shirt and tie hovered,  looking vaguely official. Backup. 
      “Yes?” I said. Steinberg, Steinbock—close enough. 
      “Our PR department hears you’re posting pictures of the hospital to Facebook,” he said.
     I told him I wasn't trespassing — I had business at the hospital, and of course wasn’t including any patients in the photos — a chair, a couple signs.
     “This is a public place,” he replied. “We just wanted to make the connection.”
     Well, ho-ho, that's what we're all about, right? Making connections. We chatted a bit. I stressed my bottomless goodwill toward Evanston Hospital — both my sons were born here, we were patronizing the place right now. Steady customers. He went away, wishing my wife well on her test — sincerely, but I was so rattled it almost sounded like a threat. He did not say, "I hope nothing UNFORTUNATE happens to your WIFE." But I sorta heard that. I went back to reading, or tried to.
     I’m not sure what the encounter meant — maybe nothing. But there seems a vague welcome-to-the-future aspect I can't quite put my finger on, heralding a more seamless union of online and physical spheres. Facebook flashing upon the land of the living.
      Will we like that world?  Posting a picture of a fat man’s chair shouldn’t send security searching for you in real time. Or should it? Just to be defiant, I took a shot of the lobby — it has trees, and a concierge (a thought: maybe if they didn't make hospitals ... no, I've said that already) and added one more update: "Less than an hour after I started posting to Facebook, Evanston Hospital had the guards scouring the place for me," I noted. "Were I their PR flack, I'd have gone down myself and said hello, before I called out the muscle."
     That was designed to sting and did. When I got back to my office, there was a very nice phone message from Jim Anthony, senior director in public relations at North Shore University Health System. 
    "I wasn't sure if you were there as a member of the media or a visitor or a patient or what have you," he said.  
    I wasn't sure either, now that I look back on it. That's the thing about this world we're entering into — what's public? What's private? None of us are sure anymore.    


  1. "..a thought: maybe if they didn’t make hospitals look like swanky resorts, then health care wouldn’t be so damn expensive".. Great piece, Neil. Vintage Steinberg.... the kind of stuff that quenched my thirst for The Sun Times back in the day. You know, before they started treating you like Milton in Office Space.

  2. Well, since the Sun Times killed the photo department, you could have been there as a reporter.

  3. Very entertaining piece. Well done.

    I know Evanston Hospital pretty well. You're right about the swanky resort look in the lobby. Complete with piano.

    A few weeks ago, I was at the Jewels and lobster tails were on sale. A good friend of mine LOVES lobster, so I took a quick iPhone pic and sent to him as a joke. "Look what we're having for dinner!" About 30 seconds later, the fish monger lady came up to me and somewhat urgently asked me what was wrong. "Are my signs wrong? I can take care of it!" I was a bit taken aback at first but then explained why I took the pic. She was clearly relieved. Perhaps in fear for her job. I apologized, as I felt badly to cause her any alarm.

    Bottom line, camera-phones are so ubiquitous today that we can take pics of anything, anytime, and send anywhere. Innocently and unthinkingly, it can have also unintended consequence to others.

    1. "The Jewels." Luv it! They need to build one near Soldier's Field.

    2. She may not have been in fear for her job, but just literally wanted to correct the signs. There are a *lot* of photos out there of funnily-incorrect signage, whether from intruding or omitted apostrophes, or odd misspellings, or flat-out malapropisms. If I saw someone taking a picture of a sign I'd made, I would *at least* double- and triple-check that sign for correctness as a result!

  4. "W Tower"?
    A scande fur de goyim!
    It's Sears Tower & it always will be!

    1. I misspelled "schande"
      And you have some of the most unreadable CAPTCHAs I've ever seen!

    2. I didn't design them. The alternative is to have me vet the comments, and people did like that either. I guess it's trouble either way.

  5. When I was a kid, Jewel food store was known as both "Jewel Tea" and "the Jewels." As in, "I'm goin' to the Jewels. Do you need anything?"

    Glad you caught the reference, J.J. Tindall. Only in Chicago.

  6. Trying to think of a clever comment to thank you for your daily blog posting would be like trying to cook something new and delicious for Julia Child. Just too stressful! So, Neil, please know that I will read and enjoy your new blog venture every day, even if I don't comment.

  7. The thing about "Facebook friends" is how certain circles of them can vary in intensity. During my recent month-long hospitalization and heart surgery, my wonderful band of online friends sent cards, photos, gifts (even received a stuffed Kiwi doll from a New Zealand friend who I will probably never meet face to face), and strongly supported myself and my wife through our travails. They helped me immensely. Some intersections of "real" and "online" life can be awesome.

    1. Great blog Neil, I'll be looking forward to reading it (almost) every goddamn day!

      In terms of what is public versus private, with you being a high profile member of the media it's fair enough that you may encounter some increased scrutiny (or at least attention). That just comes with territory, obviously. However, the combination of the social media aspect of with story with the the fact that you were detected and then confronted during your short time there.... Yikes! It makes one think, beyond the funny fact that Evanston Hospital sure is a place that crosses their "t"s and dots their "i"s. Thanks for sharing and I'm looking forward to reading more!

  8. Businesses are getting as paranoid as we are, but we KNOW we're being spied on.

  9. Hey Neil. I'm your Facebook friend, and also met you once in real life, and know your wife from school. I want you to know: 1) I would, in fact, lend you $20 if you ever need it (hope you are NOT broke, is the Sun Times short-changing you now that they cut back the frequency of your column.?). 2) I can't help you move in exchange for pizza, as I am currently disabled and in a wheelchair. If you do move, however, I'd be more than glad to watch and kibitz and eat pizza. Limited time offer. Batteries not included. Action figures sold separately. Clothes captioned for the fashion impaired.
    relatively poor Facebook friend who could still come up with a 20 if you ever really need it.

  10. LOVE the Luna Lovegood quote!

  11. If you ever want a study in contrasts, take a photo of the "Employee Entrance" and compare it with any of your lobby photos. You'll find the "Employee Entrance" as you walk towards the parking garage past "Human Resources" next time you're at Evanston Hospital-which I hope isn't for a long time. On another note (sorry), I actually PLAYED that piano. I'll spare you any more comments about it.


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